AIRMAIL - Diary of a Peace Corps Mom:
Time Travels in the South Pacific
The phone rings at 2:00 am. This no longer surprises me. I know it’s my 27-year-old son Paz, calling from Vanuatu. It is 15 hours later there.
I jump out of bed and pick up the phone, pulling my glasses on.
“Hi!” he says. I measure his voice – It’s strong, optimistic. He asks me to call him back. He’s almost out of credit on his prepaid phone.
“So what’s new?”
We talk about the broom he made from coconut leaves, and how he’s found a way to make bucket baths more pleasant. He has no plumbing or electricity in his grass hut on the island of Malekula, but he has discovered that if he boils a small portion of water over his open-fire stove, then pours the boiling water into his bucket of cold rainwater, he can have a tepid bath.
“It works great, Mom!” he says. I think back a few years to when he was a teenager, and my constant reminder to him as he showered, “Save some hot water for the rest of us!”
When my three sons were little, I read them Dr. Suess’s book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Back then, one place I never even heard of, let alone expected that one of them might live, was Vanuatu.
“Where?” you ask. Vanuatu is in the South Pacific, about 1700 miles from New Zealand. Formerly known as the New Hebrides, it is the place where James Michener served in the Navy during World War II and where he set the stories that became “South Pacific.”
The indigenous people of Vanuatu (known as the Ni-Vanuatu, or Ni-Vans, as my son says) are Melanesian, related to the people of Papua-New Guinea. They are black, but not African. The nation, independent since the 1970’s, is made up of more than 80 small islands with different languages and tribes. Some practiced cannibalism as recently as the 1960s. Missionaries converted most villages to various forms of Christianity, but some Kastom religious practices remain.
According to Peace Corps information, there are more than one hundred recognized languages spoken by the approximately 220,000 residents of Vanuatu -- not counting the European languages of French and English. That makes one language for every 2,200 people. Naturally, that makes communication between different groups very difficult. Bislama is the national language of Vanuatu. It is a pidgin language derived largely from English, French and indigenous languages.
In Bislama, “I come to work as a Peace Corps Volunteer,” is “Mi kam blong wok olsem wan Pis Kop Volentia.” Here on the home front we've found Bislama, not to be too politically incorrect, well, hilarious. Because of its small vocabulary, it is necessary to string many words together to express yourself. The most extreme example is the expression for "piano" -- black fala box we igat black teeth, hemi gat white teeth you faetem hard I singout.
The government of Vanuatu would like the people to learn English as a common language. This is my son’s job, teaching English in a tiny elementary school in a remote village called Matanvath.
Sitting in my dark house on my quiet suburban street, with my husband dozing beside me, it hits me how far away our son really is, and how long it’s been since I’ve seen him, even in a photo. Has he lost weight on his diet consisting mostly of yams, coconut, pineapple and fish? As his mom, I can’t help but wonder. My friend, whose daughter is on a service project in Nepal, Skypes with her regularly, but that’s not an option in Malekula, Vanuatu. The internet doesn’t reach his village. His cell phone is usually the only way to reach him.
But, it occurs to me, in a way he’s always lived in another time from me, another place. Because he’s another generation. And because he’s himself, his own unique person. He quite literally will go to places I’d never imagined.
He says he needs pot holders, because he keeps burning his fingers cooking on his open fire “stove.” He asks me to send him a box of macaroni and cheese mix, Egyptian Licorice Mint tea, bay leaves, and other supplies.
Tomorrow I’ll pack up those things he’s requested, along with a note and maybe some photos of home, fill out a customs form, go to the post office and ship it. As usual, the Postal Service clerk will say something like “Vanu-what?” The package will take four or five weeks to reach the Lakatoro Post Office. Paz will have to make the day-long journey to pick up his mail. While in town, he’ll stop by the local phone company and add credit to his cell phone.
Dear Mom and Dad,
Thank you for the abundance of packages, poems, and letters. They take their sweet time coming, but are appreciated.
I’ve begun to set up my house and am enjoying living so close to the beach. School has started, and there is a lot of work to be done. The library in particular needs a bit of work. Still, the community will work with me and cooperate with my plans it seems.
I just got a stove that works by igniting a fire underneath a vessel with sticks, coconut husks and kerosene. I’m still learning it but it’s serving me well. I hope all is well with you and this letter finds you in good spirits.
* * *
A poem for my son Paz
Son, what I want to say dangles in the lapse when
my voice time-travels, to your island, when
what I can give circumnavigates the clock, overtaking
airmail packages, postmarked in another time. When
will they arrive, those small gifts I launched into the future?
Oh, and the book you asked for, weeks ago, when
I said “It’s New Year’s Eve here,” knowing that for you,
it was tomorrow, next year, a morning when
with your village, you said, you’d toss bright blossoms,
into Pacific whitecaps, to hail the new year, when
I said it was still the old year for me, you interrupted --
Our meanings collide, packages to waves to blossoms, when
Faith, that wordless thing I want to say
translates the where the when transcends.