Andrew Gray's Diary from the South Pacific

Singapore · Queensland · Vanuatu

After my original gap year in Vanuatu, I settled down to the task of studying biology at the University of Edinburgh. Finding that this occupied me for only a few hours a week, I kept amused busy with a range of temporary jobs, ranging from testing software in Edinburgh to running a pitch and putt course in the Scottish Highlands. I travelled abroad whenever I had the time and money, participating in expeditions to Bolivia and to Belize. I appeared on a TV quiz show and was lucky enough to win some money, which of course I set aside to spend on overseas travel. And I continued to dream of distant islands.

After my final exams at university were over, I decided to revisit Vanuatu. My trip was originally planned as a holiday, but after contacting the principal at Ranwadi School and mentioning that I was considering a visit, I discovered that the school was short of a physics teacher and urgently needed someone to help out for a while until a new teacher could be found. I gladly volunteered. Thus, I found myself working as a supply teacher on the other side of the world.

This diary of my second trip to Vanuatu begins in South-east Asia, which I visited on the way to the Pacific...


24 May 2005

Singapore is like a vision of the future. It's clean, busy, new, efficient, hot, urbanised and cosmopolitan, seamlessly multicultural and multilingual, but with American culture the predominant influence and English (fortunately) the lingua franca. Amidst the old colonial buildings of the city centre sprawl gigantic, glistening shopping malls and business complexes, wandered by beautiful young people with more fashion than sense (it's incredible that anybody would choose jeans and trainers over shorts and sandals in this stifling equatorial climate). Familiar names, from McDonald's to Manchester United, shine out from windows and billboards. The centre of Singapore is a monument to the excesses of modern consumerism. Perhaps one day the whole world will be like this.

Surrounding the city centre are clustered districts that are home to the different ethnic groups that make up Singapore's diverse population: Indians, Chinese, and Malays. The youth hostel in which I am staying is in 'Little India', surrounded by curry houses. The laid-back Europeans and Australian travellers inhabiting the youth hostel - many of them freshly-tanned from the beaches of Thailand and Malaysia - seem out of place in the bustle and neatness of Singapore. Many of the backpackers here are en route between Europe and Australia; others are ex-students who've found themselves in South East Asia for want of anywhere better to go or anything better to do. I suppose I fall into both categories.

The riverside in Singapore

On the night I arrived, the hostel held a fruit-tasting session, an opportunity for visitors to sample some of the more exotic species that can be found at Singapore's markets. In addition to vaguely-familiar fruits such as lychees and star fruits, there were rambutans (like a lychee but hairy and brightly-coloured), mangosteens, the wonderful dragon fruit (something like a cross between a giant kiwi fruit and a psychedelically-coloured pineapple), and the famous durian, whose wonderful taste is almost overpowered by its foul, cheesy smell (the trick is not to breathe in before eating it). The only way to remove the smell from your hands, apparently, is to wash them in water that's been rinsed over the spiky skin of the fruit: the durian's skin contains an enzyme that removes its own stench!

On my second evening I went to the "night safari", Singapore's famous nocturnal zoo. The exhibits are much like those in an ordinary zoo (faint lighting illuminates the animals for visitors to see), but the place has managed to brilliantly recreate the atmosphere of a jungle at night, and it is eerie to wander along the forested paths amongst the enclosures listening to the sounds of wild pigs grunting and lions roaring in the moonlight. The place also features a tram ride, and a live show at which I was nearly jumped on by a binturong (a large, smelly, tree-dwelling relative of the cats) that clambered along a rope directly over my head.


26 May

I spent the next day on Sentosa, the leafy, beach-fringed theme park island that serves as a playground and retreat for those seeking a break from the city. Singapore Harbour is hardly the perfect place for an idyllic island retreat - Sentosa looks out over the rusting cranes by the docks, the smoking industrial chimneys of nearby Jurong, and the dozens of hulking cargo ships moored out in the Straits of Malacca. In order to appreciate the relaxing, green atmosphere, you have to turn your eyes away from the sea, and also from the ugly building work currently being carried out all over the island. Nevertheless, the place makes a pleasant break from the city. The tip of Sentosa is marked as "the southernmost point of the Asian continent" (although this is on an islet off an island off another island, the fact that there are bridges to it apparently makes it part of the continent). As night fell, there was a musical fountain display in which powerful lasers and projectors were used to create spectacular moving images out of a wall of water and steam.

On Sentosa I ended up chatting to an English born-again Christian, who told me - when I mentioned that I grew up near Milton Keynes - that his father had designed the McDonald's there. What random connections people find.

Yesterday, I crossed the kilometre-long causeway linking Singapore with neighbouring Malaysia, purely for the sake of adding another country to the list of those that I've visited (only 164 to go now!). This was the smoothest, shortest and cheapest international trip of my life - the return bus fare from the centre of Singapore cost less than £1, and the immigration process was remarkably free and efficient on both sides of the causeway. On the Malaysian side lies the city of Johor Bahru, a noticeably more colourful place (both literally and figuratively) than shiny Singapore.

Back in Singapore, I visited the city art museum, an interesting collection of both traditional and 'modern' exhibits. The highlight was a set of TV screens playing videos of various inedible objects, including a Barbie doll, being microwaved.

I also wandered around Raffles Hotel, the grand colonial edifice once described as "the finest hotel in the East", which originally boasted an breezy waterside location with views over the harbour. The hotel hasn't moved, but the sea front has: land reclamation and high-rise development have long since removed Raffles from the sea front, and it now nestles amidst high-rise offices and malls, several blocks away from the water. The hotel's attractive courtyard and whitewashed balconies still maintain their traditional look and feel, but it's hard to soak up the Victorian atmosphere when surrounded by the tall towers and grinding traffic of 21st-century Singapore.

In the evening, I joined a group of other backpackers from the hostel for happy hour in the plush cocktail bar on the 71st floor of the Stamford Hotel. This was a strictly shoes-not-sandals affair, and was the first time in many years that I've had to lie about my age (officially the bar doesn't admit under 25s). While chatting and sipping half-price cocktails we watched the sun set across Singapore's pale urban landscape.


(In case you're wondering what happened to the Barbie doll in the microwave, she slowly melted and darkened from the bottom upwards, and began to give off toxic-looking smoke. Her face continued to smile stupidly, and her perfect hair style remained fixed in place, as her lower body collapsed into black gunk.)


28 May

The second stop on my journey back to the South Pacific was Brisbane, capital of Australia's 'sunshine state'. This weekend Queensland has lived up to its slogan, with cloudless skies and perfect temperatures - pleasantly warm in the sun, but not uncomfortably hot. (Brisbane lies well south of the tropics, and it's winter here.) I spent an afternoon chilling out in the city's South Bank parklands, which are just as beautiful as I remember them, with leafy subtropical flora, sloshing fountains, purple bougainvillea-draped walkways, and views across the river to the shining towers of the city centre. Even the pests in the park that pick over visitors' leftovers are attractive: tall black-and-white ibises with long, elegantly curved bills.

Moreton Island
The ferry loading on the beach at Moreton Island

Today I went on a day tour of Moreton Island, which is essentially a gigantic sand bar, yet supports dense vegetation and groups of bronzed, beach-loving Australians for whom the idea of an island made entirely of sand must be true paradise. The trip began with an hour's boat journey from Brisbane, with the blazing sky, the rippling Pacific and the silhouette of the island each glowing a different shade of blue. The ferry dumped its passengers and their vehicles straight onto the island's beach - which also serves as one of its main highways - and our group set off in a four-wheel drive land rover to see the island's attractions. These include numerous secluded beaches and swimming spots, and an expanse of rolling sand dunes in the interior of the island which is aptly named 'the desert'. On some gently-sloping dunes there we tried out 'sand boarding', which is like snow boarding; I never got more than a few metres without falling over. On the steeper dunes we went 'sand tobogganing', which involves lying on a flat board, polished with wax for minimum friction, and plummeting face first down a dune at remarkable speed. This turned out not to be as scary as it looked: the sensation evokes childhood memories of playground slides.

To be in Australia - the far end of the earth - merely on a two-day stopover, en route to somewhere even further afield, is weird and surreal.


1 June

I arrived in Vanuatu on an overcast Sunday afternoon. The streets of Port Vila, the country's small capital, were almost deserted; nearly everybody was at home or at church. Walking the quiet streets of the town centre was like being inside an old photograph, or a faded memory. It was here in Port Vila that I landed after leaving home for the first time, here that I spent my first (and, so far, only) Christmas away from home, and here that I spent September 11th, 2001. The place has grown noticeably in recent years, as Vanuatu's rapidly-increasing population drifts inexorably into town in search of scarce employment. A few new buildings have sprung up, including a hideous multi-storey monstrosity on the waterfront, and local newspapers bemoan rising crime and the abandonment of traditional culture. However, in most respects the town feels very much the same as it did on my previous visit.

The next morning I hopped into one of Vanair's little twenty-seater propeller planes (the ones that often seem like flying minibuses) for the hour-long flight to Pentecost Island. Lonorore, the airfield closest to Ranwadi School, was closed due to flooding, so instead I landed at Sara, Pentecost's northern airfield. I hitched a ride down the island in the back of a pick-up truck with an Australian TV crew who were travelling to the south of the island in order to make a documentary about life in a traditional village there. After about two hours of rattling along the mud and gravel road that winds through Pentecost's lush, breezy mountains, I arrived at Ranwadi School.

Plane at Sara airfield
Arriving on Pentecost, at Sara airfield

The school has changed remarkably little in the three and a half years that I have been away. The expatriate teachers whom I knew have all gone (even the indefatigable Mr Noel, although he is returning soon), replaced by a new contingent of white volunteers, including four new gap girls, but most of the local teachers are still here. Several new buildings have gone up, funded by a grant of Aus$1.9 million (a massive sum by Vanuatu standards) from AusAid, the Australian aid agency. A team of builders organized by AusAid is currently in the process of knocking down the house in which Slick and I used to live, in order to replace it with something better - and hopefully more rat-proof! (I am sharing a house with a New Zealander, who is here to supervise the building work, and two ni-Vanuatu teachers.) However, the school still looks more-or-less the same: a cluster of wood and concrete buildings on a grassy mountainside, flanked by a wall of lush jungle vegetation on one side and the coral-encrusted blue ocean on the other. Everywhere the fertile volcanic soil and moist climate support an exuberance of life. The school nestles amongst coconut, mango, papaya, breadfruit, grapefruit, and frangipani trees, entwined with tropical vines and red hibiscus flowers, and an abundance of dogs, cats, chickens, geckoes, skinks, spiders and land crabs make the place their home. These are accompanied, unfortunately, by rats, flies, ants, cockroaches, and large mosquitoes, with the malaria-carrying Anopheles species clearly recognisable by their evil black-and-white markings. At night there are huge bats, swooping in and out of the patches of electric light that shine from the buildings. (As before, the school has electricity until 9.30 every evening, after which the generator is switched off and Ranwadi is plunged into candlelit darkness.)

I have been asked by the Principal to teach Year 11 classes in physics and in 'study skills'. Many of these are the same students to whom I taught Science back in 2001, when they were little Year 7s. I remember some of them, and - despite the number of white teachers who have come and gone here - they all seem to remember me. The physics course is straightforward: I have been told which topic to cover (I am teaching them about different types of energy), and I have plenty of textbooks to work from. The sessions in study skills - a subject invented temporarily by the school in order to fill a gap in the timetable - have so far involved teaching students how to find information in library books. I begin each lesson with some general advice, then challenge them to find the answers to certain questions (for example, "what is the longest river in the world and how long is it?"), giving them hints and tips along the way on how best to make use of the books.

One tiny step towards modernisation on Pentecost has been the construction of a new kava bar near Ranwadi, at which the men of the local village meet in the evenings to consume Vanuatu's foul-tasting narcotic drink. This new drinking den is more like a western-style bar than the old nakamal: instead of preparing the drink communally, customers now pay 30 vatu (£0.15) and are served their coconut shell full of muddy brown liquid by the barman. In other respects, however, the traditional atmosphere has been preserved: the thatched walls and roof, the bare earth-and-gravel floor, the dimly-flickering lantern, and the serene silence interrupted only by occasional whispered conversation - in a mixture of Bislama (Melanesian pidgin) and local languages - and the humming of insects in the darkness outside. (Oh, and the regular spitting of drinkers attempting to rinse the nauseating taste of the kava from their mouths.) I went along on the second evening, and enjoyed four 'shells' of kava: enough to get me fairly stoned without making me sick. The villagers made me feel very welcome, and I chatted to several of them as best I could in hushed Bislama. In the half-darkness I recognised none of the villagers, but one or two recognised themselves in old photos that I had brought along.

I had a great sense of peacefulness and ease (partly, but not entirely, drug-induced) as I sat there in the lamplight, in the almost-prehistoric setting of the thatched, dirt-floored hut, surrounded by a culture overwhelmingly foreign yet overwhelmingly friendly. Although I've been back here only two days, life at Ranwadi School already seems strangely natural and normal. It felt as if I had never left.


6 June

Pentecost Island's one international claim to fame is that it is the place where bungee jumping was invented. Every year, men from the south of the island participate in the custom of nangol (land diving): hurling themselves off wooden towers, sometimes over 20 metres (60 ft) from the ground, with only a pair of vines trailing from their legs to break their fall. Since land diving takes place only between April and June, I never witnessed it during my original visit to Pentecost, but on this trip I finally got the opportunity.

The land diving ritual is traditionally believed to ensure a bountiful yam harvest. Nowadays it also brings in bountiful sums of money from rich tourists who fly to Pentecost on day trips from Port Vila and pay over a hundred pounds each for the privilege of watching the ceremony. (After introducing myself as a volunteer teacher from a local school, I was charged only a small fraction of this amount.) The land dive took place in a muddy clearing on a hillside overlooking Lonorore airfield (ordinarily this is convenient for visiting tourists, but with Lonorore airfield still closed due to waterlogging, the tourists had to endure the bone-rattling 3-hour truck journey from Sara in the north). The tower looked from a distance like a messy jumble of wooden poles, but was solidly constructed, with long vines used as guy ropes to support the huge structure. A dozen small platforms jutted out from the tower, and each land diver jumped from his own platform, with the younger ones jumping from only part-way up the tower, and the bravest and most experienced jumping from the very top. The divers were all completely naked except for a belt made of woven leaves and a traditional penis wrapper that curved around and joined to the belt like an umbilical cord.

Land diving at Lonorore
A land diver takes the plunge

While each diver positioned himself to jump, a group of villagers on the ground danced and chanted, accompanied by whoops of nervous enthusiasm from the man on the tower. As he dived, the thick brown vines trailed behind him, reaching the end of their length just before the diver hit the ground, and arresting his fall with a jolt that snapped the jumping platform and flung the man sideways against the sloping hillside. Unlike in Western bungee jumping, on Pentecost the divers do hit the ground - sometimes hard - although the vines absorb some of the force of the impact. It looked like a painful experience, yet each diver was smiling as he was helped to his feet afterwards by other men who stepped forward with long bush knives to cut the vines still attached to his ankles. All walked away from the suicidal-looking fall without apparent injury.

Meanwhile, life at Ranwadi School goes on. On Friday the school played host to a delegation of bigmen from the provincial health board, who gave the pupils lengthy speeches about healthcare in Vanuatu and the about importance of maintaining good sanitation, not smoking, sleeping under mosquito nets to protect against 'malaahria', and so on. And on. And on. The event, originally scheduled to last fifteen minutes, went on for an hour and a half. Amidst the repetitious and half-whispered Bislama, I did glean a few interesting facts, such as that Vanuatu's entire health service is run on the equivalent of four or five million pounds a year. (That certainly puts into perspective the billions that the British government invests in its National Health Service.) Meanwhile, I'm told by other volunteers that the school nurse at Ranwadi has run out of penicillin and other standard antibiotics, and now goes around treating anyone showing symptoms of an infection with a drug normally reserved for AIDS patients! All of this makes me pray even more fervently than ever that I don't get ill whilst I am here.

Yesterday evening a video of George of the Jungle was shown in the school dining room. The pupils watching were more entertaining than the movie itself: they laughed crazily at the action on screen, and gave a spontaneous chorus of loud ape-calls as they left the room at the end.

Today I walked three miles up the coast to the village of Melsisi with Rachel, a fun-loving, blue-eyed gap volunteer who comes from Braemar in Scotland. (Ironically, having come half way round the world partly in order to get a break from Scotland, I've found myself spending much of the past week with the one Scottish person on the entire island!) We attended mass at Melsisi's enormous Catholic church, and although neither of us is particularly religious, the service was interesting to watch and listen to. It was given in a mixture of Bislama, French, and one of Pentecost's five native languages, and accompanied by beautiful choral singing. I was glad to see that the church has now been repaired following the earthquake damage of a few years ago: the concrete walls and pillars supporting the giant building are no longer riven with cracks and holes.

After church we went for a walk up Melsisi Gorge, where a fast-flowing river tumbles along the base of an impressively vertical jungle-covered hillside. After reaching the end of the path, we made our way further up the gorge by scrambling up the waterfalls and rapids of the river itself, via a succession of beautiful forest glades and clear bubbling pools. We got soaked, and didn't make it very far up the gorge, but climbing against the rushing water was exhilarating fun. I tried to swing on a vine over one of the pools, ape style, but succeeded only in bringing down a shower of dead leaves. I don't know how George of the Jungle manages it.


10 June

On Monday, wind and rain lashed Pentecost. With no electricity during the day, the school buildings were miserably gloomy, and with showery draughts blowing through the windows (many of which do not shut properly or are missing their glass panels) the place felt cold, even with the thermometer reaching 26°C (79°F).

The weather on Tuesday was only a little better. I ignored the rain showers and went for a walk down the coast, where I spent an hour or two chatting to a friendly local who seemed desperate to quiz me about almost every aspect of English (which I interpreted to mean 'British') life and culture. In faltering Bislama, I did my best to answer all the man's questions. Do we have coconut trees, for instance? No. So England is a desert? No, not a desert - we do have some trees, a bit like that one over there (I pointed to a suitably drab and ordinary-looking specimen). So you have that variety of tree, the man surmised, giving it a name I didn't recognise. Well, maybe not that exact species, but ones like it... Do we have 'custom' in England? In Vanuatu the word 'custom' can simply mean local traditions, in which case England does have a few, or it can refer to a lifestyle in which people inhabit stick huts and wear little except grass skirts and penis-wrappers, in which case no, we certainly don't have that in England... Do you have native languages, or just English? Well, English is the native language of England... Is England anywhere near Queensland? No, it's on the opposite side of the world, actually...

Yesterday the weather cleared spectacularly. Pentecost looked exactly as a tropical island should: the sky and the sea shone like crystal, the coral beach gleamed in the sun, palm trees stood tasselled and resplendent, and the green jungle hummed contentedly. From the two giant volcanoes on neighbouring Ambrym island, plumes of white steam soared into the air. The other teachers and I spent much of the afternoon watching the students down on the sports field, where the air was filled with the flicking and darting of swiftlets: little black birds that swarmed like insects overhead. Sitting on the beach below Waterfall Village to watch the sunset that evening, I reflected on how much of my life I spend wishing I was somewhere else. That day, I was happy to be on Pentecost.

Ranwadi School
Hibiscus flowers bloom at Ranwadi School

At night, after the lights went out at the school, we could see the plume of steam from one of Ambrym's volcanoes glowing faintly red. Overhead was the kite shape of the Southern Cross, and the milky ribbon of the galaxy.

The topic of this morning's study skills class was 'finding information by asking questions'. The desperately-shy pupils breathed an audible sigh of relief when I assured them that I wasn't actually going to make them ask one another questions. Instead I set them the task of writing questionnaires that might be given to people visiting Vanuatu, after explaining the importance of making sure that the questions were balanced, polite, unambiguous and relevant. The resulting questionnaires - which consumed a lot of red ink when I came to mark them - suggest that little of my advice was heeded! I think part of the problem is cultural: certain types of question that people in Vanuatu would readily ask seem rude or irrelevant to Westerners, and vice versa.

With the physics class I had planned to do an experiment involving Bunsen burners, but found that the gas taps in the laboratory didn't work. Sometimes ants nest in the pipes, advised Miss Mary the Science teacher. After several unsuccessful attempts to coax gas out of the taps, I hurriedly improvised a new lesson, which went reasonably well under the circumstances. I'm not sure how much of what I taught was in the syllabus, though!

Having no classes in the afternoon, Rachel and I walked to Melsisi again - this time to climb the notorious hill overlooking the village. The road up the hill is at least paved with concrete, unlike most Pentecost roads, but in typical Pentecost fashion it rises up the mountainside in a steep and unrelenting way. It would make a fine toboggan track, but walking up it on a hot afternoon is not to be recommended: we had scarcely gone a quarter of the way up before we were flushed and dripping with sweat. High up, we left the road, and a helpful villager showed us the overgrown path leading to the very summit of the hill, on which stands a tall concrete cross that dates from the time when missionaries first established a church in Melsisi. On one side of the summit, the dark mountainsides of south-western Pentecost fell away beneath us, while in the other direction lay Ambae - the island whose misty silhouette inspired the story of Bali Ha'i in James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific. After sharing a bar of chocolate with some village children who'd accompanied us to the summit, we made our way back down. Darkness had fallen by the time we returned to Ranwadi, and it had begun to rain again (I'm starting to see why Captain Cook named Vanuatu the New Hebrides, after the Scottish island chain!). The electric lights of the school gleamed invitingly in the damp night.


15 June

On Friday, I gave up trying to get the gas taps in the laboratory to work and decided to do my physics experiment using candles instead. Even this proved a challenge: the shelf marked "candles" in the science cupboard was empty, the shopkeeper in the school store responded to my request for candles with the all-too-common Bislama phrase "me no got", and the store at Waterfall Village was closed. I eventually found a village in which the store sold candles, and returned to Ranwadi - after a four mile (6 km) walk in the rain - fully prepared to do the experiment, only to find that half of the class had failed to turn up. It emerged that the teacher who organises the timetables had changed them at short notice, throwing the afternoon's lessons into confusion.

At the weekend the weather brightened again. Rachel and I went down to the beach hoping to snorkel on the reef, but found the tide too low, so we amused ourselves instead by making a mosaic out of fragments of old coral.

The next day we rode in the back of a pick-up truck to Bwatnapne, an attractive village in a sleepy blue bay a few miles north of Ranwadi. This year there are three gap volunteers at the school there, living in conditions that make Ranwadi seem positively civilised: their toilet is a pit with a shack built over it, and for washing they have only the local river. While Rachel chatted to the other volunteers, I followed a path up the river into the shady, jungle-filled Bwatnapne Gorge. There I came to a deep blue basin in the river that formed an idyllic natural swimming pool. I had neither a swimming costume nor a change of clothes with me, but since there was nobody around I was able to swim without wetting my clothes.

It is interesting to meet, and be briefly part of, the small community of foreign expatriates that inhabit these remote islands. They are a diverse bunch, ranging from eighteen-year old gap volunteers to sixty and seventy-year olds (who swim in waterfalls and go for five-mile walks as enthusiastically as the rest!). Some are professionals sent here by the charities that organise voluntary work abroad: VSO volunteers from Britain, AVI volunteers from Australia, and VSA volunteers from New Zealand. There are also volunteers sent by church organisations - modern day missionaries. From America come the Peace Corps: a young, yet well-qualified and well-trained group with a distinctively American outlook (one ex-gap volunteer described it disparagingly as a 'holier-than-thou' attitude). Then there are the gap volunteers: unqualified yet enthusiastic eighteen-year olds, until recently a mainly British species, although this year has seen the first Australian gap volunteers arrive in Vanuatu. There are also a lot of Australians and New Zealanders who come to volunteer their services as builders and handymen, especially at Ranwadi, where AusAid's massive building programme is in full swing.

Teaching at Ranwadi
Teaching physics to the Year 11 class

In Monday's physics class I was finally able to do the experiment with the candles, which went well, although the pupils had surprising difficulty in interpreting the results. Although they will copy notes off the blackboard very industriously, getting them to actually understand the subject is another matter. I try to give the basic principles of a topic and then get the pupils to practice applying those principles for themselves, but when left to work independently, everyone simply asks for help. The end result is that I still end up explaining everything in step-by-step detail, without the pupils really thinking for themselves, but instead of explaining it once, to the whole class, I'm forced to explain it twenty or thirty times over, at the request of each individual pupil. I don't blame the pupils for this at all. Although the school tries to encourage modern, interactive teaching methods, too many teachers in the past have resorted to old-fashioned 'chalk and talk', and matters aren't helped by the difficulty that the kids have in understanding English (which is a third or fourth language to most of them, yet is the only language permitted in lessons).

On Monday evening, two of the Australian volunteers, Kate (an enthusiastic church volunteer) and Rick (a visiting plumber) invited Rachel and I ("the two Scottish gappers") around for dinner. The highlight of the meal was real potatoes, which Kate's church had shipped to her specially from Australia!

This morning, in between marking physics exercises, I spent some time helping a Year 12 biology pupil with a project on malaria (and thus disproved my prediction that nothing I learned during my university biology course would ever prove useful in the real world!). Malaria is a topic about which the kids here should certainly be well educated - it is a major problem on Pentecost, and one of the teachers with whom I'm sharing a house has just returned from Port Vila after spending several weeks recovering from the disease.

Building work at Ranwadi
Building work at Ranwadi School

I've also been spending time helping the poor pupils who are conscripted to carry concrete blocks from one part of the school to another, as part of the building work being done here. The pupils look like computer-game lemmings as they march from one end of the school to another with oversized bricks on their shoulders.


20 June

Time passes slowly on Pentecost. Nevertheless, my three weeks there were over far sooner than I would have liked. On the day I left, I was given a formal farewell in the chapel after morning prayers, at which I was presented with a traditional woven basket and a small Vanuatu flag. I gave a short goodbye speech, beginning in English and switching after a couple of sentences into Bislama. I was breaking a school rule by addressing the pupils in their lingua franca, but nobody seemed to mind. At the Principal's suggestion, I stood at the door and said goodbye to each individual pupil - which turned into an exercise in extremely-rapid handshaking, as by now the pupils were running late for lessons. Nobody seemed to mind that either.

Later that morning, a little propeller plane thrummed into the sky (two hours behind schedule) and Pentecost disappeared in the clouds.

I spent the weekend back in Port Vila, shopping for souvenirs (grass skirts and woven baskets for friends, and Vanuatu string band music that remains unobtainable in Britain even in the Internet age) and revisiting old sights. I got the ferry across to Iririki Island Resort, which is still a beautiful spot, although - like Sentosa - it is currently marred by construction work. I enjoyed a cheap lunch in Club Vanuatu, another place that brings back memories. This time, instead of news pictures of aeroplanes colliding with American landmarks, the club's satellite TV screens were showing Australian children's cartoons. I wandered Vila's huge downtown market, at which I bought a piece of laplap (the baked vegetable slabs that are a staple food in Vanuatu) with a cooked octopus (or at least the tentacly part of one) splattered on top and smothered with coconut cream. Surprisingly, this proved delicious.

Port Vila market
The market in Port Vila

I also visited a couple of the area's newer sights, such as the beautiful (albeit mosquito-infested) Cultural Centre and Nature Garden, where examples of local plants, animals and artefacts are interspersed with noticeboards telling fascinating stories from the country's past. Some of the stories are mythological; others are genuine history. Here I finally found out why traffic in Vanuatu, unlike in most neighbouring countries, drives (theoretically, at least) on the right. In the early twentieth century, when the British and French were making chaotic attempts to govern Vanuatu jointly, with each colonial power stubbornly refusing to accept the ways of the other, British cars drove on the left-hand side of the road and French cars drove on the right. Eventually, drivers of both nationalities conceded that this was idiotic and dangerous, and decided that they would agree to drive on whichever side of the road was used by the next car to arrive on a ship. The next car happened to be French, and to this day, motorists in Vanuatu drive on the right!

On the Friday evening, I wandered down the road from the hotel in search of kava. The suburbs of Vila are packed with small kava bars, which are often little more than a wooden shelter in a person's garden, its presence indicated by a coloured lantern at the gate. I found myself drinking at a kava bar run by a friendly group of women who had migrated to Vila from the nearby island of Tongoa. The sight of women serving kava is a dramatic sign of Port Vila's modernisation - in some areas of rural Vanuatu, kava-drinking is such a sacred male activity that women could traditionally have been put to death simply for witnessing it!

Further down the road, on an empty brown patch of land between the houses, a string band - also from Tongoa - were holding a fund-raising night. Here there was music, dancing, cheap local food, and plenty more kava. My digital camera soon attracted the attention of the local children, who wanted the opportunity to pose for photos and see themselves on the camera screen. (In Britain, I reflected sadly, a lone stranger taking photos of children would risk being arrested, or would at least get in serious trouble from the children's parents. Here, the parents' only complaint was that they wanted to be in the photos too!) An Australian school party who were staying at the hotel turned up at the event. I discovered, after chatting to the accompanying parents, that they had come to Vanuatu to sing and help out at local schools. Though there was little spoken communication between the Australians and the ni-Vanuatu children, they were soon all dancing merrily together - black and white faces bobbing amongst one another under the dim street lights. It was comforting to see that, even in the increasingly urbanised and Westernised environment of Port Vila, Vanuatu could be as friendly and welcoming as ever.

I flew out of Vanuatu early on a Sunday morning, and found Brisbane in the grip of some very un-Australian weather. That lunchtime, I walked around a riverside market in the chilly rain, conversing with white people in proper English and buying Western-style food using coins with the Queen's head on them. I might almost have been back in Scotland. I could scarcely believe that I'd woken up that morning on a South Pacific island.



"Maybe one day, I will visit you in Britain," one of the pupils at Ranwadi once told me. "I will arrive at the airport, and I will say 'Where does Mr Andrew live?' and they will take me to your house." I don't know if the pupil was joking, or if he genuinely believed that his plan - which would work on many islands in Vanuatu - could be carried out in a country like Britain. I often wonder to what extent the pupils in Vanuatu realised how different my home island is from their own.

I hope some of them do get the opportunity to visit one day.

Flying back to Scotland, I was plunged immediately back into busy Western life. The day of my return was Graduation Day for biology students at Edinburgh University, and I arrived at the airport only half an hour before events were due to start. This meant that I missed the ceremony itself (graduation ceremonies are organised with military exactness and will not admit latecomers!), but I didn't mind. I got to the parties afterwards.

Though now a graduate, I spent the next five days doing a very student-like job, scrubbing dishes and mopping floors in the kitchens at the Royal Highland Show. I didn't tell many of my co-workers that the previous day I'd been awarded a first class Honours degree, that three days ago I'd been on a tropical island in the South Pacific, or that five days ago I'd been a secondary school teacher.


"The world was beautiful that night. It was beautiful as only a tropic night on some distant island can be beautiful. A million men in the South Seas would deny it to one another, would ridicule it in their letters home. But it was beautiful."

- James Michener, Tales of the South Pacific

This account of my trip is adapted from the various e-mails that I sent home.


Introduction to my travels in the South Pacific

Diary of my first trip to Vanuatu (2001)

Diary of my subsequent trip to Vanuatu (2006)


See also...

Frequently asked questions about travelling in Vanuatu

The root of happiness?


© Andrew Gray, 2005