I’m settling in nicely to the little house, the setting is so lovely that I struggle to leave in the mornings to go to work. That sun is fierce, I should be on the job before 6AM…but the warblers are singing and there’s a sailboat on the horizon and I feel like watching their progress as the light comes up. A great white blob of a cruise ship lumbers into view, full of enormous tourists and their enormous money, it’s bittersweet because I know the place badly needs their cash but it also means local prices will go up 50% on the day. Most of them look like they’ve sat on an air hose, acres of flowery fabric barely concealing a cetacean abundance beneath. What do you think you look like. I imagine sudden deflations…but then loose bags of sunburnt folds wouldn’t be much to look at either. Ahem.
I’d heard that the owner of the neighbouring block of land “go finis” (go finish, left the country) and the land had sold to an Australian. The original owner had agreed to let me cut down a bois-de-fer tree (ironwood tree, she-oak) that sits right on our shared boundary, blocks our ocean view, and is half dead anyway. Before the new guy decides it’s his favourite tree in the world I think I should cut it down. So I ask Jacques, who says he knows someone with a chainsaw who can do the job, no problem.
Next day an old man who I’ll call Jungle Jim shows up with his family. Mr. Jim has somehow gotten his hands on a chainsaw, nice one, a big Husqvarna. Jim looks about 80 years old, just one stubborn tooth left, and lives in the jungle with the saw wrapped in plastic. It’s the livelihood for his whole clan. I introduce myself and shake hands with each of them, “name blong me Mark, Man America” (this is how you identify yourself, Man Australia, Man Tanna etc). Mr. Jim immediately lights up and blurts “Abbidy-babbidy goobidy-gabbidy Merika! Dabbity dobbity WolWar Two! Gibbidy skibbidy Merika dibbidy doobidy babbidy skabbidy!!!” Jacques translates from the local dialect, evidently Jim remembers the Americans very well from his childhood, how they saved Vanuatu “from the yellow men”. Jim grabs my hand and shakes furiously, won’t let go, tears welling up. How that Star-Spangled Banner did wave back in his day.
I suggest how the tree should fall, (anywhere away from the surf and reef), and pantomime that “when tree falling, you running!” which puts them in stitches. This is a serious project though, the tree is almost a metre in diameter and they don’t call it “wood of iron” for nothing. I head off and three minutes later I hear CREEEEEAAAKKK….ker-SPLASH!!! I hustle down and sure enough the top third is in the breakers and the whole crew has that hands on hips or hands on face pose that says all. “Gibbidy doobidy snibbibidy snabbidy?” which I can tell means oh shit what do we do now. The answer is that Rasta, the youngest, will dart in between sets and take the major branches, then they’ll come back at low tide. In the end all is well as it usually seems to be with these incredibly tough and resourceful people.
I go for a beer with Therese’s brother Loic, recently moved back to Vanuatu where he grew up. Their Dad was the French ambassadeur to Vanuatu so they’re both “bien branchees” (well plugged in) to the local language and people and some of the secret spots. Loic is tall, tanned, trim, charming, handsome but surprisingly also a great guy. When he was 11 he went with his uncle on an expedition to the interior hoping to discover some new orchids (the uncle was a renowned expert). They tied strings on trees every 30 metres or so, better than bread crumbs. Loic fell behind a bit, then some wild pigs came and scared him so he ran a short ways. 3 days later the big search party was about to give up on him, with the last of his strength he climbed a tall tree and tied on his T-shirt which was spotted by the search helicopter. Loic talks excitedly about an expedition up the Teouma River Gorge to the Cave of the Prisoners, I’m keen but I get him to agree to finding a local guide first…and I wonder how much a satellite phone would cost?