Footprints on Paama's black sand beach

The ghost of distant islands

The third 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...
When Maurice and Janie Frater, two Scottish Presbyterian missionaries, first landed on Paama in what was then the New Hebrides, they found a dark little Melanesian island haunted by ghosts and superstitions. Today, Paama is a quiet and civilised place. Villagers send their children to school, tend their gardens, weave their handicrafts, fish from their canoes, sing songs on Sundays, and welcome visitors with cheerful shouts of "morray!" - the all-purpose Paamese greeting. Yet the ghosts remain.

Descending into Paama airfield, the blue skies of the South Pacific gave way to rain showers, which spattered onto the windscreen of the little plane. Beyond the black, wet hillsides of Paama loomed the neighbouring island of Lopevi, a monstrous mile-high volcanic cone. Earlier this year a local chief failed to perform a ritual designed to appease Lopevi, and since then the mountain had been fuming, rumbling the earth and belching clouds of ash that blew onto Paama.

Dark green vegetation thrives in the nutritious ash, but machinery does not; the only vehicle on Paama broke down years ago. Since then the main road had fallen into disuse, and been reclaimed by the forest. No boats were around on the day I arrived, so the only way to get from the airfield into the village was to walk along the beach. For a mile or two I trudged through volcanic sand the colour of asphalt, and hauled my luggage across piles of black boulders. Eventually, after clambering around a particularly rocky headland, the steep coastline opened out into a grassy cove, and I arrived at Liro village.

I cooled off after my walk by going for a swim, but didn't venture far out to sea. Paama's waters are notoriously shark-infested (the island is home to sorcerers who transform themselves into sharks to devour their enemies), and the sooty sand provides the beasts with excellent camouflage.

Although it was early afternoon on a tropical beach, the sheer darkness of the scenery was overpowering. The smoky craters of neighbouring Ambrym, a giant slumbering dinosaur of an island, imposed themselves the horizon. Men fishing from distant canoes were like silhouettes in a painting. Looking down through the water, my arms and legs looked like those of an exhumed corpse - green-tinged and pale against the coal-black seabed. On the shoreline behind me, the little wooden cottages and concrete schoolhouses of the village were faded and grey.

There was something hauntingly old-fashioned about Liro. It felt like the ghost of a Scottish community from a century or two ago, perhaps the sort of community that the Fraters had left behind. The atmosphere was created partly by the damp clouds that billowed continuously over the mountain. Rain dripped from the thatched eaves of the guesthouse in which I was staying, and sluiced off the tin roof of the outhouse into a nearby tank. There was no electricity in Liro that week; the generator had run out of fuel. At night I went to bed by candlelight, then lay in the dark listening to the scuttling of rats in the thatch and the silence of the ghosts outside. (A local story tells how the world's creatures were originally created on Paama, and later expelled from the island - all except for the rats, which got left behind.)

At dawn, I got up and boiled tea and porridge on a gas stove, using water fetched in a tin jug from the tank. From the nearby schoolhouse, I could hear children chanting hymns in Paamese. It sounded distantly like Gaelic. Recently, the language was under threat from Pidgin English, but since then the islanders have begun actively teaching Paamese to their children, and a project is underway to translate the Bible into the language.

My own mission on Paama was to visit two Australian gap-year girls, who had been posted as volunteers to the school in Liro. Taking a break from my regular job as a schoolteacher on nearby Pentecost Island, I had been sent to Paama to check how the girls were getting on. It turned out that things were not well. White girls were a new phenomenon on Paama, and the volunteers had found themselves menaced at night by 'creepers', sinister men who would lurk under their windows and try to force entry through shuttered windows that couldn't be properly secured. Since the school principal had gone away, leaving nobody in particular in charge, the girls were uncertain who to turn to for help.

Over muddy-looking drinks at the Five Horseshoes, a lamp-lit thatched hut that looked the perfect picture of a fairy-tale tavern (its name had been bestowed on it by a previous British visitor), we discussed the matter with the village chief. He offered to call a meeting of the villagers and put a stop to the creeping. Don't worry, he told the girls: if any man rapes you, you will get many pigs in compensation. This last comment didn't have the reassuring effect that the chief had hoped, but his meeting with the villagers seemed to have an impact; the creeping stopped.

Since flights only land on Paama twice a week, I had three days to spend on the island. Fortunately, Liro is a friendly and hospitable place, in spite of its ghostliness, and by the end of my visit I felt like part of the community. I got to know the shopkeepers, the church minister, the chief and his wife, and the local aid workers. I chatted in English to the children at the school, and in Pidgin to their teachers. I was invited to local events, such as the Father's Day service (held at the end of September here) at which men dressed in their Sunday best were showered with confetti and talcum powder by appreciative women and children. (Despite protesting light-heartedly that I wasn't anybody's father, I was given the same treatment.) I learned more Paamese during my three days on the island than I have ever known of Gaelic, and I reflected afterwards that I ought to have made more effort during the two years I spent in Gairloch.

On my last day, as I made my way back to the airfield and Liro disappeared behind the headland, the clouds dispersed and blue morning light flooded the beach. The ghosts faded, and Paama became a mere tropical island - sun-sparkled waves washing against a coconut-fringed shoreline. An hour later, the plane took off into a clear heaven.

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Other stories from the South Pacific

Full diary of my trip to Paama and other islands, September 2006


© Andrew Gray, 2006