S. S. House Vol. 4

Lying completely still and still there are rivers of sweat contouring down my body. My previous posts have been pretty starry-eyed but I think this one will describe some of the less-favourable aspects of life in the tropics that I’m discovering.

Bugs. I’m a very un-squeamish guy, but the variety and sheer number of crawling things here is not to be believed. Yes there are mosquitoes as one might expect, but I’m pleased to report that they’re not very abundant, just the usual ones at dusk, and they’re little guys (girls?) so they aren’t able to bite through clothing. They do carry dengue fever and malaria though. First malaria. According to locals (and the WHO) Vanuatu does not have a high incidence of malaria, they’ve drained most of the malarial areas, and anti-malarial drugs aren’t required. Locals say that sooner or later people can get it, but nowadays that means a trip to the pharmacy for one little pill (I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that but may find out one day soon). Dengue fever is here, too, and apparently that is a different kettle of fish. Said to be “exquisitely painful” it causes severe joint pain, it’s also pretty easy to get rid of but you have to suffer “exquisitely” first.

Other bugs. Lots of them. Moths with a five inch wingspan near the outdoor lights at night. There’s nothing much in the undergrowth (unlike Australia), no scorpions or black widows or ticks, but they do have Scolopendra subspinipes, the Giant Vanuatu Centipede, a really nasty customer with a bad attitude, 6+ inches long, and a bite that is usually described using the term “hot poker”. Beetles that land innocently enough but then stink of crushed almonds when brushed away. Giant beautiful forest spiders that look like they wouldn’t mind a cheeseburger and a large fries.

Back to the weather. When the weather changes from the “dry and cool” season to the “wet and hot” season you notice first because the trade winds stop. That constant breeze across the islands that cools things off and blows bugs away is suddenly and completely gone. The air gets hazy and thick, surely there’s something more than 100% humidity. Great fuzzy armadas of clouds build each day. They build, and build, and then build some more. After a few days these clouds are in their third trimester, the tension is unbearable, can’t we induce labor? Finally rolls of giant tympany drums in the distance, and blessedly, thankfully, the water breaks. When it does it’s best to have something buoyant at hand. You may have seen it rain before, maybe you’ve even seen it rain really really hard. Well imagine for a minute that hardest rain you’ve ever experienced, and then double the volume. Standing in it pushes you downward and triggers a fear of drowning, there doesn’t seem to be enough air between droplets so you start to gasp. It wouldn’t surprise to see a guy collecting two of each animal. I had an empty pitcher at the building site and in less than two hours it had 9 inches of water in it. The wheelbarrow filled twice to the top. Equally amazing is how localized it is, at one point in another downpour I found that if I kept a walking pace on the dirt road my toes were getting wet but my back was getting sunburnt. 30 minutes after the deluge the water is completely gone, testament to the volcanic ground and sandy corally subsoils, good news for my amateur housebuilding endeavours.

One quick anecdote. I got invited to dinner with Mike, the American neighbour who divides his time between Vanuatu and Guam. Mike made his pile by opening a Cowboy & Indian theme park in Guam that Japanese salarymen tourists just loved, couldn’t get enough, especially the guns. Sales of headdresses and chaps were brisk so Mike made a killing. We went to a nearby boutique seaside resort that has the best restaurant on the island. Like everything here there’s a colourful story attached.

The resort was built and established by an American guy from Chicago 10 years ago and has a great local reputation.  Unfortunately the owner got ahead of himself with some US investors, got convicted of a Ponzi scheme, and went straight to a long jail term in the US. Nobody got around to telling the local staff however, so they kept going, business as usual, and the resort flourished. The staff skimmed a nice living off the top and after a while stopped wondering what had happened to the owner, there’s no income tax so there’s little reason to keep things lined up. The chef bought a truck and the dining room manager built himself a nice little house. Two years passed, until one day an American lawyer appointed by the bankruptcy judge flew into town with some big papers and a very big attitude. “I represent the new owners” he said, but the locals weren’t born yesterday and knew just what to do: stonewall.  “Who is this guy?” they asked, they certainly didn’t see why they should listen to anything he had to say, and nobody cared for him much anyway. After two weeks of pinballing around, pounding tables with local judges, the Bureau of Lands, anyone, the lawyer slid out of town on the night flight. The locals said “well that was easy…!” Champagne and giggles all around, the original owner had put in a nice cave, what better chance to sample that 1974 Veuve Cliquot?

The real kicker is what happened next. Mike points to the next table. “That’s the new owner. He had to buy the place from the dining room manager and staff”. I like that, the people who actually did the work getting the reward.

Lukim yu.

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