Spectator: Bridging the cultural divide

Lucy Baring realises her problems are nothing compared to friends whose way of life has been wiped out.

It’s a First World problem’ is a phrase often lobbed in my direction by other members of the household if I start muttering about limescale in the kettle, clothes abandoned on floors, computer chargers going missing or the price of holidays. It’s most effective if accompanied by a gentle shake of the head whereupon it becomes a highly effective get-out clause for offspring who might otherwise help prevent the house from descending into general squalor.

As I stare at the heavily punctured tyre on the new car on a deserted country road at 2.30am, Zam and I agree that this is not a First World problem. Especially as the new car, we discover, doesn’t have a spare wheel in the boot. It has a box with a tube that, if you plug it into what would once have been a lighter, emits a goo that will seal the hole in the tyre. Or it would if the puncture wasn’t so severe that you can hear the goo hissing out of the tyre faster than it’s going in. While we abandon this and consider our options, we can’t help hearing the World Service on the radio, which is reporting on Cyclone Pam in the South Pacific.

The cyclone has devastated the archipelago nation of Vanuatu, with the island of Tanna suffering much of the worst damage. We worry, as we sit in the dark, about JJ and Namas, who came to stay with us in 2007 and who live on Tanna. JJ was the translator for a documentary series called Meet The Natives, which brought a group of islanders to England to have a look at our weird customs in a reverse anthro-pological series in which the English were the natives. While recording the voiceover, they came to stay with us for a weekend of cultural collisions, with much laughter and bemusement on both sides.

We urged Namas not to drink red wine like water, which he smilingly ignored until he was sent to bed by JJ, his elder. They entirely ignored Anna and Olive and didn’t feel comfortable eating with me at the table. They ate the bones of the chicken. They slept on the floor beside the beds. JJ disappeared at dawn into the woods and came back with a beautifully whittled bow and arrow, which we still have and shoots like a dream. He’d never seen an air rifle, but pointed it at a pigeon and hit it first time to Will and Alfie’s enduring admiration.

They were prepared to try anything. They were patiently charming and humorous throughout the Q and A session we’d asked them to hold at school. They were wise, cheerful and, as the TV series showed, completely stumped and often appalled by various aspects of English life, including the artificial insemination of pigs, homeless people sleeping outside deserted buildings, the amount of time we spend hoovering and the vast acres of arable fields ruled by monster machines.

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They came, they saw, they thought KFC was delicious, they met The Duke of Edinburgh (whom they consider a deity) and they went home with palpable relief. Vanuatans have topped polls of ‘happiest people on Earth’ and everybody who met them understood why. They know how to live.

We sat in the car, waiting for a 24-hour taxi service to rescue us while the radio reports continued to outline the destruction of JJ and Namas’s lives and, potentially, way of life. After an hour, the taxi arrived. Another mile down the road, our driver narrowly avoided hitting a large roebuck by slamming on his brakes and swerving across the foggy road.

In the morning, Zam opened an email from someone who hosted the ‘Tanna Boys’ (as she calls them) in America and who was equally concerned. She also remembers their stay with huge affection for the ‘game, caring and insightful’ men who provided a unique window onto our life. I just hope JJ and Namas can rebuild theirs. A puncture in the small hours is a First World problem after all.