Reflecting on Vanuatu

It felt like setting off into the unknown for 14 intrepid travellers on 10 December 2005. We left "normal" weather (for us) and after three hours on a plane from Auckland to Port Vila, we stepped into another world of steamy heat, a different landscape, obvious poverty and roads which were more pothole than road!

After two days "acclimatising" in Port Vila, we set off to Lelepa landing, a half hour of bone-jolting travel with a lovely driver who covered both sides of the road to unsuccessfully avoid the potholes. Several "keep to the right" notices along the way amused us all! At the landing we got a motor boat across to Lelepa which landed us ona rocky part of the island, a short walk from the village we would be staying in. As luck would have it, the island experienced the first downpour for months just as we arrived and the second boatload arrived totally soaked. Once the accommodation for the girls and the boys had been sorted out we settled in. The boys and Peter and Delwyn lived up the hill in what had been the Pastor's old house, and the girls were down by the shore in a large airy hall that became the gathering area as we didn't have the cockroaches!!

The village was quite compact with beaches at either end which were pleasant for going to for a cooling off swim more than once a day. The houses were either concrete block or corrugated iron and other materials, and the areas around the houses were well kept, some with little box hedges around them.

The people were so friendly and giving although they had very little. They live a subsistence lifestyle - going on a half-hour outrigger canoe ride most days to collect water from a stream or tend the gardens over on the mainland where they grow fruit and vegetables in very fertile soil. They also fish.

Some of the surprises were that the adults all spoke good English so we had no trouble making ourselves understood. There was a shop that sold mostly tinned goods and biscuits, and was a gathering place for the younger villagers around dusk.

The women in the village belonged to four groups who fed us on a roster basis for lunch and dinner which was like "pot luck" with each woman bringing a dish along. Breakfast included delicious bread that was baked three times a week in concrete block ovens in the village - no thermostats or fan ovens - in fact no electricity at all!! Our other meals were presided over by the Pastor's wife, Weena.

During the day most of the men were away at the gardens or working in Port Vila, but the women who weren't also at the gardens would sit and make baskets and mats, and this offered us wonderful opportunities to sit and talk with them which was a great way to get to know them and find out about their lives on the island.

Our six young people ran a children's themed programme for each of five days, and everyone had a wonderful time. The children were shy at first, but were soon into the thick of making things, watching puppet shows, having stories read to them, learning Maori songs , drawing and playing games. It was amazing how quickly the children picked up things, and their skills at the volleyball net and playing soccer left us in their wake!

Part of the reason for the trip was to see first-hand how we might help the local people achieve their goal of roofing the Presbyterian church/ cyclone shelter and while we were there Peter, Michael and John climbed the hill behind the village to bless and see one of the big trees cut down for the rafters. It was a hot and exhausting climb but well worth it we were told by our three, even if Peter did get his finger bitten by a large hermit crab who was probably cross that he had wandered so far from the sea for some unexplained reason!

On the Sunday there was a three-hour church service at which several young people were confirmed and several babies were baptized, and the Pastor delivered a sermon of at least six points - maybe it was two three-point sermons back to back!! Being in Bislama, understanding it wasn't that easy either!! Sitting on wooden bench seats with no back made one appreciate the soft chairs back at JUC too! In the afternoon we had another service and at the end we gifted some money to the church, and to several groups in the village, as well as all the resources we had for the childrens programme, the sports gear, and two guitars.

It was a very humbling and enjoyable week on the island, but with ablutions at a minimum because of the lack of running water and no electricity or showers, we signed in at Hideway Island where we spent our last two days in Vanuatu, and then we hit the showers running!! The bar also did a good trade in cold fizzy drinks - even L&P!! The beautiful clear water made snorkeling an amazing experience with a myriad of colours in each fish that swarmed around you.

The meals were lovely, and the beds were comfortable with an electric fan above to make sleeping an easier experience than sleeping under mozzie nets as we did on the island.

All too soon it was time to rise at 4.30am to get the boat back to the mainland at 5am and so to the airport to get the 7am flight back to Auckland. We had to work hard to find something clean and reasonably unwrinkled to wear home, and Debbie and Eileen wore their "Mother Hubbard" dresses - they were in good company as there was another lady on the plane who had one on too.

Having experienced the hospitality of the Lelepa islanders and established a relationship with them our objective is to get to work to raise the money for the roof of the church. As a way of returning some of their kindness we have also gathered up bags of items donated by JUC parishioners to send over to try and make life a little easier for the women in the village who were so good to us when they have so little themselves.

We hope the whole congregation at JUC will be behind us as we continue the relationship we have built up with these lovely people, and that we will be able to help them get their church finished as expeditiously as possible. They would really love to see more people from JUC visit them and hopefully celebrate the achievement of several community projects.

Thank you to all those who helped with the fundraising we did before we left and we hope you will remain supportive as we continue to develop the relationship we have with the people of Natapau Village on Lelepa Island.