Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Tale of Custom, Commerce, and Crossing Cultures

Here is a story that, to me, is wonderfully representative of what life in Vanuatu is like, of what can happen because of cross-cultural communication and its limitations.

Ed and Beth moved into a house in Lolowai during my second year as a volunteer and part of their decorations was a large custom mat dyed a beautiful shade of aqua. It reminded me of the water in Vanuatu and I had never seen another one like it. Apparently, the only women on Ambae who use that particular color dye are those in Lovunvili and the villages around it. I decided to find one of the mamas and ask her to weave 3 small mats for me, dyed that gorgeous aqua color, as mementos. It took several phone calls to find her phone number but eventually Mrs. Rosaline agreed to weave me three small mats, dyed blue, for 3000 VT (about $30).

Approximately one week later, she called me to say that she didn't have enough of the blue dye to do all three mats. Fortuitously, I was in Santo where I could buy another small container of dye for her to use to finish the job. I told her I would buy the dye and deliver it to her when I got back.

The day after I returned to Saratamata, Mrs. Rosaline appears in the office carrying a bundle of mats. They are purple, red, and dark teal. We share some small chit chat and then she hands me the mats. I open them up to admire them, hoping that they are just exhibits to show me what my mats will eventually look like, and that she has really come to pick up the dye. But no, the purple, red, and teal mats are for me, the ones I ordered. She did not wait for the additional blue dye but went ahead and used other colors. This was not what I wanted. These mats will not match my other house decorations.

We unroll the mats and Mrs. Rosaline, one of the few women who still know the custom stories that go along with the custom crafts, proceeds to explain the designs on the mats--designs she chose especially for me. The squared off spirals represent the moon, a feminine symbol, and its light. Its light is gentle, giving light through the darkness so that people are not afraid in the night. (It gets better.) She chose the symbol of orchids as another pattern for the mat, also a symbol unique to women's mats. The orchids represent how women move to new places. Like the orchid that appears unexpectedly in the branch of the trees, women join their husbands in his village, and surprise everyone because no one saw how they arrived or where they came from. She said that I was like an orchid that appeared on Ambae and now I was going back to my home. And the pattern of weaving at the ends of the mat represents two people coming together, traditionally a man and woman, but in this case it shows the two cultures of America and Vanuatu coming together. The smaller holes are footprints that show the customs or the "fashion" of each culture and are how people follow behind in our "fashion."

I was crying by the end. This beautiful, wise-in-custom woman presents me with three mats-- three mats that I am paying for and that are not what I wanted--and tells me the cultural stories behind the symbols and the sentiment she put into them . . . . and what can I do. I cry a little, I say thank you over and over, and I pay for them.

Shortly after she leaves, two of my colleagues in the office sit down with me. They ask to hear the custom stories Mrs. Rosaline told me because they don't know what the symbols mean. That knowledge is being lost. We storian for a little while and they too share some custom stories with me. Michael tells me that when he was growing up (he's probably in his 40s now), all of the custom mats were red. The color came from a particular vine that had to be dried and boiled and skinned and processed ad nauseum before it could be used. Now, the mamas are able to buy different color dyes at the stores so the red is usually store bought. Purple is the next most popular color for custom mats on Ambae. The blue ones are unique to south Ambae and they are using blue mats for their custom ceremonies and for custom dances. Krenny told me that the ends of my three mats should be yellow to be truly traditional and more beautiful. (Thank goodness Mrs. Rosaline did not feel that was necessary. I like the natural color.) The yellow color comes from a root that is a cousin of ginger and is bright orange when you break it open or grate it.

Then Michael told me the custom story that helps explain why custom mats are such an important part of Ambae's traditions. The volcano on Ambae, Manaro, is depicted as a god in most custom stories. In this story, a man falls in love with Manaro's daughter. She agrees to marry him so the volcano gives her to the man. At the same time he gives her three seeds--a natangura seed, a seed for a smaller palm that has wide round leaves, and a pandanus seed. The natangura seed is for the palm tree whose leaves they use to weave the custom roofs. This seed would provide them with shelter and safety. The second palm seed is called an "umbrella plant" here because of the size and shape of the leaves. When the sun is strong, we can hide under the leaves, and when the rain is raining, we can hide under them (translated from the Bislama). Finally, the pandanus seed would provide them with the materials they needed to weave custom mats for sleeping, for births, for deaths, for marriages, for chiefly ceremonies, for gifts. Today, a bride's uncles and aunts still present her with these three seeds after her marriage. Pretty cool, huh?

At the end of the day, I ended up with some amazing custom stories, great storian time with my co-workers, and three beautiful customs mats that will not match with my American decor. All for $30. Money well spent when you look at it the right way.

Tomorrow, if I can get the necessary pictures to download correctly, I will post another mat story of similar beauty and tragedy. Tomorrow's will be funny as well. At least that's how I'm choosing to look at it. :)