July 16, 1987; Lakatoro, Vanuatu

Dear Mom and Dad,

OK, on the the events of the past two weeks; our first "Bush Leave" to Port Vila. We left here on Saturday AM the 4th, intending to return on Sat. the 11th. We got off to a good start by taking the people whose houses we were intending to use to dinner that night. The next day, we rented a car to drive around Efate Island, and there went all our money for the week. When we visited CUSO to get our airfare refunded, they unexpectedly paid my way too since they asked me to stop at Ambae on the way home to do a little work.(pronounced AM-bi, Aoba on many maps. Said to be James Michener's "Bali Hai" in the book "Tales of the South Pacific". Apparently, Ambae struck his imagination because it periodically appears out of the omnipresent volcanic dust haze as seen from south-east Espiritu Santo, where he spent part of WW II.) Since we heard that a day cruise was being arranged for Sat. the 11th, we decided not to eat for the rest of this month and stay on in Port Vila over the weekend.

We got a good tour of the coast of Efate by driving around it and had a picnic with snorkeling at a beach on the north side. After our first night with Heather, a CUSO working at the local credit union, we moved into the house of another CUSO who was up at Santo teaching a course all week. This house was really only built for 1 person to sleep in, but everyone but Laurel borrowed foamies and slept on the floor. It is out by the airport, but we were able to take the bus for 140vt total each way.

They have a great bus system in Vila which much of Canada could learn from. It is cheap and very convenient. There is a semi-defined route through town, with what seems like scores of guys driving 15-seater minibuses through. If you want one, you flag it down (stops are only observed some of the time and only in town) and tell the driver where you want to go. He takes you and all the other passengers right to their doors, or close anyway. Every trip is a different route, and you get a free tour of town every time! It's only 50vt (20vt for pikininis), with an extra 10vt if you really want to go somewhere out-of-the-way. Even out at the airport, we never had to wait more than 10 minutes or so, but it doesn't operate after about 1900. Every small town in Canada should have a system like it.

We managed to save a lot of money by constantly running into people who had us over for dinner. Of course it didn't hurt to bring a couple boxes of bananas with us (none in Vila since Cyclone Uma) and offer them free rides around the Island (also good for a gourmet picnic lunch). Everyone in Vila believes two myths: people on the outer islands lead a deprived life, and life is more expensive in Vila. Since we all get free housing (or pay gov't rate of 12% of salary for rent), it is actually cheaper to live in Vila (where food, etc. prices are lower), but the Vila CUSOs all scuba, which is where their vatu go. The brighter ones become instructors and dive for free.

We underwent culture shock upon entry to the big city. I felt like Crocodile Dundee in New York - felt like saying "Hello" to everyone on the street while they were ignoring me. The ni-Vanuatu sure treat you differently in Vila; they just ignore you unless you speak Bislama to them, and then they will often storian for a while, especially since lots of them are from Malekula. The place is full of overpaid (i.e. higher income than me) expats who act like spoiled brats, and it crawls with (horrors...) tourists on cruise-ship day. Coming from Victoria (British Columbia; a tourist town), we felt right at home. The crowd we mix with are great people, and it's a nice place to visit, etc.

The poor kids spent Monday - Friday trailing around after us shopping. We did spend a couple of half-days at the library, which we joined. If you write down all the titles you want, you can request that they send them to you three-at-a-time when you get home. The Library appears to be full of books that people bring with them and donate when they go home, so it has lots of good books. Someone has kept up Canada's image by donating such barn-burners as "The History of Hansard", "Canadian Fishes", "The Life of John A. McDonald" and other popular numbers.

On Tuesday, for my birthday, we went to the local event of the year - a troupe of Chinese acrobats. Unanimous feeling was that they were really something, but for the first time, I am going to bare my innermost feelings: these guys were definitely second-string. I guess it's a cheaper way for China to show the flag than sending a warship.

On Monday, we had a major earthquake, which I didn't notice, but a friend who works at the Australian High Commission says she felt. It was actually centered north of the Banks Islands at 6.2 Richter. We heard the tsunami warnings on a radio in a store. I was disappointed that I wasn't up in the Banks, as I've always wanted to see a tsunami (from on top of a high hill) to go with the solar eclipse I saw in Montana in 1979. Unfortunately, I got a secondhand eyewitness report that the bay at Sola just sloshed back and forth a couple of times. Not at all like the drawings of huge surf that you see in books. Anyway, after all the excitement (the gov't sent up a helicopter the next day to check it out), there wasn't any damage or injuries. The new CUSO RDP was up there, so I guess they arrange these natural disasters for all of our arrivals.

Just took a break to eat lunch and put a couple of screen door closers on the veranda doors. The doors have been swinging in the wind since they were installed, so we picked up a couple of doohickeys in Vila to keep them shut. Despite every door in Vanuatu having one, we had to search every hardware store in town to find them.

Let's see; what else did we do on our spell (leave)? I got Holly out with some people for kava - she wasn't all that impressed.

I see out the window that the kids are playing in the palmeria tree outside the kitchen window. They've been out there all day. At first, they were playing Chinese Acrobats - swinging from branch to branch (about 5 ft. up) with the other one on the ground holding onto loops of string from their ankles. Lord knows what they are playing now. It involves finding comfortable places to lounge in the branches. Heather just took off her t-shirt and made a pillow out of it. Laurel's teddy bear was swinging from a strip of cloth, but it just fell out. This morning, I came out the door and hollered at them to get the scrap of mosquito wire out of the veranda and into the garbage. They dutifully started to comply, and Holly informed me that it was one of their toys - they had been using it as a mosquito net for their baby.

They don't play much with Keith's kids Margret and Jerry anymore (the offspring of my boss, who lived next door), who have been treating us like we have the plague. I think that they figure that we're going to hell and they don't want any to rub off on them. Keith and Aslika have been friendly, though. The kids used to come home telling us that everything was poison or full of the devil, which was what Margret was telling them. Heather and Laurel now play a lot with the neighbors on our other side, Kristal and her little brother. As Kristal is more their age, I am happier anyway. Jerry likes to play this game where he sticks his tongue out at Heather when Holly's back is turned and then, after Heather complains, look all innocent when Holly looks at him. I get a good laugh out of Holly's description of all this.

Heather has been filling us in on discipline at her school (the local Francophone government school). If the kids can't repeat a French word, they get smacked on the leg with a stick, or for serious infractions (two wrong words in a row?), the teacher pulls down their pants and spanks them! Heather reports that she has been swatted on the leg a couple of times. It doesn't seem to bother her, so I guess I'll let it go. Complaining would just cause more problems than it would solve. Heather tells us that on the playground you don't dare speak Bislama around the "black kid who is white" (no, not the albino- he is the "white kid"- but the Dr.'s kid from Martinique, who is cafe-au-lait and speaks only French) because he rats on you and you get in big trouble for breaking the "speak only French" rule.

Time for another break to make chili. I found some dry kidney beans on Ambae, of all places. (In Vanuatu, you have to keep your eyes open and get supplies wherever you find them.) Short break. I only had to start the stove under the beans, which have been soaking.

Back to the kava. Either it is true that it affects you more after you've had it a bunch of times, or I've been getting some stronger stuff lately, because 15-20 minutes after I've drank a shell, it really hits me like I've had too much to drink, except it doesn't last very long. I can see how you could be incapacitated by the stuff. One afternoon on Ambae, I was doing some impromptu consulting at a sori (see below) by quizzing a guy about the cost of ingredients in the bread he bakes in order to calculate his return to labor. Suddenly, the kava hit and I really had to struggle to complete the task.

The weather in Vila was cloudy and showery, but it started to get better as the weekend approached, and was pretty good for our big day on Saturday and perfect on Sunday. Saturday started out with Holly noticing some small scabs on Laurel's scalp. Fortunately, I am somewhat wiser in the ways of the world, and examined the scabs for legs, which of course they had. Lousy kids! Heather also had a few, and Laurel had lots of nits. We only had a half hour before our ride to the cruise, and everything closes for the weekend at noon Saturday. So, we warned the kids not to mention this little gem of information during the day and I whisked into town to get some louse shampoo (they have to keep their hair clean too, you know!) before we headed out. Excuse me while I take a break to scratch my head - power of suggestion, you know - admit it now, you're doing the same. We treated the entire family that night, and Holly picked up more shampoo and a nit comb Monday morning. It's been a week, and I think I'll give everyone the treatment again tonight. It's been a miracle that we haven't got them sooner. Our Australian friends, John and Kate, have gone through 2 or 3 bouts so far.


ave Drawings.

Cave Drawings on Lelepa Island, off West Efate. Photo ©S. Combs, 1987.


Anyway, we had a great day. We went out on a ketch (two masted boat with steering wheel behind the second sail for you landlubbers) named the "Congoola", although we motored the whole way. I think the masts are just for the tourists, like at Disneyland. There was supposed to be just our group of 30, but the owners snuck on another 6 tourists to up their profit. First, we went to see a big cave on an island. It was huge, and had finger marks all around it in two rings, one for every man who had died on the island for the past thousand years or so. There were also paintings on the walls and the inevitable names and dates inscribed near the entrance, some reportedly dating back to the 1700's (I was busy looking at the paintings while the guide was talking about the dates). Then we went to another island and went onto a small isolated beach, where we snorkeled and drank beer and wine from the cooler while the crew cooked up a big barbecue. All agreed that this was the South Pacific we had come to see.


Beach Barbeque on Lelepa Island. Photo ©S. Combs, 1987.


On the way home, Holly and I were up on the roof having a beer, while the kids were down on the deck playing around. Suddenly, everyone on the deck started making a fuss and rushed to the rail, pointing at the water. Holly jumped up and got pretty excited asking "Which child fell in?". (I was my usual relaxed shelf). It turned out to be a bunch of dolphins that swam along playing at the bow of the boat for quite awhile. Every once in a while, a couple would go out to the side, jump a few times, and go back to the bow. I think the owners paid the dolphins for the show, or something. We also saw schools (or maybe flocks?) of flying fish in the morning. (Over the next five years, we went on other Congoola day-cruises, and the dolphins always put in an appearance.)

While we were motoring along, we got fed croissants in the morning and fresh fruit and punch in the afternoon. I trust you're all green with envy. Fortunately, the sea was calm, so I wasn't green.

The people who gave us the ride to the boat had two kids. The wife is from Hawaii and her husband, who is a management consultant with the Vanuatu Ministry of Agriculture, is a scuba instructor in his spare time. He offered to take us to the resort where he works (Hideaway Island) for a snorkel Sunday Morning, which we did. It was the best spot we've been to yet, although I was inevitably told that "You should have seen it before the Hurricane!" (Cyclone Uma, 7-8 February, 1987).

On Monday, Holly and the kids came home, and I headed up to Ambae. There is a CUSO-sponsored mechanical workshop at Lolopuepue (lo-lo-POY-poy) there that the local MP (the Minister of Education) is interfering with. One interpretation of his activities is that he is attempting to take it over as a family business, as he has forced his son in as counterpart (actually, he is a good candidate), and seems to be trying to get CUSO out. The workshop just got going in March, and it is much too early for the counterpart to run it. He has a basic mechanics course, but no workshop or business experience. My assignment was to write a constitution for the workshop, making clear that it was owned and run by the community. I did my duty by advising CUSO and Don and Doreen (the CUSO's) that I had never read a community project constitution, and plunged right in. I'm sure that I missed a few angles, but I think it's a pretty fair first draft. I translated it into Bislama, and then went over it with the local priest, Pere Molini, who has really been the mover and shaker of the project over the years.

I had never met Don or Doreen, who are fiftyish and are from Cardston, Alberta. He has 30 years of mechanical and service manager experience. My reputation had preceded me - I had no warning that Doreen is Robert Service's number one fan in the South Pacific. She waxed enthusiastic about my Bislama "Cremation of Sam McGee" and was convinced that she had at long last found a fellow enthusiast. She is really nice, and I couldn't let on that, in truth, I had only done the translation because I'm such a wild and crazy guy. I had really let myself in for it. I had to spend an evening reading selections from her "Collected Works of Robert Service" out loud, tape record "The Cremation of Sam McGee" in Bislama, and think of noncommittal replies to repeated suggestions that I next translate "Bessie's Boil" (Darn, I see it's not included in my copy of "The Best of Robert Service".) I did find out the title to one of his poems that I had been trying to find - "The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill" - my kind of poem; I recommend you find it.

Don and Doreen previously spent 2 years in PNG with their family doing the same type of work. They are really great people, and I have told Holly that she and the kids should go over and visit when we have the money again. Doreen has already started planing what they are going to do. Ambae is quite different from Malekula. It is entirely rural and doesn't have any gravel roads. The rock is volcanic, rather than coral. There are another couple of CUSOs there from Prince Rupert, Allen and Dolly. He is running a fishing project. They and their two boys came over and spent the night at Lolopuepue with us.

The Pere is a pretty good guy, and has been in Vanuatu for 24 years. He is from south of Milan, Italy, and is heading back for his parent's golden wedding anniversary in August. He is really into kava -drinks it with the men in the nakamal every night before supper. He prays over it like a meal. He has a huge kava plant next to his house that he planted 3 1/2 years ago and plans to dig it up for a big party before he leaves for Italy. Even women are to be allowed one shell.

We went with him to the local nakamal (kastam, not commercial) every night, except one, when he took us to what was described as a "kava fight" in a village up the mountain one night. You can imagine what images that name brought up. Men throwing kava at each other? Men fighting over their share of the Kava? A drinking contest? It turned out to be a "sori" (funeral wake), which is a ceremonial kava drinking function held in Ambae villages every 5 days for 100 days after someone, in this case an elderly woman, dies. This was day 10. You can imagine that a lot of kava is required quite often for these affairs, so to ensure that it is forthcoming, two groups of men prepare kava and exchange it. (Presumably there is a lot of social pressure to exchange your share.) Hence the name. Gifts are also exchanged between the groups, but each time you must give a better gift. For example, this time there were two small birds impaled on a stick and roasted (I really mean small. One was about 3 inches long and they were on a 1 inch diameter stick.) At 5 days, 1 bird had been received. Bread was also exchanged. At 100 days, all is settled up, including the deceased's debts, with the exchange of dyed straw mats. Stencils are made from banana leaves and designs put on the mats. I bought one while I was on the island.

These mats are also used by the hundreds to purchase wives and for the husband's family to buy the children of the couple when they are born, because they belong to the wife's family at birth. Get it? They are also used to separate tourists and temporary residents from small amounts of their savings.

The last night I was there, I found out that those gaudy sunsets on loud aloha shirts are no exaggeration. The sky was orange, the clouds were purple, and the palm trees were black silhouettes. As Lakatoro is on the east side of the mountain, we only see sunrises here where we live. Now I really want one of those shirts, but I can only find them in polyester, which I refuse to wear.

Don and Doreen are really into taping stuff to send home, and not just a talking letter. I gather that they have people sing into the machine and tape local sounds, etc. They are sending my "Sam McGee" home to their kids to play to Cindy and Mary (my sisters, who lived in Lethbridge at the time). They got a tape from some friends in Cardston while I was there. The first few minutes were a riot! It was these people's third try at making the tape, and they had previously talked for quite a while before noticing that the machine wasn't recording. We got about 5 minutes of Bob and Doug McKenzie clones arguing about who pushed the wrong button, etc. The rest of the tape was also great; largely a put-on on the difficulties of filling an hour tape. We got "sounds of Cardston - that was a Four-By-Four driving by", bird noises, etc. and a blow-by-blow description of the demise of the local Ford dealership (Don's former employer).

Holly harvested our corn today. I think the shortening daylength over the past couple of months screwed it up, because it grew about two feet and put [FLASH - BBC is playing "Someday My Prince Will Come" as a tribute to the Golden Anniversary of Walt Disney's "Snow White" (my all-time favourite movie) - an event of note, you will agree.] out cobs. We got 5 or 6 stunted cobs that went to Keith's chickens.

In order to wear the rugby shorts that I brought with me while preserving my modesty, I bought some jockey shorts while in Vila. Unfortunately, they only sell those tight ones. I've been wearing them all day, and have announced that I may soon be sterile. Holly doesn't seem to be too concerned.

I'm going to close with the diseases of the week. Lice don't count, because they are a parasite. I went to the doctor when we were in Vila for spots-on-skin day. I have one on my forearm that he said might-someday-in-the-far-future-turn-into-the-precursor-of-something-that-might-turn-into-something-malignant (and Holly said it was only a liver spot). Both of us have tinia versicolour, which is a horrible fungus that manifests itself in little white spots on your tanned back that grow until they join up and turn you into an albino. Holly had told me that they were a side effect of Maloprin antimalarials. We have to rub Selsun shampoo on our backs every night for 2 weeks (it worked well). The health book CUSO gave us has no information on lice or tinia versicolour, which are two things everyone gets. We also all went to the dentist, who said my sore tooth just needed to have the surface of the filling reshaped. It still hurts. We also got all the gory details about how his wife only has 1/3 a Fallopian tube, but they got a son before their in vitro conception appointment came up.

Ale, tata, gudnaet.


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©S. Combs, 1987