“Ambrym is a place between paradise and hell,” I used to hear from my friend and fellow teacher Bertrand. And one should also know how to rest properly, especially when there is a lot of work. So, after two years of teaching together on the island of Tanna, Bertrand took me with him to spend the holidays with his family on his home island of Ambrym, to the small village of Sesivi on its west coast. Bertrand’s famous catchphrase explained itself immediately upon my arrival. Ambrym is a wonderful island, simple and essentially paradisiacal, and the locals have similar qualities. What is hellish is the heat that the sun and, supposedly, the island’s three majestic volcanoes inflict on its poor inhabitants. They rise up in the middle of the island, and even from the coast at night their red glow can easily be seen above the horizon. But the hell could also be a reference to the murderous black magic. Ambrym is certainly known for it. When my friends from Tanna heard that I would be spending some time on Ambrym, they began a chorus of lamentations: “Don’t go, someone will bewitch you!”, “You’ll never come back, they’ll cast a spell on you and something terrible will happen to you!” … or well-intentioned advice: “Don’t eat anything they give you, it might be poisoned!” Those who have spent more time on Vanuatu know what I am talking about. Bertrand remained calm and told me with the authority of an expert that I was safe in his village and that black magic was only dangerous in the north of the island. So I set off without fear, but full of expectations.
An important realization that came with the heat of the first day was that the only fresh water available in the village came from thermal springs on the coast. Hot thermal springs. In tropical heat. Great. Fortunately, some of the villages have built cisterns to collect rainwater. Still, throughout my time on Ambrym, I had a constant feeling of thirst and “cookedness”. They would only leave me when the temperature got a little more reasonable in the evening and the village men gathered in the nakamal to share kava and talk.
Life here, like all of Vanuatu, is colorful. One day we harvested copra on a coconut plantation. Another day we took Bertrand’s old rifle and hunted wild chickens through the jungle-covered mountains of Ambrym. The fact that each of us eventually got some was a miracle, as even getting his moody old rifle to fire sometimes required superhuman effort. Another time we hiked five hours from Port Vato through the night jungle and old lava flows up to the eerie looking volcanic desert and the Marum volcano. A breathtaking view. Back in the village, we prepared the breadfruit “nalot” and I admired the incredible sunsets painted behind the silhouette of Malikolo Island. I talked with the village elders about the stars, life in the village and the beginnings of the mission, listened to them, learned from them… and thanks to Bertrand, I felt at home even on this faraway island.