The nakamal at Vanwoki village, Pentecost

Winter in the New Hebrides

The second in a series of letters home from Vanuatu, sent to my parents and their friends in the Scottish Highlands and published in the Gairloch and District Times...

As the night draws in, villagers in their huts huddle around log fires to keep warm. Schoolchildren wear extra layers of clothing under their uniforms and shiver in the wind as they stand outside their classrooms. Feeling chilly draughts blowing through half-broken bedroom windows, people drape extra blankets over their beds.

The remarkable thing is that it's July, I'm in the tropics, the weather has been sunny for several weeks, and the thermometer hovers perpetually in the 20s - the temperature of a warm summer day back in the old country.

Yet the weather genuinely does feel cold here. Perhaps it's because people here are acclimatised to heat, and have few items of clothing other than T-shirts and shorts. Perhaps it's because our daily wash involves a frigid shower under unheated water piped from high on the mountain, or a swim in the local river. (Alternatively there's the ocean, which is warmer than the river, but makes for a rather salty and shark-infested bath.) Perhaps it's because of the vicious winds that blow up and down the mountainsides, whistling unimpeded through school buildings whose window panels are missing and through village huts whose walls are woven from palm leaves.

Whilst the occasional pieces of news that filter from home tell me that Britain is simmering under a heat wave, the South Pacific is experiencing its cool, dry season. It hasn't rained on Pentecost Island for a month, and the grass around Ranwadi School has turned the same dismal yellow as many Scottish moorlands. The island's normally-exuberant trees and bushes continue to flower and fruit, but in a dejected-looking way; the vegetation is wilting. One of the rainwater tanks that supply us with fresh drinking water has run dry, whilst another had to be abandoned after some bored pupils decided to amuse themselves by attempting to spit into the tank's narrow inlet. Their aim was far too good.

Despite these problems, in general the cool season is a nicer time of year than Vanuatu's sticky summer. The dirt roads and mountain tracks are dry and firm, and the many stony rivers are running so low that it's possible to step and skip across most of them without getting your feet wet. The local airfield - which frequently has to be closed due to waterlogging in wet weather, cutting one of Pentecost's few precious links with the outside world - is in full operation.

It is also far more comfortable to walk about in fresh breezes than in dense heat, and walking is something I do a lot here. Last week I walked three miles each way to the market to buy a bunch of bananas, six miles each way to the airfield to see off a friend, and twenty-five miles each way to the northern tip of island and back because lessons at Ranwadi School had been cancelled due to exams and I felt like an excursion. The locals thought I was crazy: when they travel far, they usually hitch a lift from one of the island's pick-up trucks (the only vehicles that can cope with the rutted roads) or from the cargo ships that ply the coastline. However, wandering Pentecost on foot is far more fun. It provides me with the opportunity to keep fit, soak up the island's lush scenery, chat to people, and visit a succession of different village stores in the hope that, just maybe, one might sell chocolate or cheese or muesli or pasta or any of the hundred other products that are hard to come by on Pentecost.

Later on, as the cool season comes to an end, the weather will begin to simmer. Warm, wet conditions will turn the roads and paths to treacherous mud, periodically close the airfield, raise the rivers, bring forth malarious mosquitoes in vast numbers, and turn the air into a humid sauna. The locals will go from shivering in the cold to sweating in the heat. And, for the first time in my life, I might miss the winter.

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© Andrew Gray, 2006