This fall, the reality TV show Survivor introduced Americans to the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu. As in the show’s previous eight seasons, there’s been beautiful scenery, backstabbing contestants and plenty of skin. In one episode, the women contestants earned the service of a native Ni-Vanuatu man, naked but for his loincloth. In 24 hours, he showed them how to survive on the lush island, with its edible ferns and sweet coconuts and bountiful sea creatures.
He reminded me of Noel Timante, who taught me and my wife, Erin, more than a few lessons about surviving in Vanuatu during our two years there as Peace Corps volunteers. One of the first lessons: The spiders are harmless. Still, he swept every inch of his home when one of us commented that we’d seen a spider during our first night as his guests.
We were a married couple invited to the island of Paama to work as a primary school teacher and a health educator, and after our initial training (during which there was a cyclone, the murder of the spouse of the Peace Corps country director and riots in the capital), we moved into a house within shouting distance of Noel’s family.
We were jolted from our sleep one evening by an earthquake. Another night, a swarm of three-inch-long cockroaches infested our bedroom; it was an omen, we learned the next day, of Cyclone Yali. Yet another night we awoke to a rhythmic rumbling as nearby Lopevi Volcano stirred from its sleep.
Earthquakes and cyclones and volcanoes were frightening to a couple of Clevelanders, as was the history of fatal shark attacks off the beautiful black sand beach a hundred yards from our home. Noel helped us laugh off our anxieties. The lesson: Forget the fear factor. It also helps to carry a big bush knife for cutting open green coconuts for a refreshing drink on a muggy day. That’s a taste of paradise I still savor.
Very few nights went by that we didn’t storian with Noel and his wife, Leah, and their children. There was safety in the darkness if we sat sharing stories. Sometimes we complained about mischief among the village youth, as when Survivor contestants gripe to the camera, but more often than not we laughed, even if at the expense of my arachnophobia.
Noel’s elderly father, Chief Hedley, would often join the storian, and in the darkness his glowing cigarette blended with the twinkling stars. Hedley would begin to tell kastom (traditional) stories of the days before Scottish missionaries brought Christianity to Paama. Hedley was adamant that nakaimas, or witch doctors, could still fly through the night like the fruit bats we were hearing in the breadfruit trees above.
Erin and I would walk home pondering those fables, unable to hold hands as we’d done quite publicly in the States. In Vanuatu, it was more common for Noel to hold my hand as we’d walk up the hill to the store. “Yumitufala brada,” he’d say in Bislama, the pidgin we used to communicate. We’re brothers.
Vanuatu kastom is replete with Survivor-like tales of warfare and cannibalism, mischief and magic. (Maybe that’s why we were asked many times about the latest news from Iraq–and this was in the late 1990s. The Survivor contestants sure have a lot of explaining to do.) A hundred years of Christian worship had changed the villagers on Paama. Sure, there was squabbling among the denominations, but when the chief drummed the tamtam for a village council, no one got voted off the island.
When eventually it came time for us to return to the States, each of the five villages we served feted us with an evening picnic and showered us with flower leis, woven pandanus mats and speeches thanking us–and Peace Corps–for being part of their community. Their farewell handshakes told us that Americans can win hearts and minds in nonviolent ways.
On our flight out of Vanuatu in 1999, we read a small wire report in an Australian newspaper about a new reality show called Survivor that was coming to American television. The show promised tropical challenges and a million-dollar prize.
“We’ve earned that,” we chuckled, thinking of the storms and pests, violence and volcanoes, dengue fever and malaria, homesickness and writer’s cramp of our past 23 months.
Noel passed away in 2002. He survives in our memories.