By the time the last person had moved through the distribution line to receive their rice, fish and noodles, the sun had dipped below the horizon, leaving only a faint glow of orange as proof of her passing and the moon was rising on the other horizon to take her place.
The team was exhausted after almost 10 hours straight of distributing food to the remote village in northern Tanna, an island of the Vanuatu archipelago in the South Pacific. Distributions mean starting early with loading the 4×4 pickup trucks, driving over rough roads, unloading and serving. The tiring part is the fact that all the rice is packaged in 10kg bags, we have to both load and unload these. We often form chains of men, standing in a line, tossing the bags from one person to the next, until it reaches the pile. One or two hundred isn’t so bad….but we’re doing over a 1000 bags of rice a day, not to mention the noodles and fish, so it gets tiring under the tropical sun.
Regardless though, we dug deep and found the energy for one more smile as the chief begged us to come receive a gift from the village. With a small word of thanks, the village handed us a chicken and several woven mats as a sign of gratitude for the work we had done and the food we had distributed. Somewhat embarrassed, we graciously accepted the gifts as it would be rude not to (although ruefully laughing at the fact we’re distributing food aid and in return they give us food back – but the cultural basically demands that they give us gifts and so they do), and loaded them into the back of the pickup before scrambling in ourselves.
The engine turns over slowly in the brisk evening air before coming to life while the whole village lines up to wave goodbye as the pickup lurches forward to begin the long drive home. We wave back with one hand while the other grips the side of the pickup bed so we don’t fall out. Everyone is lost in their own thought as we slowly snake our way down the mountain roads toward the coast of the island where we stay.
I’m sitting at the back corner, holding onto two sides of the truck. Besides me sits one of our guys, who’s blond dreads, lit up by the moon, bounce with the movement of the truck as though they’re alive. In front of me, sprawled out on the floor of the truck bed, sit two soldiers, chatting quietly as they take puffs from a cigarette which they pass between themselves, the smoke lightly greeting our faces as it makes it way out of the crowded pickup and into the open air. In front of them, holding onto the cab, sit two more of our guys, staring silently ahead, watching the road illuminated by the headlights of the truck.
Above us, the clear night sky flickers to life with a million stars, led in their nightly dance by the unmistakable shape of the Southern Cross who’s arms stretch out wide, beckoning us home. One of the guys has started to play Bob Marley on his phone, the calming lyrics of “’cause everything is gonna be alright” float into the air, mixing with the low rumble of the pickup to create the only sounds in the evening.
The road twists and turns down the mountains, through small valleys, and over steams with no bridges. The driver rarely is able to get out or first or second gear as he constantly navigates the holes in the dirt road, often hidden by a layer of fine dust. When he does hit one, we all float off the bed of the truck, momentarily suspended in the air, before our backsides collide again with the surface, creating black and blue marks for those of us with lighter complexions. Occasionally he’ll swerve at the last second, throwing one side of the car towards the other – and the other often towards the grassy bank of the road. When this happens, we all just hold on tightly, each hoping that his arms will hold against the momentum pushing us the other direction.
It’s a long drive home, although only about 30 kilometers, it takes us well over two hours. Occasionally another truck will pass us, going the opposite direction. The road is so narrow that often one or the other has to stop and pull off for the other to pass. In a sign of greeting, the two drivers will tap their horns. In the areas where it’s wide enough for two cars at once, the cloud of dust following our nightly compatriot hits us fiercely in the face. We all turn our heads, closing our eyes and holding our breathe for a few seconds before our truck is able to emerge from the dust storm and we inhale deeply the fresh night air.
Every now and then, the driver will stop abruptly as an animal, often a cow or pig, wanders across the road as though it owns the world. Once a wild herd of horses is rudely awakened from sleeping on the road and stamp their hooves in discontent as they make way for us.
By the time we reach the bungalows where we are staying, every one of us looks a different ethnicity due to the layer of dirt, sweat, dust and grim that has covered us from head to toe. We leap out, grabbing our bags and chicken, fist bumping our team members, before tapping the side of the truck signaling that he can move on. The guys still in the truck wave and shout good night and we wave back, knowing in a few short hours we’ll be at it again.
Sometimes people ask me if it’s hard doing this kind of work, having to live in basic conditions, eat what would barely pass for food as a consistent diet, and work long hours in remote places, and I often don’t know how to reply, because like anything, it has its highlights and its rougher moments. But rides home, lit up by starry skies, through mountains passes, talking with amazing people are what remind me that I love what I do, who I get to do it with, and where I get to do it.