South Seas House Vol.1

Thought I would write a bit about my house building adventures in Vanuatu.  I’ve really wanted to do this, in part because at the end we’ll have a great house on a warm tropical island, but mostly for the experience of it all, which I knew would be rich and strange. Having selected and bought our second parcel of land, it’s time to get my skates on and get building. I figured I could take tools over, 20 kg at a time, on Air Vanuatu. So I arrive at the airport with a big suitcase full of hammers, measuring tapes, and the like. They puzzle for a while at whether I can have a circular saw in my carry-on bag, but in the end, no worries.

I arrive in Vila and find my way to my motel. This time around I decided to save some money and stay at the Pacific Paradise Motel, which is nowhere near the Pacific, nor does it match the rest of its name. But it is clean and tidy with friendly ni-Van (Vanuatu native) people taking care of it. They wanted $50 per nite….so I said “what about $45?” and they agreed. I get up to my room and have a look around. Vanuatu had a 7.4 earthquake the other day, and concrete buildings like the Pacific Paradise are notorious. Apart from a few big cracks in Vila’s only high-rise hotel, rattling peoples nerves, however, there was little damage. The earthquake happened just as the Prime Minister was having an important meeting, so locals were saying that his chief rival had used powerful sorcery to cause the quake. People were wondering what the PM would do to retaliate…perhaps conjure up a cyclone?

Next day out to the land at Narpow, about 15 minutes from town. Sitting there at the foot of a huge banyan tree is Jacques, whom I’d met on a previous trip. He’s keen to get some work helping me clear the land. He gives a limp handshake, looking away, signs of respect. Jacques and I have a look around and agree an area of jungle to hack out for the driveway, for the garage and for the house. We agree on a price of $1.50 per hour, since it promises to be hard, hot work.

I expect the clearing to take about 4 or 5 days. The next day three women with bushknives (machetes) turn up: Rebekka, Sarah, and Emily (all the names are Biblical around here). So Jacques and the uncles will sip kava in the shade all day while the women do the work, typical. Laughing, joking, and singing little songs the whole time, they are completely finished by noon. Never underestimate the power of women with big knives.

Then it’s back to the motel. I have some very good friends in Vanuatu, but they don’t want me hanging around every night, so I end up spending alot of time alone at the motel. This suits me just fine, a monk’s existence, time and space to think and reflect. The room has a small table and a fridge made by Hyundai that has a large sticker on the front proclaiming “Silence and Fresh”. Sounds OK. The TV set is made by a company called Samsing (?), and I get a selection of three channels.

The first channel is 24-hour televangelism from the U.S. The 700 Club and Pat Robertson are on offer, for sure, but also some more unusual fare from the fringes of TV ministry (and good taste). A disturbing and weird Christian wrestling/karate series, with lots of fireworks and heavy metal, steroid abusers channeling the power of the Lord to break bricks.  Oddly captivating, but the punchline always seems to be the same, the Lord helped me do it etc etc.

The second channel is normal enough, French programming from New Caledonia, the news is interesting but mostly they offer badly-dubbed soap operas from Argentina. It seems that violence against women and sloppy gunplay pass for entertainment all over the world. In the mornings they have a wonderful music video channel covering South Pacific music so that’s good fun and gets me in the mood.

The third channel is the (English language) Chinese news channel, it’s a homegrown  version of CNN, global news with a Chinese slant. The announcer reports “the mezzles vaccine” is being distributed in Afghanistan. There’s glowing coverage of the Chinese Navy’s “Journey of Peace”, where huge gunships armed with cannons, rockets, torpedoes, grenades, machine guns, rifles, and pistols show up at various Pacific ports (New Zealand, Indonesia) and show them how peaceful they are. There’s a show that attempts to teach English people Chinese, but I notice on the third day they’re still working on “Hello, how are you?” The most fascinating part about the Chinese channel is the ads. Not just the ads for “Callum Klein jeans”, but the oddly-made ads promoting tourism in various regions. “See Wonderful Work of Civilian Residence Building in Hebei” or “Visit Amazing Landform of Arcadian Dangxiuxe”.

The next morning I go visit NiVa Timber, the house I’m building is mostly local tropical hardwood and sourcing it has been a challenge to say the least. Colin, the lively Aussie from Warriewood who runs the place, takes lots of time with me and explains the local woods and what they’re suitable for. He shows me Kwila, Natapoa, Namalaus, Nakafiga, Nakatumble, each more beautiful than the last. There’s also Bluewata, Melek Tree, and something called Red Stingwood, so called because after working with it for a while you begin to bleed a little from the nose and eyes. Just a trickle, mind you. Colin describes how he goes with his partner to the outer islands like Epi, Malekula, and Erromango, hikes into the backcountry, selects a tree, then the locals cut it down and ride it down the river where Colin’s man has a barge waiting.

Back on the land and it’s time to get some excavating done. I call a local Kiwi, he comes by for a look, hears my Yank accent and proceeds to quote me corresponding prices. Then I hear about Felix at Erapo Diggers, a local. He is one-third the price. The next day he arrives with his big machine and his driver Calo. I shake hands with Calo and say “English?” He shakes his head. “Francais?” Puzzled look. “Bislama?” Nope. Apparently he only speaks his local dialect. So we proceed with smiles and hand signals. I need him to dig 750mm (3/4 metre), he does so and hits blinding white fossilized coral reef. Actually the whole terrain is ancient, uplifted, fossilized reef, corals and clams and shells mixed with black volcanic dirt, truly a wonder. I need him to level the ground, he does it by eye, and when he stops I measure with a spirit level and he’s off by 5mm over 30 feet, how does he do that? Amazing.  He’s brought his young son with him, must be about 11 years old, after a while the son asks me “c’est a vous le coco?” (“is that your coconut tree?” He must go to the Ecole Francaise.) I say yes and before I can turn around he has scampered up to the top, 50 feet off the ground, straight up. He stops and waves for a photo. In a minute he’s brought down some coconuts and with three expert whacks of the bushknife we’re enjoying coco milk.

After just three hours the digging is done and they ride off on their mechanical beast. I’m left to listen to the warblers, the swifts, and the hawks. A lone fisherman with a spear appears at the water’s edge; I watch as he spots a fish and makes a long heroic heave. Bingo! Dinner was never so easy. I see a dozen flying fish, fleeing a predator, about 50 metres away from where our waterside deck will go.

On the ride back into town I turn on the local radio and there’s an ad “Yu chief, yu villager, befo you buildem subdivision you wanem toktok lo guvman lo getem assistance”. I doubt there’s much “government assistance” available for whitefellas like me…but I’m just thankful they’ve let me come to these peaceful garden islands and stay on this land for a while. I promise I’ll take care of it.

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