Down by the River
Date: June 30, 11:45am Vanuatu Time
Conditions: Partly cloudy, 22C, 10-12ks SE
It was a new place for us, yet in many ways felt very familiar as we walked along the village footpaths on the Saturday morning after we arrived in Aneityum, Vanuatu. After months in first world New Zealand, we were suddenly plopped down in the remote Pacific Islands again. Time seemed to sludge to a halt. The tropical air was heavy with mist, alighting the skies with spontaneous rainbows more vivid than any we'd seen, and more complete in their arc from the sea and all the way back to the sea. From the shore wafted the smell of cooking fires, a sure sign that we were back in the islands.
Our first day ashore led to many friendly greetings, one of which would lead also to a quick friendship and many unforgettable experiences. We met Christopher and his family as he was tending his cassava crop just off the village footpath. After introductions, we found out that there would be a church service in the southernmost village the next day, and he asked if we could join him in going. To get there would mean a 'two hour hike' or a spirited longboat ride around the shoreline in the open sea. In the end, we decided to try the boat ride. Mark wanted to help carry any church goers, too, and said he'd bring our dinghy as well.
Back on board we looked at the satellite maps to get an idea of what exactly we'd signed up for. The village was 10 km away and we would be battling the same heavy seas we'd dealt with during our passage, only this time in a small fiberglass longboat and our inflatable dinghy! It would definitely be an adventure!
The next morning, Christopher greeted us on shore with a bag full of fresh baked bread and another full of mandarins, red bananas, and papaya. Mark's mom, the kids and I hopped in Christopher's longboat, and two local boys hopped in the dinghy with Mark, excited to ride in a "rubber boat". Turns out, Christopher's family had opted to stay home and miss the church service. Soon, we would better understand why.
Once outside the protection of the reef, the seas were ominous. I clutched Michael closely beside me with one hand and clung to the edge of the boat with the other as the boat climbed each mountain of water. Church started early for me- prayers silently, but fervently running through my head with every threatening swell.
More scary than our ride however, was watching Mark in the "rubber boat" with the two boys. The dinghy skidded up to the crests of the waves and then smacked down the other side. Each time, the boys would lift off the seats and slam back down, holding tightly to the line on the bow. My prayers couldn't come fast enough to keep up with all the fears that were racing through my mind.
I started to sing silly songs with Michael in an attempt to distract him (okay, really to distract me!) from the situation. "I'm Henry the Eighth, I am, Henry the Eighth I am, I am. I got married to the widow next door. She's been married seven times before…"
Mark's mom was having her own troubles. Each time we'd slam over a wave, her tailbone would painfully meet the hard wooden bench. (Sitting through the church service would not be easy for her!) This wasn't the casual trip to church that we were accustomed to, but in a strange way I felt more connected to the people here having experienced it and so grateful for the expert driving of Christopher.
The most challenging part of the trip was yet to come, though. We entered the bay and my eyes widened at the sight of rolling waves crashing into shore. How in the world would we get out? Would we even make it to church?
Again, Christopher's experience driving the longboat paid off. We wove through black lava rocks and onto the black sand beach, riding a crashing wave into our landing spot. Quickly, we scrambled to hop out at his instruction and helped him push his boat up further onto the beach using round buoys under the bow to roll it up the sand. In all of the excitement, I hadn't seen Mark's landing. By the time I looked back, I saw him knee deep in the water holding onto the dinghy while waves crashed behind him. He was soaked, and we hadn't thought to bring a spare set of church clothes.
Just when I thought we'd all be true salty sailors throughout the day, Christopher said we'd go to 'the river' to rinse off. Dripping wet, we walked though the village to a large estuary where it seemed all the kids had been sent to wash up for church. Mark was diving in while the rest of us waded into the cool, fresh water among the kids rinsing suds from their hair.
I'd recently heard Vanuatu described as paradise, and with the lush forests and gardens along with the many rivers for fresh water, it seemed they have everything they need here. When we were in Tonga, we'd met Red Cross workers who were camped on the wharf manning the water makers that provided the only fresh water to the villages during the severe drought. In the Tuomotus, sandy atolls in French Polynesia, they struggled to grow fresh produce in the shallow, dry ground. But here, food and water were available in plenty. Grapefruit (like the pomplemousse we'd feasted upon in the Marquesas after a 19-day passage), papaya, bananas, mandarines, leafy greens and root vegetables grow both wild and in carefully kept gardens.
The church service took place outside with a blue tarp flapping about above our heads to keep us dry and an honored wooden bench set along the outskirts of woven mats. The village church was not big enough inside to house the three villages who were gathering this particular Sunday for a youth celebration that happened every third month. Hymns were sung alternately in English and then Bislama, the local common language among all the Ni-Vanuatu people. While individual islands, and often individual villages will have different dialects, the Bislama language is also spoken fluently in order for them to communicate within their country.
Due to the mixed British and French historical ownership, Bislama (also called Pigeon English) is a mix of English and French with a unique tonal quality similar to other island languages. In comparing my English Bible with the "Baebol Long Bislama", I enjoyed comparing the words and sounds. Church in these islands is such an integral part of the culture, and a wonderful way to integrate into the community. Sure, it can be long and way outside our comfort zone, but it is clear how much it means to the Ni-Vanuatu and instantly we are embraced as friends.