S. S. House Vol. 11

High Cyclonic, or When Nature Goes Crazy with Wind and Rain and Humbles an Amateur Engineer

There’s a hornet in Vanuatu called vespa tropica and when he builds his nest down near the ground (instead of in the treetops) the locals say it’s a sign that a cyclone is on its way. Sure enough, just three weeks after my gardener shows me a new nest that’s a foot above the ground, Cyclone Vania hits Vanuatu. Being in Vanuatu during cyclone season feels a little like being a bowling pin, standing tall at the end of the lane, with just as much chance to affect the outcome should the ball decide to spin your way. Storms come rolling towards you down the cyclone alley and it becomes a kind of sport, watching Weather Underground.Com to track huge spirals forming at the Equator then twirling their unpredictable way past Fiji or New Guinea or Australia. It’s cyclone roulette, in between storms the weather and sunsets can be spectacular so hardcore expats stay around to witness the drama and to keep an eye on things if it really gets bad.

cyclone roulette

I happen to be flying in from Sydney just as Cyclone Vania is moving out. Our Air Vanuatu pilot makes two very sporting attempts to land, but about 200 metres above the runway the plane turns into a saddle bronc, so he wisely decides to take us on to Fiji instead (my 3-hour trip turns into 23-hour marathon but I have no complaints). Though Vania is only a Category One cyclone, when I finally land I see the local damage in Vanuatu is…impressive. Nearly every leaf in our area has been beaten and stripped off of all the trees and vines, killed by wind and salt spray, and some pretty good-sized trees are broken over like twigs. The effect on my land is dramatic: I now have a 180 degree seaviews! But I’m humbled by the forces that a glancing blow from this smallish storm have unleashed. My roof rafters look tiny next to the 12-inch she-oak trunk that has snapped like a matchstick, jagged broken ends mocking the fussy saw cuts I’ve made in the skinny 6-inch bits of pine. A few scrawny nails are supposed to hold this all together while this giant sail of a roof pulls upwards? I make a mental note to add more steel strapping and maybe even long steel rods to hold everything down through to the foundation.

Along with wind of course there’s also water, and the force of both fresh and saltwater motion from the storm become worthy subjects of my awe. I’m glad to see that the ocean surge didn’t come anywhere near my building site which is a good five metres above the Mean High Water Mark. But my neighbour, who had constructed a lagoon and jetty, has a different story to tell. His jetty has been partially demolished, big boulders flung around, and his lagoon no longer opens to the sea. I’m prone to exaggeration so I take my tape measure to some of the rocks that have been tossed aside like pebbles: 900mm (that’s about a yard), wow.

It stays very rainy for a while and at one point I see a guy who definitely wins the Vanuatu Cyclone Rangers Award. He’s driving an ancient Chinese dumptruck with no windscreen, the truck looks like it’s been abused by a few generations of grumpy Chinese workmen and then tumble-dried in some kind of bizarre mining machine mishap. The rain is coming down in sheets but the driver has no worries at all and a big grin because he’s wearing his diving mask. Quel elan!

cyclone season sunset

The cyclone transforms the landscape, changes how it looks and feels, and similarly for me, being in Vanuatu through the hot, rainy, wet season changes how I look at this place and how I feel about it. Atmospheric highs and lows seem to mirror my own emotional highs and lows, and my energy, enthusiasm, and commitment to the project ebb and flow (mostly ebb).  For sure there have been some very high highs: spending the morning with a diamond-sharp chisel in my hands, crafting a slot in a giant timber, big satisfying chunks flying away, under a brilliant sun, puffy clouds and swaying coconut palms; then cooling off in my own private Great Barrier Reef, snorkelling clear bath-warm waters around 10-foot brain corals teeming with fish just 50 feet from the house.  Very high indeed. The real wet season story, however, has been about the lows: I discover that maybe they call them “tropical depressions” for more reasons than one.

I can put my finger on the exact date of my low point, one of the lowest of my whole life: 27 January 2011. A harmonic convergence of factors all aligned in a perfect malevolent storm of physical, emotional, and spiritual… collapse. Let me explain: my project slowed to a halt about 15 December, mostly due to holidays and lack of interest by my work boys, then cyclone clean up, and already this was depressing me. We were way behind schedule, and an unmistakeable whiff of failure was in the air. I thought I was different, different from the other cautionary tales one sees littered around this landscape: half-built houses, rotting away, covered with vines, with rusting shipping containers full of broken dreams decaying alongside. They ran out of energy, they ran out of money, they ran out of time, they ran out of patience, whatever the reason, they dreamt a dream and then the dream escaped and they were left with a harvest of failure and remorse. No, of course I would be different, I was cleverer than they were, I had more energy, I would supervise it all and even do it myself, maybe they had failed but I knew I would not. Besides, I love a good ordeal…it builds character, forges the iron, tempers the steel and makes it stronger. For whatever undoubtedly  pathological and deeply disturbed reasons, my life always seemed to be about finding new ways to test myself, find my limits, take chances, increase uncertainty, prove my worth (to whom? probably my unimpressed father) and in the end this would just be another one of those tests. Bring it on!

Fast forward four months.

It rains a few times per day, so all the tools have to be quickly packed up, then unpacked, and then packed up again. Everything is wet, so you can’t stain and seal the wood. So you rig a big tarp, which blows away in the winds, leaving everything too wet to work with again. And it’s bloody f*cking hot, 33 degrees by 10AM and 450% humidity. Wet, hot. Hot, wet, then hot again. The f*cking hardware store is out of 100mm nails so everything grinds to a halt, guys standing around looking at each other. There isn’t a 100mm nail to be found in this whole f*cking country (note the ample use of expletives, indicating a rising tide of emotionalism). Behind schedule, everything wet, the only thing to do, as all good white men know, is to work even longer and harder (island boys know better, they know the right thing to do is find a dry spot for a snooze until conditions improve in around April or May…). But no, whitefella says it’s nothing that more hard work won’t cure, why stop to drink water or put on sun cream or eat lunch, just keep working, we’re getting behind, we’ve got to catch up!

Day follows day in a blur of physical exhaustion, repeated overheating, chronic dehydration, too much sun, too much sweat depleting precious salts & electrolytes. Dinner is crackers with hot sauce again so my fuel reserves are all gone, burned up, no calories left. Finally as the last straw I catch a powerful flu virus, breeding madly in the tropical moisture and heat amongst the ni-Van with their difficult hygiene and close-quartered living. I won’t call it life-threatening but it feels pretty damned serious, my blood pressure drops to 78/60, I sweat gallons each night and lose 5 kilos in a week. A secondary infection attacks my razor-thin immune defences, filling my mouth with painful sores that make it impossible to eat. The strangest is that my personal thermometer is broken: between chills and sweats I can no longer tell if it’s hot or cold. Then I’m hot and cold at the same time, never had that before. Oh this cursed place, oh this cursed project, oh this cruel fate to be wasting away to nothing in a tiny room in a hot tropical soup of bacteria and broken dreams.

But Nature has her way of healing; cycles turn and change; storms blow away; the sun eventually shines again. Much thinner and wiser, I rebound from the depths, everything heals, the trees turn brilliant green again, wood dries out, and the hardware store gets a shipment of enough 100mm nails to build 500 houses. Having seen the depths, now even this middle ground looks and feels just beautiful to me. This week the roof goes on, I order bathroom tiles, I get a load of gorgeous Kohu hardwood delivered that I will craft into beautiful custom louvered windows with Tahitian shutters.  Ahh yes the dream and I are still very much alive.

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