Thursday, 2 April, 1987 Lakatoro, Vanuatu

Dear Sister,

We got your letter mailed the 17th of March today, so it took sixteen days to get here from Canada. Of course, it might have got here yesterday, but we were out in the LGC's only mobile truck visiting farms, so nobody went to get the mail.

Before noon on yesterday's trip, we stopped at Atchin Mainland where a tourist was killed by a shark four years ago, so I asked about it and got the whole story. (A Swiss tourist got off the plane, went by truck a half-hour north, ran into the water, and immediately lost an arm and shoulder to a shark. A ni-Vanuatu packed the wound with sand, and he was taken immediately to the hospital, but he died upon arrival.) I ask these things of as many people as I can, because I'm trying to get the real story about shark attacks - all the expats won't go near the water, but the locals insist that there's no problem (of course, I've yet to see one of them actually swimming). A few minutes after leaving Atchin, we picked up a farmer a few km north (near Vao, 30 km north of Lakatoro), and he told us that a boy had just then been dragged out to sea by a shark. I guess (wait for it...) he must have had dandruff, because they later found his head and shoulders on the beach. Actually, they found his head, arm, and leg. Poor kid; what a way to go. Luckily, we've gotten better at Bislama, because they give two versions of local news here, one in Bislama and one in English. The English version on the radio just said he was "swimming in two metres of water, when tragedy struck":, but the Bislama version included all of the gory details, along the lines of how he was swimming (generic word here that includes everything from taking a shower or sponge bath to scuba diving) with some friends at lunch hour from school (he was eight), and a girl held on to his hand (i.e. somewhere between fingertips and shoulder) after the shark struck, but he was dragged under anyway. His friends went to get some adults, but when they returned, they only found blood. They like their news spicy here. Thank goodness they don't have TV, or we'd get "film at eleven".

The traditional story on shark attacks here is that someone who is spiritually powerful transforms himself into a shark and eats an enemy. I think they still half believe it (I was still learning at this time; this is universally believed, regardless of educational level or religious affiliation) - it was brought up in a half-joking manner today when I was discussing the incident with a bunch sitting outside my office. I guess that's why they don't worry - you can't fight that kind of power anyway. From now on, I'm keeping Heather or Laurel on the outer side of me when I go snorkeling. Once again, they all told me that there's lots of sharks down here, but they only attack on the other side of the islands offshore here. We go to the beach every Sunday and snorkel.

Aside from the shark attack, yesterday was a good trip. We saw some interesting farms and really got up into the hills. Can you imagine barreling along a dirt road (main highway here) with a bunch of senior civil servants, when one yells "Custard Fruit!", and we screech to a halt, bail out, and start picking these things off trees and stuffing our faces? The "Joy of Cooking" calls them Cherimoya, and they look reptilian, with bumps like big scales. I told the kids that they are "Alien" eggs, and not to get them too close to their faces.

I've decided that my mission here is to convince everyone that Sylvester Stallone didn't really have a boxing match with a Russian (as in "Rocky IV"). I don't think they believe me. People here really think that movies are for real, and they are their sole source of information about North America. On our trip yesterday, I told everyone that we'd been to Hollywood and seen the sets and what-not, and this was news to some of them. When I told them Rocky IV was filmed in Southern Alberta and Vancouver, everyone was amazed - they thought they were really seeing Russia in the movie.

Now to reply to your letter. Life here is just like home, except it never goes below 24 degrees, we can go to the beach when we want, we pick our own fruit, sharks eat people, and hurricanes blow everything down. We brought so much stuff, it's easy to adjust. When I was in Vila, I stocked up on spices, brown sugar, oatmeal, chocolate chips, etc. (for cookies) and bought Holly a sewing machine. Its a Singer Zig-Zag, just like the one at home, but with a hand crank.

Heather (our 5-year-old daughter) says she rides her bike to the beach every Sunday, and we live on the top of a big hill. Laurel (our 3-year-old) says she likes the sun, and she thinks it rains a lot here. Holly (my wife) is trying to convince the women here not to call her "Missis" (male equivalent is "Masta"). What Laurel really hates is cold showers, especially washing her hair. She yells and howls and drums her feet on the floor during the entire process.

Don't let anyone tell you that kids pick up foreign languages instantly. Heather is just starting to utter the odd word of Bislama and is getting picked on a bit at school because she is unable to communicate. She does learn from the kids - today she showed us how to make a ball and an imitation of women's breasts from a rag. She wants to learn how to skip rope, but when I told her I would teach her, she said we don't have the right kind of rope - at school the kids "tie wriggly branches together" - I think she means vines. It's true - nobody buys string or rope here - they tie up everything from crabs to houses with vines and grass. I saw a lady buying beef from a guy in the back of a pickup tell him to make it easy to carry, so he poked a hole in it with a knife and tied a vine on as a handle.

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©S. Combs, 1987.