I slide away Sonrisa’s salon bench cushion, tilt the wooden door panel away and lean in to search through our canned goods stores. It’s hard to reach that far back, so my arm is stretched into the darkness of Sonrisa’s hull up to my shoulder. As I rummage around, I fret. What should I cook to host six Ni Vanuatu for dinner? I am certain their palates are different than mine, but I’m not sure in what manner. I am also limited by the fact that it has now been almost ten days since our last stock up in Port Vila.
Lasagne is the best I can come up with. I have some marscapone cheese, mozzarella, parmesan in a bag, lasagne noodles, tomato sauce, the proper Italian herbs and seasoning. What I do not have is any meat that would properly fill a lasagne platter. No Italian sausage, not even hamburger. Usually, I like to make vegetable lasagne out here anyway. Canned spinach, canned mushrooms, onions, and garlic are always easy to come by. I saute the onions and garlic, mix it in with the spinach and sliced mushrooms, then boil all the water off. I mix the marscapone with Italian seasonings and a bit of salt then layer noodles, cheese, and vegetables three times. I pour a big bottle of pasta sauce over the top, then finish it with mozzarella and parmesan to get all toasty brown in the oven. It feeds a decent sized crowd and it is manageable in Sonrisa's boat galley. I have served it successfully a number of times. This is what I decide to do. Soon, it is bubbling away in the oven.
The sound of a log canoe nestling against Sonrisa’s hull alerts us that our guests have arrived. They climb aboard with smiling, happy faces. They take the grand tour, then naturally split off into two groups. The men, drinking Tusker and hanging out in Sonrisa’s cockpit. The women gathered in the salon below. Andrew finds pictures on his phone to show of our families, our home in Las Vegas, our parents homes in Utah. “Is that Leslie’s Dad? Is that Leslie’s Dad?” Andrew goes through a whole slew of pictures trying to find one that my Dad is in, but it is not working because my Dad is always the guy taking the photo. Andrew finally lands on one with my Dad in it: a picture of my whole family dressed in matching Christmas PJs. I can’t imagine what they thought of this.
Jackpot! A photo of my Dad AND of snow.
Down below, we ladies are gathered around Biji. We laugh and play with her. I ask them if they would like anything to drink and they choose tea. “What about Biji,” I ask. Black Tea. I am surprised that the little gal would order black tea, but I pour a mug with half hot water and half cooler water from the tap. Kreta tests it for temperature then hands it to Biji, who takes a long happy slug. She likes tea!
They tell me over and over again how beautiful Sonrisa is. They make a “tsk tsk tsk tsk” sound whenever they see something new they hadn’t noticed before. “Is this your first time on a sailboat?” I ask. They all nod vigorously. Luckily the anchorage is calm; no one seems to be seasick.
When its time to eat, I am told the ladies will eat first and the men eat second. This works out all right anyway because the dinner table isn’t very big and it will be more comfortable to eat in stages. I climb the steps to deliver the bad news to Andrew, you already know how he feels about delaying dinnertime.
I scoop out servings of lasagne and pass out plates to our friends. I had no salad makings or anything to make garlic bread - so lasagne is it. The lasagne square looks pathetically lonely on the plate. Evelyn pokes her nose over Sonrisa’s countertop and assures me she likes lasagne - even though she has never tried it - and that it looks “beautiful”. Biji repeats “beaaaauuuutifulllll!” in my tone of voice again and everyone laughs.
We say our prayer, applaud, and then dig in. I don’t know whether it was the texture of the cheese, or the spinach, or the mushrooms, or just the wide berth between our culturally traditional foods, but soon, the teenage girls are cutting up their lasagne into smaller and smaller and smaller pieces. They would raise a tiny forkful to their mouths and try so hard to swallow, but mostly, the were cutting and cutting and cutting. Biji seemed to like it all right so Evelyn gave Biji all the lasagne she could take. Poor Esther is stuck on my side of the table, so she had no one to hand off to. Kreta gulps down everything on her plate, but I can see the effort it takes. In their village language, she says something to the girls and points at their plates. I am positive she is saying “Eat!” In response, they look uncertain, cut and cut.
They are being the perfect guests; Emily Post would be proud. It is I who is failing to make her guests comfortable and happy. I know first hand how they feel because a few hours ago I was working hard to gulp down my unfamiliar laplap. In that situation, I ate four of my five giant pieces of laplap (that is a LOT of laplap), and then Tom told me we could give the rest of my laplap to the ceremonial pig if I was full. He was a gracious host; and hopefully, I was a gracious enough guest. Now, I have no idea what I should do. Should I take their plates and offer them something else? But what!? How do I let them off the hook without giving away that I know they are struggling? (I don't have a ceremonial pig to feed!) I long for some cross-cultural etiquette training and/or a pizza delivery service….but then again, isn’t pizza just lasagne sliced into a triangle? I run through options in my mind. I have cookies. Would anyone like a cookie?
The women enjoy some cookies and I clear plates. I scoop out the men’s portion for Round Two. Richard seems to like it well enough; he even took seconds. Tom, worked his way slowly through his piece eating it all. He didn’t ask for seconds, and I didn’t offer. He didn’t seem like a fan either. COOKIES?! Everyone likes cookies!
After dinner, Richard takes the lead to present us with gifts. Richard and Tom stand, they ask us to stand. In ceremonial fashion, Richard begins: “We and the people of the Meskalyne Islands are honored to present you with these gifts. We hope they will be a souvenir to you, a reminder of the warmth and true friendship we share.”
We dip our heads beneath two shell necklaces the ladies strung by hand. Richard presents me with a hand woven basket Kreta made specifically to match my pink dress.
Richard hands Andrew a rock hand carved by Richard’s Grandfather. We shows Richard the rock with lighthouses painted on it, the one we carry with us to take Andrew’s Grandma Marlene around the world, too. Richard smiles when we tell him Grandpa Rock will sit along side.
Soon, everyone is tired. They say their thank you and one by one clamor over Sonrisa’s deck and into the canoe. We send them along their way with decks of playing cards and poker chips from Las Vegas to remember us by. We clean up and then collapse in a heap on Sonrisa’s salon benches.
I feel the same mental exhaustion I used to feel at the end of a day early in my legal career. The learning curve here is high. For the last forty-eight hours, we have been demanding that our brains observe, interpret, and operate inside completely unfamiliar social structures. We are trying to read unfamiliar facial expressions and body language; place ourselves in the correct spot in the room; speak with our friends in a manner that brings good feelings for everyone involved; understand their perspectives; avoid running afoul of cultural taboos while still representing ourselves in an honest light; and appreciate value sets different from ours. These people are happy, strong, healthy and thriving; more so - or at least in a different way - than many in our society at home. They are poor in the way our society gauges wealth (money); but they are the richest people we know in the way they gauge wealth (human connection, happiness, and kava!) My mind spins trying to understand, to weighing the good parts and harmful parts of their culture and ours. I feel smoke wafting from the center of my brain and out my ears.
Something our Port Vila Kava-Friend Mark said echoes in my mind now: “there is a lot you can learn from a little blue dot in the ocean.” Indeed.
Andrew peruses the Vanuatu guide for more information about our next sail. “Hey, listen to this!” Andrew says. “The Ni Vanuatu carve rocks to record their deepest fears and hopes in the fabric of the earth.” That makes good sense. If I want to send a lasting message to the divine, why not do so by etching my message in the material most likely to split into pieces and swirl around the universe to find another home at our time’s end?
I inspect Grandpa Rock. He looks back at me, silent. “Grandpa Rock, what message have you recorded?”