A Different Set of Stars by James Agombar

Travel Essay: August 2011, I travelled on to the remote capital of Port Vila, Vanuatu. My partner Rachel was due to fly home though. At the time we couldn’t hold back the tears and although it was already planned, I hadn’t anticipated on having to leave before her. It seemed against my nature to not see her off safely, it was like the opposite of what all the films depicted back home in England. After a long embrace by an ad-shell outside the terminal gate, she took my hand and pushed a note into it telling me to not read it until I was on the plane.

As I entered the gate I couldn’t look back. I could taste the tears as I placed my rucksack in the scanner. The customs officer was concerned and asked if I was ok, to which I could only nod in recognition. I raised my hoodie over my head, sat down and turned my iPod up loud. I faced away from the glass that I might have been able to see her through, telling myself that I had come too far to turn back.

On the fifty-seven seat ATR 42 plane, I was seated near the window of the emergency door for leg room and next to a man who stood over a foot taller than me. Perhaps seven feet, this guy had hands like dinner plates and knees that made mine look like a child’s. Glancing out at the calming, magenta clouds that hung over the island chain, I felt settled enough to read the note I had been clutching ever since the airport. Her message was clear but magnified through events that occurred during the following days.

Managing to find a hostel with shared rooms and self catering about 8km out of town, I took a long sleep and woke with the tingling skin of my arm as a large, winged beetle crawled across it. I suddenly had the feeling I got when I was thirteen playing adventure games in front of the TV, so I patched plasters over the symmetrical sores on my feet, put on my sandals and headed into town on a Reggae pulsing bus.

It was hardly bustling, but quite big for a Pacific Island. The market was the biggest eye opener, full of smiles from the locals’ broad faces. As I wandered, my nose found the smell of banana bread, followed by bowls of red fruit resembling raspberries with ‘300V’ scribbled next to them on pieces of cardboard. Tarot, breadfruit and coconuts lined the tiled walkways, some brown and hairy, some that resembled comical spherical bombs, complete with fuses. Traders wore sarongs of bright colours, shifting goods around in woven palm leafed baskets. As I walked the coastal stretch I saw travel agents with bright, Hawaiian style shirts, wealthy businessmen stepping off their yachts whilst young girls offered hair braids and tribal artwork on canvas. I bartered with a friendly woman on a tiki[1] and got it cheaper because the wood hadn’t been treated; it was carved by her son, proving it more authentic.

Ni-Vanuatu culture was the ideal distraction for missing Rachel, and my excursions were filled with beautiful sights. However, when I returned to the hostel it was like coming home to one of those trashy gossip magazines. I usually observed the contrast over instant noodles and a beer. This was mainly down to a forty-seven year old Korean guy who checked in and shared my room. He was here on business, very sincere and wore a suit regularly. He had an old cardboard box full of paperwork which he left by his bed, a six digit briefcase and a habit of walking out of the shower with nothing but Speedos on.

I came back from town centre intent on reading in the hammock that stretched between the mangrove tress by the bay. I got to my door to find a young Ni-Vanuatu boy trying to peer into the window of my room. I asked him if he was alright, he seemed scared. He said, in reasonable English, that his name was Norris and that he was looking for ‘Mr. Troy’. I explained that he had the right room but that he wasn’t here, letting him inside to prove it. He seemed lonely, so I offered him some crisps and taught him how to play Blackjack. He was only eleven and from the northern island of Pentecost. He had completed the Ceremony of Harvest[2]. Norris said he was brought here and looked after by Troy. I suddenly had a rise in respect for Troy. I never knew Norris’ previous circumstances, it didn’t seem appropriate to ask.

Troy came back that night and joined me with a beer. He generally didn’t eat with me though, but called over his assistant, Kim, who took him to dinner elsewhere. Kim was also Korean, but much taller, younger and spoke fluent English. He had a permanent sigh and translated for Troy’s meetings. They reminded me of characters from a show back home, Olive Oyl and her friend Alice, the taller, comical one who was always beside herself when Olive kept running them into awkward situations. Troy was a private man who didn’t give away much, but he said he was dealing with the government each day. Once again, he ended the night exiting the shower with the Speedo’s on, blessing the room with his frighteningly hairy nipples. I ended the night by drinking the tap water and forgetting to boil it.

A rough night was spent having to urinate half a dozen times with my heart pounding through my chest, attempting to get rid of whatever was wrong with the water. I wrenched my aching bones up and forced myself out into Mele Mele where the famous cascading waterfalls were located.

I spent the day being guided through the village where mean looking villagers in ripped shirts, carrying machete’s and pig carcasses, smiled and waved.

I returned later to bump into Marie, the maid who was sweeping the hostel. She spoke softly and had thick, dark hair that stood tall. She warned me that there was a girl asleep in my room, and smiled saying that she was Troy’s girlfriend. As I went inside I certainly did see the girl asleep in Troy’s bed. Save waking her, I grabbed a beer and headed back outside to drink at the wooden table. About half an hour later she woke and walked past me, smiling in a sheepish manner. She was slim and looked around fifteen, so I assumed she was one of the children Troy had relocated, like Norris.

Half asleep and facing the wall on my side that night, I heard the front doors creak. I heard Troy whispering and enter the toilet. I must have dozed off because a loud bang jolted me awake, not like a gunshot, but more mechanical, like a generator packing up. It was loud enough to cause alarm. A figure burst through my door in a vest and boxer shorts, shining a torch around and calling out for ‘Mr. Troy’, it was Kim. I raised a hand to block out the light of his torch and asked him what the hell was going on. He apologised and exited my room.

I tried to sleep again but had forgotten that Troy was still in the toilet, because a few minutes later he came back out as quietly as he could. I opened one eye in the darkness and focussed. He wasn’t alone, he was holding the hand of the girl I had seen earlier. They crept out, leaving the damned front door ajar. He returned alone after a few cold minutes and went to bed.

By morning he had checked out and I had a thumping headache. I staggered to my doorway with a coffee, leaning against the flaky wood in the sun. Kim came out of his room three doors down, also rubbing his head. He wandered over to me and apologised for the night’s events, grimacing as he explained. It turned out that the girl was eighteen years old and was indeed considered Troy’s partner. He had known her only two weeks and Kim assured me that she was nothing to do with his work. He was part of the Child Welfare partnership in Vanuatu. The problem lied with the fact that he had promised to marry her. Kim shook his head and leaned closer telling me that the girl was Marie’s sister and they expected him to keep his promise of returning in one month to sort out the wedding. Before they crept into the room, Troy had the audacity to ask Kim to translate to her that he was going to have sex with her down by mangroves. Troy had no intention of marriage and would likely not return. So, the deceit of an outsider had once again damaged the trust of a local. I felt bad for the girl who was naively in love with a sleaze and couldn’t bring myself to tell Marie as she swept the hostel through again.

I sure knew how lucky I was every time I saw that tiki, a symbol of truth and innocence which I still have today. It contains the note Rachel gave me, which reads – ‘I’ll be thinking of you all the time you continue your adventure. If you ever feel sad or lonely, go outside and look at the stars. I love you.’

BIO: James Agombar resides near the treacherous waters of Southend-On-Sea, Essex, UK. His fiction has been published on several occasions where visions of the speculative, criminal and supernatural have taken hold of his mind (usually alongside a bottle of whiskey).
‘A Different Set of Stars’ is one of the non-fictional pieces he has written to record his unquenchable thirst for travel.
He aspires to write and travel full time one day as he has just finished studying for a BA Hons in Humanities.
You can find more of his published work with Luna Press (http://www.lunapresspublishing.com/luna-press-anthologies-1) and Swansea & District Writer’s Circle (http://www.swanseawriters.co.uk/).

[1] A Maori word which describes a deity figure, usually carved from wood, which can be produced in various sizes. Found mainly in regions of Oceania and Australasia.

[2] Ceremony of Harvest: A tradition also known as ‘land-diving’ where the Ni-Vanuatu of Pentecost island jump from bamboo structures with their legs tied and drop to such a length that their head brushes the ground to enrich the Yam harvest for that year. Another reason for the land-diving is from an ancient fable where a woman escaped the sexual assault of her abusive husband by jumping from a tree and concealing the vines that she had tied to her ankles, breaking her fall. The husband pursued her and plummeted to his death. The Ni-Vanuatu men created the land-diving ceremony to avoid being fooled by this act in the future and gain rite of passage into adulthood.