When the health care system can’t help you, faith is sometimes the only means to health, or at least, hope. Connie Ross took a trip to the recently discovered healing waters of Santo, where hundreds of sick people are flocking in, in hope of finding what the country’s health care system cannot provide them.
Risk-to-reward ratio, or ‘how much risk should one consider when entertaining the reward of an event/excursion/investment?’. I ride a motorcycle because the wind in my face, the freedom that comes with two wheels beneath me, and weightlessness on the rise between “S” curves are a greater reward than my perceived risk. I use the same decision model when evaluating excursion opportunities in foreign lands to partake in cultural experiences. I also think about discomfort vs pleasure. A recent Easter pilgrimage to the ‘healing waters’ in Luganville, Santo with a stated 400 devotees on the Vanuatu Ferry was one such event.
It was fortunate that I made an intentional face-to-face visit to Vanuatu Ferry on Wednesday, prior to my Thursday April 13th departure. When I purchased passage ticket number 71 on April 4, Meriam, the organizing mama in the local central market, told me that the Ferry would depart at 6:00 pm on the 13th, and that I needed to arrive at 3:00pm. This was my first time riding on the Vanuatu Ferry, I wasn’t sure what I needed to know, and checking it out beforehand saved me from literally missing the boat. The great fortune came when I confirmed the departure time, because the Ferry was now planning to leave at 3:00pm, and I needed to arrive by 12 o’clock.
It still seemed that a 12 o’clock pre-arrival was overkill, so around 12:30 I had a friend drop me at the Ferry’s departure point on the Port Vila Wharf. As is the case during the rainy season in the South Pacific, it was raining heavily when I arrived at the ship. The hold was relatively empty, and my initial thought was that my appearance was still very early, and that the majority of the passengers, had yet to come. I approached the entrance, witnessed the mud puddles in most of the walkway, and the smell of old dirty oil made my nostrils flare. About fifteen people were waiting to enter the narrow staircase that led to the seating area, and the twenty-something-Ni-Vanuatu-ticket-taker pointed to the storage room (about 12x8x12) where my non-carry up luggage was going to be stored for the duration of the journey. I was surprised and pleased that the bin was almost full, as it meant that my bag would be on the top, and not become a pancake under the weight of the other pieces of cargo. There was no luggage tag, and I hoped that I would see it again at the other end of the trip. I reminded myself that in all of my similar excursion-experiences my luggage has never gone missing. The times when I have not been reunited with my luggage at the other end of a trip have been with the highly controlled airlines. I entered the line, and shortly after, a woman with a child about five years old stood behind me. I liked looking purposely at the people with whom I will share the next 24 hours, and the little girl was particularly interesting. What struck me as most amusing was that she had a glob of chocolate, the size of an Easter egg, melted in the palm of her hand. She was holding it carefully, and occasionally licking it as one might do with an ice cream cone. As we started to ascend the stairs, the line closed in, and the little girl got to standing very close to me. Geeze, I hope she doesn’t fall forward I thought, or I’ll be wearing the chocolate that she had yet to consume. As the woman guardian saw my concern, she scolded her petite companion who then welled up with tears, and cried into the chocolate. I didn’t want to look, but also couldn’t contain my desire to capture the funny sight. I snapped a quick picture at a perfect time with the adult pointing her finger at the girl, the ball of melted chocolate in her hand, the tears about to fall, and pursed mouth that wouldn’t allow her devastation to be expressed.
In the seating area at the top of the stairs, I was quite surprised to find all of the benches taken. I thought I was far too early when I arrived at 12 o’clock, when in fact I found out later that many of the pilgrims, the handicapped, women and children, had come before 10 am. A woman named Rita and her friend Ruth welcomed me to a tan and brown vinyl covered bench which measured about 1.5 metres long.It was meant for two, but they made room for one more. The three of us became fast friends. For me I was able to practice Bislama, and they took pride that they had helped the only white woman on the expedition. It was 35 hot degrees and about 90% full of sticky humidity. The 10,000vt return trip did not seem to allow for the luxury of air conditioning. The higher-than-average discomfort increased by the fact that there were actually 686 passengers on board a Ferry with a maximum capacity of 500. As we went through the procedure of how to wear a life jacket, in case we accidentally found ourselves in the solwota, it did not come as a reassurance that the organizer said there were 1000 life vests onboard. I kept thinking to ask, but didn’t, “Where will we find them should we need them?” At this point in time, and probably fortunately for all of us on the ship, the exact number of over bookings was not yet known. Apart from this threat of danger, Rita and Ruth were prepared. Not only did they have a bench that could hold 3 bodies, they also had secured the painted steel floor space perpendicular and adjacent to our bench. They brought a woven mat and two regular size pillows, and throughout the hours of 7:00 pm to the 5:45am sunrise, we took turns sleeping completely stretched out on the floor, and sleeping sitting up on the vinyl pew. I was very thankful for Rita and Ruth.
Upon the ship docking at the wharf in Luganville, at 2:00pm, it took a full 50 minutes before the first passenger departed from the ship. The organizers arranged the departees by group. Handicapped first, followed by children, women and men. It took a full hour for everyone to disembark. It took another hour before all the luggage came off. Fortunately, I was re-united with my bag. A friend of mine living in Luganville met me, and we went to his home for a long awaited, and much needed cold water shower. It wouldn’t be until the next day that I would find myself bathing with the other women in the healing waters of Santo.
Being the only Caucasian among a sea of Melanesian, I was easy to spot as I walked into the bathing area; the spring waters had been closed by the town mayor to anyone other than those of us who had come from Vila on the Ferry. By this time, I was known to many on board by my kastom name, LeiWia, which means good woman. As I walked past the pools segregated for handicapped, men and women, I heard some women call my name, and motion me to join them as I walked toward the pool which had a sign that read ‘plesblo swim blool woman’. I entered the knee-deep water fully clothed, and immediately the women around began praying over me, pouring water over my head and my troubled sore knee. They provided a warm welcome to their hopeful place, and brought me water from the source to drink. I had a great feeling of energy, healing and power that comes from people being connected by common thought or purpose. Shortly before 5:00pm when I left the spring, an announcement was made that the Ferry had changed the next day’s departure time to 6:00pm instead of the original 3:00pm time.
On Easter morning, I arrived back at the healing waters for the 10:00am service. Again I sat in the spring waters, and drank from the clean source. Many close by made sure that I had heard, and understood that the Ferry’s departure was back to the original time of 3:00pm, and I was thankful that my intuition told me to arrive early in the day. It was after the Easter service that I heard the story of how, when and why the healing spring waters began. Annie, the first woman to receive healing from the spring waters of Santo, told me her story.“In 2003 I got sick here and had one small lump on my breast. In 2008, it got sore, and I went to the hospital in Santo and they told me I had cancer everywhere. In 2010 I went to Australia and the doctors told me I was fine.
But after it got worse, in 2013 I went back to Australia and was diagnosed with breast cancer. The doctor told me that I should have an operation. But I said, no, let me think about it. The cost of the operation was very high and they told me I would have to be in Australia for 9 months. I was in the process of building my resort called Reef Resort. But afterward, I started bleeding every night. I put ice on my breast to keep the pain down. Sometimes I could not sleep, and I would go for a walk and pray. I no longer had hope, as I didn’t think I had a choice because I was bleeding every day, morning and night,” Annie explains. “On November 5th, 2016, I went to my house which is located above the waters. I sat down and prayed stating that I had lost hope. I felt strong and continued to pray and said amen.
I looked up and saw a long cloud coming down into the pool of waters. I went to the water and prayed for two hours and went back to my house. At 6 o’clock, I came back to the water and finished praying. I put my hands under the water, it was like a spider hooking on to my hands. But in the time I was under water, I felt my release of the cancer. I dug a hole and slept in it. On November 6th, I went back and felt great. For three days I looked at my sore and saw that it was dry for the first time. I had tried many different kinds of medicines that had no effect.”
I had joined the mama’s pilgrimage to Santo as both an observer and sceptical participant. During my excursion I spoke to several attendees to learn of their illnesses or problems, and also to ask if they felt any different after spending time in the water, and drinking from the spring. I did not personally see any transformations, but I heard about two. One an elderly woman used crutches to get into the waters, and walked out without them. The second was from a mother concerned about her teen-aged daughter who had suffered a miscarriage last fall, and now, six months later, her stomach was still bloated. After sitting in the waters, her daughter’s stomach size was reduced, and she again began normal menstruation. As for me, I had torn the meniscus in my knee seven months prior, which now and then still caused some pain. Unfortunately I came back to Vila more uncomfortable than I had left, after I carried my dive gear for a shore dive.
I spoke with Meriam Abel who works at the Ministry of Health and WHO as the Local Tech Advisor for Primary Health Care. She said there is no scientific proof that the waters provide miraculous healing. However, she followed that statement with, “Vanuatu is a Christian faith-based country, and faith has powerful way of healing.”
Departure for Vila was on time, and the three hours before sunset, feeling the warm Pacific breeze, was like a candlelight vigil held in memory of the day. We watched flying fish, and I spoke with several of the patrons about their life here in Vanuatu as we named the islands that passed by. An incredibly gifted eight member music group called Salvation serenaded us throughout the evening with their melodic tunes and pitch perfect harmonies. I was told they were a breakaway group from the Seventh Day Adventists, as an explanation of why they were so good.
Their music was different from the string band music that dominates the country. They sang songs about the islands, sprinkled with some spiritual and uplifting pop hymns. I couldn’t get enough, and my shouts of “Encore! Encore!” in English were translated into Bislama as “one more”. It was much more comfortable on the return, as only 400+ people returned on the Vanuatu Ferry into Port Vila. By 7:00am we saw the familiar sight of DPR, (Devil’s Point Road), and skidded up to the wharf about 8:00am. I was home in 20 minutes to re-live my journey and remind myself that the reward far outweighed the risk.
Story and photography by Connie Ross.