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.

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The Things You Miss When You’re Away

Catching up on a few things, since we've been away:

– It seems that the archepelagic nation of Kiribati has bought 25 square kilometres on Viti Levu, the main Fijian island, in case, well, Kiribati disappears. Climate change insurance.

Nice piece from photographer Tim McKulka on the two Sudans. He spent five years traveling and taking pictures there. That's dedication.

– The closest land is Queen Maud Land, Antarctica, 1,090 miles (1,750 km) away. It's the most remote island in the world.

This looks pretty terrible, even outdoing Apsley Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World (which, by the way, is free on Kindle).

– Looks like the northern – and southern – lights were active while we were away from the internet in Cuba. It's hard to believe this photo is real.

Fun for Frogs in Fiji

The first we heard of a cyclone was Monday afternoon in Port Vila, Vanuatu. We sat, pouring sweat, at a terrace on the only proper street, trying to lunch on burger and beer, but ultimately deconstructing a thing on a bun that started with the kitchen sink and then added beets, onions, carrots, eggs, bacon, cucumber, cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, salt, pepper, chillies, ketchup – and maybe a tiny little speck of free-range, no insecticide Vanuatu beef. In there somewhere.

Next table over a bright pink, corpulent fellow told his ni-Vanuatu lunch mate "Bluh bluh rain, bluh bluh cyclone bluh Fiji."

I leaned out from behind my mound of discarded non-burger and inquired.

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

Since we were bound for Fiji in 18 hours this was notable, although just then it was sunny, hot and about 600 per cent humid in Vila. We were just in from Espiratu Santo, another island in the Vanuatu archipelago where we'd passed endless sunny days in relentless, blistering sun.

But 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.

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Vanuatu to Fiji and the Cyclone: A Story

Vanuata

The Vanuatu domestic flight terminal is like the one in Nepal, or a provincial town in Eastern Europe just after Communism. The inclination is to spend the country’s tiny resources on its international terminal, their own countrymen and the few who venture by plane beyond the gateway be damned.

It's cute.

Our flight to Espiritu Santo Island would stop that Craig's Cove, Ambrym Island. I broke out my map of Vanuatu and found two airplane symbols on Ambrym Island and asked the check-in desk which it would be.

Blank looks. Much consultation. Studying the maps. Asking the boy in the back, the baggage boy. No one knew.

The door to domestic departures spoke three languages: English, French, and Bislama. Respectively, it read: passengers only, reservees aux passagers, pasensa no mo.

We filed in. 20 seats in this Twin Otter, today 16 full. One European family with their little girl, one huge white man in seat one, carrying on a running conversation with the pilot (it wasn’t a big plane), his son, a 20-ish couple-in-love, students from New Zealand (you learn these things because in about a day and a half you meet every expat in Santo), four local folks, Mirja and me.

Our home island of Efate, near the capital, Vila, brooded in cloud. Its out-islands likewise brooded, steely gray. But Malakula, just northwest in sight of our island, was fine, sunny with a blue chop off its shore.

On arrival at Ambrym, just 40 minutes later, there were no low clouds around the coast. They gathered only in the center.

Just a few houses in a pretty bay maybe three-quarters of a kilometer wide, that’s all there was of Craig’s Cove, gleaming in the morning sun. The airstrip used to be paved. Now it was pot-holed with grass growing through cracks. Landing roughly shook the wheels.

Not unusual. At the domestic check-in desk a chalkboard announced, "Longana air strip closed until further notice – tall grass."

Dirty boys with gleaming smiles ran out to meet the plane. A tan, ratty windsock had gone so into disrepair it had lost its utility, though it still hung on its pole. We let off two passengers and took on two in Ambrym, along with a bag of coconuts.

The two men who left had boxes from Telecom Vanuatu Limited Radio Systems Department and an antenna bundled into sections. It was so hot on the ground that, like prior to take off in Vila, the plane began to sweat, dropping beads of water onto our thighs. Two ancient pickup trucks appeared out of the jungle for the Vanuatu Telecom men, and while we sat in Craig's Cove we let in hordes of flies.

From Ambrym it was a brisk 20-something minutes up to Santo, flying at 4,000 feet, from where you can gaze intimately at the blue chop of the South Pacific. I read over the shoulder of a ni-Vanuatu man across the aisle. He was reading Charles Capps' "The Tongue A Creative Force."

"Watch your words" was the chapter.

I read the phrase, "I'll deny you before the Father," and a sub-heading, "God's word is wisdom."

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