The Hebridean island on the other side of the world

The first in a series of letters home from Vanuatu, sent to my parents and their friends in the Scottish Highlands and published in the Gairloch and District Times...

Coastline of Pentecost Island

When Captain Cook first sighted the dark, mountainous island chain that is now the South Sea republic of Vanuatu, he named it the New Hebrides. It is easy to see why. Imagine a map of western Scotland with the mainland erased, leaving behind only the islands, and it would look very like Vanuatu. The view from my new home on Pentecost Island, a long appendix-shaped landmass in the north-east of the archipelago, looks distinctly like the view from my old window in Gairloch. To the south-west looms Ambrym Island, similar in silhouette to the Isle of Skye, and the peaks to the north-west that would be Lewis and Harris if this were Gairloch belong here to the rugged island of Malekula.

A sailor who landed on these Hebridean islands expecting to find peat moorlands and crofting communities would be in for a shock. The climate is tropical - the temperature of Pentecost's coldest nights is comparable to that of Gairloch's hottest days - and rich jungle vegetation smothers the mountainsides right up to their summits, except where clearings mark the position of small earthy villages. Ambrym's peaks are active volcanoes, which spume steam into the sky and choke the island in black soot like an industrial town. Even from tens of miles away, I can see their craters glowing crimson on clear nights. The hills of Malekula, meanwhile, are home to people whose fathers remembered the taste of human flesh.

My journey to this island began six years ago in a classroom at Gairloch High School, where I watched a video promoting GAP Activity Projects, an organisation that arranges overseas adventures for those wanting a break between school and university. The teacher who screened this video barely knew me and never taught me a lesson, yet by the simple act of pressing the Play button on the video recorder he made a greater impact on my life than any of the other teachers who had worked hard to educate me during my thirteen years of schooling. I don't think I paid the video much attention at the time, but my thoughts returned to it a few days later, and somehow my vague musings evolved into a decision: I would apply to spend the next few months of my life on a South Sea island ten thousand miles from home. A year later, as an eighteen year-old barely out of school myself, I found myself working as a volunteer teacher at Ranwadi School on Pentecost Island.

Ranwadi School is a cluster of wood and concrete buildings on a dark green mountainside overlooking the coral-encrusted ocean. A small generator provides electricity during the evenings, and a crackly telephone line (whose signals are beamed to a neighbouring island via a solar-powered transmitter dish) links the school to the outside world. A few miles down the coast, along a dirt track that only the hardiest four-wheel-drive trucks can negotiate, is a palm-fringed airfield at which little planes like flying minibuses land a few times a week when the weather is fine. Local villagers sometimes sit on the grass outside the school buildings and offer homegrown fruits and vegetables for sale. The school's other supplies - flour and rice for the school kitchens, petrol for the school truck and the generator, and a very basic assortment of tinned foods - are brought by rusty cargo boats that ply the coastlines of Vanuatu's islands, stopping to trade wherever they see fires lit on the beach. But the boats are unreliable, and shortages of even the most basic supplies are common.

In short, the school is isolated. Yet under such conditions the headmaster and his staff strive to provide their students with a modern education, and to a remarkable extent they succeed: the school is recognised as one of the best in the country, in spite of its remote location. (In that respect, it resembles Gairloch High School.) I felt proud to be given the opportunity to make my own contribution to the place, and privileged to be able to live in such a friendly and beautiful spot. I came to see that the reality of life on a tropical island is very different from the turquoise-tinted fantasy depicted in tourist brochures: the residents of Vanuatu are poor even by Third World standards, and their country is prone to almost every imaginable hazard, ranging from tropical diseases and shark attacks to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Yet thanks to the lush fertility of their island the people seldom starve, and thanks to their traditional family ties and strong Christian beliefs they are able to live in relative happiness.

My placement on Pentecost was over far too quickly, and I returned to Scotland, where I spent three years studying biology at university, followed by a year of teaching the subject at a private sixth-form college in Edinburgh. But I continued to dream of tropical islands. On a gloomy February weekend, as I sat in my flat in Edinburgh watching the rain, I decided to contact Ranwadi School to find out if they were still in need of volunteer teachers. The response was simple: "please come".

So I did. I jumped on the plane almost as soon as my contract in Edinburgh came to an end, and a few days later I was once again in the South Pacific, back amongst the islands, the coconuts, the coral fragments, the hibiscus flowers and the biting insects. It felt as if I had never left.

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© Andrew Gray, 2006