Vanuatu – The Missing Manual

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post’s Weekender Edition. Some of you will recognise this as an amalgam of some earlier blog posts to a visiting friend. I've also updated it once or twice as the inclination struck me.]

At a dinner party recently, I met a lovely young couple, newly arrived in Vanuatu. On learning this, I started into my standard ‘welcome to Vanuatu’ spiel, illustrating the many interesting ways Vanuatu differs from Westernised countries.

But there are always things we forget to mention. After a few years living here, one begins to take for granted any number of Vanuatu’s mundane peculiarities. Here, for posterity’s sake, is a brief listing of things you need to know, but don’t get mentioned in the tourist literature….

  • Roosters sleep from sundown till 9:00 at night, then start crowing again. One rooster will start it, waking up and fluffing out his feathers before letting loose. This wakes up the nearest neightbour, typically in the next yard, and he lets loose, a little more vehemently, in order to disabuse any nocturnal hens of the impression that Junior next door is worth the visit.
  • The roosters wake up the dogs, who follow more or less the same modus operandi, modulo the fluffing out of feathers.
  • Take off your shoes before you go inside, or onto someone’s porch.
  • Slow down. No really. You’ll go crazy if you don’t. Walk slower. No, slower than that. Take your time.
  • You might have to wait 60 seconds for someone to answer a question. It feels awkward at first, but just wait.
  • Cars and trucks will regularly slow down to chat with passing pedestrians, or just crawl along because… well, because. You’re not in a hurry (trust me, you’re really not, no matter what), so relax and enjoy the ride.
  • People will stare. It’s okay, they stare at everyone and everything. Feel free to stare back. Just remember to smile and say hello when your eyes meet.
  • People will talk about you in the third person when you’re standing right there. Don’t take offense; it’s a sign of respect, actually. They don’t want to start talking to you until you’ve made it clear that they’re welcome to do so. Allow someone else to speak on your behalf for the first few minutes.
  • The first thing anyone will ask is whether you’re married and do you have children. If you’re with a friend of the opposite sex, the assumption will probably be that you two are at least shacked up, if not planning to marry in the near future.
  • People will listen to everything you say, whether it’s directed at them or not. Fair is fair, though; you get to do the same. Be inquisitive. Don’t be afraid to ask silly questions to total strangers.
  • People will assume that you are not capable of lifting anything heavier than a shell of kava, and will often interpose themselves physically if you try, for example, to carry your own backpack.
  • Just because someone’s not looking at you doesn’t mean they’re not paying attention. Believe me, they are. More attention than you or I might pay.
  • Shake out your clothes, your towel and your shoes (if they’re close-toed) before using them. You only need one centipede bite to learn this lesson.
  • ‘Afternoon’ means ‘evening’, specifically around sunset. When someone invites you to go somewhere in the afternoon, do not ask what time. If they mean anything other than between 5:00 and 6:00 p.m., they will specify.
  • ‘Afternoon’ is as precise as anyone ever gets. If you request a meeting at, say, 3:25 or 4:15, people will wait till you’re gone and then laugh at you.
  • People will continue wishing you a good morning until about 1:00 p.m. It’s not weird.
  • The phrase ‘Good night’ serves as both greeting and farewell. People start wishing each other ‘good night’ from about sundown onwards.
  • Learn to say good night in as many local languages as you can. People will love you for it. Here, off the top of my head, are a few for starters:
    • Tanna: Tewir Lenaiu (tay-WRRRR len-EYE-you)
    • Erromango: Bumro (BOOM-row)
    • North Efate: Bonguio (BONG-wee-oh)
    • Mele Village (near Port Vila): Tebo Mariae (TAY-bo MARY-eh)
    • East Epi: Pocolomalo (POKE-oh-low-MAH-lo)
    • Paama: More Vongyen (MORE-eh VONG-yen)
    • Northwest Ambrym: Palen (PAH-len)
    • North Ambrym: Fanren (FAHN-ren)
    • East Ambrym: Boswongyen (BO-swong-yen)
    • Ambae: Bongarea (BONG-gah-ray-ah)
    • Central Pentecost: Bungmamak (BOONG-ma-mak)
    • North Pentecost: Bongi (BONG-eee)
    • Mota Lava: Angbongnue (ahn-BONG-noo-eh)
  • Unless you’re Canadian, learn to say ‘Sorry’ when you interrupt, pass in front of someone, bump into a lamp post, get stung by a bee, see someone stumble on the other side of the road – you name it. (If you’re Canadian, you already do this.)
  • Don’t pass in front of someone if you can avoid it. Never step between two people talking to one another unless there is no other option. (And waiting 20 minutes for them to finish talking is an option.) Say sorry and duck under their gaze if you reasonably can, even if it means bending double.
  • Conversely, get out of the way. That person standing 20 metres away, staring off into nothingness, is waiting for you to get out of the doorway so they can go inside.
  • Make smiling your default reaction. You can’t smile too much. Really. It’s unnerving at first to see someone smile and laugh softly when they announce that their house has burned down or that a family member is dead, but… well, it happens.
  • Reread that last point. I’m not exaggerating.
  • Just because nobody is talking doesn’t mean there’s no conversation going on. People can speak volumes with a simple wave of the hand. Learn how it’s done, because it’s fascinating and enlightening.
  • Quiet down. No matter how quiet you think you are, you’re talking too loudly.
  • Shake hands with everyone. People are going to hold your hand far longer than you’re comfortable with. Get used to it.
  • Learn the ‘finger snap’ handshake. It’s the coolest handshake in the world.
Posted: November 16th, 2008
Categories: humour, journamalism, social commentary, soft-core
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