10 days. 12 months. Or 2 years. What elevates our status as travelers from “tourist,” to “resident?”
As people, we are fascinated with the lives of others. Why else would we spend so much time watching television or movies? Our own lives are mundane, but the lives of others… well, they’re different and exciting. As a social worker, we are taught that clients will pass in and out of our offices. We are taught how to interact with them, trained thoroughly to ensure that we know just the right questions to ask in order to get the clearest picture about their lives. Do we really see them through anything other than the eyes of a tourist, of someone just passing through, trying to get a glimpse of the daily life behind the person? As Peace Corps Volunteers, we’re asked to do more than just pass through… we’re asked to understand: to get to that point in integration where you are more than just a fleeting visitor. It is an extremely rare opportunity in life, getting to the point where life feels normal in a totally different world. But… how do you know when you are experiencing it though anything other than the eyes of a tourist?
I recently had the opportunity to re-experience this place as a tourist, through the eyes of my parents. They were here for 10 days and it was amazing to see them without the aid of a computer screen. From the moment they got off of the plane, they were inundated with this strange culture… and I was extraordinarily proud of how well they survived it. :-) A few of my extended relatives met us at the airport and greeted Mom and Dad with local clothes and flowers. I greeted them with ME. :) Well, me and a couple of coconuts.
However, in a strange way it was being given that chance that made me realize… I still see this country and my life through the tinted lens that comes with being a foreigner in a strange place. Of course, I am beyond the point where everything is exciting and shocking and thrillingly terrifying. I also don’t see this place as a giant piece of paradise. But you see, paradise is what you make of it. From the eyes of tourists, this place is perfection, a place to escape to away from the everyday pressures of life. From a social work perspective, we see our clients (or in my case, the people in the village) through the eyes of someone just passing through. We can learn all we need to about that person, we can listen and we can intellectually understand what makes their world turn. But at what point, after how many days or weeks or months or years does it take for us to integrate to the point of really seeing or really understanding the people with whom we work? Does it come when you can walk down the street and people know who you are? Or when you can travel like a local, on a cargo ship full of smelly-ness? Or just when you become the tour guide rather than the tourist?
Mom had done super well at reading up on Vanuatu, but I don’t think that even that had fully prepared her for Port Vila. The incessant smell of burning trash really affected them, whereas I don’t even notice it anymore. At the beginning of the trip, I asked them if when we got back they would write a quick note about the experience for this blog, and they had agreed… but by the end of the week they weren’t even sure where to start. We did some of the wonderful, typical touristy-things… we went snorkeling at Hideway, climbed up Mele Cascades, ate really great food as way-overpriced restaurants. I took hot showers and let them pay. :) It was a great week and I think we all had a lot of fun.
And then the real fun started! We heard that there was a land dispute at my airport. We couldn’t fly to the airport near me. We had to decide whether to continue being tourists or whether to make the trek like locals. My parents are tough, so after some debate we did the local thing… flew to the other side of the island and took the harrowing, 60 mile, 5 hour fiberglass boat ride around, against the wind, to my side of the island. It was a bit nerve-wracking and the boat driver learned some new English words from Pops (haha) but we made it just after dark. But you know what? I knew the right people to call, what to do, how to get there… which made me feel like a true Ni-Vanuatu! The village welcome was, shall we say, much anticipated. The men bonded with Pops right away, especially once I let it slip that he knew Billy Graham, the white chief, personally. And Mops hung in there and trekked 3 hours with me just to go experience an island church wedding and go to see my bank and post office. My host papa and my actual papa are now good friends. For all I know, they might have each other on speed-dial. Whereas my host papa would, prior to meeting my parents, let me do a lot of things, like crab hunting or hiking, with just a simple “be careful,” now he says “I don’t know if Mista Barry would like you to do that.” Oh geez. Our trip back from the island was not nearly as stressful, and we spent the night at a wonderful bungalow on the beach before going back to the airport early on the last morning.
So basically, we had an amazing time together and Mops and Pops definitely got a good look at what traveling in Vanuatu can entail. It can be stressful, but in the end the people here make the effort worth it. I think they got to see Vanuatu from the unique perspective, as they left still being able to see this place as an environmental paradise, but got to truly experience some of the struggles of the islanders. Maybe after some time they’ll write an update to this post and can give their own perspective??
For now, let me close with the lesson I think we all learned in this:
Plans are things that we prepare for and expect to have happen. That’s why we call them plans. BUT, as I have just learned… sometimes what actually happens… that stuff that we can’t or don’t think to plan for, get us exactly to the point where we really needed to be. When we can no longer rely on our tourist status (the “oh, forgive me. I didn’t know. I’m just a tourist after all” thing) to get us through, when we have integrated to the point of coping like a local, when we have learned to just go with whatever is thrown our way and when nothing, absolutely nothing, is shocking….
that’s when you know you might just be getting a small glimpse through locals’ eyes.