By Tim Foster.
September 10th 1976 found us standing on the tarmac arrivals apron at Bauerfield airport, “us” being my wife Audrey, our three children Susanna, Richard and Samantha and myself (Tim). I had got a job as an Executive Engineer in the Condominium Public Works Department (or Service des Travaux Publiques). The Chef du Service was Pierre Garsonnin). We had sold our house in the U.K., put our furniture into store, taken our children out of school, said goodbye to friends and family, who thought we were mad , lodged our two cats and travelled halfway around the world to a new life, albeit temporary.
We were greeted by Lois Huckin, a New Zealander, Geoff Holman from the U.K., and Monsieur Boustierre, Head of Personnel. They took us to The Solaise motel in Vila where we were to stay until our official accommodation was ready. This turned out to be an old colonial style bungalow on Rue de Paris, near to the Cine Pacifique. We were told it was one of the oldest buildings in the town and when we got there we could believe it. We had a few misgivings at first but Audrey soon knocked it into shape with a few adornments, some curtains and mats and help from friends we had already made. We were delighted to find that the garden contained pawpaw, mangoes, limes, grapefruit, coconuts and some type of island apple which the locals asked if they could take.
Our two youngest children (Richard and Samantha) had places at the British Primary School in Vila, but our eldest daughter Susanna couldn’t get a place at Malapoa so we taught her at home.
We soon realised the New Hebrides was a great place for children and ours all made friends. Our youngest, Sam, befriended a N.H girl, Christianne, and used to disappear with her for several hours. Apart from the traffic, it seemed there was little to fear. Richard made lots of friends of various nationalities at school and often left home early to play football before school and stayed late for the same reason.
Susanna made friends with several ex-pat girls who she used to spend time with down in the town and occasionally helped out at a market stall run by a Tongan girl when a cruise ship was in port.
We found plenty to do socially. We joined the BESA club and Vila Choral Society which was run by Maestro Begley. Most weekends saw us at the beach somewhere or lunching at The Intercontinental Hotel or at a barbeque on Hideaway Island. During the week, after completing her chores, Audrey filled her time by helping out at kindergarten, doing the rounds with the lolly trolley at Vila Base hospital and helping at knitting classes run by Jane Reynolds.
Audrey and her friend Jo Hardcastle delighted the New Hebridean ladies by buying and wearing brightly coloured Mother Hubbard dresses as did our daughters and Jo’s daughter. They found them to be ideal wear in the hot season. I don’t recall seeing any other ex-pat ladies wearing them; perhaps it was a bit “outre”. Anyway, the N.H. ladies thought they were “namba wan”.
Early in 1977 we moved to another bungalow on York Road close to the hospital and nearer to the British Primary School. The property was an improvement over the old one, but lacked all the lovely fruit trees.
When we left the U.K. it was at the end of one of the hottest summers there for years; in fact on the day after we left the weather broke and violent storms struck all over the country causing much damage. We were told later that prior to our arrival in Vila the weather had been poor. However, during our stay we had really nice weather apart from two hurricanes and the occasional tropical downpour during the hot season.
There being no television our children became avid readers using the small library of books left by ex-pats at Vila Cultural Centre, a habit which has stayed with them ever since.
Audrey and I joined Vila Choral Society, very much as back row members of the chorus but we had our few minutes in the limelight when Audrey played an ugly sister in a parody of Cinderella arranged by Neil, and I was one of the Three Little Maids from The Mikado, the other two being Neil and David Seddon, the secret code man in the British Residency.
One Christmas, I think it was 1977, Neil chartered a water taxi and with most of the choir sailed along Vila waterfront in the dark singing carols at all and sundry, including tourists on board a cruise ship at the wharf. It must have gone down fairly well as we didn’t get anything thrown at us. Perhaps we were out of range.
All of our children had friends of various nationalities which gave them an appreciation of other cultures which I believe has been of benefit to them ever since and they have all done well in life back in the U.K.
We managed to acquire three cats during our stay in Vila, two were strays and one was inherited from a Kiwi couple when they left to return to NZ. They (the cats not the Kiwis) were plagued by Myna birds at York Road, being dive bombed by the birds almost every time they crossed the garden. The Mynas would swoop down on the cats and peck their backs and the cats would turn somersaults in their efforts to dodge them. We managed to find homes for all of them when we left (the cats not the Mynas).
In January 1978 I was told by the British Residency that in light of upcoming Independence my contract would be terminated on 31 March 1978 but I could stay on on a 3 month rolling temporary contract if I wished. This was a bit too vague for me as I had to think about getting a job back in the U.K. and getting the children into school so I decided to leave at the end of March.
Before then I decided to give the family a treat and chartered an Islander aeroplane from Air Mel to take us all on a sightseeing flight over Vila. There were spare seats on the plane so Richard invited his friend Ishmael Kalsakau to join us. The poor boy was airsick and didn’t enjoy the last 10 minutes of the flight at all. I hope he doesn’t still suffer this problem now he is an eminent politician.
On the 1st of April we were farewelled at Bauerfield by a surprisingly large number of people. We had had a marvellous time and took many wonderful memories back to the U.K.
Looking back I think the 1970s was the best time to be there. I’ve looked at videos posted on U-Tube and have been disappointed how Vila has developed. The charm of Rue Higginson (now Kumul Highway I believe) has been lost to some hideous developments. The outer islands seem to be less affected however.
Copyright Timothy Foster 2017. All rights reserved