Adventures in Paradise

The rain drives the tourists off the sidewalks, diminishes the Pacific to a neighbourly size, and melts all my plans like ice cream.

I open the paper and read a wandering, questing letter about the ‘beautiful, innocent people of Vanuatu‘, and ache a little because it’s so nearly true.

In the wall-high mirror, a woman spins her Mickey Mouse umbrella, angles it into the wind, and passes the doorway humming. Her vibrant purple and white island dress is garlanded with ribbons and bows.

An obese Hyundai motor coach lumbers to a halt beside the cafe. Emblazoned in heavy capitals along its side: ADVENTURES IN PARADISE. There is no one on board.

I wrote those paragraphs back in 2003. I’d just arrived in Vanuatu, and was trying to express my first inklings of the nature of the people and the place.

The beauty of Vanuatu and its people has worked itself into the very fibre of my being. The ability to remain gracious and smiling through the most arduous circumstances, to snap out a bawdy joke without missing a beat, to remain impassive in the face of gross affront – these aspects of the national character have impressed, confounded and ultimately seduced me.

But this is no one’s Paradise. Nor will it ever be.

The myth of Paradise is bread and butter to tourism operators, to land speculators and investment advisors alike. It occupies a useful niche in ni-Vanuatu rhetoric, batted around like a shuttlecock when we hark back to a time before exploitation and Development came to roost like Mynah birds. It is a fable.

Someone once remarked that Vanuatu resorts change ownership more often than a tourist with diarrhea changes undies. That’s because some owners actually believe a little of the Paradise myth they sell to their clients.

I remember one couple in particular, their bafflement and exasperation that things never worked out. They could not comprehend why their project just wasn’t progressing. Hadn’t they been clear enough?

They’d been perfectly clear, of course. Too clear. The problem was simply that people didn’t like them. They barged around like tots in a tantrum, demanding this and that, treating everybody like Sydney-siders. They seemed to have forgotten where they were.

The smiling, laughing faces that every Vanuatu visitor so loves belong to people who’ve simply learned to be polite. Living on islands with limited living space has taught people that there’s little value in confrontation. Courtesy matters, even if it means allowing someone else to make a false promise, to say something with complete sincerity one day and to utter its antithesis the next. Subterfuge, deceit and neglect, then, are more desirable weapons than bluster and braggadocio.

Friendliness, accommodation and flexibility are all cardinal virtues. This means that everyone can expect to get away with things here that they might not elsewhere. Taking a hard-and-fast line on most issues is not often useful.

There’s an important corollary to this: Stretch someone’s patience if you must, but don’t push your luck. People in Vanuatu will bend and bend, but not forever. You should realise you’ve stepped beyond the pale when people are no longer available, when your exhortations for action have no effect. If you do not slow down and take stock, things get slowed down for you.

It’s a common temptation to express impatience with this, to try in spite of everything to run one’s affairs the same as in any other country. In Port Vila and increasingly in Santo, expats doing business with expats manage to achieve some semblance of what they’re used to. Their services tend to be aimed outward and (economically) upward, and to the extent that their actions don’t impact directly on ni-Vanuatu, they’re left alone to do as they please.

There are just as many rogues per capita here as elsewhere, though living in a smaller locale makes it harder for them to achieve their proper station in life. There are, after all, only so many management positions available.

Some ‘investors’ have done their best to provide these deprived individuals with new opportunities. Through shady land deals, sweetheart ‘partnership’ agreements and other tools of convenience, they’ve collaborated in maximising their own profit at the expense of the community at large.

And who cares? If people are just going to keep rolling with it, why shouldn’t the predation continue? If the ‘locals’ really cared about anything, they’d protest, wouldn’t they?

People do care, and they do protest. They just haven’t done so in a way that some are capable of recognising.

Vanuatu may seem like a paradise to the tourism operator, the developer and the speculator, for good reasons or bad. And ni-Vanuatu may appear to acquiesce to circumstances that are entirely in the investor’s favour. But we would all be wise to learn a little discernment of our own, and a little restraint, too. Vanuatu is as much of this world as any other country. Actions have consequences here as everywhere.

If we ignore this lesson and forget where we are, we may find our adventure in paradise ends with a short, sharp shock.

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