A Travellerspoint blog

Some Photos

Carmen Peeling a Yam

Carmen Teaching at Magam School

Playing 'What's the Time Mr Wolf?'

The Walk Down to Magam Beach

Magam Beach at Sunset

Magam Beach with a View of Pentecost

'Main Road' in Front of Our House

Posted by RichCarm 04:48 Comments (0)

Church, Death and Travel

Just a quick note to everyone: We've had a few questions as to who is writing the blog. Actually we share the writing duties, but so everyone knows, from now on we will put who is writing it at the start of each section.

Sunday…Church Day (Carmen)

Life on Ambrym is governed by family, custom and church. Everyone goes to church, well everyone we know does. We get asked often what church we go to in Australia; they don’t care what church as long as you go to one. We have decided not to bother explaining what we think as it would be a difficult and long conversation in Bislama. We normally say that Rich’s family is Anglican and mine is Catholic and leave it at that.

We have noticed that there is always twice as many women at church on Sunday as men, so there are men that somehow manage to give it a miss. Regardless, we must go to church, it helps to build relationships, be seen as part of the community and it is where important community announcements are made. Also, we seem to loose track of the time here and when I’m heading to church in an island dress, I know its definitely Sunday.

We spilt our time between the four main churches in our area; Catholic, Assemblies of God (AOG), Presbyterian and Apostolic Life Ministries (ALM). Unfortunately the Catholic mass is said in French with snippets of Bislama thrown in, so we simply stand, sit and kneel when required. AOG and ALM are Pentecostal churches where there is lots of singing, which we both really enjoy and now even know a few songs off-by-heart. The singing is usually only broken up by saying ’praise Jesus’, ’hallelujah’ and a fire and brimstone style sermon. All usually wrapped up in a tidy hour and a half. Presbyterian is a little different: last time we were there are 9am, with about 15 other people, the service didn’t start until about 9:45am and it went for two and a half hours!

On a Sunday if you happen to look at the clock and its anywhere between 9am and 12pm, there is a good chance we are at church. Think of us.

Death (Rich)

Over the past couple of weeks there have unfortunately been a couple of deaths in our community. The first was the father-in-law of my aunty and the second was a man who I think was the equivalent of my second cousin. I am family, so we were involved.

Death here is very ritualised with distinct stages in the process which must be followed. The first stage is what is known as the ’Sharing Sorry’. This usually happens as soon as the person dies, as all the family gather to share their sorry. Rather then a quiet ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ in the Western style, sharing sorry involves all the family crying over the dead body. But crying is not the right word - its wailing, screaming, bawling, people’s faces distorted in raw grief. At the second death, we were waiting with a large group for the body to arrive. When it did, 100 people exploded into anguished cries. It felt like being inside a hurricane of sadness that engulfed you with its intensity. But at the same time there is a sense of control and it too, a socially acceptable way of letting out all your grief and emotion, so that you can move on. I’m not much of a crier, so it was left to Carmen to do the crying for both of us!

Then comes the funeral, which is much as you would expect - church, eulogies etc. Straight after the funeral the body is buried. As the body is lowered into the ground everyone crowds around the grave and when it reaches the bottom wailing starts again, accompanied by the slightly unsettling thud of shovel loads of earth hitting the coffin below. After the body is buried, the dead man’s family line up, and every person at the funeral files by shaking their hands.

Winding up the ritual are the exchange ceremonies, which take place at 5 and 10 days. When someone dies, half the family give mats or blankets, which were traditionally used to wrap the body. In exchange for the mats, the other half of the family brings food. At the 10 day ceremony, everyone waits as processions of people file into the village carrying loads of uncooked food: bananas, yams (often the size of Carmen), taro, rice, portions of beef and live pigs. All this food is distributed into ordered piles based on family groups. When everything is ready all the pigs are killed by being clubbed on the head with large pieces of wood - sounds cruel but actually quite effective. It is quite an experience when 7 or 8 pigs have their heads caved in with clubs - it’s a pig massacre. Once this is done, the pigs are added to the pile. When all the food is ready, the chief of the village makes sure that all the piles are of the appropriate size, determined by how closely related the family is to the dead man. Then he signals that the food can be taken away and we all carry food from our family’s pile back home. There it is divided again, so each household gets a portion to go home and cook. Although it is a death ceremony, the day always ends on a high as we get to eat meat!

10 Day Death Ceremony - Food Piles

10 Day Death Ceremony - Cutting up the Meat

10 Day Death Ceremony - Cooking After Ceremony

The Passage to Pentecost (Carmen)

Vanuatu is made up of 83 islands, spread over only 860 000 square metres, so it is not surprising that when you stand on Magam beach you can see the trees of Pentecost and on a clear day the outline of Ambae and Malekula. Pentecost is a 1 ½ to 2 hour boat ride across open waters and if you’re lucky it will be a calm day and an uneventful trip.

Unfortunately on the morning that Rich and I went to Pentecost we woke to strong winds, a choppy sea and grey skies. The trip across was more like a rollercoaster ride and the boat felt as if it was airborne at times. We arrived looking like drowned rats but relived to be on dry land again; no one was happier than Rich who was now sporting an empty stomach after throwing-up in the last stretch to shore.

We went across to Pentecost to met two other volunteers, and a friend of theirs from Australia, to see the land diving (Naghol). To be honest, I wasn’t too keen to see almost naked men jumping off a rickety tower made of saplings bound with vines with only liana vines tied to their feet to stop them from hitting the ground head first. Not surprisingly I was more excited about seeing our friends and having a catch up over dinner. But when I sat watching the first boy climb the tower and prepare to jump, I couldn’t look away. Each level represented how much experience each diver had, the more experienced men leaped off platforms higher and higher up the tower. Before each jump, women wearing grass skirts danced and sung below.

We were told of stories of men dying and the tower falling down, so each time one of the men jumped I felt nervous. But thankfully all the men stood up after their jump and seemed to walk away unscathed. One man though was clearly scared, we could see his leg shaking and the women sang at least twice before he jumped. I don’t blame him, it looks terrifying.

After the last man jumped we went back to our guest house where our friends had thoughtfully brought across some luxury items; chips, chocolate, biscuits and importantly wine. The next day we all headed to Ambrym, this time a much smoother ride. It rained the whole time they were staying with us, but it didn’t dampen our sprits, we still managed to go for a walk to some villages up the hill, but we mostly sat on our verandah chatting - a fantastic couple of days.

Naghol - Land Diving

Naghol - Land Diving

Naghol - Land Diving

Posted by RichCarm 21:18 Comments (1)

First Month on Ambrym


A new life on an island with no running water or electricity comes with many ‘firsts’, such as weaving coconut leaves to make a roof, scratching a coconut and plucking a chicken.

While Rich and the grandfather of our host family built a traditional storage hut for yams, all the women gathered one afternoon to weave coconut leaves for the roof. I admit that my first effort was pretty crap and didn’t look as impressive as those being made by the women around me. I was determined to do this well, if not just to save face, and after a few more I was on a roll and at number 15 I was now a great weaver - if you’re ever in need of a coconut leaf roof I’m your girl!

Rich and Abu Building the Yam House

Rich and Family Building the Yam House

Coconut scratching, the process of grating the flesh out of the shell to be squeezed and the milk used in cooking. It is a rite of passage and a must if you want to cook island food. The scratcher itself is a spiked metal disc - it reminds me of the spiky stirrups you sometimes see in Western movies. This is attached to a piece of wood, which you sit on. Otherwise, all you need is arm strength, so I was in some trouble already! My sister-in-law knocked one coconut over in minutes, and then my turn came. After 5 minutes of strenuous scratching, I was assured that small bits of coconut were better anyway! Everyone patiently watched and laughed and after half a coconut I was relieved of scratching duties and told to rest.

Carmen Learning to Scratch a Coconut

It turns out that I’m a much better chicken plucker anyway. No one cuts the head off the chicken here as that would be wasteful and also the dogs would grab the chicken if you let go of it. So the chicken gets clobbered on the head until it’s dead and boiling water is poured over for ease of feather plucking. And then you pluck. I’m yet to try gutting the chicken, I think that will be a lesson to come.

Carmen Plucking a Chicken

Moving Into Our New Home

After much waiting, we finally moved into our new house last week. Hooray! Not that our previous accommodation was bad at all, it was really very comfortable, but it is nice to finally have a place that is ours. A place where we can set things up the way we want them and feel some sense of permanency. So far, it has felt as if we were just waiting for the next thing. What’s more, we can finally stop living out of our bags!

It must be said that our house is better than we expected, not that we ever actually knew what to expect. The owner, my host Papa, has spent the money to make a better quality and more permanent house because he plans to turn it into a guesthouse after we leave. The house is small and built in a semi-traditional style. From the ground up the first metre is concrete, and above that bamboo. The roof is lovely traditional natangura (thatch). There are three small rooms, and we also have a small concrete veranda. The largest room is the bedroom, while the second room is the kitchen/dining room/lounge room/study/everything else. The third room we don’t use, and it’s where any visitors will stay. He has also fenced off for us a sizeable yard, within which I will make a vegetable garden and Carmen plans to plant flowers. The toilet and shower are in a little hut out the back.

All the furniture inside is built by Papa and myself (with the exception of the bed) and consists of a grand total of two tables and a bench at this stage, plus two folding chairs and the bed. Space is at a premium, so our stuff is tucked underneath or hung on top of things wherever possible. It’s cool and breezy inside due to the bamboo and large windows, as is the local style, but that also means unlimited bugs too! But that’s hardly a worry, and you know that however many bugs can get in, they can also get out again! The house fronts very close to the public road, which is a mixed blessing - people in the community can see us all the time, which is good, but people in the community can see us all the time, which is bad. Overall it’s really very comfortable and is starting to feel like home.

Our House in Magam

Our Bedroom

Our Kitchen / Dining / Study

The Volcano

As you may or may not know, Ambrym is home to an active volcano, Mt Marum. Normally the volcano just quietly does its thing, but lately it’s been kicking up a stink. And I mean that literally - Mt Marum has been belching out giant clouds of gas. We woke up to several very smoky mornings and just assumed that someone was burning something. It wasn’t until we got a call out of the blue from the Australian High Commission: “We just want to talk about the volcano situation”. As we found out, the volcano warning status had been raised one level, and there is apparently some concern about what it might do. All of our group have been banned from climbing the volcano for now (that‘s not as crazy as it sounds, it‘s actually quite a tourist activity). Before you all start worrying, the likelihood of a full scale eruption is very unlikely, and even if it were to occur we are in the safest part of the island. We are in the North, the lava will flow to the East and West, so no worries. One side effect of the activity however is that we’ve had some acid rain. No, it’s not like burning acid falling from the sky, but if you stood in the rain with your face up it would sting your eyes a little. Anyway, our water comes from the rain, so we did have to boil water for a week or so. No big deal. But at this stage it hasn’t yet settled down, so we await the next volcano report.

Dengue Fever

When you’re preparing to go on a trip you always find out what illnesses you can catch and either get a shot or take the necessary drugs with you. You go to all this effort because… well, just in case, all the while never believing that you will actually require the drugs and somehow you are protected by just having them with you.

It is wet season here, which means two things: rain and mozzies. So although we took all the precautions, I (Carmen) headed to bed with a fever of 38.8 and no other symptoms - not a good sign as it means it’s not just the flu. After 3 days of feeling bad, then good, then bad again, a rash appeared, a sure sign of dengue fever. I was very lucky for two reasons: one, it wasn’t malaria and two, I seemed to have gotten a milder strain of dengue, which meant I should be over the worst symptoms in 4 days or so and left with fatigue for 10-14 days after that.

Dengue is one of those viruses (mozzie borne) that require no special drugs, just rest, fluids and Panadol for the fever and pain. At the moment the worst is over and I just tire easily. Hopefully in another week I will have my strength back and can get on with all my jobs without having to rest in between.

Posted by RichCarm 21:58 Comments (0)

Early Days on Ambrym

Our First Day

After the Brisk journey we were dog-tired and, after a quick introduction to our host family we collapsed into the bed that had been prepared for us. And with roosters at dawn we awoke to our new life in the village.

Magam is a relatively large village (about 100 people) situated at the very northern tip of Ambrym. With its two shops (corner stores really) it used to be one of the commercial centres of the area, but not so much nowadays apparently. Otherwise it is just a dirt road with houses all around, a church, and a school on the outskirts.

The father in our host family owns one of the stores and is something of a businessman, with a few different enterprises on the go. His wife is a motherly type of lady who spends her days busily cooking, getting food from the garden, washing clothes and doing other important domestic tasks. They have three older children, 1 boy and 3 girls in their late teens, as well as two young ones (about 6 or so), one of whom is the child of an uncle. Also living with them is their grandfather, a sprightly 85 year old retired chief who is still building houses, tending pigs and enjoying life.

On our first day we had a welcome ceremony which most of the village attended. A song was sung in our honour, entirely in the local language except for the line “We welcome you Richard and Carmen”, and we were each officially adopted by a local family - me by our host family, and Carmen by a family a few houses down. We still live together in our host family’s property, but while I call them Mama and Papa, while Carmen calls them Tawi (in-law). We were also given our custom names that mark us as being from this village. And, after shaking hands with every person present, we ate, as you often do at these things.

Sing sing

As with many Pacific Island cultures, singing is a popular activity, mainly of religious songs. A few days after we arrived a school fundraiser was scheduled, so we spent several nights learning songs with a bunch of kids from the Sunday school our family attends.

So on Saturday we went along to the “sing sing fundraiser” and, after eating, got up with the other kids to sing our songs in Bislama. Everyone was very impressed and apparently our performances went down well. This was our first big community event with people from all over the area, so it so it was quite a big deal that everything went well - this is how we will be accepted in the community. Sing sing was a success!


Despite successful and fun activities like the sing sing, our first week on Ambrym was not easy. We faced again the same problems we faced in Mele - trying to be culturally appropriate, living under someone else’s roof, not really knowing how life works - but all the while knowing that we would be here for the next year, so we needed to make a good impression.

It was not so much the living arrangements that were hard (I’ll talk some more about these in a minute) but really just not knowing what to do. Our first work meeting was a week in, so the first week we were just establishing ourselves, but it was hard to know what to do - should we talk to our family or the village people more? Less? Should we make ourselves seen, or keep to ourselves? What were the cultural requirements? It was hard to know, and confusing and frustrating. Of course everything would have been somewhat easier in English, but in Bislama when we asked questions about things, despite often lengthy explanations, we still weren’t entirely sure what was going on. We knew that the first week, indeed the first month, would be the hardest time, and as time goes on we are slowly starting to better understand life here.

As to our living arrangements, we are currently staying in a small house adjoining our family’s house. However, a new house is currently being built for us by my Papa and should be finished in a week or so. It will be good to move into a separate place where we aren’t in people’s way, and when we do move in we will tell you all about it.

Our puppy

When we arrived one of the family’s dogs had just given birth to a litter of six puppies. They had literally just been born and could not even open their eyes yet. Carmen was smitten, and Maybe I was a little bit too! So of course one puppy was son declared to be ours, as a guard dog for our new house - a strong looking brown and white male that we named Dingo. When he was a few days older Carmen gave him his first wash, only to watch him shuffle off into the dirt, filthy again!

The puppies are just one part of a menagerie of animals that populate the family property - pigs, dogs, cats and heaps of chickens. It’s really nice to hear animal noises around us all day, although sadly roosters don’t just crow at dawn, but start at about 2am and continue through most of the day, sometimes even piping up just when you settle down for a midday siesta. However, the harsh realities of island life mean that animals are not always treated well. They are viewed mostly as tools - if they’re not useful there’s no need to keep them. The six puppies are an example - there’s not enough food for all of them, and they’ve no need for six more dogs, so if they can’t give them away a couple might be killed. Sad but true. But for now we have our new puppy to enjoy!

Dingo only a few weeks old

Dingo at about 2 months old

Posted by RichCarm 22:18 Comments (1)

Mele Village Stay and Journey to Ambrym

Mele Village stay

The second part of our orientation was the village stay, where all the volunteers are temporarily ‘adopted’ by a family in a village. The idea is to expose us to the different lifestyle of a village setting - for those volunteers living in Vila it is a chance for them to experience how most people in Vanuatu live, and for those of us who are actually going to live in a village, it is a useful cultural introduction.

I was ‘adopted’ by a young family who spoke relatively good English (not exactly the point - we were supposed to be practicing our Bislama!) and Carmen was adopted by an older lady whose children had all moved away and whose husband was rarely home. Considering she spoke virtually no English, conversation was slow and difficult, but good for Carmen’s Bislama!

Although certainly a useful experience, the village stay was hard, harder than I thought, for a number of reasons. There was this strange dance going on the whole time - you desperately trying to make them happy by adhering to cultural norms, and they desperately trying to make you happy by changing cultural norms to suit you and giving you everything they think you want. Everyone was being too nice for their own good, and as a result you never quite knew where you stood.

The village stay also brought with it all the potential uncomfortableness of staying over at someone’s house - you are not fully in control of your life, both because you are a guest and feel you should do things their way, and also because you don’t know exactly how everything works. Add to that the considerable culture shock of living in a village - lack of privacy, poor facilities, strange food etc. - and you’ve got a bit of a shock to the system.

But we did expect these problems, and despite them the experience had plenty of good points. The close relationship with a family was one, and for us it was a great test run for the real thing to come. It had its funny moments too, mostly around cultural misunderstandings and uncertainties. One of our group swallowed her toothpaste for two nights because she didn’t know where to spit it! The sight of all the girls in their island dresses ready for church was also something to behold! We also learned the concept of the ‘small spell’ - a term generally used to describe the midday siesta time or any small break, but also used by the families when they didn’t know what to do with us while they got work done! So after church on Sunday all 9 of us, without exception, were told to go have a small spell. So we all lay in our rooms with nothing to do. I managed to escape mine after not too long, but no one really knew whether it would be inappropriate to leave, so some people spent the entire afternoon having a small spell!

So now we are up to the point where the last blog post was written, as we spent a few days in Port Vila preparing for the trip to Ambrym.


The Brisk

It is possible to fly to Ambrym, but with so much stuff to take with us we were forced to go by boat - the MV Brisk. Apparently, as far as boats go in Vanuatu it’s pretty good, but that’s referring to seaworthiness, not comfort. The Brisk is essentially a cargo boat that happens to take passengers - it’s fine if you’re a bag of rice, not so great if you’re a human.

The experience was something like being told to sit on a slowly rocking park bench for 20 hours, surrounded by about 40 other people who had received the same sentence. All 40 people shared the one toilet, which unfortunately didn’t flush, so after 20 hours the best seats on board were as far from the toilet as possible. To Rich’s great annoyance I dozed throughout the night while trying to find the most comfortable groove of my bench. Rich opted for the floor, where he had little sleep but fortunately wasn’t sea sick too much. In the morning we scored seats on top on a utility box where we watched the islands slowly pass us by.

Finally after a long trip the beach where the ship landed was in view and Rich and George (our Bislama teacher and also supervisor on Ambrym) unloaded all our gear. Now we had landed on Ambrym, a jungle like island which looked empty as all the villages were hidden by palm trees. It was only a hop, skip and a jump to our village, or rather a half hour boat ride in a dinghy and a quick walk up from the beach to meet our host family.

Carmen on the Brisk

Posted by RichCarm 22:13 Comments (0)

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