Sunday, 3 July 2011

Around Gaua in 5 days

Finally, I had the chance to visit the island other than Efate, i.e. Gaua Island in Torba Province, thanks to my current job. It is one of the remote provinces in the northern islands and is prone to volcanic hazards of Mt. Garet.

In front of our chartered flight to Gaua
After being stranded for one night in Luganville, Espiritu Santo due to sudden flight cancellation which is very common here, we flew the next morning to Gaua using 6-seater chartered flight called Air Taxi. The flight was smooth, although the bad weather and heavy rain scared me a bit, as it was my first experience seating on such a small Cessna plane flying low over the Vanuatu islands. After 35 minutes flying, we arrived in Gaua airfield before 10 o'clock. As the plane was landing, out of nowhere, people came and gathered around the airfield watching the plane to land on the grass. This may be commonly seen in small islands everywhere, but since I have never been to small islands using plane before, I found it very interesting.

We stayed in one of the bungalow near the airfield, called Wongras bungalow. The owner, Charles, lives with his wife and six children. Following a nice lunch, we decided to commence the work by visiting nearby villages and taking necessary data. Roughly four hours of the first day were spent wandering in the biggest village, Namasari. The second day, we started the island tour by boat since the island’s rugged topography does not allow us to travel by land, so off we went heading north to start the journey on one clear morning. I was amazed when we visited one village called Bushman Bay, inhabited by a family of six only. For me, it is really hard to imagine living in such a remote place without seeing anyone other than your parents and siblings.

There are seven villages we visited, some of which are located high up on the hills. Often, we had to climb, even crawl, due to slippery steep terrain in order to get to the village. Don’t ask me how the locals deal with that. While we managed to climb the steps slowly with the fear of sliding down the hill, the locals who followed us were moving in a fast speed while chatting with their friends or chanting as if they were walking on the flat shiny tiles.

The steep path on the way back from Koro village
In one beautiful village named Koro, we had a spectacular view overlooking the South Pacific Ocean. However, it is extremely difficult to access the village from the sea, let alone from other villages.  Most of the western part of the island is bordered with the Coral Sea and that literally means the sea is full of corals. Our boat had difficulties to anchor as it hit the corals few times but finally the boat driver managed to find a way where the boat could pass among the beautiful yet dangerous corals.

One of our concern was the presence of schools, and in Koro, the nearest school is located in Dorig. Let me tell you what the word ‘nearest’ means. First, the school children have to travel by sea, otherwise they will spend many hours walking from their village to Dorig. Secondly, when they arrive in Dorig, they have to climb as the school is located uphill. Last but not least, a boat is a luxury in the island. Therefore, I am not surprised if most of the people do not go to school. It is not because they do not want to. Alas, it is merely too complicated for the parents to send their children to school.

Our next stop is Biam village, the most remote village in the island as well as the place for us to stay overnight since it is not possible to travel by sea at night time. There were three women in our group, so we were given the privilege to stay at the church guesthouse, a simple hut with three rooms. The communities in Biam treated us very well. They even gave us new mattresses which were just delivered by ship the day before. Prior to our departure for the island, I was told by my colleague to be prepared in case we need to sleep on the ground. In fact, while we slept on the new mattress that night, most of the communities slept on the ground of their home. How about the toilet? It is just next to the hut. You may think that it is a separate hut, right? Apparently, the toilet is everywhere around the hut. When nature calls, find a bush toilet.

The church guesthouse
In fact, it is better to use the outside toilet as there is less risk of being bitten by fire ants which are often found inside the houses. The fire ants are almost invisible but once they bite, you will feel the burn sensation, awful, isn’t it?  One of our colleagues used the toilet inside one of the houses and later she realized that she was bitten by fire ants. So, she ran down the hill and plunged herself into the sea to stop the pain. When we asked the houseowner why she did not tell us that there are fire ants inside the house, she calmly replied that it is normal for them and do not think that fire ants’ bites are serious. Until we left the village, we couldn’t stop discussing how they manage to live with those little monsters wandering in their premises. 

Another funny thing is when we asked for a bucket of water to shower. The villagers do not have the concept of taking a shower since they consider swimming in the sea with their clothes on as a kind of shower activity. Therefore, when we tried to take shower in a very smelly place where they put the copra -it was the only feasible place for us to take a shower- a group of children followed us and got closer since they were curious of what we were doing. They remained there observing us until we called their mothers so that we could take a quick shower without being watched. What an experience!

For dinner, I had rice and nalot, a traditional dish made from cassava boiled in coconut milk with grilled coconut crumbs on top. Here in Vanuatu, the staple food varies between yam, cassava, taro, since rice is rare to get. Once they have rice, then they will eat them altogether on one plate, just like what we had, a pile of rice, nalot, instant noodle, all were served at one meal!

The night in Biam was serene since we only heard nothing but the waves and sea breeze drifting us to sleep. Wonderful, isn't it? In the morning, we left early around 6.30 am to continue our journey to Dorig village, where we met a group of intelligent women who were very critical, even the men were nothing compared to them. We received a lot of feedback about the work thanks to their brilliant comments and questions.

With the women in Dorig village
On the third day, on the way back to the east, we saw the spectacular Devil’s Point, a giant pile of lava created by the eruptions in the past. It is a taboo area, so we were not allowed to talk or point our fingers while passing. Combined with the rough Pacific Ocean, the view was just amazing and at the same time scary! Unexpectedly, the sky turned grey and few minutes later, it rained heavily. Initially there were seven of us on the boat, but since some ill villagers asked for a ride to the health centre in Namasari, so we went along with seven additional passengers, including a baby.  The weather became worse and there was no sign that the rain was going to cease. I was scared since the wave was getting wild, reaching approximately 2-metre high and the heavy rain made it worse. The visibility was very low as we could not even see the coast. We were all wet due to both the rain and the rough wave splashing all over the boat. I was so afraid that the wave could turn the boat upside down or even break the boat into two and suddenly, when the boat driver tried to slow the speed, a big wave hit the boat and our friend who sit at the boat’s nose fell down. We were so panicked and worried about him. Luckily, as he held tight the anchor rope, he was not swept away by the wild wave. After some time, I did not know exactly how long we were in that scary situation, our prayers were heard. The rain stopped and we continued the journey directly to the village, cancelling the initial plan. All we wanted to do was to go straight to the bungalow and called it a day.

The day before we left Gaua, we decided to go to Lake Letas, the largest freshwater lake in Vanuatu. We left at 8 am with our local guide, passing the coconut plantation, entering the jungle, crossing the giant banyan tree tunnel, and after four hours of walking we arrived at the lake, welcomed by this view.

Lake Letas with Mt. Garet in the background
Unfortunately, we could not cross the lake to go to the mountain as the boat was broken. So, we stayed by the lake and had our lunch there.

I was so excited about leaving Gaua on the last day. However, when we boarded the plane and saw the villagers at the airfield waiting for the plane to take off, I could not resist my tears from falling, thinking of how the villagers live their life in the village, especially those who live in the remote villages that we visited few days before. If only they knew that there is better life out there, beyond their imagination. Hey, but who am I, dare to say that our life in the city is much better than theirs in the village? After what I have seen, I personally think that life in big city maybe hard, but living in such a remote village is even unthinkable for me. At the end, it is just the matter of practice and adaptation that help us to survive. Well, another eye-opening journey about the life in a remote village.

See you again in the next adventure!


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