Andrew Gray's Diary from the South Pacific

18 October 2006

At the start of term I gratefully handed over the Year 7 Science class - an entertaining but exhausting bunch - to one of the gap volunteers. I used the free time to help Mr Agasten, the overworked Sports Master and Senior Maths teacher, with his two Year 11 Maths classes.

Having come to Ranwadi as a science teacher, I have now become primarily a teacher of Maths. (My only remaining science classes are Year 11A Physics, in which a large part of my time is spent correcting the students' mathematical errors, and Year 13 Biology, which the students largely teach themselves.)

With Maths, as with Physics, teaching has given me the opportunity to rediscover a subject that I once enjoyed but abandoned at school in favour of more colourful subjects. Although Maths teaching involves moments of extreme tedium (notably when I have to collect in the students' books and go through all thirty of them, mechanically ticking and crossing the answers and privately wishing that the students had done more time-wasting and less work), playing with numbers is fun, and the hard certainties of mathematics make a nice change from the squishy world of biology. Maths is also by far the easiest subject to teach to students for whom English is a very foreign language.

Sadly, like most subjects, Maths becomes steadily less appealing as you progress through the curriculum. Last week, I introduced the 9B Maths class to trigonometry for the first time. I felt as if I was taking away their innocence. Trigonometry marks a sad step away from the number games of primary school and towards a more arcane, abstract kind of mathematics - the kind of mathematics that drove me at the age of seventeen to abandon the subject I had once loved.

Of course, for future scientists and engineers, trigonometry is an important topic - my Year 11 Physics students would get better results if they hadn't forgotten the trigonometry they had learned in Year 9 - and there have even been rare occasions on which I've used it in the real world since leaving school. The topic isn't completely dull: sine waves are fun, and so are tangent waves (although the latter have an annoying habit of shooting off into infinity). Architecture, rocket science, and the creation of mesmerising screensaver patterns are among the important fields in which the humble techniques of triangle-measuring have been put to use. However, reminding students for the hundredth time that the sine of theta equals the opposite divided by the hypotenuse, the cosine equals the adjacent divided by the hypotenuse and the tangent equals the opposite divided by the adjacent makes you lose the will to live. Or at least the will to be a Maths teacher.

Rainbow over Ranwadi College
A bright moment at Ranwadi College

Meanwhile in Year 13 Biology, the struggle to find resources for the compulsory practical sessions continues. This week, the course required the students to investigate what happens when drops of blood are placed in different solutions.

I put out the word that I wanted blood.

Upon hearing that some nearby villagers were slaughtering a pig, I gave them a plastic bottle (with a crude homemade anticoagulant sloshing around in the bottom) and asked them to fill it up. The bottle was returned full of ghastly-smelling crimson liquid, with translucent, congealed bits of pig floating in it.

Unfortunately, the blood was not particularly fresh, and the experiments didn't work as well as I had hoped. To try and salvage the lesson, I attempted to start a class discussion about what should have happened.

"What happens to red blood cells when they are put in pure water?" I asked.


"Is pure water hypotonic or hypertonic to the cell?"

More silence. After a few seconds there were one or two inaudible whispers, of what sounded like the wrong answer.

"Could you speak more loudly, please?"


The practical went on like this for a few minutes. Eventually I gave up.

"I can't go on like this," I told the students. "You are Year 13s now. Your course is intended to be self-taught. I'm only here for guidance, and I can't guide you if you won't talk to me. Figure the practical out for yourselves."

I walked out of the lab.

Five minutes later, I saw the students standing outside the school nurse's hut, asking for needles. Obviously they cared more about their work than I thought.

The nurse was refusing. (Schools are not in the habit of handing out hypodermic needles to their kids, even in Vanuatu.)

I went in and explained to the nurse that fresh blood was needed for a biology lesson. The poor woman looked horrified, but she gave me a couple of needles, hygienically sealed in their blister packs.

Back in the lab, one of the students took a needle and began determinedly stabbing her finger. She then realised that the solution into which she was meant to be dripping the blood wasn't ready yet, and nor was the stopwatch with which she was supposed to be timing the reaction.

"Read the instructions before you start pricking yourself," I advised.

Realising that a reasonable quantity of blood would be needed, I stuck the second needle into my own arm, and tried unsuccessfully to draw blood. One or two of the watching students were looking queasy; it was obvious to them that I'd never done this before. Poking the slanted, sharpened point through my skin was easy, but piercing a vein proved trickier than I expected. (I would make a terrible junkie.) Having inserted the needle into what I thought was a blood vessel, I tried to pull back the plunger on the syringe. Nothing came out.

I took the needle back to the nurse, and asked her to take my blood. She pricked my finger cautiously, but only a few red drops came out. She seemed reluctant to stick a needle in my arm and draw a larger amount of blood without some sort of medical reason. I contemplated reassuring her that she wasn't the first person to take blood out of me in the interests of science. However, the story of how I once spent a fortnight up a mountain in Bolivia taking Viagra while being pricked and probed in the name of medical research is best saved for drunken parties.

The students and I returned to the lab, where a couple of their classmates were trying again with the pig's blood. They found that the experiment worked after all. Ten minutes later, I was still dabbing my arm with a tissue, while the students sat and watched wisps of red blood cells disintegrating in their test tubes.


Sitting in the school office one evening, Mr Noel and I were concerned to see students putting their pocket money into envelopes and leaving them in the Outbox to be taken down to the airfield and posted. The envelopes were addressed to the Australian branch of an organisation called Benny Hinn Ministries.

"I am sorry I cannot send more, because this is all I have," wrote one girl in an enclosed letter. "When I get more money, I promise I will send it to you."

A little research revealed that Benny Hinn is an American televangelist who claims to receive messages from God. He passes these messages on to his followers, warning them that the end of the world is nigh and that only those who send him their money will receive salvation. His TV programme, in which sick patients are brought to him and proclaimed to be healed in front of an enraptured audience, airs in nearly every country in the world, including Vanuatu. Most of Ranwadi's students grew up in villages that (thankfully) lack television, but some of them spend their holidays with aunts and uncles in town, where they have watched Benny Hinn's performances.

Benny Hinn has attracted a remarkable following throughout the world, despite the fact that many of his prophecies have failed to come true, most of those he 'healed' actually remained sick (or were never sick in the first place), and some of his pronouncements are at odds with the Biblical word of God. Nobody knows precisely how the millions of dollars that Benny Hinn receives from followers are spent, but we do know that his Californian home costs $8.5 million, and that when holidaying in the Caribbean he stays in luxury hotel suites costing $3000 per night.

The students, unaware of all this and innocently unfamiliar with television and the ease with which it can portray falsehoods, wrote enthusiastic letters to the healer whom they saw performing miracles on TV. Benny Hinn (or rather, the employees who sit in his office complex) wrote back with a predictable request.

The poor, well-meaning children, desperate to please God, obliged. They gathered their few precious coins - money that their parents or sponsors had given them to buy schoolbooks or nutritious food - and posted them off to Benny Hinn Ministries.

There are words for rich foreigners who lure Third World schoolchildren into giving up all the money they have in the world. Many of those words begin with 'c'.

I would genuinely like to believe that Benny Hinn's employees were unaware of the fact that the people from whom they were begging money were impoverished children. Children who eat little but rice and water at some meals because their school can afford no better with the limited money that their families have to spend on the kids' education. Children who frequently fall ill with bouts of malaria because they cannot spare the money for mosquito nets in their ramshackle dormitories.

However, I'm sorry to say that I've helped the students at Ranwadi write letters in the past, and I know how they write them. Always friendly and polite, they rarely fail to begin by introducing themselves.

"Hello! I am fifteen years old, I come from Pentecost Island, and my name is..."

Even if Benny Hinn's is a genuine good cause, the students are wasting their money. They are stuffing small-denomination coins, in a currency that is unusable and virtually unchangeable abroad, into airmail envelopes that do not have nearly enough stamps to cover the weight. Even if correctly stamped, envelopes rattling with money get lost easily by Vanuatu's postal service.

I stood up in assembly on Monday morning, and explained to the students why they are wasting their money.

"Do not let anybody else tell you what God wants you to do," I concluded, after pointing out a few facts about currencies, postal services, and Benny Hinn.

"If you want to know what God wants from you, read the Bible. Do not read crazy letters or listen to crazy foreign preachers. Thank you."

A few of the students - Benny Hinn's followers - hissed and booed as I left the stage. The rest cheered and applauded wildly. It is a long time since anyone caused such a sensation at 7 a.m. on a Monday morning.

For somebody who privately lacks belief in God, I don't think I make a bad preacher.

The students, however, were unconvinced.

"We still believe in Benny Hinn," they told me. "He heals people."

"He goes around on television telling people that they are healed," I said. "But how do you know that they are really healed? And how do you know that they were really sick in the first place?"

At this point the students' English usually failed them, but you could see the thought going through their heads: "It must be true, I saw it on TV".

I pointed out that several of Benny Hinn's pronouncements were at odds with those of Jesus and the other prophets in the Bible. I hoped that this, at least, would have an impact. Ranwadi's students are a devout bunch of teenagers, and are extremely well aware of the eternal damnation that awaits them if they stray from the teachings of their Lord and Saviour.

Frustratingly, however, it seemed that the students approach spiritual matters with the same incredible lack of logic that they sometimes exhibit in their Science and Maths lessons.

"We must follow the Bible and the teachings of Jesus Christ above all others if we wish to be rewarded with eternal life. Jesus disapproved of money-making, and made it clear that you cannot buy your way into heaven. The Bible also warns us about false prophets. Benny Hinn is intent upon making money, and many of his prophecies have proven false. He looks impressive on TV. Let's give him our money..."

I despair.


25 October

Every weekday morning, women from the local villages come to Ranwadi and set up a little market at which they trade fresh produce, home baking and gossip. Some of the items on sale are similar every day: slabs of laplap (the pasty vegetable pudding), bundles of leafy local cabbage (which is tasty when fresh but decomposes faster than almost anything else I know), and gato (greasy doughnuts that are often shaped into figures-of-eight).

Other items vary, depending on what happens to be growing in the villagers' gardens. Some days there will be bunches of bananas. Some days there will be tomatoes and green peppers stuffed into grubby plastic bags. Some days there will be purple and yellow kumala (sweet potatoes) neatly arranged into little heaps. Some days there will be nuts threaded together on sticks like kebabs. Some days there will be eggs (although you have to get to the market pretty early to get your hands on these). Some days there will be baskets of pink and white nakavika (rose apples, which taste like bathroom soap, but in a pleasant way). Some days - inevitably the days on which you have run out of fresh food - there will be virtually nothing at all.

Occasionally something really unusual and exotic appears. Last week, one of the village women turned up with a small parrot (a rainbow lorikeet, or nasiviru in the local pidgin), which she hoped to persuade one of the teachers to buy as a pet. The bird was tame and had its wings clipped so that it couldn't fly; instead it perched tenaciously on the woman's finger.

Ten minutes after returning from the market that day, I heard my housemate Hugh walk into the house.

"I bought the parrot," he called out.

"You what?"

Thus Rocky the Rainbow Lorikeet became part of the household. We constructed an elaborate perch for him on the spare bed in Hugh's room, by tying together twigs and bits of broken chairs. With his red chest, blue head, yellowish neck band and green wings - all streaked like a circuit board with shiny iridescence - the colourful bird looked out of place in the drab room. Since he couldn't fly, there was no need to cage him, and although he occasionally jumped down and wandered out of Hugh's room to investigate what was going on in the rest of the house, he generally kept to his perch on the spare bed.

Rocky the lorikeet
Hugh and his feathered friend

Rocky proved to a friendly and inquisitive bird, although he has a strange compulsion to manipulate things in his beak. While sitting on people's shoulders he twirls their hair or tries to detach their jewellery. Sometimes he clambers down their shirts and attempts to undo each of their buttons in turn, systematically. While Hugh sits in his hammock playing the guitar, the parrot perches at one end of the hammock and does his best to unpick the knot holding it up. The bird is too incompetent at these tasks to cause any damage, but they seem to keep him well amused. However, I can't help wondering if the constant gnawing and fiddling is a sign of intelligence or just insanity.


October brought gloom to Pentecost. The weather has been foul, with chilly rain slashing nosily against the tin roofs, and blustery winds tearing around the mountainside. One particularly ferocious night brought down a hundred or so mangos from the big tree near our house (adding to the carpet of splattered fruits already knocked down by the flying foxes). Most of the mangos were smashed or unripe, and a foraging troop of Year 7 girls came down from their dormitory at dawn and carried off most of the good ones. They needed the food: the supplies down in the school kitchens are running pitifully low (the villagers who normally sell vegetables to the school have probably been kept out of their gardens by the weather), and the meals provided to the students have gone from bad to worse.

On the day when Mr Noel and I were the ones supervising in the dining hall, the food was as dismal as the sky outside. 'Tea' at breakfast was nothing but heavily-sugared water. Lunch consisted of bland piles of sticky rice wetted with a 'soup' consisting of boiling, salty water with a few cabbage leaves and the occasional noodle floating in it. (Five packets of instant noodles - each designed to serve one person - had been stirred into a big pot and served to three hundred. This was all that the school could afford.)

"This soup is only good for pigs," complained one groups of students. I doubted that pigs would find it appetising.

Supper was much the same, except for the addition of a miserly quantity of tinned fish, plus a couple of extra packets of noodles thrown in by a sympathetic Mr Noel.

The sight of the kids at their bare wooden benches straining cabbage leaves from their miserable-looking soup was like a scene out of Oliver Twist. It is hardly surprising that the students get themselves into trouble by stealing from the village gardens.


Other things contributed to the atmosphere of gloom. In villages to the north of Ranwadi there were a number of deaths, and attending funerals became a regular weekend activity for the teachers and students native to that area. Another teacher received a phone call from relatives overseas and broke down wailing. Her brother was dead. News also came that the first ever native missionary to travel abroad from Vanuatu had died in Papua New Guinea. The country mourned.

Deaths are a regular feature of life in communities where families are large, life expectancies are relatively short, and most people know one another. Quite often I go down to Vanwoki and find the place almost deserted because the villagers are away attending a funeral (or attending one of the ceremonies traditionally held ten days later to remember the departed). However, such a string of deaths in quick succession cast a particular shadow over Pentecost.


On a chilly, grey Friday afternoon, Albion the Agriculture teacher, Pierre-Marie the French teacher, the school cook and I trekked up the muddy slopes above the school to a small village where a wedding ceremony was taking place. Up on the mountain, the weather was even fouler than down at Ranwadi. At the wedding, men were huddling under the eaves of the nakamal, or crowding around fires beneath the trees as wind and rain sheeted across the hillside. Some of the villagers were braving it in their usual shorts and T-shirts, but others had piled on thick layers of clothing with worn-looking overcoats on top. It was bizarre to see Pacific islanders dressed for winter.

I tried to take shelter at the front of the nakamal. Unfortunately this was where the kava was being served, and when the villagers saw me loitering there they wrongly assumed that I wanted drinks. My protests were dismissed as mere politeness as the eager hosts repeatedly pressed coconut shells of the narcotic brown liquid into my hands. Not wishing to get completely stoned prior to the long, slippery journey back down the mountain, I eventually moved outside into the rain and joined the group of boys standing around one of the fires. Sparks and flames spat around my ankles, but I was so damp that it scarcely mattered. I reached into my basket (partygoers on Pentecost always carry baskets, so that they can fill them with slabs of food) and pulled out my jacket. For the first time in months, I put it on.

When the rain got even heavier, I retreated to the nakamal, where half a dozen people - perhaps realising that they had a dark and treacherous journey home - approached me and asked if they could buy small torches. There is such demand for my little keyring lights on Pentecost that I now carry a packet of them almost anywhere I go. News of the tall white man with the amazingly tiny torches has spread far and wide. Whenever I go for walks, I am approached by enthusiastic strangers, eager to know if my name is Andrew and, if so, whether I am still selling small torches. Villagers living high on the mountain have got into the habit of sending their long-suffering children down to Ranwadi to buy the torches, and I frequently answer the door to find a nervous-looking six-year-old holding out a handful of grubby coins and murmuring "torsh, torsh".

I like to think that not since the days of the missionaries has anybody brought so much light to Pentecost. Meanwhile, I've accumulated a sizeable pot of money with which to buy much-needed equipment for the school.


With the end of the year approaching, the Year 10 and Year 12 students focused themselves on the impending exams. The Year 10s asked the school to switch the generator on at 4.30 a.m., so that they could fit in an hour's study before dawn. (The students were forced to get up so early because in between their classes, chores and church services they get very little spare time. The school insists that its students will only cause trouble if they have time on their hands.)

When some visitors from the health department came to the school to sell cheap mosquito nets, the Principal could be seen standing at the window of his office urging final-year students to buy them.

"You don't want to get malaria during your exams."

Meanwhile, the other students - fed up at the end of a long year - became troublesome and restless. The Principal tried to set them straight with impassioned, Blair-like speeches about the importance of education. Education, education, education. The only reason we are here is for education. Nothing else. Education should be our only priority. That and Jesus.

Trouble continued, however. The school Boarding Master, fed up with misbehaviour in the boys' bush kitchen (the shack near the dormitories that the boys had built in order to provide them with a place to gather and cook food), ordered the bush kitchen to be destroyed. The sight of their bush kitchen being carried away in pieces nearly triggered a riot among the boys, and caused consternation to the Principal and Deputy, who had not been consulted prior to its removal.

"At least when the boys were misbehaving in the bush kitchen, we knew where they were," the Deputy lamented. "Without the bush kitchen, they will go and spend their time in caves in the bush, and we will never find them."

The Principal nodded sadly. "There are many caves around the school."

In an attempt to ease the tension, the Principal addressed the boys in chapel. The bush kitchen was taken down because people were causing trouble in there, he explained. They were smoking, skipping classes, and missing meals.

"Those things are not compatible with your education."

He promised the boys that if their behaviour improved, he would give them permission to rebuild the bush kitchen.

The disobedient boys rebuilt it anyway. In typical Ranwadi fashion, the staff spent half an hour debating how to respond, and then did nothing.

A week later, however, a boy was caught smoking in the bush kitchen, and on the teachers' orders the bush kitchen was once again destroyed.

"Smoking is not compatible with education."

Like fugitive terrorists, the smokers and skivers retreated to their caves.


Meanwhile, it had come to the teachers' attention that girls at the school were receiving phone calls from boys claiming to be their brothers. In reality, they had no such brothers.

Other girls at the school had been caught chatting alone with boys who were not their brothers or their cousins.

Having a friend of the opposite sex is grounds for serious punishment at Ranwadi, and the ni-Vanuatu teachers were furious.

"That kind of thing is not compatible with education."

Students were shouted at in assemblies, and all the girls were banned from making phone calls unless in the presence of a teacher. Twenty or so students guilty of "boy-girl relationships" were named and shamed on the school notice board, and sentenced to "hard labour and counselling".

The expatriate teachers, culturally separated from their colleagues by a century or more, shook their heads and quietly wondered what all the fuss was about.

"Our culture is not like yours," one of the teachers told me, down at the nakamal. "When boys and girls get together in Vanuatu, things happen too quickly. They do not wait, like in your culture." (The man had never been to Scotland.) "If we let them have boyfriends or girlfriends, then at weekends they will sneak away together to the villages. They will use leaves. And when they try to use leaves, soon there will be babies."

"But how are people supposed to meet their future husbands and wives?" I asked.

"Sometimes a girl gets pregnant," he said, "And then they have to marry."

I laughed.

"So if everybody followed the rules, nobody would ever get together?" I pondered the Darwinian implications of a society in which only the disobedient procreated.

"Not necessarily," the teacher told me. "In some parts of Vanuatu there are arranged marriages."

No wonder the kids want to get in there first.

"And when boys and girls go away to university, it is OK for them to get together then," he added.

Few students from Vanuatu will get the opportunity to go to university, however.

"I don't know why these boys and girls need friends," another teacher mused. "They should not be lonely. I am never lonely. I have God as a friend. He is always with me."

There are things you can do with a boyfriend or girlfriend that you can't do with God, I pointed out.

"But I don't understand why they're lonely."

"Who said they're lonely?"

"Why else would they need these... these friends?"

"They're teenagers."

"Here in Vanuatu we don't have teenagers," I was told. "People start as children, then they become adults."

Ranwadi's students looked like teenagers to me.


31 October

Last week Principal Silas had a visit from his predecessor. Mr Lyall Muller, the Australian missionary who ran the school during the early 1980s, returned to see his old school, accompanied by his son, a young man of about my age who left Vanuatu as a baby and until now had never properly seen the country of his birth.

While the school held a special church service in Mr Muller's honour, down at the nakamal the older villagers reminisced fondly about the battles they had once had with the ex-Principal.

In the old days, Ranwadi School was self-sufficient. Its students farmed their own food, using land claimed several decades earlier by the missionaries who had first founded the school. The entire area now occupied by Vanwoki village once belonged to Ranwadi. (Parts of Vanwoki look as if they have been there since prehistory, and it was strange to think that the village is actually as young as I am.)

After independence in 1980 all rural land in Vanuatu legally reverted to its indigenous owners, and the villagers demanded their gardens back. Although Mr Muller tried his best to placate the villagers, a land dispute ensued.

One wizened chief still had a merry glint in his eye as he told me how he once came to the school to pull up its yams and kill its chickens. He wasn't stealing, he said - the food had been grown on land that was rightfully his.

Only with the appointment of Silas Buli, the current Principal, was the land dispute resolved. Silas was the first local man to be given the job, and his first duty was to sign a Lease Agreement making peace with the school's neighbours. Under the terms of the agreement, the villagers got most of their gardens back, but the school was allowed to keep the core of its land in exchange for a small sum in rent.

"It was sad to lose the rest of our land," said Silas, "But since then we have had an extremely good relationship with the villagers, and that is important. They have been very friendly to the school."

Teachers who wanted gardens were permitted to continue planting their vegetables and kava on the villagers' land. As Silas pointed out, kava plants take several years to grow, and the villagers know who will get the kava if the teachers move on to other schools before they get the chance to harvest their crop.

The real losers from the agreement were the students, whose previous diet of fresh, home-grown produce was replaced with sticky clods of glycaemic white rice, supplemented with whatever miserly quantities of vegetables and tinned foods the school can afford. Since good food is expensive in Vanuatu, and the students' boarding fees amount to less than a dollar a day, it is hardly surprising that the meals are pitiful. If Jamie Oliver came to Ranwadi he might concede that British school dinners are not that bad after all.

Students picking pawpaw
Students supplementing their diet with the pawpaws overhanging out house

If fed on nothing but what they are provided in the dining hall, the students would ultimately die of malnutrition. Fortunately, they do find minor ways to supplement their diets. They pick the fruit growing around the school, persuade their families to send them food parcels by ship, fatten themselves up at home during the holidays, use whatever pocket money they can get hold of to buy themselves treats, and (in a reversal of the old situation) occasionally steal from the villagers. A few try to do as their predecessors did, and plant crops on patches of spare ground around their dormitories. The Principal wants to encourage more to do this next year.


One evening an eerie sunset behind the rain clouds turned the entire landscape an alien shade of purple. Five minutes later, the colour had changed to molten red. The shepherds' old saying about the delight of a red sky at night clearly doesn't apply in the tropics, however. News reached Ranwadi that a cyclone was on the way.

The storm was relatively weak and wasn't bound directly for Pentecost, but people worried that it would strengthen or change course. Over the next few days e-mail bulletins and shortwave radio broadcasts were monitored avidly. The cyclone's path was plotted on the school notice board, using the government's official Cyclone Tracking Map, and conversations frequently turned to co-ordinates.

"Is it still in I4?"

"No, the latest e-mail says it's in the corner of J5. They reckon it could veer back into column I though."

In the end the cyclone swept far to the east, missing Pentecost by hundreds of miles. The day on which it passed by was, in fact, one of the calmest we've had in a long time. The weeks of rain, however, continued.

The gang of girls who'd been sentenced to hard labour for 'friending' with boys (and other serious offences) trailed back and forth in the rain with heavy baskets of sand and stones, looking soaked and sullen. Nearby, their boyfriends were doing the same, suffering because of the ones they loved. The sight was almost romantic.

"Is it normal to get so much rain at this time of year?" I asked one of the other teachers.

"The villagers up the mountain prayed for it," I was told matter-of-factly. "The water in their tanks is low."

The rain-makers may have got more than they wished for. When a marriage was held last Friday in a village high on the ridge above Ranwadi, many people stayed away rather than braving the awful conditions. After three weeks of soaking weather, the steep dirt tracks leading up the mountain hadn't merely become wet and slippery; they had liquefied. It was a miracle that Albion, the school cook and I managed to stay upright as we squelched and staggered uphill.

"Soft mud, soft mud, too much soft mud," the cook muttered.

The two ni-Vanuatu walked barefoot, their splayed toes digging into the mud, while I tramped through the slime in my hefty Doc Martens.

"Shoes b'long you ee nice-one," said Albion.

Actually, they're the old ones that I used to wear at school when I was fifteen, I told him. I recently rediscovered them in my parents' attic and realised that they'd be ideal for Pentecost, since they're plain, solid and, above all, utterly expendable. Back home, though, they were heavy and cumbersome, and were probably out of fashion even at the time I bought them. I only got them in the first place because they were relatively cheap, and black shoes were a school rule.

"'Long all school b'long England, every student ee wear'em shoes," Albion explained to the cook. At Ranwadi, I realised, none of them did.

On the way up the mountain, Albion pointed out the local sights. First there was the wishing stone - a rock with a natural hole through the middle of it that people squeeze through when they desire good fortune.

"'Long year 1979, Water Lini ee pass through 'long stone here. 'Long 1980, him ee come first Prime Minister b'long Vanuatu."

Further uphill, Albion took us to meet an acquaintance of his who specialised in growing giant kava bushes. He showed us the enormous crater where one had recently been dug up so that its roots could be mashed with water to make the narcotic drink. The local men must have got very, very stoned that night.

In the villages on the mountainside, I was surprised to see a couple of smart concrete houses amongst the thatched huts. One even had a satellite TV, powered by a solar panel. Once upon a time, trucks could be driven up the mountain, Albion told me, but the rutted road has now fallen into disrepair.

"Now, suppose all-ee want'em carry'em some something ee go 'long village here, all ee must use'm horse."

That explained the horse that I occasionally encounter in the coconut plantation behind the school on my way back from the nakamal. It is surprisingly frightening to come unexpectedly across a horse when you're walking alone in the dark. The beasts' eyes gleam hollow by torchlight, and it is hard to avoid thinking of Tolkien's nazgul.

"Suppose ee no got horse..." Albion continued. He mimed the action of a person carrying a heavy load on his back.

The rain became heavier as we arrived at the wedding, and we joined the group of men huddling despondently under the tin shelter at the entrance to the nakamal. The bare dancing ground in front was as wet and slippery as an ice rink.

"Soft mud, eh?!" said the villagers, by way of a greeting.

A lot of the other partygoers had come up from villages near Ranwadi, and I recognised many of them. There were a few I knew by name, and many others whom I recognised by sight: the short old guy who looks like Santa's chief elf, the young man with the Britney-style hat, the bloke with the bushy beard who reminds me of somebody, the other bloke with the bushy beard who reminds me of somebody else, the grey-haired man who would make a very convincing Doctor Who, the gnomish figure who looks like he walked off the cover of a Terry Pratchett novel...

There was also a man whom I didn't recognise, but who recognised me.

"Andrew Gray or Andrew Chambers?" he asked.

It was almost five years since my former housemate Andrew Chambers and I had trekked to the remote eastern side of Pentecost and met Norbert, a local man who had invited us to stay with him in his village. However, Norbert not only remembered me, but remembered every detail of our visit. Foreigners aren't a common sight on East Pentecost - at the time, the local chief had thanked us for coming and allowing his children meet white people. My generation may be the last that gets the opportunity to visit such genuinely isolated spots - soon, everyone on earth will have been exposed to the gawking white faces of tourists and DVD movie stars - and I remain immensely grateful to Norbert for welcoming me there. It was wonderful to encounter him again at the wedding, despite his disappointment at the fact that I didn't remember his face and my slight irritation at the fact that even after five years I am still being confused with "the other Andrew".

Albion, the cook and I didn't stay long at the wedding, but instead filled up "plastics" with kava and carried them back down the mountain. (One or two villagers, worried by the thought of a clumsy and slightly-stoned white person sliding down the muddy paths in the dark, kindly offered to let me stay the night in their houses. However, I had work to do at Ranwadi early the next morning.) Instead of negotiating the short-but-steep footpath up which we had come, we made our way down part of the mountain following the remains of the old "road b'long truck". This was just as slippery and overgrown as the footpath, but at least the gradient was less severe.

We stopped at Lalwori, a village further down the mountain, to drink some of the kava from our plastic bottles. With its long triangular roof built from dark wooden beams, the inside of the nakamal at Lalwori resembled a Viking hall. The building was filled with a smoky haze, and the paraffin lantern dangling from the ceiling appeared to be floating in mid air.

From Lalwori we descended to Vanwoki, and Albion and the cook finished off their kava in the nakamal there. The downhill journey had made me realise that I'd already had enough, so I donated my kava bottle to the others. There were plenty of people in the nakamal: men who had couldn't face the slippery climb up the mountain, and men returning from the wedding who didn't want to get truly inebriated until they were within staggering distance of their beds. Calling a taxi when you're too drunk to walk is not an option on Pentecost.


The next day a church fundraiser - a sort of village fete - was held at Vanvat, a couple of miles' walk from Ranwadi. The road to Vanvat is wide and flat, but passes through a vicious river that had been swollen by yet another night of rain. People making their way to the fundraiser crossed the river in various places, arrived wet and unnerved to varying degrees, and had earnest discussions about which crossing point to use on the way back.

Vanvat is a pleasant little village, nestled among the coconut trees in a grassy valley at the foot of Pentecost's highest mountain. In a clearing between the palm trees, groups of local men and women were competing in a volleyball tournament, and in a makeshift concert arena surrounded by a fence of palm leaves, local string bands were playing. Three truckloads of sand from the beach had been dumped on the volleyball court that morning, but the mud had absorbed it almost without trace, leaving the players wallowing in brown slime. Meanwhile, the well-trampled concert arena resembled a pigsty. That didn't dissuade the villagers and many Ranwadi students - who looked very much like teenagers as they queued at the gate of the venue in their fashionable Saturday clothes - from paying the 20 vatu (10 pence) entrance fee to go inside and listen to the string bands strumming their twangy, repetitive tunes.

Volleyball at Vanvat
A muddy volleyball game at Vanvat village

Local wood ovens were churning out bread and gato, and parcels of food (wrapped as always, in giant leaves) were being sold. From a nearby hut (a structure so ramshackle that some people were going in and out through the holes in the walls rather than the doorway), the sound of men spitting indicated that kava was being sold. My kava-drinking buddies from Vanwoki - Albion, Agasten, the school cook (whose name I really ought to know by now) and several of the villagers - were already there, buying each other rounds and running up hefty bar tabs. The barman sat on the floor, with a bucket of the drink and a set of coconut shells in which to serve it. The customers sat on bamboo benches around the edge of the hut, smoking, chatting, and quietly contemplating what a pleasant evening it was. When it was time for a drink each would get up and take his shell-full. He would down it in one, spit noisily on the floor to remove the residual taste from his mouth, and then rinse his shell in a bucket of a pale brown water and return it to the barman, ready for the next customer.

Buying drinks in rounds is a dangerous business. The number of drinks consumed ends up being a multiple of the number of people present, and on this occasion it was a large number. People knew that they had to cross the river again to get home, and were aware that this might not be entirely safe while stoned. However, their solution to the danger was to travel in a group, which meant waiting until the last person was ready to leave. While they waited, more friends arrived and yet more rounds of drinks were bought. I did my best to politely refuse the drinks, pointing out that I don't have the kava tolerance of a native, and eventually our walking party was ready to leave. Fortunately, somebody knew of a place where the river was relatively wide - and therefore slow and shallow - and a rope had been strung across to assist drug-addled waders. We crossed the dark torrent without mishap, and those who had filled up 'plastics' with kava resumed their drinking on the other side.


Tuesday night was Halloween. The locals had never heard of the occasion (maybe ghosts and devils aren't such fun when you actually believe in them), and pumpkin-carving and trick-or-treating are far too uncool for the Australians, but up at Melsisi Sara was intent upon celebrating Halloween with full American exuberance. Her friends and relatives in the States had sent parcels of seasonal merchandise, and Sara's little wooden house was covered with "Happy Halloween" posters depicting smirking pumpkins and implausibly merry ghouls. There were also bowls of vile, black 'Halloween candy'. Sara had explained to her bemused English class that if the students turned up at her door on the last evening of October looking scary and shouting "Trick or treat!" she would be culturally obliged to give them the candy.

Back at Ranwadi, I searched for something that I could carve into a scary lantern. Our pumpkins were cucumber-shaped and completely unsuitable, but the green pawpaws growing on the tree overhanging our house made a perfect substitute. In fact, the pawpaws made better lanterns than pumpkins back home do: they were more solid, even after a candle had been burned inside them, and in their size and shape they resembled a human skull.

I took my first pawpaw lantern down to the nakamal at Vanwoki, a couple of evenings before Halloween.

"Him b'long chuck'em-out devil?" asked one of the villagers.

"Yeah, sort of." Maybe there was once a time when people carved Halloween lanterns to keep away evil spirits rather than to celebrate them.

The villagers seemed impressed. Whether or not the glowing fruit kept devils away, in the dim surroundings it certainly looked cool. After parading the pawpaw around the village to show it to their children, the villagers returned it to the nakamal and sat it at the entrance, facing out towards the dark forest. It burned there all evening, glowering at any evil spirits that might be tempted to come and disturb the kava drinkers.

On the afternoon of the 31st, Hugh and I walked up to Melsisi carrying baskets full of the heavy pawpaws. We were greeted by not one Sara, but two. The previous Peace Corps volunteer, also named Sara, had returned to Melsisi to visit her old friends and to finalise the research for a thesis she's now writing on the history of Catholic nuns in Vanuatu. (I had to admire her for coming up with such a creative excuse for returning to the country.) I had met the original Sara before, in 2001, although the only definite thing I remembered about her was that she spoke Bislama with a cranky Midwestern accent. She still does.

At sunset, while Sara 1 went off to drink kava, Hugh and I helped Sara 2 to light the pawpaw lanterns. We put several on the rocks outside Sara's house, and impaled another on a stick at the front door in Lord of the Flies style. The electricity generator at the Collège de Melsisi had yet to come on, and in the darkness the glowing lanterns looked extremely festive. A crowd of students soon gathered, curious to know what the strange luminous objects on the rocks were and what the crazy white people were up to now.

A few of the students remembered what Sara had told them, and during the evening small groups of shy-looking boys came knocking at the door. Some had chalked their faces, or put on unusual-looking combinations of clothes in an attempt to dress up in costume.

"What do you say?" Sara prompted, as though addressing a three-year-old who had forgotten to say please.

"Trick or treat," they mumbled quietly. Bowls of the black candy were passed around.

Later that evening, as the students were making their way back to the dormitories after evening studies, we hid in the shadows wearing scary masks.

"Do you get the feeling we're too old for this?" I asked.

"You two are," said Hugh. "I'm still only eighteen."

Sara, whose recent twenty-fifth birthday was an occasion for lamenting about how old she is becoming, moaned.

"Sssh... they're coming."

Shouting "Happy Halloween!", we jumped out at the students, who were more bemused than scared. I then lit some sparklers (a novelty on Pentecost) and gave them to the students, who used them to light their way back to the dormitories.

Hugh and I set off home, carrying two of the flickering pawpaw lanterns. Mine was dribbling gobs of wax from the corner of its mouth.

Men standing and spitting in the doorways of kava bars wished us good night as we passed. They were used to seeing white people with strange lights (after all, I was the man with the small torches) and didn't comment on our glowing pawpaws.

At Melsisi River we blew out the candles (the light from them was dazzling our eyes) and walked the rest of the way back to Ranwadi by moonlight. Giant bats swooped overhead, and in the undergrowth ghoul-green mushrooms were glowing faintly. Only the lack of a chill in the air prevented it from feeling completely like Halloween.


<< September 2006 diary · November 2006 diary >>



See also...

Introduction to my travels in the South Pacific


© Andrew Gray, 2006