Andrew Gray's Diary from the South Pacific

4 April

The first sign of impending danger was that I stopped sweating. For the first time this year the thermometer struggled to reach the 30°C (86°F) mark, and in the house I put my shirt back on.

The next thing I noticed was that the breeze. Not the short-lived evening winds that blow past Ranwadi when the mass of steamy air driven up the mountain by the heat of the day comes rushing back down after sunset, but a sustained breeze blowing right across the island and out onto the ocean, where it flecked up white-topped waves.

After months of sultriness, the cool wind was invigorating, like pure oxygen. Standing outside I felt powerful and liberated, my body no longer reluctant to generate energy for fear of adding to the heat. It was the kind of weather that makes you want to run and jump, and race barefoot along the beach in the crashing surf.

Somehow it felt even more invigorating when, as I walked back to my house after morning lessons, a passing colleague mentioned the word "cyclone".

Being located at the point where the Pacific's volcanic Ring of Fire crosses the southern cyclone belt, Vanuatu has a reputation for natural disasters. Impending doom of one kind or another is a regular feature of conversations among the teachers at Ranwadi.

"Good morning, how are you today? I left those exam papers you were asking about in your pigeon hole. Two of the students didn't complete them because they were sick. The school truck brought some parcels from the airfield this morning - I think there's one for you. Did you see the village women are selling tomatoes? You should go and buy a bag before they run out. Oh, and by the way, there's a tidal wave coming."

These swords of Damocles usually hang over us for a day or two, during which everyone goes about their business with a quiet thrill of anticipation, before someone picks up a radio bulletin or an e-mail giving the all-clear. In the last few months we had survived two cyclone warnings, at least three tsunami warnings, a volcanic eruption warning, and a national state of emergency. None has had any serious impact on Pentecost. The most recent predicted tsunami, which came after a massive offshore earthquake, proved to be a mere 12 centimetres (5 inches) high when it hit land (according to the news report issued afterwards). I could have stuck my finger up through the waves.

However, the latest disaster warning seemed more serious than usual, and the wind was gathering strength. When the school's generator was switched on that evening, the inbox in the office computer soon filled with e-mails advising us of the approaching danger. The Vanuatu Meteorological Office, the Peace Corps, GAP Activity Projects, VSA (Mr Neil's organisation), and various concerned friends had all forwarded us their cyclone warnings. Some included pictures - a series of galaxy-shaped outlines, tracing a path that curved like a scimitar across the island chain. You couldn't invent a track that more neatly covered Vanuatu.

It has been quite a long time since a major cyclone scored a direct hit on Pentecost, and I wasn't at all sure that the school was well prepared for one. All the new buildings put up by AusAID have yet to prove themselves against the worst that the South Pacific environment can throw at them. However, Cyclone Becky (as the meteorologists had named her) was forecast to be mild by cyclone standards, and as stronger gusts began to huff and puff at the windows it was hard to feel anything other than excitement about the approaching storm.

Before bed, I went around the science labs in the dark (the generator was still on, but none of the lights were working) and shut all the glass louvres in the windows. One carelessly-placed measuring cylinder had already been smashed down to the floor, and rubbish was blowing around the labs. In my house, where several of the louvres are missing, I faced the prospect of sitting out a cyclone with the windows open. I have no cupboards or drawers to secure things in, so I stacked all my papers in sheltered corners and weighed them down.

The core of the cyclone was due to pass the following morning. I hoped I would be up early enough to witness it.

Up at the Collège de Melsisi, the Principal told Sara not to worry.

"We got someone with a magic leaf to cast a spell and move the cyclone away. We're in no danger." (The Principal at Melsisi speaks little English; I'm quoting the story as told by Sara.)

Pentecost's sorcerers have a reputation for being able to handle even the most destructive forces of nature. When one group of villagers needed to cut a channel through a rock face in order to lay a water pipe, they reportedly used a magic leaf to bring down a precision-targeted lightning strike which split the rock in two.

If chaos theory holds that a storm can be swayed by the flapping of a butterfly's wings, why not by the rubbing of a magic leaf?

In the case of Cyclone Becky, the leaf worked. When I went outside the next morning, the weather was not only no windier than it had been the evening before, it was positively calm. The storm had veered to the west, and had missed Pentecost.

Soon another batch of emails arrived in the inbox, this time telling us that we were no longer all in grave danger. At least not for the time being.


5th April

The people who had not been outside that night found it hard to understand why I got so angry in the staff meeting the next day.

Feeling alone on a black foreign hillside at midnight, while manic figures slip in and out of the darkness around jabbering like crazy people refusing to listen to reason, is not a comfortable experience under any circumstances. But having your students talk to you as though you're possessed by the devil is downright offensive.

"Forgive him, Lord, he does not know what he's saying," they were murmuring form the shadows.

I knew exactly what I was saying. I was telling them to obey the school rules and go to bed. For over two hours they had been keeping everybody in the community awake, first running around the school screaming exhortations to the Lord at the tops of their voices ("God isn't deaf!", I'd shouted at them, when they passed my bedroom window for the third time), and then singing prayers loudly right outside the girls' dormitories. It was a Thursday night - we had lessons the next day - and nobody could sleep. In the staff houses, candles and lanterns were burning long after everybody would normally have gone to bed. Teachers were sitting awake, most of them wishing that the noise would stop.

The school rules are quite clear about this: students must be in bed at 9.30 when the generator is switched off. Those who wish to pray after lights-out must do so quietly in their beds, where they do not disturb anybody. The school pastor himself had reminded the students about this only a week ago.

Nevertheless, when I saw another teacher making his way up the hill towards me, I knew immediately that he wasn't here to help me enforce the rules and send the students to bed. Nor - heaven forbid - was he going to tell them to pull themselves together and stop acting like crazy people. This was the teacher who had brought the 'crusaders' to the school at the end of last year - travelling preachers who were invited for a weekend and stayed for a month. The crusaders had organised a series of late-night prayer sessions, at the end of which the students had been so tired that they were falling asleep at their desks. This was just before the Year 12s' final exams, in which the exhausted students got unexpectedly bad results, a coincidence that nobody has dared to point out. That crusade had probably inspired the students' current antics.

"Why don't you go to bed?" my colleague said. Not to the students, but to me.

"Could you please tell the same thing to these students," I said.

"I think this has been coming for a while," the teacher said, in a voice that suggested he'd witnessed the return of the Messiah. "I can explain in the morning."

In the next day's staff meeting, the explanation was given. A few days earlier, it seemed, one of the girls had encountered a devil on the school grounds. (The exact nature of this 'devil' was not described.) This wasn't the first sighting of devils around the school, and the frightened girls had asked a couple of the teachers for advice. The teachers suggested that the students should pour sea water around their dormitories to scare the devils away, and pray.

I was astounded. If there really were unwanted figures bothering the girls at night - miscreants from the local villages perhaps - wouldn't it have been more practical to seek help from the local chiefs rather than bothering the man upstairs? And if there was anything sinister lurking around the school, supernatural or otherwise, shouldn't the girls all have been reminded to stay safely indoors? Couldn't they have prayed quietly there? The Bible teaches that God is everywhere and is always listening, so why did the students need to shout outside people's windows in the middle of the night? And saltwater around the dormitories? Wasn't Ranwadi School founded by missionaries to try and eradicate superstitions like that?

Realising that there was a cultural barrier here, I let these questions pass, and vented my anger instead of the teacher who'd intervened when I tried to send the students to bed. The way he'd acted had been unprofessional, irresponsible, and in some respects quite un-Christian, I told the meeting. I went too far - there was no need for a personal attack - but I wasn't in the mood to be tactful; I had only had five hours' sleep. So had everybody else at the school.

"I don't think we can agree on this. We're approaching this from different sides," the teacher said to me, after he'd calmed down enough to respond. "You are an atheist, is that right? Do you confess?"

Not believing in God isn't a sin, I thought. Then I realised: actually, it's quite a big sin.

"I am an atheist."

From the devoutly-Christian staff, whose prayers and sermons I'd quietly gone along with for the past year, there was an admirable lack of reaction. Probably they'd suspected all along that I wasn't a true believer.

Religion wasn't the issue, though. I was a teacher trying to enforce the school rules - rules that we had all agreed on - and I'd been spoken to as if I was the one doing wrong.

Even Harry Potter is punished when he wanders around his school at night without permission while trying to cast out the forces of evil. Ranwadi Churches of Christ College, however, could never bring itself to punish students for praying. They had broken the rules, disobeyed the teachers, and deprived the entire school of sleep - but they had done it whilst shouting the name of Jesus, so their actions had to be condoned. It was agreed, however, that everything has its time and its place, and that the time and place for late-night prayers is at weekends, at the far end of the school where nobody else can hear.

The meeting concluded, and I made peace with the teacher I'd encountered the previous night. Most of my colleagues at Ranwadi, fortunately, are good Christians in every sense of the term, and my confession was not held against me. Nobody else mentioned the 'A' word. Maybe some of them privately prayed for my soul afterwards, or maybe they decided I wasn't worth praying for, but publicly they continued to treat me as a friend.

The school Principal - one of the most genuinely Christian people I know - smiled and shook my hand at the end of the meeting. I was still welcome in his school. I may have been a heathen, but everyone deserves forgiveness. Especially the only person on the island who knows how to fix computers when they go wrong.

On the road to Melsisi that weekend, a woman I had never met before held out a pile of Christian magazines and insisted that I take one. I worried that word had already got around that I was a sinner. However, it turned out that a well-wisher had sent her the magazines and I was simply the first person the she had met since who could read English. (She could, in any case, have seen that I needed spiritual guidance by the fact that it was a Sunday morning and I wasn't dressed for church.)

Down at the nakamal, I tried to laugh at the idea of "crazy students" singing prayers and sprinkling sea water in order to scare away devils.

"Crazy," the villagers agreed. "Everyone knows that when you see a devil, all you need to do is speak the Lord's name to make it go away."

I said nothing.


9th April

Traditionally, wealth on Pentecost was based on pigs. Success in acquiring pigs made you rich, and skilful trading of your porcine assets gained you power and influence. Whenever there was a debt to be paid, pigs would change hands, and a man's worth would be measured by the amount of fresh pork that he could call upon when the occasion demanded. For the pigs themselves, it was a comfortable life. They grew large and flabby, cosseted by hard-working owners who saw their assets growing with each inch of lard that the pigs put on. A few privileged pigs were even hand fed, to ensure that they did not break their long, curved tusks, which were regarded as an item of great value and displayed by high chiefs to mark their status. (These curved tusks remain a symbol of power in Vanuatu today - look at the yellow emblem on the country's flag.) Pigs were messy and unsociable, it is true, and occasionally they ran away, but mostly they were content to sit fatly and accept the lavish care given to them by the islanders.

The importance of pigs in Pentecost is declining nowadays. The island's economy is changing, and the Chinese importers who sell saucepans and DVD players want something other than fresh pork in return. However, in one village on Pentecost the villagers have succeeded in replacing pigs with a modern substitute: cruise ship passengers.

Cruise ship passengers have some disadvantages compared with their porcine predecessors. They are larger and more demanding than pigs, and they object to being tied up - instead you have to entice them to come and stay in your village of their own free will. It is also taboo to eat white visitors nowadays, so instead of butchering their substitute pigs, the hungry villagers must persuade them to part with cash which can later be exchanged for crates of tinned pork. However, since a thousand cruise ship passengers can be acquired on a single day - and then sent away at sunset after they have served their purpose, to be replaced a few days later by a fresh batch - the quantities of wealth that can be earned from them far exceed anything that was possible in the days of pigs.

Attracting cruise ship passengers to Pentecost is very easy, for the bizarre reason that many years before the arrival of the first Europeans a local man fell out with his wife. The woman, in a desperate attempt to escape from her angry husband, jumped from the branches of a tree with vines tied to her feet to break her fall, and thus became the world's first bungee jumper. Local women re-enacted the jump - an early display of solidarity against domestic violence, perhaps - until their husbands put a stop to the practice, pointing to the sound of the wind whistling in the trees as a sign that the spirits were unhappy with the spectacle. The women were sent back to the kitchen sink (or rather, the cooking pit, since ni-Vanuatu houses don't have kitchen sinks), but the men took up the idea themselves, believing superstitiously that it would guarantee them a good yam harvest. Tall towers were built from which to jump, men became skilled in choosing vines that were of exactly the right length to break their otherwise-suicidal fall (Darwinism may have eliminated those who weren't good at it), and the jumps were performed ceremonially every year between April and June, at the time of year when the yams were ready to be dug out of the ground. In the local languages, the ceremony was known as the Gol (or 'nanggol'); visitors dubbed it 'land diving'. The tradition is utterly unique, and has given an island that would otherwise be an obscure speck on the world map an international claim to fame.

Visitors have been coming to Pentecost to watch the land diving for a long time: David Attenborough brought a BBC crew to film the ceremony half a century ago. On that occasion he was making a TV programme about people, not animals, but you can just imagine him crouching in the bushes, whispering with hushed excitement and pointing at the amazing behaviour of the creatures diving behind him. Back then, a visit to the island must have been quite an adventure.

The era of easy day-trip tourism began in 1974, when the Queen strolled off the Royal Yacht Britannia, accompanied by a pompous colonial entourage (one official wore a feather hat described on the radio as being made of "grass b'long arse b'long cockerel"), to watch the most bizarre and spectacular show that her overseas subjects had to offer. That was in February - the first and only time that a land dive has been performed out of season - and the young vines were tougher than expected, causing the death of one unfortunate jumper. Apparently the Queen didn't notice.

Three decades later, still glowing with pride after their royal visit, the islanders constructed a small, permanent jetty - named the Queen Elizabeth II Landing - on the beach in Panngi village, in roughly the spot where Her Majesty had once stepped ashore. Now that visitors could step ashore without getting their feet wet, cruise ships began to show an interest in coming, so that their passengers could witness the land diving. The jetty became a portal between the simple, happy world of Pentecost Island and a whiter, richer universe.

On the first day of the land diving season, I was walking over Melsisi Hill when I noticed that Pentecost had acquired a new landmark. Moored in the bay at the far end of the island was an enormous white ship, sticking out of the soft, natural coastline like a prosthetic appliance. I shuddered, and wondered if the islanders realised what they were bringing down upon themselves.

The cruise ship departed at sunset that evening. From a kava bar on the hillside at Melsisi, the other drinkers and I watched the intense, glowing object sliding along the horizon like a flying saucer. The ship was at least twenty miles away, but since it was pumping out a greater wattage of electric light than the whole of Pentecost and its neighbouring islands put together, it wasn't hard to see.

"It's like an island," my companions said, impressed.


On the next 'cruise ship day', inspired by the same sort of curiosity that drove me to seek out the unedited video of Saddam Hussein's hanging on the Internet, I made my way down to Panngi. Lots of villagers were walking in the same direction.

"Me-fella ee go long Panngi b'long look all tourist," they said. We're going to watch the tourists.

"Me too," I said.

"All millionaires, uh?" they asked

I did a quick currency conversion in my head (one million vatu is around £5000 or $10 000, a fortune on Pentecost but well within the means of the average middle-class Westerner) and agreed that most of the cruise ship passengers probably were millionaires.

Who wouldn't be interested in seeing a crowd of a thousand millionaires all in one place?

Passing the airfield, I came across a separate group of tourists, who had been flown in for the day to watch the land diving. Strolling around the airfield, they resembled a herd of very profitable cows. While they waited for another planeload to arrive (Air Vanuatu's island hoppers can only bring a dozen or so visitors at a time), their guide shepherded them down to the beach - one of the dullest stretches of gravel and grey volcanic sand you'll find anywhere in Vanuatu - where three or four children dived in for a swim.

"What a beautiful spot," their parents cooed. I realised how much I'd been spoiled by scenery since coming to live on Pentecost.

I stopped for a chat, and explained where I was going.

"Sometimes I can go for months on Pentecost without seeing another white person, apart from a handful of expat colleagues and the local Peace Corps girl," I told them. "I'm interested to see what it's like when a thousand arrive at once. I've never seen a large crowd of white people on Pentecost before."

"You mean a crowd of large people," one tourist quipped.

When I arrived in Panngi, I saw what he meant. The passengers on the Pacific Sun are obviously well fed. Nor was their vastness concealed; most of the visitors were dressed in exactly the way you'd expect Western holidaymakers to dress in a beachside spot where the temperature is 35 degrees (95°F).

A Pentecost woman whose clothes failed to cover her shoulders and knees (and everything in between) would be rebuked for indecency, and one who strolled through the village in a bikini would cause a scandal. However, nobody objected to the way the tourists were dressed. This way not merely because the villagers were anxious not to offend their paying guests, but because even the most jealous local wife could see that there was no danger of her husband being attracted by the heaving pink flesh on display. Even as a Westerner, culturally conditioned to find white people more attractive than dark, frizzy Melanesians, I was struck by how inelegant the bikinied visitors were (even the few who were young and well-proportioned) in comparison with the local girls in their T-shirts and long skirts.

Cruise ship passengers arriving in Panngi
The Pacific Sun disgorges its passengers

The crowd in Panngi was approximately half black and half white - the number of Australians wandering along the road staring at the locals was roughly balanced by the number of Melanesians sitting under the trees staring at the tourists. Some people were making attempts to do business with the visitors: a young man was selling carvings of fish and flying foxes, a small girl I recognised as a Year 7 student had set up a table offering handmade baskets for sale, women were selling fresh oranges and drinking coconuts from mats on the ground, and the village stores that had chosen to accept dollars for the day were doing a busy trade. A few villagers were sitting at the roadside demonstrating local customs such as basket weaving, and inviting passers-by to leave money in exchange for taking photos.

In the centre of the village, as string band was playing. The tourists paid little attention - it wasn't their kind of music - but the locals were making the most of the free concert, crowding under nearby trees and shouting out requests.

Several cardboard boxes were laying around with signs such as "Please donate money to support the local clinic" scrawled onto them in marker pen. They filled up like litter bins with shiny coins and colourful plastic Australian banknotes. A sign outside the primary school explained that the place was poorly equipped and in need of donations; tourists were invited to walk around the school and see for themselves. To drive home the message, a choir of schoolchildren had been organised to stand by the road singing songs of Christian charity and love. (The children deserve generosity: they are the ones who are sent out to pick up litter and clean the village before each cruise ship's arrival, sometimes missing lessons in order to do so.)

Outside Panngi's beautiful church house, an enormous breezy building made entirely from local wood, bamboo and palm thatch, a woman was collecting funds for the building of a more modern church. Tin roofs don't need repairing as often as thatched ones, the woman pointed out, when I protested that I liked the old church.

One old man with a small collecting box spent the entire day playing his guitar by the roadside, while his grandchildren listened nearby. After passing him for the sixth time I dropped a few vatu in his box and stopped for a chat. "Hand b'long me ee tired," he said, smiling.

Overall, however, I was surprised at how little commercialisation was in evidence. A couple of big stalls were selling snacks and cold drinks, but these were being run by the cruise company, not by the villagers. Nobody was selling T-shirts saying "I've been to Pentecost Island" (which disappointed me, as I was hoping to buy one). None of the people trying to make money by the roadside were actively attempting to stop passers-by and persuade them to take an interest (Melanesians never do, which is one of the things that makes them such lovely people to travel amongst). At the delightful little Panngi Restaurant, which was selling delicious lunches for the equivalent of a dollar (not that the Panngi Restaurant attempted to charge me in dollars), I was the only white customer. Like most businesses on Pentecost, the place has no sign outside - after all, everybody in the village knows that it's a restaurant - so all the tourists passed it by.

My intention in Panngi had been to play at being a tourist for the day - blending in with the crowd, wandering and staring and taking photographs, and speaking only English to those I met. However, I quickly abandoned this idea.

Firstly, too many people in South Pentecost know me. Two of my colleagues from Ranwadi had come to Panngi for the day ("We're all tourists today," chuckled one teacher, bumping into me in the doorway of a village store), and so had several of my students, who were off school for the Easter weekend.

Secondly, I didn't look like a cruise ship passenger. After the four-hour walk along the dirt road from Ranwadi to Panngi, my shirt was sticky and my feet were bruised and chafed. The actual dirt had been washed off by the nineteen rivers and streams that I'd had to wade en route, but the highest of the rivers had left a dark tide mark across my shorts. I was deeply tanned but in a subtle way, the result of a few months' gentle exposure to tropical light, not emblazoned with the brown lines produced by a few mornings of grilling on the beach. I wasn't wearing a badge and key card on a pink ribbon around my neck. I was dressed in the faded colours of the overseas explorer - colours that won't attract insects or show up dirt - and nothing that I wore or carried was patterned with the Australian flag. I was walking briskly, even in the heat, and seemed as if I knew where I was going. And I looked far too excited when I heard the sound of an electricity generator and saw that it was powering a freezer full of ice cream and cold drinks.

Above all, though, I found that I simply didn't want to act like the visitors off the ship. I wanted to talk to people, shake their hands, tell them where I'd come from, chat about how their nieces and nephews are getting on at school, discuss the weather - the things that a friendly stranger would normally do when arriving in a Melanesian village.

Under a tree outside the Panngi Guesthouse, the owner's wife Evelyn and her tiny seven-year-old daughter Jessica were watching the tourists go by. Evelyn, in her green Mother Hubbard dress, was looking at the slack, scantily-clad visitors with the expression of a well-meaning auntie who disapproves of the way the neighbours behave but is reluctant to say anything about it. Jessica, who has a long-standing fascination with white people, was wide-eyed.

Accompanied by Jessica, I wandered along to the Queen Elizabeth Landing, where small boats were shuttling continuously to and from the mother ship, ferrying passengers ashore. Free cups of chilled drinking water were being dispensed nearby. Following Jessica's lead, I helped myself; I hadn't tasted cold water for over a month. We sat in the shade nearby, drawing pictures with our fingers in the sand and watching the passengers file along the jetty. At one point Jessica pointed excitedly at a white girl about her age. Sadly, they had no common language, and the Australian girl didn't even notice the tiny brown child beaming at her from the roadside. Poor Jessica had little hope of making a friend.

Beside the jetty, another string band was playing, and women in grass skirts were doing a traditional dance. The dancers wore garlands to cover their breasts, but nevertheless, they were crossing their arms tightly. A local woman with a megaphone was standing on the shore, greeting the arriving visitors. It is about fifteen minutes' walk to the land-diving site, she explained, but if you are incapable of walking then transport is available for two dollars. Enough people were taking up this offer to keep half a dozen pick-up trucks continuously busy, and a wooden ramp had been constructed so that the passengers didn't have to clamber to get onto the trucks.

For ten dollars, trips were also available to Captain Cook's Rock, the Pirates of the Caribbean-style landmark jutting out of the sea at the northern end of the bay. This is a new attraction, the woman with the megaphone told me, when I went over to chat to her in between batches of arriving passengers. The rock itself has been there at least since 1774, when it was sighted by the eponymous sea captain, but in recent years it was off limits to tourists because the local chiefs were still arguing about who owned the rock and therefore who had the right to collect money from visitors. This argument had now been settled - although don't you think the admission price seems awfully high, the woman commented. Ten dollars is a week's wages for a labourer on Pentecost. Were there really people who would pay that much to stare at a rock?

The road back to Ranwadi passed Captain Cook's Rock. I hoped I wasn't going to get charged ten dollars to walk home.

Cruise ship tourists in Panngi
"What's the name of this island, mate?"

In a vast clearing at the far end of the village, tourists were congregating to watch the land diving ceremony. On a slope at one side of the clearing, a wooden tower had been constructed, and a sloping patch of loose earth had been prepared to give the jumpers a softer landing - an impact that would merely bruise them rather than breaking their necks. Most of the tourists were clustered at the edges of the clearing, too far away to get a good view. Some of them looked fed up. It was midday now, and it was really hot. Indirectly paying a bunch of poor people a couple of hundred dollars each to risk their lives for the amusement of their rich guests evidently didn't give the visitors as much of a thrill as they had hoped.

When the land diving was over, the visitors tramped back the way they had come, like a procession of elephants leaving with the travelling circus. By lunchtime, a long queue of passengers had formed back at the jetty. After a couple of hours, they had seen enough of Pentecost Island, and they were ready to leave. While they waited, some of them sunbathed, or went for a swim in the ocean, and Homo Bay soon resembled Brighton Beach. (I wonder if the cruise operators bothered to give their passengers a cheap laugh by telling them the name of the stretch of coastline where they had dropped anchor.) A couple of hundred people lay sprawled on the shoreline, or bobbed rotundly in the water, like walruses with skin-pigment disorders.

"Somebody should yell 'shark'," I joked to a group of local villagers.

Nobody laughed. It turned out that the waters off Panngi actually are shark-infested.

"Ee got any friend b'long you, ee come 'long place here today?" one of the villagers asked.

No, none of my friends are on that cruise ship, I told them. Most of those tourists are from Australia. I'm not an Australian.

The locals' expressions warmed visibly when I said this. I was thankful that the ni-Vanuatu have never met British package tourists.

"You-fella ee like'm way cruise ship ee come?" I asked the villagers.

They thought about this for a moment.

"Some ee win'em plenty money, time all tourist all-ee come," sad one man. "But me-fella, me-fella who ee sit-down 'long place here, me-fella ee no win'em nothing." For the people driving the trucks and selling the cold drinks, the Pacific Sun had provided a bonanza. But the people with no jobs to do, the ones simply sitting by the roadside watching the foreigners trampling around their village, were unlikely to see any of the money.

"Me-fella ee like'm chance b'long talk-talk with'em all man b'long overseas," said another villager. We enjoy the opportunity to talk to people from abroad, and find out about life in different countries. "But all-ee no want'em talk-talk with'em me-fella." The cruise ship passengers don't want to talk to us.

"All-ee no savvy language b'long you-fella," I pointed out. They don't speak your language.

Although Vanuatu has over a hundred indigenous languages, plus three official ones, language barriers are an issue that local people seldom struggle with. When two ni-Vanuatu who don't share a native language meet, they always have Pidgin English to fall back on. Most of the foreigners you meet on Pentecost are aid workers or missionaries, and they understand Pidgin English too. To encounter a stranger and be unable to have a friendly conversation for want of a common language is a situation the islanders are unused to, and it makes them uneasy.

In a few places, attempts at cross-cultural interaction were being made. One Aussie bloke tried to start a conversation about vehicles with the men sitting beside a truck ("The engine on this model is indestructible - they once dropped one out of an aircraft from two kilometres up and afterwards it started first time," he said, which impressed the villagers after I translated it into Pidgin). The local Peace Corps girl was chatting up a handsome Canadian crewman who had come ashore for a day off. A few villagers who did speak English were engaged in conversations with visitors about the state of the local school, the church and the clinic (donations welcome). Several tourists were trying to be friendly to the cute-looking village children, who didn't understand a word of what the white people were saying but were only too happy to grin and pose for photos.

Nearby, a group of Year 12 students from Ranwadi were enjoying a packed lunch. They called over to me and offered me a slab of savoury banana.

"What do you think of the tourists?" I asked one girl.

"Urr," she said, and pulled the expression she normally makes when I set an exceptionally complicated piece of homework.

A rain shower struck as the last of the visitors were making their way back to the ship. Together with a couple of the villagers, I dived for shelter in a shack full of petrol drums, where we chatted about the state of modern Vanuatu for half an hour until the rain stopped. When I emerged, all the other white people had gone. The departing Pacific Sun had turned its gigantic white backside towards the village, and was cruising away into a rainy mist.


At the far end of the island, a very different kind of business was trying to attract visitors. In the sandy village of Nambwarangiut, a local man named John Peter was trying to promote the little thatched guest bungalow that he and his family had built under the bangaware trees opposite their home.

The weekend before my trip to Panngi, I had been sent to Nambwarangiut to check up on the two gap-year volunteers teaching in the local primary school. Like the tourists down at Panngi, I had arrived by sea. However, my transport was not the luxurious Pacific Sun, but a passing cargo ship, which put me ashore just before midnight in a silver, moon-washed bay.

When I stepped out of the guesthouse the next morning, stooping through the Wendy-house-sized front porch and squinting in the daylight reflecting off the sand, I was greeted by an excited squeal.


In the language spoken around Ranwadi, 'tuturan' means 'white person'. In the fifteen miles (24km) that I'd travelled northwards, passing three dialect areas of Central Pentecost Language before crossing the boundary into North Pentecost Langauge, the word had acquired an extra syllable.

Soon the place was animated with happy children, shouting greetings, picking up dead leaves, fetching a kettle of water for my morning tea, and shooing away the duck that was waddling nearby. (The duck didn't seem to be doing any harm, but chasing it looked like fun.)

After having breakfast in the little porch, and going to meet the gap volunteers and their headmaster at the school, I returned to the bungalows, and spent the afternoon outside chatting to John Peter, who owned the bungalows, while the crowd of children played nearby. On that Saturday afternoon the village was quiet and peaceful; disturbed only by the drop-shaped fruits falling from the tree overhead. The fruits all missed us, but one struck a snoozing dog on the nose. The dog opened his eyes with a start, glared at the offending tree, decided that it wasn't worth the effort to move to a safer spot, and went back to sleep.

People laughed when John Peter decided to build a guesthouse, he told me: they thought that nobody would ever come. However, there has since been a steady trickle of guests - people like me who come to Nambwarangiut to visit friends or who have business at the school. John Peter hopes to attract tourists, too, but publicising the place is hard - Nambwarangiut isn't even marked on the Lonely Planet guidebook's map of Pentecost. You can pencil it in, if you wish, at the mouth of the river south of Abwatunvutu. It's worth adding.

Bangaware Guesthouse
John Peter's guesthouse in Nambwarangiut

At present John Peter's bungalow is a simple little place, but he dreams of expanding it if tourists begin to come. He has yet to build a proper bathroom, but the bungalow doesn't need one - a few minutes' walk away at the far end of the village, a multi-tiered jungle waterfall cascades into a clear blue pool, perfect for bathing. A neatly-laid gravel path leads to the waterfall, with tropical flowers growing at the sides. John Peter planted the flowers himself, he told me proudly. He seemed excited about the possibility of tourism, not just as a source of income, but as a chance to meet friends from abroad and show them his beautiful village. If I had longer to spend in Nambwarangiut, he told me, he could have shown me the cave in the forest behind the village, taken me snorkelling out on the reef, or dug up some kava from his garden for us to drink together.

I promised to come back sometime. (I also offered to help John Peter publicise his bungalows by putting details on the Internet. John Peter knew of the Internet, but was under the impression that putting a page of your own on it was very difficult to do. If you have never touched a computer and live in a village with no electricity, I suppose it is.)

It was all a long way from the cardboard boxes of Australian dollars littering the roadsides in Panngi. However, the land-diving spectacle at the far end of Pentecost is something that John Peter happens to be intimately connected with. The man who plunged to his death in front of the Queen back in 1974 was John Peter's father.

"You been look nanggol, time papa b'long you ee jump?" I asked him.

No, John Peter hadn't been watching. He had been back in his home village, attending primary school, when he heard the news of what had happened.

Though the event was a tragedy, today John Peter is not bitter about what happened. On the contrary, he is immensely proud of his father. Traditional customs are important to people on Pentecost, as is respect for authority, and John Peter's father died while demonstrating his people's customs to one of the highest chiefs in the world. In doing so, he helped to put his island quite literally on the map. The fame of land diving has given many a cartographer a reason to label a dot that might otherwise have been lost among the tens of thousands of others in the Pacific.

The man himself succeeded, in the two or three seconds it took him to hit the ground, in making himself at least the second most famous Pentecost islander in history. (The 'father of the nation' Walter Lini perhaps deserves the number one spot, although as some of my friends point out, "who outside Vanuatu has ever heard of Walter Lini?".)

The tragedy had another silver lining: the highly-memorable death of John Peter's father reminded the islanders that it was dangerous to perform their ceremony at the wrong time of year. If it hadn't been for this, the temptation of tourist dollars would surely have led them sooner or later to abandon their traditions and put on land-dives all year round. Pentecost would have acquired a sizeable permanent tourist industry, with all its trappings, and cruise ship passengers would have become a regular nuisance rather than an occasional freak show. A few local people would have made a lot of money, but the island as a whole would have borne a horrible cost. I could have bought my "I've been to Pentecost Island" T-shirt, along with similar Made-In-China pencils, sunhats, beer-bottle holders, and magnets to stick on the fridge. The locals would have looked on jealously, and devised ever less subtle ways of extracting money from their visitors, in the hope that they too would one day be rich enough to own a fridge and fill it with cold beer.

The uniqueness of land diving would have kept people coming long after the island itself has ceased to be a pleasant place to visit. Pentecost's 'development' would have been surged ahead, propelled by waves of dollars, but even those with money would have been unable to buy the kind of happiness that comes from being able to sit and have a friendly chat under a tree in a beautiful village on a breezy Saturday afternoon.


26th April

One of the few resources that is never in short supply at Vanuatu's schools is labour. Whenever there are bushes to be trimmed, grass to be cut, rubbish to be burned, firewood to be collected, holes to be dug, holes to be filled in, classrooms to be swept, or things to be carried from place to place, there are always students nearby who can be ordered to help.

"Why don't you get a student to do that?" my colleagues asked when they saw me digging a ditch to channel rainwater away from my back doorstep. (Proper drains are one of those Western luxuries that Ranwadi manages without.)

"You should ask the students to help", they said when they saw me carrying a sack of coral shingle up from the beach to fill in a muddy patch on the road leading down to Vanwoki.

"Ee more-better you ask'em some student..." they began, when they saw me outside squishing the orange beetles that nibble holes in my pumpkin plant.

Nor is maintaining the school grounds the only use to which the students are put. In exchange for trivial rewards, I could have people sweeping my floor, scrubbing my porch, brushing cobwebs away from my windows, emptying my bin, and washing my dirty laundry. The students would gladly do these things - far better to be giving home help to a teacher who might give them sweets and a bit of pocket money in return than to risk being put to work doing harder jobs around the school.

The other teachers take full advantage of this. The only ones who do not employ students as regular 'house girls' to do their chores are the ones who have wives to do the job instead.

I do my own housework. This is not just because being a privileged foreigner having submissive black children doing my chores would strike a raw cultural nerve, nor just because it conveniently fills spare blocks of time (Hugh Grant's character in About A Boy would empathise), nor just because it gives me an opportunity to put on my headphones and immerse myself undistracted in cheesy music - though all of these things are true. I first came to Ranwadi as an eighteen year-old away from home for the first time, determined to prove that I could look after myself, and although I proved this long ago I still take pride in being possibly the only man on the island who scrubs his own dirty clothes. I cannot think of any occasion when I have seen an adult ni-Vanuatu male with his hands in soapy water.

Of course, being a good twenty-first century man, I only scrub my clothes when they really need it. The rest of the time I merely leave them in a bucket of detergent until they smell clean.


When there is a really big or really sweaty task to be done, the whole school - students and teachers alike - is recruited to help. When big new water tanks were ready to be installed up the hill above Ranwadi, the Deputy Principal announced that every afternoon that week, after lessons, would be spent preparing the site. The senior boys were put to work digging with spades and pick-axes, hewing a platform the size of a small house out of the 45-degree mountainside. For every person digging there were at least three sitting and watching (a ratio fairly typical of Vanuatu workplaces), but you couldn't blame them - it was hot work. On one occasion I made my way up the hill with bottles of drinking water and was greeted with cheers from the boys.

Students digging foundations for water tanks
Students at work

Everybody else in the school was sent down to the beach with baskets and buckets and old rice sacks to fetch sand and gravel with which to make foundations for the tanks. Plodding up and down the mountainside, I passed the principal, the bursar, the handyman and the librarian, as well as most of my students and teaching colleagues, all carrying sand. Even the teachers' children, some only three or four years old, toddled up the hill with their baskets and boxes.

The students objected surprisingly little to the loss of their one regular piece of free time. This was a community effort. With the entire school trekking back and forth up the same narrow path, and every person nodding and smiling at every other person as they passed during their trips up and down the hill, the afternoons felt more like social gatherings than hard labour. Greetings and words of encouragement could be heard in half a dozen languages: the staccato sounds of Ambae language, the more slurred tones of Pentecost's languages, the vigorous half-sentences of Pidgin, and occasional phrases of real English in a tuneful Melanesian accent. People stood aside politely to let their friends pass on the narrow path hair-pinning up the mountain. By the end of the week the trampling of the verges had widened the path so much that in places you could almost have driven a vehicle up it.

There was no need to tick names or take attendance - everyone could see who was pulling their weight. Among the various things in various languages being said by the students passing one another on the hillside, one question could be heard above all the others:

"How many trips have you made now?"


<< March 2007 diary · May 2007 diary >>



See also...

Introduction to my travels in the South Pacific

Bangaware Guesthouse


© Andrew Gray, 2007