The Vanuatu domestic flight terminal is like the one in Nepal, or a provincial town in Eastern Europe just after Communism. The inclination is to spend the country’s tiny resources on its international terminal, their own countrymen and the few who venture by plane beyond the gateway be damned.
Our flight to Espiritu Santo Island would stop that Craig's Cove, Ambrym Island. I broke out my map of Vanuatu and found two airplane symbols on Ambrym Island and asked the check-in desk which it would be.
Blank looks. Much consultation. Studying the maps. Asking the boy in the back, the baggage boy. No one knew.
The door to domestic departures spoke three languages: English, French, and Bislama. Respectively, it read: passengers only, reservees aux passagers, pasensa no mo.
We filed in. 20 seats in this Twin Otter, today 16 full. One European family with their little girl, one huge white man in seat one, carrying on a running conversation with the pilot (it wasn’t a big plane), his son, a 20-ish couple-in-love, students from New Zealand (you learn these things because in about a day and a half you meet every expat in Santo), four local folks, Mirja and me.
Our home island of Efate, near the capital, Vila, brooded in cloud. Its out-islands likewise brooded, steely gray. But Malakula, just northwest in sight of our island, was fine, sunny with a blue chop off its shore.
On arrival at Ambrym, just 40 minutes later, there were no low clouds around the coast. They gathered only in the center.
Just a few houses in a pretty bay maybe three-quarters of a kilometer wide, that’s all there was of Craig’s Cove, gleaming in the morning sun. The airstrip used to be paved. Now it was pot-holed with grass growing through cracks. Landing roughly shook the wheels.
Not unusual. At the domestic check-in desk a chalkboard announced, "Longana air strip closed until further notice - tall grass."
Dirty boys with gleaming smiles ran out to meet the plane. A tan, ratty windsock had gone so into disrepair it had lost its utility, though it still hung on its pole. We let off two passengers and took on two in Ambrym, along with a bag of coconuts.
The two men who left had boxes from Telecom Vanuatu Limited Radio Systems Department and an antenna bundled into sections. It was so hot on the ground that, like prior to take off in Vila, the plane began to sweat, dropping beads of water onto our thighs. Two ancient pickup trucks appeared out of the jungle for the Vanuatu Telecom men, and while we sat in Craig's Cove we let in hordes of flies.
From Ambrym it was a brisk 20-something minutes up to Santo, flying at 4,000 feet, from where you can gaze intimately at the blue chop of the South Pacific. I read over the shoulder of a ni-Vanuatu man across the aisle. He was reading Charles Capps' "The Tongue A Creative Force."
"Watch your words" was the chapter.
I read the phrase, "I'll deny you before the Father," and a sub-heading, "God's word is wisdom."
Next table over a bright pink corpulent fellow went on, "Bluh bluh rain bluh bla cyclone bluh Fiji." I leaned around my mound of non-hamburger bits and inquired.
"Yeah," he said, "Its southeast of here, toward Fiji. We just had a look at it on the Internet, a big, mean thing. It's what's been causing all the rain."
We were flying to Fiji in 18 hours, although just then it was sunny hot and about 600% humid in Vila and we were just in from Santo where we'd passed a gloriously sunny day blistering in relentless sun.
But then we heard the cyclone warnings in three languages on Vanuatu's only AM radio station. By now of the cyclone had a name. May I introduce you to Jo.
We stayed at one of those swishy over-the-water bungalows at a resort called Le Lagon Park Royal, five minutes out of town across Erakor Lagoon. There was a healthy chop across the lagoon and the water lapped the pilings like smacking lips but it was the usual towering clouds at sunset, lit long after the ground went dark, and not much more than the usual brief dousing of rain on the deck.
We let ourselves imagine the pounding reef out at the end of Erakor Island was meaner that it ought to have been. Maybe it was.
For three unrelenting days Santo had been humid, roasting and still, and this over-the-water luxury hut had air conditioning (and even a TV, with taped day-old ABC Australian news every couple of hours from down at the front desk), so we barricaded ourselves in tight, turned it up and endeavored to freeze.
Next morning we asked the desk clerk, what about that cyclone? "It's gone," she smiled brightly.
"Yes, I think it has gone to Fiji."
We were checking out of Le Lagon to catch an Air Vanuatu flight, operated by the national airline of Fiji, Air Pacific, using a leased Qantas pilot and jet (whatever), to Fiji. In the air the pilot showed us the cyclone-200 miles south of our tiny, little 737:
"You can see the associated weather systems out the right side of the aircraft."
Twice he told us there was some "rain in the area" of Nadi airport, and when we came in to land it turned out he was very, very right. Scarcely 100 ft. over the ground, already on the airport land, over the grass between the fence and the tarmac of the landing strip, we were lashed by blinding rain, and Captain Ian Richardson floored it, pulled us up and took us around.
After the full power of the jets (we were so close we must have been very nearly at stall speed) he eased back as soon as he could and put on his best nonchalant, nothing-happened approach:
"As you could see there," he told us, "It was a bit too rainy for me to put us down, so we'll call it a missed approach and go round and I'll try to have us on the ground in seven or eight minutes time."
And that he did, and you could see on the way around that it had been raining tons and buckets over northwest Viti Levu. Turned out it had been for the past three days.
After a slow, cautious taxi ride through water up to the car frame, our hotel's Aussie proprietor greeted us with "Welcome to sunny Fiji."
In the afternoon bands of rain lashed our Buri. Everything, every last possible thing, was wet, and had been wet, and much had begun to mildew. Nothing had the slightest intention to begin to dry.
The power went off while I wrote, and so I wrote by torchlight. Wind whipped coconut palms to frenzy, rain hammered our roof and the frogs - the frogs absolutely gloried in it all. We sat in the twilight on our fabulous screened front porch and watched most of a dozen frogs at any one moment, bounding, jumping, head up, head down, throat pulsing, hurrying this way or that, up the path or under the bush, and we saluted them and their day.