Andrew Gray's Diary from the South Pacific

3 March

It was predictable, in retrospect, that the long-expected rain would finally set in during the weekend on which I was due to fly out of South Pentecost's easily-waterlogged airfield.

When my flight was cancelled, I contemplated postponing my planned trip into town. However, I had already told my students that I would be away and left them enough work to keep them busy until I returned. The students and I both knew that this was a meaningless gesture: the students had no intention of doing the work and I had no expectation that they would. In a place where staff disappear without warning any time they can find a moderately good excuse, and supply teachers are an unknown concept, an absent teacher means a free period and the students weren't going to let me persuade anyone otherwise. Nevertheless, having arranged not to be needed at Ranwadi that week it would have been a nuisance to reschedule my trip.

I therefore decided to travel the way the locals do, and boarded a cargo ship bound for Port Vila.

According to a recent newspaper article, only four of Vanuatu's dozen or so inter-island ships operate legally. The rest are not properly licensed, because that would require them to get insured, and getting insured would require them to be seaworthy. The authorities know better than to enforce the law: there is no money to upgrade the ships, and taking them out of service would condemn communities to isolation. People who cannot afford to fly travel by ship to visit loved ones on other islands, and students at boarding schools catch the ships home at the end of term. The passengers whose lives are allegedly being put at risk would be the first to complain if safety regulations deprived them of affordable shipping. The islanders also depend on the ships for every imported product they buy, from candles and milk powder to cement and schoolbooks. Nobody in rural Vanuatu manufactures metal or plastic or glass or cloth or fuel oil. If the ships stopped coming, life on the islands would descend back into the Stone Age.

The M.V. Brisk, which passes Pentecost on its weekly runs between Vanuatu's two towns, is one of Vanuatu's better ships. I had high hopes that it might even be one of the four that is actually certified seaworthy, though I didn't dare ask. As its name implies, the Brisk is also faster than most of the cargo ships, calling only at specific villages rather than simply meandering along the coast and stopping wherever somebody feels like putting a parcel or a sack of vegetables or an auntie on board. The Brisk's other advantage is that you can usually rely on it arriving on more-or-less the day it's expected, although predicting what time it's going to turn up is still a job best left to the local sorcerer.

It ought to come early in the afternoon, people told me. But if you want to catch the ship you should be waiting down on the beach at eleven in the morning, just in case it's early.

At ten o'clock in the morning, while I was in the school office talking to the Principal, somebody heard the noise of an engine. We looked outside and saw the Brisk cruising past - briskly. Its nearest stop was at Waterfall Village, a mile away.

"Another ship should be coming later," the Principal reassured me.

I wasn't giving up so easily. I'd noticed the school truck parked outside.

I ran to my house, grabbed my bag, and ran back to the truck, where the driver had already started the engine. We raced the Brisk around the headland, and I jumped out onto the beach just as the ship was nuzzling ashore, its propellers thrusting in reverse to prevent the white metal hulk from stranding itself as it approached. The ramp at the front of the Brisk didn't quite reach the shore - maybe the water was too shallow for the ship to come closer - and I had to wade on board. A couple of minutes later, there was another grinding of propellers, and the ship pulled away from the beach.

Brisk off Pentecost
The Brisk off Pentecost

Heading southwards along the coast, we made great time. Because the ship was so early, a lot of people had missed it, which made loading and unloading unusually quick. This made the ship even earlier, which caused even more people to miss it, starting a vicious cycle which seemed to escape the attention of the captain. Maybe he was just in a hurry to get to Port Vila.

By lunchtime, we had reached the end of Pentecost, and turned towards Ambrym, the next island in the archipelago. Ambrym's black volcanoes were enmeshed with complex patterns of cloud, where streamers of mist condensing against the mountainsides combined with the grey strata drifting in from the ocean and the mile-wide column of orange-tinted smoke spewing from inside the island.

From Ambrym, getting to Port Vila is much like getting to Neverland: turn left and go straight on till morning. Deciding that being wet and cold was preferable to being seasick, I spent the night out on deck, hunched on a narrow metal gangway at the stern. The Lost Boys travelling beside me were students returning to college after the summer holidays. One was a trainee pilot, who had yet to find the money for flying lessons but was persevering with the theory part of his training in the hope that one day someone would sponsor him to do the practicals. Apparently Air Vanuatu, embarrassed at having its flag-carrying planes piloted mainly by foreigners, occasionally offers such sponsorships. Another was a History and Politics student at the University of the South Pacific, who dreamed of becoming a successful businessman one day. I meet a lot of similar students in Britain, where most are drifters, but in a country where politics and business are as unsubtly mixed as in Vanuatu, a degree in politics is probably not a bad route to riches.

Another of the boys spending the night on the deck of the Brisk was from Bay Martelli, at the southern tip of Pentecost. He told me about his village's claim to fame: seven years ago it was destroyed by a tsunami.

After the big wave came, he said, "Five man ee dead. Twenty got killed." (In Pidgin English "kill" means to strike, or in this context, to injure.)

The wave had struck in the middle of the night. Some of the men had been drinking kava that evening, the boy explained, and were unable to run to safety.

So kava-drinking is dangerous after all.

"How did the other villagers know when to run?", I wondered. Could they see the wave coming?

"Before wave, ee got big earthquake," my companion said. "Big, big one. Man ee no savvy stand-up 'long him."

An earthquake so big you couldn't stand up in it.

"After earthquake, saltwater ee come dry." He made a gesture to illustrate what he meant: a terrifying undertow sucking the sea away from the shore as the wave approached.

It was when the villagers saw this that they ran for their lives.

"After wave ee come, close-up every something 'long village ee wood, no-more." The village was reduced to driftwood. "Church house, no-more, him ee stand-up." Only the church - presumably the only building not made of sticks - was left standing.

God had destroyed every house in the village except his own. I wondered what sins the villagers blamed themselves for in the aftermath of this tragedy.

As the boy told his story, we stared out towards the ocean, which rolled from side to side. It was a starless, moonless night. Below us, the stern of the ship was pumping grey turbulence into evil black water. Unable to see the horizon, we fixed our eyes instead on a patch of cloud above Ambrym's volcanoes, where the sky was glowing red.


Lurching among islets and headlands in a grey swell, the ship approached Port Vila early the next morning. From a distance, Vanuatu's capital city looked small and unimposing. The cruise ship making its way into the harbour ahead of us was another matter - it was larger than any building in the town that it was bearing down upon, and its dark smoke smudged the sky like charcoal. The monstrosity docked at the main wharf, beside a dreary stretch of road on the outskirts of town where "Welcome to Vanuatu" signs were obscured behind old shipping containers. The Brisk pulled up beside a gravelly dockyard nearby, opened its front ramp like a whale and vomited its passengers onto the shore.

Port Vila at dawn
Port Vila at dawn

"Mr Andrew!", a girl called out to me as I left the ship. "What are you doing here?"

It was one of the Year 13 biology students who I'd taught last semester. I had last seen her doing her family's laundry waist-deep in a muddy South Pentecost river, surrounded by splashing children, and I scarcely recognised the urban youth with trendy clothes and braided hair as the same girl. She had come to Vila, she told me, to apply to nursing school. Perhaps my efforts at teaching Year 13 biology hadn't been as much of a waste of effort as I'd thought.


My main reason for coming to town was to get my passport re-stamped at the Immigration Office. When I had returned to Vanuatu at the end of January, my paperwork from the Ministry of Education had yet to come through. No problem, I had been told: you can enter the country on an ordinary one-month tourist permit - which is given freely to most visitors on arrival - and 'straighten' things with the authorities later.

It irks the ni-Vanuatu that white visitors are allowed into their country with nothing more than a passport, yet Vanuatu's citizens must nearly always go through the tiresome process of applying for a visa when they wish to travel abroad. As a Brit, I have the luxury of being able to go on holiday to any of 128 countries without applying in advance for a visa, yet a citizen of Vanuatu would be admitted to a mere 47. Australia and New Zealand, the major destinations for international flights from Vanuatu, are not among those 47 countries. The ni-Vanuatu see this, rightly, as a sign of unfriendliness.

"Man Vanuatu all-ee no welcome overseas from wanem?" my drinking companions asked me one night at the kava bar in Melsisi. ("From wanem" - literally "because of what" - is the Pidgin way of asking why.)

This situation irks me too. My own country does let in ni-Vanuatu visitors without a visa (though they probably don't turn up very often), yet as a white person I get held accountable for the xenophobia of Vanuatu's neighbouring countries. I decided to be blunt.

"Ee got some man 'long all 'nother country, especially 'long Australia, who ee no like'm man b'long overseas," I said. "Ee no everyone, but ee got some. All-ee fright from all-ee think say ee no good Australia ee come full-up with'em black man."

Harsh immigration regimes don't apply only to visitors from poor, black countries, of course. I belong to the seventh most widely-welcomed nationality in the world (only Americans, Danes, Finns, Swedes, Irish and Germans can get into more countries visa-free), and even I need a visa to enter Australia.

"But 'long England ee no got man who ee think all-same?" my companions asked.

"Ee got some," I admitted. Britain has its share of racists and xenophobes.

"But no too-much?" they said.

I ummed and erred. Another of the kava-drinkers helped me out.

"Time way me look'em one team b'long Europe or America play football," he said, "Team ee got plenty black man. But time way me look'em team b'long Australia, ee got white man, no-more. No got black man 'long team b'long Australia."

For rural islanders, football is the definitive source of information about the wider world. There are no black Socceroos - therefore Australia is indisputably an unfriendly country.

Granting easy entry to visitors from another country does not, of course, mean allowing unrestricted immigration. It is simply a show of trust that visitors will not cause trouble or outstay their welcome. If Vanuatu is willing to trust foreigners in this way (and I know of a few who have abused this trust), other countries ought to be able to extend the same trust to citizens of Vanuatu.

The irony is that, for simple numerical reasons, Vanuatu ought to be far more afraid of immigrants than its richer and larger neighbours. If 2% of Vanuatu's population migrated to Australia, they would not be noticed. If 2% of Australia's population migrated to Vanuatu, they would outnumber the natives, and the country would be changed drastically for the worse. People worry that Third World inhabitants will flood into richer countries in search of a better quality of life, but plenty of Westerners buy homes in Port Vila for the same reason. In measures of life satisfaction compiled by the New Economics Foundation, Vanuatu actually scores about the same as Australia and New Zealand, and higher than Britain.

Back in Port Vila, I was a day or two late in presenting my passport for re-stamping at the Immigration Office. Nobody seemed to mind.

Now that I was no longer an illegal immigrant, I visited the Ministry of Education to formally sign up as a teacher. The Ministry occupies a bright, modern building in the suburbs of Vila, with a couple of small courtyards in the centre and semi-covered corridors open to the breeze. The place has a modest, academic feel too it, and if it weren't for the plaque at the door you might think that it was part of the French school next door. Perhaps it once was.

I was shown the way to the office of the country's Director of Secondary Education - there aren't many layers of officialdom in a country the size of Vanuatu - and his secretary gave me a copy of my contract to sign. Up until then, nobody had given me a straight answer when asked how much I would actually get paid (I'd been told merely that it would be "enough to live off") and I was surprised when I saw the sum of money in the contract. It was half what I would have earned if I had kept my old job in Edinburgh, admittedly, but by Third World standards it was an extremely good salary, and since Vanuatu is a tax haven there would be no income tax deducted. No wonder so many of my students at Ranwadi aspire to become teachers themselves one day.


Since I was returning to Pentecost on a cargo ship, I decided to bring back some cargo. The supermarkets of Port Vila are a paradise of products that hardly ever turn up on Vanuatu's other islands, and since it was likely to be months before I returned to town I stocked up, filling baskets and boxes with kilogram quantities of everything from icing sugar to cockroach poison. Five or six times, I trekked between my hotel and the shops, and each time hauled back as much as I could fit into my arms. Several passers-by stopped and offered to help me carry it all (the village community spirit is surprisingly well alive even in Vanuatu's biggest town), but if I was going to spend another night on the deck of the Brisk I wanted to tire myself out thoroughly first.

The following afternoon, I packed my shopping into five huge bags, loaded it into a taxi, and took it down to the dockyard. The Brisk wasn't due to depart until evening, but this time I wasn't taking any chances. I loaded my cargo onto the ship, and was told I had a couple of hours to spare. I walked back into town, visited the supermarket, and returned with yet another bag of shopping.

When I returned to the dockyard, the place was a melee. People scuttled on and off the Brisk like foraging ants, depositing their things on board, while a crewman stood on the ramp remonstrating with the crowd for leaving it until the last minute to load their cargo. Inside the ship, the passenger area was heaped with bags and boxes, each with its owner's name and village scrawled on it in thick permanent marker. Out on the front deck, a diverse pile of cargo accumulated: sacks of rice and flour and cement, cartons of tinned beef and breakfast crackers, a truck, two fibre glass boats, drums of petrol and diesel and kerosene, live chickens, pieces of roofing iron, empty water tanks, palettes of plywood, lengths of piping, and a bewildered-looking dog. There was a pig somewhere in the pile, too, judging by the squealing.

At 7 p.m., the last of the cargo was heaped on board and the Brisk pulled away from the wharf, listing noticeably to one side under its uneven load.

While the other passengers tried their best to find a comfortable spot to sleep, I sat outside the cabin on top of the ship with James, the ship's mechanic, drinking sweet Milo and chatting about the Second World War. James was keenly interested in history, but having never attended secondary school he hadn't had the chance to learn much about it. How did the war start?, he wanted to know. I did my best to explain. You should write a book about it, he said. Plenty of better-qualified people already have, I told him. But presumably not in Pidgin English.

When James went away to check on the engines, I joined the passengers who were snoozing on the corrugated metal roof above the lower deck. Eventually, the cold wind drove the others below deck (in most respects Europeans are wimps compared with the ni-Vanuatu, but when it comes to tolerating cold we have a definite advantage!), and I was alone on the roof. I tried to sleep, but the ship was now in open water and rolling drastically in the swell, and I began to worry that a particularly big lurch might tip me off the edge and into the ocean. After a large wave splashed across the roof and soaked me, I retreated to the deck at the stern. The wind quickly dried off the seawater (leaving my hair slicked with salt), but then it began to rain. Luckily, all of the other passengers had now abandoned the chilly upper deck in favour of the crowded heat and diesel vapour of the deck below, leaving empty a prime sleeping spot in front of the cabin, where there was a crate to lie on and an overhanging roof which kept off at least three-quarters of the rain. I lay down there and watched the gyroscopic tilting of the ocean until I fell asleep.


Many astronauts say that they appreciated the wonder of the Earth in a new way when they stepped back from its turmoils and saw their world from a distance for first time. Returning by ship to Pentecost Island on a sunny afternoon, I felt the same way.

Pentecost was beautiful that day. Its long skies and mountainsides were blue and gold and immensely green, and the water reflected them in warm ripples. The intricate slopes and valleys were overlaid with a canvas of rich forest and dabbed with tiny puffs of white mist. Canoes paddled along the shore, and brown children ran happily on the beach. Most of the villages were completely hidden beneath the trees, but the white buildings of Ranwadi shone like a little utopia in the jungle.

Somehow I felt as if I was approaching the place for the first time. This is the sort of island where I could live and be happy, I thought.


6 March

Every so often, I conclude a lesson with "See you tomorrow" and my students hiss back: "No! Public holiday!"

Walter Lini Day on 21st February, which commemorates Vanuatu's founding father, caught me by surprise. Less than two weeks later came Chiefs' Day. Later in the year there is Labour Day, Children's Day, Independence Day, Penama Day (a provincial holiday), Constitution Day, National Unity Day, Family Day, and an assortment of Christian holidays which will be observed religiously in every sense of the word. Vanuatu has special days in honour of nearly everyone and everything, it seems, except the expatriates who have to try and plan their work around the country's many public holidays (although I daresay that if somebody suggested adding Foreigner's Day to the calendar, plenty of work-shy government officials would jump at the idea).

Of course, it's nice to have an occasional day off. Walter Lini may have decreased his country's annual productivity by half a percentage point or so when he bequeathed it a national holiday, but he also founded what was described last year as "the happiest country on earth" by British economists who ranked their own, more hard-working country 108th in its happiness. However, for teachers with lessons to plan and assessments to organise, the unpredictability of these days off can be frustrating. Consulting a calendar doesn't always help, because it's hard to know which special occasions will respected as holidays and which will not, and at Ranwadi decisions such as "Is tomorrow a school holiday?" are often taken the previous afternoon.

Some public holidays are adhered to very strictly: a local person once told me solemnly that you could be imprisoned for working on Independence Day. Others are more flexible. People at Ranwadi take so much time off for unofficial reasons - by my reckoning, between May and September last year there was only one week during which there was not some sort of disruption that caused lessons to be missed - that the Principal occasionally tries to compensate by making them work during official holidays. Getting the students to actually come to class on such days is like trying to round up wild cats.

Chiefs' Day, on 5th March, was most definitely a holiday - it would have been disrespectful otherwise - and I went down to Vanwoki, the local village, to join in the festivities. Several bearded old chiefs were sitting hunched like happy gnomes on the grass outside the nakamal. Chief Regis, the happiest and gnomiest of the chiefs, has a reputation for growing fine tobacco in his garden on the mountainside, and his produce had evidently been passed around generously. The pungent, ancient smell of the fresh tobacco - a smell I will associate forever with Chief Regis and his village - drifted through the clearing. Two or three small wood fires were smouldering, and now and then people would pick up the glowing logs and use them to light their cigarettes.

Nearby, a villager with a half-broken battery-powered radio had managed to pick up distant Radio Vanuatu by stringing up an aerial in a mango tree. Bright, funky music was followed by the jabbering of the local news; I was too far away to hear what was being said. Probably an increase in the price of something-or-other, or the announcement that such-and-such a village was getting a new truck or a new water supply with the help of such-and-such an agency. Or maybe the latest twist in the court case involving the men from neighbouring Malekula Island who were accused of cultivating marijuana. (Their defence is that their weed is the Biblical Tree of Life, and God's laws are above those of Vanuatu.)

I shook hands respectfully with the chiefs then joined the young men who were mashing up kava roots in preparation for an evening's drinking. A hairy, black-and-white piglet the size of a fat rabbit trotted about snuffling at people's feet. In the cooking pit at the back the nakamal, lumps of pig and taro wrapped in giant leaves were roasting gently under hot stones. Dogs loafed around outside, attracted by the smell of pork. Most of them were either scrawny or obese - village dogs fend for themselves in Vanuatu, and some are better at it than others.

Suddenly the young men in the clearing became animated, talking urgently to one another in the local language. I have yet to master the arcane grammar of Central Pentecost Language, but I can often follow the villagers' conversations by picking up key words - much like a dog ("blah blah blah biscuit") or a computer ("print blah blah blah") or a student at Ranwadi when I speak to them in English ("blah blah homework blah blah Thursday").

In this case the key words I picked up were "atsi" - person - and "temat" - dead. I moved over to the radio and listened.

Fighting had broken out in town between men from Tanna Island and men from Ambrym Island. Such squabbles flare up occasionally between Vanuatu's tribally-minded islanders; this sort of inter-group fighting is the rarely-mentioned downside of living in close-knit communities. Witchcraft is often the cause: a member of one community puts a curse on a member of another community, and retaliation follows. The disputes usually blow over quickly, but this one sounded more serious than usual. Three people were dead, houses had been burned, and 140 people (a huge number by Vanuatu standards) had been rounded up and arrested. The government had held an urgent meeting, and a national "state of emergency" had been in force since the previous morning. The Chief's Day celebrations in Port Vila had been cancelled, and all other public gatherings had been banned.

I had been living through a national emergency for a day and a half, and noticed nothing.

On the radio, the announcer was reading out an urgent message from several Ambrym chiefs, pleading with the members of their community to calm down and "no make'm any more trouble with'em all man Tanna". This was followed by a message informing sports teams that the national stadium would be closed all week because of the trouble, and a message from the management of Vila Hospital advising the public that only emergency cases would be admitted.

Each message was repeated solemnly, the time was announced, and the music resumed. "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" sang brightly through the clearing outside the nakamal.

The young men went back to their chatting and their kava-grinding. The old chiefs sat in silence on the muddy grass and smoked contentedly.


22 March

"You should be teaching the f---ing class, Andrew," my Chemistry teacher told me when I was seventeen. "You'd do a better f---ing job at it than I do."

On that distant Friday night in the Scottish Highlands - a place where the nightlife is so limited that teachers are forced to go and get drunk in the same places as their students - I never imagined that I would get the chance to prove whether or not he was right. Much as I love colours and smells and explosions, a career of helping bored students get to grips with a subject that most of them loathe wasn't what I'd dreamed of.

However, after Mr Noel's retirement, Ranwadi needed somebody to teach its senior Chemistry classes. Since I was the only person around with a science degree (albeit in a different science) - and the only science teacher who didn't blankly refuse to touch the subject - I was given the job.

Ranwadi's senior science lab was built less than two years ago with Australian aid money, yet already looks dingy and old-fashioned. A hibiscus hedge along one side of the building blocks out light and harbours mosquitoes, and on the other side an overhanging roof obscures what would otherwise be a beautiful view of the vine-draped ridge across the valley from the school. Along the wooden panels where the walls meet the roof are rows of government posters carrying important messages in Vanuatu's three national languages ("Don't litter in our beautiful Pacific. Respektem korel rif blong Vanuatu. Sauvons nous tortues de l'extinction"). Elsewhere the walls are made of plain, painted blocks and resist attempts to decorate them: you can't put pins into solid cement, and sellotape and blu-tack quickly lose their stickiness in tropical conditions.

Students in the science lab
Students in the science lab
(Photo from last year's school magazine)

On blustery days, draughts through the windows make any experiment involving flames nearly impossible. Experiments requiring mains electricity have to be done in the evenings, since there is usually no power during the day, which is awkward since all the lights in the lab are broken. The shed housing the school's electricity generator is right next door to the lab, and on the rare occasions when somebody does decide to switch on the power during the day it fills the room with noise.

At the start of term several of the water taps in the sinks along the sides of the room weren't working. The water supply mysteriously restarted one lunchtime when nobody was around, and a tap that had inadvertently been left on flooded the room.

Next door to the lab is a gloomy store room full of glassware and chemicals. By Vanuatu standards Ranwadi's science department is actually very well equipped, partly due to Mr Noel's efforts in bringing science materials from New Zealand and partly thanks to a recent shipment of supplies from AusAID. However, the overworked Mr Noel seldom had time to clean and tidy the storeroom, and nobody else ever bothered. Many pieces of equipment were buried in dusty, unlabelled boxes (some of them, I suspected, had been left unlabelled on purpose to discourage theft), and dirty bottles and test tubes left over from long-past experiments mouldered on the benches. Most of the old glassware was covered with a grey film of dirt, and cobwebs clung to the ceiling. One large spider, in a remarkable feat of engineering, had managed to construct a web that spanned the entire room.

Any chemical with a tendency to degrade in warm conditions had long since done so, and those with the ability to absorb water from the air had turned to slush in the humidity. The salt in the tub marked 'sodium chloride' looked as if it had been scraped from a winter road. Worst of all, there were several bottles and flasks of liquid that had no label, or that looked and smelled as if they weren't what the label claimed them to be. What was I supposed to do with these mystery chemicals? Were they corrosive? Flammable? Poisonous? I had no idea. I was reluctant to simply leave them lying around the lab, but nor did I want to pour them down the sink, from which they would probably drain straight into the local stream. In the end I put them all in a tray marked "Unknown chemicals" with a note to the students and the other science teachers: "If you made these or you know what they are, please label them or dispose of them." I knew that nobody would touch them.

My new Year 12 Chemistry class, who had already studied the subject for a year, were beginning a topic on Organic Chemistry.

"Living things are made of carbon compounds," I told them, and proved the point by plucking a flower from the bushes outside and dropping it into neat sulphuric acid; the flower disintegrated into a black carbon sludge. The students were impressed, especially when I told them that the same thing would probably happen to my finger if I dipped it into the acid.

The Year 11s were just beginning their course, and were tackling the boring-but-necessary topic that forms the first chapter of every chemistry book: the structure of atoms.

"You can knock electrons off their atoms," I explained, rubbing a balloon against my shirt. I held the balloon up to my hair, expecting a tickling of static electricity. Nothing happened. The electricity had been sapped away by the humidity in the air. I would have to try the demonstration again in the dry season.

After a few weeks, a new science teacher arrived at Ranwadi, and Year 11 Chemistry was taken off my hands. Instead - and in spite of making it as obvious as I could that I wanted nothing to do with Year 13s this year - I was given a Year 13 Chemistry class to supervise. My class turned out to consist of one student.

Most Ni-Vanuatu youngsters go through a phase of being exceptionally shy. They are particularly shy around white people, teachers, and members of the opposite sex. A white male teacher giving one-on-one tuition to a local girl was therefore going to be an awkward situation. Fortunately, the girl turned out to be a keen student (perhaps she had picked up on the fact that I would gladly drop the class given a good excuse), and the first few lessons went surprisingly well.

The Year 13 courses are organised by the University of the South Pacific headquarters in Fiji, and comprise a fixed weekly programme of practical activities, individual study, and periodic assessments which are sent to Fiji for marking. The courses make virtually no allowance for the fact that the science facilities at many schools in the South Pacific are basic, nor for the fact that most students in the region do not speak English as a first language. As in last term's Year 13 classes, much of my time was spent explaining in simple terms what the dense, university-style language in the course materials was trying to convey.

Matters weren't helped by the fact that the Year 13s at Ranwadi, in typical Pentecost style, were five weeks late in starting their courses.

"It says here that we should have a big exam next week," my Chemistry student pointed out to me during her second tutorial. "But I haven't had a chance to study any of the material for it yet." (She didn't say this in quite so many words, but through whispered half-sentences and by pointing at her Course Guide she managed to communicate what she meant.)

"Can the exam be postponed?" I asked the teacher responsible for organising the Year 13 courses.

I didn't get a straight answer.

I secretly hoped that there would be another military coup in Fiji. Nothing nasty, of course, just something that would disrupt the University of the South Pacific enough to set back the Year 13s' assessments by a few weeks and give the poor students a chance to catch up.


30 March

Although Melsisi is one of Pentecost's largest villages, virtually nobody lives there.

People come to Melsisi to go to the store, to sell their vegetables at the market, to visit the little building that functions three days a week as a bank and post office, to play sports, to attend school, to load and unload cargo from ships, to get treated at the mission hospital, to watch DVDs on the occasions when somebody can spare the petrol to run an electricity generator, to earn money as teachers and traders and nurses and handymen, to participate in ceremonies, and to hold meetings. Every Sunday morning, a thousand or so people from the surrounding hills literally descend on Melsisi for church. While there, they catch up on the week's gossip, and take the opportunity to buy their weekly supplies of tinned meat and milk (from shopkeepers who are more pragmatic about the Sabbath Day than their counterparts in the Scottish Highlands).

Many of these people have houses in Melsisi where they can sleep for a night, or for a week, or for the duration of the school term. However, these places are not homes. Ask a person in Melsisi where he lives, and he will tell you that his home is "on top", and nod in the direction of the mountains, at some village obscured in the forest.

People from the mountains have always come down to Melsisi to trade and to access the sea. Once upon a time, the visitors ran the risk of being attacked and robbed there - I am told that the name Melsisi meant "spoil" in the area's original language. Relations improved after the arrival of Catholic missionaries, who landed in 1898 a couple of miles down the coast (today a concrete crucifix marks the spot) and were met by the local chiefs. The chiefs liked the idea of worshipping Jesus, local stories recall, but they were taken aback when the missionaries told them that they would need to give up cannibalism and polygamy. Their traditional way of settling grievances - tying the offender to a namele tree and setting it on fire - was also deemed inconsistent with loving thy neighbour. However, after a lengthy discussion amongst themselves, the chiefs agreed that Jesus's ideas made sense. They were fed up, apparently, with dealing with the aggrieved relatives of people they'd eaten or burned alive, and supporting a dozen wives each was just too much hassle. Christianity offered the opportunity for a fresh start.

Having convinced the locals to adopt the new religion, the missionaries established a church and clinic close to the mouth of Melsisi River, on a triangular patch of flat land with mountain slopes on two sides and a stony beach on the third. A couple of cyclones and tsunamis later, they moved their mission up the hill, constructing an enormous whitewashed church on a breezy mountainside well out of reach of the sea (although occasional earthquakes still do their best to try and destroy the building). The old site is now an empty field, shared by cows and sports players, although I'm told that if you look down on the football pitch when the sun is shining from the right direction you can make out the outline of the former church. The stone ruins of the old mission hospital still stand at one corner of the field, intertwined now with the roots of a giant banyan tree. They look as if they are a thousand years old rather than merely a hundred.

Up on their hill, the missionaries certainly had a good view. The coastline curves away southwards like the rim of a giant basin, lined with a ribbon of gold where the mountain meets the ocean. The gold seeps into the sea like wet paint, turning the shallows green and turquoise. Elsewhere the ocean has the watery darkness of dilute ink. The rim is steep, and scars on the slopes and boulders lying in the sea attest to a history of landslides. At the far end a headland juts out into the water like a broken edge, jagged with vegetation. In the distance is the grey stone caldera of Ambrym Island, drifting in ocean mist and volcanic vapour.

Despite its spectacular setting, Melsisi itself is a relatively ramshackle place. Most of Pentecost's other villages are such homely little settlements, with well-tended huts surrounded by gardens and fruit trees and little creeks, that it is easy to forget that you are in the impoverished Third World. Although these villages are muddy and poor, they are the sort of place in which you could imagine living and being happy. You could imagine growing up there, spending your childhood working the gardens and playing in the forest, leaving for the better life of the big city yet always thinking fondly of your old village, taking your own children for holidays there, and perhaps returning in your retirement to spend your final days contented in the place that will always be your home.

Melsisi, by contrast, is nobody's home. Although it is by no means an unpleasant place - 'shanty town' is too strong a term - it is very visibly part of the Third World. The grey cement houses of the mission sit jumbled together with metal shacks and dilapidated wooden huts on a rough, grassy slope, broken up by a scattering of trees. There are no streets or driveways, just an organic network of tracks and pathways threading amongst the houses. In wet weather the most heavily-used paths are trampled into shitty mud. Villagers fetch water in buckets from communal taps, cattle and chickens wander amongst the houses, and men and women sit under trees waiting for somebody or something or nothing in particular. Being a Catholic community, Melsisi is infested with children, who spot foreign visitors a mile away and gather by the roadside to shout out greetings. Many of them only know two English phrases, "Good morning" and "Good night", so turning up in the afternoon confuses them.

Downtown Melsisi

At the top the slope immediately above the sports field are the main buildings of the Collège de Melsisi, the local French-speaking school. Vanuatu's burdensome bilingual education system is a hangover from colonial days, when the country was ruled jointly by the British and French, whose missionaries each established their own schools. Since independence, the English-speaking schools have been maintained because English is the major language of business and tourism in the South Pacific, and is the language of the region's main universities. The French-speaking schools have been maintained because France would stop giving aid to Vanuatu if they weren't, and local French teachers would be out of a job. The French, aware that their language is in danger of losing ground, have made desperate efforts to try and instil some linguistic pride into their former subjects. Recently the people of Melsisi held a lafet to celebrate 'Francophonie Day' (it took me a while to figure out that 'lafet' was the local pronunciation of 'la fête'). Songs were sung in French, speeches were given, a feast was held, and when the lafet was over everybody went back to speaking Pidgin English.

At the College I usually call in to visit Sara the Peace Corps girl, who lives in a plywood house next door the Principal, surrounded by trees that drop mushy rose apples and giant avocados onto the bare ground. Visitors who speak English are always welcome - Sara doesn't get many - and are usually greeted outside the house by Princess Oreo, Sara's biscuit-coloured dog.

I first met Oreo on Sara's birthday, when the little dog woke up to find her house filled with burning cakes and giant rubber spheres that exploded when clawed or bitten. Oreo rightly blamed me for these intrusions, and our relationship got off to a bad start. For a while the dog would try to bite me whenever Sara wasn't looking, and I became quite skilled at fending the creature off with umbrellas and pieces of wood. However, after spending Christmas with the local villagers - who presumably beat some discipline into the animal - Oreo decided that white men weren't so bad after all, and now greets me (and any other pale-skinned visitor) by jumping up with muddy paws, misinterpreting my cultural unwillingness to kick her as a sign that I want to be her friend.

Oreo's official purpose in life is to guard her mistress against would-be rapists and intruders, although in fact the dog frequently buggers off at night and sometimes Sara actually has to go out on her own in the darkness to look for the wandering animal. Oreo's other pastimes include: getting in people's way, yapping at visiting children, acquiring parasites, obeying commands to "sit" and "stay" when it suits her, bringing home disgusting objects such as the hooves from freshly-slaughtered bullocks, tormenting the dog next door, and running a mile when Sara tries to take her down to the river for a bath. Sara loves the dog all the same.


Local sorcerers, it is claimed, can fly to Melsisi from Ranwadi in only a couple of minutes if they find the right magic leaf. For the rest of us it is a four mile (6 km) walk, along the puddly dirt road which crosses the headland north of the school and then runs along the narrow coast.

The distance to Melsisi is about the same as the distance from my childhood home to the town where many of my schoolfriends lived, a journey it never once occurred to me to make on foot. In Britain, four-mile walks are strictly for weatherproofed outdoor enthusiasts in scenic areas; if you suggested walking four miles for the simple purpose of getting somewhere, people would react as if you were crazy. Try it sometime and see. Even if the walk would only take an hour and you might spend nearly that long waiting at the bus stop, even if the time spent earning money to buy a car would cancel out the time saved by travelling in it, walking four miles is crazy. There's a bus stop round the corner. I can give you a lift. You'd be crazy to walk.

The people who tell you this are not necessarily lazy; many would happily spend a similar amount of time and effort on a treadmill down at the gym. This costs money and achieves nothing except the regeneration of a few muscle fibres and the oxidation of a few grams of food molecules. But using that energy to actually get somewhere would be crazy.

Not that four-mile walks back home are a particularly pleasant way of passing the time. In most cities it's hard to walk four miles without passing through neighbourhoods that are depressing or dangerous. As for the rural highways of England, most are downright unwalkable unless you enjoy picking your way along a muddy, litter-strewn verge within buffeting distance of the giant vehicles that thunder past at twenty-five metres per second spraying clouds of grit, rainwater and uncombusted diesel particles onto the crazy person by the roadside.

The four-mile walk to Melsisi, by contrast, is a very pleasant outing. Shady trees overhang the road, and scented flowers and decomposing fruits combine to create an ever-changing succession of perfumes. Crabs dodge sideways like obstacles in a computer game, and pigs grunt at you from the bushes nearby. Growing in the verges are sensitive grasses that fold their leaves when poked; give them a second poke and the entire plant cowers down in alarm, exposing its thorns. When teaching biology in Edinburgh I once grew some of these sensitive plants a pot in my classroom (where they helped to convince one sceptical student that plants are in fact living things), but when the heating was switched off during the school holidays the poor things died of cold. There is no danger of that happening here.

In one spot the roadway descends right onto the beach, passing a small cave and running around the base of a magic cliff. Here I often stop to try and hurl a stone into the natural chimney running through the rock so that it tumbles, arcade-style, out of a hole of the bottom of the cliff. This is reputed to bring some sort of luck. (I assume it's good luck, since nobody would try it otherwise.)

Vehicles are a rare sight on Pentecost's roads, and when one does pass the driver will slow down and wave; sometimes he will even stop for a quick chat. Where the road passes along the shore, I occasionally come across people shovelling 'sand beach' into sacks and loading the materials into a truck to be taken to nearby building sites. Sometimes I am offered a lift on the back of the truck; sometimes I help with loading the sand beach in return.

It would be highly rude to pass a fellow walker on the road without at least a smile and a nod of the head, and the majority of people will stop to talk. The language varies - most commonly Pidgin, sometimes the local language, perhaps the odd word of French, and very occasionally real English - but the conversation is nearly always the same:

"Yes, Andrew!" Nearly everyone along the road to Melsisi now knows me by name. "Ko ban ibeh?"

"Nam sip Melsisi." The same place I'm always going when you meet me along this road and ask me where I'm going.

"Kon mulma nangih?"

"Bung mwerani." I'm coming back tonight.

"By you walkabout 'long night?" For some reason people usually revert to Pidgin English when they're surprised.

"Uh-huh." Unlike most people on Pentecost I'm not too frightened of ghosts to go for a long walk in the dark. And unlike them I have a good supply of rechargeable batteries for my torch.

"OK." Sometimes there's a shaking of the head and a rather-you-than-me look. "Allez!"


I find many excuses to visit Melsisi - visiting the shops, going to the bank, catching up with Sara, going for a walk - but the village's real attraction is that it is the only place for several miles around where you can be sure of a good night out. Each of the local communities whose members come together in Melsisi has its own bar, where men gather in the evenings to swill down coconut shells and plastic bottles filled with sini - the local name for kava. The drink is made from the roots of Piper methysticum, the 'intoxicating pepper plant', which are brought down in baskets from gardens high on the mountain. The yellow roots are pounded into paste using an old drainpipe and a wooden ram, mashed up with water fetched in buckets from a nearby tap, and then sieved through rice sacks and old stockings. The resulting liquid looks and tastes utterly poisonous, but has the useful property of shutting down those parts of the brain that are overly concerned with the tedious details of life while leaving the rest largely unaffected. This leaves drinkers free to contemplate their deeper thoughts, enjoy the friendship of their companions, and fully appreciate how wonderful it is to be in the South Pacific on a warm tropical night.

Lesuube kava bar, Melsisi
Down at the kava bar

Officially, a shell-full of kava costs selen kalim - five shillings. (The price is actually 50 vatu, but since numbers larger than ten are awkward to say in the local language, people continue to quote prices in pounds and shillings - 200 vatu to the pound, and ten to the shilling - even though these forms of money haven't been used in Vanuatu since colonial days.) However, half an hour of pleasant conversation is usually enough to earn a free shell of the drink, and among the regulars at the bar money seldom changes hands. At one kava bar I was given a drink on the house in return for saying grace (it's customary at many bars for drinkers to pray and ask God to bless their drug abuse before the first shell is drunk). On another occasion the barman actually pursued me out of the door as I was leaving, a brimming shell of kava in his hand, in his eagerness to give me a free drink.

"You one customer now. You no pay'em," I was told recently, as I took my shell of kava and tried to hand over my 'five shillings'.

You're a regular customer now, so you don't have to pay. I wish the same had applied at the student bars in Edinburgh.


<< February 2007 diary · April 2007 diary >>



See also...

Introduction to my travels in the South Pacific


© Andrew Gray, 2007