Friday, 28 October 2011

Vanuatu 6 Death

Monday September 26 (evening)

Bong Bong Bong. A drum sounds across the evening air. It's five-thirty. At six-fifteen it sounds again. I know this slit drum with its low throm will call us to the evening meal but no one moves. I am waiting for a sign. My colleagues will call me, I'm sure. Before seven it sounds twice more.

I'm wondering if the cooks are getting impatient with our tardiness. I crawl out from my mosquito net cave to see what is happening. I wander out to the front of our accommodation, pause and take in the scene of clusters of men in quiet conversation and go back to my room. By now it's dark.

Soon, one of my colleagues comes by to explain that the drum announces more than a call to meals. What we are hearing is the announcement of more deaths in the region. The news has reached us through neighbouring villages and, no doubt via the ever-present mobile phone. The drum marks the arrival of this information. It is a mark of respect.

I am told that a big chief has recently died and that the belief is that this will herald a string of other deaths. The big chief, it is held, should not travel unaccompanied into the next life. A wise man, a magic man, who claims to see the fiture says ten people will pass away over the next week. I am a sceptic when it comes to the paranormal, but sure enough the drum will beat out new deaths each day we are here. I lose count.

I am reminded of my parents deaths, both of which held an uncanny sense of timing. My mother's descent into a coma was slow and painful to watch. The dreaded breast cancer had come back to take her years after her masectomy. Though it was inevitable, the timing was unknowable and yet, she seemed to know. In her final hours she held on until all the family had arrived back from holidays and other out of town activities before offering us her last breath; my father, a man who acceded to my insistent urgings and lived two years more than he would have chosen, eventually made his quiet exit two weeks before my long planned overseas trip with my wife.

He was our big chief. He was also a believer in reincarnation so he knew he wouldn't lack company on the other side - requiring none of us to accompany him. He was always such a considerate man.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Vanuatu 5 Mourning

Monday 26 September (late afternoon)

Our plans for the week have been thrown into some confusion as the mother of the project coordinator has passed away. She died as we traversed the blue Pacific. We unpack our bags and create a rudimentary sense of home in our concrete floored room. We don't have any family photos to hang on the wall but with a rearrangement of chairs and the rough bush-built side table it feels pretty good; despite the fact that our tent style mosquito-proof beds dominate the room. It feels like we should be outside under the stars with these contraptions but, as the area has a reputation for sudden heavy downpours, the locals advise against it.

Our colleagues ask us to follow them to the Nakamal. The village has been summoned by a series of simple strokes on a slit drum, a hollowed out log with a lengthwise cut in the top to create resonance. The length and diameter of the log determine the pitch. Our coordinator's mother lies in Port Vila but there will be a Kastom mourning ceremony here this afternoon as a mark of respect for this well known old woman. She was a Pentecost woman (woman blong Pentecost). I am 'man blong Australia' - 'man Australia' for short.

As we approach the entrance to the large unlit building we are greeted by a wailing and crying which sets my teeth on edge. Our group enters quietly with Paul and I at the rear watching for cues as to what is expected. We join most of the group sitting on a bamboo bench sited along the side of the building. As I take my seat, two or three of my colleagues join the mourning with such intensity and suddenness that I am taken by surprise. A moment ago I had been in conversation with them seeking a little advice as to where I should stand, what was the local custom re head-cover etc.

I can remember being intimidated at large Catholic funerals by rows of elderly women, the stalwarts of the church, chanting the Mysteries of the Rosary from the Sorrowful through the Glorious to the Joyful, from beginning to end, for over forty minutes in the lead-in to the funeral of a local 'big man' of the community. But this was beyond that. Their chanting was just a mumble, a burble compared to this.

I see a woman rocking back and forth and swaying as she sobs and presses a handkerchief to her reddening eyes. One of my colleagues is transformed, transported into another state. Other women, and men, close relatives, are also sobbing and convulsing in a deep and shuddering tribute to the deceased. It is an odd feeling. I am a stranger. I have no real emotional connection. I am intent on being respectful, but at the same time I am a curious bystander.

As the keening settles our host Chief John, invites Paul and I to follow him. He leads us through the mourners to a small slightly built woman standing alone. She looks to be in her eighties. Her eyes meet mine. They carry a deep sadness in their brown and still gaze. She extends her hand. John introduces her as the sister of the deceased and she clasps my hand above the wrist and gently holds on. I know this is a moment of introduction and of expressing condolences but we have no shared language. My rudimentary Bislama deserts me. Sori, I say, and wait until I feel her grip relax and we softly let go, our hands sliding apart, the touch exchanging a kindness that my words are not capable of.

John then directs Paul and I to a rough bench-top table occupying the centre of the upper half, the women's half, of the Nakamal. Paul and I have missed the traditional welcome ceremony earlier in the day and this is our combined welcome, introduction and expression of condolence. We are being invited to share this food first. I feel humbled. I should not be given this status, especially given the circumstances, but John is clear. We must eat. I select something from two dishes. On one side of my plate I place a piece of chicken, on the other a rectangle of lap lap, a ground tuber (manioc or yam or taro) mixed with coconut milk, formed into a slab and baked in coals. It's soft and mild, not beyond my Western palate, but an acquired taste nevertheless. The chicken, highly prized I expect, is bony and chewy. In my stay in this and other traditional locations I will never see chicken breast - I wonder if the nation has a population of wingless chickens, chickens whose wings miraculously grow back, as this is the chicken piece served consistently with rice and in other dishes.

I eat respectfully. I eat everything. After a period people begin to drift out of the Nakamal leaving a team of men sitting on the dirt floor hard at work grinding kava roots to prepare kava for later consumption. Kava is a mild relaxant and hallucinogen, a drink consumed by the men as a sunset ritual. The women exit from the top of the building, the women's end ; the men from the bottom, the kava end.

Outside I learn that the older woman I have met is, in fact, Chief John's mother. John expresses his deep and sincere thanks for observing the traditional customs of the village. I also know that kava drinking is part of traditional culture and I will be faced with a decision about participating in this men's business before the end of the evening. I am conscious of being under observation. It's four thirty.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Vanuatu 4 Ataftabunga Village

Monday 26 September

The trip up the range from Sara airport is a demonstration of the toughness of Japanese 4WD vehicles. Standing and hanging on to the cabin rails Paul and I ride in the back of a Toyota utility seeing ahead of us what looks like a path only passable on foot. A brown strip, graded and cleared of vegetation and then left to fend for itself. It looks like my worst efforts at cooking pavlova. Every peak is outstripped by a trough twice as deep, the roadway ahead crumbling and cross hatched with holes big enough to swallow a small car. I stand bracing myself for every ditch, every bump, every certain roll-over as we inch up the path. I am planning my exit as we approach each obstacle. Will I leap left or right?

In the meantime a few locals in the back with us chat and laugh and introduce themselves. One is a young chief, the other confides that he thinks the whole chief thing is a bit overrated. On Pentecost there are a series of rankings that a young man can progress through. If you can provide the required number of pigs and demonstrate your wealth by hosting a big celebration you can get to the next level. The younger one thinks this is a waste of good pigs and money - both of which are hard to come by in a largely subsistence economy.

Forty minutes later we have travelled about ten kilometres and reached the level road which follows the ridge to our village. When we suddenly swerve off the road and pull up on an open expanse of grass I am taken by surprise. A collection of thatched huts are scattered across a plateau, their browns and ochres creating a rich contrast to the deep green of the grass and the surrounding wildness. Everything is in order. Family huts are surrounded by a cleared area freshly raked free of leaves and sprouting recently planted saplings sporting an array of variegated leaves. They appear to be off cuts which have simply been stuck in the ground. If only gardening were so simple back in my tough burnt off back yard in Brisbane.

A series of rectangular mounds marked out by piles of volcanic rock, sit in front of the concrete building which will be home for the next seven nights. I'm told they are burial sites. Someone has had the poor judgment to build this building (a former kava export business) over a pre-existing burial ground.

Inside the blockhouse I inspect the room Paul and I will share. It has two beds, two mattresses and a thin cotton blanket with each. We've been told to bring an extra if we feel the cold. The building has four former office spaces which are now accommodation. There's a pedestal toilet and bathroom at one end of the building and a kitchen beside that. The kitchen has a sink and crockery and a few pots. Everything is plumbed ready for water but there's no power, so a pump has never been a reality; nor is there any high point or tank stand to create any water pressure. Each morning and afternoon, one of the young women of the village will cart a dozen buckets of water from a rainwater tank nearby to fill a large plastic drum in this toilet/bathroom for manual flushing of the toilet and for beautifully simple bucket showers. A thermos of hot water appears every morning in the kitchen for coffee.

There is a large open space which takes up half the building where fifty people will gather to join our community workshop. No power outlets, no light fittings; John supplies us with a battery powered light for each room. Paul and I set about setting up two free-standing mosquito proof tents in our room and move the mattresses off the beds and on to the floor. I text my wife to describe our arrival and paint a fairly basic picture.

She's joining me for a week after this workshop. She wants reassurance that I haven't planned one of my 'challenging' or 'extreme' experiences. She hates sleeping on floors. She's looking for a relaxing week. She wants to be pampered. I assure her that the bungalows I have booked on Efate will be simple but delightful.

I have no evidence for this save the comments of people I've never met on a website I've stumbled across in the week before leaving Australia. In Australian parlance I'm trusting that "She'll be right mate".

Monday, 17 October 2011

Vanuatu 3. Flight

Monday September 26.

Yesterday we flew from Port Vila on the island of Efete to Sara on North Pentecost. The Twin engined Hawker de Havilland (Twin Otter) roared and strained as it took to the skies and headed towards our destination.

Like my carnivore life, I am out of touch with the up close and personal aspect of flying. I've been seduced into a false sense of complacency by many trips on large interstate and international carriers alongside hundreds of fellow passengers with faith in the gods of engineering and electronics. In these sardine cans I relax and listen to my iPod or watch the films on offer while sipping wine and eating altitude food. I'm only ever a little disconcerted on these flights; mainly when I turn my mobile phone off and wonder how such a simple device could be the cause of my demise. What if someone on board accidently overlooks this apparently serious request? What if someone accidently dials home as they toss and turn in their allotted one square metre of cabin space (dreaming of falling). Why haven't the stewards frisked each of us for these devices? why haven't we been required to stow these lethal weapons in our check-in luggage? why haven't these killers been confiscated?

On board the Twin Otter I have the dubious pleasure of sitting in the front seat. I am seated behind the two pilots who have left the door to their cabin wide open (or perhaps there is no door). I would like to be reading my book (I'm reading 'Atlantic' by Simon Winchester and here we are only a few thousand metres above the much bigger Pacific) but I'm transfixed by the scene before me. A dozen dials offer themselves and I have no idea what any of them tell me.

The younger of the two pilots keeps reaching above and behind him and making adjustments to various knobs and levers. He seems relaxed and after a takeoff, having reached an altitude of about 4500 feet (metres?) he pops open a packet of Twisties and settles in for the afternoon. About half an hour into the flight, with my eyes still glued to the altimeter (the only dial I have guessed the name of - only because it is the only one whose dial rotates and rotates clockwise as we rise) I notice the very dial begin to wind backwards. I have understood this to be a direct flight and my ticket tells me it is an hour plus trip.

The dial rotates back through 4000, 3500, 3000, 2500. 2000. I have a feeling of unease as we continue to lose altitude while still clearly over an unbroken expanse of water. Baby pilot seems unaware of this development and continues to stuff his face with bright orange Twisties. 1500, 1000. 900, 800. I can see the dark shapes of cruising sharks in the water just out of reach below.
I am tempted to reach out and tap him on the arm and point to the altimeter with a quizzical look on my face. Or I could just scream. But I look around at the 19 other passengers, all of whom show no signs of panic so I suppress mine in the interest of 'not looking silly'. I later wonder at the wisdom of 'not looking silly' in a critical situation. I would look even worse if we did ditch in the Pacific and I could have been the one to avert certain disaster.

As it turns out we make an unexpected landing on Ambae. We're island hopping. What a relief. Ten minutes later we take off and turn sharply eastward and head over more open waters. I am less concerned by the altimeter this time and get back to reading about the Atlantic and the perils of flight over expanses of open ocean, but this is short lived. Before us, fifteen minutes later, what I presume is Pentecost looms below and we begin another descent; this time towards what appears to be an alarmingly short grassy runway.

The Twisties completed, our twin pilots wake up and, out of my sightlines, daddy pilot eases the steering wheel forward and back (is there another name? Joystick - sounds right but feels all wrong) and places the Twin Otter gently on the volcanic and coral runway and with the engines working even harder than on take off slows us before we run off the end of the green strip and into the fast approaching jungle and taxis us towards the terminal, a concrete building the size of the average footie change room. I love flying.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Vanuatu 1.Kastom House 2. Butcher

I've returned from three weeks in Vanuatu with a swag of notes and a journal swollen with stories. My week in a remote village on Pentecost was quite amazing.

I'll post a few and write up the rest for my "one day I'll publish a book of travel stories". Some of the early ones are a bit graphic. I hope you enjoy them.

1. Kastom House

Tuesday September 27

The dismembered carcass of a bullock lies at one end of the Nakamal, its eyes staring at me from its head lying alongside a bloody pile of flesh.

Three fires burn at that end of the meeting house. A small one burns 24 hours a day and has spiritual significance. I am told it is the same fire that burns in the national council of chief’s Nakamal in the capital Port Vila on the island of Efete. We are on Pentecost Island.

The other two much larger fires occupy the far end of the 30 metre long building. One is a pit fire in which the bullock will be cooked wrapped in banana leaves on hot rocks. The other is a smaller fire used to heat giant iron pots of hot water, of rice, of kilos of taro, enough to feed the fifty attending the five day gathering in this remote highland village.

Seen from the outside the smoke and steam rising through the thatched roof creates an ethereal feeling in an environment infused with magic and the forces of nature. Above us, storm clouds swirl across the rainforest slowing the passage of daylight and time.

2. Butcher.

A group of young men, shirtless and wielding large machetes, work to one side carving and preparing the sides of beef hanging from the bamboo beams.

It’s like any butchery in any culture except the offal lies in a pile on the dirt floor and there is no refrigeration. I recall the sawdust strewn floor of butchers’ shops of my childhood and am comforted by the similarity; and yet I am somewhat disconcerted, a little confronted.

As a meat eater I know perfectly well that the meat on my plate has been slaughtered for my consumption. I know that the best meat is slaughtered in abattoirs where animals suffer minimal distress. I know that the best meat is fresh and, a day previously, will have been wandering a paddock or standing mutely in a holding yard awaiting its fate. I know all this but have never been quite close enough to witness the process.

My father was brought up on a farm and worked in a small goods factory as a young man. He had seen animals slaughtered, had begun his working life on the factory floor in the killing room. For him this was life. I too worked in the boning room of the local bacon factory as one of my stints of student employment. This was one step removed from the slaughter yard but as a young 18 year old the scene of lines of men carving and preparing the sides of beef was mesmerising, not to mention the loud and cheeky banter between the lads and the young women. The atmosphere was charged with energy.

My father had no hesitation in helping, what had become, the pet duck to the chopping block in the backyard. This waddling feathered friend had shared our sixteen perch block for a month or more leading up to Christmas unaware of its fate. We fed it bread and water and scraps and became quite comfortable with its company. But when the time came, I remember the sight of the headless body careering around the yard after my father's swift and accurate blow with his axe, as comic rather than tragic. I can still smell the rich musky odour of the feathers plucked soon after, having been scalded in my mother's large copper full of boiling water. The copper was a family essential, one day scalding a duck, another boiling a sugar bag full of crabs and then another boiling the white coats my father wore as a small goods salesman; heavily soiled from lumping sides of beef and pork into local butcher shops on his daily round.

This afternoon I had become distracted from our workshop program in Ataftabunga by a parade of young men, like my father (even of his then age), crossing the open village green-space, each carrying a hind leg or a side of beef towards the thatched roofed Nakamal. The last of these carried the head, horns circling his own head like a pair of reindeer antlers.

I'm here for seven days as part of a community development project. I am one of the two westerners who are accompanying the team of thirteen Ni-Vanuatu facilitators who will deliver a training program. My colleague Paul and I are here as the back-up team. We'll help when asked.