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Riding In Trucks With Kids

26th April 2018

Throwback  Thursday!  It’s been more than a year since we spent time in Vanuatu, which I wrote about here and here.  I never published this piece about about 2 weeks we spent travelling the islands of Malekula, Santo and Tanna. That adventure feels like a dream, and  at the same time, like it happened  five minutes ago.

I’m sure our year in France will feel the same way, when it’s over.

I wake in the small hours, dreaming of waterfalls, to find myself lying in a rapidly cooling puddle of warm water. By the proximity of a child’s buttocks above my face I deduce quickly that I have been pissed upon.

Now I’m a mother of three and I’ve been weed on before (bragging) but this is the first time I’ve suffered the indignity while sleeping on a bare mattress on the floor of a boat travelling between the Vanuatuan islands of Efate and Malekula.

My husband Keith and I are on a backpacking jaunt with our kids (aged nine, eight and five) and we’ve just left Port Vila on the overnight ferry.  The five of us (and trusty companion Mattress, bought for fifty bucks at a Port Vila supermarket and worth every penny) will get unspeakably filthy over the next two weeks as we have a thrilling, game-changing, most excellent family adventure.

The boat is packed to the gills, and as we gently pitch and roll through the night, the air is filled with snores and whispers in Pidgin and French.  There is not a tourist in sight, which makes us feel special. I am deliciously aware that everyday mum-life is suspended:  the parade of meals slung out from my hard-working kitchen, the constant tweaking of the schedule that scrolls like ticker tape through my head, the endless shrink-and-grow cycle of Mount Washmore on the couch. I’m thrilled to take a break from all this, and a little wee on my head cannot dampen my enthusiasm.

The night is long. We share oranges and crackers with the middle aged ladies beside us. We teach one lady how to play gin rummy, and she reads George’s copy of Sleeping Beuaty to her. We sleep with just inches between us; and at one point in the very late or very early hours, I feel a prodding on my nose and open my eyes to see the tiny, dirty foot of a toddler.

The next day we disembark at the LitzLitz wharf in Malekula and catch a ride to our bungalow. Public transport across the islands involves riding on the back of pickup trucks – rain, hail or shine.  We are introduced to the charms of Malekula from this wonderful vantage point, as we drive past coconut plantations, little thatched-hut villages and road-side vegetable markets, passing strong and athletic ni-Van, who walk everywhere, carrying machetes, fish, fruit and children. We wave, and always, they lift a hand in greeting and flash exuberant grins.  I ponder what the average response rate in Australia would be. Surely, at least 10 percent of teenagers so greeted would give back a comedy middle finger? At a conservative estimate?  Life is different here.

At the Amel-Toro Bungalows, we settle into our hut, which contains three beds facing a shower and a toilet behind a wooden half-wall. We must bend to enter the doorway, and from outside, the light glints through the thatch, making the tiny house sparkle like a fairy cottage.

There is nobody else staying when we arrive, and our host Rona apologises for the lack of action. ‘There is nothing to do in Malekula at night’, she says. She’s right: no Wi-Fi, no TV, no nightlife. It is intoxicating. We sprawl on our beds, read and play cards. The children play hospitals with the first-aid kit and I skinny-dip in the bath-tub warm waters behind the bungalow. We retire to sleep early.

Malekula is a quiet and rugged island, home to more than seventy language groups, and two main tribal groups, the Big Nambas and The Small Nambas. The two are distinguished by the size of their penis gourds – the Big Nambas wear huge elaborate pandanus wreaths (and until recent decades, were feared as terrifying cannibal warriors) while the Small Nambas wear a less decorative gourd (and presumably buy bigger trucks to compensate. )

We tour a Small Nambas village where we watch traditional dancing and learn how to weave with coconut palm, make lap-lap, and draw sand hieroglyphs. One day, we visit the postcard-perfect marine reserve at Uri Island. We lie around this sandy paradise in threadbare hammocks playing cards before local bungalow-owner Lines makes octopus and salad for lunch and tells stories of growing up on Malekula. ‘I was scared of the Big Nambas as a child,’ she tells us. ‘I thought they would take me from my bed and eat me, but times have changed now.’

Lines’ husband Jake takes us out in the tinny for a snorkel. The water is crystal clear as I swim hand-in-hand with my small daughter. Jake points into the depths, and we see that we are surrounded by giant turtles. These endangered creatures are graceful, slow and beautiful. My little girl and I squeal and squeeze fingers in glee, and I am all warmth – the water, my heart.

After a few days, we are clinically relaxed. We leave Malekula and take a small plane to Espiritu Santo. Seated right behind the pilot, we feel as though we are landing the big bird ourselves.

On Santo we head directly down the coast (by truck, of course) to the quiet peace of the Lonnoc Beach Bungalows, which are nestled on a crescent-shaped bay of water as clear and emerald as a cartoon swimming pool. Santo is very beautiful, slow-paced and lush, and perfectly suited to viewing from a truck tray, even in the rain. And with trusty Mattress wedged amongst our bags, I’m as comfy as Cleopatra on a litter.

We visit Million Dollar Point, a quiet bay with an incredible back-story. At the end of World War 2, the Americans offered their extensive collection of military gear at rock-bottom prices to the French who were governing the island. The French refused the deal, on the gamble that the Americans would leave all the gear there for the taking. But the outraged Yanks chucked one of the great huffs of history and drove, craned and threw countless tonnes of equipment - from trucks to jeeps to crates of Coca-Cola – into the water. Now tourists snorkel over the wreckage while tropical fish dart and swim between the rusted hulks.  Mad Max meets the Garden of Eden. From the beach, all looks normal. In fact, it’s totally deserted. But under the surface, it’s a post-apocalyptic wonderland.

On Sunday, we visit a village church where a tithe-offering chicken wanders the aisles and the congregation takes a communion of red cordial squirted into tiny plastic goblets from a tomato sauce bottle. A very young Australian preacher confusedly teensplains the bible. ‘One, two, three!’ he shouts whenever he seems to lose the way in his anecdote and kindly, the congregation - older men in meticulously ironed shirts and women clad in ‘island dresses’; long, loose puffed-sleeve frocks that have not changed in style since the late nineteenth century - reply ‘Praise Jesus!’

We are asleep under our mosquito nets by nine. By day, we play round after round of Bananagrams and Gin Rummy, read constantly and take luxurious naps. Keith, a man of science, develops a minor obsession with ‘mentalism’. He guesses which cards the children are holding, over and over, and I weep with laughter as he wrestles with his rational self and scribbles maths on a piece of paper.  ‘I’m not saying that I am a mentalist’ he repeats, ‘but statistically, the odds against my guessing this right so many times are staggering.’ For days, we practice being mentalists. There is time for such things. We are rich in time.

From Santo, we fly to Tanna, an island that blows our tiny minds. After two or three hours of cross-country rainforest trucking, we round a corner to find ourselves staring at Mount Yasur: a huge, active, smoke-belching volcano that the locals believe holds powerful magic.  We get to our accommodation by driving across a vast ash plain at Yasur’s base. OUr lodgings are a rickety treehouse, perched three stories high. The toilet at the base of the stairs is broken and the furniture is sparse but from our balcony, we can see Yasur spouting great puffs of grey and black smoke into the air. All is fantastic.

We hike across the ash plain and through the jungle (a bucket-list bushwalk, if there ever was one) to a ‘John Frum’ cargo cult village, where elderly Chief Isaac tells us about his grandfather inventing the religion in the 1930’s as a reaction against the missionaries who banned ‘custom life’, or the traditional ways. Now, 26 villages across Tanna worship the mystical American military figure John Frum.  They raise the US flag every morning, sing songs of praise on Friday night, and await the second coming.

We visit the volcano itself with a tour company who run a nutty, ramshackle program. ‘Here are your health and safety guidelines,’ we are told.  ‘One: if you hear an explosion, don’t run. Two: if you need medicines, you should probably take them, I guess? And three: have fun!’

Aussie bogans in the crowd make for fun theatre. One girl (neck tatt, hotpants) lights up a cigarette in the middle of the seated throng during the welcoming ceremony, and groans in audible boredom. ‘Her shirt has the f-word on it, Mum’ whispers the nine-year old to me. ‘What word?’ asks the five year old, thrilled. ‘Is it ‘fart’?’

One poor Frenchman is given a ceremonial shell of kava (sleep-inducing cocktail before I stand on the edge of a fire-breathing mountain? Don’t mind if  do!) before we are all loaded onto trucks to travel up to the rim. No pesky fences stand between us and the awesome wonder of the volcanos maw, as we watch smoke, steam and orange lava bombs shoot wildly into the air. The sun sets and the rain sets in. Eventually, we make our way downhill in dark, disorganised chaos. It’s quite the adventure.

The generator cuts out early in our treehouse perch, and we are visited by a rat in the middle of the night, but tucked in to one big bed and soothed by the soporific rumbling of the volcano, we sleep.  The next morning, however, I am struck with the affliction called I believe, in Royal circles, ‘the squits’. It’s my lowest point of the trip. Diarrhoea is never a party, but when your toilet is a broken outhouse situated three levels of rickety steps underneath your bed, and there is no running water down there, one could be forgiven for feeling a little down-hearted, and perhaps rethinking ones dismissal of Club Med and all their delightful facilities. Never was so much asked of a travel-sized pack of Wet Ones.

However, when we move across the island to the White Sand Bungalows, I am overjoyed to see a clean hut with an indoor, functioning toilet. It’s the Plaza Hotel! The Paris Ritz! The Gritti Palace!  I praise the gods of plumbing and sleep all afternoon.

It’s time to go home. I’ve been pissed on, slept with a rat and peered into the mouth of an open volcano, and I’m ready to re-commence everyday life.

The kids are ready too. The random discomforts and privations of backpacking have not always been easy for them. The five-year-old misses her toys so much that she makes a paper hat for an empty water bottle and calls it Doo Doo.  We live through the great papaya stand-off, where one child refuses to eat fruit at breakfast and Keith and I hold a hard line, carrying the papaya around until the furious child finally caves. The children play a game of Angry Babies in which the babies get far too angry, and the constant togetherness is occasionally oppressive, of course. The rap ‘Super Gentle Piggy’ , for instance, still repeats in my dreams. Hey Super Gentle Piggy, you’re so cool, you should go to Super Gentle Piggy school…

Home again, we settle quickly into real life, and our adventure fades like a dream.  There are school runs and piano lessons, instead of cargo cults and coral cuts. I’m delighted to see my bath and my coffee machine (my precious) and it’s lovely to have more than two outfits to choose from of a morning, but my lovely newly-rested brain is quickly colonised again by that scrolling ticker-tape schedule. Where’s your water bottle? Have you done your homework? Hat parade? What hat parade? But tucked away, like little glowing treasures, are the memories of another kind of family life, a wilder one, where we are all in the adventure together, and the next stop is unpredictable, and the mattress is wee-stained, and we love every minute.

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