S. S. House Vol. 9

A few quotes to start from Mark Twain who spent time in Hawai’i:

“For me its balmy airs are always blowing, its summer seas flashing in the sun; the pulsing of its surf beat is in my ear; I can see its garlanded crags, its leaping cascades, its plumy palms drowsing by the shore, its remote summits floating like islands above the cloud-rack…”

And speaking of missionaries:

“Nearby is an interesting ruin–the meager remains of an ancient temple–a place where human sacrifices were offered up in those old bygone days…long, long before the missionaries braved a thousand privations to come and make the natives permanently miserable by telling them how beautiful and how blissful a place heaven is, and how nearly impossible it is to get there; and showed the poor native how dreary a place perdition is and what unnecessarily liberal facilities there are for going to it; showed him how, in his ignorance, he had gone and fooled away all his kinsfolk to no purpose; showed him what rapture it is to work all day long for fifty cents to buy food for next the day with, as compared with fishing for a pastime and lolling in the shade through eternal summer, and eating of the bounty that nobody labored to provide but Nature. How sad it is to think of the multitudes who have gone to their graves in this beautiful island and never knew there was a hell”.

Twain ran into plenty of locals on his many travels but spends most of his time describing the odd habits of the expat whites he meets, perhaps I should too. There’s my friend Scotty’s dad Jim, building pioneer here in Vanuatu who came 20 years ago. On his first project the locals chased him through the jungle with bushknives and burned his bulldozer. Since then they’ve seen the “wisdom” of development, and Jim’s project now has 35 million-dollar bayside houses and is a big success. His latest endeavour is 1.6 kilometres of virgin coastline, gorgeous beach, reef and enormous hardwood trees, he’s moved some reef aside with a backhoe to create swimming lagoons that fill with salt water at high tide and fresh spring water at low tide. The plan calls for the entire foreshore to be left virgin and held in common with simple trails and a few swimming spots, nothing but Nature as far as you can see in every direction. The spot is off the grid and I’m trying to convince him to put in a big Listeroid bio-diesel generator and run it 100% on coconut oil for clean renewable credentials and sustainability.

Other expats: there’s Michel, very eccentric Frenchman who came here, found a 150-acre island he liked and bought it. Then he went to Indonesia and bought some ancient teak houses in Sumatra, disassembled them, and brought them over by boat. His island had no dock or harbour so they waded ashore with piece by numbered piece and reassembled them. The doorway thresholds are worn teak with hundreds of years of use, gorgeous carvings and patina everywhere. You can rent the island for a week if you happen to have a lazy six figures lying around somewhere: www.ratua.com.au

Captain Lars is another interesting local, a burly Swede with skin like burnished leather, Lars landed his tramp steamer here a decade ago and never left. Recently he ran for the local Parliament seat and got more votes than the other guy but as we know that doesn’t count for much sometimes. His official slogan on all his flyers was “Mi stealem small”, now there’s a campaign promise you could really get behind, hilarious.

There’s Frederika, who sailed for twenty years with her Dutch husband, logging more than 200,000 sea miles. At one point they tucked into a small atoll in Kiribati (Micronesia) to escape a storm, the seasonal wind shifted, and they were stuck for 6 months waiting for the wind to shift back so they could sail out. Luckily they had a speargun, and some locals showed up in their dugout canoes and traded fish for yams and rainwater. They were comfortable enough and well-fed but the mental part must have been excruciating, maybe you could re-read the books backwards or something. Imagine how it felt to have that first breeze from the right direction. Frederika had me over for drinks, and while we lounged in their stunning seaside compound the phone rang, it was hubby calling to say hi on the satellite phone from their 100-foot yacht in the middle of the Atlantic…what a world we (they) live in.

There’s Steve, apocalyptic survivalist from Idaho, head full of dark conspiracies and pessimistic scenarios. Steve arrived with a shipping container fitted out as a steel house of sorts, powered by solar panels, and he’s since spent his time planting fruit trees and preparing for the merde to hit the fan out in the World. “I’ve got enough jars for 900 litres of preserved fruits and vegetables” he tells me proudly, “and I can even make my own soap”. Since we’re neighbours I ask for his phone number, but he won’t give me his last name, in case I work for the CIA or something I guess. I egg him on with more conspiracy theories and web links, JFK was killed by aliens who built the Great Pyramids, they’re linked by underground tunnels to the Bermuda Triangle, etc etc, what a hoot.

Then there’s Mark from New York, tax accountant who has been coming since 1987 mostly to hide money for his mega-rich clientele. Mark likes to go to the outer islands and trade things like Bowie knives for stone carvings and now has a notable collection. He tells me a story of a visit to a small village on Maneta Bay on Ambae, the chief said he could stay with him but he had to share a room with his prized pig. Pigs are most valuable if they’re confined and their tusks grow in a complete circle (indicating the owner is so rich he didn’t have to eat him) and this pig’s tusks had made three complete rotations which made him like having a Maserati in the garage. Problem was that the tight confinement had driven the poor thing insane, so Mark spent a noisy sweaty night, pig grunting and whining all night. In the morning he was desperate for a swim, the locals lined the shore as he swam and he thought “aww look, they’ve never seen a white man before”. Next morning same routine; as he stepped out of the water women reached out to touch him. Turns out the bay is called “Maneta” for a reason, the locals wanted a piece of Mark’s magic powers because everyone else who had swum there was immediately and spectacularly eaten by the huge resident tiger shark.

Personally I’m trying not to let tropical folly get the better of me here so I don’t appear on somebody else’s list of “locally colourful characters”…let’s see how I do.

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