3 July 2006
Last Saturday morning dawned beautiful and blue. I walked up the coast to Melsisi, with the curved silhouette of Ambae Island - famously shaped like an upturned boat - drifting on the horizon. It was that silhouette that inspired James Michener, who had a similar view of Ambae from his wartime base on Santo Island, to invent the legendary paradise of Bali Ha'i. I must visit it sometime.
At Melsisi, Sara the Peace Corps girl stood at the door with brightly-painted toenails. Ordinarily I don't notice such things, but this was the first time in a month that I'd seen anybody with make-up.
"The students wanted to use the coloured nail polish I brought with me," she explained. "First the girls and I did it, and then the boys joined in." She lowered her voice to a whisper. "Some of the boys even wanted their nails painted bright pink!"
Our plan that morning was to hike up the river that flows out of Melsisi Gorge. Rumour had it that there was a dramatic waterfall higher up the gorge, although neither Sara nor I had ever been able to confirm this, since the available maps are vague and the landscape is screened by walls of jungle. The steep green forest growing up the sides of the gorge is impenetrable, but we could hike up the cascades and pools of the river itself, by a strenuous combination of walking, swimming, scrambling, climbing and jumping. I'd tried this last year with Rachel, a former GAP volunteer, but we had abandoned it before encountering any waterfall. This time it was slightly easier. It hasn't rained in a fortnight, and the water level was low. In some places, the river flattened out into sunny pools across where wading was easy. In other places, however, giant boulders funnelled the river into a sluicing torrent against which we had to brace ourselves with all four limbs as we ascended.
As we progressed up the river, the sides of the gorge became steeper and the forest became deeper. Up ahead, through the trees and vines and beyond a stand of giant bamboo, a spectacular sight emerged.
The river sloshed out of a chasm of dripping grey limestone, layered and sculpted like the walls of a cathedral. These walls of rock rose vertically out of pool of a deep, mineral-blue water. White spray showered down the sides of the chasm, and tumbled into the far end in a white cascade.
The legend was true: there is a waterfall up Melsisi River.
With its ceiling of overhanging leaves and branches, the place was like a secret cavern. It was beautiful, and on that shady morning in the seclusion of the gorge, it was ours.
It is hard to describe just how happy it felt to be in the South Pacific at that moment.
We dived in and swam, flexing young muscles against the current. We got about two-thirds of the way up the pool before the torrent became too powerful, and it took all of our strength simply to remain stationary in the water. After a brief struggle we submitted to the force of nature, and let the flow carry us back downstream.
We could go no further up the river, but we were keen to see what other sights the mountains might hold. After scrambling back down the gorge we decided to explore in a different direction, up one of the little footpaths that wound up the hillside overlooking the gorge. We came across a group of villagers resting in the sunshine.
"Me-two-fella ee walkabout, no more," Sara explained cheerfully, when asked where we were going. We were just exploring.
"Ee good," they said, and waved us on our way.
It was a perfect day for a hike. The sun streamed down the valley, but with cool breezes and with our clothes still damp from the river, we scarcely felt the heat. The steep dirt paths, which could have been impassably slippery when wet, were dry and firm.
Looking upwards from Melsisi, you can see little but matted jungle. Yet what we found high in the mountains were gardens.
There were mango and breadfruit trees, bananas and pineapples, papayas and oranges, cassava and coconuts. There were natangora palms for making thatch, and bamboo canes for building. There were kava plants in abundance. In one place a stream had been diverted sideways across a hillside, to create an enormous artificial swamp in which a water-loving variety of taro was being grown. Further on, we found ourselves walking in groves of low trees with yellow pods dangling from them. It took me a while to recognise what they were.
"Cocoa!" The thought of chocolate completed the sense of luxuriance.
We had yet to reach the tops of the mountains, and we continued upwards. However, beyond the gardens the paths became indistinct and hard to follow. We passed a stone wall, deeply overgrown, and left the gardens behind. The foliage became denser, and we found ourselves in a gnarly old forest. The sun faded, the air chilled, and brown tree trunks began to close in. We stopped.
A whistling sound came from between the trees. Sara imitated it, and it whistled again in response. It was probably a bird. But there was something unnerving about that whistle.
"They're watching us," said Sara, in a half-joking, half-sinister tone of voice.
There are many places on Pentecost that are believed to be haunted by spirits. Such places are 'taboo' - a word that occurs in almost every Pacific language, and means both 'sacred' and 'forbidden'. In some cases it is believed that the spirits will bring evil and death to whoever trespasses there. Traditionally, the local people might have appeased the spirits by killing the transgressor themselves, and even today, the penalties for breaking taboos are severe.
"The villagers would have warned us if there was anywhere up here that was taboo, wouldn't they?" I wondered out loud. But we knew that we had probably wandered further than the villagers intended.
"It feels like a horror movie, doesn't it?" Sara whispered, scanning the trees.
"The Blair Witch Project?" I suggested.
Needless to say, we turned back hurriedly. Our fears soon disappeared as we emerged into the sunny gardens and wound our way down the mountain.
At the spot where we had spoken to the villagers earlier, two smiling children were waiting with a huge stick of sugar cane, which they presented to us. Small children in rural Vanuatu rarely speak anything other than the native language, in which I'd forgotten the word for "thank you", but we did our best to communicate our gratitude.
Back at Melsisi College, after cooking lunch and then washing the dishes in the tin-roofed shack behind Sara's house (using water fetched from a communal tap, since the house has no running water), we played basketball with some of the students. Sara has been busy coaching a team of girls for the forthcoming PISSA games (an inter-school sports competition that some schools take far more seriously than any academic league table), and I joined a team of boys to play against them.
"Hello, Mr Andrew!" said one of the boys. It was Fabrice, one of my Year 11 Physics students from Ranwadi, who had come to Melsisi for the weekend to visit relatives. Fabrice was an excellent player, and acted as coach for our improvised team, which included giving some tips to the person who needed them most: me. It was embarrassingly obvious that I hadn't touched a basketball for a long time, and I doubt that Sara, Fabrice or the students of Melsisi College have ever seen a 6 ft 4 guy get so utterly outplayed at basketball by a group of thirteen year-old girls three-quarters of his height.
(I later commented to Noel and the Principal about how impressed I had been with Fabrice's basketball skills and with his attempts to coach the younger boys at Melsisi. My attempt to praise the poor guy backfired.
"What was he coaching them for?" asked Noel. "They're our opposition at the PISSA games. Who gave him permission to be out of school anyway?")
In the cool of the late afternoon, we played for a long time. By the time the basketball was over, the light was seeping from the sky, and green shadows were rising up the mountainsides overlooking the sports fields.
After the sun had set, it was time to finish off a perfect Pentecost day with a few shells of kava. Unlike at Ranwadi (whose parent organisation, the Churches of Christ, officially disapproves of kava-drinking), the teachers at Melsisi College are avid drinkers, and the school even has its own kava bar. Most of Melsisi College consists of concrete buildings with electric lights, but kava is best enjoyed in traditional surroundings, and the kava bar was a simple wooden hut illuminated only by a dim bluish light bulb. I introduced myself as a fellow teacher, and over a couple drinks I chatted to my Francophone counterparts (who, fortunately, were speaking in Bislama and not French) about school and about football.
Melsisi was filling up with local villagers who had come to watch the World Cup quarter-finals early the following morning on the college's television. One of the men at the bar had come from a village en route between Melsisi and Ranwadi, and suggested that I should leave early and drop in at the nakamal in his village for some more kava on my way home. This seemed like a good idea - the four-mile walk back from Melsisi might have been a challenge after a full evening's kava-drinking - so I said goodnight and departed.
Nowhere between Melsisi and Ranwadi has electric lighting, but under the moonlight the white wheel ruts of the road were easy to follow, and I scarcely needed my torch. Back home in Britain, a long walk at night would be cold and menacing, but there is something wonderful about tropical nights. Insects hummed peacefully in the dark, and beyond a bank of trees I could hear the splashing of the ocean. Overhead, fruit bats swept the night sky, and stars twinkled between the fingers of palm fronds.
Occasionally the serenity would be interrupted by parties of football-loving villagers en route to Melsisi, who loudly wished me goodnight as they passed.
Halfway along the road, I reached the promised nakamal, and was welcomed inside. Stepping into the yellow lamp-light, I felt like a medieval traveller arriving at an inn after a tiring journey. After drinking kava and 'storying' with the locals for a while, I returned to the road, and reached Ranwadi before lights-out.
After the evening's kava drinking, I was surprisingly wide awake at 2 a.m. the next morning, when I got up to watch England's quarter-final clash against Portugal. At Ranwadi, the boys' disappointment at seeing England lose was nothing compared with the anguish of the girls when Brazil, too, dropped out of the World Cup. Ronaldinho and his team-mates had attracted quite a following. It took a while for the implications of the morning's result to sink in.
"We'll get to watch Brazil play again, though?" the girls asked.
"No. They lost."
"But why?" they asked, bereaved.
The idea that their Brazilian heroes might be capable of losing a football match was almost too much for them to comprehend.
Whilst classes at Ranwadi continue in their usual fairly casual way, outside lessons the students have been hard at work. On Saturday they were sent up the mountainside with their bush knives to cut a trail along the route of the school's water pipe, so that the pipe can be accessed for maintenance. The next day, I hiked up to see what the students had done. Some villagers showed me the way to the water source - a clear jungle stream, surprisingly high up the mountain - and I attempted to walk back down to the school along the route of the pipeline.
Unlike in Scotland, where the mountains are nakedly exposed, on Pentecost the sharpness of the landscape is covered beneath a blanket of greenery. It is only when you attempt to climb the mountains, clambering beneath the blanket, that you appreciate just how steep and intricate the terrain is. After an hour or so of scrambling along the path of the pipeline as it arced sideways across near-vertical slopes, scrabbling in the loose dirt and praying that the trees and vines below would catch me if I fell, I have the utmost respect for the students who cleared that trail. The black water pipe sweeps and bends gracefully through the forests, indifferent to the obstacles around it. It is surprisingly narrow, and leaks in so many places that it is amazing that any water reaches the school.
The following week, the students were once again sold as cheap labourers to the local villagers. The school has already repaid the debt that it incurred after the people of Vanwoki helped to pay for the new electricity generator, but it is now fundraising for a new purpose: to raise the money necessary to send students to the PISSA Games. This year the games will be held on Ambae Island, and the cost of shipping the participating students there and providing them with food and accommodation for the week adds up to approximately half a million vatu (£2,500/$4,500). Even for a Western school, that would be a sizeable sum. At Ranwadi it represents about one-twentieth of the entire annual budget, and the school is anxious to raise money in whatever way it can in order to cover the cost.
Monday's job was to dig a ditch leading to Vanwoki from the school's microwave telephone dish, so that a cable can be laid there and a village telephone can be installed. Currently, the villagers have to come to Ranwadi in order to make or receive calls, and small groups of them can frequently be seen hanging around by the school's payphone. With their ragged clothes, and skin prematurely creased and scarred by a tough outdoor lifestyle, the villagers are easily distinguished from the young, smartly-dressed students.
On Tuesday, there was work to be done 'carrying beach' up to a building site in Vanwoki, where yet more sand was required. The village's two white-bearded chiefs sat happily on a pile of coral watching their hired helpers come and go with buckets and baskets. They smiled upon seeing that I'd decided to join in with the work.
"You get plenty kava tonight," they said.
You can always tell when the students at Ranwadi are annoyed with their teachers: they hiss. Individually they do so quietly, but collectively they can be quite loud. When it was announced in the dining hall that the students would be put to work doing physical labour after classes, the hissing was deafening.
"This is a great opportunity for the students who are not in sports teams to do their bit to help Ranwadi in the PISSA Games," the teacher on duty announced, trying to put things positively.
The students clearly didn't share his enthusiasm.
After a couple of shivery nights during which the temperature dropped to a mere 18°C (64°F) - which is a lot colder than it sounds when you are sleeping under just a thin cotton sheet - I found a moth-eaten old blanket ('rat-eaten' might be a better description) and draped it over my bed. However, the weather has since warmed up. The week has been calm and rainless, and on some days the ocean was as flat as molten metal. At midday it reflected the sky so perfectly that Pentecost Island appeared to be floating on nothing but blue air.
After three weeks of drought, the grass around Ranwadi has begun to turn yellow, and Neil has spent an increasing amount of time watering his vegetable patch in the garden. Noel and Neil took advantage of the dry conditions to repaint various rooms in the house. (I helped out it minor ways, but mostly left them too it, partly because I am an inept painter and partly because the whole job just didn't seem to me to be worth the hassle.) While our bathroom was being repainted and out of action, the vegetable patch got extra watering.
The fine weather came at the right time for my Year 7 Science class, who are currently studying ecology. This topic provides plenty of opportunities for fieldwork, which is an easy thing to organise at Ranwadi: the school is so overgrown with exotic plants and infested with small animals that all I need to do is usher the students out of the classroom door with instructions to go and observe a particular aspect of nature.
In the lesson on 'adaptation', I sent them outside to collect plants from the lawns, and showed them the ways in which the species found there are adapted to a lifetime of grazing and trampling. There were sensitive plants (which have vicious thorns in addition to their unique folding leaves), small weeds that could lie perfectly flat and inconspicuous, and the grass itself, whose blades are much thicker and tougher than those of European grasses.
In the lesson on 'food chains', I sent them outside to watch animals eating and record what they ate. The students went about this in different ways: one group of girls sat on a grassy bank peacefully observing a line of trees in the hope of catching sight of animals there, another group of girls sat outside a classroom inventing their observations (but doing it so intelligently that I found it difficult to complain), and a group of boys disappeared into the forest where they enthusiastically killed a lizard and several insects and then speculated about what the creatures might have eaten if alive. (I was alerted to what the boys were doing after noticing them hurl stones into a tree, trying to knock some hapless critter off its perch, and I made my instructions more specific: "observe what animals eat AND DON'T KILL THEM". After this several of the boys lost interest.)
In all three groups, "human --> mosquito" was the most common food chain observed.
After a week of hard work at our respective schools, Sara and I wanted to go away for the weekend, but had made no definite arrangements. The phrase "I'll call you" comes easily to Brits and Americans, but in an area where each telephone is typically shared by several hundred people, it's easier said than done. By Friday afternoon, neither of us had managed to get through despite several attempts, and I had concluded that it would be easier simply to walk the three miles to Melsisi and talk in person than to continue trying to phone. I therefore threw some things in a bag, unsure of whether I was leaving for three hours or three days, and set off.
Sara was expecting me. We arranged to hike the next day to Bwatnapne, a few miles further up the coast, and spend the weekend there with Ian, another Peace Corps volunteer (whom we managed to contact after a mere three attempted phone calls). That evening, while Sara caught up with some marking and her students watched The Chronicles of Narnia (with French subtitles) on her laptop computer, I paid a visit to the College kava bar. Several teachers were there, relaxing after a week's work, and the bucket of kava was soon emptied. When it was announced that the kava was "finish", I was led in the direction of 'Mango', one of Melsisi's top night spots, to continue the night's drinking.
Mango was a tin-roofed shack under a giant mango tree. In the centre, a man crouched on the earth floor mashing up kava roots with his bare hands in big tin bowls, then straining the resulting liquid through old sacks. Other men in various states of relaxation sat on bamboo benches around the little square building, smoking and passing round kava in plastic bottles. At a small bar at one end, a barman sat with a bucket of the narcotic brown juice, filling up bottles and dishing out half coconut shells of the stuff for 30 vatu (£0.15/$0.25) each. After downing his 'shell', each customer rinsed it himself in a bowl of dirty water before returning it to the barman.
Despite its grimy appearance, Mango was a friendly little establishment, and I spent a happy hour or two there choking down the drinks while 'storying' with some of the locals. Unlike the villagers living near Ranwadi, the people at Melsisi don't encounter white men very often, and they were curious to find out where I was from and how my country compares with their own.
I get asked this a lot, and it's difficult to give a sensitive answer. There's no point in pretending that Britain isn't a better country in some respects. People on Pentecost are well aware that rich foreigners enjoy many luxuries that are scarce here (though I sometimes wonder if the islanders realise just how much they miss out on). And it's not just a matter of luxuries: I know nobody in Britain who lives with chronic malaria, or whose limbs are scarred by parasite infections and accidents with gardening knives, or who dropped out of school at the age of eleven because their parents couldn't afford to keep them in education.
Yet I can also point out, quite truthfully, that in many ways Vanuatu is a nicer place to live. The climate is less unpleasant, the scenery is more beautiful, the pace of life is more relaxed, and above all the atmosphere is much friendlier. People in Vanuatu who find themselves homeless and unemployed aren't forced to shiver in the streets while begging money from unsympathetic strangers; they can return to their families and their home villages and live off the land. Living space and natural resources remain plentiful here, and peace and contentment are a natural consequence of that.
According to a recent survey entitled the 'Happy Planet Index', which sought to measure the quality of life in each country in proportion to the natural resources that the country consumes, Vanuatu is the officially the happiest country on Earth.
When the locals ask my own opinion of Vanuatu, I always conclude by pointing out that this is my third visit. If I hadn't liked the place, I would never have come back.
There are occasions, of course, when I wish I had got a 9 to 5 job and stayed in Edinburgh. Lying awake in Sara's spare room at 4 o'clock the next morning was one of those occasions. A chilly wind was blowing down the mountainside, whipping up such a cacophony of noise that no amount of sedative kava could have got me to sleep. The outhouse door was squealing on its hinges, curtains were flapping heavily in the draught, the branches of the trees were grinding against one another, and objects outside were banging and clattering as if possessed by devils. The animals living around Melsisi College couldn't sleep either: mawing bullocks and squeaking piglets added their voices to the din. ("The piglets are a new addition," Sara told me glumly.)
Unsurprisingly, we were both up early the next morning, and soon after dawn we set off for Bwatnapne. Although Melsisi and Bwatnapne are both on the coast, the gritty road between them climbs steeply over a mountainous headland. From Melsisi, we walked relentlessly uphill for thirty minutes before the road levelled out (Sara, a keen sportswoman, timed our ascent). Fortunately, the sun had yet to break through the morning mist, and cool winds circling down the mountain blew the sweat away. For the next hour or two, the road undulated gently along the backbone of the island, past small villages and gardens, then began its staggered descent into Bwatnapne.
Bwatnapne has a lovely, sleepy feel to it. A river trickles out of a forested valley and meets the ocean in a sun-filled bay, tinted with sand and coral and bounded at either end by steep green headlands. Spread out amongst the trees and meadows by the waterfront are rustic houses and a small school.
We found Ian playing Frisbee with some of the local children. Although he works closely with the school, Ian is not a teacher: he is employed by Peace Corps as a 'reacher', helping the villagers to organise community projects. His house was full of hand-woven baskets, which he helps the local women to sell in order to raise money for paying their children's school fees. There could be a great market for those baskets, he believes, among young Westerners looking for an environmentally-friendly alternative to plastic shopping bags. I agreed, and bought a couple.
Ian lives on a quiet strip of land between the beach and a dried-up pandanus swamp at the mouth of the river, in a beautiful house built entirely from local materials. The roof is palm thatch with bamboo rafters, the walls and much of the furniture are made of woven pandanus leaves held in place by wooden beams, and the floor is shingled with coral. The toilet is a concrete shack in the swamp behind the house, and his bathroom is the river. His drinking water is collected from a nearby spring. He has a small cooker in the house, but the gas bottle was empty, and in a simple, relaxed place like Bwatnapne there had been no hurry to get it refilled. We cooked lunch - rice and eggs - on an open fire, burning driftwood collected from the riverbank.
A flood recently swept through the house, Ian told us, but apart from depositing a layer of mud on the floor it did little damage. Most of his possessions were on high shelves or dangling in bags from the rafters of the ceiling.
We spent the afternoon snorkelling on the reef, swimming in a jungle pool up the river, and playing volleyball with the schoolchildren. That evening, we joined the children in a Saturday night singing and dancing session. It wasn't an energetic dance, just small groups of people shuffling merrily on the spot to the rhythm of a string band: a typically laid-back Bwatnapne scene.
We spent the night at Ian's house, with Sara and I sleeping on hard pandanus-leaf mattresses, while Ian dangled in a hammock. Through gaps in the woven walls I could see the stars.
The next day, we hiked back to Melsisi, via the huge concrete cross that crowns the top of Melsisi Hill. Some village children helped us find the way to the summit: a difficult path overgrown with reeds and grasses, some of them taller than us, which slashed to and fro in the wind. The view from the top was spectacular, though, with the coastline of south-western Pentecost spreading below us in thick shades of green and blue, and the white cross piercing a cloudless heaven. Colourful shrubs and bushes were growing around it.
Sara picked the highest flower on the mountain - a lush pink hibiscus - and put it in her hair.
Back down at Melsisi, the French-influenced community was preparing excitedly for the next day's World Cup final: France versus Italy. The place was filling up with football fans from neighbouring villages, tricouleur flags were flying from the buildings, and a celebratory feast was being prepared. A bullock had been killed for the occasion; we saw its severed head lying on the ground by the college.
After a few shells of kava at Mango that evening, I returned to Ranwadi, where I got up at 5 a.m. the next morning to watch the football match. Most of the students began with support for France, but switched sides when it became clear that Italy were in the stronger position (after French star Zidane was sent off for head-butting an Italian player). The school dining hall erupted with cheers when Italy eventually won the match.
Down at Vanwoki that evening, there was much discussion of the game. Most of it was in the local language, but it was obvious what the men were talking about: the words "Italy" and "Franis" (France) came up many times. Agasten, the school sports master, won a chicken from one of the villagers after correctly betting on the Italian team.
Back at Melsisi, the locals hastily switched from enthusiastically supporting France to enthusiastically supporting Italy, and the celebrations went ahead as planned. Sara, incredulous, later showed me photos of people parading through the village with French flags that had been converted into Italian ones!
At a surprise staff meeting on Monday morning, after the World Cup excitement was over, it was announced that it was 'Prayer Week' at Ranwadi. In addition to normal morning and evening devotions in the chapel, teachers would be leading their students in prayer for an hour every day - five minutes in each lesson, plus fifteen minutes after school. I left the meeting and walked down to the science lab, to find the Year 11 Physics class already waiting for me, expecting their prayer session to begin. (Staff meetings here often overrun casually into lesson time.) Having been brought up an atheist (a fact that I couldn't admit openly in a Churches of Christ school), being asked to lead five minutes of prayer without any preparation was a serious challenge. It isn't hard to come up with a few sentences of thanks to God, but five minutes is a long time.
Since I was addressing a Physics class, I began by looking out of the window and commenting on how perfectly the physical laws of the world operate, with one of the millions of leaves and branches and stones outside obeying the laws of gravity, momentum, and so on, without the slightest deviation. We should be thankful for the fact that the world was created in such perfect way, I told the students: our existence depends on it.
It was a reasonable piece of science, but it wasn't much of a prayer. If I'd had the sense to deliver it in English, which the students only half understand, I might have looked quite professional. However, since I chose to use Bislama - the language in which prayers are normally said here - it was embarrassingly obvious to the students that I was improvising desperately. I closed with a sentence or two of mumbled thanks to God and an "Amen", and hastily got on with the lesson.
After the Physics class, I sat in the staffroom thumbing through an old Bible in search of inspiration. The teacher organising Prayer Week had given out a sheet of Bible references to guide us, but they weren't much help. The passages quoted had a lot to say about the almightiness of God, but contained little practical advice on how to fill an hour a day with suitable praise. Fortunately I had a couple of hours to prepare something - or at least I thought I did, until a Year 9 student appeared at the staffroom window.
"Mr Andrew, we have Maths now?"
"Maths isn't until period 7 this afternoon," I said.
"No, they change timetable. Maths this period."
I walked over to the school timetable - two big sheets of paper on the desk in the middle of the staffroom, filled in with pencil and scarred by constant alterations - and found that the student was right: somebody had changed the timetable without telling me. I rushed down to the classroom. Half of the students had wandered off to the dormitories; the rest were sitting peacefully at their desks. The fact that their teacher had missed the first half of the lesson didn't bother or surprise them - such things happen regularly at Ranwadi. The students would be shocked, however, if I failed to deliver the expected five minutes of prayer.
For want of anything better to say, I continued my previous theme of how perfectly and intricately the world was created. I plucked a leaf from the bushes outside the classroom window and tried to impress upon the students what a marvel of design it was, with its delicately layered tissues, its fine networks of veins, its well-formed cells and the complex arrangements of molecules inside the cells. This leaf, I pointed out, was just one of the billions of wonderful creations that our world is endowed with. I explained William Paley's famous argument that such beautiful design implies that the world was created by a supreme being with a divine purpose. As a biologist who believes passionately in evolution, I was appalled at what I found myself saying, but the five minutes needed to be filled, and since I was preaching to the converted I decided that there was no harm in it. I thanked God for his creations (in English this time), then told the students to get on with their Maths.
The next day, I was better prepared. My prayers could be educational, I decided. I walked into the Maths classroom and drew a simplified representation of Pentecost Island on the blackboard - a triangular prism 62 kilometres long, 10 kilometres wide, and 800 metres high at its peak. I helped the students calculate the island's volume: an impressive 248 billion cubic metres.
The pile of sand the students deposited at Vanwoki last week probably had a volume of only two or three cubic metres, I told the students. If it took the entire school a large part of the afternoon to carry that two or three cubic metres of sand up from the beach, imagine what supreme power it would take to shift 248 billion cubic metres.
And Pentecost is just one island, I pointed out. Think of the mightiness of a Creator who could assemble every island on the Earth - some of them much larger than this one - and every planet in the Universe.
Of course, God didn't create Pentecost by hauling sand up from the beach, I said. The island was created by volcanic eruptions and movements of the Earth. But what great power could have caused those volcanoes and earth movements?
I left the question unanswered.
"I've gone sixty-five years without praying," Noel told his own classes bluntly, "and I don't intend to start now."
The students, horrified, went away praying for Mr Noel's soul.
The prayer sessions became easier after I discovered that the students would happily sing hymns if asked to. I didn't even need to tell them which hymn to sing. One or two students would spontaneously begin humming melodies, some of which fizzled out, but after a few seconds one would catch like fire and spread across the room until the whole class was engaged in a rousing chorus. For the first five minutes of each lesson, I could let the students sing their prayers while I wrote notes the blackboard or handed out work.
Several other teachers did the same, and at the start of every lesson, peaceful singing could be heard drifting from the classrooms.
The Year 7 class finished their work on living things, and began a new topic: magnetism. Unlike Western twelve-year-olds, most of them had never encountered magnets before (few of their homes contain fridge magnets, or fridges for that matter), and the students were fascinated by them. Using a pair of magnetic haematite beads (a gift from Jeffrey Bowman), I demonstrated various tricks, such as removing a paperclip from a beaker of water without getting my fingers wet. I then handed out magnets (sadly, as with most pieces of science equipment at Ranwadi, there weren't enough to go around and many barely worked), and invited the class to go around the room testing what objects they would stick to.
Having established that magnets stick to certain things that are made of metal (surprisingly, some students seemed unsure of what 'metal' was), I got out some pieces of iron, copper, lead, tin, zinc and nickel, and asked the students to test which kinds of metal were attracted by the magnets. As is always the case when the Year 7s get enthusiastic, the lesson was frighteningly noisy and chaotic, but by the end they had all grasped the fact that magnets stick to iron (and, to a lesser extent, nickel), but not to most other materials.
The Year 11 Physics students were having a less exciting time learning the laws that govern circular motion. I tried to think of real-life examples that would illustrate the principles I was describing - rollercoaster rides, cars skidding on icy bends, roundabouts, spin driers, country dancing - but realised that none of these were things that people on Pentecost have any experience of. In the end I settled for a simple practical demonstration involving a lump of blu-tack being whirled on the end of a piece of string, and I helped the students to calculate the speed of the object and the forces it was experiencing. At one point the blu-tack broke away and flew across the classroom at great speed, missing a student's head by inches. Fortunately, the student was staring out of the window at the time and paying no attention to the lesson, and he never noticed a thing.
A gigantic black moth the size of my hand has appeared in our house, and spends its time sitting on the walls or the fly screens watching us silently.
"Devil," said the students, upon seeing the creature.
On a shimmery blue Wednesday afternoon, while the students at Ranwadi were playing sports, I walked back to Melsisi to post a couple of packages (having made the useful discovery that the little bank there doubles as a post office). Afterwards, I spent a couple of hours on the meadows by the sea, sitting under a giant banyan tree growing out the ruins of Melsisi's old mission hospital (which has since been moved to a site further up the hill where it is less vulnerable during hurricanes and tsunamis).
As I sat writing a letter, I was approached to some of Sara's Year 9 students. They chatted to me happily for a while about football, churches, England, America, and our respective schools, before the tone of the conversation turned suddenly melancholy.
"Time you teach, you kill'im boys?" one of them asked.
"Kill" in Bislama typically means to strike, not to murder, but it was nonetheless a shocking question.
I assured them that I had never beaten my students.
"'Long place here, ee got some teachers, who ee kill'im boys," the student told me quietly.
I already knew that there were a few teachers at Melsisi who beat the kids. The Catholic 'sisters' there are said to be particularly vicious.
It's good that you don't beat the students, the boy told me. Sara doesn't either.
I explained that in Britain and the USA, teachers almost never punish students with violence: the consequences would be far too severe.
"From way ee got law, 'long England or 'long America," the boy said.
Vanuatu has laws against hitting children too, I pointed out.
"People 'long place here, ee no respect'em law," the student said sadly.
That afternoon, the attention of Melsisi was focused on another law-breaker: a man who had burned down the nakamal in a neighbouring village. There are no police stations or courthouses in rural Vanuatu - the day-to-day job of maintaining law and order is done by village chiefs - but magistrates occasionally tour the islands and hold courts in places where particularly serious crimes have been committed. One had come to Melsisi to hear the arsonist's case.
The evening, down at the kava bar under the mango tree, I met the magistrate: a smart, educated man who wore dark trousers and a clean shirt, in contrast with the locals in their well-worn T-shirts and shorts. Looking out of place in the dingy little hut, he walked straight over to me (the only white man in the room, and in fact the only white man anywhere within a couple of miles), shook my hand, offered to buy me a drink, and talked to me in authoritative, Anglicised Bislama. I asked about the court case.
The arsonist never came to trial, the magistrate told me. On the day of his hearing, he ran off into the bush, and has yet to be tracked down.
Prison cells are among the many features of Western life that are lacking on Pentecost.
Even at Ranwadi, a school where it often seems that normality is abnormal, this term is proving to be a seriously disrupted one.
Many students missed the first two weeks of classes because they had yet to return from holidays.
Many missed the third week because of an epidemic of illness.
Last week, messages began to appear on the notice board from teachers explaining that they were busy preparing mid-term exams and therefore wouldn't be coming to class. Absenteeism is contagious, and soon a number of students were failing to turn up even to classes at which the teacher was still present. After chasing a horde of noisy students out of their dormitories during lesson time, Noel posted an item on the agenda of the fortnightly staff meeting entitled "What is going on round here?".
"We're too busy to teach," was the general tone of the response. Noel seemed sceptical, but knew it would be futile to argue.
This week, the students are sitting their mid-term exams. Faced with the problem of organising classes during a week when some students would be sitting exams during some time periods, the staff decided upon the simple solution: all lessons were cancelled.
Next week, students and teachers will be able to find plenty of excuses not to go to lessons: marking of mid-term exams, recovering from exam revision, training for the PISSA Games, Children's Day (a national holiday), and Independence Week celebrations taking place in various neighbouring villages.
The following week, some of the students and teachers will travel to Ambae for the PISSA Games, leaving the rest at Ranwadi to spend the week doing more-or-less nothing.
The best competitors will remain on Ambae to train for the Inter-Provincial Games being held there a month later, and will not return to Ranwadi until next term.
A week or two later, the wind-down to the holidays will begin. Many of Ranwadi's students come from far-flung corners of Pentecost or from neighbouring islands, and the ships and trucks that take them there are infrequent and don't run to schedules. If one happens to come past then the students, anxious not to miss any of the holidays, are liable to jump on it and go home, even if it is officially a week or two before the end of term.
The school holidays proper begin at the end of August, and last for two weeks. After that it will take some of the students a couple more weeks to return.
All in all, I will be surprised if I am teaching full classes any time between now and the end of September.
Since I wasn't required to supervise or mark exams until the middle of the week, I realised that I had a couple of days off.
"I wonder if it would be possible to walk to the northern end of the island in a day," I mused.
The journey from here to the top end of Pentecost is twenty miles (32 km) as the crow flies, and a lot further along the winding road. There are some formidable hills along the way. Many people doubted that the distance could be walked in a day.
So I decided to try.
My target was to reach Sara Airfield, this being the only North Pentecost landmark I knew.
I set off from Ranwadi before dawn, and climbed Melsisi Hill as the rising sun painted golden crags onto the tips of Ambrym's volcanoes. The more distant volcano of Lopevi sat, like Tolkien's Mount Doom, under a dark grey cloud.
I descended the hill towards Bwatnapne a couple of hours later. It was a Sunday morning and the village was even sleepier than usual. The only people not at church were a group of teenage boys, who watched as I attempted (successfully) to cross the river without getting my feet wet.
North of Bwatnapne, the road climbs again, past a series of surprisingly well-kept villages. Although the majority of the houses are made of sticks and palm leaves, they have an almost-suburban look to them, with tidy lawns, well-kept front gardens, and even in one case a proper glass window (which looked extremely out-of-place on a wall made of woven leaves). I passed storefronts, a bank, and even a sign marked "Takeaway Restaurant". (Stores and food-sellers are not an unusual sight in rural Vanuatu, but signs advertising them are. In most other settlements on Pentecost, there is nothing to indicate which building is the village store. Everyone in the community knows where it is, so there is little point in putting up a sign.)
At every settlement I passed, I was greeted by locals who were curious to know where I had come from and where I was going.
"You walkabout, no more?" was the response in every village. "Ee no got truck?"
Two or three pick-up trucks (the only vehicles that can cope with Pentecost's roads) had indeed passed and offered me lifts. I had explained to the drivers that I enjoyed walking. They had dismissed me as a harmless lunatic and wished me cheerfully good day.
The northern half of Pentecost is flatter than the southern half, and instead of hugging the coast the main road turns inland and runs along the spine of the island, following the tops of the ridges. For several miles there are virtually no villages - just the rough, stony road sweeping and winding from hilltop to hilltop. The roads are bordered by low, windswept tropical shrubbery, watched over by coconut palms and tree ferns. Looking downhill through gaps in the vegetation, you can see multi-layered ridges of forest sliding away in parallax, towards to a dark and distant ocean. On the ridge itself, the afternoon sun burned shadelessly. Birds of prey soared on the currents of hot air billowing across the island.
It was a long, dry, desolate, empty, lonely walk. By mid-afternoon the sun remained strong, and I began to form a suspicion about why there are no villages up on the ridge: there are no sources of water anywhere. I was desperately thirsty by the time I eventually reached a village. I asked if there was anywhere I could "full'em-up plastic" with water, and was directed to a rainwater tank where I gratefully refilled my flasks. From here, the landscape gradually became less deserted, and along the roadside village gardens once again replaced untrammelled bush.
In Central Pentecost language, the phrase for "white man" is "tuturan". I hear this screamed a lot by small children when walking through villages. (It reminds me of the way that the Chinese shout "Laowai!" at the sight of a foreigner, although at least in Vanuatu the adults know better.)
In the northern part of the island, a different language is spoken, as distinct from Central Language as Spanish is from French, although certain words and phrases are recognisably similar. When I began to hear shouts of "tutarani" instead of "tuturan", I knew that I had reached North Pentecost.
I walked the last few miles of the journey with a group of teenage boys from the Lini Memorial College, who were returning to school after a weekend away in their home village. The Lini Memorial College was built in honour of the late Father Walter Lini, Vanuatu's first prime minister, whose grave is in the college grounds.
In addition to asking the usual questions about British life and about what countries I had supported during the World Cup, the students told me about life at their college. They have no piped water supply there, they told me, and since the generator broke at the start of the year they have had no electricity either. In previous years the college has been a top competitor at the PISSA Games, but this year their principal has announced that they cannot afford to send students to the Games (even though the ship journey to Ambae from there is far shorter than from Ranwadi). All in all, the Lini Memorial College seemed a sad yet awfully appropriate monument to the founder of modern Vanuatu.
Evening was approaching as we descended towards the northern tip of the island. Here, the three islands that make up Vanuatu's Penama Province - Pentecost, Ambae and Maewo - nuzzle against one another, and as the sun set the two neighbouring landmasses loomed pink and grey. I could see the margins of white surf fringing the coastlines of the islands.
We wound our way down a long hill in increasing darkness. After thirteen hours of nearly non-stop walking, I emerged onto a flat open space: Sara Airfield, lit only by the stars. The boys swooped happily across the field, making aeroplane motions with their arms.
The Lini Memorial College is in the village of Nazareth ("Nasaret", as pronounced by the locals), on the far side of the airfield. One of the students showed me the way to the nearby guesthouse, a remarkably modern-looking place. Although it lacked electricity and running water, and was located down a dirt track amongst ramshackle wooden buildings, the house's interior looked as if it belonged in Port Vila, or the Mediterranean, not rural Pentecost. I was welcomed into a sitting room with comfy chairs, smartly-decorated white walls, floor tiles that gleamed even in the half darkness, and a large, expensive-looking hi-fi (presumably powered by large, expensive batteries) playing familiar pop songs. I ate dinner with the owner's two teenage sons, while a friendly animal (I hoped it was a cat, but in the darkness I couldn't see) rubbed against my legs under the table.
The one guest room doubled as the boys' bedroom. I felt bad as they were evicted and sent off to sleep at the school dormitories, but they were obviously used to it, and went cheerfully.
The next day, I set off before dawn for the return walk. The rising sun dribbled orange through the mist as I climbed the hill above Sara Airfield.
It was a Monday morning, and wherever I passed primary schools, the children would squeal and rush to the gate to practise their English on a real live white man.
"Hello!" the bravest one would call out.
"Hello!" I would call back. This was always followed by a chorus of excited hellos from the other children, and a smile and nod from their teacher.
In one village, the men were sawing up what looked like a stack of huge fallen trees piled on top of one another. In fact, they were the gnarled, interwoven trunks of a single banyan tree, which had toppled over to produce a heap of wood the size of a large house.
I passed several large village stores, and went in to buy food supplies for the journey, whilst keeping any eye out for anything interesting that wasn't in stock at the stores around Ranwadi. All the stores on the island sell the same basic foodstuffs (or at least aspire to sell them, although they often run out) - everywhere there is rice, tinned meat and fish, powdered milk, Milo, biscuits, crackers, packaged noodles, and sickly fruit cordial. However, there are also many other Western products - tomato sauce, seasonings, chocolate bars, alcoholic drinks, popcorn, pasta, Nutella, processed cheese, herbal tea - which are not a normal part of Pentecost life, but will occasionally and randomly turn up in the most unlikely little stores. To eat a varied and interesting diet here, you need to live like a hamster, searching widely for tasty morsels and hoarding them when they are found. (Alternatively, like Noel and Neil and some of the Peace Corps volunteers, you can have your food supplies shipped to you by friends in town.) My long walk provided me with a great opportunity to forage.
I reached Bwatnapne earlier than expected (the return journey being predominantly downhill), and went to see Ian, who was having a peaceful afternoon in his hut by the beach, waiting for local farmers to come and arrange meetings with him. Subsistence farming is the mainstay of rural Vanuatu's economy, yet the government knows little about what is actually being grown in each area. As one of his community projects, Ian is helping to gather this information.
(Although 'subsistence farming' is the economists' term for what the villagers do, most of them would refer to themselves as gardeners rather than farmers. Their colourful fruit and vegetable plots, often located on unlikely patches of land high up mountains and containing a copious jumble of useful plants - some of them probably wild - are not farms in the sense of organised mass-production. From a distance, some of the gardens are barely distinguishable from the surrounding jungle. In this diverse growing environment, crops thrive without the need for fertilisers or pesticides - nobody on Pentecost has to worry about whether or not their produce is 'organic'. Such gardening is an inefficient but beautifully natural way to feed a small population.)
Continuing southwards from Bwatnapne, I plodded wearily back up into the mountains, and reached the top of Melsisi Hill after sunset. Thousands of large fruit bats were flying overhead in formation, silhouetted against the twilight sky like figures from an Escher drawing. The bats must have a roost somewhere on the other side of the hill.
Descending into Melsisi was like landing in an aeroplane at night. From high up I could see only the rooftops of houses, silhouetted by the pools of electric light that spilled around them. As they became closer, and the angle became lower, details of the buildings zoomed into view, until quite suddenly I had arrived amongst them.
I turned up at Sara's door with cloves of garlic, which I knew she had searched for around Melsisi without success. I'd tracked them down the previous evening at a little kiosk in Nazareth.
"Would you believe me if I told you I'd walked forty-five miles to get these?" I said.
Down at the bar under the mango tree (I wasn't sure if drinking kava would soothe tired muscles or knock them out completely, but it was an experiment that needed to be tried), the locals whistled in astonishment when I told them where I had been.
Men from Pentecost couldn't have done that walk in two days, they told me.
This was probably true, but not because the islanders are physically unfit: most are as muscular as you would expect, given that they grow their own food in gardens perched on mountainsides and build their own houses using materials hacked from the jungle or hauled from the beach. Locals simply live life at a more relaxed pace. If forced to make the northward journey on foot, rather than waiting for a ship or a truck, they would have done it more slowly, walking at a leisurely speed and taking more time to chat to the people in the villages they passed, share food and kava, and make the acquaintance of distant friends-of-friends. In some ways I wished that I had done the same.
I spent the night at Sara's, where I slept so well that not even the piglets outside the window disturbed me.
"Were they even squealing?" I asked the next morning.
Sara nodded miserably.
Before returning to Ranwadi I did some final shopping, at Melsisi's early Tuesday morning market, to which village women come down from their gardens in the mountains to sell fresh fruit and vegetables from woven baskets. I stocked up on chunky cooking bananas, an avocado, and some unidentified green things that (according to Sara) make a good stir fry.
Noel and Neil were only mildly surprised that I'd managed to walk to North Pentecost, but very surprised that I'd managed to return with an avocado.
"Those are out of season," they told me. Yet the avocado was fresh.
It seemed so typical of Pentecost: even the fruiting trees pay no attention to time.
Throughout the previous week, the school's bare dining hall has been filled with students sitting their mid-year exams. Noel and I supervised the Physics exams, while simultaneously doing the questions ourselves and coming up with a mark scheme. Leaning against the wall at the end of the Dining Hall, I could hear and feel rats running behind the wooden panels, only inches away from me.
Later in the week, we sat around groaning as we marked the papers. We already knew from working with the students in class that many of them struggled to understand the material, but their performance under exam conditions was worse than we could possibly have imagined. On multiple-choice papers, the average score was only a few percent higher than the result that would have been expected from a monkey trained to circle answers at random. Short-answer questions yielded reams of unimaginable nonsense from some students; others had given up after a token attempt at an answer and instead spent the time doodling on their papers. One had drawn a marijuana leaf, with 'weeds of wisdom' written underneath.
"Weeds of wisdom - that must be all that's growing in their heads," muttered Noel.
The exam questions were at a level that British or New Zealand students of a similar age would have been expected to cope with comfortably. Some of the answers seemed, to us at least, to be staggeringly obvious, yet the questions had left the students utterly flummoxed.
From teachers of other subjects came the same despairing comments: we gave the students easy questions and they could hardly answer any of them.
It isn't that Ranwadi is a haven of unusually dim students; on the contrary, this is one of Vanuatu's better schools. The difficulty is a national one. Regional universities have recently noted that Vanuatu students as a whole perform poorly compared with other Pacific islanders. Language is part of the problem: there can't be many other countries in the world in which schoolchildren are actually forbidden from speaking their national language. Lack of resources in schools, and frequent missing of lessons by both students and staff, also contribute to the low standards. However, the main problem seems to be something far more fundamental: the students' terrifying inability to apply basic logic and commonsense in their schoolwork.
Put simply, the students at Ranwadi function like computers. Given a set of specific step-by-step instructions, they will follow them diligently, but they are utterly incapable of making intelligent connections between different pieces of information in order to deal with problems that they haven't been explicitly programmed to solve. If erroneous calculations lead them to a blatantly ridiculous answers - a car was travelling at a million kilometres per hour, a mouse weighed more than the Earth, or a ping pong ball was travelling backwards in time - they will accept those answers without question. In almost all of their work the students appear merely to be following instructions robotically, without any real thought about the purpose or meaning of what they are doing.
Of course, all students make silly mistakes in exams, not everybody thinks logically all the time (in fact, most people don't, most of the time) and few people understand everything that they are taught at school. However, the sheer extent of the mindlessness displayed by the students was perplexing and frightening. I have searched desperately for explanations: perhaps the problem is cultural, or perhaps the burden of working in a foreign language that they don't fully understand preoccupies the students' minds. My job as a teacher is to help them overcome these difficulties, but it's hard to know how best to begin.
Arriving at the nakamal at Vanwoki on Thursday evening, I felt as if I had walked into a hospital. One man had sliced into the end of his finger while cutting up the kava roots; I fetched my first aid kit and helped him to clean and bandage the wound. Another man was hobbling around with a limp foot, having trodden on something nasty while making his way home in the dark after a previous evening's kava-drinking. A third patient - a visitor from a neighbouring village - was physically in fine health but mentally troubled; he went around all evening talking nonsense to people in a mixture of languages. Apparently he went insane after accepting money from the white ghosts that inhabit the forbidden headland north of Bwatnapne.
Two days later, the mood down at the village was happier. Normally, the nakamal at night is a dark and quiet place: the only light comes from a paraffin lantern and the embers of a fire, and the only sounds come from the rhythmic pounding of kava roots, the spitting of drinkers trying to rid the taste of the kava from their mouths, and the whispering of people and insects. However, when I approached the nakamal on Saturday night, I was amazed to see coloured lights flashing outside, and hear UB40's 'Kingston Town' blaring loudly enough to be heard throughout the village. Under the eaves at the entrance to the nakamal, a small portable TV and DVD player had been rigged up, together with a tiny set of disco lights, powered by a rattling petrol generator nearby. Women and children sat on mats outside watching music videos on the glowing TV screen, while the men inside the hut jigged merrily to the music as they ground up the evening's kava.
I often marvel at the extraordinary way in which small pieces of twenty-first century technology can fit into the otherwise-prehistoric lifestyle of Pentecost's villagers.
After the music videos were finished, the men put on Hollywood movies full of gun-slinging Mexicans; I hate to think what impression these must give the islanders about life overseas. The viewers barely understood a word of the dialogue (I was the only one laughing at the jokes), but they watched avidly, even during the few scenes in which nobody was chasing or shooting people. The kava-drinking continued throughout the evening. Every so often, one of us would be called inside the nakamal to swallow down his half-coconut shell of grimy refreshment, then return to the movies. The entertainment continued late into the night.
An ecology lecturer once told me that disruptions that happen continuously are, by definition, not disruptions. By a similar token, there have been so many weeks at Ranwadi this term when large numbers of students were absent from large numbers of classes that that I probably shouldn't refer to last week as a disrupted one.
The main problem was that it was the week in which Vanuatu's schools are supposed to have their mid-term holiday. However, the Principal, mindful of the amount of teaching time that has already been missed this term, decreed that Ranwadi would have its holiday a week later - at the time when many of the students will be away anyway at the PISSA Games. At first the staff and students reluctantly went along with this, but the strain of being forced to work during an official holiday was palpable.
Meanwhile, the school's sports players and athletes prepared vigorously for the forthcoming Games. This involved not just physical training - with students jogging backwards and forwards along the coastal road or doing exercises on the beach down at Waterfall Village every afternoon - but also daily prayer sessions asking the Lord to look favourably upon Ranwadi's competitors. (One or two irreligious white teachers dismissed this as a waste of time, but I could see the psychological benefit to it, regardless of whether or not there was a God listening.)
The Physics students, dejected after their poor results in the mid-term exams, skived classes in even greater numbers than usual (thereby starting a vicious cycle that will ensure even poorer results in future!). One even drowned his sorrows with rum bought from the Vanwoki village store, an offence that the teachers tut-tutted about for half an hour in a staff meeting before agreeing to suspend the student for two weeks. Reluctant to cover new material with only a third of the Physics class present, I decided instead to spend the time on revision and practical work. In one lesson I brought along the most rickety of the wooden benches from the dining hall, helped the students to calculate how close to the end of the bench they could sit before it would tip, then invited them to test their predictions.
By mid-week, cracks in the timetable were beginning to appear. My Wednesday afternoon Science lesson was cancelled due to sport. On Thursday morning, a third of the desks in the classrooms were empty. "It's a holiday," said the students, and nothing could persuade them otherwise. There is a strange sort of democracy in operation at Ranwadi sometimes.
Only fourteen of the thirty-four Year 7s turned up to Science that afternoon. Since the class has made good progress this term, and I didn't want the absent students to fall behind, I declared the lesson a free period.
In the early hours of Friday morning, many of the students who live locally sneaked out of school and went home to their villages.
By mid-morning on Friday the Principal had given in. The week's remaining lessons were formally cancelled.
The one group of students who worked moderately hard last week were the Year 13s - Ranwadi's oldest students. Their school year is organised into two semesters rather than three terms, and they have just returned (a week later than they were supposed to) from their mid-year break. I agreed to take the Year 13 Biology class, and thus found myself - for the first time at Ranwadi - teaching the subject in which I am actually qualified.
The Year 13 courses are intended to be largely self-taught, but the material is tough (the Biology students' recommended reading comes from a mighty university-level textbook) and I spent a long tutorial attempting to explain some of topics to the students in simple English, illustrating my points with lots of dubious analogies and examples. Fortunately this is what I spent the whole of last year doing, while working as a biology tutor in Edinburgh, so I've had plenty of practice. The biggest difficulty for me is organising the weekly practical sessions that are a compulsory part of the course. The exam board supplies a book of instructions for each session, but nearly all of them demand materials that are utterly unobtainable on Pentecost. Teachers are permitted to substitute the suggested experiments with similar ones, but with the limited resources available at Ranwadi, organising any practical work at all is a challenge.
In their first practical session, the students had to use microscopes to observe cells from different types of tissue: waterweed leaves, potato tubers, toad blood and skeletal muscle. I searched the local rivers and pools for waterweed without success, but found some green slime on the beach that served as a substitute. There are no potatoes here, and I found no tubers of any kind at the daily markets, but I put out the word among the villagers that I was looking for a root vegetable, and on the day before the practical session two of the local women obligingly came to me with armfuls of yam and taro. Predictably, they brought far more than I needed for the experiment, but I bought as much as I could and saved the surplus for cooking.
There are no toads on Pentecost, but a dead rat (an educational resource of which Ranwadi has an endlessly self-perpetuating supply) provided both blood and muscle tissue. Despite never having done dissections before, the students carved up the rodent to extract some tissue samples very skilfully; they have probably had experience of helping to butcher animals in their villages. The school had no scalpels for the job, so I donated the one from my first aid kit (I can't envisage a situation in which I would use the thing on a human, even in a medical emergency). Unfortunately, the microscopes were so weak and dirty that on most of the samples the students saw little but a faint lumpiness suggesting the presence of cells. I found some photos illustrating what the students should have seen, and told them to base their drawings upon those.
There are a few things that I always carry in my pockets here: a notepad and paper (for jotting things down around the school or making a note of new words in the local language), a handful of elastic bands (which have a thousand uses), a pack of breath-freshening mints (for taking away the taste of kava), and a miniature LED keyring torch (in case the batteries in my main torch fail as I'm making my way through the forest to the nakamal). This last item fascinated the villagers, who had never seen such a tiny yet powerful little light before. They asked how much it was worth, and when I told them that they could be bought back home for only a dollar or two, they asked if I could get them some.
I ordered a couple of dozen on eBay from one of those unbelievably low-cost Asian suppliers who will ship for the same price to anywhere in the world, including Vanuatu. (Shopping online from Ranwadi is a slow and painful experience: eBay's web designers obviously hadn't considered the possibility that some of their most desperate customers might still be using 1990s-quality Internet connections.) The people of Vanwoki were delighted a couple of weeks later when the new torches arrived, as were the people at Melsisi, to whom I'd also promised a few. When I got out a handful at the bar under the mango tree, there was an astonishing frenzy amongst the normally-somnolent kava drinkers, with people grabbing torches and thrusting money at me in return. Within about thirty seconds I had sold the lot.
Although people are aware that the little lights won't last forever, they nonetheless regard them as good value: batteries for regular torches sold on Pentecost are expensive and short-lived, and the villagers aren't exactly in a position to use rechargeables. On an island where most villages don't have electricity, the demand for torches is pretty high, and the tiny new lights also have a certain coolness factor. I appear to have started a craze.
With little teaching to do, I've kept myself amused in a variety of satisfying little ways. I made some files for organising my paperwork out of old cardboard boxes and parcel tape. I killed cockroaches, and chased noisy roosters away from under my window. I tested all of the magnets in the science lab, tippexing 'N' and 'S' onto the correct poles (some of which were previously mislabelled), and I throwing the ones that no longer worked over a cliff, along with the rest of the school's non-flammable rubbish. I helped Noel, who will be the official scorekeeper at the PISSA Games, to prepare score sheets, and helped Agasten the sports master to type up lists of the students participating in each sports team. I sat down with Neil, who has been given the task of assembling this year's school magazine, and discussed how the magazine might be put together. I advised various Year 12 students on how to complete various pieces of homework. When students in my own classes come knocking repeatedly at my door because they don't understand their work, I get disheartened and worry that I didn't teach them properly in class, but since I don't teach the Year 12s I was vaguely flattered that they had identified me as someone they could turn to for help. I showed one girl how to add footnotes to her History essay, and gave a half-hour crash-course in statistics to one poor boy who had missed seven weeks of school because his parents had difficulty finding the money to pay his school fees.
I have also spent many peaceful evenings at Vanwoki, drinking kava and relaxing after a day's work. The quiet, friendly, lamp-lit wooden hut is a great place to sit and mediate on life, and I can spend hours simply sitting there contentedly (even before the sedative effects of the kava kick in), whilst the villagers rest in peaceful silence or converse in their native language. None of the regulars at the nakamal speak English (except for the schoolteachers), and their Bislama is often spoken in a rapid whisper that I struggle to understand, but from time to time they make conversation with me, asking about life on my own home island and patiently attempting to teach me their own language (which I'm slowly but steadily learning) and their customs.
The kava itself is foul - even the locals wince as they choke down the liquid and spit afterwards to get rid of the taste - but after a few groggy nights my body seems to have developed a tolerance for the stuff. I no longer feel the need to avoid the nakamal on occasions when I need to get up early the next morning. Any negative effects that the drug may have are probably counterbalanced by its benefits: it relieves stress, and helps to ensure a good night's sleep in spite of the many loud noises (from animals, wind, rain and early-rising students) that reverberate through uninsulated wooden walls and permanently-open windows. At the very least, an evening of kava is less unhealthy than an evening of alcoholic drinks (which I haven't touched since arriving on Pentecost).
The other day, some of the villagers spent a long time explaining to me the local customs regarding chiefs. In this part of Vanuatu there are six grades of chiefdom, and a man ascends through the grades by holding feasts at which pigs are killed and ceremonial mats and other goods are given away. In return for each display of generosity, the aspiring chief moves up in status. Some observers have derided a system in which "power is given to those who can throw the biggest parties", but to me it seems like a sensible form of trading: the chief gives some of his excess wealth to the community, and in return the community accords the chief greater respect. The highest grade of all, a 'mariak', represents a chief who has more pigs and other goods than he knows what to do with and is therefore willing - in theory at least - to give them away to anybody who needs them.
I have never met a mariak, but there was a visiting 'tanmwonok' - the second-highest level of chief - down at the kava hut last week. He didn't look any different from the rest of the villagers, dressed in tattered shorts and a T-shirt, but he came along in a shiny green land cruiser (private vehicles are rare on Pentecost). Wealth clearly isn't entirely a matter of pigs these days. The villagers and I spent the evening trying to fix the tanmwonok's broken torch, during which I discovered - unsurprisingly - that the words for "torch", "spring", "contact", and "battery" in Central Pentecost Language are the same as the English words. (For "light bulb" the villagers used the French word, "ampoule".) We couldn't get the torch working, but after fetching a voltmeter from the school I did succeed in figuring out which part was faulty. In the meantime, I was happy to sell the tanmwonok one of my LED keyring lights.
Maybe I should have asked for a pig in return.
One afternoon I went shopping for eggs at Melsisi: the eight-mile return walk was well worthwhile for the sake of obtaining a source of protein other than the cat-food-like tinned meat and fish sold in the school store. (Teachers have repeatedly asked the school store to order batches of eggs on the weekly cargo ship from town, but responding to customer demand is an unfamiliar idea to local shopkeepers.)
I arrived in Melsisi to find that I was the most sought-after person in the village. Everyone I met asked me the same frantic question: "You got small torch?".
Their faces fell when I told them that I had run out. The tanmonok had bought my last one.
I promised that I would order more, but I doubt that I will be able to bring enough to cope with the demand: Melsisi's entire population of several hundred people seems desperate for the little lights. Even when the villagers were talking amongst themselves in their own language, I heard the word "torch" come up frequently. The Vanwokians are also crying out for more, the teachers at Ranwadi have begun asking about them, and it's only a matter of time before my students get in on the act too.
Faced with such an imbalance of supply and demand, the obvious thing to do would be to jack up the price. However, economics doesn't work like that in Vanuatu: here everything has its value, and in any case profiteering from the torches was never my intention. I was simply responding to a friendly request from some villagers who aren't in a position to order things on eBay for themselves. Most people here have never even heard of online shopping. (By an appropriate coincidence, the word "eBay" means "where?" in the local language.)
I just hope that there is someone else on the island with enough business sense and foreign contacts to begin supplying the torches, otherwise I'm afraid that soon everyone on Pentecost - about fifteen thousand people at the last count - will be coming to me and demanding them.
On Saturday morning, a squad of a hundred and twenty students comprising Ranwadi College's hundred and twenty best runners, jumpers, throwers, footballers, netballers, basketball players, and so on, assembled on the beach at Waterfall Village. Accompanied by the Principal and four of the other teachers, they boarded a (badly overloaded) cargo ship, bound for the PISSA Games on Ambae Island.
The rest of the students were given a week's holiday, but were under strict instructions not to leave the island (the school is well aware that if students go home to other islands it may be months before they return). The students and teachers with relatives on Pentecost disappeared, whilst the small number remaining at school settled down to amuse themselves quietly for the week.
I had contemplated catching a boat into town, but decided it wasn't worth spending thousands of vatu and enduring two nights on the deck of a cargo ship just for the sake of getting a hot shower and visiting a supermarket. I am happy to relax on Pentecost, and besides, somebody needs to be here to show around the new gap volunteers who are arriving this week.
With the school virtually empty, Vanuatu's Independence Day - 30 July - passed by virtually unheralded. I had planned to walk up to Bwatnapne, where a big celebration was underway (the school pastor, who passed Bwatnapne on a ship on his way back from a church conference, reported that 219 sacks of kava were unloaded there in preparation for the festivities). However, I was taken mildly ill over the weekend, and after spending the night awake and shivering I decided that the four hour walk over the mountains probably not a good idea. I therefore passed the day in a very typical Vanuatu way, relaxing quietly at home.
The Republic of Vanuatu is now twenty-six years old. The little country is only three years older than I am.