A jungle road

For weeks Jimmy has been talking about his father coming to visit from Tanna and how much he’s looking forward to meeting me. Finally the date arrives, he’s coming over on a cruise ship (they sell seats in steerage class to local ni-Vans) and he’s bringing some yams from his garden and some special kava for me. Dad, I’m told, is an important man in his village, he’s the deacon of the church and gives captivating sermons that are a mix of traditional tribal beliefs, mainstream Christianity, and some special aspects of their Seventh Day Adventist faith. Among other things, they believe in necromancy (communicating with the dead); they think if you eat animal flesh you will behave like that animal; and at night they wear a “cold, wet abdominal bandage” to help cure “the secret vice” (masturbation). I’m looking forward to a lively discussion and maybe learning a thing or two.

We head into town to pick up Dad, I drop Jimmy off first to do a few errands. When I pick him up again I can see he’s already into the kava, he floats into the truck with a smile and a dreamy, faraway look in his eyes and starts smoking one cigarette after another. A few of his friends pile in the back and I’m directed to the place where Dad is waiting. After twisting and turning our way past ramshackle shacks, wild-haired pickaninnies, and the usual montage of rubbish and tropical greenery we arrive at a small kava bar. Jimmy assures me they have “extra strong Tanna kava” so I drink down a shell and wait for Dad to appear. (Damn, Jimmy was right, the kava is extra strong…) Jimmy offers me a dodgy-looking piece of cooked liver, nice to put something (anything) in your mouth after the disgusting kava root brew.

Dad arrives and we shake hands and smile…but Dad has no English, no French, and no Bislama whatsoever, just his local ooga-booga dialect. No worries, Jimmy translates as we head across town. Jimmy says Dad wants to get out of Vila, it’s too noisy and busy after Tanna village life, so Jimmy tells him he can stay with one of his mates out in Eretap. I wince when I hear this because I’ve been on the Eretap road recently and it’s a shuddering thuddering mess.

We talk while we drive, Dad thanks me for being so good to his son, how much it means to him, and asks me to build a house for him on Tanna (no matter how much you give them they always seem to want more). Dad says to Jimmy “…this is a very kind man. Tell him I love him…” which of course just melts me. After a few kilometres of truly awful dirt road in the fading light, Jimmy spies a tiny opening in the wall of jungle. “Turn here” he says, pointing to a car-sized hole in the impenetrable riotous mass of bamboo and vines. My headlights barely pick out a gap but I’m game, up we go.

I’ve got brand-new offroad tires, a strong new Nissan 4WD truck with a big engine, but within 20 feet I can already see this is going to be interesting. I ask Jimmy “are you sure this is a road?” but a glance over at his glassy-eyed smile tells me the answer, he wouldn’t  know what a good road looked like if he saw it, right now life is just a fuzzy, warm, bemusing, befuddling adventure.

We thwack past trees and shrubs , my headlights brightening a tiny patch of black greenery. As we crawl along I’m cataloguing the varieties of damage to my truck (“that root can take out my undercarriage, that branch is gonna smash my headlight…”)  I’m in 4WD Lo but my tire treads have filled already with slick jungle mud. The “road” steepens, I make a first attempt which ends when we start slipping backwards, wheels slinging mud everywhere. We slide into a burrao tree and I wince helplessly as it slowly creases the side of the truck: rear fender SCREEEEEE rear door CREEEE driver door REEEEE front fender EEEE Thump! Shit this isn’t funny anymore, time to regroup. I look up and through a small gap in the jungle blackness I spot The Big Dipper, turned upside down, flat against the horizon. It’s the first time I’ve seen The Dipper since I left America 5 years ago, and it hits home just how very, very far away I am at this particular moment in time.

I shake Jimmy and ask him “how much further?”, he swims to the surface and after a pause replies “about 5 kilometres”. “Sorry Jimmy” I reply, “we’re stuck”. A conference with his Dad follows, (“abbidy babbidy snabbidy skabbidy blabbidy”), I pick out the word “nakamal” which means “village meeting hut”. Dad will walk the remaining 5km in the pitch blackness, picking his way through the jungle and then asking for somewhere to sleep if/when he arrives. No water, no flashlight, no raincoat, no money, no worries. Meanwhile Jimmy, I, and the rest of the motley crew will somehow push and cajole and grind our way backwards down through the black jungle tunnel on our way back to “civilization”, or at least back to a passable road.

Anyone who says there’s no more adventure left in the world doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

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