Ghost of a Smile
The plane lurched sideways. Through the open cockpit door the pilot’s knuckles were white on the steering column, fighting the crosswind. With one hard bounce, the plane’s wheels touched down onto the grass landing strip. Children ran through the fields beside the plane waving their arms. It seemed as if they were waving their welcome for me. As if they didn’t greet the arriving plane twice each week with the same excitement.
The roar of the left side engine abruptly ceased. The propeller wound around a few more times, each revolution slower. Silence. The door opened from the outside and swung down to become stairs. A man wearing an orange vest bounced into the plane and began rummaging through the cargo piled on the rear seats. When he found an item tagged with a purple MLV sticker, he tossed it out the door to a man in a matching orange vest below. He carefully handed out the squawking chickens wrapped from the neck down in burlap sacks. When the back seats were cleared, he opened the cargo hatch and crawled inside, pushing boxes, woven plastic Chinese bags, and one large blue plastic chair wrapped in cellophane, to the door.
I could feel the last two bumpy hours throbbing in my backside and the noise of the engines as a residual hum in my ears. Standing on a speck of coconut shrouded land surrounded by a vast ocean, two years suddenly stretched out as a wasteland of time. One entire day of take offs and landings, rattling truck rides, and waiting now separated me from the capital city and the reassurance of urban life. Grocery stores, working public phones, running water, and a hospital. What if my appendix burst on a Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday or Sunday when the plane didn’t fly? Living near the capital I’d had a community of other volunteers, a caring host family who treated me as their own daughter, solar powered lights at night, running water just outside the door, and a nearby telephone where I could call my family. What if the rumors were true and there wasn’t any fresh water? What if the wind really did blow constantly up here? I longed to hear my Dad’s excitement and my Mom’s reassurance at this critical moment as I stood on the threshold of a new, unknown island, a new unknowable adventure.
I paused on the top step of the plane, clutching my backpack to my chest. Instead of a pretty sign saying, “Welcome to Ablow Airport,” the word Ablow was spray painted in red across the rusted tin side of a small shack. No string band serenaded departing passengers like there had been when I’d landed in the capital. Tourists were not frequent enough for a polished sheen to be laid over everyday life as an enticement. A wide cement pad, so warped and buckled with sprouting grass hardly any concrete remained, provided a staging area in front of the metal shack where a crowd gathered. A single tree threw a wispy branch of shade over the assembled group.
I stood rooted to the ground staring at the mass of unfamiliar faces, the line of shirtless men all holding half-meter machetes. I had no idea of the family connections or politics of this place. I didn’t know who to trust and who to be wary of, who would help because I was a clueless stranger and who would only help to get something in return. I turned to survey the plane, taking a step forward as if to search for my bags among the piled belongings tossed out of the cargo hold. My only option was here or home to the USA. If I gave up now, chose failure within moments of touchdown, without learning a name, or even starting to pick away at my assigned project, I wouldn’t know how to live with myself. I’d never failed at anything in my life. I was a straight A, honor roll student. I didn’t find being labeled the ‘good girl’ demeaning, I found it desirable. All my life I’d carefully chosen adventures that stayed within my comfort zone, but I compulsively volunteered in order to remain the good girl. So I stood on a six mile long, coconut tree covered defunct volcano not found on any map, as a volunteer quickly making up my mind not to fail. I consciously loosened my grip on my backpack and let it swing, casually at my side as I turned into a wall of strangers.
A stocky woman in a frayed t-shirt stepped up taking both my hands in hers, as other women enveloped me in a wall of colorful dresses, sweaty flesh, and rapid fire questions. My ear strained to catch any familiar word from the stream of language flowing around me. Hands reached out to brush my arms. The Bislama I had packed into my head, practiced, and repeated for the last three months living with Edna and Tobin floated away and my English threatened to follow it. Panic rose, cutting short my breath. The woman squeezed my hands narrowing my focus to her dark brown eyes and soft rounded cheeks.
“Nem blong mi Martha. Mbae mi lukaotem yu.” Martha would be caring for me as a surrogate mother, showing me how to survive in her world, just as Edna and Tobin had taken me in and started my initial education, a reeducation from what I thought I knew to actual, applied skills: how to feed myself, how to speak, how to recognize the signs and symptoms of malaria, giardia, dengue fever, and dehydration. The important stuff.
Behind me, plane engines roared back to life. We watched the plane bump and jolt down the uneven grass runway, turn and throttle up in a desperate sprint to gain speed and altitude before the runway dropped away over the seething, sucking ocean. I watched the plane turn into a white speck and disappear among the puffy clouds, the drone of the twin engines still ringing in my ears.
Martha released me as more people crowded around, shaking my hand, telling me their names, Frank, Tagalan, Edith, Mulat, Harry, Lorinda, Etel, a curious mix of Vanuatu and European names. I nodded, dutifully repeating the names thrown at me to try and remember, because remembering was important. But the names became just sounds greased in coconut oil skidding from my mind almost as soon as they were lobbed at me. My vision swam with earnest eyes, high foreheads, intricately braided hair, gap tooth smiles. After enough new introductions, the faces started to look the same, male or female. I was in a sea of individual parts.
I turned to Martha, who was talking and didn’t seem concerned the truck just left without us. I stood beside the pile of my belongings, forgotten, bereft after the onslaught of welcome. I couldn’t remember a single person’s name to call out to. I hadn’t been told the plan or if a plan even existed. We seemed suspended in the no hurry, no worry island style where time doesn’t exist and I am the only one panicked by a long walk through unfamiliar roads in the jungle, possibly in the dark. Though the plane had left me at my final destination, I was still six miles from my village.
I wanted Martha to take my hand again and reassure me as she would a child. My stomach rumbled, reminding the grumpy five year old in my brain that the handful of hard breakfast crackers and peanut butter I’d inhaled eight hours ago had long since evaporated. If we didn’t have a plan, perhaps we could at least have some lunch. I started looking at the pots tied with strips of calico and garden baskets around, hoping if I looked hungry enough, someone would offer to feed me. I didn’t want to be rude by asking.
An unusually tall Ni-Vanuatu man approached me, a machete extending from his right hand as if he had been born with it. His long fingers wrapped around my hand as the sandpaper of his palm scratched my smooth skin. Our palms were the same pink color. Our similarities ended there.
“My name is Mansosoi,” he introduced himself in Bislama Ah. Mansosoi cleared my internal panic and disillusionment. I recognized that name from the letter the community wrote introducing the conservation project. He was one of the people who had asked for a volunteer to come. Travel worn, hungry, tired, I didn’t think about his expectations for his new volunteer until much, much later that night, alone in my bed, hands resting on my comfortably full stomach.
He hefted one of my bags up to his shoulder balancing 15 kilograms as if it weighed nothing. “We have to wait for the third trip on the truck. A little way down the road is a village, Valua. We’ll wait there. It’s more comfortable.” He turned and shouted orders to a group of loitering boys. They swarmed over my belongings, lifting and carrying the bags away like ants. I realized I had no control over the situation, but that Mansosoi had taken control for me.
The road ran along the edge of the airport clearing for a few hundred meters before turning into the jungle, but the village as promised, was a quick walk down a wide and well-used dirt track. The women settled themselves on woven coconut mats spread over the floor of someone’s kitchen. The men perched on rocks, water barrels, and old truck tires out in the yard. Placed in the middle of the women, I sat stunned by my crumbling expectations and how differently I had imagined this scene.
The conversation swirled through the air along with the smoke from the cook fire. In the evenings, in our training village, I had sat with my host father, Tobin, as he told me stories about Mota Lava, always in Bislama, but always slow enough I could catch each word. Edna would hover in the kitchen door, one eye on the fire and listen.
Now I sat in the very place that filled Tobin’s stories realizing the question I never asked, but should have; had he ever actually been to Mota Lava? Or were his stories filled with myth, legend, rumor, and exaggeration? This kitchen had a thatched roof; saplings stripped of their bark formed the framing for bamboo walls, so different from Edna’s low ceilinged, tin kitchen built with square cut timber. The women were all speaking their own local language. I sat like a ghost, invisible and mute.
Tobin loved to tell me all the things that Mota Lava did not have.
“Ol ship oli neva kam kasem olgeta.” There was nothing to buy in the shops because cargo ships didn’t travel north. After hearing this, Edna had decided that she would only cook food grown on the islands. No rice and no tinned meat. She wanted me to get used to eating only what could be grown. I didn’t mind the hardship giving up tins of greasy, salty corned beef dumped over mountains of white rice.
“Bigfala wind I bon long ples ia. Bankis hemi ples blong Harikane.” Hearing that the northern province provided the womb for hurricane winds sent me to pour over my disaster preparedness and relief manual. Out the kitchen door I could see that every single structure in the village was made from thatch, bamboo, saplings, vine rope lashings and perhaps a handful of nails. There was not one house with cement block walls that would stand up to hurricane winds. What did they do in a hurricane? Where did they go? It was one more of a growing list of questions I would need answered.
“Ples ia I no gat wota. Ol man oli trae had from wota.” Tobin told me drinking water wasn’t readily available. In our training village each house had its own water tap, usually located just outside the kitchen door. The water came from a spring on top of the hill behind the village and was gravity fed into the pipelines. Water always ran in their village. The substantial elevation change provided us with good water pressure.
I hadn’t seen any taps here, but a split buoy half filled with grey dishwater sat near a kitchen wall. Water enough to spare for washing dishes then.
My host parents had been trying to prepare me, but each story of deprivation and hardship made me wonder how much of nothing I could tolerate.
My watch, conspicuously shiny gold on my red dust-grimed wrist read 1:45 p.m. The mechanic grumble of a truck engine failed to cut through the women’s voices, children playing, and the quiet murmurs of men sitting outside. A rooster crowed on the other side of the village. No truck.
I pulled out my assignment letter again and began to read.
Frank and Martha have taken great care of previous volunteers and they will take great care of you too. Mansosoi drives the transport boat and has been helping with the conservation project…
I read on over two pages of who was who and how the island worked as interpreted by the departing volunteer, and the state of the project. On the last page the volunteer had written,
Just a last bit of advice. Enjoy Mota Lava. It’s a beautiful place with wonderful people. Don’t be so ready to get back to the capital. Don’t underestimate the people, they are educated and motivated. All you have to do is plant the seed. There have been a lot of people and projects that have come and gone before us. Some were good projects with structural problems that need to be tried again and some were misconceived. In any case you will know if your project is going well because people will talk to you about it and ask questions.
Humph. I refolded the letter running my thumbnail along the creases extra hard. I imagined that this village would be a lot like the small town I left behind in Vermont. There would be a group of people who volunteer, come to meetings, and chair everything. There would also be people who wouldn’t participate in anything no matter what the reward. There would be a group who would participate, but only if there was a reward. Who was I to bustle into a place and start dictating projects before I’d figured out these groups? For a start I was way too shy. Too afraid of not being liked.
I shifted my legs from one side of my body to the other to keep the blood flowing. Latticed marks from the rounded leaf edge scored the outside of my calves with red lines. I rubbed the skin to try and work out the marks and only half listened to the sound of the conversation flowing around me. I caught myself when I started to sigh audibly. I rubbed at my dirty skin and wondered what invisible imprints were being left on me.
Occasionally the women lapsed into a string of complaints about the truck, the driver, how awful it was that I didn’t get the first trip, in Bislama for my benefit. Near the capital the population was so mixed Bislama was the language of communication but out here, it was reserved for government officials, teachers, and Peace Corps Volunteers. Everyone else understood the local language but instead of curious, I just felt exhausted. Learning another language, when I didn’t have a comfortable command of Bislama yet, seemed beyond my skill.
While the women complained, their resigned tone relaxed postures showed this was how it worked. The truck left and we waited. They were used to inefficient systems and being left behind, so their complaints were only to make me feel better. I glanced at my watch. 4:30 p.m. My frustration seeped out in long, loud sighs the women pretended not to hear.
Martha leaned closer to me. Switching to Bislama, she said,
“It’s not long until sunset, but we could walk. We’ll just leave your bags to wait for the truck.” The sun set at six. I had a headlamp in the depths of a bag, I couldn’t remember exactly which one, but the women didn’t have lights. The idea of walking had been thrown around all afternoon, but never directed at me. Walking felt productive. Sitting in the kitchen I hung between my new life and my old life, static, bored.
“Yes. I like that idea. How long will the walk take?”
Another women shook her head
“It will take you three hours to walk to the village.”
“Or more.” Another woman interjected looking hard at my legs.
“It will be dark before we get halfway at Ally Wan. Nereingman is another hour from there.”
A one woman laughed. “We don’t have a big enough group to keep the ghosts from stealing her.”
Martha nodded, accepting the wisdom of this statement. I longed to stand and restore blood flow through my legs. My tingling legs intensified my desire to get up and do anything but sit in the darkening kitchen, even if it meant walking through ghosts. I stayed seated unable to overcome the inertia of sitting.
“The truck will be here any minute.” Martha said
A woman removed a coconut rib from the broom, held the tip in the kitchen fire before slipping it under the raised glass of the kerosene lantern before the tenuous flame guttered out. One lantern hung in the doorway, throwing a deep yellow circle around the door, while another hung along the back wall. Shadows saddled the middle of the kitchen, the low coals in the fire pit intensifying the dark around them. A large plate was passed to me. Rice spilled from the sides, topped with a smear of sauce for taste. The women handed plates, piled even higher with rice and boiled yams, to the children, who ran them out to the men. The dusk reduced the men to shadows in the yard. There were not enough lanterns to go around.
Spoonful by spoonful I climbed the mountain of salty, damp rice. As I filled the hole of my belly, the irritated voice in my head finally shut up. Ever since I was a baby my mood had been directly linked to my blood sugar levels. I should have asked for food hours ago.
So what if I have to spend the night? I signed up for the adventure, I promised myself I’d be malleable, flexible, understanding and yet in the few hours I’d spent on Mota Lava I had been silent and sullen. I was working myself up into accepted excitement over spending the night when a distant roar announced the arrival of the truck. A rich yellow glow increased though the trees. The truck pulled up to the yard and abruptly the night grew dark and quiet again as the engine switched off. Shadows jumped up and my boxes and bags, already stored in an empty house for the night, were carried out again and piled into the truck. Women kissed each other on both cheeks while pushing cloth wrapped plates of food into travelers’ hands. In the flurry of activity, the truck driver approached me.
His eyes were trained on the dirt. He glanced at me before addressing the ground again, “The tire went flat. Twice. We would have been here sooner to pick you up, but it took a while to fix.”
I nodded. “Thankio tumas.” I no longer cared how long I had to wait. “Hemi oreate nomo.” A phrase meaning “it’s all okay,” that could forgive a flat tire, dismiss a bad day, and explain exactly how I felt. It’s all okay. Martha took my arm and pulled me into the truck, which had two sets of doors in the cab. I sat behind the driver, Martha pressed in next to me. A child crawled up into her lap and young girl sat along her other side. The young men jumped up into the back and an older man climbed in next to the driver. He started the engine, swung the truck around and started the swaying, jolting trip back through the dark to the other end of the island.
Along a steep rise a silver crested shimmer of waves appeared, before we dropped back into the dark woods. After an hour the trees thinned and the moon-soaked ocean shone between the spindly trunks of coconuts. I drifted in my own little world noticing the ruffled bursts of coconut fronds silhouetted against the sky. Absorbing the feel of the island I couldn’t see, now unwilling to talk, questions silenced in the moment of experience. A flash out the window. Moonlight shone white. Ghosts! The white flew beside the truck keeping pace flashing in and out of the jungle. Come to steal me away. Even pressed between the comforting bulk of Martha on one side and a sinewy girl on the other, my stomach flipped. Ghosts come to steal me away. The flash caught my eye again. An owl flew beside the car. I had been holding my breath. I let it out, took another. An owl? I poked Martha with my elbow and whispered as if the owl could hear, and as if by hearing understand and suddenly transform into a ghost.
“Do you have owls in Vanuatu?” I asked. Growing up the huge snowy owls loved to perch on the telephone pole at the edge of the field in the evening. Awed by their size, their patience, their observation skills, I watched them for hours as they kept watch for dinner.
She nodded. “Yes. We call them hawk-night.” I turned back to the window anxious to get a good look at it, but the owl was gone. His brief white presence felt like a blessing on my arrival and a reminder. Perhaps he was a ghost after all.
Later that night, after shaking faceless hands, and hearing more strings of names I failed to remember, after speeches, and feasting and being wreathed in heady scents of frangipani flower necklaces in welcome, I wearily turned the wooden latch nailed to the door frame of my new house and breathed a sigh. Falling asleep to the musical rise and fall of voices outside the door and the faint yellow flicker of a kerosene light, the image of the bone white owl followed me into my dreams.
Kate Tagai lives in Maine and is a graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is currently at work on a full length memoir about her time living and working in Vanuatu.