Here we are, rolling into our third week in Port Vila. I thought it was beyond time I started recording some thoughts.
What an interesting adventure we’ve had so far. We are renting a little n air bnb place next door to a village outside the gates of a large resort. The family that own this place live downstairs, their two kids have made friends with ours, and the five children are in and out of both houses all day.
I spent the first two weeks running a little home-school out on the porch.
It was really fun, and really intense. The children downstairs have not been going to school for a while, and lots of the village kids don’t go at all. School is not free here. Like many locals, our host family was hit hard by Cyclone Pam – th economic implications of the cyclone are still clear around town. Little L and T were excited to join in with my guys doing school. Much more excited than my own crew!
Our plans this year were to learn some natural history, so we’ve done a lot a talking about the Pacific Ring Of Fire, a lot of making maps. The skill levels of these five kids under ten vary wildly so I had to do a lot of juggling around reading, writing and maths. We read The Enchanted Wood out loud, sang songs, learnt some rap (!), played Bananagrams and cards.
There were times, as a fake-teacher, when I felt so deep in ‘flow’. One day, I tried to explain to eight-year-old L how to take his ‘five-sentence’ challenge to the next level - how I had just finished a book that morning (A Little Life, for the bookworms out there) in which the lead character Jude moved me so much that I cried real tears at the end of the book. Jude was real to me, and I cared about him, even though he was just a collection of words on a page. I told L that words could be like magic, and books like magical objects.
The next morning L bounded up the stairs to show me the ‘feelings’ he had added to his sentences in the night. Moments like that were so amazing. And there were lots of hilarious times too, of course. But it was full-on, jumping from child to child, all calling for my eyeballs on them. ‘Miss Rachael!’ “Mum! ‘Miss Rachael!’ ‘Mum!’ On the last day of school I had an extra kid from the village with almost no English who called me ‘Teacher Mummy.’
The village was a mixed bag for me. Port Vila is a pretty run-down place and it took me a couple of weeks to get over the sense of menace I felt when we arrived. On our first afternoon there was a big kid- showdown in the yard. The village kids shouted insults in Bislama at my kids (my favourite one so far: ’why don’t you wipe your arse and eat it?’How to respond? ‘Well, maybe I will…?’) ‘You is gross!’ they told nine-year old Peanut. ‘Your hair is gross!’
It was West Side Story, writ small. Young L chased the ringleader out of his yard while my big girl, wide eyed and teary, took some time to process what happened. That night, there was a lot of shouting outside our windows. Our downstairs host came up to explain that a nine-year old girl from the village had gone missing. Everybody was out searching. A couple of hours later, she was found. She’d been hiding from her dad, because he hits her with electrical cords. I was warned that the kids were pretty violent, that they got hit and then they hit each other, and that there had been a few rapes lately, so I shouldn’t walk too close to the long grass.
Outside our window, dogs barked, cats fought and roosters crowed all night long. There was a lot of laughter from the nakamal, the kava bar nearby. Birds were nesting in our roof. The bed was tough on my back. The shower never got hot.
I felt, for a week, pretty nervous about this place.
But now, a few weeks later, I’m all good. I’ve stopped clutching my pearls and started getting the hang of Port Vila. We get the bus everywhere, we’ve found the good coffee, the food market, the secondhand bookstore, the French boulangerie, the Italian supermarket. The kids can all say ‘tangkyu tumas!’ and I can say ‘Name bilong me Rachael. Wass name name bilong you?’ to all my new friends. That’s the limit of my Bislama though, unless I add ‘why don’t you wipe your arse and eat it’ to the conversation which, I’m no Emily Post, but….
The village children are scrappy, fierce, funny and adorable. My three, fresh out of the nerd factory, are prone to weeping about being emotionally ‘triangulated’ by their siblings (I take full responsibility for that.) It’s been fantastic thing to watch them form a new gang together with their Vanuatu friends. They read to each other, play with the Rubiks cubes, carry the cat about, have water fights. They have developed a minor obsession with a little Lego man they call Mister Squishy.
I feel pretty sheepish about my early worries about this gang from the village, these sparkly-eyed little people who now run to me in the yard and ask me to sing ‘Miss Polly Had A Dolly’.
Yesterday a toddler appeared at my screen door. There was nobody in sight, so I took him to the village next door to find his Mum. It was the first time I had been inside the compound, and it was an eye-opener. I followed a young boy through shanty-town laneways, corrugated iron and cardboard huts, piles of garbage. It was dusty and hot. Eventually, we found the boys Mum playing bingo with her friends, and I handed over the baby, a cutie called R with a winning grin.
Keith is working through the week, like a champ, and on the weekends he’s in holiday mode. We have been spending a lot of time with his cousin, her husband and their six children, a really lovely family - totally unflappable, even with such a big tribe! The kids have spent four years living in Port Vila, and maybe that’s the key. They are self-sufficient, kind and charming. I’m taking mental notes.
We’ve visited blue holes and snorkelling spots, fire shows and little islands.
Our favourite thing is to take the the bus around Efate and watch the people out the window: the women in their beautiful flowery dresses, the children everywhere – yesterday, a dog racing at speed down the road with a wrapped newspaper package in its mouth – hot chips perhaps? It looked like a guilty dog! The billboards in Bislama – a Creole language , a hybrid of French and English – make me happy. ‘Plis yu mus no jam jam’ on a wharf; ‘Numba Wan Yumi!’ on a rice ad, the chicken house in our backyard with a sign that reads ‘Kingdom Bilong Fowl’.
The bus drivers all love a chat and the girls play a game they call ‘Sweet and Sour’, waving at passers-by from the bus window and rating whether they respond (the ‘sweet’ hit is very high around here) while T-Bone barely looks up from his Harry Potter. Still – he’s happy. Port Vila no longer feels like a scary town, but rather a vibrant, bustling, exuberant one.
We are eating lots of pamplemousse (grapefruit – very sweet and delicious here), long-life milk, paw-paw and peanut-butter Saos.
I’ve been reading some great books and am trying hard to sit on my hands and leave the two I picked up today for the next leg of the trip. (I will fail.) The kids are Harry Potter all the way, of course. Some things never change.
Next week, we’re blowing this town. Keith is finishing up work and taking two weeks of actual proper holiday, and we’re planning on taking a ferry to an island called Malekula, and exploring an area called the Dogs Head. Malekula is much quieter than Port Vila and the most culturally diverse island in Vanuatu. We’re looking forward to seeing the two main tribes: the Big Nambas (who wear massive penis gourds) and the Small Nambas (who presumably buy sports cars to compensate). Also, hoping for a few wonderfully quiet days on a little coral island off the mainland, Robinson Crusoe style. It’s time Keith tried out the fire-lighting flint he got for Fathers Day.
We need to take lots of food, malaria-preventatives and an Girl-Guidey, can-do attitude. (Oh dear, this is my challenge…. ) But I think it will be amazing. From there we’ll head onto another island called Santo and then (funds permitting!) to Tanna Island where we are keen to see the cargo-cult rituals that date from pre-WW2, and also look into the mouth of an active volcano! We’re doing all this all the super-cheap, but it’s not a cheap place, Vanuatu. Everything costs a bomb.
After that: home, a bonfire to dispose of our festy clothes and – praise the Lord and pass the Terry’s Chocolate Orange! – my beloved bathtub and my comfortable bed.
Tropical love to you all! Another update, at some point, I hope. Gud naet. xx