Celebrate Your Life – Experience the World
by J “Kat” Loren : :
Luganville, Espiritu Santo Island in the Vanuatu Archipelago
(Somewhere south of Papua New Guinea & far off the coast of Queensland, AU)
We have passed the year 2000 but it may as well be 1900 here in Espiritu Santo. I am traveling with a man who is about to die; but I don’t know yet that he is not long for this world. We are going to board a vessel that is destined to sink at sea; but we don’t know when. Our ultimate goal is to take some medical supplies to a remote village in what used to be known as “the cannibal islands” before it was called “the New Hebrides” and used as a WWII base in the South Pacific, and then later renamed “Vanuatu”. But I am unsure that any of us will ever arrive.
I am beyond exhaustion. Last night, John, young Ben and I were stuck together in some cologne-ridden Port Vila hotel for a three-hour nap between flights. Sleepless, I propped my chin up on my pillow, pulled back the drapes and watched the surreal outline of palm fronds waving wildly on gusts of watery winds behind the condensation on the glass. My mind wandered back to a dream I had two weeks before – the ship we were about to board, sank. The glass reminded me of the watery grave. It was not a good omen.
All too soon, we found ourselves in a taxi slowly driving into the hesitant dawn. Young Melanesians sauntered in the street, leaning against door jams, laughingly clasp hands as they greet as if sharing a joke that passed only between them hours earlier. A Chinese couple leaves their Melanesian host smiling after an all-night party and nods as they step into their car and home to sleep for the day. The town lies in shadows. The bay is a sea of black against black, full of humid secrets.
Arrive and wait. The story of traveling in third world countries. What a dusty airport. Linoleum tiles on the floor gouged by passing luggage gathers random dust balls and children’s candies. The observation deck on the second story fenced in with high wires looks more like a prison holding us back from touching paradise. Brilliant green hillsides separate the clouded night sky from earth and heave it upwards until the light breaks through, steamy, not too hot, a perfect day. I am beyond delirious. As we board the pane, I realize that I don’t really know the men I am traveling with, who agreed that I could tag along on my own personal adventure. I really had no idea where we were heading out here in the remote Pacific.
Due to the plane delays, we missed the feast the islanders prepared for us two nights ago. We would, however, in one brief hour flight, arrive just in time for church.
Stepping off of the plane a mass of black faces peer back at us from behind another wire cage. One man steps forward to shake John’s hand and hug him, uttering something in Bislama, the local Pidgin English. He then shakes my hand and gazes intensely into my eyes, reading my character in a single stare. It is the head of the Assembly of God, Joel Dick Peters, a no-nonsense man.
Des and Merlene, the Australian missionaries who own the boat we will board later that day, stand behind him and welcome us next in their shy and reserved way. We load our gear into a white van and after a short drive; it deposits us at a cinder block church with attached house and half-completed Sunday school extension of cement block jutting off from the main sanctuary.
The manse is little more than a big room decorated with old prints, posters of Jesus, some books, a couch and a couple of chairs for guests. The pastor’s wife slices and butters some bread, pours some coffee, and shyly disappears. A dirt walkway separates the manse from the church. I walk down it, past the sleeping mongrel and a cooking area outside the back door of the kitchen, to the toilets. On the way back, I note a basket woven of banana leaves stripped down with some leaves braided into slight ropes used as carrying handles. Giant tubers I suspected were yams jutted from the top. A bundle of wood rested on the ground below the grill still smoldering from an earlier fire.
We sit and chat, waiting for church to begin. The wife sets to work on a coconut crab – boiling it then pouring oil around it before roasting it in the fire.
John looks as tired as I feel and is quite ill with a non- stop cough. I note some twinges of pain racing across his face from time to time. He has been falling ill since I met him almost two weeks ago. I wonder why he came when his bed would have been a better place to recover. I fear that his illness is more serious than he is letting on in his typically British restrained way of speech. But I say nothing. I do not have the nagging rights of his wife about his health and he is an adult who can make his own judgments on whether he is too sick to continue the journey. There was a moment in Brisbane when he reconsidered during the long delay stuck in a hotel until Air Vanuatu decided to fly again. “But we’ve promised them, haven’t we?” he reasoned out loud. “Then it’s settled. We must go.” He would be a man of his word even at the cost of missing valuable time with his family. I think too, that he suspected that this would be his last trip to the islands.
John Robertshaw, looking a bit like John Cheeves, the actor on the British comedy Faulty Towers, had dedicated his life to God during the Jesus People movement of the 1970s while a young man in New Zealand. His journey eventually led him, his wife and two children, to pastor an Assembly of God church in the mango-growing town of Bowen, Australia.
Everyone who knew John agreed that he was a man of passion and vision – perhaps more vision than sleepy Bowen could handle. Like all Kiwis, John loved sailing and scanned the maritime frequencies during his off hours to listen to the chatter of those at sea. A radio ham, John also bought up the licenses to run a radio station using volunteers from local churches to operate “Reef Rhema”, Christian Radio for the Coral Coast. It soon became apparent that whatever John envisioned would come to pass in record time for he was a man who connected people and ideas and brought them to life. His greatest vision and love was founding Coastlands Mission in order to reach the remote in the islands of the South Pacific and in the outback of Australia. The cornerstone of the ministry was to provide SSB radio communications to missionaries working in isolated and dangerous places. The communications center was located in a little cinder block building on the church property in Bowen, Australia just south of Townsville.
Volunteers in the radio shack scan a selection of radio frequencies 24 hours a day. Through the use of telephone interconnect they are able to supply continuous communication with missionaries in remote places. They maintain regular radio contact to take position reports, give out weather forecasts and help troubleshoot engine and gear breakdowns, as well as provide a friendly voice to those who often feel alone as high seas break over their bow and toss them about or alone on the front lines of ministry. More than once, the volunteers manning the radio station have sent Australian and Fijian rescuers out to sea and saved several sailors from death.
The sounds of old amplifiers, whiney voices warming up and testing the mics alert us that it was almost time. Soon, someone beckons us inside, past the seated congregation of women on the left and men on the right, children scattered on both sides regardless of gender, and ushers us up to the front row, the seats of honor. Giggling boys sit with young girls up front, a few of the girls standing up, leaning against a post. The young adult choir leans against the wall watching us as we file in and take our seats on free standing pews, almost knocking one over, while the band faces them from the other side of the room.
A group of “government men” saunters in – two big bruisers who looked like bodyguards and George Wells, the local member of the parliament, sit down behind us. It was to be an eventful morning. The MP was there to honor Pastor Dick for 24 years of ministry in this church and contributing to the social welfare and well being of the church.
The harmonies flowed through the air and over the half walls that enclosed the space of the meeting area. Above us, the thatch roof rustled in the wind. Palm fronds in the fields outside kept time with the music. Bougainvillea blossoms rippled against the wall in the pleasant, not too hot air.
After worship, The MP stands and reads his speech, obviously uncomfortable and a little shaky. Was he nervous about being in church or was it the presence of white skins?
“Without your presence,” the MP says in Bislama as I struggle to capture a few words in his rapid speech. “Many of the villages would be dead…Church in the community is very important for prayer, for leaders, church school, hospital…you people run from pastor to pray for the sick…and they get healed.” Apparently, he was impressed with some local divine healings. When he says, “Building me a house for me,” I understand that politics was politics no matter how small the island. The church as he understood it was also useful in the community for votes. Honor the people and they will honor you. In closing, he picks up the pace and says to Pastor Dick, “Long life. We be one one. Tank you too much. God be blessing you.”
Next on the program – a group of teenage girls file in holding out leis of various flowers. The government men are called up first and then the delegation from Coastlands – including me. I spot the frangipanis of pink and white interspersed with blocks of delicate greenery like fern fronds and stand before it until they clap three times and I bow my head to receive the leis. The heavenly scent of frangipani lifts my weariness. Pastor Dick introduces John to speak by saying, “Friend b’long me long time.” I am too tired to listen. Instead, I watch the breeze blow through the huge openings in the wall straight through to the other side tossing fabric colors of reds and pinks and blues like celebrating flags, scent of frangipani, the clothes on the line next door snapping back at the wind. And I try not to fall asleep.
We break for lunch, a feast laid out on long tables while women stand guard, fanning away the flies. Before we eat, Merlene approaches the MP carrying a few boxes of medical supplies for the village hospital. Others notice her approaching the MP and all conversation stops while she explains the contents and hands him the gifts. When he nods and receives them everyone claps three times then return to their individual conversations. It is as if secret customs and ceremonies are casually happening all around me and I am the last to know. But it is ok. Everyone else in the group knows that I am ignorant of their culture and takes time to explain patiently what I am witnessing as the action unfolds.
Honorable guests eat first and the men take the head of the line. The government men pile their plates high. Ben moves in before John and I am motioned to follow. No one has touched the best meat of the crab. John points to the claw and nods for me to take it. Apparently, no one will touch the crab until a guest has taken the claw. I have always wanted to taste Coconut crab and greedily snatch it to my plate. So, I am the honored guest today. The crab was amazing with a taste like none other. We eat well, not knowing when our next meal will come.
Fortunately, I have prepared for that and stashed some rations in my bag at Ben’s urging. The juices, energy drinks, breakfast bars, loads of chocolate and coffee would see me through the week – and the others if I shared. And of course, when you’re traveling with missionaries in the confined space of a boat, they would know if you didn’t share. Being the only American in the group I thought I had better be a good representative of my country and anti up the chocolate first, then dole out the rest as needed. And it would be needed. Aussies and islanders don’t provision like Americans. Merlene’s freezer was stuffed with bread, the cooler with cheese and eggs, and the side boards with canned beans. An American yacht would have a cooler full of beer and soda and a freezer full of delicacies plus plenty of snacky chips and junk food aboard. We would all loose weight that week…especially John but not because of the food.
After lunch, we walk over to a large shipping container taking up half a lot across the street from the church. Merlene and Des pull out a few huge bags and toss them in the van. The container looks familiar to me. It is one of two I saw in my dream before the trip. The containers floated up out of a lagoon while a sailboat broke up on a reef in the distance. The dream has to do with this couple, I am sure of it now. But what does it mean? I ask them how many shipping containers they have sent to Vanuatu. The one rusting before me is the second. I am now convinced that the ship is going to hit a reef – hopefully, not while I am aboard.
Once the van is packed with luggage and bodies, we leave taking Pastor Dick with us to the beach. A group of children form soccer teams and kick and laugh their way down the sandy playing field. Others sit and watch us. Some men, their fingers entwined lightly touching as they walk and talk past us. Little dugouts, hand fashioned outriggers, line the beach.
I stand with this odd group at the shore of the Coral Sea overloading a dingy with supplies bound for the Grace II; a big motor-sailor moored about 100 yards offshore in Luganville Harbor. We are bound for a remote village on the weather-side of the island seldom visited by anyone but the occasional supply boat that ferries in kerosene and carries away anyone wanting the escape the isolation.
Despite the intentions of missionaries and businessmen, nothing much changes in these islands from century to century. The weather turns from hot to hotter to comfortably warm again. Tall palms teeter towards the sea. Child sized dugouts skim past with two adults fishing precariously on uncomfortable wood slats guarding their secret catch flopping at their feet, barely watching yet another group of missionaries loading their boat.
In the words of one Australian hotel owner in Port Vila, “Missionaries are our main industry.” Winds may hold off cargo boats and mail for months at a time yet nothing stops the missionaries from sailing, motoring, or flying in to tiny landing strips near isolated villages. The missionaries and their events come and go like the tide in the belief that they are truly leaving something behind. Yet every ebb and surge washes footprints from the sand and village life goes on long after missionaries leave.
The dingy is loaded now. We step aboard. Within a half hour, we haul up the anchor and take a look at paradise from the water – green hills spotted with coconut palms, small houses with rusting tin roofs, chicken studded yards, people in ragged t-shirts lounging idly on their property or carrying water from an outdoor spigot into their houses, working at the Sunday family chores.
We motor up the west coast until a still breeze centered off our port stern encouraged Des to put up a little sail. I can sleep now to the rocking of the boat in confused seas. The rougher the water, the more I like it. Fortunately for the Davies, none of us gets seasick. I sleep and wake to the sound of the radio cackling. Sleep and wake to the toss and tumbling seas as they pick up.
I spend some time writing then go up to see a full moon on the water, the stars descending on us like a celestial blanket, so close you can reach out and touch them, some falling just past my fingertips shooting into distant lands. I return to my bunk and sleep until dawn when the washing machine cycle of turbulent seas rudely tosses me onto the floor. So I wander out on deck and talk with John about the work of Coastlands Missions.
“Through the years we’ve been able to see the difference we’re making,” John Robertshaw said. “There are a lot of areas in the Pacific that are neglected and whole villages of people hungry for visitors. Imagine living in a small village and having no outsiders visit to encourage your faith for years at a time or no way to communicate with the main cities for emergencies?” Coastlands placed HF long-range equipment on many islands in Vanuatu, Fiji and Papua New Guinea specifically to help break the isolation. Several technicians work with Coastlands and various churches in remote islands help maintain the equipment and radio stations. An armada of vessels helps transport equipment, food and medical supplies along with encouragement and prayer.
After a breakfast of runny eggs and beans, I turn to Merlene and ask her about her call to missions. Des, a man of few words, seldom breaks in. It would be much later in the trip before he felt comfortable enough to talk openly about their calling and work in the islands. Des and Merlene have been married 36 years resulting in a close knit family of 3 children and 8 grandchildren. In 1986 a friend on a neighboring farm in Central Queensland shared the good news with them and led them into faith in Christ together. With an initial call to missions resounding immediately in their ears, they continued to grow in their faith until it came time to sell the home farm and move to the Coast, where 3 years later they moved into Maritime ministry on Grace II, affiliated with Coastlands and headed to Vanuatu. They finance their ministry with a small retirement pension. Merlene’s nursing experience and Des’s Jack-of-all-trades background as a farmer led them to practically meet the needs of the Vanuatu Islanders. In remote communities and churches they install and maintain VHF communications systems, distribute clothing and medical supplies, repair sewing machines and teach the ladies sewing.
The needs are so great in these remote places that in 2000 they solicited donations and packed a shipping container with supplies in Gladstone, Australia then had it freighted to Espirito Santo in North Vanuatu, a city known for WWII US Army bases when the islands were known as the New Hebrides. With many sea miles under their belts, Des and Merlene have distributed by hand the container’s contents of clothing, school supplies and medical equipment to the remote villages. They have now completed their 4th season in Vanuatu, and have broken through in building confidence in the relationships with local pastors, chiefs and villagers. This trip is one of the outreaches to distribute their second shipping container in anticipation of reaching more remote communities.
I wonder about the odd dream that I had but say nothing to Merlene and her husband. John knows about the dream and fortunately, he took it seriously.
We arrive in a large cove; wind sheltered and beautiful as any South Pacific paradise landing. An old man in a small dugout paddles not far away, watching us, trying to see who is on board and wondering at the fact that we have two ni-Vanuatuans on deck among the white missionaries but not venturing closer until after we set the anchor. He is one of the chiefs. We go ashore and awkwardly stand around waiting for something.
The men gather together and hustle a few women into the church to start a welcoming ceremony. They place leis around our necks and officially say welcome, now you are free to roam the village, clap three times and turn us loose. As if I am going to walk about freely. I am dying to peek inside the one-room houses, the walls and roofs of woven coconut fronds. An occasional spigot rises from the ground noting where water may be found. I turn one on and taste fresh, pure spring water. The chief gives us a hut to ourselves for changing, napping, whatever. It contains dusty mats on the dirt floor and cobwebs hanging from the ceiling. John asks me if I would like to sleep ashore. No thanks. Visions of rats scurrying across my feet and bats flitting across my head while mosquitoes ate me alive made me decline in a hurry. I sleep better aboard a boat. I always have.
I note a communal cooking fire, the communal dining area containing some picnic tables and wooden platforms strategically placed beneath giant paw paw (papaya) trees in the shade, the communal church. There is even a large women’s hut that once upon a time served as the place where all women slept (until a husband came in and took his wife to his hut for the night) but is now the women’s meeting hall.
Christianity changed a lot of village customs, many for the better. For instance, men had the legal right to beat their wives who were considered less valuable than pigs. Grandfathers had the legal right to use their grandsons to tend their gardens and meet their sexual needs until the boy came of marrying age. You could spot the hostility in the eyes of some young men wearing the belt that signified they were under their grandfather’s domain. Village fought village and ate their enemy in a final act of conquest giving Vanuatu the nickname of “The Cannibal Islands”. Some “Kustom” villages maintain their customs even today – although they would deny the old ways exist.
Those influenced by missionaries gradually change. I imagine that the women are happier. The men more confused. The teenagers desire more than ever to get into the big city and experience “real” life. Even their last pastor was influenced by western culture enough to take the last offering and use it to run away from the isolation to the city.
All is not beautiful in paradise. In fact, paradise can be quite rotten to those who live there permanently. Mosquito-borne diseases of malaria and elephantiasis – yes, think “Elephant Man” – run rampant on some islands of the Pacific including Polynesia. During certain seasons, storms make it impossible for government boats to reach remote villages in the Solomon Islands and other islands, with needed food and medical supplies. In fact, most villages have no ongoing medical or dental care. Coastlands mission boats going where government boats dare not travel have rescued some villages at the brink of starvation. What yachties think of as “quaint villages” are in reality, villages subject to abject poverty and the host of social ills that go along with poverty – disease, alcoholism, drug abuse, spousal abuse, acute loneliness and even suicide? It’s easy to ignore the signs if you are just passing by the coast or stopping in for a day on land.
But I was not just one sailing by. My fellow crew and skipper stopped into this village, passed out some clothing and medical supplies, and were invited in to feast and speak to some small groups of villagers. During our time ashore, I saw the bruises on women, barely perceptible against their Melanesian skin, and recognized how they got there. Some children ran around with toothaches, distended stomachs, bold scars, and wary eyes. Older youth strolled the beaches with old soccer balls, wandered off in twos, revealed their loneliness and sadness, their typical teenage struggle with boredom and identity. The women boldly asked the skipper’s wife (who had already established relationships in the village) and myself to talk with them about how to make marriage and family life better in the village and what to do about the cultural and technological alienation facing their youth. All issues of keen interest to me as a psychologist and armchair anthropologist. I am there for two days. What can I say that will affect them?
I speak at a meeting in the afternoon and they introduce me as “Pastor Julia”. Hmm…new title for me. I speak about how everyone knows each others’ business in a small village, about love and forgiveness, mutually supporting and encouraging one another, about how only God can meet your deepest need for love and how you can open yourself up to receive this love. The women know exactly what I am talking about. The men do too. Later, Pastor Dick Joel Peter invites me to come back to his church and minister there or in all the island churches anytime. He says I can minister to the women, then hesitates, looks at me funny and says, “You can do anything you want to do here.” What an amazing complement and trust, a radical departure from the cultural treatment of women as less valuable than pigs.
The children are amazed by my blue eyes and blond hair and shyly stare at me. When I show up on the beach after snorkeling in my shorty wetsuit, the kids giggle and point. They have never seen someone in a wetsuit before. They think my arms and legs and torso are black like theirs. But what funny white skin shows on my legs and arms and face.
Every once in a while, a child walks up alongside me and takes my hand. They want to touch the light skinned woman to see if she is real.
The village feeds us that night. The guests first finish their meal. Then the men are served and eat. Finally, the women and children get to eat what is left. They clear the table by throwing the bones to the scrawny, flea-bitten dogs darting near the tables wary of a foot kicking out. Women clean up and men start setting up Des and Merlene’s generator for the lights and sound system for the evening meeting. We are going to party tonight. The children are all excited.
Let the dancing begin. A shuffle of feet circling the front of the platform, kids at the edges of the circle dropping into the dust falling fast asleep, an electric guitar, arms in the air, is this Africa or a Mississippi riverside meeting? I move into the circle and dance with them. They are pleased. Children take my hands and dance along, leading me into the flow. Testimonies begin, more music, Pastor Dick preaches, John preaches, they come forward for prayer. A few get saved. A few fall ecstatically to the ground. A few claim that God physically healed them. Everyone is impressed that we brought the lead pastor of their denomination and feel honored by his presence. The presence of God sweeps over the place like a gently flowing breeze scented with tropical flowers. Eventually, we all fade back to our beds. Tomorrow is another day.
We spend the day distributing goods, giving each family group a package of clothes, the village dispensary medical supplies, and the chiefs’ special gifts. Pastor Dick spends all his time encourage the men in the village and slapping the backs of the chiefs and distributing literature. Ben and Steve blow up balloon animals and hats for the horde of kids, some of whom belong to the village, others lodging there during the week because of the presence of the school on this end of the island. I talk in the school and encourage the kids to write about their daily life, illustrate it and give it to me later to put into a book. It would take me a few months to put it together and send it to them along with a photo album of the pictures I took while among them.
John Robertshaw is so ill he lays stretched out on a bench in the church out of the sun. I go inside and leave a can of vitamin enhanced drink next to him so he has something to pick him up when he awakes. He is in obvious pain these past two days and has a peculiar odor about him despite the fact that he uses the shower on board the boat. I wonder if we should take him to a hospital. It will take us at least 12 hours to motor back to civilization and then have him airlifted out. We cut the trip short. I think Des and Merlene realize that John cannot take much more.
That night at the end of the service, the chiefs take us down to the beach and plant coconut trees in our honor. In 7 years, my coconut tree will be bearing its first green drinking coconuts. John will never drink from his tree. Neither will Des and Merlene. Somehow, I doubt that I will ever pass that way again.
The whole village lines the beach as we walk towards the dingy to go back to the boat.
I sit in the dingy as Ben rows us back to the boat. Suddenly, a lovely light show, like fireflies on the beach, flicker on and off as villagers light matches or flick their bic lighters as their way of waving goodbye in the utter darkness. Once aboard, we hoist anchor and leave the cove in the middle of the night. The stars take over where the villagers left off with their lights blinking, guiding our way home.
Missionaries and their organizations come and go with the tide and the work of Coastland’s missionaries is no different. The director, John Robertshaw, passed away of cancer a few months after this voyage to Vanuatu. No one took up the leadership of Coastlands afterwards. Ben married John’s daughter. Pastor Dick and his adopted son Steve continue ministering throughout Espiritu Santo.
After hearing about the dream that I had of their ship sinking, Des and Merlene decided to take a year off and rest up. In April 2003, they set sail from Australia in Grace II for a fifth season of ministry in the Vanuatu archipelago. A cyclone hit and rapidly disabled the crew and vessel. They abandoned ship. All aboard were safely rescued by a Japanese freighter that took them to Guam. The uninsured vessel was presumed sunk on a reef.
J “Kat” Loren is an avid explorer of the beauty of life. Her travel articles have appeared in national magazines. J “Kat” Loren is also the author of more than a dozen books. She currently focuses on writing health, fitness, ocean conservation and travel articles. Her blog “Crazi Culture” is a popular read among those who like eclectic topics and travelogues about odd places and adventures. http://www.craziculture.com
© Crazi Culture / Blue Moth Media, 2014 – 2020. www.bluemothmedia.com Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to J Kat Loren & Crazi Culture with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.