Andrew Gray's Diary from the South Pacific

9th May

Standing on the old-fashioned observation terrace of Port Vila International Airport watching the passengers disembark from the plane, I didn't recognise my parents until they stepped to one side and waved. My family live in the Scottish Highlands, and I'm unused to seeing them in summer clothes.

My Mum had decided to come for a holiday in Vanuatu, to see for herself the islands for which her son had abandoned his home country. Having spent part of her own youth teaching in Belize, a tiny tropical country with many similarities to Vanuatu, back in the 1960s (long before most people had heard of gap years), I had little doubt she'd enjoy the place.

My Dad spent his youth (and pretty much all of his life since the age of about five) immersed in electronics. He travels only when there is a good reason, usually accompanied by computer magazines and an assortment of hi-tech gadgetry. (The gadgets get smaller and more efficient each year, but their battery chargers don't.) He dislikes heat, reacts badly to mosquito bites, and (like me) has legs far longer than airline seating was designed for. Bravely, he agreed to come along too.

Rain threatened to close the local airfield in the run-up to my parents' arrival, so I left Pentecost on the roof of a cargo ship under the stars, sleeping on top of a pile of iron bars. (This was more comfortable than it sounds - the iron bars filled in the grooves on the corrugated metal roof - although it left horrible rust marks on my clothing.) I arrived in Port Vila with three or four days to spare, by the end of which I had so thoroughly exhausted the list of interesting and affordable things to do in town that on the day of my parents' arrival I walked the four or five miles to the airport in the rain to relieve the boredom.

When my parents decided to fly out from Britain to visit me in Vanuatu during the school holidays, and asked whereabouts in the country we should go, I had one overriding suggestion: get out of town. Port Vila is a pleasant enough place for a short holiday, but gets boring quite quickly if you're not wealthy enough to enjoy the cocktails and cuisine or easily-amused enough to spend the day lounging beside the pool. My parents fall into neither category. Besides, they were coming largely out of curiosity to see what had motivated their son to abandon his home country for a dot on the other side of the planet. A fortnight in an air-conditioned hotel would give them a very inaccurate impression of what my life (and the life of most other people) in the South Pacific is like.

The majority of the visitors who come to Vanuatu never leave town. Their experience of the country is confined to the few-mile-square enclaves of paved roads, mains electricity, piped water and supermarkets that surround Port Vila, the capital, and Luganville, the country's other main town. The few tourists who visit the rest of the country typically do so on day trips choreographed by tour operators who do their best to ensure that their guests don't have to eat the local food, drink the local water, shit in the local toilets, sleep in the local bungalows, or try to talk to anybody except the English-speaking tour guide. The number of foreign visitors who spend time in rural Vanuatu is less than the meagre number who read about the place on my web site. These travellers talk smugly of 'the real Vanuatu' as we settle down in our candlelit bungalows with flasks of lukewarm drinking water fetched from the village tap, watch the day-trippers being flown back to town in time for a hot shower and a sunset cocktail by the poolside, and lament that the ordinary tourists don't know what they're missing out on.

I was determined that my parents were not going to miss out. As a first step we hired a car (actually a minibus - the extra ground clearance was useful on the uneven dirt roads) and drove around to the rural side of Efaté, Port Vila's island. (There are plans to pave the round-island road soon, to make rural Efaté more accessible to day trippers from the town. Enjoy the tranquillity while it lasts.) Stopping en route, we saw beaches tinted blue-green by the rounded shards of a million Coca-Cola bottles discarded by the Americans in the Second World War, and beaches of volcanic pumice where the stones were lighter than the water and floated in the surf. On the north-eastern side of Efaté, we saw hillsides so smothered with the alien mile-a-minute vine (another thing that the Americans introduced during the war and neglected to clean up afterwards) that from a distance the landscape appeared to be wrapped in green tinfoil. We saw forests overhung by giant banyan trees, shorelines lined by wind-tasselled pandanus palms, and pigs wallowing in puddles on the road. We were taken to see pygmy bats, crawling on our hands and knees across the floor of caves chocolate-coated with the creatures' manure. We watched villagers weaving a basket from a single coconut leaf, and using a hammer to crack a nut. In exchange for a small fee, one man showed us his collection of wartime artefacts; another showed us his collection of banded iguanas. My parents watched and took photos as two men hoisted me into the air on a pile of small leaves that were not tied or glued together in any way, holding together under my weight seemingly by magic. (A Pentecost islander who once described this trick to me claimed that it actually was magic. To Muggles it's all a matter of friction.)

Mele-Maat Cascades
"Honestly, Mum, this is the path."

Coming from Scotland, a nation in which fried potato chips are officially the number one source of Vitamin C, the thing that most appealed to my parents about Vanuatu was the delicious abundance of tropical fruit. Looking around the market in Port Vila, the names of most of the fruits were familiar, but the produce on display bore little resemblance to the groceries in a British superstore (and not just because of the live chickens and dead fruit bats being sold amongst the piles of fruit and vegetables). Bananas, a simple product back home, come in half a dozen varieties here. (When Peace Corps volunteers on Pentecost were demonstrating the use of contraception to local teenagers, using bananas as props, an amusing debate ensued about which kind of banana was the most appropriate.) Lemons in Vanuatu are typically green, limes are often yellow, and oranges can be either green or yellow but are seldom orange. The succulent, sweet pamplemousse that weigh down the local trees are so different from the acid yellow mush served with continental breakfasts back home that it had never occurred to me that the two were related until my Dad (who paid more attention in French classes than I did at school) pointed out that pamplemousse is merely "grapefruit" by a foreign name.

Not all the fruits were so appealing. May is the season for nakatambol (dragon plums), bunches of golf ball-sized yellow fruits that grow on giant trees in the jungle and have absolutely no flavour whatsoever.

"What do people do with these things?" my Dad asked.

"Eat them," I replied.

"They must be bored."

Vanuatu's vegetables, too, were an exotic bunch. My parents' opinion of taro was the same as that of most foreigners confronted with Melanesia's swamp-grown staple food: it may be good for supplying cheap calories to hungry Third World farmers, but you need to fry the mushy purple root pretty heavily before it makes an enjoyable meal. (Some anthropologists actually blame a diet of taro for Melanesians' historical failure to develop advanced civilisations.) Fortunately the local yams, a more potato-like vegetable, met with my parents' approval, and in the restaurant that served chips made from kumala (sweet potato) my Mum ordered extra helpings.

Pig wallowing on the road in North Efate
Where will the pigs go to wallow after they pave the road?

At the suggestion of a hotel receptionist in Port Vila, our first night out of town was spent in Siviri, a quiet Presbyterian village on the north coast of the island. My parents smiled bravely when they saw the inside of the guesthouse. The corrugated-metal hut was utterly bare, except for the old pandanus mats covering the coral floor. The bathroom was a concrete shed beside a neighbouring house, with a cold shower that barely worked and a yellow-stained toilet that could be flushed only by the old-fashioned method of chucking down a bucket of water.

"We're planning to build a new guesthouse," the villagers told us, gesturing to an empty patch of ground beside the nearby church.

As usual, the message that we were coming had not been passed on, but we were nonetheless welcome. Within an hour mattresses had been laid on floor of the guesthouse, mosquito nets had been rigged up (supported by sticks freshly cut from the surrounding trees), a lantern had been hung from the ceiling, and the place was looking positively comfortable. The villagers cooked dinner and brewed cups of tea while chatting to us about their families, and asking about our lives back in 'England'. (Ni-Vanuatu, like many careless Englishpeople, don't usually distinguish between 'England' and 'Britain', and trying to explain in Pidgin English that actually my parents live in Scotland, which is part of the same country as England yet is also a separate country from England, is usually more trouble than it's worth.)

There was a lively atmosphere in Siviri that week. A local man was preparing to get married, and piles of vegetables were accumulating in preparation for the wedding feast. A prayer evening was being held in the local church, which we were welcome to attend. We were introduced to the chief, the minister, and numerous passing sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles.

At the end of the evening I asked how to wish our hosts goodnight in the local language.

Trying to exchange pleasantries in their native languages with the people I meet has become a hobby of mine recently, mainly because in a country with over a hundred languages it's such an interesting challenge. It's a mission even to remember who speaks what where: the map of Vanuatu is a convoluted jigsaw-puzzle of different linguistic areas. Sometimes the boundaries are logical - the people on one side of the island speak this language, and the people on the other side speak that language - but in many cases historical movements of people from place to place have contorted a language area so that it resembles a gerrymandered electoral district. In a few places, the villages that share common tongues are scattered as though their languages were dropped on them from the sky like bombs.

Pentecost Island is chopped like a sausage into four relatively neat language slices, some of which are subdivided into further slices representing dialects. The boundaries between these slices have slid up and down over past centuries, as neighbouring languages expanded and contracted their share of the Pentecost pie. The central slice - Apma, the language now spoken around Ranwadi - has spread in recent times to cover half of the island, squeezing one southern neighbour down to a few square miles and overrunning another completely. Depending where on how far north or south I am on the island, I might wish the passers-by in the evening "bung mwamak", "bontavuha", "biong ambis", or "ranlopwas entô". Unless, of course, I recognise the person as a visitor or a student from neighbouring Ambae Island, in which case it's "bon karea", or as a history enthusiast who still remembers a few words of Sowa language (the almost-forgotten fifth slice), in which case I can really show off and say "bông awê".

In Port Vila, which is populated by immigrants from all over Vanuatu and must have one of the highest language densities of any town on Earth (a hundred languages among 40,000 people), the speaking-their-native-language game is trickier, but sometimes it can be done. The ladies at the food stall where I often buy dinner come from Tongariki Island; I can greet them in the evenings with "em bong". At the nearby kava bar run by Paama islanders it's "morray vongien" (or "morray vizokon" if I run into the same people the next morning) and at the bar run by North Pentecost islanders it's back to "bontavuha" or its shortened form, "bongi". The Australian tourists in Port Vila speak more-or-less my own language (although to indicate that I'm addressing them formally as a polite stranger I must remember to include the word "mate"), and I can attempt half a dozen or so phrases in the languages of half a dozen or so European nations. (However, in practice I don't normally wish "good evening" to white strangers on the streets of Port Vila, because if they haven't been in Vanuatu for long they might consider it weird.) To French expatriates, as a matter of principle, I speak English.

The locals' reactions to my efforts range from appreciation ("Thank you for taking the time to learn our language") to utter surprise. An old woman in South Pentecost once reacted with such shock to a phrase in her native language that I stopped using the phrase until I'd had the chance to double-check that it was a greeting and not an obscene swear word that somebody had taught me for a joke. The phrase turned out to be perfectly innocuous; people in Vanuatu simply don't expect outsiders to speak their languages.

In traditional Vanuatu society, individuals would have learned the languages of neighbouring tribes as a way of acquiring influence and demonstrating skill. Nowadays the ni-Vanuatu do this by learning English and French instead, although knowledge of multiple vernaculars is still common among people who live in linguistic border zones, and people whose relatives come from different parts of the country. Those who know a second indigenous language generally speak it well, since most pick it up at a young age, and the language is probably related to their own. The ni-Vanuatu are therefore not used to hearing their languages badly mispronounced, and my stuttering Anglicisations amuse them a lot. (Their amusement turns to horror when I point out that the way I sound when speaking their languages is the way people in Vanuatu sound to me when they are speaking English.)

The most entertaining moments occur when somebody in town, taking me for a tourist, happens to mention to me that he comes from Pentecost Island. Casually inquiring what part of Pentecost, I can ascertain whether or not his language is likely to be the same as the one that the villagers around Ranwadi have been trying to teach me.

My native language is known by over a billion people, and there is no corner of the world where I would be surprised to be spoken to in English. However, if your language is used only by a tiny community of a few thousand people living on a isolated island, meeting a foreigner from the other side of the world and finding him suddenly start to speak in it is like receiving a message from aliens thousands of light years away and finding them talking in Cockney rhyming slang. Watching the expressions on people's faces, it seems appropriate that Pentecost Island is named after the day on which the apostles started speaking in tongues.

Back in Siviri, it turned out that I knew a phrase or two of the local lingo already: the language spoken on North Efaté is the same as that spoken on neighbouring Nguna, an island where I spent a week six years ago. (This language, which is also spoken in the northern half of Tongoa Island - I occasionally use it with Tongoans at bars in Port Vila - goes by the name of Nakanamanga.) The Nguna phrase for "good night" originally stuck in my mind because it sounded a lot like the French, although the similarity is coincidental; here "bon" means "night" rather than "good":

"Bon wia."


14th May

Our next destination was Espiritu Santo, the largest island in Vanuatu's chain. The size of the island led its first European visitor, the 17th-century explorer Quiros, to believe that he had discovered a great antipodean continent, which he named "Austrialia del Espiritu Santo", the southern land of the Holy Spirit. The first part of the name (slightly modified) was eventually transferred to the true southern continent, while the second part was kept by its original owner.

Espiritu Santo's geography mirrors Britain's, with the north and west dominated by wild and beautiful mountains (the tallest of which exceed Snowdon or Ben Nevis by a thousand feet or so) while the south and east are flat and agricultural. The island's population is centred around the town of Luganville, built beside a reefy channel along on the southern coast.

Tourists fly from Port Vila to Luganville aboard the ATR, a comfortable, pressurised airliner quite unlike anything else in Air Vanuatu's domestic fleet. Having grown accustomed to inter-island journeys in tiny propeller planes jammed with passengers, baskets, bags and occasional animals (Air Vanuatu have recently passed a rule requiring pigs to be killed and cleaned before being loaded onto the planes, but live chickens are still welcome), my trip from Port Vila to Luganville was like a dream. In my dream I was on an internal flight in Vanuatu - it must have been Vanuatu, because they'd slapped a "Security Checked" sticker on my hand luggage without making me take out any of the sharp objects - yet the plane had numbered seats, in-flight magazines, and a flight attendant handing out orange juice and snacks.

Luggage being loaded onto an Air Vanuatu plane
Luggage being loaded onto one of Air Vanuatu's smaller island hoppers.
(Who says chickens can't fly?)

As in Port Vila, our priority was to get out of town. Luganville grew up out of the hollowed-out remains of an American wartime base and is, quite literally, a dump. The infrastructure left behind at the end of the war has been upgraded a bit in the past sixty years, but you'd hardly notice. The corrugated-metal Quonset huts that one held soldiers and their supplies still dot the suburbs, and two of the stretches of road leading out of town are undisguisedly the remains of old airstrips.

Luganville is noticeably nearer to the equator than Port Vila, and on breezeless days the atmosphere is stupefying. Watching dusty vehicles rattle up and down Main Street while youths sit boredly in the shade by the shop fronts, you get the impression that nothing interesting has happened here since 1945, apart from the occasional riot. By the standards of the developing world Luganville is not a bad town - it isn't smelly or dirty or highly dangerous or even particularly ugly. It is simply utterly devoid of glamour. Whilst Port Vila's resorts lavish their hospitality on romantic couples with hibiscus flowers behind their ears, government ministers with champagne glasses in their hands and short-sleeved businessmen with tax-free dollars in their bank accounts, Luganville's shabby hotels and cafes get their business from beer-soaked scuba divers (the local wartime wreckage extends far beneath the ocean) and Peace Corps volunteers from isolated villages who come into town desperate for a pizza and an ice-cream.

Car hire is not big business on Espiritu Santo - the roads deteriorate pretty rapidly as you drive out of town - but we managed to rent an old four wheel drive in which to explore the island. The air-conditioning was broken, the suspension was useless, and a few miles along the road one of the windows dropped open. We returned to Luganville, where a flustered employee at the car hire company reluctantly agreed to take back the old rattler and allow us to use her boss's car, an enormous, shiny chrome-blue SUV of the kind that occupies pride of place in expensive showrooms. Cruising along inside, you could just feel yourself contributing to global warming (or maybe it was just that we hadn't turned up the air conditioning quite high enough to cope with Santo's climate). Taking such a vehicle out on Vanuatu's destructive rural roads seemed like borrowing your neighbour's best suit and wearing it to go out digging in the garden. We left it to my Dad do the driving.

Lambue Airfield
My Mum on one of the roads out of Luganville, formerly Lambue Airfield

First we travelled up the east coast, stopping for a picnic lunch at Champagne Beach, a gorgeous palm-lined, crystalline bay filled to the brim with sand and sunlight. The thatched Champagne Beach Bar, built for visitors who come on occasional cruise ships, was empty and deserted. We sat under the shade in front of the bar pouring ourselves orange juice out of the picnic bag in plastic cups.

After a snooze under the trees, we continued along the coast to Port Olry, a surprisingly substantial settlement of three thousand people, built on a grassy coastal strip looking out across pale blue water and wave-splashed islets. (Port Olry is reputedly Vanuatu's second largest village, with Mele, on the outskirts of Port Vila, being the largest.)

At Port Olry we spent the night in a rustic wooden guest bungalow decorated with seashells and obscure carvings, by the seashore in the centre of the village. A pet fruit bat dangled in a cage under the eaves of the house next door. When I touched the cage, the bat leaned over and licked my finger.

In Port Olry, as in Siviri, our visit coincided with a wedding: on the day of our arrival a local boy had married a girl from a distant part of the island. (There are plenty of eligible girls in the neighbouring village of Hog Harbour, I was told, but the people of Port Olry traditionally regard the people of that village as enemies. Nowadays members of the two communities can just about bring themselves to sit down at a table together, but intermarriage is out of the question.) Some of the young bridegroom's friends continued to party all through the night, sending highly-amplified pop music resonating through the village. Exotic kava, combined with a loud midnight playing of Eighties rock anthem The Final Countdown, combined to give me a strange dream whose storyline I hope to adapt someday into a bestselling novel.

At breakfast next morning, we ate baguettes and giant pamplemousse outside the guest bungalow, watching turtles amble back and forth in the swimming-pool-coloured water. A group of attenuated-looking partygoers were shambling about under the trees nearby, still clutching their CD player and refusing to accept that it was now The Morning After. Every so often one would collapse on the sand and lie there for a few minutes before regaining consciousness and getting up to continue the party. It was a scene that would have been familiar in urban Britain, yet looked strange on a South Pacific beach. Youths are the same everywhere, my parents concluded.

With big co-operative stores, a glitzy little wooden restaurant (the glitziness came largely from the Christmas decorations, which didn't look as out-of-place as you would expect on a tropical island in May), and a fleet of minibuses that departed at dawn every day to carry workers into Luganville, Port Olry had a positively suburban feel.

Our next stop, the village of Tassiriki, was a very different place.

"It's like stepping back into Saxon times," my Mum observed, looking out across the grassy clearing where cows and chickens wandered freely among the thatched wooden huts.

Tassiriki is on the mountainous western side of Espiritu Santo, at the end of a dirt road so bad that my Dad spent his night there lying awake, worrying about the prospect of having to drive back along it in the hire company boss's shiny new car. The people of Tassiriki have traditionally earned a living by growing food in their hillside gardens and selling the surplus at market, but with the population growing rapidly the elders of the village's Presbyterian Church realised that something extra would be needed to support the village's economy. Tourism, they decided, was the answer.

On a patch of ground donated by the church, fenced to keep away the wandering cows, a small cement guesthouse had been constructed. On the wall was a poster listing in Pidgin English the stages to be completed in the village's tourism project, and who was responsible for each one. First build the guesthouse, the poster instructed, then organise people who can cook for the guests and act as tour guides, and plant a garden with food that the visitors might like (in other words, something other than taro). Drawn up on jumbo-sized flipchart paper in thick coloured markers, the poster was the unmistakeable attempt of yet another Peace Corps volunteer trying valiantly to encourage American efficiency and entrepreneurship in a place where such things would never, ever catch on. The deadlines on the chart had all passed, and every box appeared to have been ticked, yet several of the things to do had clearly not been done. "Build'em one tourist bathroom," for example. A patch of ground for the new bathroom had been cleared all right, and the sacks of cement were there - piled up in two of the guesthouse's four rooms - but the actual construction of the bathroom had yet to begin. In the meantime, guests were shown the way to the local pit toilet (on the far side of a prickly bog), and the creek at the bottom of the nearby gulley where the villagers go when they need a wash.

The poor woman who had been given the role of looking after the tourists cared for them well, but was struggling to build up the confidence for her new role. When our shiny blue hire car had pulled up in the village, it had been a great relief for her to discover that one of its occupants could speak Pidgin English.

"Sometimes, when tourists who only speak English come, I cry," she told us (in Pidgin). "I go and hide in my house, and I cry. I say, 'No, I don't want to go out and speak English to the tourists. I have too much shame!'"

The Pidgin word "shame" covers not just shame in its Western sense, but also the deep shyness that sometimes afflicts the ni-Vanuatu in public, particularly in the presence of foreigners and members of the opposite sex. When a boy at Ranwadi who turn up late to class is reluctant to come into the room because of his "shame", what he means is not that he is ashamed by his lack of punctuality (though many of them should be), but rather that he does not want the sensation of the entire class watching as he walks in.

The young men of Tassiriki, by contrast, were only too eager to talk to visitors and to show us round. One took us down to a cove on the shore where a tree jutted out from a cliff over the sea, as high as a multi-storey building.

"Don't you dare encourage the tourists to jump off that tree," his mother called out as the young man led us down to the base of the cliff. "If you want to risk your neck with that silly jumping trick of yours, go ahead, but I don't want the tourists getting hurt!"

She was speaking in the local vernacular - one of the fourteen unique languages spoken on Espiritu Santo - in which I know nothing except the obligatory "good day" ("ran bani") and "good night" ("won bani"), but I discovered afterwards what had been said.

The young man did as he was told, showing us the best spot from which to watch as he clambered alone up the cliff, strutted along the tree like a displaying bird, and dived into the water. Unharmed, he swam ashore and proudly watched his performance on the screen of my Dad's digital camera.

On the black-sand beach, other villagers had strung a net out into the water. A group of small boys waded towards the net, splashing and slapping the water to drive the fish towards it. Some of the fish managed to jump the net, but others were less lucky. The net was pulled around into a circle, and hauled ashore, with a couple of little silver bodies entangled in the meshing. It wasn't a spectacular haul, but for the boys it would make a nice change from taro.

In a hut by the shore, an electricity generator was powering an icebox containing more of the fish, along with the previous night's leftover kava. (Pidgin words have a habit of working their way into the vocabularies of English-speakers who spend time in Vanuatu, like invasive weeds slowly displacing the native species. Freezers are now iceboxes, just as cattle are now bullocks, cloth is now calico, chickens are now fowls - though their cooked limbs are still 'chicken wings' - and containers are now plastics.) Two of the village boys and I filled up a plastic with the chilled kava and drank it back at the guesthouse, where my Mum was trying to take action photos of geckoes hunting insects around the light. Chilled kava is much nicer than the fresh drink, I decided - the coldness dulls the awful taste.

With tourism still a new idea in Tassiriki, the villagers were anxious for advice on how to make white visitors welcome.

Don't butter their bread on both sides, I advised them the next morning, after an exceptionally messy and greasy breakfast. "Some white misses all-ee worry from body ee come fat-fat too-much". And get some mosquito nets for the rooms. "Some white people all-ee worry b'long catch'em fever".

The villagers took our advice on the butter, but reassured us that mosquitoes are not a problem in Tassiriki. Once upon a time they were, but after the first Presbyterian missionary arrived from Scotland he brought a curse down upon the mosquitoes and cast them out of the village.

Get some mosquito nets anyway, I recommended.


30th May

After the sudden death of Michel Vusi, Bishop of Vanuatu, the country's Catholics plummeted into mourning. All-night prayer sessions were held at missions around the country, and a national holiday was declared. Flights were booked out as priests and well-wishers tried to get to Port Vila for the funeral ceremony. (When an island is served by minibus-sized planes that land only three or four times a week, it doesn't take a lot to fill them up.) The village men in their nakamals talked in respectful tones about the many good works that the bishop had done during his tragically-shortened life, and in the absence of reliable news, speculation raged about what had caused the death. While some opted for the mundane idea that the middle-aged bishop had suffered a heart attack, the more superstitious argued that the unfortunate man must have come into contact with the blood of a menstruating woman.

Unlike most things in Vanuatu, mourning follows a strict calendar. A commemorative feast, accompanied by plenty of kava, must be held on the tenth day after the death, and after the loss of a particularly beloved figure the intervening nine days will also be devoted to soulful bouts of pig-roasting and kava-drinking. A further ritual is held exactly one hundred days after the death. Other round numbers, such as five days and twenty days, may also be the occasion for ceremonies.

Ranwadi College is run by the Churches of Christ, who have nothing to do with any figure as worldly and corruptible as a bishop, and here the impact of the tragedy was minimal. Nobody tried to teach classes during the national holiday, but this was simply because it was the first week of term and half of the students had yet to make their way back to school. The day of mourning didn't stop the Deputy Principal from ordering the students who had returned on time to spend the morning hauling rocks for the new water tanks.

"It's not surprising that your students come back late after the holidays," observed my parents, who were spending the week with me at Ranwadi before flying home.

Crossing Waterfall River
Showing my Dad around Pentecost.
("Aren't you glad you don't have to drive through this one?")

At the Collège de Melsisi, part of the local Catholic mission, it was a different story. There, respect and tradition demanded that the school remain closed for the entire ten days following the bishop's death.

At Ranwadi, the loss of a week or two of school would prompt nothing more than a few mutterings followed by a long shrug. It happens regularly. Education at Ranwadi bounces from one obstacle to another like an inflatable raft, taking on water and capsizing at regular intervals yet always somehow managing to stay afloat with most of its passengers still clinging on. The Collège de Melsisi, by contrast, is normally an imperturbable steamship of a school, seldom deviating from its rigid schedule. The disruption caused by the bishop's death was agonising, and Melsisi's principal talked (to his colleagues' horror) of taking away a week of the next school holidays to compensate. Yet nobody would countenance the possibility of sending the College's students and teachers back to work until the Ten Days were over.

On Day Eight, after saying goodbye to my parents at the airfield, I went to visit Sara the Peace Corps girl at Melsisi.

On a normal afternoon, Sara's house buzzes like a honey pot with people coming and going: students with their English books, colleagues with keys and pieces of paper, and well-meaning villagers bringing enormous bundles of cabbage and unappetising slabs of roasted vegetable. (Disposing of these unwanted gifts discreetly, so as not to cause offence, is one of the major challenges in Sara's life. They don't burn well, the dog refuses to eat them, and the rubbish bin outside the house is in full view of passers-by.) During spare minutes in between visitors, Sara is usually busy 'grading papers', planning lessons, listening to music, or trying out the latest packet of ready-made cookie dough or Betty Crocker instant muffin mix posted by her friends back in the States.

This particular afternoon was different. Walking up to the house, past empty lawns and deserted classrooms, the only sign of animation came from Sara's dog, which had picked up a fresh batch of fleas during the holidays and was rolling on the grass in itchy spirals. Inside the house it was gloomy and quiet. With college life suspended, nobody had switched on the electricity generator, and the batteries in Sara's laptop and her iPod had run out a week ago.

Sara was sitting hunched on the floor, flipping idly through a magazine.

"I've never been here with no work to do before," she said. "It's amazing how much of the day you can spend sleeping."

The kava bar under the mango tree was closed that evening, but in the corrugated-metal nakamal next door, groups of men were hunched solemnly around large wooden boards, working away at kava roots with stone grinders and straining the pulp through scraps of coconut fibre to make a strong, traditional brew. Other men were slouched on benches along the sides of the room, smoking, snoozing, or sitting in quiet contemplation. Now and again one of the men doing the grinding would mutter "mam sini" ("your kava") and nod towards one of the onlookers, who would walk over, gulp down his coconut shell full of liquid, and spit noisily to clear the taste from his mouth before returning to his seat.

Food was being roasted in a house nearby, and leaf-wrapped packages of pig and taro were being passed around. (People in Vanuatu use the same word for a pig regardless of whether it's roaming in the forest or cooking in pieces on the fire, much like the Anglo-Saxons did before the French introduced "porc" into our language.)

I was welcomed in to the nakamal, and sat down in the corner next to Crazy English-Speaking Old Guy, a figure whose unique command of the English language has livened up many a visit to Melsisi.

"I am not, er, imbibing of the, er, prepared beverages at, er, the present time," he told me. "I have, er, partaken of a great, er, quantity during this, er, period of, er, commemoration and on this particular night I am, er, remaining in this place solely for purposes of, er, socialisation."

After saying this, he curled up on his bench and went to sleep.

"Man here, head b'long him ee no-good," the man sitting on the other side of me whispered, gesturing at Crazy English-Speaking Old Guy.

I nodded. We sat for a while in silence.

"Andrew, mam sini."

I got up and swallowed my shell-full. It was strong kava, and I could feel my thoughts mellowing even before I had sat down again. Some unidentifiable part of my brain - some part that I would probably use if caught in a big foreign city in the rush hour, or if using a spear to fend off an angry predator on a prehistoric savannah, but really wasn't necessary on a tropical island - was being shut down for the night.

After ten days of drinking this stuff, every bishop in the world could pass away and you would no longer care.


On Day Ten, a large crowd gathered in Melsisi for the grand finale of the mourning. The village was filled with women in their island dresses, men in their tattered shorts and T-shirts, children dressed in little or nothing, and a trouser-wearing VIP who turned out to be a visiting churchman from New Caledonia. Long, red-patterned mats - Pentecost's traditional currency - were changing hands, to thank the people who had donated food and kava for the ceremonies. Several men were working their way amongst the crowd making sure that everyone's basket was generously filled with pig and taro. In both the kava bar and the nakamal, brown roots were being pulverised by the sack-full, and mud-coloured liquid was being decanted into buckets, bottles and coconut shells.

I sat down in the kava bar and bought a drink, then popped over to chat to somebody in the nakamal, where I was greeted with "mam sini" and handed another narcotic shell-full. A couple more shells followed. Hoping to slow the rate at which the drinks were coming - I had to walk back to Ranwadi that night - I wandered back to the kava bar. Five minutes later, however, there was another shout of "mam sini", and I was called back over to the nakamal. I gulped down my shell with a polite nod of thanks, spat on the ground to flush away the taste, and staggered back to the kava bar, where the barman, not to be outdone, promptly handed me a free drink.

On that tenth day, the people of Melsisi were doubly keen to drown their sorrows. Not only was the bishop dead, but that morning they had received news of the death of the daughter of a local chief - a one-year-old child. This latest tragedy was the chief's fault, people whispered: he had invited misfortune by building his house on a taboo patch of land. When the baby fell ill, she was brought down to the mission hospital at Melsisi, but the doctor there was unable to cure her. She was taken back up to her village in the mountains, to die.

I wondered whether a baby who lives to one year of age ever really experiences the world into which she was born. What was going through her infant mind as she was carried up the mountainside on her last journey? Blue sky, brown earth, green trees, caring arms and faces, the feel of misty air against her face, the sound of birds and water, the smell of wood smoke and rainy soil. A succession of vaguely-connected images, their meaning and significance never really understood, interspersed by periods of empty sleep. In other words, a dream. A dream that she would never wake from. Imagine if your entire lifetime was nothing more than a dream.

In a typical Western country, only one child out of every two hundred dies in infancy. In Vanuatu, where children grow up in malaria-ridden villages a long way from medical care and a trip to the doctor is all-too-often a last resort after the magic leaves have failed, the figure is one in eighteen.

Welcome to paradise.

"Will there be another Ten Days?" I asked one of the men at the kava bar.

He shook his head. "Ee finish now."

The islanders had had enough of grieving. It was time to get on with their lives.


<< April 2007 diary · June 2007 diary >>



See also...

The languages of Pentecost Island

Introduction to my travels in the South Pacific


© Andrew Gray, 2007