Andrew Gray's Diary from the South Pacific

2nd October

The time of the full moon had passed, and away from the lights of the school, the hillside was black. Night breezes were buffeting the candle in the kava bar, periodically blowing it out and sweeping the hut into darkness. The bucket of kava was nearly empty, and there was nobody else in the bar, except for Smith the teenage barkeeper.

"You smell'em strong blood?" Smith asked me.

I sniffed. There was a hint of something unusual in the air, but it was hard to say whether or not it was the smell of clotting blood.

"Time smell here ee come, ee mean'em one man ee dead."

You think it's the smell of a dead body?, I asked.

"No, I-think one man ee dead on-top, 'long bush." He gestured in the direction of the mountains. "But ee got smell here, time him ee come-down long saltwater, belong swim."

"Spirit belong him ee come?"

The boy nodded.

The smell of blood came from the passing ghost of a dead person, on his way down to the sea for a last wash. I glanced uneasily through the open door of the kava bar. It was black outside.

I sniffed again. The odour had gone.

"Me no-more smell'em," I said, relieved.

"You wait. By-and-by small wind ee come, by-and-by smell ee come-back."

With eerie timing, a little breeze hit the kava bar, ruffling the thatch, and once again there was the strange smell in the air. It was too faint to tell exactly what it was, but definitely something organic, and not quite fresh. It could have been blood.

"Smell here ee come too, time way dwof all-ee born'em pickaninny."


"Yes. You savvy?"


"All short-short man?"

"Dwarf? Dwarf all-ee born'em pickaninny?"

Smith nodded.

So there were now two possible explanations for the scent. Either a dead man was walking past the kava bar, or the dwarfs were reproducing.

"You believe ee got dwarf 'long bush?" I asked. I'd heard stories of dwarfs in the forest before, told by people from North Pentecost - Smith's part of the island.

"'Long place here, no got. But 'long place belong me, 'long North, ee got," Smith told me, with complete seriousness.

The dwarfs were found only in North Pentecost. I wasn't sure whether to be disappointed or relieved.

"But suppose ee no got dwarf long place here, smell here ee no come from dwarf," I said. The smell can't be from the dwarfs if they don't live in this part of the island.

"True," Smith nodded. "Smell belong one dead man, I-think."

"Nah," I said, dismissively. "I-think smell belong one tree, no more." There are plants on Pentecost capable of producing putrid smells. "Or smell belong saltwater." The breeze seemed to be coming from the direction of the sea.

A shout came from the house across the clearing from the kava bar. Smith ducked outside, leaving me alone in the shadowy hut. A minute later he returned.

"Worm all-ee come now!" he told me excitedly. "Worm belong saltwater. Worm ee make'm smell here."

It was five days after the spring full moon, I realised: the night when palolo worms all over the South Pacific rise in billions to spawn at the surface of the ocean. It was the worms that were causing the unusual smell.

"You-me-two go-down 'long saltwater?," Smith asked. "You want'em look?"


Smith blew out the candle, and we left the bar. We rounded the side of the house, and scuttled down the steep dirt path that led to the sea.

"Look-out here. Go slow-slow," Smith called out, as I skittered on loose stones and fallen sticks.

Cracking through twigs and vines, we emerged onto the stony little beach.

"You hear'em smell?" Smith asked. (In the languages of the ni-Vanuatu, smells are heard.) I nodded. Down here the smell was fresher and more saline, less menacing than it had seemed inland, where it was mixed with the funk of decay from the forest.

Smith's mother and sister were already down at the sea, standing a little way out in the water in a rippling circle of torchlight. One was holding a big tin bowl, and the other was straining at the water with a scrap of wire mosquito netting, scraping her catch off the netting and into the bowl. Smith and I waded out to join them.

"You look worm?" he asked.

I looked down.

"Try'em shine'm torch."

I shone my torch down into the ripples, and there they were. Hundreds of worms, bigger than maggots but smaller than earthworms, wriggling in the water. Half of them were a brownish orange, the other half were a bizarre shade of greenish blue. The effect of them all moving together was like an animated piece of abstract art.

"All-ee come, time you shine'm torch." The light was attracting them.

"You never look something here before, uh?" Smith's mother asked me.

"Ee no got 'long England," I explained. I peered into the tin bowl, where a couple of hundred worms writhed in a puddle of milky grey liquid. It wasn't a big catch, and it didn't look particularly appetising.

"You-fella ee kaekae something here?" I asked. Are you really going to eat those?


The worms were soft and squishy. The bluish ones had a poisonous look to them.

Eat them how?, I asked.

"Cook'em with'em cabbage."

"But all-ee small," I said. When I'd heard of people eating palolo worms, I'd imagined them being bigger.

"Yes, him-here small kind," one of the women explained. "Ee got 'nother kind, who ee big more."

I tried using my fingers to sift one of the worms from the water. It was difficult, but after three or four tries I succeeded. Out of the water, the creature hung limp and helpless from my finger. Its body was round and segmented in narrow bands, like that of a leech or an earthworm, but with a strange translucent tip at either end.

"All-ee come where?", Smith's mother asked. Where do all the worms come from?

I shrugged. "Deep sea, I-think."

The small patch of water highlighted by our torches contained hundreds of worms. In the whole of the South Pacific the number must have been astronomical. It was hard to believe that such a mass of living organisms could exist in complete hiding for all but one night of the year.

Palolo worms
Palolo worms

Smith and I waded ashore, and I sat on the beach for a while waiting for my feet to dry before putting my sandals back on. (The three pairs of sandals I brought to Pentecost are all broken, and that night I'd opted to wear the pair that's held together with sticky tape rather than the one held together with safety pins or the one held together with superglue. The sticky-taped pair is the most comfortable of the three and the least likely to come apart without warning, but has to be kept dry.)

The women had left an old rice sack on the beach, tied shut with twine. Something was moving about slowly inside.

What's in there?, I asked.

"Black crab, I-think," said Smith. He opened the sack and tried to pick up one of the crabs, which lunged with its pincers. Smith jumped and the crab fell, catching itself by one of the frayed ends dangling from the sack. With a twig, Smith tried to coax the angry crustacean back inside.

An orange light flared behind us, and Smith's older brother emerged from the trees, carrying a flaming coconut frond. He waded out into the water and joined his mother and sister, fishing for worms in a pool of light. The little group shuffled back and forth, sieving the water as they went. Beyond them, the water was black, silvered very faintly in places with the light of the stars.

Along thousands of miles of island coastlines, a similar scene was being enacted that night. Families and friends were out in the water, taking advantage of this bizarre delicacy that welled up on this one night from the depths of the Pacific. Yet their impact on the worm population would barely be measurable. The people and their lights were tiny dots in an incomprehensible volume of ocean.


10th October

With the year coming to an end (at holiday-loving Ranwadi, like in over-decorated department stores, the countdown to Christmas begins early), it's time to put together the annual school magazine. In many ways this is a tedious job, but the various contributions to the magazine do provide interesting snapshots of school life from the perspectives of the different people who live and work here.

Here are some extracts...

From Year 9:
"This year was tough and challenging to us Year 9 students, because there was no light in our classroom since the beginning of Term 2. ... Some teachers say that we Year 9 boys are the best night hunters of birds, this is to do with the problem of no light."

From Year 11A:
"To begin with, the 11A students were considered to be the best of all pupils at the college, due to their personal characteristics. The pupils are very humble, kind, friendly and respectable, due to the fact that, when teachers are explaining things on the board, the classroom is almost always silent for them to grasp new ideas and concentrate in a deeper sense, so as to have a clear understanding on what the topic is all about. Moreover, the pupils are so full of kindness and friendliness, you can tell when they make a brilliant smile at you or greet you around the school compound. Furthermore, it is occasionally flexible for them to adopt some ways of humbling themselves according to the College disciplines, such as to keep our hair combed everyday, attending all meals, being part of morning and evening devotions, and being submissive to all corresponding college activities."

From one English teacher praising another:
"Her expertise in the language and literature strands has been a multiplication for Year 11A."

From Year 11B:
"I think that the students' behaviour in class isn't good enough. Most of them aren't faithful to class. This makes them go to detention and some were later moved to two weeks' hard labour. Some never obey the school rules. Such include combing their hair, tucking in shirts, etc."

From Year 10B:
"We would like to give our special thanks to our mothers (teachers' wives) for helping us in so many things, giving us food or fruits to eat when we are hungry, giving us water to drink when we are thirsty or even helping us when we are sick. Sometimes they also encourage us to study hard."

From Year 12A:
"Miss Rachel our Maths Teacher many times was annoyed and got a red face because of our poor attendance in class and because we were noisy during class period."

From the Deputy Principal:
"Special thank you to all the hard working Ranwadi boys for digging and levelling the water tank site up the hill. The boys dug the area every afternoon from 3.30 pm to 5.30 pm for three months. The hard work will remain a memory of all of us who have helped ... Ranwadi now has everlasting running water which flows from the top of the hill three kilometres away. What a blessing from the almighty!"

From Year 12B:
"Beginning the year 2007, 12B consisted of thirty-one students. Since then the number decreased gradually due to various careless actions some students took against the school rules."

From the French teacher:
"Français la langue est matière qui est peut-être difficile dans l'école."

From the Head Girl:
"When things go wrong with students, we prefects get all the blame from some students, teachers, and even the boarding master, like when students don't attend prep times, dining hall, classes, chapel, etc. Getting girls up in the morning to do morning territories and mealing in the dining hall is sometimes disturbing, but it's all part of our duties. When prefects are on duty on a particular day, they say, 'GIRLS! WAKE UP AND CLEAN AROUND YOUR DORMITORIES,' the girls would always say, 'Eh! I'm tired, stop disturbing.' But whatever happens they have to get up and work around the dormitories. ... Words of thanks are extended to the college Boarding Master for the tough warnings and encouragement that he always tackled us with, that sometimes makes us scared."

From a boy in Year 12, asked to provide a quote:
"Strenuous is like a stratosphere that has learned and not excusable."

From an Agriculture teacher:
"Even though there are not many textbooks and other resources available, teachers try their best to find information from textbook A to textbook Z; time consuming. All we need at the moment is cartons and cartons of A4 paper to do a lot of photocopying as handouts. Any teacher thinking of coming to Ranwadi... come with all your textbooks, handouts, etc, to enable you to find easy access to what you don't expect to find."

From the Head Boy:
"According to my observation, Ranwadi is a college that has been blessed a lot. Ranwadi is a college that bases its function on Bible and God as the first priority. I would like to encourage teachers, students and the whole community of Ranwadi to maintain that behaviour and pray hard, study hard, and maintain the spirit of sports. Remember that God comes first before yourself or any purpose of Ranwadi's activities."

From the Principal:
"We have been reminded time and time again of that well known text in the Book of Isaiah: 'They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint'."


18th October

People in Vanuatu seldom have cause to feel unloved. Not only do they live in friendly little communities surrounded by brothers, sisters, parents, aunties, uncles and cousins, but they always have Jesus to turn to when they need comfort.

"He is your personal friend," the Principal recently reminded the students.

Dogs in Vanuatu are not so lucky. A few villagers treat their dogs with dignity, especially if they are useful for running down pigs or for chasing nambilak, the chicken-like rails that dart in and out of the undergrowth. However, the majority of village dogs occupy a niche only slightly different from that of the rats, and are treated accordingly. Most of them are loosely attached to a particular owner, who may make half-hearted attempts to look after them, but the creatures get little real affection. They are seldom patted or stroked - understandably, since they are always dirty and flea-infested - and most are not well provided for. Villagers do enjoy the sight of a healthy, well-fed dog, but this is mainly because protein was traditionally hard to come by on Pacific islands, and prior to the introduction of cattle, dogs were the third meatiest animal available, after pigs and human beings. Even if ni-Vanuatu men did love their dogs, as with their wives they would never show it in public. The dogs do not even have Jesus.

Dogs are intelligent, and their survival in Vanuatu depends partly on learning who is worth following around. The key is to find and associate with people who might toss out scraps of food, and who won't kick them too hard when they get in the way or throw anything too heavy at them when they cause a nuisance.

Occasionally, a dog strikes it lucky, and finds somebody who will actually offer them fresh food, rather than old leftovers, and will touch them fondly rather than kicking them away if they come too close. Such people are rare, and a dog who finds one will often follow him for miles. These people are aliens, visitors from a world where meat is so plentiful that dogs are actually recipients of it rather than a source. Dogs quickly learn the secret of how to recognise these unusual people: their skin is pale.

Being followed around by dogs is one of the hazards of being a white person on Pentecost.

Some of these dogs are harmless companions, but others are a serious nuisance. Some chase pigs and chickens, or frighten village children. One dog that followed me on a long walk picked a fight with two other dogs and tried to hide behind me when it realised it was outnumbered. The presence of an uncontrolled dog also antagonises the mean-looking bullocks that graze by the roadsides, endangering not the dog (which could easily outrun the bullocks) but the unfortunate person it has decided to follow.

Getting rid of these dogs humanely is virtually impossible. Gestures intended to show a dog that its presence is unwanted are dumbly ignored, and none will obey commands in any language. (When indoors, local dogs do vaguely react to cries of "wop!" - outside - but it's hard to know if they regard this as a command or merely as a curious noise that humans make when they're about to throw something at you.) Shouting has little effect, and a light smack intended not to hurt the dog will only make matters worse - attacking but deliberately not harming is what animals do when they are playing. Throwing stones in the dog's general direction doesn't always dissuade it either: when the locals throw stones, they don't aim to miss. To really convince a dog that it's not worth its while to follow you, you need to match the level of violence used by the locals, and that level can be quite extreme.

Expatriates in Vanuatu are often shocked by the cruelty shown by the normally friendly and peaceable islanders towards man's best friend. The locals, meanwhile, watch the expats feeding their dogs with daily tins of meat that would nourish one of the island's protein-deficient children for a week, and observe nonchalantly that "white people treat their dogs differently from the way black people do". Similar observations were made by a group of ni-Vanuatu sent to Britain for a TV documentary, Meet the Natives, which filmed the villagers' reactions to the sight of Brits taking their dogs to grooming parlours while homeless people went hungry on the streets outside and questioned which society is really the most primitive.

The truth is that even in the world's happiest country, people occasionally get the urge to vent unpleasant emotions, and sadly some do so with violence. In certain Vanuatu families, there is a pecking order: the husband loses his temper and beats the wife, the wife vents her frustration on the children, and the children in turn take it out on the dog. The dog, which knows its place in the hierarchy, cowers down in the most submissive posture it knows in a desperate attempt to show its masters that there's no need for them to prove their dominance. A fellow dog would understand the signal and lay off, but humans usually persist in beating it anyway, even when the poor dog virtually flattens itself into the ground in its efforts to show submission.

The dog gets the worst of the violence, not just because it is at the bottom of the hierarchy but because it has nobody to stick up for it. Whereas excessive wife-beating can get you into trouble with the in-laws, and even the sternest parents ultimately love their children, violence against animals is almost entirely without consequences. Most islanders would not even turn their heads at the sight of a man whacking his dog so hard that it ran away yelping and limping, let alone call the RSPCA (not that Vanuatu has such an organisation).

It's perfectly OK to use force against somebody else's dog, too, if the animal is causing a nuisance. Back home, when I occasionally pick up stones in the presence of an untrustworthy dog, I always check first to make sure the owner isn't watching. (I hardly ever throw the stones; merely hinting that you're prepared to fight back is enough to make a typical British dog keep its distance.) On Pentecost, too, I don't let the owners see me chastising their dogs, but for the opposite reason: the owners would laugh at what tiny stones I was trying to use and proceed to commit some appalling act of violence in a well-meaning attempt to show me how dogs ought to be treated.

I could make many excuses for the islanders' cruelty to animals, but probably the best is that they don't regard them as sentient beings. (As with many things in Vanuatu, you can blame the missionaries for this if you like, though in fact the churches probably just reinforced traditional attitudes.) If animals have no souls, hitting them when you get frustrated with them is no different from hitting your computer, except that animals are self-repairing and less expensive to replace if you inadvertently do them permanent damage.

Eventually, visitors to Vanuatu become desensitised to such violence, and sometimes they have little choice but to join in. The dogs' habit of following around the kindest person has inadvertently created a competition among humans to see who can be most unkind, in which the loser will be plagued by nuisance animals. And as you pick up a rock or a coconut and take aim, it's easy to persuade yourself that the dog has only itself to blame.


A while ago a large brown-and-white pooch wandering near Bwatnapne village discovered Ian, the local Peace Corps volunteer. This pale-skinned, bearded, blue-eyed, sandal-wearing man already had one follower - Ian's own dog, Fonzie - and the new dog decided to join the disciples.

For seven miles the dog followed Ian, over the mountain and down into Melsisi, where he arrived at a house filled with white people - the Peace Corps volunteers who had come to help with Sara's sex education workshop. Three dogs had already found this place. The leader of the pack was Oreo, a fine animal whose devotion to her white mistress was rewarded with special meals (real dog food, which Sara imports specially from Port Vila), cosy blankets to sleep on, and regular anointment with shampoo down at the local river (though Oreo would gladly forgo this particular luxury). Oreo was accompanied by Fidel, the neighbours' dog, which arrived as a sickly little puppy and remained a sickly little puppy for many months until Sara took pity on the malnourished creature and started supplementing his diet of kitchen scraps with proper food. After this he grew rapidly into a boisterous little hound.

Oreo and Fidel had recently been joined by a mysterious Nice Dog that spent his time snoozing quietly outside Sara's house. Nobody knew where Nice Dog came from, or who he belonged to, but having identified Sara's doorstep as the safest place in the village he made the place his home. When Sara once offered him a bowl of dog food, poor Nice Dog stared at the strange substance, wondering if it was supposed to be eaten and, if so, why the white woman hadn't signalled to the dog that the food was his by throwing it down onto the dirt.

The dog from Bwatnapne would happily have joined the pack, but the white people seemed to think that there were too many dogs here already, and tried to shoo it away. Fortunately, at this point four more white people turned up - the gap girls from Ranwadi - and the new dog decided to follow them home.

Ranwadi at the time was home to seven expatriates - half of Pentecost's white population. It had dustbins full of scraps (the students whose job it is to empty them are lax about doing their duties), and no other dogs around. To the new arrival, the place was paradise. It wasn't in any hurry to leave.

"What are we supposed to do with this dog?" the gap girls asked.

"Get the boys to chase it out of the school?" I suggested.

The girls decided instead to let it stay. The dog clearly had psychological issues - it would hurl itself at white people and anyone else it thought might be friendly, licking and howling for attention - but she was basically a harmless creature. The girls named her Fig.

Fig became a canine imitation of Mary Had A Little Lamb, following the gap girls around the school. She followed them to classes. She followed them into the staffroom. She followed them to chapel on Sunday morning. One Monday morning, she turned up in Assembly and threw herself into Mr Neil the New Zealander's lap, whimpering and pawing. Mr Neil was having none of it, so the dog turned its attention to the person sitting next to Mr Neil, who happened to be the Principal. The sight of a large, soppy, howling dog hurling itself at someone in the chapel would normally have been funny, but in this case the students merely watched in horror as the Principal, looking very undignified, tried to fend off the love-starved creature. In Vanuatu, even dogs are supposed to respect authority.

Fig attracted other dogs into the school - sinister black-and-yellow hounds from the local village - which would have sex with her, loudly, at night outside the girls' dormitories. During the day she wandered the school in search of white people to befriend. The howling and jumping and licking continued.

We all tried to teach Fig to behave, but the dog was untrainable. When told to sit, she would stare gormlessly, resist any attempt to push her bottom down, and do her best to lick and jump on the person trying to train her. We overcame our Western inhibitions against thumping the animal when she wouldn't behave, but the loopy dog seemed to treat this as a sign of friendship, licking and jumping at us more frantically than ever.

"Something in that dog's head is wired up wrong," Mr Neil concluded.

The other teachers soon got fed up with the dog, too. A drawing of Fig being beheaded with a bush knife appeared on the staffroom notice board, together with a warning that she was not allowed into the school buildings.

The school truck ran over her ("The driver sped up when he saw the dog in front," one of the gap girls noted), but Fig survived.

I contemplated putting the dog on a cargo ship and sending her back to Bwatnapne, or to a faraway village from which she was guaranteed not to find her way back, with a note tied around her neck saying "Please look after me". At other times I contemplated a similar plan in which the note said "Please eat me".

One of the gap girls actually tried to put Fig onto a ship bound for Bwatnapne, but the dog refused to be taken down to the beach.

I missed a wonderful opportunity to get rid of the dog when Sara and I took a truck down to Panngi on the day of the final land-diving ceremony of the season, which a cruise ship full of tourists had come ashore to watch. I don't know what would have caused more of a scene - the reactions of a dog that gets driven into an overexcited frenzy by one white person to the sight of a thousand of them, the reactions of the well-meaning locals to the sight of a crazy dog molesting their visitors, or the reactions of the tourists to the sight of the smiling natives beating the shit out of a harmless animal. Whatever the outcome, I doubt we would ever have seen Fig again. Sara vetoed the idea.

At the end of June the four English gap girls went home, to be replaced with three Australians, who arrived at their placement to discover that in addition to the job of trying to control classes of thirty or forty students they had taken on the job of trying to control a lunatic dog. They accepted Fig with a typical Aussie "no worries" attitude. The dog remained out of control.

Fig's owner, a man not noted for his kindness to animals, came down from Bwatnapne during the PISSA Games, and tried to retrieve his dog. Proving that she wasn't completely crazy, Fig ran away from him.

When the Japanese ambassador came to Pentecost to attend the opening ceremony for the new water supply, Fig deemed the visiting dignitary to be a white person and lunged at him, pawing and whimpering. One of the gap girls had to drag the dog off by its tail, while a horrified crowd of chiefs and elders gave murderous looks.

I offered a reward to any student who could get rid of the dog - I didn't care how. Nobody took me up on the offer.

When I showed the gap girls the route up to the waterfall high above the school, Fig insisted on coming along. Passing through villages, we could only shout helplessly as prized pigs and bullocks were chased all over the mountainside with the demented dog in pursuit.

"It's not ours," I called out apologetically to the villagers.

One well-tusked boar stood its ground when Fig approached. Part of me hoped that the dog was going to get itself killed - if not by the pig, then by the pig's owner. However, the gap girls were anxious for Fig's safety. By now, she had puppies to look after.

At first, the idea of one uncontrollable dog multiplying into six didn't fill me with joy. However, the puppies were nothing like their mother. They were cute and harmless, the students loved them, and since the little dogs had never been mistreated they didn't hurl themselves stupidly at white people in the way that Fig did. Instead, they ambled happily about the school, bounding up to any friendly-looking person who came by, no matter whether they were white or black, and accompanying them for a while before heading off to the next interesting person. It became common to see students and teachers walking around the campus with a flop-eared puppy trotting alongside.

Motherhood also had a calming effect on Fig. She still reacted to white people, but with quiet whimpers rather than with bounding and pawing. For a while I was optimistic that her mental problems had been cured, but I soon saw the real reason for Fig's lack of energy: the dog was starving. The gap girls were feeding her on leftover rice and coconut (supplemented with whatever rubbish she could scrounge from the school dustbins), and although this was good energy food, it couldn't nourish a family of growing pups. Each time the puppies suckled their mother's milk, flesh was sucked out of the big dog, until she was reduced almost to a skeleton.

"You need to feed that dog better," I said.

"We could try giving her some leftover bread."

"She needs protein."


"No real protein in that."


I shook my head. "She needs meat, or fish, or something like that."

"Maybe there's some spare meat in the Dining Hall?"

I laughed. A typical school meal at Ranwadi includes five or ten small tins of meat shared among three hundred growing teenagers. The soup dished up to the students at lunch and dinnertime contains more salt than protein.

Village dogs, I guessed, survive because they occasionally get to eat meat when there are bones and scraps left over from the pigs and bullocks killed at ceremonies. Dogs probably also benefit from the local children's pastime of hunting scrawny, unappetising pieces of wildlife that not even the hungriest human would eat every part of. (The white-eye, a bespectacled yellow songbird barely larger than a robin, is a popular target.) At Ranwadi, apart from occasional chickens and the bullock that the students feasted on to celebrate coming second in the PISSA Games, meat comes strictly in tins, and is far too precious to be shared with dogs.

Now and again I attend ceremonies in local villages, where I am given a generous bundle of meat and taro to take home for dinner. The lumps of meat are usually more than I can eat myself, and I have no fridge, so in the past I would share them with students. Now, I took my leftover meat to the gap girls' house instead.

"You can give this to the dog," I said. "But make sure she doesn't realise where it came from." If Fig came to regard me as a source of good food she would spend the rest of the year following at my heels. "Much as I hate having that dog around, I don't want to watch it starve slowly to death."

As I returned to my house, passing groups of students huddled outside the Dining Hall - they, too, were hungry for meat - I was suddenly ashamed. Faced with a choice between feeding deserving Third World children, and feeding a dog that I didn't even like (a dog I had been quite seriously trying to persuade somebody to spit-roast a few weeks earlier), I had made a choice that only the British would be capable of.

Thousands of people will buy squeaky toys and yoghurt-coated treats for their dogs this Christmas, while "Do they know it's Christmas time?" plays over the sound system in the shopping centre. The ones who don't know it's Christmas time are, of course, the dogs, which would be just as happy with a pat on the head and a chewy stick picked up in the back garden. The money the average Brit lavishes on his or her pets each year would save a person's life, probably several, if it were spent on food and medicines in the right part of the world. No wonder the ni-Vanuatu find our society hard to understand.


24th October

"What on earth is that?" I wondered, as a deep roaring noise descended on the kava bar.

An earthquake? A tsunami? A volcanic eruption? (All these things come to mind readily in Vanuatu.) A sudden gust of wind? Maybe just an unusually large wave breaking on the reef.

"One jet, I think!" said Smith the barkeeper. He bounded excitedly to the doorway and looked up. I followed.

Like a vision from a science fiction movie, a silver aeroplane was flying low overhead, leaving behind thick contrails that crystallised in the moonlight. For anyone living within fifty miles of an international airport - which is most people in the Western world - this would be an everyday sight. On Pentecost, it was a once-in-a-year spectacle.

Moving to Vanuatu is like one of those psychology experiments in which the researcher removes objects from a scene to find out whether or not the subject will notice the difference. Contrails in the sky were one familiar thing whose absence I hadn't registered until now. Pentecost does not lie under any of the small number of routes leading out of Port Vila International Airport, and any trans-Pacific airliners that happen to pass over the island are cruising at high altitude and go unnoticed against the tropical haze of the sky. Vanuatu has no air force, and although the Australians and New Zealanders occasionally fly military planes over the South Pacific, visits from them are rare. (Last year, Mr Neil tried to persuade the New Zealand Air Force that airdropping some school textbooks onto the Ranwadi sports field would make a good training exercise. The Kiwis were up for the idea, but Vanuatu Customs officials weren't.) Air Vanuatu's island hoppers, chugging little propeller planes that fly unpressurised at a mere seven thousand feet and don't always have the chance to reach even that height on their short jumps between airfields, pass with a noise more like the rumble of a lorry than the high suction of a jet. They leave no trails, and don't fly after dark. At night, the moving spots of satellites are the only reminder to the islanders that we live in an aerospace age.

"You savvy look road belong him," said Smith, pointing at the trails behind the plane. On the far side of the moon, the wind was already beginning to disperse the white crystals, smudging the two lines like marks being erased from a blackboard.

The plane disappeared over the silhouette of the mountain, leaving the sky empty except for the moon and a sprinkling of stars. I turned back into the candlelit hut, and realised just how far I was from civilisation.


30th October

One of my favourite books is William Golding's Lord of the Flies, one of the few stories written about schoolboys or about tropical islands that accurately captures the spirit of either. The setting for the book is a coral island with jagged castles of rock jutting out into the ocean at either end. It is from one of these precipices that a boy is sent flying to his death towards the end of the story, as the marooned youngsters' efforts at co-operation unravel and the group descends into savagery.

Like the island in Lord of the Flies, Pentecost has rocky precipices at either end. In the north, the long nose of the island terminates alongside Vathubwe Rock, a symbolic landmark from which a popular local string band takes its name. At the opposite end, the tail of the island forks like the rear of a centipede, with a deep bay separating two peninsulas tipped with wave-smashed rock. On one peninsula, a bright white church marks the location of Point Cross, the southernmost village on the island. The other peninsula tapers down to a blunt stone that cuts defiantly into the ocean like the prow of a ship, sundering the oncoming waves into a spectacular foam. This Rock is known in stories and sand drawings as Vatanggele.

South-eastern tip of Pentecost
The ocean sloshes against the southern tip of the island

According to North Pentecost legend, the spirits of the dead must jump off both Vathubwe Rock and Vatanggele Rock on their road to the afterlife. For many of these ghosts, the trip down to Vatanggele will be their first. It's a long way down to the southern tip of the island, along pathways that only the ni-Vanuatu would describe as 'roads', and unless they have relatives in that neck of the woods there are few reasons why the living would bother going there.

I did have a reason to travel down to the southern end of Pentecost: as part of my project to catalogue the island's languages, I wanted to learn more of South Pentecost language, especially the exotic dialect of it that is spoken only in a few villages in the far south. In addition, I was curious to "look the place", as the locals describe sightseeing. An excuse for a long weekend away came up at the start of October, thanks to Constitution Day (one of the meaningless occasions that Vanuatu's founding fathers added to the calendar after realising that when weekends and legitimate holidays were taken away it still left an exhausting 255 working days in the year), and I set off southwards.

A couple of hours of walking and hitching on the back of trucks took me to Panngi and Salap, the tiny conurbation of a few dozen thatched and tin-roofed houses that constitutes Pentecost's southern hub. On cruise ship days, Panngi mills with people like an English village on the day of the annual fair, but with the tourist season long past and the majority of the villagers away at a Constitution Day football tournament in a neighbouring village, the place was quiet and empty. One or two stragglers moafed about lazily in the sun, while under a tree a couple of truck drivers sat and talked about money.

Though the last cruise ship of the year left Panngi four months ago, squabbles were continuing over the hundreds of thousands of vatu in landing fees paid to the villagers by P&O Cruises in return for the right to periodically dump a thousand scantily-clad Australians there. Well-spent money could do a lot of good in Panngi, whose school, church and clinic are badly in need of funds, but the local bigman who collected the money had shown little inclination, apparently, to share it with the community. Not only that, but he had run up huge bills with local storekeepers and truck drivers, who mistakenly assumed that he would use the cruise ship money to pay them off.

"Man here ee account all-about," one of the truck drivers complained. That man has debts everywhere.

"Me tell'em 'long him, say suppose him ee no pay'em me, by-and-by me take'm chainsaw 'long nanggol," said the other driver. I threatened to take my chainsaw to the land-diving tower unless I got paid.

The first driver nodded. "Suppose him ee no family belong me, me make'm one something finish," he said. I'd have done something to him already if he wasn't a relative of mine.

The truck drivers weren't the only ones who were angry. Back in May, I remembered a local chief telling me matter-of-factly that he had burned his nephew's house down in a dispute over who was entitled to money from the landing fees. The whole thing is a classic tale of the corrupting influence of money, and could be made into a brilliant film or a play if Port Vila's Wan Smol Bag theatre company hadn't already done so. Pacific Star, their insightful story about a community destroyed by cruse ship tourism, is good entertainment, but it's deeply sad to see life imitating this particular piece of art.

"We need to do more to ensure that tourism really benefits people on Pentecost," the Principal at Ranwadi recently mused. He looked only a little taken aback when I made a suggestion about how to achieve this, which involved explosives and the Panngi jetty.

(In fairness to the people who visit on cruise ships, I should point out that not all have been a curse to the local community. Being the only person on Pentecost with a web site, I get occasional e-mails from people with an interest in the island, and among these have been a handful of former cruise ship passengers who were deeply touched by their visit. One asked how to go about sending supplies to the local primary school, and another is now sponsoring a student at Ranwadi. I am only sorry that these decent people had to experience Pentecost in the way they did.)

Beyond Panngi, the southward route deteriorates from a good sandy road to a good muddy road, then to a bad muddy road, then to a bad muddy overgrown road, then to a network of ruts winding their way through the long grass in a sun-dappled coconut grove. These ruts converge on the village of Ranputor, from which the road continues to Banmatmat, home of the local Bible College.

The ghosts on their way to jump off Vatanggele Rock don't have to worry about the possibility of falling off a cliff on the way down - they're dead already - but for mortals the journey from Ranputor to Banmatmat is an unnerving one. A couple of feet wide in the better places, the 'road' runs along a narrow ledge with the ocean slurping against rocks a worryingly long way below. In places, it been paved with concrete, giving it the appearance of a walkway in a Scottish hillside garden. Scotland, however, does not suffer from earthquakes, nor from tropical rainstorms that erode soil away by the sack-full. Both had taken their toll on the Banmatmat road. A few sections had iron railings (not that I'd have dared to lean my weight on them), and in a couple of places the aerial roots of overhanging banyan trees walled in the path, like the concrete shelters protecting Swiss roads from avalanches. Elsewhere there was nothing but the brown and blue of overhanging branches and tropical air. After a mile or so of this, I began to wonder if the Bible scholars at Banmatmat had designed the road in the secret hope that an accidental fall would provide them with a swift and easy route to Heaven. In slippery conditions I would have turned back, but the weather was dry, and I trusted in my ability to keep my feet firmly on the road. After all, I reasoned, people walk along narrow city sidewalks without ever worrying that they will fall off, even though they would risk being run over by the traffic if they did. The fact that the drop here was twenty metres rather than twenty centimetres didn't make it any more likely that I would fall.

From Banmatmat another treacherous little path led to Wanur, where the route turned inland, cutting across the island's south-western peninsula. I was accompanied here by a couple of women who were returning to their village on the hilltop after going down to Wanur to use the peninsula's only telephone. In contrast to the previous stretch of footpath, the route up from Wanur was a sizeable road, almost wide enough for a truck, which had been levelled out of the hillside by a considerable earth-moving operation.

"Road here ee good way," I commented.

"Me-fella ee dig'em," the women said proudly. People from our village dug it.

"With'em spade, no more?"

The women nodded.

I whistled, impressed. Excavating a full-sized road out of the hillside using nothing but gardening tools must have taken a lot of work.

"All-ee say, me-fella ee must got good road, belong carry'em sand-beach with'em cement belong build'em church-house," one the women explained. They told us we needed a good road to haul sand and cement so we could build a church.

In rural Vanuatu, like in medieval England, houses of wood and thatch are fine for people, but God deserves a well-built house.

"You-fella ee build'em church-house yet?"

"No, I-think road here ee no-good yet," the woman said. The road's still not good enough.

She seemed to be resigned to the prospect of a lot more digging.

After a couple of miles of jungle, villages and gardens, the road surmounted the hilltop and descended towards Bay Martelli, the deep stretch of water that separates Pentecost's two southern tips. In the centre of the bay, the road descended to the shore, where huge ocean waves funnelled by the headlands swept up a broad expanse of charcoal-coloured beach. The bay faced neighbouring Ambrym Island, whose looming volcanoes were responsible for the blackness. If the volcanoes rumbled, the waves that came sloshing into the bay would be terrifying. Yet it was an undersea earthquake that eventually demonstrated to the inhabitants of Bay Martelli village, now rebuilt on higher ground, what a dangerous place they had chosen to make their home in. A solidly-built church and the cement ruins of a couple of houses can still be seen on the flat patch of coastal scrubland where the village once stood. Nothing remains of the other houses: those were made of sticks, and the ferocious Big Bad Wolf that swept blackly out of the ocean on that terrible night in 1999 blew them into driftwood. Vanuatu has many natural hazards - volcanoes, earthquakes, cyclones, sharks and tropical diseases amongst them - but tsunamis are the one that really features in my nightmares.

Bay Martelli after tsunami
All that the tsunami left behind

Bay Martelli beach
Bay Martelli on a calmer day

At the far end of the beach, I crossed a silty black river and found a small track. This led up a grassy hillside onto the south-eastern peninsula of the island, where nanggalat trees grew thickly amongst the coconuts. Seeing the nanggalat growing in the open is like seeing a tiger in a zoo cage: you know that it can't harm you unless you're stupid enough to go across and touch it, yet you can't help a feeling of horror at what would happen to you if you did. With stinging trees, as with tigers, it's the ones you don't see - the ones that hide in the undergrowth - that you need to worry about.

At the top of the hill, nanggalat trees gave way to small houses. This was Point Cross, my final destination.

Point Cross had a lovely and slightly unworldly feel to it. The village's little thatched houses were built on a cluster of rounded grassy hills, connected with winding paths and scattered with trees. I occasionally have dreams set in a landscape like this, and have done ever since I was a young child, but I don't know where I originally got the image from. It was like Tellytubby Land without the giant rabbits, or Hobbiton without the hobbit holes. A bright and invigorating wind swept across the peninsula, blowing life onto the hillsides. From one side of the village there were views across the bay to Vatanggele Rock, and on the other side the blue mist of the open ocean.

As usual I'd tried and failed to get a message through that I was coming, but the villagers couldn't have been more hospitable. At the nakamal I was formally welcomed to the village over shells of kava, and several people offered help with my language research. People asked about where I had come from; several had sons and daughters at Ranwadi. Rebecca the local Peace Corps girl offered me a slice of banana pie that she had baked over a fire in the bottom of a gigantic cooking pot. She seemed to have baked enough for the entire village.

"That's a dicey road you've got, coming from Panngi," I commented.

"Is it?" she asked innocently. "I've never tried it. My host father owns a boat."

We talked for a while. Rebecca had a simple life in Point Cross - teaching in the local school, chatting and working and singing with her neighbours and her adopted family, and baking banana pies - but she seemed extraordinarily contended there.

"I'm not planning to go away at Christmas," she told me. "I want to stay here with my host family."

The following day the villagers invited me to a movie night, for which the old wooden nakamal had been converted into a makeshift cinema. A TV screen was perched on a wooden platform, the dirt floor was covered with mats and coconut leaves for the children to sit on, and for the adults benches were borrowed from the church. To power the TV a small electricity generator was rigged up outside, its noise quite well muffled by the low thatched roof. I sat and watched the movies, occasionally leaning over to answer questions from the other movie-goers and help them to translate awkward pieces of English. Men grinding kava at the back provided refreshments, and I passed around the pack of chocolate biscuits that I'd bought from the village store.

Did they really build a wall right across the island?, the men asked, as on-screen barbarians stormed Hadrian's Wall.

Yes, I said. An island ten times as wide as this one. I've seen the remains of the wall.

It's a shame you can't stay here longer, the villagers said. We hope you get the chance to come back sometime.

I hoped so too. Point Cross - a little community on a sunny hill at the edge of a distant island - seemed like the kind of place where you could settle down happily and forget that there was a universe beyond. I thought of Spectre, the ethereal little village from the movie Big Fish, a place not quite part of the real world.

Perhaps I fell off the Banmatmat road and I'm now in the afterlife, I mused, looking out over round green hills and palm trees, my body feeling almost lighter than usual in the warm wind. Although if this tropical Tellytubby Land really was my Heaven, they wouldn't have left out the giant rabbits.


The first thing that spoiled my dreamy weekend in Point Cross was a change in the weather. When the vigorous ocean wind turned grey and became laced with bullets of rain, the place no longer felt like Heaven. It felt more like Scotland.

The second downturn in events came when I got up before dawn, feeling thirsty, and took a long swig out of a water bottle that had been left for me in the rest house where I was staying. Paraffin (or kerosene, as it's known in Vanuatu and most of the non-British world) has no taste as such, only a smell, and it took a surprisingly long time for this to hit me. Nor did I notice the artificial blue tint of the liquid, which is supposed to ensure that nobody mistakes it for anything drinkable but is virtually invisible by torchlight.

I staggered out into the darkness and spat out what I could, feeling the oily texture on my lips, but I had already swallowed a considerable amount.

Point Cross in the early hours of the morning is not the place to inadvertently poison yourself. One reality of life on Pentecost that visitors put to the back of their minds that in the event of an emergency they would be an extremely long way from medical help. The nurses working at Pentecost's few small clinics are good at patching up cuts and bruises, and can dispense antibiotics and anti-malarial pills to those who look as if they need them, but a serious medical problem would necessitate a trip to hospital in Port Vila or Luganville. Even in town, you might not be in safe hands: although Vanuatu's politicians regularly pledge to bring the country's two hospitals up to "international standards", stories I've heard suggest that they have a long way to go. (A foreigner needing a blood transfusion would be in particular trouble, since certain blood types, including mine, are genetically absent among the ni-Vanuatu.) The nearest truly good hospitals are in Australia, a thousand miles away. Even with an insurance company on hand to organise a medical evacuation, it would be many hours between calling for help and being wheeled through the doors of the emergency room. And that's assuming that you are able to call for help in the first place. Mobile phones don't work in most of Vanuatu, and many villages - Point Cross included - are miles from a telephone. In outlying areas there are teleradios, but these too are few and far between.

For the time being, I had only my knowledge of science to help. What would paraffin do to my body? Would I go blind, like those who drink methylated spirits? Probably not: there's a specific chemical reason why meths makes you blind, and it doesn't apply to paraffin. Perhaps paraffin was an inert substance, which would do no harm at all. That was probably too much to hope for. The human body is based on water; introducing other solvents unbalances its many delicate equilibria with unpleasant results. As I'd taught my science students, water molecules sparkle with tiny electric charges that interact with tiny charges on the surfaces of molecules like proteins and sugars, holding the body's complex chemical framework in place. Carbon-containing solvents, which are very different in their chemistry, refuse to participate in this game. Instead they entice other molecules, such as the oily layers in our cell membranes that ought to remain firmly in place, to come out and play. I pictured paraffin molecules as the students would model them in the science lab - crooked black chains with white knobs sticking out of the sides, like poisonous caterpillars burrowing their way into my body.

How much paraffin would it take, though, before my cells disintegrated like droplets of grease in a bowl of washing-up liquid? The only solvent other than water that I'd ever attempted to drink before was alcohol. If the volume of liquid that I'd just drunk was pure alcohol, it would make me sick, but it wouldn't kill me. However, this was not alcohol. As organic solvents go, alcohol is fairly water-like in its chemistry, and since it occurs naturally in rotting fruit our bodies have a mechanism for dealing with it. Since oil rigs were few on the prehistoric savannah, evolution never equipped our bodies with the means to detoxify petrochemicals.

At least if I died here I wouldn't have far to travel to jump off Vatanggele Rock, I thought. The trek up north to Vathubwe would be a bitch, but I'd have all eternity to do it.

Technically, I realised, the paraffin was not inside my body yet. As far as scientists are concerned, the gut is an external space - it's only once a substance has crossed the barrier into the bloodstream that it's said to have been absorbed into the body. There was still time to prevent that happening. I looked around the hut for something with which to make myself vomit. (I discovered later that this was the wrong thing to do: vomiting increases the risk that droplets of paraffin will find their way into your lungs, where they can cause life-threatening inflammation. Such advice is easy to look up in a world of books and Internet connections, but wasn't available at Point Cross in the early hours of the morning.) All that I could find was a sachet of instant coffee mix. This had been given to me with my morning tea but I hadn't used it, because the taste of coffee makes me sick. Perfect. I ripped open the sachet and poured the contents into my mouth. The moist powder in my mouth was like caffeinated cement: unpleasant, like the coffee-flavoured chocolates that manufacturers put in selection boxes to punish the person who leaves it until last to pick one out, but not enough to make me vomit. The coffee was weak, and mixed with milky creamer which diluted the bitterness. I chewed on the mixture for as long as I could bear, then walked to the door, and in a reflex honed by nights down at the kava bar, I spat it out into the darkness and the rain.

I looked around for something else that I could swallow to make me sick. Saltwater? There was no salt around, and the guesthouse was a long way up the hill from the sea. How about drinking a lot of fresh water then? My water bottle - the one that had actually contained water - was empty, and there was no tap in the vicinity, but just outside the guesthouse was a metal shelter containing a shower. I hopped from the front doorstep to the door of the shower, avoiding the muddy patch between, and began trying to catch the spray from the showerhead in the water bottle. There was a loud clattering noise, above the noise of the rain, as a disturbed rat ran back and forth along the top of one of the walls, inches from my head. After a couple of seconds' dithering, the rat decided that it disliked the look of me more than it disliked the look of the weather outside, and disappeared out of the shelter.

By the time I had filled the water bottle, my shorts were soaked with spray, as was my torch, which continued shining obliviously. I gulped down the water, then refilled it and gulped down more. After two or three bottle-fulls, my stomach began to ache. I walked out into the bushes, bracing myself against the rain, and managed to throw up. Only a small amount of the liquid came up, but it included a disproportionate amount of the paraffin, which had been floating on top of the water in my stomach. The texture of the liquid in my mouth was dull and oily. I repeated the exercise. This time it was better - more acid and less oil.

It was futile trying to bring up every last drop, I realised - the greasy paraffin would stick to the walls of my throat in a way which made that impossible. I burped, and could still taste paraffin. I briefly wondered whether I could bring it all up that way - burping up vapour - but after a minute or two of forced burping I gave up. The reason paraffin is a fuel of choice for lanterns is that it's dense and doesn't evaporate easily. I would have to let the rest pass through, to be broken down, or excreted, or exhaled... what would the human body do with paraffin? The enzymes that break down alcohol would do nothing to it, nor would the chemical machinery that processes oils in foods, which are of a different type. Perhaps it wouldn't be absorbed at all, and all I'd have to endure would be a period of oily diarrhoea, like people who take slimming drugs to prevent their bodies absorbing fat. I doubted that I'd get off that lightly - paraffin molecules are smaller and more slippery than fat molecules, and could probably worm their way through the lining of my intestine and into my bloodstream without much difficulty - but just the thought of it was enough to send me rushing in the direction of the toilet.

By the standards of rural Vanuatu toilets, the one at the guesthouse in Point Cross was well constructed. It had walls of sturdy sheet metal, against which the rain spattered noisily, and a cement toilet bowl to spare foreigners who hadn't had the chance to build up the necessary calf muscles from the need to squat over a slit. The door was a piece of calico that flapped wetly open and shut in the wind, but as it was still dark and there was nobody outside, I didn't care.

I lifted the toilet lid, and found the inside of the bowl lined solidly with cockroaches. At least a hundred of them, their long antennae waving like grass on a disgusting brown prairie. One was an albino, I noted, and a big one too. It looked like the way a queen cockroach would look if cockroaches had queens.

For men using the toilet for minor business, the cockroaches were harmless. In fact, you could make quite a good game of trying to wash as many as possible down into the pit before the water jet ran out. However, I was unhappy at the prospect of sitting down bare-cheeked on a bowl full of large insects whose instinct is to run up dark crevices when disturbed. I shone my torch downwards as I sat, hoping that the light shining from my backside would keep the cockroaches away.

Returning to the house, all I could do was wait for the paraffin to work its way through my system. Unwilling to go back to bed and risk falling unconscious in my sleep, I lit the lantern (at least now I knew they'd left me plenty of spare fuel for it), and sat up in a chair, with the frightened anticipation of the drug-taker who has swallowed a new substance and knows that he can do nothing but wait for the effect to take hold. If I began to feel seriously ill, I told myself, I would go and wake someone, although I doubted they would be able to help. It was just possible that Rebecca would be able to call up a doctor on her teleradio at four o'clock on Sunday morning, or that there was someone in the village who knew an antidote to paraffin poisoning, but I remembered hearing one of the Peace Corps volunteers complain that her teleradio was broken, and I wasn't in the mood for magic leaves.

To distract myself, I picked up a book and began to read. A microbiological thriller, full of people being poisoned and dying in gruesome ways. Not the most appropriate reading material, but other than my notes on South Pentecost language (which give me a headache at the best of times) it was all I had.

Dawn came, with the grey dripping of rainwater from the thatch and the twinkling shadows of leaves and branches swaying through chinks in the bamboo walls. Apart from a slight headache, which could have been accounted for by tiredness and the strain of reading by dim light, I didn't feel too bad.

At about eight o'clock David Torsul, Member of Parliament for South Pentecost, appeared at the door with a plate of bread and jam.

Politicians in Vanuatu are invariably also businessmen. Jonas Tabi, the former MP living at Waterfall Village, owns the local store and operates a taxi service (which is in particular demand after heavy rain since Jonas's truck has a higher ground clearance than many others on the island). Charlot Salwai, his successor, is currently building a hardware store by the beach in Melsisi, a monstrous construction that has consumed cement and corrugated iron in quantities never before used on Pentecost and kept quite a number of his constituents employed as building labourers. David Torsul, meanwhile, had helped his son Trevor to build the guesthouse in which I was staying. However, since Trevor had gone out early to ferry passengers to and fro in the family motorboat - another of the Torsuls' business investments - it was left to the MP himself to bring me my breakfast.

"Good morning," he said. "You all right?"

"Me drink kerosene," I said, without much explanation.

"Oh," said David. "Sorry." He said it with the expression of a practised politician - sincerely sympathetic to this latest concern raised by one of his constituents, but knowing that in fact he was powerless to anything about it. I liked David Torsul. If he had come to my door back home wearing an orange ribbon, or possibly a red one, I would probably have voted for him.

I enquired about the possibility of a boat ride back to Panngi. Even if I'd been fit and well, in slippery wet conditions I had no intention of attempting the Banmatmat road.

Of course, said David. The journey from Point Cross to Panngi is long and is normally expensive, he warned - I knew that already and I no longer cared - but my boys and I are going around the point to Wanur this afternoon to give out some tools. You can hitch a ride with us, and from Wanur it'll only be a short and cheap ride to Panngi.

I gratefully accepted the idea.

In Vanuatu, Members of Parliament are each given a sizeable 'allowance' to be spent on good works in their constituencies. Some squander the money, but others rise to the challenge of spending it in a way that earns the greatest possible amount of gratitude from the greatest possible number of voters. David Torsul, for his part, choose to spend the allowance on tools for local communities, touring villages on Pentecost to present them with spades, saws, axes, giant saucepans, buckets and rolls of barbed wire. Today it was the people of Wanur who were going to get their reward for voting for David.

It was only after breakfast that the paraffin, which had been sitting on top of my stomach until forced down by food, began to hit. Soon I could smell paraffin vapour on my breath. This was worrying, and not just because I feared for the effect on my lungs. The amount of a volatile substance on your breath is proportional to the amount in your bloodstream - this is the principle on which breathalysers work - which meant that a significant amount of paraffin was now circulating in my blood. I lay down, feeling faint, and moved my head over to the window in an attempt to get some fresh air. This did no good, of course - the noxious vapour was coming from within.

After an hour or so the fumes and the giddiness had subsided a little, and at midday I accompanied David down the hill to the shore. The MP was smartly dressed now, and carried a black bag of the type that passes in Vanuatu for a briefcase. On the beach, he stopped and rested his case against the side of a badly-battered tin boat, which looked as if it had been pulled out of a giant recycling bin.

"Boat belong you here?" I asked.

This was my old boat, David explained. When the tidal wave came it picked up this boat and smashed it against the rocks at the far end of the bay. It's no good now. The new boat is over there.

He nodded out into the bay, where his son Trevor was wading out to a smart fibreglass motorboat.

Boys came down to the beach, hauling cardboard boxes full of goodies for the people of Wanur, which they began loading into the new motorboat. By now the rain had stopped and the sun had come out. Slumped groggily against the wreck of the old boat, I rummaged in my bag for my sunscreen, watched with curiosity by a crowd of dark-skinned men who had never seen anybody do this before. The cardboard boxes were loaded onto the boat, and I staggered on board, followed by a dozen of the villagers. The rest waved goodbye from the beach.

The boat ride around the point to Wanur, I knew, was going to be rough. As the heavily-loaded little boat chugged out between the teeth of the bay, it rolled on the ocean swell, in a way that would have been dizzying even if I hadn't been dizzy already. I worried that we would be picked up by one of the giant waves and splintered against the base of Vatanggele Rock, but Trevor knew these waters well, and we rounded the rock safely. On the far side the ocean was calmer, and by the time we approached Wanur - a line of dark wooden houses set between dark green trees on a asphalt-coloured beach - the water was as flat as a puddle.

The boat pulled up to the beach, and the other passengers scrambled out. We'll unload the stuff, then take you straight on to Panngi, said Trevor.

I'd rather go ashore for a few minutes, I said. After half an hour of sitting in the sun on a rolling boat after a morning of inadvertent solvent abuse, my head felt as if something inside it was on the verge of evaporating.

I staggered ashore, desperate to lie down. The beach was damp and dirty with volcanic ash. I cast around for a bench or a coconut leaf.

"Come inside," said the villagers hurriedly, seeing my expression. They ushered me into their nakamal: a small beachside hut with a pig's jawbone hanging ceremonially at the doorway. "Lie down 'long place here."

I lay gratefully down on the bench at the back of the nakamal. One of the villagers handed me a traditional pillow, which was more comfortable than I would have expected given that it was carved from solid wood.

"Nê ma-mni kerosin," I explained. There was excitable chatter, as the villagers reacted to the triple surprise of the arrival of an unexpected white man who drank lantern fuel and was attempting to speak their language. The tone was friendly and sympathetic.

Quite a few people around here had done what you did, they reassured me. (This didn't surprise me - nearly everyone in Vanuatu uses paraffin, and nearly everyone stores it unlabelled in drinks bottles.) Those people were all fine afterwards.

My old grandmother used to use kerosene as a cough medicine, one man told me. When she had a cough, she would swallow a teaspoonful to make it better. But I guess you drank more than a teaspoonful?

I nodded, and lay in silence for a while. More people gathered in the nakamal.

I hope I'm not interrupting your tool-giving ceremony, I said.

Don't worry, the villagers assured me. They won't be ready to begin for a while yet.

'Island time' typically runs two or three hours behind 'white man time'. The ceremony, scheduled to begin at one o'clock, would probably kick off sometime around half past three.

Eventually I felt well enough to return to the boat. Twenty minutes later, I waded ashore in Panngi, where I asked after the local nurse. After talking to a couple of villagers, I discovered that not only had she gone off somewhere, but that she was the mother of a student I knew at Ranwadi. Aware that if the nurse asked how her daughter was getting on at school it would be a challenge to come up with an honest answer which neither "time" nor "school fees" occurred in the same sentence as the word "waste", I decided not to go looking for her. Instead I tried the Central American cure-all for minor ailments: lukewarm Coca-Cola (since no storekeeper was running a fridge in Panngi that day, there was no other kind). The Coca-Cola made me feel a lot better, and seemed to wash away the traces of the oil that were left in my stomach. By the evening I was no longer burping up paraffin vapour.

I checked into the Panngi Guesthouse, where the owner's tiny daughter Jessica was attempting juggling tricks using the round stones that lined the floor. If she kept practising, by the time the tourist season arrived next year, she'd be pretty good. The men of Panngi might not have seen much of the cruise ship money, but smiling little Jessica knew how she was going make a few dollars next time the circus came to town.


<< September 2007 diary · November 2007 diary >>



See also...

Introduction to my travels in the South Pacific


© Andrew Gray, 2007