Why don’t you wipe your bum and eat it?” a boy yells at my nine-year-old daughter on our first afternoon in Vanuatu. She’s taken aback. It’s a difficult insult to answer. What should one reply? “Thank you! I will!” The boy is shouting in Bislama, the national language, but his insults are being helpfully translated by another excited child. It’s all gone a bit West Side Story in our huge, overgrown backyard, teeming with local kids, and home for the next five weeks.
We have moved here because our family is portable enough for these small adventures. The three kids are young enough to miss a bit of school and my husband Keith has a small tech company which, instead of our backyard, he’s running from our Port Vila back bedroom. I’m writing and taking care of family life on our usual small budget.
It’s a privilege to be here, in this little house on the edge of a ramshackle village on the outskirts Port Vila, Vanuatu’s capital city, but life is not all coconut cocktails and napkins folded in the shape of flamingos. So far, it’s cats fighting and dogs howling all night long and exuberant yelling from the kava bar next door.
This first weekend, I question our decision to bring the family here rather than, say, a nice caravan in Budgewoi.
What to do about this yard, for instance, which I can’t see from the house? Should I keep my three kids inside? Let them run free, come what may?
On Monday morning, I call the roll on my ersatz home school on the porch. Lots of the village children don’t go to school, and many families, are still managing the economic fallout from 2015’s Cyclone Pam, with school fees beyond their means.
I fold a handful of village kids into my little school, and a few of the village kids wander in and out. These kids are feisty, inventive, energetic and scrappy. My children, fresh from the nerd factory, are sensitive, bookish and prone to using the phrase “the others are triangulating me”. If actually assaulted, I fear they might swoon, like tiny Victorian ladies.
As a fake teacher I run a fairly loose curriculum. I talk children through maths books and worksheets. We practise alphabet raps, watch YouTube clips on the Pacific Ring of Fire, draw maps and play maths games.
Conversation is unexpected. “That time I had dengue fever” opens one child’s anecdote, and “When my brother was in jail for killing a guy” begins another. My kids listen with interest.
As the morning wears on, the children become ratty with hunger, but the cupboards are bare because I’m too scared to venture into town on my own to find the supermarket.
I miss my coffee machine, my bath, my pillow-top mattress. I don’t think of myself as uptight or as living a fancy life but here, in our little house in Port Vila, I become uncomfortably aware of my inner princess.
The sparky, inventive children around me make boats out of rubbish on the beach, and their parents are nowhere to be seen. One day things in the yard start going a little gangland again so I fire up a game of Red Light Green Light.
I join in. This is perfectly normal in my world. The children give me the side-eye, and one eventually says, with kindly condescension, “I think you bit old for this game, Miss.”
“Of course,” I say, and slink off.
Every day, home school is wonderful and hard. One day, I tell an eight-yearold that I have just finished reading a book in which the lead character moved me so much that I cried at the end. That character was real to me and I cared about him, even though he was just a collection of words on a page. I tell him that words can be like magic, and books like magical objects.
The next morning he bounds upstairs to show me the “feelings” he has added to his sentences in the night. Fake teacher had a real win that day.
At the end of two weeks I wind up our home-school term with a celebratory visit to the Chinese store for ice-cream, and then I release the children into “Kids Universe”, where maths and English take a back seat to games of “disaster clinic” and water fights and carrying the cat around.
In our third week, I borrow a car from family friends in town. “You’re okay to drive the Pajero back, right?” asks cousin Cathy. “Yep,” I squeak, too ashamed to admit to this capable, unruffled mum of six that I am terrified to drive on the wrong side of the road. In Port Vila, road rules are more like road suggestions.
I’m surprised to find that I am fine. In short order I’m zipping about, island reggae on the radio, sweaty arm out the window. After 10 years deep in stay-at-home-mum land, I had forgotten that I was, once, quite the lady adventurer. Driving this car on the wrong side of the road in a foreign city is, in fact, bloody thrilling.
Home school is closed, but I am still called upon daily to hand out peanutbutter crackers and read chapters of The Enchanted Wood.
I am ashamed of my pearl-clutching during those early days. The kids that freaked me out are the same little people who beg me now to sing them Miss Polly Had a Dolly; who steal my hairbrush and hug my kids with enthusiasm. The heart warmth I feel reading to this puppy pile of little people who sprawl at my feet colouring in and begging for “one more page” is indescribable.
Novel experiences are like a supervitamin shot to a child’s brain, so the psychology tells us. New sights, sounds and smells actually create neural pathways, shaping the brains anatomy.
It’s not on my home-school porch that my kids expanded their minds, though, but out in the Kids Universe of that front yard. If nothing else, we all learnt how to say “Why don’t you wipe your bum and eat it” in Bislama, which I am positive will come in very handy some day.