Sunday 28 June (anchored at Lolowai, Ambae)
Yesterday was a gentle day for the boat crew. Anchored in this perfectly circular deep, peaceful lagoon (presumably originally a crater), surrounded by lush green hills and rocky cliffs, with two tiny islands at the edge of the coral reef guarding the entrance, we swam and read and snorkelled and key boarded, or in Jim’s case, went to shore and found someone willing to do his washing and refill the boat’s water jerry cans for 200 Vatu or $2.50A. As we sat on the foredeck tonight eating our dinner in the moonlight , Jen pointed out that we’d had all these indescribably beautiful anchorages to ourselves. There have been traders parked overnight a couple of times, but other than that, the absence of electricity means that there are no lights or noise from shore, and there have been no other boats sharing the space. Impossibly peaceful.
Tony and I were up and off the boat early this morning, as we wanted to go to church and we’d learned that it started at 8.00am. Jim’s generous helper from yesterday had waited to show us the way, as it was a kilometeres’s walk away. It was very hot and sultry even at that early hour, and we sweated along with the jungle.
Church was already underway when we arrived. We were ushered to the fourth front row where there were a dozen or so other white people. It felt very odd to be in our own little section instead of sitting amongst everyone else, even though it was a gesture of respect. The building is open-air; basically a roof over low walls with open space at the window level. This community is Anglican, and there was incense and pageantry, each element holding its own meaning within the worship context. The servers were all robed, including the visiting bishop in full regalia, a custom well-suited to the English climate, but not at all comfortable in the tropical heat.
Each denomination has particular strengths in worship (this is a personal opinion). This “High Church” ritual connects to the ancient traditions threading through the Judeo-Christian heritage, and emphasises the mystery of God and the awe with which it’s appropriate for us to regard him. I recall that incense has to do with carrying prayers to God, but today I was especially grateful for its purification function. It graciously disguised the outcome of the fact that many of us were sweating freely.
I had time to remember that the Anglicans stand to praise, kneel to pray and sit to contemplate, the moment before we knelt on the concrete floor that was painted to represent carpet. Then the singing started. A cantor sounded a single note, and the church immediately filled with full-bodied harmony, sung with the rawness and energy of voices accustomed to song as part of life, and unfettered by the restrictions of formal training or any trace of self-consciousness. Both Tony and I were deeply moved, and tears ran down my cheeks as the sound bathed us and worked its role of breaking the soul open to God.
We couldn’t hear any female voices, and I turned to see what was happening in the body of the church. A group of roughly 60 mostly young men in the centre, uniformly dressed in simple white shirts and sarongs secured with a red double hip band, were singing their hearts out in at least 6-part harmony. We discovered later that these are members of “The Brothers,” an Anglican order whose members have taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. A Ni-Vanuatu had a vision some time ago that he should start this brotherhood to go out and carry the Gospel throughout Vanuatu. These men own nothing. They travel from village to village, staying there as long as seems right, often only eating only one meal per day, praying, teaching, and healing, until it is time to move on. I’m told that miracles are a daily occurrence in their ministry. There are some hundreds of them all together, apparently.
In the lead-up to communion, all the children were brought forward to be blessed. There must have been 60 or 70 of them. At the community breakfast afterward, the children were served before anyone else. This care and value reflects how the Ni-Vans treat their children. They seem to be given a lot of loving care together with a great deal of freedom. Three delightful kids visited Chimere on their canoe during the day and stayed on board until we sent them home just before dark.
After breakfast, there was the dedication by the Bishop of Vanuatu and New Caledonia of a new installation of tanks collecting and distributing water from reroofed buidings at the technical training centre. That only took a moment to write, but it has been a 6-year project for a bunch of New Zealander volunteers (the other white people at church) who have been coming here annually to build up and equip the centre, and who have been working flat out for the past 3 weeks erecting a carpentry workshop and two classrooms, installing water tanks and reticulating the system. Their story is another one of miracles and grace, with materials and equipment donated or purchased cheaply second-hand, and the team growing every year to the dozen tradespeople and workers they have now. The original two came here in 2003 to investigate a request from the Vanuatu Anglican Church regarding reroofing a section of the centre. The girls’ quarters (it’s a boarding facility) was made of rusting corrugated iron, and was running with rats and cockroaches.They described how the centre used to regularly run out of water, and that water supply everwhere is contaminated by seepage from the commonly used bush toilets. In Australia we hear about the lack of reliable clean water in other countries and we know in our heads that access to clean water is a basic human right. However, it’s not until you are in a place like this treading the muddy paths, seeing the utter simplicity of lifestyle and listening to the bishop speak about his people and their needs that it hits home how we don’t really feel things we take for granted – in this instance, clean water and sewerage – until we actually experience the absence of it. Do you know that there is no place to leave garbage on these islands, simply because a traditional lifestyle doesn’t generate any? Everything traditional is completely biodegradable.
The dedication began with a traditional welcome from four men wearing the eminently practical traditional dress of a woven loin cloth front and back, carrying spears, and singing and speaking Bislama. They led the way to a dais decorated with an archway of flowers, and there were speeches followed by a ceremonial sharing of a first drink of the clean water by the Bishop and a New Zealand rotarian, who was representing the significant contribution of the One-Tree-Hill Rotary Club to the project. Tony and I were thinking that maybe we should be making our way back to Chimere to see whether we should be heading back down the coast to pick up the medical team, but the Kiwis urged us to join them for the celebratory feast. They put leis around our necks as honorary members of their team by virtue of the fact that we’d been taking photos of the event for them, and carted us off to share wth the throng the two spit-roasted pigs and traditionally-prepared root vegetables and fish.
After lunch we felt obliged to forego the Kustom dancing to return to our crew. By this time the afternoon was well advanced, and the sensible decision was to leave early in the morning to collect themedical team rather than get down there in the dark. This anchorage is very beautiful, but its two drawbacks are that it is so sheltered that communications either by phone or by radio are pretty well impossible and we haven’t actually been able to check in with the team from here (or transmit reliably with the HF radio, though that might have more to do with the cloud cover), and the air is so still that night-times are swelteringly hot, too hot to sleep comfortably below decks.