VANUATU: Clarisse (pt. 2)

Banana Bay, Efate

Banana Bay is beautiful in the sense that the water of the calm bay reflects everything the sky displays almost like an artwork, a masterpiece oil painting. Fossilized coral cliffs jut, and then drop to the gritty sand of the bay about 2 metres below. If you were to swim out with mask, snorkel and fins handy and can shimmy yourself horizontally across relatively shallow coral flats and a field of stinging anemones, the flats suddenly drop down to reveal, in parts, shelf walls edged with plate and branch corals sheltering an abundance of tropical fish. Ever the adventurers, the boys instantaneously discovered (or re-discovered from a previous trip) a swim-through cave/archway hybrid fashioned through the coral shelf that they disappeared into and popped up on the other side, unrelenting and never tiring of the thrill of swimming through the same cave again and again. Not surprisingly, the water is tepid, however tiny vents popped up through the sand release shimmering streams of salty cool water that blur your vision and tickle your skin with goosebumps momentarily as you pass through them.

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I’ve always felt strongly about immersing & experiencing the culture of any certain place I visit rather than just being a ‘tourist’ in it – which is why I’ll probably never, ever go on a cruise or a contiki tour. I got to experience the next level, the next layer, something only one can experience when closely linked to people of a certain culture – and this is what manifested when Clarisse died. Our vans were just about to pull up at our dinner location at Banana Bay, and of the group received a text message that she had passed just as we slid the van doors open.

As the orange glow of the evening’s sunset spread out across Banana Bay the shockwaves seared through our group and we all sat in groups in silence – processing the information with blank expressions staring out into nothing, while those closest to Clarisse, her non-biological family, those who hadn’t been able to say goodbye, went to grieve alone. This tragic turn of events in the centre of what had been a joyful, peaceful, calm and happy trip had suddenly blanketed us in a thick smog of sadness. We moved from the cramped bus to the clean, thick grassy lawn in front of the beach and sat in mutual silence. Bassy music bounced in the distance from some unknowing strangers evening party, and suddenly three chunky puppies came rolling over and settled right in front of us to play with each other & stretch out to rest.

As we watched them nip each other and roll around – on the grass, on each other and their fed up mother, on us – we all awoke out of our reveries and sat in a line along one of the cliff edge walls and watched the brush-stroked sun slide out of view before returning to our vans to take us home to the farm. The ride home was pitch black and silent except for the wind whipping through the bus windows. Finally, my friend Melodie, sitting in the back corner, asked us all to sing a song that had sprung to her mind then and there – Hallelujah by Rufus Wainwright. With not a scrap of musical talent between us we all whisper-sung the half of the song that we knew the words to – unbeknownst to us, in the second van carrying the other half of our group – the same song had been suggested and was being sung at exactly the same time.

I don’t know how and when exactly it happened, but it seems that the song was the catalyst for the end of the shock and immense grief that came with the news of Clarisse’s death and the beginning of the celebration of her life instead, in typical Vanuatu style.  Somebody had suggested buying a bottle of Kava – a tradition of Clarisse’s to enjoy after church service – however as everyone settled in for the evening it became apparent no-one was going to make the short journey to the Nakamal, so out came the bottles of whiskey, wine and vodka instead. After a shot of whiskey to toast the life of “Aunty Clarisse” we went about making dinner as a family with a drink in hand. Talk of “I can’t believe she’s gone” turned instead into stories about the woman that was, as it became apparent our native friends felt the need to share every strand of memory they had of her – and I drank every word of it in, drawn into the joy of their story telling and jubilance in which they laughed and openness in which they cried.

Even as I type this I can feel the intensity of the love I felt at that moment for the people and the country that I was visiting because of the love that they carry for everyone around them. Emotions are openly expressed, people intensely love each other, everybody is family regardless of blood and no one is left out. Life is lived minimalistically yet enjoyed grandly. Lost lives are grieved intensely but only for a short period of time – and then celebrated onwards and made legend through stories and memory. Throughout the next few days, we made Aunty Clarisse proud by wholeheartedly celebrating each day. We sang songs that she liked, jumped from trees, held hands, and talked about our deepest fears and anxieties, and our grandest hopes. We speculated exactly what kind of party that our dearly departed would have waiting for us when it was our time to go.

As that night came to a close and people were starting to make their way to bed, a small group of us sat around a log fire, wine in hand and reading out angel cards. The night was balmy and calm. We all hugged each other a little tighter goodnight and went to sleep with light hearts, ready to explore the next day as fully as ever.

Aunty Clarisse – until we all meet again, I’m sure you’ll be waiting for us Kava in hand.

[pt. 3 coming soon]

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