Torrid tales from Alex

Mar 27, 2007

On Sunday, many hours after it should have been delivered, the NYTimes arrived in the driveway, just about the time I was briefly off the couch and somewhat coherent. I’d already read Frank Rich’s column online, and I didn’t have much left in me, so I grabbed the book section, turned to the table of contents, and recognized a name: Alexander Frater.

Turns out Alex has a new book of his travel writings, . Hmm, I thought, I wonder if he writes about Paama.

Today, walking across campus, I stopped into the Bulls Head Bookshop to ask that they order a copy of the book for me; they had one on the shelf, so I purchased that and, even before I could find my way out of the still-under-construction Student Stores, I was scanning the chapter called “Grandfather’s Presbytery” where, lo and behold, I see my name and Erin’s name:

A silence fell. Then, during my own stumbling speech, I spotted a young white couple in the crowd, and over the pawpaw and biscuits met Anton and Erin Zuiker, Peace Corps volunteers from Ohio. Anton, with clever aristocratic features and a gold earring, had edited a successful Cleveland magazine; now he worked as a teacher while Erin, dark-haired and pretty, managed Liro’s clinic. He said, “For the new church celebrations they re-enacted your grandparents’ arrival. I was Maurice and Erin was Janie, we were on the beach wearing old costumes. Did you know they were led here by a white bird?”

I did not. But did they share my bewilderment at the stubborn way Paama clung to their memory?

He shrugged. “It can get a bit heavy.”

Alex was back on the island to visit the churches that his grandfather, Maurice Frater, had built as Paama’s first missionary. (Speaking of missionaries in Vanuatu, I’m nearly finished with the excellent book The Shark God: Encounters with Ghosts and Ancestors in the South Pacific. More on that when I finish it.) Alex also wrote about his childhood in Vanuatu in the fantastic book Chasing the Monsoon, which I read and blogged back in 2003.

Later in that chapter, Alex relates his trip across the water to Lopevi:

At Donald Mail’s store I ran into Anton. Had he and Erin ever been to Lopevi? He shook his head. “Want to come? In about an hour?”

“Erin had dengue fever a while back. She’s not feeling so great today. And Lopevi’s been pretty restless these past few weeks. Noisy, smoking like crazy.” He paid for his loaf and grinned. “But hey, why not? Sure, I’ll come. Love to.”

And that trip was awesome. Here’s an excerpt from my journal that day (as it happens, marked by a simple business card that proclaims “Richard Gildenmeister, Book General”; see the previous entry to understand the serendipity of that):

17 October 1998 Yesterday was an extraordinary day. I woke at 5:30 to prepare for a day trip to Lopevi Volcano with Alex Frater. He’s the grandson of Paama’s first missionary, Maurice Frater. Alex came to Paama on Thursday in the midst of his island hopping — he’s just finished his stint at the London Sunday Observer, where he was the chief travel correspondent. Now he’s to write a book or two: he decided on his last visit to Paama, in 1980, that he would go ashore on Lopevi and so yesterday he hired Enock (in Mathias’s boat) to ferry us across the channel.

The second I stepped foot on the black-sand beach at Lopevi, I decided that I must return, with Erin, to camp alone on the Volcano. That island is amazing — lush, lonely, with only natural sounds. The lava flows are spectacular, deep, black, obtrusive. Above, at the crater, whisps of smoke seep over the lower edge over the rim; from the bush, the summit is mostly hidden.

Another boat was the first to Lopevi. A group from Epi Island had arrived Thursday for a week of yam planting. Fortunately, the men of that group were able to give us a tour of the empty villages, now just a few structures and a handful of stumps or rotting posts marking a former fence, or church, or nakamal. Nobody lives on Lopevi. Occassionally, farming parties camp at the kastom bamboo houses. One of the men talked of putting a fish cannery on the island, but the volcano’s violent history will no doubt block that.

What pulls me to Lopevi is the solitude — this island could be my best chance for a seclusion most people (and Hollywood) only dream about. I want to return.

Alex came to our house for breakfast the next morning, and he listened to us talk about Vanuatu culture, politics and food. “A journalist, he had eloquent and precise questions,” and he regaled us with his tale of the famous New Yorker fact checking department, which had called an entomologist to verify the exact number of ants that would have been crushed by Alex’s boot, as he had off-handedly described in one of his pieces for that magazine.

When we left Vanuatu the next year, we stopped in on Alex at his London flat, where he presented us with a signed copy of Chasing the Monsoon.

Now I can’t wait to take a tour of the torrid zone with Alex again.

Anton Zuiker

© 2000 Zuiker Chronicles Publishing, LLC