One of the truly interesting things about taking a vacation is the opportunity to observe another culture closely.
Port Vila on Vanuatu itself is a surprisingly compact town, with its few dusty main streets offering up a supply of souvenirs next to bright, busy clothing and fresh food markets, and waterfront restaurants and cafes.
You can do the whole place in half an hour. So on our recent trip we made arrangements to get away from the markets and tourist traps to visit an indigenous village – Ekasup. The village was on land owned by the tribe. All tribes in Vanuatu have their ancestral lands on their original island, and also some land on the main island, Efate, for them to utilise when they visit from their home.
On arriving at Ekasup, there is a short 5 minute walk through the tropical forest. This is itself was a wondrous experience, ducking under low branches and surrounded by lush vegetation. We were delighted to have been told that there are no poisonous snakes or spiders on Efate. It was interesting to ponder that such a walk in Australia would be extremely unwise without sturdy boots and all skin covered.
This was a great opportunity to learn and experience traditional life which has hardly changed in centuries. We learnt how to prepare products from the world around us, like using native herbs for medicine, clever techniques for food preservation and roasting, how to make fishing and hunting traps using local plant materials, not to mention weaving mats, hats, and baskets.
Three moments in particular gave us deep cause for contemplation.
The first was when the most adorable child imaginable walked into our midst clad in nothing but a grass skirt, and shyly wandered up to the Chief who was telling us about bush medicine. He casually mentioned that this was his six year old daughter and she had been sick when she was first born and her mother had died in childbirth, but she was healed using local knowledge of plants and herbs.
It was a stark reminder not only that There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy, but also that maternal health care is still a major problem in the third world, and that such countries still struggle with life-threatening situations that are largely forgotten in the West.
It also, simultaneously, caused us to pause and wonder how many “bush medicines” will be lost as climate change, habitat change, and increasing urbanisation separate us from the wisdom of centuries.
Our guide mentioned herbal cures – prolifically growing all around us, apparently – for ailments such as kidney stones, hepatitis B, accidental poisoning, and other serious illnesses for which invasive operations or expensive medicines are the norm in the West. It is clear that this voluminous knowledge is being blindly ignored or wilfully discarded by the world, and that is a tragedy. He explained how every island has its own bush medicine repertoire, and guards this knowledge fiercely, as it is, to an extent, the equivalent of money. It can be traded with other tribes and communities, making a meaningful difference to their lives. It also follows that if an island or area becomes depopulated, (for example if poverty forces the people into urban areas), and the people scattered, then these traditions will die, and possibly as quickly as within a single generation.
The second moment was when the Chief showed us how he kept a pet spider, who was encouraged to weave its web between the V of a cleft stick, thus creating a de facto fishing net. As he talked, he allowed the spider to wander all over his upper body, as we might play with a kitten or puppy. To say the spider was fearsome looking would be an understatement – some lily-livered members of our party could hardly watch – but it was clearly quite at home and he resolutely assured us it was both amiable and not poisonous.
We weren’t about to pick him up, mind you.
The Chief’s intimacy with his natural world was fascinating and rather humbling.
The third moment was when he described the typhoon that had hit the country some nine months before, Cyclone Pam, with winds in excess of 300 kilometres an hour demolishing many homes and other structures.
The damage left behind had been obvious everywhere as we drove around. Around 75,000 people were left in need of emergency shelter, and 96 per cent of food crops were destroyed.The island had been denuded of mature trees and virtually all the crops that many islanders relied upon for their living, especially coconuts, and tropical fruits, simply vanished.
Immature replacement trees were springing up everywhere, to be sure, but one could so easily imagine the depressing sight that must have greeted these very poor people as they came out of wherever they were sheltering when the storm had passed, to see their cottage gardens or farms simply obliterated. Luckily aid from nearby countries, especially Australia, arrived very promptly. We were proud to hear that an RAAF Hercules had arrived with emergency supplies even before the local Parliament had met to make a response. “You got here the day after,” he smiled, “we love Australia.” It was a nice moment.
The chief’s tribe had sheltered from the howling storm in the hollowed interior of an ancient banyan tree, his ancient bushcraft judging it safer than wandering around outside, or even staying in any of their flimsy homes, which are designed to survive tropical storms but which sometimes get destroyed anyway.
He laughed – he laughed a lot, and shrugged – as he explained “If the banyan tree die, we die.”
It was a fatalistic response from a man who knew, because of his daily closeness to the natural environment, that in a life and death struggle with the planet, when “push comes to shove”, humans will always lose out to the planet. The banyan tree was a refuge of last resort. Some things in the natural world are simply un-survivable, and if the banyan tree was going to go, well, there wouldn’t be all that much left around to survive for, so, under the tree, everyone, and it is what it is.
It was a striking demonstration of how different their “stone age” attitude is to that in the developed world. (For such it is, essentially un-changed since before the arrival of technology, and “stone age” is not intended to be in any way a dismissive moniker as used here.)
In the “civilised” world we like to believe we control everything, everywhere, and nothing is insurmountable. How wrong we are. As we looked around at this environment – which was as different to our day to day experience of life as if we had been miraculously transported to the Moon – we thought about the current debate about climate change. And how, if we tip the planet too far in one direction, we are taking a risk that we have no idea how to survive. And how the damage wrought will damage things we don’t even properly realise exist.
In another spot, a rather battered but fascinating turtle sanctuary, one woman quietly told us with great dignity how they had retreated inland as the giant typhoon approached, and when they returned, her home had simply vanished. But homes can be rebuilt, even if somewhat higgledy-piggledy in style or with salvaged materials. A roof is a roof even if it’s made of corrugated iron and held on by scattered bricks that used to be in your kitchen wall. What seemed, though, to make her even more sad, was when she said “We used to have many big sharks here, they would come and we would feed them, but since that night, they all gone. All gone.” “Will they come back again?” we asked, curiously “I don’t think so, she said, almost in a whisper. “Think they dead.” If was as if she had lost relatives.
As we sailed away from the islands a few days later, and neared our home port of Sydney, we heard that Vanuatu had again been swideswiped again, this time by Cyclone Ula. Part of an uptick in typhoon activity which has been very in evidence thanks to a warming world in recent years.
We hope the banyan tree made it through.