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Barry In Vanuatu

Diary for March

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WEDNESDAY 2nd MARCH
 
Jackie, the family dog, went psycho today, chasing everybody who passed by on the road next to the house, barking like crazy. Luckily she's not foaming at the mouth; I never did have my rabies injection.
 
THURSDAY 3rd MARCH
 
Jackie's odd behaviour was explained today when she gave birth to a litter of 4 impossibly cute little puppies. She only lets Sharon and Davina anywhere near them, and growls menacingly at anyone else who comes within about a mile radius.
 
Me and Nelson took the girls and Erica to the Losman in the evening. Nelson wasn't particularly impressed by their meagre consumption of kava; well, they are only girls. I stayed awhile at Nelson's after the others left, talking with him, Robinson and Jimmy, the government's Area Administrator for the West Ambae region. Jimmy was mouthing off about the Mormon missionaries and their attempts to bribe villages into conversion with offers of free rainwater tanks, which explains the recent proliferation of them piled up in Ndui Ndui.
 
SATURDAY 5th MARCH
 
It was Chief's Day today; a day, I assume, for chiefly things. Nambangahaki were having an election for their new chiefs and a little celebration, so we decided to follow Graham up there for the evening.
 
Unfortunately, we missed the elections, but, in the words of Graham, "at least we're in time for kava." As white men, we were entitled to drink the chiefs' special brew, which was by far the strongest I've tried so far. Although it was supposedly smooth, it still tasted terrible, indicative of its power. I didn't need too much to feel very happy.
 
TUESDAY 8th MARCH
 
There was another mammoth staff meeting today. It looked like it would be wrapped up after three hours, until Chief Cook David brought up the explosive issue of female students wearing trousers. It was interesting to see the factions of the staffroom, the modernising reformers led by Graham, the conservative older staff (David and Morris) and the compromising middle-grounders with Philimon at their head.
 
Stephen was elected Acting Sports Master by a large majority after the loss this term of Eckron. He won the day with the classic line, "Remember, size doesn't matter. My belly won't stop me from doing the job well."
 
The evening saw the Stupid Email Crisis. One of Carly's friends sent an email that gammed up the system. Luckily, I managed to save the day, but we did have an hour's panic at the possibility of losing all contact with the outside world.
 
SATURDAY 12th MARCH
 
Went up to the Losman with the girls again today. We tried a different route to usual and managed to get a bit lost, eventually pointed in the right direction by a Year 8 pupil called Jarrison (with a great big smirk on his face).
 
SUNDAY 13th MARCH
 
Stephen and family went up to Sara Namundu today, leaving me alone in the house. Our elderly neighbour took pity and cooked me some simboro for lunch. I shared it with some primary school kids who came round to play cards (and skip Sunday school).
 
Getting bored in the afternoon, I headed down to the girls' house to see if anything fun was happening. We did a 2-hour IQ test. I came out top, but my mind was too numb with boredom to really care.

MONDAY 14th MARCH
 
An Aussie GAP volunteer going to Loone in June emailed us recently. I told Belmasen about this and asked him if there was anything he wanted brought over for the school. Loone's principal asked for a computer and a photocopier. Not wanting to be the bearer of bad news, I merely mumbled that I'd pass on the message.

TUESDAY 15th MARCH
 
I had my first lesson with Year 10 today; I'm taking them for the literature part of their English. We're studying I Am David, a minor problem being that the school has only two copies of the book for a class of 30 and the photocopier is bust. I started with a bit of context setting but stalled when I realised that they only had a vague idea that there was a Second World War outside the Pacific. I'm just praying the copier gets faxed and we can get onto reading the book. Luckily, the class seems to be fairly hardworking - they've got important exams in November that will determine if they can continue into Year 11.
 
In the afternoon, me and the girls popped into town to check the post (nothing for me) and eat some deliciously cold fruit salad - the market ladies have borrowed Graham's freezer to sell chilled treats. We met Kirk there and had a look around his library, the main project on Ambae. It is still very much under construction, though Kirk has some grand plans: English classes, an Ambae language dictionary project, a cultural centre, internal plumbing, a cultural centre and even a subcampus of the University of the South Pacific. It seems a little ambitious seeing there are not yet any shelves, let alone books to put on them, but good luck to him.
 
Its the middle of mango season now, and we have to run when we pass under a tree to avoid getting brained. The upside is the wonderful taste and I usually eat at least one a day.
 
WEDNESDAY 16th MARCH
 
Maybe I was a bit to hasty in my praise of mangoes. I woke up this morning with a very bad feeling in my stomach. An hour later I'd lost a significant proportion of my body weight, fluids having been ejected in considerable amounts from various orifices. The colour of the vomit made clear what the culprit was: a bad mango.
 
Needless to say, Londua Technical College was missing a teacher today; he was in bed, feeling a little sorry for himself.
 
Carly popped in on the way to Ndui Ndui to see how I was. Anna is down with the same thing - it must have been a bad batch of fruit.
 
THURSDAY 17th MARCH
 
I felt a lot better today and was able to get back to teaching, though there wasn't too much of that to be done. Nelson used my Year 9 Vocational class to make some desks - a practical lesson with practical uses as Londua is quite short of them. I just wish they'd make some chairs as well, my one in the office keeps on getting nicked by the first years who haven't got enough.
 
FRIDAY 18th MARCH
 
Friday's are great - I only have two lessons in the afternoon. This morning Lyrose, the computer teacher, took me to her village of Vatuanga, which is past Ndui Ndui and up a little in the bush. It was much the same as any other village, built around a church and large communal area. She wanted me to take pictures of her incredibly cute new baby and the impressive, newly built community kindergarden, which I duly did. The nursery pictures are to be sent with an application to some aid agencies for some money to buy a truck for the village. I also offered to help them draft the application, as the English wasn't particularly comprehensible.
 
It was Erica's birthday, so we took her to the Ambore restaurant for lunch, the girls having ordered fish in advance. Usually, the menu consists of beef or egg with rice, but they catch fish to cook if ask beforehand. Kirk and Karen also came along, so us Brits had to endure half and hour of incomprehensible Peace Corps-talk for half an hour. Think American English combined with subjects you have utterly no interest in. At least the fish was tasty.
 
I was walking home from school with Nelson when a man we met on the road mentioned a kava night somewhere around. Nelson's ears visibly pricked up on hearing this and we set off on search for it. On the way we met Rolland, the Mechanics teacher, who was just "out for a walk," which sounded a bit suspicious to me.
 
We weren't sure where exactly the kava night was, so we decided to go into town and follow the string band music. None was to be heard, so we stopped off at the End of the World nakamal instead. I call it that because it looks like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie, with burnt out trucks, scorched earch and fires in oil drums. The drink was good though, and we met Robinson who directed us to the kava night at Nakatambol, a village between Ndui Ndui and Vatuanga.
 
One of the 9Voc day students was serving the kava - he gave me an extra big ladleful with a knowing wink.

SATURDAY 19th MARCH
 
A couple of Stephen's relatives from the north of the island arrived today. Andrew and Rolland are two members of a gospel group called Psalm Singers, using our house as a base to do a couple of concerts in the west. Andrew is the lead singer and likes to practice constantly, which can get a bit irritating, especially as he sings two songs over and over again. Rolland is a lot quieter, but is apparently an expert fisherman, so hopefully we'll have some fresh fish while he's staying.
 
It was over to Lo-one with the girls for kava in the evening. Graham is in Santo at the moment, so we just drank with Balmasen and Hillary at a newly-inaugarated open-plan nakamal on the hill up from the school. We had walked from Londua but after a Rum Cola to calais with, we decided it would be better to get the truck from the Catholic church back.
 
MONDAY 21st MARCH
 
Andrew's singing has lessened slightly now that I've lent him my CD player. He sits and happily listens to his gospel music all day now, going out with Rolland in the afternoon to catch fresh fish for dinner. His bursts into song are a lot more tolerable for that.
 
I took Anna into town for kava this evening. I had intended to go to the End of the World bar, but that turned out to be closed. My nose picked up a scent, however, and we found a nakamal celebrating its first night of business behind a shop. It was owned by David Toa, the Supreme Chief of Ndui Ndui. He's the main businessman in these part, adding this new business to his transport, hospitality and retail enterprises. He's also an important member of Londua's board of governors and an all round VIP in Ndui Ndui.
 
Robinson was down at the nakamal for its first night. He seems to be popping up everywhere these days, especially on construction sites. I've seen him at Kirk's library, Londua's new classrooms, the houses being built on the outskirts of Ndui Ndui - he even helped on the new international airport on Santo. Whether he does any work is another question...
 
WEDNESDAY 23rd MARCH
 
It was the first day of the Easter break - no more school for 6 days. Stephen and family got a truck up to Sara Namundu in the morning; I'm planning to follow them on Friday and will have the house to myself until then. Andrew and Rolland have gone further to the west to continue their tour.
 
I went back to the Toa Bar, as it has become known, on my own in the evening. Anna hadn't been too enamoured by the concrete blocks for seats and unconcious masculinity of the new nakamal. I got talking with Area Administrator Jimmy, who happily downed a few shells with me while explaining that kava was having an evil, corrosive effect on society. He was buying my drink, so I let it slide.
 
THURSDAY 24th MARCH
 
My footwear travails have become a joke. I broke yet another flip-flop (that's a total of 9 breakages so far on my trip) after getting stuck in the mud on the way to use the computer in the evening. I also ran the movie night for the boarders, most of who are staying at school over Easter because its too difficult to get home and back on the boats in such a short time.
 
 

FRIDAY 25th MARCH

 

Its a little bit of a hike to Sara Namundu, so Renata woke me up before dawn so that we could get underway in the relative cool of the morning. The first hour of the walk was fine, but then the sun came up, bringing the tropical heat with it. We reached Sara Namundu after another hour of slower trekking, and it took another half hour to reach Stephen's house deep up in the bush.

 

Its a lot more basic up here than Ndui Ndui. No ships stop between Londua and further up on the north, so there's no tinned food or generators or other such modern trappings. There is only one store in the village, and that is even less well stocked than the ones in Ndui Ndui, selling only the bare essentials of rice and oil. There is very little concrete on display, nearly all the houses are kastom-built with bamboo.

 

Stephen's house up here makes his accommodation in Navitora seem luxurious. We sleep on mats rather than beds, surrounded by swarms of mosquitoes that fly in through open doorways. In Navitora, we have a rickety, roofless washroom. I will appreciate it anew after Sara Namundu's...nothing. We just go behind a house with a bucket of water. Which has to be fetched from up a gruellingly steep slope.

 

Despite the more basic living conditions, there is something that lifts the experience of staying here even above that of down at Londua. Maybe its the feeling of being even more cut off than ever before - the nearest phone to here is Londua's. Maybe its the utmost beauty of last golden hues of the setting sun disappearing behind the jagged black rocks of Londua Point. Or it could just be temperature. Being a fair way above sea level, it is a lot cooler up here, which feels heavenly after months of sweating from every pore 24/7.

 
Unfortunately its Holy Week, the one week of the year that most niVans don't drink kava. Oh well, I think the sunset more than makes up for it.

SATURDAY 26th MARCH
 
Stephen has some grand plans for building a guesthouse in Sara Namundu. He dreams of hooking up a freezer to solar power, and luring tourists to the only cold beer in West Ambae. He has visions of arranging trips to the crater lakes, snorkelling and fishing in the bountiful waters that he owns by kastom right and leading tourists to the picturesque villages of the interior. Its a grand scheme, unfortunately tinged with shades of Lenny and George's unreachable goal of buying a farm in Of Mice and Men. I haven't met a single tourist on Ambae in all the time I've been here. Maybe in 20 or 30 years, the island will have the infrastructure to support some basic tourism, and exploit its awesome geography and claim to fame as the inspiration for Michener's Bali Hai. But until then, the people seem destined to live their lives as they have always done, ekeing out a living as subsistence farmers, even the lucky few salaried workers dreaming of retiring to set up a guesthouse.
 
I found a guy named Keith who wasn't too bothered with provisions of Holy Week and we happily drank kava watching another awe-inspiring sunset. It was the smoothest I'd drank, the root having been peeled before crushing. This adds a lot of time to the preparation, but removes the horrible taste without any loss of effect.
 
SUNDAY 27th MARCH
 
I walked back to Navitora in morning, arriving tired, hot and sweaty. I flopped into bed and slept until mid-afternoon. That kava last night was quite something!
 
Balmasen had invited me to an Easter feast so I went over to Lo-one in the evening. Unfortunately, it turned out that the headmaster was stranded in Santo, unable to find a ship back to Ambae. Instead, I drank kava with Hillary and Graham, who arrived by truck soon after I did. Embarassingly, I threw up afterwards, something I used to be prone to but haven't done in a while. At least Graham bought me a Rum Cola to wash the taste away.

MONDAY 28th MARCH
 
Before trekking back up to Sara Namundu for the Easter celebration there, I stopped by at Sarah's mother's house for breakfast. Stepping inside, I was taken aback. It was remarkably neat and tidy, with a matching set of furniture, drapes, cushions and decent curtains. The kitchen was stacked with all sorts of food that I hadn't seen in a long time: mashed potato, marmalade and spices of all varieties. Aside from the lack of electrical appliances and the ominous gaping hole in the ceiling, it could have been an English home. It even had that musty smell of old people, which appears to be the same the world over. I hadn't seen anything like it on Ambae before. I learned later that the house had been outfitted by regular packages shipped over by Sarah's sister in Port Vila.
 
Fortified by a large breakfast of fresh bread and fruit, I set off for Sara Namundu. On arrival, I was greeted by a cry of, "Watch out!" accompanied by a flying breadfruit knocked by a tree-climbing Jerome. He was gathering food for the evening's celebrations. I also met Andrew, his singing temporarily halted by confusion at getting lost in the village, having never visited SN before. I guided him to Stephen's place, where we met Sarah, who was busy preparing food for the evening.
 
Not everyone can claim to have been mistaken for Jesus, but this I can now do. I had noticed a girl of about seven years old who kept on staring at me and then running off. A group of villagers, fighting fits of laughter, explained to me what was going on. Having never seen a white man in the flesh before, she remembered once seeing a picture of Jesus with oddly pale skin. A pastor had recently explained to her that Easter was a celebration of the resurrection of Christ. Putting two and two together, she decided that she had better keep an eye on the reborn son of god to make sure he was OK and took great pride in reporting my every movement to the whole village. Everyone has played along and now the whole of Sara Namundu recognises and calls out "Hello, Jesus!" whenever they see me. Only in Vanuatu!
 
After a delicious lunch of curry chicken, I went down to the small sandy beach, where all the children of the village were playing, splashing around, jumping off rocks and padlling canoes. A few of the kids were Londua students, home for the Easter holiday. One of my Year 7 pupils, whose name unfortunately escaped me (there are 55 of them after all!), was delighted that I'd come to his home village and insisted on taking me for a ride with him and his friend on their canoe. We paddled along the coast for quite a way, the two boys belting out their favourite string band songs at the top of their voices. From the sea, the coast of Ambae looks incredibly beautiful, its stark black rocks topped by a mop of lush jungle. We returned to the beach as the sun was setting in a seething maelstrom of colour, and, with the boys lungs exhausted and settling into a companionable silence, I had a rare moment of utter tranquility. It is these times that make me want to stay in Vanuatu forever.
 
The Easter picnic was just starting to be served when we got back to the village. I wrapped my food up in leaves to eat back home in Navitora, as the truck had arrived to take me and the Garae family (accompanied by half the village) back home. Stephen, now emancipated from the restraints of Holy Week, brought back a bottle of kava, which we drank before eating on the grave outside the house. While very smooth, it wasn't particularly strong, but I'd had too much of an amazing day to really care.

TUESDAY 29th MARCH
 
The girls and some of the other new GAPs climbed up to Lake Manaro yesterday. Ominously, they haven't yet returned. School restarted despite the lack of teachers. Fortunately, Thursday isn't a particularly teaching-heavy day for me, so I was able to cover a couple of lessons.

WEDNESDAY 30th MARCH
 
The girls weren't teaching again today; they were recovering from their arduous mountain trek. The going for them was a lot more difficult than for Rich and I. It's wet season now and so the paths were thick liquid mud, not the ideal surface for hiking. They slept the night in the dry crater and saw Lake Vui, the same one that I did, but didn't manage to reach the larger Lake Manaro as they had planned. The girls all have various injuries, and they went down to the clinic in Ndui Ndui to get them checked out. Its important to disinfect even the slightest cuts and scratches, because the heat and lack of modern hygiene can combine to turn them into festering tropical sores.
 
Andrew returned today with another member of the Psalm Singers, Dudley, turfing Sharon and Davina out from our room again. He's still singing.
 
THURSDAY 31st MARCH
 
I had a very busy day today: 5 lessons and 54 Year 7 Agriculture tests to mark. I try to keep Year 7 marking to a minimum and set them practical homework. I really enjoy taking the lessons and the students appear to like them to, but it is tiring work, especially when I have a mountain of books that take 3 students to move. The chapel is also the hottest classroom and I always end Agriculture lessons dripping with sweat.
 
The Pentescost GAPs returned on the Makile today. I haven't seen them all that much, but they seem like a nice bunch.
 
I had a cool lesson with Year 9ac. I played them Penny Lane by the Beatles a few times and set them questions like, "What is so strange about the banker?" I'm not sure how much was actually learnt, but we all had a great time, and all the kids were whistling the tune as they left the classroom. My lessons are a bit hit and miss with 9ac, some days they go really well but on others my ideas fall flat. Luckily today was one of the former.
 
Stephen put on another fundraising meal on in the evening. He hired out a generator to power a lightbulb and his stereo, so we all danced to string band music late into the night.