Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Turn Right at the Coconut Tree

After living in this wonderful and exasperating country for a year I have grown to understand and even enjoy many of its quirks and idiosyncrasies. However there is one source of unending frustration that I have not been able to accept: the manner in which the people of Vanuatu give directions. On a side note I now find I must apologize to my oldest brother and his lovely Irish lass for previously accusing the Irish of being the worst possible direction givers. Sure they might send you through a string of unnecessary roundabouts, confuse you by giving contradictory information, or even lie to avoid admitting ignorance, but at least when you find yourself hopelessly lost some helpful soul will happily show you to the nearest pub and allow you to buy him a pint for his assistance. No such luck in Vanuatu.

Let me give an example of how directions are typically given here. A woman in your handcraft group has invited you to her house to talk about a new style of basket (and inevitably eat a heaping plate of simboro). You ask someone you know how to get to her house. "Oh yes!" they enthusiastically reply. "I know her! She's so-and-so's dad's cousin's sister! You know so-and-so in the next village over? Well her brother married your uncle's daughter and their son married so-and-so's mother's auntie's daughter!" Yes, yes, that's all fascinating and memorable of course but where is her house? "Ok, do you see that Naos tree up there? Her house is 'nother saed long wei'." Now here your months in the bush have taught you to pause. Even if you can determine which tree out of a dense mess of jungle vegetation that stretches on for miles is being referred to, the phrase "long wei" needs some illumination. In the muddled language that is Bislama "long wei" can either mean "over there" or quite literally "a hell of a long way away." You must clarify to determine whether your trip will require a packed lunch, a sleeping bag, or perhaps a week's supply of clean drinking water. Once the relative location and distance of the house is determined, you ask for detailed directions. "Take the path on top until you come to two coconut trees. Follow the path by the smol smol one. You'll go up a big hill then down a little one, up a little one again, and then down a sorta big one. Then you'll come across your uncle's cow - take the path to the right of the cow. Follow the path for a little bit more and you're there! It's the house with the natangurra roof."

Although perhaps you're not quite clear on the details, you're confident this is as good as you'll get so you set off. Almost immediately you are confused. Where there are supposed to be two coconut trees there are three! All of various sizes! You're supposed to follow the smol smol one, but was that determined before the even smaller one started to grow? You pick one and take a chance. Things start to improve. You traverse the hills easily and after going down what's probably the "sorta big" hill you see the cow! You permit yourself a break and a celebratory drink of water. But then. . .right in front of your horrified eyes the cow moves! Now both paths are to the right of the cow! What to do? You consider giving up and in desperation ask the cow if she can at least direct you to the nearest pub, but the only response you get is a lazily hostile chewing of grass. You sigh thinking how good a Guiness sounds about now but there's nothing to do but pick a path and follow it. Soon you arrive in a clearing and see a house with a natangurra roof. That must be your cousin's auntie's grandma twice removed or whatever's house! But then you look around and see five more houses with natangurra roofs! Luckily at this moment a curious kid comes to stare at you and can be persuaded to show you the right house. You are welcomed with smiles and food and can finally relax. Until the trek back. . .

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