What did I expect? I was on a small island in the South Pacific, far from home, walking behind a Ni-Vanuatu family as they guided us up a steep hillside toward their garden plots, explaining their life in Bislama, the lingua franca of the archipelago.
When I first arrived on Paama island in the Republic of Vanuatu, I expected a lot. Inspired by my father’s stories of his service as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in the Dominican Republic in the 1960s, I had applied (three times) and then been selected to serve with my wife, Erin, in the remote South Pacific. In the two years ahead, I planned to build something—my father helped build a school and water works still in use 40 years later—and to learn a language I could use throughout a career, to pick up skills in martial arts and cooking and music, and to know I had shifted the balance of tranquility and understanding in the world. I was young, idealistic and self-centered at the same time, expecting to fulfill the three goals of Peace Corps in no time at all.
And yet, just a couple of weeks into that experience, sick with giardiasis and disatisfied with the simplicity of Bislama and confused by Melanesian traditions and scared by an oncoming cyclone, I was hit with the realization that I needed to jettison my expectations and take in the Peace Corps experience however it might unfold. That made all the difference, and when we departed Paama nearly two years later, I was glad to have taught my students to play ultimate frisbee and to have learned to appreciate Liro Village and to have been welcomed into a family that promised to always consider us a part of their lives.
I didn’t build anything, but Erin left behind a new library in a small shack, filled with books sent from our friends and relatives back in the United States. When I returned to the States, I became an early blogger, and in sharing my memories of Paama, I was able to fulfill the third goal of the Peace Corps.
I expected we would return in a few years, and again and again after that. I expected each visit to Liro would be a homecoming, and that we’d spend weeks in storian (sitting under a mango tree, talking story) and in explorations of the parts of the island we’d not seen. I had high hopes.
We returned to Paama only this summer, for just 48 hours.
It was not what I expected, but all that I had hoped.
In the nearly 20 years that had passed since we departed Paama, life was full of wonderful experiences: three children, three graduate degrees, blogs and books and careers and conferences and houses and homes. (We moved into our newly renovated old-brick house in the woods just three weeks before we flew to the South Pacific.) Along the way, we banked credit-card points and frequent-flyer miles, and finally this year we had enough to book five tickets to Sydney, Australia.
We enjoyed the cool weather in Sydney for four days, then flew to Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu. Arriving near midnight, we chatted in Bislama with the customs officials, and walked out to see a grown-up Terry Timante, the teenage boy who had spent so many days with us on Paama, calling me dadi Anton. For the next few days, we relaxed at Erakor Island Resort, and made forays into town to visit the fruit market, introduce ourselves to the Peace Corps Vanuatu director and a handful of current volunteers, and enjoy a few meals with Jane and Jacko Laycock and their family (Jane had been the medical officer for Peace Corps during our service, and had nursed us through giardiasis, dengue, malaria, and homesickness).
Vila was crowded with people and taxi-vans. Many of the vans were bearing the national flag of a team competing in the World Cup, and as we rode through town, we saw more flags, attached to the tips of bamboo, flapping in the breezes high above houses and shanties.
Day by day, though, it got windier and windier. When we arrived back at the airport early one morning for our flight to Paama, there were warnings that the northern islands may be inaccessible. Still, Air Vanuatu boarded us (and a couple of new PCVs, headed to their posts on Ambrym), and the Twin Otter began to taxi onto the runway. But then the plane stopped, the pilot looking back and announcing, “Ol man we i stop go long Paama, yufala mas aot long plan nao. Win i strong tumas.” So, it was too windy to land on the inclined grass airstrip on Paama, and we had to deplane.
Back in the airport, with no clarity from Air Vanuatu on if and when we might get to Paama, we went to the Air Taxi Vanuatu desk and chartered a flight on a small Cessna to Tanna Island in the South. Tanna has an active volcano, Yasur, and an ecotourism operation to drive people across the ash plain and walk them up to the rim of the crater. We made it to the top, and as dusk turned to dark, the rhythmic puffs of ash coming up from the two vents down below were revealed to be red-hot lava bombs. Occasionally, the volcano would shudder and my heart would flutter and I would grab Oliver’s arm. What an exhilarating, dangerous experience, one we were still feeling as we settled into our spacious, safe, seaside bungalow at the White Sands Resort.
The next morning, we flew back to Port Vila in the Cessna, so different than the luxurious Boeing 787 Dreamliner that had delivered us to Sydney. The winds up north were still blowing steadily, and Air Vanuatu was still stalling, but the Aussie lead pilot for Air Taxi Vanuatu said he could get us there; landing wasn’t the problem, he said, but taking off on the decline while fighting downdrafts as the runway ended at the rocky coast.
The pilot brought us in over the coast we knew so well, and he landed smoothly on that airstrip, taxied to a stop and killed the engines, and once again I was standing on Paama. Nearby Tavie village was celebrating the opening of a new church building, so we joined them while someone sent word for Paama’s one truck to come up from Liro to retrieve us. After plates of food were put into our hands, and copies of the Bislama-language Bible were passed out, the truck eventually pulled up, and we piled into the back alongside Leah and her daughter, Mereva, and a bunch of children that showed Oliver how to stand and hold the roll bar as we bumped up the rutted road toward Liro.
Forty-eight hours later, we’d be headed back to the airstrip in a motorboat chugging along the coast, our trip cut short because of the winds; Air Taxi Vanuatu could get back, but if we delayed, we’d risk missing our flight out of Vanuatu.
For those two days, though, we were home. We slept in Kenneth’s guest house near our previous house (since demolished by a landslide and rebuilt into a kindergarten), but spent nearly every waking moment with Leah or some combination of her children and grandchildren. Her son, Redy, who looked and sounded so much like his late father, Noel, treated me like family, taking me to the kava bar and leading us all on a fun and educational hike up to the hillside gardens — coconuts, spiders, yams, pigs, and more. Priscilla, who had been a teenager during our service, now was a beaming mother of three darling children who treated Oliver like a brother; Priscilla’s tattooed partner, Yannick, turned out to be the gentlest of men, and he delighted in demonstrating to Malia how to harvest manioc on that hike to the gardens. Redy Henry, now an oldfella with gray hair but still a respected elder curious about the world, asked us what kind of man the current U.S. president was (in the 1990s he’d asked a similar question, and wondered about America’s stance against Iraq) and what we thought about China’s aggressive activity in the Pacific (a major issue in the Australian media, I’d seen). And Mereva, the spindly little girl who had come to our house every day to be doted on by Mami Erin, was now a healthy young adult, constantly posting photos to Facebook when she wasn’t overseeing the expanded school library that Erin once had started with the donation of books from family and friends back in Ohio. Molly, the school principal 20 years ago, was principal again, and led a short ceremony under the mango tree to accept the school supplies Malia had gathered from her classmates.
I had neglected to bring any coffee, and I didn’t drink much water, and that second night, while Erin and the kids joined the village in the nakamal for a special kakai, I was back in the guesthouse writhing with a dehydration-and-caffeine-withdrawal migraine. In between my violent fits of vomiting into the dark, I recalled how I’d gotten similarly sick within days of first stepping foot on Paama. This night I also would miss the England vs. Columbia round-of-16 game, shown at 3 a.m. in the same nakamal. Most of the men in Liro were pulling for France or Brazil to win the World Cup. In my first stay on Paama, I had a memorable night watching a replay of the final game of the 1998 World Cup, won by France. Every four years, I expect to watch every minute of the World Cup, but this year our trip coincided with the tournament, and I missed all but one of the games between June 22 and July 7 (I watched our final night in Sydney). Recognizing this gap helped me understand how my focus on the logistics of family travel and lodging and meals and safety changed the experience of the return to Vanuatu.
Back in Port Vila, on Efate island, our final two days: another dinner at the Laycock home, another lunch at Nambawan Cafe, more souvenir shopping in town. Walking amidst the stalls of the “mama’s market,” Anna and Malia and Oliver spent their final vatu on various handicrafts — pandanus handbags and carved tamtams and seed necklaces. I was walking past the Tanna Coffee table when I heard someone ask, “Nem blong you Anton Zuiker?” My head snapped around to look at the woman behind the bags of coffee beans grown on the slopes of Yasur volcano. “Ci, nem blong mi Anton Zuiker. From wanem yu save nem blong mi?” It was Juliette, my student from 20 years ago, recognizing me on sight, hapi tumas to see me and glad to give me an extra bag of beans to take home to the U.S.
That final night in Vanuatu, we gathered with 50 Paamese relatives at a family compound in the Nambatu neighborhood for a final kakai, another shell of kava, speeches about what these people meant to us and how they had given us an experience then and again that filled our lives with joy.
I expect to return to Vanautu: Oliver and I are talking about going back to Paama in a few years, so he can spend a week or two running through the bush and swinging from the banyan vines with his pal, Lukas.
Anna, meanwhile, has written a college-admissions essay about international travel and how she hopes to be a third-generation Peace Corps Volunteer. Just what I hoped.
© Anton Zuiker