Vignette: The Cyclone Cometh

Vanuatu

Suppose you want the ferry to Erakor Island, Vanuatu? You just kilem gong.

The first we heard of the cyclone was Monday afternoon in Vila. That’s Port Vila, main town of Efate Island, and the capital of Vanuatu, an archipelago east of the Solomon Islands, which in turn are east of Papua New Guines in the South Pacific Ocean. We sat pouring sweat at a terrace café on the only proper street in town. 

Burgers and beer were on the menu. The beers were cold and the burgers were more like carnivals on a bun, including the kitchen sink and beets, onions, carrots, eggs, bacon, cucumber, cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, salt, pepper, chilies, ketchup – and maybe a little tiny speck of free-range, insecticide-free Vanuatu beef.

A corpulent pinkish fellow at the next table was going on to his friend: "Bluh bluh rain bluh bla cyclone bluh Fiji." I leaned out from behind my mound of putative hamburger parts and inquired.

“Cyclone?”

"Yeah," he said, "Its southeast of here, toward Fiji. We just had a look at it on the Internet. A big, mean thing. It's what's been causing all the rain."

This was notable since we were bound for Fiji in 18 hours, although just then it was sunny, hot and about 600% humid in Vila, and we were just in from the nearby island of Espiritu Santo, where we'd passed sunny days blistering in relentless sun.

Yet sure enough, in the taxi home we heard the cyclone warnings in three languages on Vanuatu's only AM radio station, with a particular warning for the southeast island group centered around the cult-and-volcano Island of Tanna. By now, the cyclone had a name. May I introduce you to Jo.

We stayed in one of those swishy over-the-water bungalows at a resort called Le Lagon Park Royal, five minutes out of town across Erakor Lagoon. The lagoon chopped up frothy and the water lapped the pilings like smacking lips. There were the usual towering clouds at sunset, lit long after the ground went dark, and not much more than the usual brief dousing of rain across the deck. We let ourselves imagine the pounding reef out at the end of Erakor Island was meaner that it ought to have been, and maybe it was.

For three unrelenting days Espiritu Santo had been humid, roasting and still. The little room had only a fan. The landlady wanted to know more about who we were and what we were doing than she should have, and she offered things we could get for half the price just by asking anyone else.

Now our over-the-water luxury cabin had air conditioning (and a TV, showing old ABC  (Australian Broadcasting Company) news every couple of hours from down at the front desk), so we barricaded ourselves tight, turned up the A/C and endeavored to freeze.

Next morning we asked the check-out clerk, what about that cyclone?

"It's gone!"

She shone brightly.

Really?

"Yes, I think it has gone to Fiji."

•••••

We were bound for Bauerfield airport to catch an Air Vanuatu flight, operated by the national airline of Fiji, Air Pacific, using a leased Qantas pilot and plane.

Whatever.

Desperately under-performing countries’ inclination is to spend their tiny budget on their international terminal – their countrymen and the few who venture by plane beyond the main gateway be damned. And true to form, they’ve spent a bit more on Bauerfield airport’s international side.

The domestic terminal, by contrast, is a dark, woeful void. The door to domestic departures spoke three languages, English, French, and Bislama. Respectively, it read: passengers only, réservées aux passagers, and pasensa no mo.

••••• 

In the air, Captain Ian Richardson pointed out the cyclone-200 miles south of our tiny, diminutive little 737:

"You can see the associated weather systems out the right side of the aircraft."

We could.

Twice he told us there was some "rain in the area" of Fiji’s Nadi airport, and he was quite right. Scarcely 100 feet over the ground, already on the airport land, over the grass between the fence and the tarmac of the landing strip, we were lashed by blinding rain, and Captain Richardson floored it, pulled us up and took us around.

After the full power of the jets (we must have been nearly at stall speed) he eased back as soon as he could, and tried the nonchalant whistling-past-the-graveyard, show’s-over-folks, nothing-to-see-here, nothing-happened approach:

"As you could see there," he told us, "It was a bit too rainy for me to put us down, so we'll call it a missed approach and go round and I'll try to have us on the ground in seven or eight minutes time." And that he did, and you could see that it had been raining tons and buckets over northwest Viti Levu Island. Turned out it had been stormy for the past three days.

The taxi man was intrepid, and after a slow, cautious approach through water up to the car frame, the hotel proprietor greeted us with a hearty, "Welcome to sunny Fiji, mate."

In the afternoon, bands of rain lashed the Buri. Everything, every last possible thing, was wet, and had been wet, and much had begun to mildew. Nothing – nothing – had the slightest inclination to dry. The power went off while I wrote these words, and so I wrote by torchlight.

Wind whipped coconut palms to a frenzy. Rain hammered the roof, the frogs, the entire earth.

The frogs absolutely gloried in it all. We sat in the twilight and watched a dozen frogs at any one moment, bounding, jumping, head up, head down, throat pulsing, hurrying this way or that, up the path or under the bush. And we saluted them and their day.

•••••

There are a few Vanuatu photos here.

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