Walking with the Man Bush

We take off for Malekula in a plane that feels more like a car. It’s a Harbin from the 1980s, one of three Harbins and seven planes in Air Vanuatu’s eclectic fleet and, we figure, if it’s been flying this long it must have something going for it. The cockpit is open, so we can see every move the pilots make, hear every word they say, feel their mood. We get to cruising altitude and level off with a few measured inputs. The senior pilot opens his broadsheet, completely obscuring the view. Forty minutes later the co-pilot gives a sign, the pilot folds his newspaper, and with a sweeping turn over an old palm plantation they land the plane on a bumpy old runway as wide as a two lane road, in a field of overgrown grass.

The airport has no roof. A few people mill about, ready to board the plane we have just vacated, as casually as boarding a bus. We walk in to town. We ask around for Robert. Someone shows us where we can stay. They offer to call Robert. This is package tourism, Malekula style.

It’s 2011. We’ve come to do the Man Bush walk, a four to five day hike across the island of Malekula, Vanuatu’s second largest island. Named after the people of Malekula’s rugged interior, the Man Bush walk is one of the country’s newest tourist attractions, and has been steadily gaining popularity among those in the know – expats in Port Vila, Peace Corps volunteers on the outer islands, and their friends. My parents have been living in Vanuatu for a couple of years, and this is something they want to do before they leave. So here we are.

In time, on island time, Robert arrives. He has borrowed a truck to take us to the village from which the walk will start, and hour’s drive down a muddy track. It’s the last road we’ll see for days – the tiny Man Bush villages in Malekula’s interior have no vehicular access, and are each about a day’s walk apart. Despite several emails back and forth, our arrival seems to have taken Robert by surprise. He doesn’t have his usual helpers, so he sends a boy to walk to the next village, find a couple of willing hands, and walk back.

I get the front seat, alongside Robert. He has a big penis, he tells me, the edge taken off slightly by his pronunciation – penis rhymes with menace. Still, he says, it could be bigger. He asks if it’s true what they say about black people. He’s seen videos. He asks if it’s true what they say about the drugs. Can we send him some? Not that it’s small, but you know, but it could always be bigger.

Each day we walk 20km, give or take. Robert and his helpers keep us on the path, and carve a new one with their machetes when they lose it.

We snack along the way – by custom, travellers can eat food they pass, but can’t take it with them. We cut down hands of ripe bananas, eat what we can, leave the rest by the side of the path for the next travellers. Robert’s helpers carve cups from bamboo, and we drink from fresh streams.

Twice a day we eat boiled plantain, which competes with boiled taro – the other staple – for the world’s most tasteless food. While are constantly grateful for our small jar of Vegemite, there are occasional culinary surprises. Some days Robert sends his helpers ahead to catch a few prawns or fish, and one day to dig an oven for lap lap. By the time we reach the other side of the island we are grateful for white rice, spinach and spam – a local delicacy we only now begin to understand.

Robert and his helpers, like most men here, wear Western clothes. One day the helpers vanish from view for a couple of hours, which is not unusual. When we reach a large waterfall we see them, clad in the traditional nambas, posing like warriors, half way up the fall. It’s a majestic sight, if slightly cliched. The two major groups on Malekula, Robert explains, are distinguished by the size of their nambas. He assures us that the size of a man’s nambas – and these ones are small – has nothing to do with what’s under it.

Music greets us in each village. Teenage boys on improvised instruments, playing the catchy string band music that feels so very Vanuatuan. Western songs from the Beatles to Bob Dylan to Brittney Spears are jammed into the familiar rhythm and chord progressions of island music, and interspersed with local ballads and religious hymns.

Storytelling is at the heart of this culture, like so many others. We understand some stories, and others go over our heads. Some we hope we misunderstood, like the one about the men throwing their scraps over the wall to their wives, who in turn throw theirs to the pigs.

In one village we are taken into a large house – a meeting place – after dinner. The whole village seems to be there, and after a formal welcomed we are introduced to the old man of the village, who has a story for us.

The audience has heard this story before. They play off each other, back and forth, kids probing and prodding the old man to fill in gaps, add details that they already know, details he has now forgotten. Anticipation builds each the story nears an exciting point, laughter comes before each punchline.

The story is an amazing one, which I would retell if only I could do so faithfully. The vague outline, as it stuck in my mind, was this: as a young man, the storyteller and his friend heard a huge blast and, following the sound, came across the fresh wreckage of an American military plane. The pieces of the plane were still burning hot, and as they were investigating the wreckage some sort of secondary explosion – “a huge wind” – knocked them off their feet. The friend was killed. The storyteller spent weeks in the bush, fearful to return and be blamed for his friend’s untimely death.

In time the storyteller came back, was welcomed, became part of village life again, became revered. But what a story.

Each village has a graveyard, small like the villages themselves. Like all graveyards, they provide only the barest bones of stories, a tentative invitation for the imagination to take over. Like all graveyards, people who lived long ago died young, with a few notable exceptions. In one village the grave of an elderly woman, buried less than a century ago, bears the inscription “born in the cannibal times”. Whatever we think of the missionaries that wrote and translated signs like these, it’s clear that before and after Christ have a different meaning here.

We reach the last village – the land of spam and catamaran – as the mosquitoes begin to bite. There’s enough light for one last story: that of ten stick island. During the war, the allied soldiers stationed here were so bored they asked the locals if they could train their guns on this small and idyllic reef, just for something to do. The locals agreed, in exchange for ten sticks of tobacco.

We have no idea whether it’s true, but so what? If stories are what keep the Man Bush going, this one is as good as any other.

Some quick thoughts

The hard right – Trump’s, Murdoch’s and Dutton’s – don’t care much for the kind of power that’s moderated by institutions and parliament and good old fashioned democracy. These radical “conservatives” don’t care much for democracy at all. Longstanding democratic institutions, in their view, might occasionally be co-opted, but can never be trusted. That the population might want its government to function in its collective interest, not just for the loudest and richest, is an inherent risk of the people’s rule.

Was anyone really surprised when parliament was shut down “on the request of Mr Dutton,” or were we all just pretending?

We know well what Dutton thinks of human rights, of international law, of senate committees, of well-intentioned bureaucrats, of elected Prime Ministers, of common standards of decency, of convention. No different to what Trump thinks of judges, juries, senators, law. Speed bumps on the road to authoritarian rule.

Dutton can still lose out of this, but Murdoch and the hard right ideologues have already won. If their man gets in, good. If they lose but in doing so heap scorn on the idea of government, trash the institution of parliament, ruin what credibility the Liberal Party has left, all the better. It’s a longer game.

A choice between an asbestos warrior and two competing bigots is no choice at all, but things could be worse. The current parliament was already unmanageable for Turnbull – it’s going to be a nightmare for whoever comes next. There’s no chance of anything really serious going wrong, because (1) the government has no policies, (2) it has no chance of getting anything contentious through parliament and (3) its time is almost up.

It’s the next parliament that matters, and the one after that. No victories are certain in this game. How many times have we thought we’d seen the back of Abbott?

By rights, the hard right, which has never had even a quarter of the vote, should lose, and even more so after this week’s events. We should be careful not to let them take democracy, and our collective faith in it, down with them.

Edrasia (aka Edrique Engraceas)

Hello world! It has been a long time since we have seen each other across the interwebs.

Apologies for the terrible title(s). They were the best entrants in our 30 second brainstorm to come up with a suitable pun to function as shorthand for our trip across Asia, Europe, and Asia again. Thankfully I don’t have instagram, so few people will be subjected to them.

Grace and I have set off on a long adventure. The itinerary broadly looks like this:

1. Western China (Xinjiang)
2. Central Asia (‘the Stans’)
3. Russia (the world cup)
4. Europe
5. South Asia
6. home?

This is going to take us about nine months. There may be a standalone blog but it will have to be set up. This is not terribly easy to do from behind the great firewall.

We are currently in Turpan, China, a city which is 75% Uighur and appears to be about 25% police. The noodles are delicious, and the heat is almost as stifling as the super-Orwellian convenience police stations.

Some more thoughts on where we have been and what we have seen so far will hopefully follow. I may refrain from posting this article until we leave China.

I have now posted this article. We have left China. We have some catching up to do. The standalone blog will be with you shortly.

Bring on Anzac Day

A few months ago, in the weeks that followed Tony Abbott’s near-death experience, a couple of prime ministerial tidbits stuck in my mind.

The first was a line in an article from, of all places, the Australian:

Insiders say that, these days, Abbott sits for much of the day in his office in Parliament House pondering national security, Islamic State and reading Winston Churchill

The second came through the grapevine, and it said that the real reason Abbott pleaded for another six months was not for the chance to win the people over, nor to hand down another budget, but to lead the nation through the centenary Anzac celebrations.

Ever since I’ve been waiting for Abbott to re-emerge as Winston, or at least a pale imitation thereof. It hasn’t happened.

Sure, he has tried, as was well charted by Geoff Kitney in the Australian Financial Review last week. But no one has really cared.

Despite his longing for an overseas conflict, all Abbott has managed to commit our troops to is training the Iraqi army, a relatively low-risk, low-reward assignment in which Australia joins a long list of nations including Romania, South Korea, Jordan and itself. It’s hardly an inspiring mission.

Abbott’s “Death Cult” parlance on Islamic State has not taken grip in the minds of the public. It’s a phrase people associate more with the Prime Minister’s desperation than the enemy he used it to describe. The public is not convinced that ISIS is a bigger threat than any of our other Middle Eastern adversaries of decades gone by, and is less convinced than ever that fighting wars thousands of miles from home is the best way to stop terrorist attacks on our shores. The public may be right, or the boy (and the father before him) may have cried wolf.

On metadata, Abbott won through the dangerous indifference of the Labor party and the general resignation of the public. But what was bad policy by the opposition was probably good politics: they avoided arming their detractors while giving their supporters no less than what their supporters have come to expect. Any votes they lose from their stance will only flow to the Greens, while Abbott lost a chance to position himself as the man of decision he longs to be.

His attempts to divide the public have, by and large, failed. While the Reclaim Australia movement has grown rapidly its supporters are vastly outnumbered – including at their own rallies – by normal, sensible Australians who see it as a shameful reflection on what our nation has been allowed to become. He has managed to pit opposing views against each other, but not to convert any more of the public to his own. Unable to bring Australians over to his side, he has searched for larger groups to side with: the anti-anti-vaccination-mothers-on-welfare crowd may be large, but it includes (and already included) almost the entire political spectrum. For a self-styled wartime leader, taking on such a small enemy shows weakness rather than strength.

For months now Abbott has refused to become sidetracked by things that matter, hoping that by the time he next sits down for a conversation (as he likes to say) on economics, health or industrial relations he’ll start from a position of trust. It’s now clear, on the eve of Anzac day, that’s not going to happen.

Abbott has stabilised but he has not won. He has not climbed back to parity, or near it, in  the polls. He will not get a better chance.

On Monday it will once again be 2015, not 1915, and Abbott’s khaki shield will cease to offer the protection it has during this brief reprieve. The public will once again want to know his plans for the budget, for Medicare, public education,  social services and foreign aid. They’ll want to know how he’ll tackle the “debt and deficit disaster” – a phrase coined back when people were listening – while passing the test of basic fairness. It’s a huge challenge for a man so deeply indebted to the rich and powerful.

Next week the future will be back on the agenda. That’s why I can’t wait for Anzac day.