On Monday, May 19, the small eight passenger Islander plane took off from Bauerfield airport on Efate, carrying myself and Robyn Harbour. Our destination was Epi Island about 30 minutes away. We headed north at just under 2000 feet altitude over the central islands of Vanuatu. The day was sunny but evidence of prior bad weather was still apparent in the choppy waves below and the windy conditions. We were happy our flight was cleared for takeoff as the airports on the two islands nearest to Epi were closed due to flooded grass airstrips from the recent heavy rainstorms.
An Islander is a noisy little plane so conversation was not easy but words were not needed as we watched small emerald green islands, mostly steep volcanic cones, rising out of the blue ocean under us. Before long the plane was banking to land on a very short grass runway in the old coconut plantation of Valesdir, Epi. Looking out the small window we saw one pickup truck and a smiling Pastor Graham waiting for us.
Robyn and I had not planned to go to Epi together. But 10 days earlier when I emailed her about my trip, she phoned me immediately asking if I would like her to accompany me. Robyn and her husband taught at JBI for three years but have been living back home in Australia for several years now. Robyn is a teacher and passionate about kids and Vanuatu. I was very excited for her to accompany me and share the three-day Sunday school teachers training workshop. Robyn had just flown in the day before from Melbourne, Australia.
Within a couple of minutes of landing we were loaded in the pickup and driving through the plantation. The road was a rutted track which frequently went through dense vegetation. Under the tangled vines along the side of the road we could see bananas, cocoa pods, and many other edible crops. The abundance of food was amazing as the villages were small and sporadic. Often our driver would stop and shift the vehicle into 4 wheel drive before we plunged through a river, down a steep ravine or through muddy wetlands. The airstrip and this road can be closed after heavy rains and we were grateful that the rain had stopped and road was passable. Otherwise, we would not have been able to travel on this side of the island.
At every village, the truck would slow down in case someone needed a ride. Most of the passengers were coming to the Sunday School teachers workshop. Fresh produce came with each person as a contribution to the workshop meals. An hour and a half later, we started descending a narrow road which on one side hugged a stone cliff and on the other plunged straight down to the sea. We slowly drove down the slippery mud track and into the coastal village of Bongovio. This large village was where we would stay for the next five days.
Our hosts, Pastor Sam and his wife, eagerly awaited our arrival. Some Sunday school teachers were already there and others would be arriving in the morning before the 8:30 a.m. session. It is winter in Vanuatu right now and temperatures have dropped considerably. The Milky Way is an amazing sight when gazing at it from an island with no electricity. We were very happy that night to be wrapped up in wool blankets in below 70F/20C temperatures!
At breakfast the next morning, many new faces appeared carrying bags and food. Participants had mostly walked in, some taking three hours to trek over slippery trails from seven kilometers away! Others had come by truck from the north side of the island. You know people are eager when they have walked since dawn to be there on time. I only saw three different vehicles the whole time we were on Epi.
I awoke Tuesday morning with a migraine headache and it only got worse over the next two days. I could barely read my notes but taught all my sessions. I was so grateful that Robyn was with me and we had planned to share the teaching load as I was unwell. I do not get migraines often, so I did not even think to bring medication. Many people prayed for me and though I felt rotten, Robyn said she would not have guessed it during my teaching sessions. I even preached at the church on Wednesday night. So thankful for His strength when I am weak.
At the first night service, they asked for anyone who wanted to share something about what they learned to come forward. Three people eagerly shared. The next night they limited it to three people but seven spoke, wept, and shared their past teaching failures, and renewed commitment to reaching the children in their villages. It was an empowering moment.
We had the most delicious meals thanks to a group of young men who came to cook while everyone else participated in the workshop. The first day a little black pig was brought to the kitchen and he was very tasty. Then some men went diving and speared several large turquoise parrot fish, which later appeared on our plates fried to perfection.
We had just a wonderful time. The twenty-seven teachers who went through the three-day training came from seven of the eight Assemblies of God churches on the island. They represented 173 children. We laughed, cried, sang funny songs and explored ways to find visual aids outside in the garden.
The last day we gave two morning lectures, had a question and answer session, followed by closing speeches, presentations and lunch. Robyn also squeezed in an additional practice session on clever paper-cutting visuals.
After lunch, the participants packed and started the long trek home. One group would walk north and then some of them would take canoes to the nearby island of Lamen. The other group walked south.
Robyn and I had time to debrief and evaluate the overall workshop with the organizing pastors. We enjoyed sitting on the beach looking at the distant island of Malekula to the west and the twin active volcanoes on the island of Ambrym to the north. Robyn also discovered the right spot to stand on the beach for mobile phone service.
That night as the sun set and the cool air descended, we were happy to go sit by the open cooking fires in the kitchen and chat with the ladies. The workshop was over so the young men had vacated the kitchen and we were now free to visit with the remaining ladies.
Friday, our departure day, happened to also be the bi-monthly market day. Our truck taxi driver was booked to carry produce and vendors north to Rovo Bay market but would come back to take us south to the airport in the late morning. Our check-in time was 2 p.m. for the 4:30 p.m. flight to Port Vila. The truck arrived as we were about to sit down for an early lunch so the food was quickly packed up. Our hosts climbed in the back, and away we all bounced to the airport.
Once at the airport, we were weighed and our bags weighed for check-in, Pastor Sam’s wife, opened her bundle and served up a hot meal. The taxi driver joined us for lunch but he was anxious to get back on the road as his market group would need a ride home, and it would be a couple of hours before he would reach them. So we said our goodbyes and our hosts got back in the truck for the long ride home.
Sitting in the airport chatting with other passengers, we learned that the grass airstrip was only half-mowed as the lawn mower was broken. A spare part was expected from Port Vila the following week to repair it. In the meantime, a healthy group of cows was grazing and mooing contentedly on the airstrip. Every once in a while someone would glance out and check if they were still there. Once the flight was expected, several people ran out and made sure all the cows had been chased back through the broken barbwire fence and the airfield was secure for a landing. Our plane left a half hour early as all seven passengers were waiting. We boarded the same plane that had brought us five days earlier and enjoyed the views on the way home as much as before though we flew at about 5000 feet altitude this time.
Our conversation centered on planning our next teacher’s training together. I am certainly looking forward to it!