A Travellerspoint blog

Rom Dance and Rain

A Bit of Culture (Rich)

At the end of August an event took place that we’d been looking forward to for some time – the “Back to My Roots” Festival. This was a three day festival showcasing North Ambrym’s unique and rich cultural history and custom – a chief’s grade-taking ceremony, some custom magic, and the famous Ambrym Rom dance.

The festival’s main organiser is a clever and, it must be said, opportunistic man, who initially decided simply to invite tourists to observe his own grade-taking ceremonies. This has since expanded to become a festival, but the original concept remains – the ceremonies are real. Unlike, say, the land-diving in Pentecost, which is now done only for tourists, these ceremonies actually mean something in Ambrym society.

A chief’s grade-taking is a dramatic affair. Rising up through various ‘grades’ is the way in which Ambrym chiefs increase their chiefly standing. Nowadays the grades are largely symbolic and convey little day-to-day power, but there are still certain sections of society that see them as an important part of life and custom.

The ceremony begins with dancers stomping and jumping around a tam-tam, which is struck in a rhythmic beat. The dancers gather pace until they are swirling around the tam-tam, and as they do so the chief climbs a six-metre high platform and begins a dance of his own. However, while he dances he must keep a close eye on the goings on below, as men periodically break out of the dancing pack to throw stones at the chief above. This, I’m told, is to remind him, as he progresses up the ranks, that he is still just a man. When he has survived the onslaught he climbs down and the dancing ends.

The grade-taking is finalised by the killing and payment of several (very large) pigs. This led to a minor kerfuffle as many of the tourists were quite uncomfortable with seeing a pig clubbed to death. It didn’t help that the pig chosen for sacrifice was determined not to go quietly, and it took an unusually large number of strikes with the club before it died in the dust. We both think that, here, clubbing a pig is generally the fastest and most effective way to kill a pig, but on the next day of the festival it was done somewhere else.

The following day featured a famous and distinctive Ambrym tradition – the Rom dance. ‘Rom’ refers to the elaborate and beautiful masks worn by the dancers – I would tell you how they’re made, but I was told that this is custom information and I’m not allowed to know. The men behind the masks are completely covered by a costume of banana leaves, feathers and other plants, so that they appear as dancing, leafy monsters.

The dance itself is long, complex and intense. The masked dancers jump and run and their costumes make a rhythmic swooshing noise, while the unmasked men dance around the masked men and lead them on the correct path (it’s hard to see out of those masks!) The dance goes for a long time and is very physically demanding, such that periodically the men will change out of the costume and another will take their place. It’s a very intense and powerful dance, filled with history and mean – the highlight of the festival.

Tourists (Rich)

The festival, of course, brought with it a whole lot of tourists – probably 40 or 50 people. When you consider that in 6 months on Ambrym we have seen 5 or 6 other ‘white men’, to now be seeing groups of 5 or 6 walking down the road on a regular basis felt quite bizarre. Most had come on yachts and 20 plus boats were anchored in the bay at Nobul, a couple of villages away. It was such a novelty that we felt we should go talk to some of them. Luckily, the first people we met were two couples from Australia. They were lovely, down-to-earth people who were interested in what we were doing. They also asked us plenty of questions about North Ambrym, which we were happy to answer, but in return for acting as their ‘unofficial tour guides’ they insisted on having us to dinner on their yacht. We had cheese and biscuits (!), an ‘Aussie BBQ’ (!!) and sushi (!!!). Oh, and they had cold beer (!!!!!!!). It was so awesome.

Along with the Australian couple there were plenty of Americans, French, Germans and New Zealanders. All were yachties, except for a few – in particular one couple who we were told (by the yachties) were too fat to be yachties and had to have come by plane. The yachties turned out to be great company, and we were surprised to find many similarities in our lifestyles. Although they had some extra comforts (oven, fridge etc), we were both concerned about the lack of rain for our water supplies, lamented the lack of food variety, and could spend a good deal of time discussing the relative merits of solar panels without anyone getting bored. I came away with a new respect for yachties – to sail with just one or two people in open seas you have to know how to sail, navigate, service your boat and take care or yourself in an emergency. It’s really a very adventurous way to travel.

The tourists provided days of conversation for the locals. Particularly amusing was the wife of a French guy, who, during the ‘public dance’, insisted on dancing with her small fluffy dog. We cringed, but most of the locals found it hilarious. While most people were too scared to talk to the tourists directly, they still wanted to know where they were from and what they thought of Ambrym. Although tourism has the potential to damage communities such as this, this locally-owned festival seemed to be a great success with real benefits coming to the community.

Water (Rich)

So we’re having something of a water crisis here at the moment. Our water, and that of the community in general, comes from concrete water tanks that are filled by the rain. Normally we don’t have a problem, this being the tropics and all, but it hasn’t really rained here for more than 3 weeks. Yes, by Australian standards that’s not too long, but here it’s enough to cause quite a problem.

We officially had a water problem last week, when I realised that the water in the tank was so low that I could no longer reach down far enough to scoop it out. To drink, we are filling up a bucket and straining it through a handkerchief into bottles (the dregs are a bit dirty!). We are lucky that my family has a private well as the large community wells have long since dried up or the small amount of water left has gone green. Many people are now boiling water from the creek nearby.

To wash our hands and clothes we draw water from a half salt/fresh well near the sea, while the ocean now functions as our very own bathtub. (On a side note, did anyone know that you can’t use regular soap in the sea? It doesn’t foam up and just feels sticky! I am still flabbergasted as to why this should be so – anyone?) The lack of water is not great for cleanliness. It is so dry that dust is swirling about everywhere, and our house is constantly invaded by it. Despite our best efforts, and sweeping ten times a day, we can’t seem to escape the dust attack. So we’re dirty from dust, sweaty (it’s getting hotter) and can’t use soap, which all together has us feeling rather stale and sticky. So for now we’re waiting for rain, and drinking lots of extra coconuts!

Posted by RichCarm 21:45 Comments (0)

Weddings and Guests

Weddings… Island Style (Carmen)

Imagine…you had your dream wedding, hundreds of your closest family attended and the reception was held at the community hall where much lap lap was consumed. You now live in a small village in North Ambrym and have dutifully had 1 to 3 kids, what’s left? Well… have you paid for your bride?

July and August were ceremony central, we attended weddings, funerals, Children’s Day and Independence Day but most importantly a bride paying ceremony. A wedding is only the first step to being married and to seal the deal the husband’s family must pay for the bride. It is very common to have the wedding and then years later finalise the marriage with a bride paying ceremony. Bride payment signifies, in part ownership of the bride but it is also considered compensation to the bride‘s family.

In Vanuatu when a woman marries a man she leaves her family and joins her husband’s family. This is why on the wedding day the groom’s family is enjoying the festivity, while the bride and her parents, aunties, uncles and siblings are all sobbing… they are losing their daughter. Before the wedding the bride contributes to her family by cooking, cleaning, looking after siblings, working in the garden or may even have a paid job. When she marries the bride no longer contributes to her family but to her husbands and it is believed that the brides family should be compensated for their loss.

So how much does a bride cost? It is based (as far as we can tell) on many things including; how much the mother cost (expensive mothers make for expensive daughters), how long she attended school, as schooling is expensive and also raises the price, the social standing of the family and how much the family of the groom can afford. At the bride paying ceremony we attended, $3000 was exchanged as well as 13 pigs and piles of food – an expensive bride.

It is not just the responsibility of the husband or his parents to come up with the money or pigs but the whole family including grandparents, uncles and cousins. This added another complicated layer to the marriage, as now the husband’s family has a financial interest in ensuring the marriage works. Divorce is very uncommon and although it is more common for a man to leave his wife and set up shop with someone else, it causes rifts in the family.

Many communities have recognised that arranged marriages have lead to unhappy unions and across Vanuatu there is widespread domestic violence and suicides are not unheard of. While arranged marriages, in the traditional sense, are on their way out of fashion, marriages still have to be approved by the heads of the families. Now the daughters have a choice of who to marriage, even if this choice is limited to who the parents find appropriate and who they know that they aren’t already related to. When you are related to half the men you know and the other half you think are drop-kicks, it doesn’t leave many fish in the sea.

Surprise Visitors (Carmen)

Anita and Jonne called the day they arrived back in Australia and surprised us with the news that they were coming to visit in two weeks. Since I hadn’t seen my sister for just over a year I was over the moon.

First job on the list was to kill Laurence. Laurence the rat had taken up residence about the same time that Rich’s parents came to visit. He wasn’t persuaded to leave when we packed all the food away or by our first attempts at setting the traps. Then we learnt the secret, roasted coconut flesh. Two day before Anita and Jonne arrived, Rich set the trap with delicious smelling coconut; it did the trick. With the house cleaned, guest room set up and Laurence dead we left for the airport.

To our surprise the plane was on time and after what seemed like a couple of very long minutes, Anita and Jonne set foot on Ambrym. After a big hug from us we walked down to the beach with bags in tow, only to find that our boat and driver weren’t there. So we waited and Anita and Jonne learnt their first lesson in island life: patience, with the unwavering faith that everything will work out just fine. It wasn’t long before we were in the back of a ute being driven around to the next bay where our boat was waiting.

The boat trip was a breeze and within 2 hours we had reached Magam. After a quick tour of our house and importantly the location of our toilet, we settled down to dinner and a good chat.

Anita and Jonne usually love a sleep in but the roosters woke them up at 4am and at 6am they had given up on trying to sleep and got up. It wasn’t long until we had the coffee brewing and breakfast set up on a mat on the veranda, a lovely way to start a Sunday morning. The Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union (PWMU) was opening their PWMU week and we were invited to their opening service at Melvat, about a 1 ½ hour walk away. We donned our island dresses and the boys, their floral shirts just in time for Mama and Papa to came and pick us up for church and because it’s hard to go anywhere without Dingo, he came to.

It turned out that Anita and I were special guests and when we arrived we were quickly ushered to the front to lead the women’s march into Melvat. I have never led a march before and it is as you would expect, walking, swinging of arms, but I also spent a lot of the time watching the ground, hoping I won’t trip and fall down. As Anita and I sang and marched with 50 North Ambrym women, Rich and Jonne waved and laughed. After the march, the four of us lined up for the official welcome and the girls who were presenting the salu-salus lined up across from us. You could see the moment when the two girls near us realised that they were presenting their salu-salu to Rich and Jonne. First they counted up the line, looked at the boys, looked at each awkwardly and then giggled. With salu-salus in hand we headed into church.

Mama and papa were keen to spend Monday with Anita and Jonne and show them their garden. To start the day Anita and I headed to mama’s kitchen to help prepare manioc laplap which cooked in hot stones while we were at the garden. On the way, we detoured and went to Olal where there is a school and the Catholic Church and is also the heart of the francophone area. There was a working bee in progress and I stopped to talk to some women and was translating for Anita, when I looked over my shoulder to check that Rich was keeping Jonne in the loop and found that Jonne was in the middle of a conversation in French and it was Rich who stood by trying to catch on. It wasn’t long until Jonne was the star attraction and although he insisted that he only could speak a small amount of French he managed to impress and was quickly being introduced as ‘…Carmen’s family. He speaks French.’

After Olal we headed to the garden where mama and papa showed us the different crops they had growing and explained why things were done a certain way. The boys then learnt how to climb a coconut tree and after papa climbed to the top with a big bush knife, we all sat in the shade drinking the freshest green coconuts. The next day marked the end of Anita and Jonne’s short stay on Ambrym. Anita, Jonne and I hopped in the boat and headed back to the airport leaving Rich to hold down the fort at home.

Posted by RichCarm 22:29 Comments (0)

Family Matters

Rich’s Family Comes to Visit - Part 2 (Rich)

…The trip back though was not a good one. The sea was rough and it took nearly four hours to reach Magam, half of which was done in the dark. It’s always a slightly surreal experience arriving at night and would have been especially for Mum and Dad, as they were met by a cluster of torches bobbing in the darkness, with no indication of who was behind them. By the light of the torches their bags were unloaded and carried away and we trekked up to the road and then on to our little house. No rest for the weary, as dinner was getting cold, everyone had to quickly wash and head up to Rich’s family’s house for dinner.

It was only when we all got up to the house, illuminated now by generator-powered globes, that Mum and Dad were able to see who was behind the torches. My Ambrym family were waiting for us and we all took our places on the floor. We had a nice meal of rice, chicken, yam and of course lap lap and my Australian family was officially welcomed by my Ambrym family. After an hour of Carmen and I translating conversations back and forth and with the kids asleep in the corner, we took our cue to head down to our house for a well deserved nights sleep.

On Sunday, as per usual we went to church. Carmen had a wide selection of island dresses for Mum to choose from and unfortunately she steered clear of Carmen’s highlighter green number and went with a more subtle blue dress. With Tom, Dad and Mum now decked out with their floral outfits we all climbed in the back of the Ute and headed to church. Mum and Dad received another special welcome from my Papa (also the Pastor) and we were treated to quite a lively service filled with singing and praising, with a bit of fire and brimstone preaching thrown in.

Their stay here was only short and we tried to cram in as much as we could but the most memorable moments were meals. I suppose this is not surprising, given the importance of food on special occasions. In addition to the first meal with my family, we had a wonderful meal with Carmen’s family. They had gone to the trouble of setting a table, with bowls of food spread on the table as you would find in Australia. They had also killed a pig especially for this meal, which in Vanuatu is a big deal – something reserved for important ceremonies or events.

The other food-related event was the final meal that we shared on Monday night with my full extended family in Magam. Much lap lap was prepared and eaten and both of my Papa’s made speeches. I think Mum and Dad were really awed by how warmly they were received by everyone.

Another event worth mentioning is our visit to the school. We wanted to show Mum, in particular, the school not only because she is a teacher but also because we wanted to hold a fundraiser in Australia, possibly with Mum’s help. We had a tour of the school’s dilapidated facilities with the headmistress and then Mum led the combined 1 and 2 class in a spirited round of ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’.

The trip back to the airport made up for the last one – great weather, calm seas and even a dolphin and turtle sighting – a rare occurrence. For the first time ever the plane was early and we all piled in to head back to Vila for a bit of a holiday.

I Don’t Think we are in Kansas Anymore (Carmen)

There are many things which make living in Ambrym different to life in the city, all those constant reminders that we are far from home.

In Sydney it is the alarm clock that wakes you up. On Ambrym roosters start at 3am and continue till morning.

In Australia if you saw a man walking down the road with a shotgun, you would hide behind the curtains, sneak peaks as you watch him stroll down the street and hope that someone has called the police. Here, we say good morning and ask where he is going.

In Sydney if you want meat the butcher is only a short drive away. Here when a coconut tree falls and kills a cow then we get to eat meat.

In Sydney ‘doing the washing’ involves putting the clothes in the machine and pushing a button. Here it is a 3 hour event involving a bowl, scrubbing board and brush.

In Sydney when you are considering what to cook for dinner you open the fridge, cupboard and maybe even a cookbook. On Ambrym you walk outside and look at the veggie patch for inspiration.

In Sydney having a cup of coffee may involve a percolator or a plunger. Here it is a kettle and a hanky used to strain the coffee granules (Vanuatu has great local organic coffee).

On Ambrym if Rich wants a haircut there is no need to make an appointment or drive to a hairdresser as he is directed to sit on a stool behind our house where I discover that for my first attempt at haircutting it looks pretty good.

In Sydney when you can’t find what you want at Woolies you head across the shopping centre and try Coles. Here when the village stores run out of flour, we wait for the next cargo boat to arrive.

To get to work in Sydney you usually drive, catch the train or if you’re feeling particularly industrious you ride a bike or walk. Our ‘office’ is the same place we eat breakfast so our commute is instantaneous.

On Ambrym, kids don’t play with Lego, dolls or Nintendo but can play for hours with a knife as long as their arm, make long arrows to throw at trees and are inseparable from their home made sling-shots.

Our Families (Carmen)

At our welcome ceremony four months ago we were officially adopted into families. We met our host family the night before and they adopted Rich, and I met my Mama and Papa as my adoption was being announced. The ceremony went by in a blur of Bislama and it has taken till now to really understand the significance of what happened.

Rich for the first time has a bigger family then me with a grandfather who we call oldfella Abu, Papa Obed, Mama Rosie and five siblings; Esline (19), Angela and Bong (18), Mali (15 – who goes to school on another island) and Nelson (6). At the moment they also have two cousins living with them so they can attend the local school; Lydia (11) and Albert (6). I on the other hand have a family of five; Papa Andrew, Mama Marie and three siblings; Bong (10), Shamila (8) and Steven (3).

At first it was a little strange to be told, ‘this is your family’. A little like those arranged marriages where you don’t meet your new husband or wife until you’re standing at the alter. It took us a while to find our place in our new families especially when there are lots of customs that govern relationships here. For example Rich’s Papa rarely talks directly to me and for reasons unknown I’m not allowed to touch Rich’s Mamas hair, though the situation has yet to arise. Rich doesn’t escape from adhering to custom either and isn’t allowed to sit too close to my papa or in a higher position than him.

Family relationships are very complicated and complex and too hard to try to explain here as it would require many lengthy paragraphs and probably a diagram or two. Nevertheless our relationships with our families are very important. We live within meters of Rich’s family who have been given the responsibility to keep us safe. Most of the time we consider ourselves lucky to have a family watching over us, someone to answer our questions and explain what’s happening. But it also has its pitfalls and sometimes I feel like I am 14 again; everyone wanting to know where you are going, what you are doing and when you will be home (obviously before its dark). We don’t get off much easier with my family either; if Rich’s family decides we aren’t allowed to do something then my mama and papa usually agree and within a day the whole village knows and also agrees that we shouldn’t do whatever we had planned.

However, it is rare that we get ‘barred’ from something and we both get along well with our families. I spend a lot of time with Rich’s mama, who is a shy women who giggles when she is embarrassed but who has taught me the essentials of island living; husking, scratching and milking coconuts, making lap lap, gutting chickens, fish and crabs, weaving baskets and digging yams. Usually it is Rich’s mama who gives me the good gossip, like the man who has one wife on Santo and another in Vila. When we sit down to cook or while we work in the garden I ask her about all the things that I have been pondering.

I wouldn’t say that I have friends here, but then again no one has friends on Ambrym, you have family, lots and lots of family. So when I want a good laugh I go and find Rich’s sisters Angela and Esline. Since they are 18 and 19 years old we spend a lot of time talking about boys, making fun of each other and generally enjoying ourselves. Angela is the one who fills me in on the young people gossip; who’s in trouble, who got fined by the chief etc. Without Angela and Esline I would laugh less.

Shamila, my sister comes over sometimes just to hang out, play cards and talk about things that 8 years olds like to talk about. We once had a long conversation about apples, as she had never had an apple and wanted to know all about it; since then I have bought her one from Vila. Shamila still thinks Rich is a bit scary, I don’t think the beard helps, but now will happily chat to him.

Steven my 3 year old brother was at first very scared of me and cried every time I came over but that has passed and he is now excited when I come to visit. The one thing that stops us from becoming best buddies, apart from the fact that he is 3, is that he only speaks Ambrym language, a completely different and very difficult language that I am yet to master. So until then I will be happy with him calling out my name instead of falling into a crying heap when he sees me.

My brother Bong is what they call a ‘strong head’ which basically means he doesn’t always do what he is told to do. Because he is 10 years old he spends all his time either at school or going fishing, hunting or hanging out with all the other teenage boys who seem to.. well I don’t know what they do, I suspect a whole heap of nothing.

My Mama and Papa are absolutely lovely. When we go to Vila they call and check to make sure we have arrived and are ok, if they haven’t heard from us in a week they call again. Although I don’t spend as much time with them as I do with Rich’s Mama I really enjoy popping in for a chat.

There are other women in the village who I spend time chatting to while at ceremonies, church or other gatherings and a handful who I particularly enjoy spending time with. If you have noticed an absence of the mention of men then you would have hit on something – there are no men, except my papa who I spent time with. Daily chores / life are divided and there are many ‘taboos’ about male-female relationships so I spend almost no time talking to men; it is a little bit like attending an all girls school with the all boys school next door – I know men are around, I see them everywhere but they rarely speak to me and I rarely speak too them.

Rich on the other hand spends half his time in the men’s camp (not a literal camp) doing men’s things and the other half talking to the women in his family and those in the council. Rich spends a lot of time with oldfela Abu who is his grandfather, a respected old chief and most importantly a gem of a man. He loves to talk and is always ready to tell a story. If you ask Abu a question and he doesn’t know the answer he will always tell a story tenuously linked to what you have asked.

Rich’s papa is a business man who gets things done. He owns one of the two working utes in our region, owns one of the villages stores and built our house which will be turned into a guest house when we leave. He is a man who is used to everything being done his way, no questions asked and Rich has found this difficult at times. But as the head of our family he looks after us; he built the fence for our garden, looks after our garden and dog while we are in Vila and if we need anything at all he is our first port of call.

On the islands there is no separation of work and family life, public and private. Our families are central to our life here, they are connected to everything we do and because of them our experience is richer and more enjoyable.

Posted by RichCarm 21:54 Comments (0)

Family, Food and More

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!

Posted by RichCarm 22:38 Comments (0)

To Vila and Back Again

Working 9 to 5 (Carmen)

Working on Ambrym is….well, relaxed. We have no office so office hours are non-existent. If it’s a nice sunny day and we want to go for a swim, we don’t need to wait for the weekend. I have even stopped wearing my watch as time here is a fluid concept - 9am could mean 8am, and just as likely 12pm.

Our work is spilt into council work and village work. Our work with the council (to increase the skills of the mamas on the council) is slowly moving along. The council gave us some projects to work on such as getting the council boat up and running again (the main source of income for the council), building a market house and helping with fundraising for Magam Primary School. We have council meetings, meet with others in the community about our projects and more recently have started to look at training material. But at the moment village work takes up more of our time. Making cakes for fundraisers, learning to make lap lap (finely grated root vegetable with coconut milk, wrapped in banana leaves and baked on volcanic rocks - a national dish) and chatting to our big village families is what fills our days.

So when we get asked, ‘how is work going?’, its not an easy question to answer. Work with the council is slow and we are not eager to suggest too many changes until we have listened, watched and asked enough question to understand how things work. Our main work especially in the first two months is to build relationships, so our village work is just as important as meetings with the council.

Even though we have only been here for a short time we have a big list of jobs to get done when we go to Vila.

Back to the Big Smoke (Carmen)

After two months on Ambrym it was time to go back to Vila. We have slowly been chipping away at the projects we have been given by the council but only so much can be done without funding and resources…so off we went.

At the airport we were picked up by my uncle’s wife’s father who owns a taxi in Vila. That’s how things work here, no matter where you go you are related to someone. So Abu Charles took us to our wonderful guest house, La Maison Bleu. I admit we were very easily impressed at this stage - with an inside toilet, lights and running water we felt like we were in heaven. I unpacked our clothes and although we packed our cleanest clothes, it all stunk, the wet weather on Ambrym had made everything mouldy. All our clothes, except the ones we were wearing, were thrown into the washing machine - yes they even had a washing machine.

For our first night back in Vila our friends organised cocktails and dinner at a fancy resort. We probably looked a sight in our mouldy clothes and dirty feet but I was assured that we didn’t smell - I’m sure it was a big white lie.

Our first week was filled with meetings and using the internet and most importantly eating at all the restaurants and cafes and town. In the second week we moved from our beautiful guesthouse out to Mele Village, a village just outside Vila to stay with Jessie and Andy. Our days were much the same, meetings, internet and funding applications but at night we played 500, drank, laughed and generally didn’t get to bed until after 11pm (way past our Ambrym bedtime). Jessie organised a trivia night for her work, the Vanuatu Society for Disabled People, and we joined the Mele table and after three tie-breaker questions our team won! Rich was very excited. I can’t remember answering a single question all night - not even my usual token question, however I do remember talking to lots of people.

After two weeks it was time to head back home. We still had things on our list we didn’t get to finish but we were run off our feet the whole time in Vila and very much looking forward to getting back to island life.

Posted by RichCarm 22:09 Comments (0)

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