A Travellerspoint blog

Our Last Month

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!

Konkon (Rich)

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.

Posted by RichCarm 20:22 Comments (0)

Christmas and New Year, Ambrym style

What!...No Gravy? (or ham, prawns, pudding etc) (Carmen and Rich)

Carmen sent an email recently describing the weeks leading up to Christmas here as ‘catatonic’. While largely true at the time of writing, it quickly changed and the days before Christmas became ridiculously busy. In a trend that seems to cross cultures, people on Ambrym leave their Christmas shopping until the very last minute. The two stores were stuffed full of new toys, clothes and food and it seemed that almost the entire population of our area made a visit on the 23rd or 24th, to the point where it was so busy that Carmen even needed to help out at my Papa’s store. Everyone, including us, was also busily wrapping presents, cleaning their houses and yards and generally getting ready. By the time Christmas Eve arrived we were all pretty knackered.

But the program for Christmas Eve was already in place. The community was to gather for a dramatisation of Jesus’ birth, with the inevitable church service to follow. However, unfortunately for everyone involved, the Christmas Eve celebrations turned into something of a disaster. In an inauspicious beginning, most people including the pastor didn’t turn up till 7:30pm – an hour and half late. Keep in mind that 7:30pm is getting close to our bedtime and there was plenty of talking to go. The dramatisation of Jesus’ birth, preformed by the youth of the community, started in true Vanuatu style – unnecessarily long-winded. Rather than starting with Mary and Joseph, our story started with the history of the family of King David, 40 (or whatever) generations before Mary and Joseph. Performances here are typically under-rehearsed and badly acted and so we laughed (to ourselves) as they muffed their lives and got confused about who was doing what. As we went on, however, it became increasingly clear that they just didn’t have a clue what they were doing and after a few failed attempts by the organising adults to save it, the whole thing was prematurely aborted and we went straight to the singing, skipping the birth of Jesus entirely! After all that the pastor droned on until 10:30am while half the hall fell asleep in their seats. The whole thing was unfortunate to say the least.

Christmas morning started at the merry time of 4:45am. By 5am we were up at Rich’s family’s house organising Christmas breakfast. All the papas had organised to swap families for breakfast so at 5:30am Rich’s Papa went off to have breakfast on the other side of our village. We put the final touches on breakfast, hot tea, bread with butter, peanut butter and our addition of Nutella and waited for our guest papa to arrive. An hour later we finally hear footsteps coming up the path, it was Rich’s Papa returning from his breakfast. Finally acknowledging that we had been well and truly stood-up we all tucked into breakfast. Not the most encouraging start to Christmas.

The rest of Christmas day would be celebrated together as a community so Rich’s Mama and sisters hurried off to prepare laplap and Rich and I had been put in charge of Christmas cake. While Rich went next door to fire-up the wood oven, I set about making a banana cake for over 150 people. The cake mix was poured into the first tin when one of the kids from the village turned up with a badly cut finger (the clinic shuts over Christmas). Rich set about mashing the next lot of bananas while I cleaned and dressed the wound. By 9am the cake was baked, chocolate icing made and we were dressed and ready for the Christmas church service.

Lucky for us Rich’s Papa was taking the service which guaranteed less talking and more singing. Each church group performed rehearsed songs and even though not one Christmas carol was sung, it was starting to feel more like Christmas.

Christmas wouldn’t be the same without lots and lots of food and no one does lots of food like Islanders. Our plates were piled high with rice, laplap, chicken, cucumber, lettuce, watermelon and pineapple. As Rich and I sat down we contemplated how best to attack the mountain of food without triggering a food avalanche. With Dingo hungrily eating our leftovers Chief Byongkon announced that it was time to cut the cake. Cake wasn’t the last of the sweets for the kids. While I was cutting the cake the Ambrym version of Santa was getting dressed. Papa Noël did in fact have a beard and a track suit but that was where the similarities ended. Papa Noël sported an Adidas style track suit, filled of course with a pillow, a New Orleans style mask and a tinsel hair wig. Papa Noël danced his way to the hall and begun throwing lollies to the kids. All the kids were laughing, screaming and jumping to catch the lollies. But just like at home when Papa Noël got too close to the little kids they burst into tears…Rich isn’t the only one that can make the kids cry!

It was after lunch and no presents had been seen, all were still hidden away. We were waiting for the Chief to announce that it was time. Present giving is a public affair in Ambrym and all the parents line up to take their turn in calling their children up to receive their Christmas present. Toy guns that screamed ‘fire, fire, bang, bang’, was a particularly popular gift - hopefully the batteries will run out soon.

The Christmas festivities had only just begun. The afternoon and evening had a packed program of comedy sketches preformed by the local boys, singing performances by the mamas and Sunday school choirs and choreographed dances. The DJ got into gear and played the popular string bands and we danced till 11pm. Rich and I happily fell into bed after a jam-packed day.

New Years Eve (Rich)

Our days between Christmas and New Years were filled, oddly enough, with photography. We had volunteered ourselves to take family photos for some people in Magam, but when word got around, we ended up doing almost every family in Magam and the two villages on either side. It made us incredibly busy, but it was fun.

New Years Eve celebrations are a big deal on Ambrym. New Years is one of perhaps 3 or 4 times a year that people get to dance, laugh and really have a great time. Entertainment options are so limited that this is pretty much the highlight of the year.

The evening of the 31st started with the community meal, more mountains of food, but this time including pig - very special. After came the service, followed by speeches. Fortunately, the speeches, which in Vanuatu are not generally brief affairs, were broken up by skits and dances by the young people. This continued until 11:45pm, when we switched to singing songs until nearly 12 o’clock. We then counted down to the New Year (just like at home) and welcomed the new year with a vigorous ‘Hip Hip Hooray’, followed by some traditional Ambrym language New Years songs.

And then the party started. The generator-powered sound system kicked into gear and started pumping out the tunes. Unfortunately the same 10 or 15 tunes were played over and over, but nonetheless people managed to keep going throughout the morning. At 4 o’clock when we decided to snatch a little sleep, the party was still in full swing.

The other major tradition of New Year is to do what’s called ‘running punani’. This is where the village gets together as a big group and visit every house, stopping to sing and dance on the way. We were the first house on the list, and at 5 o’clock we woke to the sounds of chanting in the distance, as the whole village marched towards our house. The chanting intensified, and as they reached our house they were in full swing. It was like a mosh pit, people chanted, stamped their feet and jumped around. Mamas circulated, spraying the crowd with talcum powder and we were eventually presented with small gifts and were very enthusiastically wished ‘Happy New Year’.

After a couple more hours sleep we joined the rest of Magam village to run punani in the next village. The spectacle was much the same as we visited the houses of the elderly and respected members of the community. I think punani, and Christmas and New Years in general, is embraced so enthusiastically by the community because it really is their only chance to ‘let go’ and have fun. There isn’t that much else going on, so everyone, from kids to grandparents, really gets into the spirit. Although tiring, the Christmas / New Year period was way more fun then we expected and we definitely made the right decision to celebrate it on Ambrym. Nonetheless, on the 2nd of January we headed off for a break on Santo Island.

Posted by RichCarm 22:16 Comments (0)

Loz, Mick and Dingo

A Visit from Friends (Carmen)

One of my oldest and dearest friends Lauren and her gem of a partner Mick decided that they needed a well deserved holiday. Lucky for them they knew two people who lived on a tropical island in the Pacific who were more than a little excited to have them come for a visit.

The sound of the plane engine woke us up from our catnap at the airport and we watched, from the shade for the trees, as their plane came over the horizon and landed safely on Ambrym. We quickly gathered up their impressively small luggage and started the walk to the boat. As we walked we caught up on news, between Loz’s shock at how tanned I am and them telling us the exciting news that they had just bought a house, we were loaded in the boat for the trip home.

Rich’s mama had made Loz and Mick a welcome dinner and to our surprise Loz was the first person who immediately enjoyed island food. Usually the texture or ‘interesting’ flavour is an acquired taste and takes some getting used to. But when Loz finished her first piece of laplap their wasn’t a hint of feigned politeness when she said the food was good. It was lucky that they both enjoyed island food as a trip to Ambrym wouldn’t be complete without meeting both our families and others in our village over many shared meals.

Loz and Mick flew in on a Saturday, just in time for church on Sunday. With Loz and I decked out in our island dresses and Mick and Rich in colourful island shirts, we walked to the next village to attend the Apostolic Life Ministry’s (ALM) church. ALM is a Pentecostal church that lends more towards singing than preaching – it is a fun experience and definitely different from the Catholic mass that Loz and I are used to. Many songs have actions and it wasn’t long before Loz was singing, clapping, jumping and dancing with all the women. On the men’s side of the church, Rich and Mick followed the men’s subdued lead and stuck to singing and clapping. After church the congregation ate lunch together and after explaining what Loz and Mick did in Australia, Pastor John asked Loz to give a talk about what to do if you have a sore back. With Rich translating, Loz gave a short talk about what to do and what not to do and then had everyone up practicing different stretches. When we left all the women were still laughing – Loz was a huge hit.

On Monday we went for a walk to Nobul Village and on the way stopped at the local school for a visit, then headed up to Rich’s family garden where we were given freshly picked watermelon and just before we reached Nobul beach we stopped in at the health clinic. The day before Loz and Mick arrived one of the ladies in our village and a relative of Rich’s had a baby girl. Rich and I ducked into the clinic to meet the newest member of our village. A very healthy baby girl named…. Carmen!! Baby Carmen is sleeping and feeding well and has caused her mama only a few sleepless nights.

Tuesday morning arrived quickly and we all set off for the airport for our trip back to Vila. While boarding the plane I was handed a baby and the man indicated that the mother was already seated on board and to carry the baby to her. Halfway down the plane I reached the mother, who was already holding an identical baby – they were twins. Already with her hands full she smiled and gestured for me to keep walking down the plane. I reached the end of the plane where there was a spare seat and I looked around confused trying to find who I was supposed to give the baby to. Rich laughed as my confused expression faded as I realised that there was no one to give her too and she was sitting with me for the flight to Vila. Luckily she only cried on take off and fell asleep quite quickly. By the time we were flying over Epi I was boiling hot, the plane was stuffy and not helped by the lack of air-conditioning or by the gorgeous but sweaty baby sleeping on my chest. With relief the plane began it’s decent and in 10 minutes the doors were opened to a gush of fresh air. After handing the baby over to waiting relatives we grabbed our bags and headed for our guest house for a shower.

We spent four fantastic days in Vila relaxing, our biggest decisions were where to have an afternoon drink while watching the sun set over the bay and which restaurant to go to afterwards. After four days of laughing, drinking and eating I headed back to Ambrym and Loz and Mick headed across to a resort island for some luxury before heading home.

Ladies… Dingo is off the market (Carmen)

No Dingo hasn’t set up house with a local woman dog, making little dingo babies, he has been de-sexed! On our last trip into Vila I ran into Christina, a Veterinarian based in Vila, and asked if it was possible for someone who knew how to de-sex a pig to correctly de-sex a dog. She cringed, but agreed that it was theoretically possible and then quickly suggested that she come to Ambrym herself and de-sex Dingo before heading up the volcano.

Christina also offered to de-sex any other local dogs for free as all the medicine and surgical equipment had been donated to Sam’s Animal Welfare Trust (a not-for-profit off-shoot of the Vet Clinic in Vila). All I had to do was provide a table, location and be willing to take a crash course in being a vet nurse. Although I had never considered being a vet nurse as a career option, I was quite looking forward to it and I was just hoping I didn’t inadvertently kill anyone’s beloved dog.

After church on Sunday we gave a quick awareness talk about de-sexing dogs and announced that Christina would be de-sexing dogs tomorrow on my veranda. Christina had created quite a stir: while people de-sex their pig as it makes them fatter and therefore worth more money, no one de-sexes their dogs, although everyone agrees we have too many dogs in the village. It wasn’t long until we had our first couple of dogs lined up to be de-sexed the following day.

In the morning we started to set up our make-shift vet clinic, our kitchen table was moved on to the veranda, boxes used for a surgical equipment table and a chair used to hold the drugs and syringes. Once we were all set up Dingo was the first cab off the rank. People were still sceptical about de-sexing their dogs so I very bravely, on Dingo’s behalf, offered him up as the first patient. Dingo was given his first injection and while we waited for him to get drowsy I was given my vet nurse instructions, which boiled down to making sure the dogs were still breathing. Thankfully I didn’t have to give mouth-to-nose resuscitation and all dogs continued to breath throughout their surgery.

Twenty minutes later Dingo was drowsy, actually more drunk than drowsy, and he had attracted a large crowd. Almost everyone from our village was grouped along the veranda or along the fence. The kids had front row seats and were four rows deep all on tippy-toes waiting for the show to begin. We got Dingo up on the table and I held his head and his paw while Christina inserted the catheter and the drugs to make him unconscious. In seconds he was sleeping and Christina quickly got to work preparing his testicles and belly for surgery. I was given my next nurse duties, correctly unfolding gloves and blade so they remain sterile. Christina made her first incision, not as bloody as I had imagined, but I kept my eye on Dingo’s breathing and signs that the drugs were wearing off. Moments later Christina popped a testicle out, sewed up the tube and cut it off and put it to the side while she poked around for the second one. Out it came and in seconds both had been put in the rubbish bag at my feet. With Dingo stitched up and breathing well Christina took the tube out of his throat, removed the catheter and laid him on the cement to wake up.

Over the next few hours Christina de-sexed another three male dogs and I was forging a career as a vet nurse. The crowd had thinned and with the only women dog up for surgery, Vatu, at the garden with Rich’s brother we decided it was a good time for a lunch break. By this time Dingo was awake but groggy and happy to sleep the day away while we prepared for the last surgery of the day. De-sexing a female dog takes longer and hurts the dogs more so more drugs are required. I was starting to quite enjoy lifting the paw to give an extra ml or so of drugs. For Vatu’s surgery Rich’s family crowded round and the small group meant that Christina could explain what was happening and answer questions.

It had been a long day for Christina; she had de-sexed 5 dogs in less then ideal conditions with a large audience and did a fantastic job. When we moved to Vanuatu helping de-sex dogs was not the type of community development that I had in mind, but it was a strangely enjoyable day and one that everyone here has talked about for days.

Posted by RichCarm 21:08 Comments (0)

The Fox Family comes to Vanuatu

The Foxy Family Have Landed (Carmen)

The lead up to my family visiting was less then reassuring. Recent earthquakes and tsunamis in the Pacific left my Mum and Grandma concerned and Dad, with his adventurous streak, frankly excited. A week before they were to arrive we received a tsunami warning; luckily we live on high ground, the seas stayed calm and within a few hours it was cancelled. Fortunately, things seemed to settle down just in time for their visit.

Almost everything in Vanuatu runs late and planes are no exception. So when a tiny eight-seater plane landed early, I assumed it was a charted flight for those who were willing to get into what looked like a large remote-controlled toy plane. To my surprise, through the windows I saw Mum, Dad and Grandma’s smiling faces. It had been a bumpy ride and they were glad to have landed safely on Ambrym. They exchanged the tiny plane for the back of a ute and then a small open boat. The trip back North always seems much faster; with lots to catch up on the trip seemed to fly by.

After getting settled in and receiving the tour of our house, kitchen and toilet, we got ready to join Rich’s family for dinner. Rich’s Papa gave a traditional welcome and after the prayer we all began to eat. Our dinner conversations are always led by Rich’s Papa who started by asking Grandma how old she was. Grandma replied ‘71 years old’. ‘Ah’, Rich’s Papa said, ‘very old’. Rich’s Papa continued, ‘do you have teeth?’ ‘Yes’ said Grandma, smiling and tapping a tooth to prove that they were real. ‘Ah… very nice’ he replied. This was the first of many conversations that Grandma would have about her age. The usual reply after discovering her age was ‘ah, very old’ followed quickly by ‘you still walk, very strong’. Everyone seemed to be very impressed that she could still walk and had her own teeth. Their innocent inquiry and surprised reactions make more sense when you realise that the general life expectancy is only 69 years old. With Grandma far from death’s door and fit enough to come to Ambrym and easily walk around the surrounding villages, she was a talking point.

Mum, Dad and Grandma were quickly introduced to Ambrym custom, with a pig killing ceremony in their honour. It’s a bit complicated to explain, but basically the ceremony was a demonstration of reciprocal relationships between two families. Following custom rules the pig was bought by Rich and his Papa to be given to my Australian Dad and my Ambrym Papa. Unfortunately it was a girl pig which meant that I was the one that was customarily supposed to kill the pig. However pig killing wasn’t something I felt I needed to add to my résumé and I was allowed to symbolically tap it on the head with a stick. Both Dad and Papa held the rope connected to the pig to symbolise that the pig was to be given to them and Rich’s Papa did the killing. Not one part of the pig is wasted; the tongue, liver and ears are roasted over the fire and after the intestines are washed out in the sea the kids fight over who gets to fry them. We spent the rest of the day preparing the pig for dinner.

A must-do activity on Ambrym is a visit to the garden, an inadequate term for a veggie patch the size a football field. It was a good time to go as the new garden had just been established and the old garden was nearing its end. Dad in particular wanted to know how they manage their gardens to ensure they always had enough food and luckily Papa was keen to show him around. My Ambrym Papa was amazed at all the questions Dad asked and laughed at all the details he noticed. People here traditionally learn by watching, so Papa had to quickly figure out how to explain things to Dad who wanted to know how everything worked. On the other side of the garden is a coconut plantation and Papa climbed the coconut tree to cut down some green coconuts to drink while we all relaxed in the shade. After collecting firewood and some oranges we headed back to the village for banana laplap.

It wasn’t long before our stay in the North came to an end. Dad was keen to climb the volcano but the path from the North was closed to ensure the success of the yam harvest. So we headed to South Ambrym where the path was still open and the Rich and Dad could climb the volcano. Mum, Grandma and I opted for a more relaxing day spent at the hot springs. The hot springs are right on the beach and at low tide the large rock pools turn into baths of warm water. Whilst we were relaxing in the sun, Rich and Dad had climbed Mt Marum and Lavale and amongst the smoke had seen rolling lava. We had afternoon tea with another Australian volunteer living in West Ambrym and headed back to our guest house to wait for the boys, who arrived home just in time for dinner.

Arriving in Vila meant sleep-ins (till 7am), breakfast prepared for us, our washing waiting folded on our beds and a wonderful choice of food to eat, an immediate change from life on Ambrym. We were determined to relax and even through we went to the Mele Cascades, snorkelled at Hideaway Island and went sailing around Vila Bay we still got to read and relax and chat. After six days in Vila we waved sad goodbyes to Mum, Dad and Grandma.

International Day of Rural Women (Rich)

During the Fox family visit we weren’t able to leave work behind completely. As part of my work with the Council we had helped to organise a big celebration day for International Day of Rural Women (October 15), a UN day designed to support women living in rural areas. As we are most certainly rural, and we work mainly with women, we thought it a good day to celebrate.

Fortuitously we were able to combine it with the opening of the Council’s new office space (really just a room, but an office nonetheless!). So the day was a big day for Lonali Council and for women in general. We had a big march, led by a banner that we had made with heaps of women’s hands painted on it. We had speeches, the opening and dedication of the office, free food for everyone, games and health check-ups for women. And probably the biggest draw was 400 and something bras which had been donated from Australia (thanks Sharon!) which we sold at very cheap prices as a fundraiser for the Council. Not only did the Council make money, but the women were ecstatic about getting their hands on good-quality, cheap bras, rather than the rubbish they usually have access to.

The day was massive, with probably 200 plus people attending (big for here!) and was a huge success for the Council. It was the first time they had organised an event like this and the first time anyone had celebrated this day before. It was such a success that they’re already organising next year. From our perspective, it was hugely satisfying because the event was largely organised by the Council which means that they’re starting to do things by themselves, which is what we’re aiming to promote. And it was great too that so many members of the community came out to support the Council, which means that their reputation as a useful community organisation is growing. And finally, it was great that Carmen’s family were able to be there to meet the Council and see firsthand some of the results of our work here.

Posted by RichCarm 19:44 Comments (0)

Volcanoes and Vila

Walking the Volcano (Rich and Carmen)

Given that we on an island with two active volcanoes, we thought we were long overdue to climb them. And we knew that we had to do it before September 30, or else we would run into taboo season – it is forbidden to climb the volcano from the North as it will disrupt the yam harvest. As it turned out, some friends from Vila also wanted to climb, so we made our arrangements.

In the end, our friends Adam and Erin didn’t have time to travel too us up in the North, so we met them in the West, planning to catch a plane on to Vila once the walk was done. Once we had arranged our guides and our food (lap lap and savoury biscuits!) we were ready to go.

Inauspiciously, it rained during the night, and when we set off at 4:30am, it was into dark, wet jungle, although, mercifully, the rain had now stopped. We soon had the chance to dry out, though, as by dawn we had reached a wide, dry river bed that we would follow all the way to the Ash Plain, the barren landscape that surrounds Ambrym’s two volcanoes, Marum and Benbow.

By mid-morning we had reached the start of the Ash Plain, where the landscape changes abruptly from trees and grasses to dry gravel and rock, surrounded by jagged hills cut through with ancient lava rivers. The rocks are pinkish-red, and the word ‘Mars’ was mentioned several times. This was apt – we felt as if we were the sole inhabitants of a completely different planet. It was beautiful, in a lifeless and desolate way, which made it all the more exhilarating.

Soon we reached a point where the only place too go was up, and we followed an old lava river up a steep incline until we emerged and perched ourselves on a jagged hilltop. It was breathtaking – partly because the expanse of Mars landscape spread out below us, but mostly because the smoky, sulphur filled air caught in our throats – a sharp reminder that we were close to a volcano. After a short rest, our guide said “We’re going down there”, pointing to a steeply declining razorback ridge with no discernable path whatsoever. Carmen actually thought he was joking. If only we knew what was to come…

After a slow descent down the ridge, we reached flat ground again. And then the smoke really closed in. Visibility was no more than a few metres, Rich put a handkerchief over his mouth so he could breathe properly, and small drops of acid rain burned our eyes. Erin said it was “like Hell, only cold”. The smoke was so thick that our guides lost their way, and after several false attempts we were told to sit and wait while our three guides split up to find the path. After a couple of hours on this smoky plateau, we found the way and began our ascent up to the rim of the volcano.

As you would expect, it was steep. The smoke had cleared only slightly, our packs of gear weighed us down, and it only got steeper, but we were climbing up a volcano! Everything was fine, if tiring, until we got to within 100 metres of the top. Here it became so steep that we might as well have been rock-climbing, only the ground beneath our hands and feet was gravel and crumbly rock that gave away beneath out weight. It was genuinely dangerous, especially with our packs on, but we made it – to the relative safety of the edge of an active volcano.

Safety-wise, the rim itself was little better. Mostly the path was thin, about 30cm, with the mouth of a volcano on one side, and God knows what on the other – the smoke was too dense to see anything on either side. At certain points it appeared as if Carmen was going to be blown of the volcano by the gusting winds, and we’re sure that Adam, who was carrying a particularly large pack, almost toppled into the abyss several times. But we blindly walked on, around about half the volcano as we later found out, until we reached the path down.

The day was getting on, so we were glad to be heading down. As we made our way down the path (small and gravelly again!) we emerged from the smoke and beneath us was the other side of the Ash Plain – rolling hilltops of black rock dotted with rich green tufts of grass clinging to the steep inclines. We set up camp in a level place, another old river virtually at the foot of the volcano. It was a stunning place to camp, and we were glad to be stopping after what had been 12 hours of walking. Before we headed to bed our guides told us that if it rained we would need to jump on top of the rock to avoid the flowing water, but that did not eventuate and exhaustion ensured a sound night’s sleep.

The four of us decided that heading back down the path we struggled up yesterday was not the best or safest option and taking another route out would surely be better, as well as providing us with a different view on the way back. Luckily, we awoke to find that smoke had cleared somewhat, and we headed back up the volcano to see if we could get a look. Whether it was a good night’s sleep or us getting used to the slippery slopes, the climb back up was a lot easier. When we reached the rim of the volcano we could see down inside to what looked like another, volcano that constantly belched smoke, and if you were quiet you could hear the lava sloshing and heaving inside, like small waves breaking on the shore. As we watched the sun rise into the volcano, yesterday’s hard walk was definitely worth the view. While the others rested, I (Rich) went with a guide further around the rim, retracing yesterday’s steps. With the smoke cleared I could see what lay on either side of us, and was glad that we couldn’t see it the day before. On one side, rocks like jagged teeth marked the sheer drop into the volcano, while on the other a precipice into nothingness of the side of the mountain. There were points on the path where a misstep would have meant certain death. I was more scared than I have been for a long time, but that fear was mixed with equal amounts of excitement and exhilaration. It was an incredible experience.

We picked up our bags at camp and started the walk out. Our guides had told us that the path out was “just down that way”, giving us the impression that since there were no volcanoes to climb over, it would be a relatively easy walk home. After an hour or two’s walking on the Ash Plain, with stunning views of Benbow and Marum behind us, we reached the end of the plain, where palm trees lined the outer rim. To our left was what seemed like a flat descent into, we assumed, a village, to our right a small mountain. We joked that we all hoped to go over the mountain and thought we were very funny… until our guides told us that that was indeed the way home.

The path from the Ash Plain was a small break in the trees and as we ducked under the foliage we found ourselves immediately in a tropical rainforest. So stunning was the sudden break that we all stopped to look back out the small archway of trees, which now framed the volcanoes. Pretty soon, we started the march over the hill, climbing up, and down gullies, and up again. It was going to be a hard slog home. When we started to see coconut plantations, we knew that we had to be close. By this stage Carmen’s knees were really sore, Adam’s old football injuries had been brought back to life, Richard had blisters and Erin just wasn’t talking. Even our guides, who were usually indestructibly bounding off into the distance, said that their knees were sore too. This made Carmen feel better. Shortly after our final rest and a snack of coconuts, we hit the main road. We thought that this was it and someone would soon arrive to pick us up. But our guides started to walk up the road and off we went again. Finally a ute came our way and we fell into the back to head home for a hot dinner and bed.

Vila (Carmen)

When we arrived in Vila it had been a month since I had washed my hair, this due to our current water situation, resulting in daily sudless swims in the ocean. Rich graciously let me have the first shower, possibly the best hot shower I have ever had. The smell of soap now officially my favourite smell, rivalling fresh bread and sizzling bacon for the top spot.

Normally when we head to Vila we stay with two other volunteers, Jess and Andy. They live in Mele Village, just outside of Vila and are tremendous company. They have a spare room which we normally call home, this usually means that nightly dinners turns into a game of 500 and an empty bottle of wine. Unfortunately, our visit coincided with a visit from Jess’ brother and family obligations saw him get our room. Luckily Jordon was also great company and didn’t seem to mind sharing his sister and brother-in-law with two no-name volunteers from Ambrym.

We took our eviction from Mele as a sign that we should stay in the best B&B in Vila, La Maison Bleue. It’s run by a lovely French lady who makes us feel like we have come to stay with an old family friend. Every time we stay there we feel spoilt, she makes homemade yoghurt and jam and washes our dirty clothes without a fuss. Admittedly we always take our dirtiest clothes back to Vila to be washed by a machine. Just to labour the point, as I write a lizard has just pooed on my shoulder, quite a feat as he is attached to the roof, must have great aim.

While we look forward to going to Vila, the luxuries of running water, endless electricity and cafes, we spend the whole time running around trying to get two months worth of stuff done in a week. Squeezed around work is catching up with our friends in Vila. This trip we chartered a sailboat around South Efate. Captain Harold is a character and has a very well rehearsed speech that he makes every time he sets sail. Rich who is notoriously seasick, escaped queasiness and enjoyed manning the sails and at Pango Point jumped into the ocean for a swim. I, on the other hand enjoyed my vodka and orange and decided that since I now live in the tropics I can forgo swimming unless it is hot, a cool breeze kept me on deck. I happily passed beers down to those drifting past in floating donuts.

Vila town itself is nothing to write home about. While it has a nice waterfront, the main street is less picturesque and you can comfortably walk from one end to the other in half and hour. Vila seems like a town that has seen better days, many buildings look tired or simply thrown together in a hurry. But there is no point expecting a bustling metropolis in the middle of the Pacific. Vila does have its charms, the men gathered in the parking lot to play petanque, the bus driver stoping to chat to someone they know all the while holding up traffic, not a horn to be heard and you can rarely walk for 10 mins without someone wishing you a good morning or good afternoon.

After a very busy week and my legs recovered from the volcano walk we headed back home.

Our Work (Carmen)

In between ceremonies, collecting water, going to the garden and cooking we both have our own work assignments to complete. Our work with the council (Rich’s assignment) is going gangbusters. Our focus has changed from working on projects such as the boat and funding for the schools and has moved into training. We have been running two training workshops a month which focuses on skills that the council members need to be able to run the council more effectively.

First we tackled the basics; the roles and responsibilities of council members and following that with how to run a meeting and write minutes. Our third workshop was probably the hardest, how to write a funding application. This training workshop would have been difficult in Australia but here it was a particular challenge. To make the training more relevant we decided to complete a real funding application as part of the training. Due to the current lack of water, it was quickly agreed that the council would apply for water tanks. To see a village through a bad dry season they need a large water tank (6000 litres) and our funding would only accommodate three large tanks. This means that out of 32 villages in the Lonali Area only three will get a water tank, that is a lot of unhappy villages. In an attempt to curb the inevitable criticism, the council has set up a water committee with council members, a chief and the provincial area secretary. The committee will conduct a community need survey that will establish which villages have the capacity to have a tank (e.g. iron roofing), centrally located so that the maximum number of people can access the water and locate those village who are the furthest from a water source, ocean or half salt, half fresh water well. Hopefully the water tanks (if our funding application is successful) will go to the villages with the biggest need and will benefit the largest group of people.

The council has long since invited all mamas from the community to attend the workshops and also any men who are interested. The council believed that there are many mamas who were interested in becoming council members but were worried about what it would entail. To demystify the council all mamas were invited to attend training workshop but also encouraged to stay for the council meeting that followed. Our most recent training workshop was on financial management. The misused of money was the downfall of the pervious men’s run Lonali Council before it was handed over to the mamas. As a result, transparency and accountability is a serious problem in North Ambrym and I suspect Vanuatu as a whole. Although people are busy clearing land for their gardens, this training was attended by 40 women and 10 men, quite a feat.

While I am still heavily involved in the council, in September I officially started my own project as a Community Health Education Officer. This boils down to going to the 7 school in the North Ambrym area and running workshops with the kids and staff on hand washing, tooth brushing and looking after sores. Together with the school I will hopefully establish a program where kids will have access to hand washing facilities near the toilet but also wash their hand before lunch and brush their teeth after lunch. To help encourage good dental hygiene and to initially start the teeth brushing program which the school will continue themselves, I needed the first supply of toothbrushes and paste. I was speechless to hear that amongst family member and friends they were able to pull together 1200 brushes and pastes. I would like to thank them all for their hard work and will keep everyone up to date on the progress of the program. Currently I am writing the workshop and will be ready to meet with the school in November.

Posted by RichCarm 00:27 Comments (0)

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