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Memoir

On the economy of thongs

I CANNOT ENVISAGE a more conducive way of grasping the essence of globalisation and the post-colonial than to sit with Robert and Headley on the earthen floor of a hut in a village in Vanuatu, in quiet conversation about the vicissitudes of life.

I've never been a train waver. I take the rational view that those travelling on the train and those whom they pass have a negligible chance either of knowing one another or of ever seeing one another again. So why the obsessive waving? And if one who was expecting a wave is missed or if one's own wave is ignored, what then? It may just be that people of good and generous spirit like to greet one another. Or there could be a 'look at me' factor at work, especially for those excited by train travel who wish to have their good fortune acknowledged by others. There are times when a wave, and indeed a neighbourly smile, is a quite proper greeting. But I have come to the conclusion that indiscriminate train waving is an irrational and personally hazardous form of social engagement.

So you can imagine my consternation when we were told, on arrival at our resort (seven day package for a very reasonable figure) that, 'People of Vanuatu are very happy people. Be sure to smile and wave to them, and they will smile and wave back.' It didn't sound right. Condescending, I thought. We tried a reluctant wave or two in the early days of our stay, as we travelled to and from town by bus. It seemed churlish to stand on my no-wave principle and we had no wish to offend our hosts. To our naïve eyes the local people did seem to enter the smile-and-wave routine with apparent pleasure. How were we to know there was not some cultural imperative at work? Waving and smiling may have a local significance we did not understand.

In the days that followed we ventured out to visit markets, schools, plantations, war memorials. Smiling and waving quickly gave way to curiosity, conversation, bartering, laughing together and to the fond farewells of folk who have known each other for moments but who have tapped a universal spirit. Surely a far richer form of communication?

That should have been enough. We had escaped the global, four-star uniformity of resorts everywhere and had started to understand, haltingly, 'a place'. But my enthusiasm for a first encounter with people other than 'my own' pushed me further than my primitive understanding could grasp. Perhaps it was just opportunity, not rude curiosity or voyeurism, but the idea of visiting a village where local people lived became a commitment. There now was no other way.

If I were part-Aboriginal as much as I am actually part-Indian I would long ago have claimed my birthright as indigene; sharing the flag of a dispossessed people, born to a cause I could not have ignored. Instead, by birth if not by inclination, I am a coloniser. The sympathiser, not the sympathised. So the decision to walk to a local village – a place where tourists do not go – was a decision based on the naïve, arrogant and rather misplaced desire to be 'as one' with the local people.

The Indian part of me is indeed small, proportionately, amounting to no more than a limb, or a good bit of torso. The rest is British. My mother let this closeted piece of family history drop unintentionally. The past was something of which mother never spoke, but once the subject was out I pressed for details. I could get no more than this: mother's grandmother was born of Indian parents. She married an Englishman – a colonialist – and the daughter of this union, my grandmother, travelled to Australia.

Until that point my family had always described ourselves as 'British stock'. White and British. It was a description that gave me some comfort as a child – to know that 'the British' were 'our allies' and that together we had won 'the war'. But as I grew older and came to understand that race and culture were more deeply nuanced than my elitism allowed, I became far less comfortable with assumed superiority, slight as that feeling may have been, so the discovery that I was in fact 'of mixed race' pleased and relieved me.

All this I brought to Vanuatu, and to the decision that I should pilgrimage to a village I did not know, far less understand.

 

IT MAY HAVE seemed an odd decision, but the best I could do to distance my largely white and Western past for this journey was to walk barefoot. A symbolic act, first because in so many households shoes are left at the door in deference to those who live within. Then, for the soft Westerner, bare feet on hard ground do place one at a disadvantage with respect to those whose custom or economy does not include the ownership of shoes. Furthermore, the road was hot, the grass cool, and the paths soft with dust. Could there be a better way to first gain a sense of place than through the soles of one's feet?

In the few days it took to venture outside our walled compound and to acclimatise to the sights and smells and sounds of a Pacific island, the comings and goings of local people formed a pattern in our minds. They walked at a pace both relaxed and purposeful. I took note of that. And through the smiling and waving as we travelled our route to town and market, some turned at a particular corner on a road I did not know. The map revealed a village, just three or four kilometres away. One day later I took that same corner, hatted against the Pacific sun, shoeless against my own origins.

The road was black and hot. It ran past conventional housing on the outskirts of town, then quickly into forest, plantations and garden plots where backs curved to till the soil. Some turned their heads to watch my progress. Others nodded an incurious greeting. I was by now well outside the smile-and-wave precinct.

In less than an hour, village huts appeared; wooden structures with corrugated iron roofs baking under a clear sky. These modest dwellings were arranged in a roughly symmetrical pattern of dusty paths and soft grass, kept low by goats.

Two teenage girls washed their hair in an enamel basin on a wooden stand beside their door. They looked up and smiled, giggling quietly as I passed. Few others were abroad at this time of the day, and those who were gave me a look of benign suspicion. It was a look I probably would have given strangers in my own suburban neighbourhood. I was Noel Coward's Englishman: alone in the midday sun.

I walked on, because now I did not know how to stop. I feared if I turned I would panic and break into a run for 'home'. The pilgrimage had not gone well. My sole interest now was to extricate myself, dignity in tatters, from the excruciating embarrassment of treading uninvited into the private, if communal, space of others. I came too late to the realisation that good intentions, while necessary, may not be sufficient justification for such a venture. Meeting with those one does not know is not a solitary decision, but one that should be based on a mutuality of purpose, of common ground. The marketplace had been good for that. It should have been enough.

I had skirted the village and now faced the prospect of the long, hot tarmac with tender, burning feet. I simply couldn't do it. Not again. Not after the ignominy of these past hours. But there were options: the beach was close by. At a pinch I could make the return journey through cool shallows.

RESORT SAND IS manicured; it is pickled clean and raked, so each day's parade of browning bodies may lay their towels and sip from sandy glasses. I could have been anywhere. Anywhere but a Pacific island, that is. For on every untended island beach lie the flotsam and jetsam of tourist liners that ply the Pacific routes. Rubbish sometimes piled metres wide: a tangle of clothing, bottles, polystyrene crates, assorted timbers; all matted together with seaweed, island coconuts and rotting fish.

My despairing eye fell across this lot. By what right was the garbage of the world allowed to ... and then I saw a thong! Not a child's plastic thong – the sort that lies abandoned after holiday weekends on beaches everywhere – no, this was a piece of adult footwear, complete in every respect. Where there was one, there would be another; I had only to find the second and I could set out once more with confidence and comfort.

But none was to be found. I searched the piled detritus, but was left with one solitary, useless thong. My detour to the beach had confirmed that walking the shallows was not really an option. High tide around a rocky point had seen to that. It would have to be the road. And if a second thong was not forthcoming, this meant improvisation.

My improvised thong consisted of a foot-sized piece of paper bark, strapped on with strips of blue cloth torn from a nondescript garment. Thong-making for the unpractised is a demanding business, and quickly absorbed my full concentration. I heard nothing but the waves, saw nothing but the task before me. But no sooner had I started to fashion my new bark sole than a man-shaped shadow spread across my handiwork.

My gaze fell first on the large, black, thonged feet, then the legs, and finally on the full form of a citizen of the Republic of Vanuatu, at full height well over two metres. He held a large armful of timber, cut, I assumed, from the nearby forest. In his other hand, dangling loosely at his side, was a huge machete, glinting in the afternoon sun. This implement – I struggled not to see it as a weapon – took my full attention, as it hung before my widening eyes.

He asked, in English, punctuated with the pidgin of Pacific islands, what I was doing. I immediately recognised this as a fair question. What was a white tourist doing on a remote village beach, far from resort comforts, apparently strapping to one foot a piece of bark? I explained about the hot road and bare feet, but left out the bit about pilgrimage and stumbling uninvited through his village. He nodded knowingly and sympathetically when my short story ended.

Despite the obvious novelty of my presence, this island man took charge of my circumstances with an air of statesman-like authority that, through my excitement and confusion, I recognised as that of a significant individual. He beckoned me to my feet, and I fell into step behind him, on the track to the village. As we passed a garden plot my leader called, and an older man appeared. In a few words the new addition to our team was appraised of the situation, including my attempts at improvisation.

We walked and talked, along the narrow village track – three bare and three thonged feet between us. I learned that their names were, respectively, Robert and Headley. Robert was indeed, as his demeanour implied, a senior figure in the village community. He proudly informed me that Headley, his older friend, would tomorrow be ordained a priest. These were men of deep, unquestioning faith.

 

ON THE VILLAGE outskirts we arrived at Robert's house, and entered by the low door. Notwithstanding the purpose of my visit, I now felt utterly unprepared. Robert, on the other hand, seemed quite comfortable in the role of host. He invited us to sit on the soft dirt floor.

My first and lasting impression of the dwelling was that it was dark and cool. The wooden stud walls were not lined; the windows shuttered. Slits of light slanted through ill-fitting weather boards to spread a mosaic pattern across the room. Furnishings were sparse: a bare table without chairs; a sideboard. Then my attention was directed back to the sensitive topic of my feet. Robert turned immediately to the solution: I would have his thongs. He slipped them off his feet.

It was clear Robert was a man not given to idle gestures, so protest or refusal could not be contemplated. From somewhere deep in my soul I summoned my own far-from-idle gesture; I would be pleased to accept his thongs but would he accept payment? I took five dollar coins from my pocket – the only money on my person – and held them in my outstretched hand.

'I could buy two new pairs of thongs with your five dollars,' he said. 'You cannot pay me that much.'

'Your thongs have the value of five dollars to me,' I replied, and motioned for him to take the money.

Headley and Robert turned to one another in a brief and rapid exchange, this time in full and incomprehensible pidgin.

Robert turned back to me with a broad grin. 'I will take your money,' he said. 'You will take my thongs.' I am not an economist, but in this simple transaction I think I started to understand the complexities for indigenous cultures of the introduction of powerful foreign capital. As I accepted the thongs I silently vowed I would never again be part of such an exchange, unless and until I could better understand the economic and cultural ramifications. The deal was consummated with joyous laughter.

 

AN HOUR PASSED in supersonic blur. Conversation eased by the genuine interest and care these men bestowed on me, a stranger in their lives. Much talk revolved around the impact of Western tourism on island life. Robert exemplified this with a display of hand-painted t-shirts which he took to cruise ships for sale to passengers, keen for 'genuine' local artifacts. We laughed again, perhaps a little ruefully, at the opportunism that had become an inevitable part of the local economy.

Time to go. Robert motioned me to pause. 'It is our custom,' he said, 'that a guest in my house must select something to take. You must choose something of mine as a gift.'

I froze. I could not move or think or speak, my reaction a mix of utter surprise, uncertainty, and a desperate desire not to offend. I was burdened, also, with Protestant conviction that it was I who should be the giver, in return for the generosity of time and spirit shown to me, the intruder. My eyes flicked wildly around the sparsely furnished room, hoping to light on some small item, the loss of which would cause no hardship. In the dim light, and with little knowledge of the way the household functioned, I could not hope to make a selection with confidence. Then the thought! I would ask Robert for one of his painted t-shirts. I would say that it would remind me of the pleasure of my visit.

He agreed. The choice was made. The moment of terror passed. I stood to leave. Headley walked me to the road for my journey home. At the first bend I looked back, pointed to my thongs on the hot pavement, then signalled my appreciative comfort with the universal 'thumbs-up'.

He smiled and waved, just as they said he would.


From Griffith Review Edition 18: In the Neighbourhood © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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