Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Mi bin go long Vanuatu.

From 1st until 12th of June this year I was lucky enough to go to Vanuatu. I won't say it was a holiday per se but it certainly wasn't work.

As most readers will be aware, my daughter Zoë is there volunteering as part of a gap year. She was there during Cyclone Pam and returned as soon as she could afterwards to continue her work.

There were three main parts to the adventure.
  • getting to Vanuata and Port Vila
  • a week on the island of Pentecost
  • getting home
Flying from Australia to Vanuatu is easy but the airfares fluctuate wildly. In the end I booked through the Air Vanuatu website and chose my dates based on the flights. There are only two flights a week in and out of Pentecost so that meant that I ended up with a day in Port Vila either side of that.

Port Vila is only about 3 hours flight from Sydney. Tack onto that my 3 hour bus ride to the airport and it was a relatively long day. Getting out of Australia takes ages. Getting in is relatively quick.

I was in Port Vila in the morning and had plenty of time to look around and get my bearings. I also picked up a local mobile phone and SIM as the cost (about AU$22) was well worth it in terms of avoiding global roaming charges.

I won't say I enjoyed Port Vila all that much. It's a town very much in the throes of rebuilding post-cyclone. People were friendly though. Everyone spoke English to me so I didn't really have a chance to test out my Bislama.

Flying to Pentecost on the Wednesday meant flying Port Vila to Santo, changing to a very small plane (Twin Otter) and on to Sara Airfield on Pentecost. It's a spectacular landing on a grass strip on the side of a hill.

Pentecost is a remote island. Quite how remote I'm not sure how to describe. No running water, no electricity, no sewerage, no TV, very little radio and a subsistence lifestyle. It's one of the best places I've ever been in my life.

Atavtabanga School is about an hour's drive from the airfield. Only 4WDs survive here and they are few and far between. Riding on the tray standing up is a great way to see the country. The track was terrifying in places.

Seeing Zoë at the school was fantastic. It's as if she's always been there. I stayed with her and her host family who coped really well with me I thought! They laughed at and encouraged my Bislama, understood when I initially struggled with the food, and generally made me feel like part of the family. The daily wash in a bucket of cold water is a culture shock I can assure you.

Food in Pentecost is mainly root crops supplemented by rice. We ate a lot of sweet potato, taro and island cabbage. In terms of meat they eat a lot of chicken. I saw pigs tie up all over the place but I assume that they are reserved for special celebrations. There are small "shops" here and there that sell a range of items but the majority of food is grown. Mostly the shops sell lollies to the kids and some tinned food. We had baked beans and two minute noodles with our dinner one night and it was fantastic!

I was fortunate enough to talk to a lot of the locals, do a little bit of work with some students and just generally soak in the feel of the place. The weather was fantastic. It's "winter" in Vanuatu which means about 26 degrees Celsius and no rain!

On the Friday morning we got a ride on another truck for just over an hour to Level School. Level is where Zoë was during the cyclone. One of the main motivators behind my trip was to thank the people there for their care. Level is an amazing place and our family there are great. It's hard to know if I've ever felt the way they made me feel; instantly welcomed by one and all. They were so pleased to see Zoë again and the fact that her volunteering partner Ally could come along too was really good.

There was much activity at Level as they are building a new school office (with concrete blocks and a real roof), water tanks have been delivered and the Nakamal is also being rebuilt. It was interesting to see that some of the older students had begin work themselves on a new classroom.

Michael took us up the hill to where their Church is and also where the helicopter landed. The Church is still half destroyed and they'll fix that up when some of the other building work is done. It's still in use. The area where the helicopter landed really isn't very big. I have a photo of everyone waving as Zoë took off and now one of me standing in the same spot!

Later on Michael was off to the bank and I went along for a look. It was about a 20 minute walk. The bank is a Western Union outlet open 3 times a week. All the transactions take place using the mobile phone network I assume as the office had no power. I met quite a few people here including Nancy Teri who had been a nurse on Santo. Her English skills meant that everyone quickly knew my story! Then it turned out that she needed a letter delivered to her daughter in Vila. I volunteered to visit her and hand over the letter. Wow, I was instantly a family member! Nancy's husband is a Pastor and I heard about their Church and life on Pentecost. Pastor Willy also used to be a land-diver in the South of the island.

At Level I was invited into their brand new Nakamal (meeting place) to drink Kava and share stories with local men. Kava is never going to be high on my wishlist but it was an honour to be asked to join in. The conversation was pretty funny though with my brother Michael speaking English and pretty much everyone else their local language or Bislama. We got by and my Bislama improved very quickly!

We were able to hand over school supplies, seeds, clothing and some money to Level School. The money is to help kids stay in school. School isn't free and we wanted parents to be able to spend their money on rebuilding without having to sacrifice education.

Sadly we could only spend one night at Level. Saying goodbye in the morning was very emotional and I have a feeling I'll be back there before too long.

We travelled back to Atavtabanga, picked up the family and headed to Levusi (another hour) for the weekend. Zoë's host family are from Levusi and go there every weekend for church. Avenvene is part of Levusi that we were in and it is beautiful. Quite a few houses, lots of gardens (veggie gardens), guest accommodation for the Church there and of course the Church itself. I spent the afternoon meeting people, playing football with kids, reading a book and taking some photos. The pace of life on Pentecost really is very relaxed. There's no need to rush anything.

Church on Sunday was an amazing experience. Firstly, everyone is in their Sunday best, for the men that means long pants and a collared shirt. For women an Aelan (Island) dress or something similar. Kids are well turned out too. The service went for over 3 hours and there was more energy than at a football grand final. For a usually reserved people, the Ni-Vans really get into their Church service! Plenty of singing (all in English). The service was all in Bislama other than the Bible readings. I reckon I understood about 90%. But understanding a language and speaking it are two different things. I started to understand why a lot of locals can understand English but not say much in it. It didn't matter as I was always keen to speak in Bislama.

After lunch we headed back to Atavtabanga. Over the next couple of days I got to read to some school students as well as taking some out for games. That was a hoot. The language barrier was easily overcome with a couple of tennis balls, basic instructions and a lot of laughing. I also watched a lot of football (soccer) as the local young men train every weeknight at the school. These guys have serious skills. At the end of every session they have a match. They play hard but fair. I didn't see one harsh word exchanged or any foul play.

On Monday night the rain started. On Tuesday it got heavier and kept going. I stayed inside most of the day playing with the kids, reading and looking outside! I was starting to get worried about getting to the airfield on Wednesday morning. Zoë's father, Godden, told me that if the truck couldn't make it through we'd be walking. At this point I remembered Zoë mentioning that it was about a 4hr walk. Ouch. That evening we had a splendid farewell dinner and it was reaffirmed that I was part of their family.

I didn't get a lot of sleep listening to the rain. In the morning from about 6am we had no phone signal and thus no way to know if the truck was coming or indeed if the plane would be able to land or takeoff. I was packed and ready to hike. Luckily Zoë had a class from 9am so she missed the worst of my nervousness! At about 9.45am the phone network came up, the truck wasn't coming, the plane was, and so off we trekked!

Zoë and the Year 5 and 6 classes came out to wave goodbye which was very moving. It was really hard to walk up the hill and away and I'll admit I cried behind my sunglasses.

The 4 hour walk wasn't that at all. We were there in just under 2hrs. It certainly rained, the hills were big and there was plenty of mud. 4 year old Gordy walked the whole way with us!

Flying away from Pentecost in the mist was surreal and sad. In 20 minutes we landed in Santo and then life took a turn for the worse. Delays....7.5 hours of delays and then the flight to Port Vila was cancelled at about 10:30pm! We were eventually shuttled off to a hotel which turned out to be locked up and closed. Apart from one man from Guyana everyone else was a Ni-Van. Thankfully they looked after me and much later the hotel manager arrived to give us all rooms. A shower never felt so good. I'd felt quite sorry for everyone at Santo Airport who got too close to me!

We finally got out of Santo at about midday Thursday and back to Port Vila. I made the most of the afternoon delivering a letter for people on Pentecost, meeting up with Terry from Lattitude and visiting his community. Seeing Terry and his community work together to ensure that everyone benefits was something special. The 20 minute walk to and from town to get dinner nearly did me in and I slept well that night. Until we had to leave for the airport just after 5am!

Then back to Sydney, another bus ride and home.

That's a really condensed version of what happened but I reckon it's more than enough for you to read. I did keep a journal the whole time and it's quite detailed. One day I'll get it online.

People want to know if I'll go back and I have no doubt that I will. I've got three families on Pentecost and one in Vila who consider me one of their own. My aim is to be able to go back for a lot longer and help out in some way.

The best thing I did apart from going in the first place was to learn as much Bislama as I could and then be prepared to use it. It opened doors for me on Pentecost and helped me out a lot in Santo.

If I could go back today I probably would!

If you've read this far then you've done well!

Tankyu tumas!


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