Bits from assorted letters, 21-23 April, 1987 Lakatoro, Vanuatu
. . .I am still making all the connections I need to do my job here, but it is evident that there is plenty of basic work to do here. The government is encouraging small-scale economic development in order to generate a national income to pay for such services as education and health, but the large majority of the population are subsistence farmers and have had very little experience with the money economy. What they don't grow for their needs, they just take from the forest. People generally want money and what it can buy, but aren't too excited about working a 40-hour week just for a few material goods. I can't say I blame them too much. The usual local personal economic strategy is to put in a few weeks work, say making copra (dried coconut meat, from which "tropical oil" is pressed for inexpensive baked goods in the West), whenever a bit of money is needed for the children's school fees or whatever. Obviously, the assumptions behind our economic theory, like man's needs are insatiable and can be expressed in monetary terms, don't apply here. I suspect that this is also true in the rest of the "undeveloped" world, where the economy is based on subsistence agriculture, and is why so many of our development projects fail to achieve their objectives.
For now, I've limited my professional objectives to explaining how to rationally price things (individuals seem to underprice and stores overprice) and maybe teach some techniques to project cashflow and net profit. I'm also trying to convince people that films such as "Rambo" are not documentaries. I expect to have more success with the first two objectives.
Except for its inability to provide such imported services as modern health care and education, though, the economic system here does offer some advantages. Because the constitution decrees that all land belongs to the "custom" or original indigenous owners, every extended family owns land which is suitable for subsistence agriculture. When worse comes to worse, or if he tires of working for wages, every ni-Vanuatu just goes home to his family village and lives off the land. If all Europeans and their aid just up and went, life would go on with relatively minor adjustments. For example, nutrition would probably improve somewhat (tinned fish and white rice are big prestige foods here) and alcohol problems would disappear.
. . .Last week, Keith's wife, Aslika, invited us to a "children's picnic" on Friday. I instructed Holly to grill her about who was putting it on, but Aslika remained vague, so I assumed correctly that it was their church. We went anyway, and the only indication that it was a Sunday-School picnic was the absence of beer and the fact that everyone called each other "brother". We all went in shifts in the Local Government Council minibus to a long blacksand beach south of here. The kids all played on the beach and swam in the river - nobody went deeper than ankle-deep in the ocean, because blacksand beaches have the worse reputation for shark attacks.
We adults played volleyball, which along with soccer is the rage here, on the beach. There is no segregation along age lines - even small children play with adults. I have noticed, though, that although women play with men, men won't play on teams that have a majority of women.
A massive amount of boneless and fatless meat was cooked, and everyone brought food. Holly's banana bread was a hit. We saw some hapless land crab (one of zillions around here) that was pinned with a rock upside -down in the crotch of a tree awaiting the traditional fate - legs ripped off (to prevent escape) and tossed on the fire to cook.
Two Lionfish, with Tang in centre. Photo ©S. Combs, 1988.
. . .The girls got a moderate amount of goodies for Easter, thanks to my trip to Vila a few weeks ago. It came in two beach buckets and with one big beach shovel. Later, we decided it was safe to go back into the water again and went to the beach. I saw an about ten-inch Lionfish just off the beach. They are those fish with the long frilly fins (like feathers) that have poisonous spines in each frill. Baby ones are all the rage in home aquariums. Later, John and Kate (Livestock Officer and wife from Australia) came over in their boat (twelve-foot with outboard). John is a great white hunter and has been itching to get his blunderbuss of a speargun into the water, but hasn't been able to persuade anyone, including his wife, to go into deep water with him because of shark fears. I've been listening to him go on about it for a few weeks, so I let him persuade me to go out with him, since all the locals insist that the shark problem begins outside the large bay here. It was well worth it, although the last remnants of a cold kept my right ear blocked so I couldn't go deeper than about twelve feet. There were lots and lots of colorful tropical fish and coral. I wanted to bring back a nice shell for Holly, but the only one I could find was a cone shell, which has a bad sting, so I left it there. John couldn't find anything big enough to spear, so I suspect his next suggestion will be deeper and further out.
I heard on the radio that they caught the shark that killed the boy north of here April 1 - it was 4.3 metres long and had a dog and cat in its stomach. I'd say that they caught a shark - there are probably more 4.3 metre sharks around here than you can shake a stick at.
. . .I have some new vermin stories. A week or two ago, I got up in the morning and had to duck when something dark flew past my head on my way through the living room to the can (I get up at 5:30 and power doesn't come on until about 5:50). I thought it was either a large moth or a small bat, but when I returned, I checked the place where it had flown to and couldn't find anything. Later, Holly saw it hanging from the ceiling and solved the mystery. I thought all the bats here were the size of cats, but this one was small like the ones at home. He wouldn't let me put him in a paper bag, so we opened the front door and herded him out.
When we get bored with watching little ants carry bugs up the walls, we go outside at dusk and watch big fruit bats ("flying foxes") flit about. I don't know how the little one got in. He must have flown in during the night when someone went to the can.
Two of Vanuatu's Killer Geckos. I estimated that our house supported a population density of 1 per square metre of ceiling; evidence of which was found on pretty well everything left out overnight. Photo ©S. Combs, 1992.
Two nights ago, we heard something gnawing at the box I use for a bedside table and then scamper off when Holly turned on her bedside flashlight. I told Holly it was a large gecko just moving the box, but she refused to accept this (if you can believe it!) and insisted it must be a rat and that we must exterminate it (especially after she found all the droppings on top of the fridge). So, last night, I had to get my trusty rat trap out of the attic where I left it set after my last kill. I had wondered why it hadn't caught the workmen who went up there last week (sans warning, of course, from me), and I found out - apparently, I caught another rat a month or so ago. He was stuck pretty good to the trap, so I had to scrape him off with a stick. Things just don't keep well in the tropics! Something had eaten the bait, so I wired another piece of cabin cracker on the trigger and set the trap behind the stove where I wouldn't step on it during the night. It only took about five minutes after we turned out the lights to nab the little so-and-so. Of course, he was only pinned down, so I had to take him out and dispatch him with my rat rock. We don't have a fishpond here (This was a reference to my parents' rat dispatching method in Indonesia.). This time, I removed him from the trap while he was still fresh, which was much easier. Tonight the trap goes back up in the attic. I'll have to remember to check it more often.
Things are really getting wild next door, where my boss lives. I mentioned in previous letters that he fancies himself a faith healer and an electric choir practiced there for a week. Well, this week all heaven has broken out every evening. "Brother Thomas", who works for the Health Department , has been coming over and leading some sort of service. He preaches hellfire and brimstone and everyone hoots and hollers, "Amen!", "Hallelujah!", etc. When they get warmed up, they really go! Are your church services like that?
Laurel (my three-year-old daughter) is really into singing the hymns that everyone sings here. She sings the English ones with a Bislama accent, just like she learns at Kinder. Everyone around here thinks it's great and get a special kick out of her rendition of "Jesus said, `I am the whale, the truth, and the light". She even sings when she is washing her hair in the shower now - I think she and Heather have forgotten what hot water is, at last.
. . .I just watched about thirty little ants carry a piece of hamburger up the wall and over the window ledge. Just imagine how boring life would get if I swept the floor. Sometimes, when the ants get to the crack that goes outside, whatever they are carrying won't fit, which causes quite a stir. Another piece of ant lore - you can always tell when your bananas are ripe, because they get covered with little ants. Also, if you haven't been sweeping your floor regularly, you have to eat quickly before hundreds of them invade the table-top. Finally, when you wipe them off the table, you have to quickly rinse out the cloth in soapy water (under the tap won't do), or they run up all over your arms. There go another two with a little hunk of hamburger, just speeding up the wall.
Holly keeps spraying the ants' favorite entrances with some deadly insecticide that's probably old stock banned in North America, but they just move to another crack or hole. Holly is fond of lost causes - she spent yesterday afternoon chasing the neighbour's chickens out of our newly-seeded garden with pails of water. She was really put out by suppertime.
News Flash - There go another ten ants with a medium chunk - Holly is implying that my kitchen cleaning is less than the standard she expects.
We herded all of the neighbour's chickens into their coop on Monday, but they all come out where the mutt owned by Lakatoro's other CUSO family crawls through to kill them at night. There is also a wretched little pig in there tied to a sapling by the foot with one foot of pink plastic string. I don't think that he has grown an ounce since he was put there two months ago. Holly has taken pity on him and feeds him scraps. She says he is usually wound around the tree to about three inches of string when she goes in, and the chickens always steal all of his food before he can eat it. He never gets a drink of water - standard procedure for livestock here. It's a wonder that any of them survive.
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©S. Combs, 1987.