Losing your voice for 18 hours is a lovely way to start a Monday. I felt like death warmed up. I even missed a taro and chicken feast because I didn’t feel hungry. That said, taro is good for sore throats. Eating rice made me think of swallowing pebbles. Thankfully, I was still able to eat gateau and drink tea.
For all her health on the weekend, Courtney was slammed on Monday. I may have felt like death warmed up but if that feeling was a person, she was it. While I was boiling, she was freezing and couldn’t move. We were worried because 10 days earlier she had missed a doxy and malaria takes 10-14 days to show up. Thankfully, she ended up just being sick.
I washed for the first time since classes were cancelled, which felt amazing because I was grubby and sweaty. I never realised how much I liked showers and being clean until this week. When you’re constantly filthy, you appreciate the scrubbing and the freezing water.
The week progressed in the weirdest fashion. Buildings were chopped to pieces, other buildings repaired. School was cancelled for the week because the weather was still unpredictable, the classrooms were too damaged and the students needed to help with the clean up. The phone reception was still terrible and I thought it might just have been us, so I was ready to walk further north when my lungs stopped trying to escape my chest. That was until I found out it could be a month before the phones were back up.
We did slowly but surely get better. Well enough to focus on other things. Myra, my friend, was meant to come to visit us in two weeks. We just assumed she was still coming, so we’d be able to pass messages through her. We discovered a lime/lemon drink which was heavenly, so we kept an eye out for lemons.
Even as this happened though, food was running out and so was water. Bananas were at every meal and there was no more aelan cabbage. There is only so many bananas a person can eat before they go crazy, these bananas were also not quite ripe and cooking them had not improved them. Water had to be hauled up from the river past Wosak because the tank had run dry. Things were not looking good.
Thursday was the worst of it for Courtney and I. We ventured into the plantation to open coconuts and pour the water into the water bottles we had. The water we had been given had questionable floating things in it. We opened 20 odd coconuts to fill the three bottles. While we were out, we saw a helicopter flying super low. Everyone was going nuts about it because planes are a rarity, let alone a heli. It seemed to hover in front of us for a bit, the two of us waved but couldn’t see who was inside. We made a joke about Americans and could they please fix the phone towers. I didn’t know just what that helicopter would mean.
Mamie discovered the coconut water and marched all of the kids, the two of us included, off to a neighbouring water tank to fill the drinking containers. Somehow there was taro and cabbage at dinner. The afternoon and evening were spent chewing sugarcane, laughing, playing ukulele, dancing, painting nails and hanging out with our family.
Much like the Friday of the cyclone, I will never forget the Friday that followed. Nothing could ever have prepared me for that. We woke up late, just after seven. Courtney asked me what time it was, she didn’t hear my response, so she turned her phone on. It nearly exploded with messages. I leapt out of bed and we started laughing and dancing. Dad ran to our door and banged on it, thinking something was wrong. Everyone was in our house, Courtney called her mum while my phone caught up the texts. All we could hear to start with was Kerri screaming.
Then I called my mum. The call came up as an unknown number on her phone, so she answered with just her name. “Hi Mum, it’s Zoë” I have said those four words before and after that day, but never have I been so glad to say them. I spoke to Mum, Dad and Angus. It was amazing, Dad was about to go on the radio. Apparently I was all over the news. There was a helicopter being sent to collect the two of us. It just didn’t seem real.
The next three hours were a blur of getting messages through to people that we couldn’t get to the harbour, the helicopter would have to land closer to us. We saw it go over us but then it didn’t come back. I later found out it was getting other people. A young man from the village ran up the hill shouting about coconuts falling from the sky. He had a plastic bag, which had had a coconut and two notes in it. He had offloaded the coconut to run up the hill with the note. It said the helicopter was coming for us.
While we waited, we ate breakfast, tiny birds are mostly bones. Jineth braided my hair, we sat with our families and stopped our sisters painting their teeth with nail polish. Then the helicopter started to come down where the church had been. We ran up the hill, hugged and kissed our way through the crowd and ended up in the helicopter. On board was Terry, two paramedics, two pilots and an Australian official. We were given a chocolate muffin each and shared a bottle of water. They said they had more stored but we didn’t care, we were happy to share.
The ride to Santo was 20-30 minutes and was incredibly loud. It was pretty awesome too. We had been the hardest people to find but not the last to be picked up. They were going back to get Ally, Camille and Fineen.
At Santo, it was like stepping into a different world. We washed our faces, cleaned our teeth, ate chips and got our hands on a newspaper. My photo was in the paper. The story was about me being missing. It was so weird seeing that. We gave a report to a medic who was working on food and water supplies.
We were flown to Port Vila in an Air Force Kinger. It seats six, one of the seats was taken up by a life raft. Flying over Vila, there was no green, just brown and smoke from people burning all the debris. The airport wasn’t too tidy itself but that was not the biggest thing I had to think about. I was about to shake hands with the Australian High Commissioner. His name is Jeremy, he’s very nice. We signed information release forms, had a media briefing and then we stood behind the commissioner in front of news cameras. We ended up giggling a bit because it just didn’t seem real.
Courtney and I answered three questions afterwards. We told people we were good and very glad that no one in our community was hurt and that I didn’t know what I was going to say to my parents when I saw them next, I wanted to stay until July. We were asked how we felt when the coconut came down, we just laughed at that one.
We were taken to where everyone else was staying and ate peanut butter on bread, which was amazing. There was pasta for dinner. Everyone talked about what happened to them, sounded as though Level was hit the worst but Ambae barely felt it. We were having interviews the next day and then Courtney and I were collecting Kerri from the airport.
My family saw me on the news. I got to call Jack, I texted people back home and I ate enough food and drank a lot of water. I knew one thing for sure, I did not want to go home, I was not ready to say goodbye to Level and I was not finished in Vanuatu. I just hoped I was going home to Level soon.
Love from Me and My Backpack