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".


Jennifer said...

I don't know what it is Steve, but your writing has... relaxed. I'm right in the story, right there. Great job. It may be that a writer's voice is emerging bright. (Or, something about the meshing of landscape and pavlova - not something any Canadian writer I know has approached recently.)

More, more! Is Andrea going to be pleased? We need to know.

Ps - love the 10K ride in forty minutes. Once, in Russia, I took a train trip across 200K. It took six hours. There's a lot of living that goes on in a slow motion trip like that. (Along with the thoughts of escape.)

little hat said...

Lovely comment Jenn. Thanks. Funny how those simple affirming words can be so powerful. I don't know if you'll read this? Do you come back to revisit? I'd love to hear more of your affair of the heart.

Nose to the window Jenn.

Anonymous said...

I am so enjoying this read Steve - I had a friend (years ago) who was an Admin. Officer there; the place that time forgot.

Jennifer said...

Revisit. Takes time, sometimes. For the record, and I know I probably don't need to say it, but words not said just to be affirming. Honest reaction. I read a lot of stories.