Jason and I spent 2 nights in Darwin before coming to Bali. In many ways, it was great to be in the developed, English-speaking world. I got Mexican food (of a fashion), decent internet (which another guest said “Is not the fastest but…” It was the fastest. He was confused.), and generally returned to the lifestyle in which I grew up. It was an excellent break between the stress and emotions of leaving Peace Corps and the stress and emotions of traveling in foreign countries.
There is one thing that hasn’t left my mind about those few days though. There was a lot of homelessness and poverty immediately visible. It felt wrong. I know that Vanuatu is an impoverished nation, that it scores pretty poorly on development factors and the ones it scores decently on are often inaccurate for cultural reasons. (Unemployment is listed as almost non-existent because everyone subsistence farms and cell phone ownership is listed at 90%, but most people who have 1, have 2 because the 2 networks are incompatible and both have very poor coverage on the outer islands, really the ownership should be more like 45-50%.) But Vanuatu never felt poor the way the people in Darwin did.
We chatted with a young girl, maybe 9- or 10-years-old. Her questions to us mostly revolved around food and where we were sleeping. Her language was heavily accented by what I took as her local language. She may have been on school break but she didn’t seem to have any of the concepts of geography that I would expect from a fourth or fifth grader, so I doubt she was in school or at least up to grade level. She lost interest in us after about 10 minutes, but it was an enlightening 10 minutes for me.
Mostly, the homeless we saw were Aboriginal families, which I think made it all the starker for me. I’ve been working with and for people who look like them, and not like me, for the last 3 years. That little girl told us about her 6 daddies, a cultural trait shared by ni-Vanuatu, and about how she was sleeping with one part of her family now but not be tomorrow. (In general in Vanuatu, your father’s brothers and male cousins are your “dads” and your mother’s sisters and female cousins are your “moms.” The opposites are your aunts and uncles. Children are raised communally, with special emphasis from their biological or adopted parents.) Now, here is a population that no one seems to be working with or for on similar issues of health, education, and goal-setting.
Interestingly, none of the Aboriginal people were poorly dressed. The three white homeless guys I saw were all your “typical” homeless individual. Ragged, poorly kept, surrounded by filthy possessions with a rather manic gleam to their eyes. But the Aboriginals had clean, good quality clothing, were not emaciated, and seemed to spend their time laughing and joking with each other during the day. Again, this implies to me that the Aboriginal culture carries some of the family values similar to Vanuatu. Their families are helping them out with clothes and food but can’t, or won’t, help them with housing.
I don’t know what to make of this. It is something that is sticking with me and something I kept noticing. I don’t want to turn my eyes away and pretend I don’t see people because they are homeless or in need. But I don’t know how to interact either. I don’t know how to politely handle beggars without giving away everything I have. And it was just straight up disturbing to see people in true poverty while all around them people just kept on with their affluent lives. This is not something I can reconcile in my head, even as I am doing it.
Welcome back to the developing world. Welcome to reverse culture shock.