October 28, 2013

Living by solar power and bartering. Craig Cove, Ambrym Island, Vanuatu

Alarm clocks are unnecessary on Ambrym. If it was not the Cockerels sensing 4AM was a good time to test their lungs, then the pigs scrabbling and fighting beneath my hut ensured sleep was over.

Smoke from fires for boiling kettles and cooking breakfast was already hanging over the small settlement as I wandered sleepily looking for a pig to remonstrate with. Behind my hut was a beautifully carved Tam-Tam (AKA a Slit Gong), an Ambrym statue which was there to ward off evil, and was used as a communication device, being hit with sticks to communicate from settlement to settlement both news and warnings.

There is no electricity at Craig Cove, apart from what is produced by Solar, resulting in houses having many large batteries to provide power to TV and DVD players. The local Telecom company, Digicel, has cleverly provided solar powered mobile phones, which you see charging in rows in the bright sunshine wherever you walk.

Breakfast was tasty free range eggs, and freshly baked bread. Perfect for getting me ready for the climb tomorrow. I had come to Ambrym to climb Mt Benbow, one of the most destructive volcano’s in the world. A huge plinian explosion 2000 years ago resulted in a massive caldera which occupies much of the centre of the island, and it is active, with its last major eruption in 1913 causing the evacuation of the whole island to Efate. The village of Mele, 5kms from Port Villa is still a transplanted Ambrym village, populated by those who decided not to return to the dangers of villages built around the edge of a volcano.

Walking around the small settlement I was followed by dogs and small children. Vegetable crops and fruit were planted everywhere, the fertile soil being the devils bargain of living on an active Volcano. Barter was the major currency for food, as locals swapped yams for bread. Fruit was everywhere and plentiful, ripe bananas often lying on the ground providing useful dog snacks for my followers.

Services were also bartered in the community without any Vatu (the local currency of Vanuatu) changing hands. If you needed help building or repairing a house there was always someone to help. With the understanding that help would be returned when it was needed. This was a very traditional, close knit society, where people would not be poor or hungry. Those that did have money would travel to Port Vila and buy luxuries, but these were shared on their return, with many families joining together to watch DVD's.

The one shop on the edge of the village did not seem to be that busy, only selling a few luxuries like canned tuna and cheap plastic cooking implements. Chinese run, like so many shops in obscure outposts of the pacific, the owner looked lonely. Sadly the only thing I wanted was not available, Vanuatu Tusker beer, was not available on the island I was told. Although Ambrym is not a dry island, as being Vanuatu, there is always plenty of Kava.

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