Tom visits…again (Rich)
After a week playing tourist in Santo, which was nice for a change, and some time in Vila for work, we got to Ambrym just in time for my brother Tom to arrive for his second visit. Tom spent 10 days on Ambrym previously, and in that time he seemed to really connect with the people here and thoroughly enjoy the experience. So it was easy to ask him to come back. The other big factor was that we were planning to climb the volcano again – something Tom missed out on last time.
He managed, again, to come at a busy time, with ceremonies to mark my sister Esline’s “engagement”, the closing of punani celebrations and also plans for the Council’s Annual General Meeting. As we expected everyone was thrilled to see Tom again and he spent much time chatting and eating with people.
Amongst all this we squeezed in a walk to the volcano. My original plan – to actually sleep in the rim of Mt Marum – was thwarted as once again the volcanoes decided to fire up just in time for Tom’s visit. So, on the instructions of the vulcanologist, who arrived just before Tom did, we started the walk knowing that we would not be able to climb the volcano at all. So we changed the plan to a half day walk in from the West, some night-time photography of the volcanoes from the safety of the Ash Plain, and another half day walk into the North – effectively crossing the island. Or at least that’s how we thought it would go.
The first day was without incident and we reached the campsite with plenty of time to get our tents set up and then head to the Ash Plain to get some photos. It wasn’t until we discovered the next day’s route with our guides that we realised we had a problem.
The route to cross the island, and which our guides intended to follow, would take us over and between the two volcanoes. This was a surprise, as I had assumed that we would pass round the two volcanoes on the Western side, but we were told that this road was impassable. From what I had been told about the current state of the volcanoes, I knew that passing through the middle had the potential to expose us to dangerous and cancer-causing gases spewed out by the volcanoes. So Tom and I made the call not to follow this path. The guides, who were quite happy to pass through the middle, were none too pleased with this decision as the only route now available to us was round the Eastern side of the island – a much longer and more difficult path.
We were soon to find out just how much longer and more difficult it was. We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but it turned out to be a 12 hour marathon walk that really stretched both of us. The first three hours was easy walking on the Ash Plain, but the road we followed for most of the way was seldom used by locals, and never by white tourists. It was dense jungle; slippery, unstable and unrelentingly hilly. But we’re not really talking ‘hills’ in the normal sense. These hills are really big, and often perilously steep. Reaching the top afforded excellent views over the surrounding countryside – or at least to the next hill. And then we would head down the slippery and sometimes outright dangerous downward path, and do it all again on the next hill. And the next one. For about 6 hours.
At one point we came across a small waterfall feeding into a crystal clear pool, which prompted gasps of astonishment, as I thought Ambrym had no rivers (it seems this is the only one), as well as relief, as we were running very low on water. It felt like we had discovered an oasis in the desert. Once we had refilled our bottles and had a rest we continued, but my spirits were dampened somewhat when I fell in the river as we crossed it on the way out!
By the time we reached Konkon, the easternmost village in North Ambrym, we were exhausted, but still an hour’s walk away from a passable road where a truck could pick us up. It was at this point that Tom, who had been ahead of me all day, started to fall behind and feel faint. He thinks his salt levels were down from sweating and drinking so much water. A small snack fixed the problem, but it highlights one more factor that was against us: the heat. For both days it was very hot and extremely humid and we were both soaked through with sweat. It was as if we had gone for a swim in our clothes. The fact that I was acclimatised might have helped me avoid the problem that Tom had. Despite everything though, we made it.
It was a great walk and an incredible adventure, but I can’t remember a time when I have ever been more physically tested. Even Tom, who is an outdoor guide and certainly no slouch, said it was as hard as anything he’s done. I think that’s really saying something. But it will remain in my memory as an incredible experience with my brother. I only wish we had had the energy to take more photos along the way!
I wanted to say a little bit about Konkon because it really struck me when we passed through there. As I said, it is the easternmost village in North Ambrym. The road that the truck can pass on finishes at Wilit, about an hour’s walk from Konkon, and the rough seas around the area make it virtually impossible to land a boat anywhere near the village. What this means is that Konkon, even by North Ambrym standards, is extremely physically isolated.
What amazed me about Konkon when we passed through was that I saw cement block houses and a 6000L fibreglass water tank. Cement comes in 40kg bags, and would have to have been carried for an hour along the rough path to Konkon. To get the money to buy that cement, people probably cut and dried copra (coconut flesh) which would have been carried all the way to Wilit in bags that can weigh up to 80kg! And as for the water tank, I was gobsmacked. How did they get it there? Although I’ve no idea how heavy it is, a 6000L tank is about the size of a 4 wheel drive, except round. I asked around and was told that a group of men lashed the tank to some stout poles and carried it all on their shoulders the whole way! It reminds me of the sheer manpower that must have been needed to build the monuments of ancient times, only this is 2000 years later. I just can’t describe how difficult life would be in a place like Konkon and it highlights the incredible challenges still faced by many people in our ‘modern’ world. But it also shows how even the most seemingly insurmountable challenges can be overcome with determination and teamwork.
The curious incident of the snake and the chicken (Rich)
I just wanted to quickly mention this strange story which highlights both the importance of magic in Vanuatu, as well as people’s tendency to believe improbable stories.
While in Port Vila one time, we heard all the volunteers discussing the recent announcement by a Department of Agriculture official that on Malekula (another island) a particular breed of chicken called an African chicken had laid an egg that hatched a snake. The reason given by the official was that the devil made it happen, and that to prevent further occurrences everyone in Vanuatu must kill all their African chickens.
At first I thought that this news hadn’t reached Ambrym, but at a Monday meeting one week there was particularly heated discussion in North Ambrym language about something. When I asked the man next to me what it was all about, I heard the story of the snake again. When I shook my head and said it wasn’t true, this man stopped the meeting and said, “Richard has something to say.” And so I explained to the meeting that it was impossible for a snake to hatch from a chicken egg and that it was much more likely that a snake had simply laid its egg in the same place as the chicken. When I had finished trying to explain the dubiousness of this story, everyone at the meeting, although still looking slightly confused, said “OK” and moved on.
It turns out that they were on the verge of making the decision to kill all the African chickens in the village, and my timely intervention saved their lives!
This story is probably funnier to us, because it highlights not only the absolute reality placed on magic, but also a particular trait of Ni-Vanuatu people that we experienced often – the tendency to believe just about everything they hear, especially if it comes from an authority figure, such as a Government official or, as we often experienced, a white person. This holds true no matter how dubious the story – our favourite was the ‘news’ that circulated about a gang of vampires sucking people’s blood in Port Vila, but that’s another story…
Our Last Visitor (Carmen)
We feel very privileged to have had so many of our family and friends come to visit us on Ambrym. We aren’t the easiest people to visit and for what is essentially an expensive overseas camping trip we have been very touched by the enthusiasm of those who have been able to come and experience a bit of our life here. The last of our visitors was my Aunt Louise who after hearing my parents tell stories of their trip to Ambrym decided it was on her ‘must do’ list.
Rich decided to stay home and give the boat ride a miss while I set off on what is now a very familiar trip to the airport. Louise arrived safely but her bag did not, so in typical Ni-Vanuatu style we waited…for the next plane to arrive. Only half an hour later another small plane landed and thankfully unloaded Louise’s bag. So with bags in tow we headed for the boat. I have to admit the boat trip no longer holds the joy it once had of watching the island slowly drift by. Luckily Louise made up for my lack of enthusiasm and was probably the only person so far who looked forward to and enjoyed the boat trip.
No visit to Ambrym is complete without a church service. With a year of singing under my belt, I only slightly improved my singing ability and I went from tone-deaf to the new improved tone-less. Louise spent most of the service enjoying the beautiful harmony that always seems to be effortlessly produced by the whole community while trying to shut out my vocal contribution.
Rich and I had been waiting for a little motivation to walk to the top of Mt Tuovu, the highest mountain on Ambrym, which thankfully blocks the lava flow and volcanic gas and makes our part of Ambrym the safest place on the island. For Louise’s last day on Ambrym my family organised a walk to the top of Mt Tuovu. All the kids in our village and my Mama had never been to the top and when word spread, our walk rapidly gained members. At 7am we double checked our supplies; food, water, first aid kit, sunscreen, hat and sunglasses. Happy that we hadn’t forgotten anything we set off to meet everyone at my Papa’s house. The 15 people seemed a little more relaxed about our walk, a couple of kids had small bottles of water but most people just sported a bush knife. Feeling slightly over-prepared we started off on our walk. Along the way we collected more people and by the time we got to the last village I had lost count of who was walking with us and who was on their way to somewhere else. At the last village we collected 5 boys who knew the way and who would cut the path to the top, as no one had been up there in a while. With those with knifes bounding off in front of us, we set off. I wasn’t feeling the best and was finding the walk unusually hard, a few late nights, the heat and an oncoming cold hampered with my quasi-fit state and left me dead last in the race to the top. While on the way to the top we got a sneak peak at the view to come but by the time we reached the top the clouds had rolled in and blocked our potential view. Lunch was shared around and after some photos were taken we headed down. All the young boys ran, jumped and slid down the steep and slippery slop, unfortunately our guides were among them and at some point we took a wrong turn and we ended up walking down an old creek bed to find a familiar road out. We luckily came across an oldfala from a nearby village who pointed us in the right direction. After a long walk, Louise and I headed straight for the beach to wash all the dirt and sweat away and relax our aching muscles. We all dropped into bed for a well deserved rest. In the blink of an eye we were at the airport watching Louise’s plane take off back to Vila.
A Sad Farewell (Carmen)
Thankfully this is a culture of crying together and I knew that in the weeks leading up to our final goodbye I would be shedding many tears and thankfully the mama’s would join in. With my Aunty Louise back in Australia we started the long list of ‘lasts’; our last visitor, last council meeting, my last hygiene workshop, last church service, last meals with our families, the list seemed endless.
Oddly enough we had been talking about when we would be leaving for the last 2 months. With limited conversational topics anything new gets a good going over and our farewell was the latest topic. One would think that talking about us leaving for 2 months would prepare us for our first lot of goodbyes, the Apostolic Life Ministries church (ALM). Each church, the council, the local school, our community and our families, all wanted to give us their own farewell and ALM headed it off. After a heartfelt thank you speech from the pastor we were presented with gift and I was crying already, not those dainty little roll down the cheek tears but puffy eyes, grasping tears and of course all the mamas joined in. Our first farewell was a bit of a shock to the system. Leaving always seemed so far away, something that was always happening later, I wasn’t ready to start saying goodbye.
A week before we flew out to Vila we had our farewell lunch with the teachers and students at Magam Primary School. Before the speeches could begin we were asked to change into the present that the school had given us, an island dress and shirt. If you ever wanted to make a fashion statement I now have the dress for you. We stepped into the classroom now wearing outfits made entirely of the Vanuatu Flag and were met with a round of applause.
After a lovely speech by the Headmistress we tucked into a smorgasbord of island food, all the best stuff; laplap, rice, pig, chicken, sweet potato, island cabbage and one of my favourite foods, river fern. After photos and more speeches Rich attempted to change out of his Vanuatu flag shirt but was instructed by the Headmistress that he had to wear it home so our community could see. News spread fast and those who didn’t get to see us walking down the street in our new outfits came to the house to ask to see it for themselves.
In between our farewells we had work to finalise, last minute loose ends to tie up. We ended up with quite a substantial list of things to do and in between farewells and packing up the house we were organising project contact lists, a boat engine service and money hand-over ceremonies. We were always focused on the sustainability of our projects and for us that meant ensuring that our knowledge stayed in the community which also meant last minute one-on-one training sessions with new council members.
Three of the hardest farewells were still to come; the Lonali Council community farewell, our Magam community (where we live) and our families. We were touched by how many people across the Lonali Area took the time to come to our farewell. I have to admit that we didn’t recognise everyone, but since our council area covers 36 villages, we let ourselves off the hook. It was hard saying goodbye to the women who we had worked closely with for the last 12 months. By the time the Chairlady was crying through her speech, I was onto my second hanky. We are so grateful that the women we had the opportunity to work with also took the time to teach us so much, without them we would have spent a year in the dark.
Magam Village came together for our last church service and our last meal with our community. With only two days to go, we spent the day running around trying to pull the last piece togethers, while all the mamas were working hard to organise dinner. Rich once again gave a wonderful thank you speech and I decided to swallow the tears and say a few words myself, I’m sure it all came out as a mumble but Rich did comment that I had manage to make all the mama’s cry, so the message got across.
Our last meal with our families was always going to be terribly sad and it lived up to all expectations. It would be impossible to adequately describe how much our Ambrym families meant to us and how hard to would have been without them. Our families protected us, looked after us and taught us how to live life on an island without running water, electricity and in a culture that was constantly confusing and fascinating. Our families made us laugh, shared in our highs and our lows. We will miss them.
On our last morning on Ambrym our families, aunts, uncles, cousins and community came to the beach to say our final goodbye. Once all the hugs had been given and all the tears cried, we got into the boat and as it pulled out they sung us a final farewell song. Just in case the scene wasn’t sad enough Dingo started to swim out to the boat and only turned around when Rich pushed him back towards shore.