Steam leaked from the glistening tarmac. Rain clung to my clothes and beat upon the runway - Vanuatu! A twanging song reverberated from somewhere. The singers seemed to laugh, rather than sing the words. I found myself grinning, and soaked, headed towards the terminal.
Inside, my bags felt suddenly leaden. Clothed alike in gaudy floral shirts, a group of men stood to the side, playing to the tourists. I had envisaged the voices floating from a distant, teeming village. Families whispered among themselves, giggling, pointing at the quartet. Perhaps I simply wished to hear it, but the voices now seemed flat, struggling for buoyancy.
My reverie was interrupted by a squat, bulky Vanuatan.
ÃÂPlease,ÃÂ he said, smiling, and wrested my luggage from me.
Outside, I climbed into a bus. It had seat-belt holders, but no seat belts. Bumping along the road, puddles gleamed red and green, reflecting the neon lights of shops and clubs.
The hotel! What had I expected if I booked resort accommodation?Muggy forests?Green villages?Blocky statues of octopi glared at me as the bus entered ÃÂLe LagonÃÂ. It seemed the band from the airport had been whisked to the resort. Fixed smiles plastered their black faces as they served us drinks. A thick guilt swept over me. I had not yet seen a Vanuatan who was not serving a tourist.
Was this an independent nation or an Australian colony?The porter showed me into an air-conditioned room. There was a bed, a shower, a fridge. Remove the lagoon view and here was my flat in Australia. Not bothering to shower, I crumpled onto the bed, the bleating of next doorÃÂs television lulling me to sleep.
Vanuatans seem to have a morbid aversion to seatbelts. The taxi that carted me into the capital was particularly special. Its upholstery had been patched with sticky tape!Villa did little to allay my suspicions that Vanuatu would soon be subsumed into an Australian empire. At the markets, the price tags were in Australian dollars, everyone spoke English and the advertising looked Western - only ten years outdated.
Some culture, however, was revealed. Stoic, angular masks jutted from stalls and local cuisine waged olfactory warfare against all within a fifteen-metre radius. People constantly waved and said hello. It was a refreshing change from the city; most think itÃÂs cosmopolitan to wear black and look depressed. Yet, the West is persistent. Junk littered the stalls - shells whose outsides had been carved to spell ÃÂVanuatuÃÂ. What was wrong with the shells? The women wore billowing, shapeless dresses, introduced by missionaries to quell malesÃÂ baser instincts. Ominously, the markets were flanked by a supermarket to the south, an ice cream vendor to the west.
A man walked towards me. He had a leaning, stumbling gait and wore a singlet and trench-coat.
ÃÂLike a nikliss?ÃÂ he asked.
ÃÂSorry?ÃÂÃÂA niklissÃÂ. He opened his trench-coat revealing a bag of large, plastic necklaces.
ÃÂOh no, no thank youÃÂ I said, surprised.
I probably should have given him some money. It was the most ridiculous type of shock. IÃÂd never seen a black man with a mental deficiency.
ItÃÂs dusk. Vanuatan kids are jumping and laughing in the lagoon. Their laugh is more like a whoop, piercing amidst the splashes. On the shore, some distance away, a woman photographs them, like apes in a zoo. I was going to get my camera, walk up close and photograph her, but sheÃÂs in her swimming costume now. IÃÂll pass.
Vanuatu is best late at night. By then, most of the televisions are shut off. Smoke settles over the lagoon, blown from village fires. And then the sky comes out. The sky! A speckled, gleaming curtain. When the crude invasions are blocked, Vanuatu truly looks like its brochure. IÃÂve stayed far too close to the resort. The real Vanuatu lies beyond, in the villages.
The forests looked as though they were on ecstasy; an orgy of blinding greens. Every few metres someone would wave, smiling. I was still not used to the friendliness; nor the thirstiness. I donÃÂt think IÃÂd ever been properly hungry or thirsty. It was brilliant. I gulped down a bottle of soft drink. It made me thirstier, but I was sick of water. A jerky hour later, the bus parked in the shade of a chipped, blocky shelter. It was a church. A group of young, smooth girls ambled out, wearing the same formless dresses IÃÂd seen at the markets. My high spirits promptly fell.
My system has never been racked with so virulent a guilt. The villages infected me like a vicious cancer, souring my body. A man with yellow teeth led my group into a knobbly, mossy cave. It echoed dimly, dulled by a black lake at its rear. Two shirtless boys began to beat the cave floor with palms fronds.
ÃÂTo bring the light inÃÂ, explained the guide.
A pasty, sweating man suppressed a laugh.
Jumbles of thin, alien metal lay sprawled like a corpse over the village. The houses were bare, concrete skeletons. The Australian government is supposedly providing aid to the island nations. I saw only exploitation. Before I left the village, a dance was performed. It was a fine dance, but made horrible by the scattered, foreign metal and the tour groupÃÂs embarrassed staring.
At the airport, my driver said he didnÃÂt have change for five-hundred vatu. Bullocks he didnÃÂt. I give him the note anyway.
I had to take my belt off for the metal detector. As I looped it back on, a dark, frizzy-haired girl asked if IÃÂd care to fill in a survey.
ÃÂSure,ÃÂ I replied flatly.
There was a single question - ÃÂHow would you describe your Vanuatan experience?ÃÂÃÂDeflatingÃÂ.
My initial reaction. But if I had not come to Vanuatu, a vision of an idyllic paradise would still be ignorantly floating about my cranium. I did see that aspect of Vanuatu. Overwhelmingly, however, I saw the brutal destruction of tradition, the exploitation of culture. So my travels have not been in vain. An experience does not have to be enjoyable to be rewarding. Therefore, this journey was golden rich.
I scrawled out my first answer, and wrote.
ÃÂA veil has been lifted from blind eyes.ÃÂ