Cooking … Vanuatu Style (Carmen)
I was very excited the day that my outdoor bush kitchen was built. It’s not sporting the latest granite benches, chrome appliances or a fridge with an ice-making window, but it does have the best smoke ventilation in Magam!
Rich and Family Building Kitchen
The community decided to build us a kitchen at the council AGM (yes our kitchen was an agenda item) and while we were away in Vila the frame was built. Rich, his papa, Abu and brother nailed on the coconut leaf walls and secured the natangura roof to the bamboo frame. The final touches were added; a space for a fire, a bench to recline on and some sticks were battered into the ground to hold the firewood and on top a table to store yams, taro, manioc and banana.
For the first week of cooking in our new kitchen Rich’s family kept a close eye, making sure us city-slickers knew how to cut firewood, light a fire and cook. Having our own kitchen meant that we could now cook island kakae (food), we tried to cook island kakae on our gas stove but most veggies here are similar to potato and take a while to cook. The whole process ends up using too much gas and when our gas bottle finally finishes it needs to take a trip via boat back to Vila for a refill – best to stick to the fire.
We have now past our probation period and have learnt a few island tricks in the kitchen, (coconut shells, which burn fiercely, will help a pot come to boil) and now we are allowed to cook unattended. Though whenever we are in the kitchen people still drop in, sometimes they rearrange the wood in the fire but more than likely they have come for a chat. Popular topics at the moment are our garden, the latest ceremony, the weather (it has been a very wet dry-season) and of course the local gossip.
With our new kitchen we can try different combinations of food cooked in different ways, although we have mostly the same ingredients so things are never that different! What we eat depends completely on what is in season. Good old yams are still in season as well as cabbage and breadfruit (one of the most bizarre fruits around) and of course our year-round staples of banana, manioc, island cabbage and water taro. So far I have cooked coconut jam, yam patties, baked pumpkin, bean and coconut milk curry and cakes. I have also mastered some island kakae like boiled yam with coconut milk. When I cook something I usually take some up to Rich’s family, as they have looked after us so well and we still eat with them at least twice a week.
The only down side of having our own kitchen is that we need to collect firewood. Where we collect our wood from is about a 20 min walk away. The first job is to find a good piece of burao, a local wonder-wood that is used in everything from building houses to its leaves being used for plates. The long piece of burao is spilt in half and the bark peeled off to be used as rope to bundle our wood together. We head to the clearing where we collect piles of wood, I collect small to medium wood and Rich collects the large pieces about 2 meters long. Our bundles are tied up and Rich carries his large bundle on his shoulder, usually followed by much mumbling that ‘there really should be a better way to carry firewood’. My bundle is tied up like a ruck-sack held by a strong stick over my shoulder, possibly the most uncomfortable way to carry wood. We start the walk home, Rich is usually swearing under his breath and in no time I have a bruise from the stick rubbing against my shoulder blade. We both get to the kitchen and drop our bundle glad that it will be at least a week before we have to do that again.
A Day in the Life of Us (Carmen)
I got asked many times before we left for Vanuatu ‘I know Rich will be working with the local women’s council, but what will you do?’ It is a fair question, without a job, all my family and friends, what will fill my days? I now have an answer – stuff, not a lengthy answer but an answer all the same. Island life takes up an awful amount of time and we each have our jobs to do but, as well our Council work, doing ‘stuff’ is time consuming.
To help you get an idea of what fills of days below is… a day in the life of us.
5am: Both awake as we can no longer ignore the roosters but refuse to give up on sleeping and remain in bed for another hour.
6am: Rich now completely awake gets up and starts his morning chores – sweeping the verandah, carrying our day’s water from the well, filling the camp shower with water and putting it in the sun to heat during the day, starts a fire to heat our washing water and maybe even juices some oranges for breakfast if we have any.
6:30am: There are very few advantages to being a woman in Vanuatu and not having to carry water is one of them and since its one of Rich’s jobs, Carmen gets an extra half-an-hour sleep in! Once up and about Carmen joins Rich in the kitchen while the water heats, and then she goes and sorts out breakfast. Breakfast is either damper-like bread, kato (like a donut) or crackers, it depends what’s at the village store.
7am: We eat breakfast and chat about the day ahead or any other topics that we haven’t exhausted yet.
7:30am to 11:30am: This is when we get a lot of the ‘office work’ is done, writing emails, training workshop or project plans or going to meet up with people we need to talk to. However, if it looks like a sunny day then Carmen heads up to the well near Rich’s parents house where there is a washing table, washing bowl and board and it takes 3 hours to scrub all of our clothes clean. It is at this point when Carmen realises why so many little kids run around naked - scrubbing dirty nappies would be awful. Carmen will spend the rest of the day watching the sky because it has rained every time she has washed and at any point she will need to run outside to grab all the clothes.
11:30am to 1:30pm: Since there is no loaves of bread a sandwich is out of the question for lunch and so is reheating last nights leftovers because there is no dog food and Dingo has to eat something. Which means we either cook our lunch or if it’s a hot day we just eat fruit. Lunch is quickly followed by a ‘spel’, a great Ni-Vanuatu tradition which means we now have an excuse to read a book, have a nap or go and chat to our extended families who usually can be found sitting under a tree or on a verandah.
1:30pm to 2:30pm: We both have our own list of jobs that we need to get done, Rich’s jobs usually involve fixing something like nailing the plastic around our shower down, where as Carmen’s jobs are usually about the house, putting stuff away, sweeping, cleaning, washing dishes etc.
2:30pm: By this time the sun has lost its bite and we can head to our garden. We have a large garden compared to what we had in Sydney but small compared to the other gardens here. Although we have planted lettuce, beans, eggplant, carrot, onion and capsicum the most admired item in the garden is our cabbage; which is lucky as there is heaps and we really don’t mind giving it away. While we work in our garden which is situated on the ‘main road’ people stop and chat and we discuss how well the cabbage is going and how long it will be until we can eat it. However if it’s too hot to go to the garden then we head for the beach. If it’s a hot day then all the kids from our village can be found playing in the water, jumping off the boat and generally mucking around.
Our Garden - Early Days
3pm: Carmen must start thinking about dinner. If Rich’s mama has cooked then she gets the night off otherwise Richard is sent to the kitchen to start a fire. Most meals involve coconut milk so husking, scratching and milking the coconut will definitely be on the cards for Carmen. If Carmen is feeling particularly lazy she will hope that someone in that village brings them dinner (which happens from time to time and isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds) and if nothing turns up she cooks a pasta dish on the gas stove.
4:30pm: Time to have a shower as we still have light and showering in the dark creates its own obstacles. The shower by this time is nice and warm (or we hope at least not cold) and is hung up in our shower room by Rich, as carrying water is his domain. We take turns watching the fire and stirring it back to life as our dinner simmers away.
Toliet (real door) and Shower (white plastic door) and Kitchen in the Background
6pm: By this time it is dark and we either head up to Rich’s family’s house for dinner or clear away our work from the office desk and it turns into our dinner table and dinner is served. Washing up is usually left for the next day unless we have used all our plates and bowls and we have nothing left for breakfast.
7pm: We recline on the thermorests that we have turned into a lounge and either listen to the shortwave radio, play cards or read our books. If we are lucky enough to get a call from Australia then we sit outside on the verandah where we have good reception, most of the time.
8pm: After we brush our teeth, we head to bed, Rich usually has the energy to read his book and Carmen usually can only read a page or two before she falls asleep.
Rich’s Family comes to visit – Part 1 (Richard)
Towards the end of June, my family came to visit us on Ambrym. We were really excited about having them visit – we were really keen to show them our life on Ambrym and have them meet our adopted families. Also, due to the importance of family here, it was a very big deal for our families here in Magam and much preparation was made for the visit.
My brother Tom came first with his good friend Catherine – although to make explanations easier she temporarily became his wife! Carmen stayed in Magam to help my family prepare a big laplap for their arrival, while I took the boat to collect them from the airport at Craig Cove. On the trip back to the North, in the dark, we saw the mouth of the volcano glowing red and reflected in the clouds – a powerful reminder that we do actually live quite close to an active volcano!
When we finally arrived at Magam the laplap was ready and Tom and Cat were welcomed by my family and then introduced to the strange tastes of ‘island kakae’. Although Tom did get to like island food, and his ability to eat was well appreciated by everyone here (and, incidentally, is still commented on today!), one of his most common sayings during his time here was, “Hmm, that’s a strange texture!”
Tom Making Woo Woo
The week that Tom and Cat were here turned out to be a very busy one in Magam – a big chief had died, there was a wedding, a fundraiser, and even a local ‘string band’ music festival. This meant that Tom and Cat were lucky enough to see some of the ‘ceremonial’ side of life in Vanuatu – a side that most people don’t get to see. Other highlights were a walk to a custom carving village which is located up the hill in one of the most ‘jungley’ parts of our area. It’s a great walk, and some appropriately ‘jungley’ atmosphere was added by persistent rain. At the village we met the carvers and Tom and Cat both bought carved Tam Tams, a famous and traditional North Ambrym carving. The simple things about their stay were also great – chatting by the fire in the kitchen, playing cards at night and having them help us in our daily chores. They both completely embraced island life – the food, the language, the daily routine, even their newfound place in the family network (as Tom is my brother he is also considered a son of my parents in Magam). This made their stay, I think, all the more special, because the community really embraced them too.
Cat Straching a Coconut in our Kitchen
Rich and Tom at the String Band Festival
Sadly, Cat had to go after one week, so we set off for the airport to see her off and pick up Mum and Dad. It was a sad farewell for Cat, who didn’t want to leave North Ambrym, but it was great to see Mum and Dad step out of the plane into our little Ambrym world.
Continued in Part 2 – when I write it!