I've wandered around lots of places, looking for the type of remote you read about in National Geographic years ago. I heard it was still out there. In the jungles of the Amazon, in Gabon, in Siberia. But I never found it. Until last week.
Deep within Vanuatu, within thirty minutes' walking distance of the "Tanna Yasur View" bungalows I stayed at near the volcano Mount Yasur is the village of Kalili. The name reminded me of calla lilies, which grow wild back home in Northern California, and my mother. Kalili. Kah-lih-Lee. Kalili.
The banyan trees grow tall and wide. "Tall one, male tree. Short one, female," my guide, Sam said as we wandered through the jungle on our way to Kalili center. We passed a hut with a weaving project on the ground outside and Sam stopped there to introduce me to his wife and baby. Rachelle, a French woman from New Caledonia, working at the bungalows in exchange for room and board had come along for the walk. I translated Sam's little English snippets for her.
We walked up to a gate and Sam slid big pieces of bamboo on other bamboo runners to open it. The path was well worn.
On the edge of the village, there were huts and pigs. We walked a bit farther and the trees parted into a huge clearing, the village center, one of the most exotic things I've seen.
Groups of people gathered around the edges, under banyans, in the center with a mass of children. To one side of the square, a dozen people were actively building a ten-foot-high, long wall out of taro, a root vegetable. The structure was made out of bamboo and filled in with the vegetable so the straight edge where the root had been cut was perfectly aligned on one side.
People generally ignored us. The children's clothes were all threadbare and torn. Some of the women wore colorful dresses.
Sam called to an older man with small, brown teeth. He was the village elder, the chief and I had a gift to offer him. I brought a solar lantern I use when I camp. I looked around. There were no lights.
The chief came over to me near the wall and I presented him the lantern. He had no idea what it was. I showed him how to turn it on and off. After a few times, he put his index finger on the button. His nail was split and curved around his fingertip. He waited. I finally put my hand on his and pushed his finger into the button. I was teaching the chief of Kalili how to turn on a light, and I wasn't so sure that was a good thing. Sam took our photo.
After the chief wandered away, the lantern in hand, Sam, Rachelle, and I sat on the ground. Sam explained the taro wall was for a big celebration, only once per ten years, to keep the peace between seven villages. "We will give taro, yams, kava and they will give yams, pig, kava. Wall has seven waves, for each village." I looked back to the wall and the people engineering it.
There was no media here, no news from the outside, no Hollywood influence. People lived off their land, entirely. They didn't care about brands of clothes, how fast their internet goes, or all the "important" things that occupy our minds. And they seemed happy. The taro wall was the most critical thing. And honestly, our motivations aren't all that different: esteem, celebration, food, shelter, belonging. Our manifestations of them, though: incredibly different.
That evening, two French guys who were also working to upgrade the bungalows, went to the village to drink kava (a narcotic root tea). Women weren't allowed by the chief because women have the important responsibility of looking after the children. The two came back and reported that a group had been passing around the lantern, looking confused, "The God's Must Be Crazy"-style. The next morning, the chief walked to the bungalows to see the upgrades and he was carrying the lantern along with his satchel, as if it were a piece of gold.
I'm not sure my influence was a good thing, but I am incredibly grateful for what I experienced. For knowing the world still has Kalili.
In the afternoon, I painted the volcano from the bungalows as ash fell from the sky. I chatted with Lea, my host. I asked her where her daughters, Claudine and Jen, ages five and three, had run off to. She pointed to a spot across the valley in the jungle near a big banyan, a few miles away, and said, "the garden." When they returned, I tried to teach them how to jump rope, but the game didn't exactly translate.
Before dark, I walked to the river canyon near the volcano. I got the feeling that there were so many secrets about everything that I didn't know, that there was magic everywhere to be discovered.