When Paul suggested going to Australia, I said, “okay, but if we’re in that neighborhood, I want to go to Vanuatu.” I’d first heard of the tiny 83-island Pacific nation from a friend of mine in business school who’d volunteered or been in the Peace Corps there, and last summer I’d worked with a wonderful Englishman named Rik who directed a theater/circus/fire troupe there. I wanted to see the country, visit Rik, and check out his program. Rik lives in the capital city of Port Vila on the island of Efate.
Our flight from Brisbane to Port Vila was delayed two hours for a repair, and Air Vanuatu gave us each a $20 voucher to spend in the airport. We also had some Australian currency left, so we spent the time trying to spend as much cash as possible. We bought our Vanuatu hosts a bottle of duty free run and ourselves snacks. Paul bought four Cokes and a Slurpee. I donated the remaining change to the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
Air Vanuatu played Don’t Worry, Be Happy while we were boarding and again when we landed. The inflight magazine said the country had twice been voted the happiest place on earth. It didn’t say by whom.I read the entire magazine and took notes on ideas for what to do in Vanuatu. The most exciting thing in the magazine was an article about Pacific flying foxes aka fruit bats. I’m guessing these are the ones we saw (and heard!) so many of in Cairns and Brisbane. The article said their wingspan could exceed one meter, but it wasn’t an article about biology; it was an article about cuisine, with a recipe for civet de roussettes and tips on which Vanuatu restaurants serve bat! The magazine was also interesting because it was so casual. Some of the ads were written in the first person, and an article referred to “the V-factor,” meaning the Vanuatu factor, which seemed to be about not caring and things going wrong. I was surprised the country would pitch itself that way to tourists, but maybe they knew it was endearing. The flight was uneventful. At one point my own snoring woke me up, so I do wonder how loud it must have been.
The national language of Vanuatu is Bislama. Many people speak a local, village language first, Bislama second, and English third if at all. On the 1.5-hour flight to Port Vila, I tried to learn Bislama.
My friend Rik was shouting and waving to us as we walked off the plane before we even went through customs. While we waited to get our passports stamped, we saw his troupe’s fire show pop up on the video loop about Vanuatu. After we passed through customs, a string band welcomed us to Vanuatu.
We picked up Rik’s boyfriend Derek and went straight to a bay to watch the sunset and drink kava. I didn’t want any, so Rik ordered me a pineapple Fanta and had them put it in a coconut shell so I could pretend to drink with the rest of them. They were really little bowls, but they all called them shells. We sat by the bay, met a bunch of their friends, and watched the sunset. We also bought a few little snacks from women sitting around with children. I had a piece of fried fish and a skewer of soft, almond like nuts, both of which were delicious.
We dropped off our stuff at Rik and Derek’s, and Rik used a broom to remove a giant cockroach from my bed. Then we turned right around and went to a fancy hotel called Le Lagon where Rik’s troupe was performing. As we walked in we were discussing our plans for tomorrow, and Rik told us we would also be welcome at the hotel anytime we wanted to come over for a drink or to use the pool. The place was beautiful, and some of the pools had swim-up bars with underwater seats. I asked why we’d be welcome, thinking it had to do with his connection through the fire troupe. “Because you’re white,” he answered.
We ordered snacks and watched the troupe of about ten swing, juggle, twirl, and breathe fire on the beach. For the last song, the troupe invited the audience to join them, and we danced together on the sand.
This feels like vacation.
Before I went to bed, Rik removed a giant cockroach from my bed, and I swept the other insects out of the room. I did not attempt to remove the fat skink that ran around my walls. This was my first time sleeping in a room by myself since our first night in Auckland, so I was willing to share with a few multi-legged friends.
Last night, I hadn’t seen the view from this house. It’s stunning. Only Derek’s beautiful garden is between us and a crystal lagoon.
First thing in the morning, we went into downtown Port Vila to check in with a dive shop about our options for tomorrow. We have good options. I also checked out the women braiding hair at the stalls that greet cruise ships. I’ve wanted to get my hair braided ever since I saw 10 when I was 13 or whatever and fell in love with Bo Derek. Rik and Derek told me how much they make fun of tourists who get their hair braided, but I don’t care. I am a tourist, and I hate dealing with my hair.
Then Rik drove us to Wan Smolbag, where he works. Bislama, a creole English, is Vanuatu’s official language although apparently most people speak village languages first and Bislama second. English and French are third and fourth, since Vanuatu was jointly “managed” by England and France until it gained independence in 1980. Anyway, Wan Smolbag is Bislama for one small bag, and it’s an amazing success story of an organization that runs a youth center, a sexual health clinic, a nutrition center, sports programs, computer labs, a garden, pottery and cooking classes, and I don’t know what all else. Oh yeah, it produces a soap opera that airs apparently all over Oceania and as far away as Canada. Rik works in the theater department and has created a fire act that performs eight shows a week at different hotels and resorts, providing employment for a group that has now spun off form Wan Smolbag and created its own, successful entity.
Rik gave us a tour of the facility as he was waiting for his fire performers to show up for their weekly rehearsal. When the 9am rehearsal hadn’t started by 10am, Paul and I jumped in a bus and went back downtown. I just wanted to explore, and he wanted to buy a data card for his phone. While he was buying the data card, I bought waterproof postcards to send from the world’s only underwater post office and other postcards to send from the world’s only volcano post office. Vanuatu seems to have cornered the market on novelty post office locations. My postcards included postage, so luckily I didn’t have to choose among the Vanuatu stamps, which included the royal baby stamp set (George of England, not Vanuatu royalty), queen’s diamond jubilee (ditto: England), partial lunar eclipse, and cocnut [sic] crab.
I was planning on having lunch at Wan Smolbag’s nutrition center, but I was so hungry that I needed a snack. We went to the market, though, and somehow I wound up eating a full plate of curry fish, rice, manioc, and salad. It cost four dollars.
Of course I loved the market. I recognized maybe half of the products there, including coconuts, live chickens in cardboard boxes, pineapples, custard apples, and plastic bags, but even many familiar foods looked strange. Peanuts were tied by their stems into bunches, some of the bananas were bulbous, and they had purple avocados. Other items were completely foreign. We saw kava and nakatambol and sampled sweet naus, which tasted like crab apple. Entire families were asleep under several of the stalls.
We went back to Wan Smolbag so I could watch a bit of rehearsal. The boy sitting next to me on the bus never spoke a word, but he used my thigh as an arm rest. I held as still as I could so he wouldn’t take his tiny arm away. I think he had alopecia. The troupe was practicing a fire staff routine, and I picked up some clubs to juggle on the side. They all stopped to watch, but I convinced them to go back to rehearsing except for one guy who explained that he wasn’t in that routine because they didn’t have enough staffs. I invited him to juggle with me, but he kept asking me to keep juggling and show him tricks. I did, but then I convinced him that I could show him tricks while we were passing. He was a beginner, but to my surprise the two patterns he knew included one symmetrical one, which many people never learn. I asked Rik and then realized exactly what had happened: I’d taught Rik that pattern last summer, and he’d taught it to his jugglers here! I passed with Tom for quite a while and showed him a bunch of new tricks, which he learned very quickly, despite not understanding most of my English (and my understanding even less Bislama). Rik joined us very briefly, and Paul even picked up some clubs and tried juggling for a while.
We stopped in the supermarket for water, and I marveled at all the “French” vodkas I’d never heard of and the canned drinks like vodka and bush lime.
Just when we were about to head out to go swimming at a waterfall, it started to rain, so we moved into the youth center. There weren’t very many women in the show last night, and I recognized one of them there. She was carrying two clubs and a pair of poi. I asked her whether she juggled, and she said she did a little, but maybe I could teach her more. I asked what she wanted to learn, and she showed me a back cross. I’m not very good at doing back crosses, but I sure know how to teach them, so I showed her, and we juggled side by side for a while.
By the time it stopped raining, I was a sweaty mess. Rik’s group was headed near where we were going, but we got fed up with waiting and hailed a bus to Mele Cascades, which we’d heard was the nicest hike to a waterfall. Rik had suggested that tomorrow we hire a bus driver to take us around the island, and Caleb, the driver we met today tried to convince us to hire him. He seemed knowledgeable, friendly, and professional and asked a fair price with no pressure tactics, so we probably will. Unfortunately I can barely understand his English. We’ll see.
We were surprised that the Mele Cascades, which we had assumed was public, had a $20 admission fee, but since everyone had raved about it, we paid the money and went in. The grounds were insanely lovely, with papayas, coconuts, and bananas hanging off the trees; birds of paradise and ginger in bloom everywhere; thatched huts; and little ponds. We walked less than 20 minutes to two gorgeous waterfalls. The water was perfect, refreshing but not chilling. Several women were immersed in long pants, long sleeves, and headscarves. It must have been even more of a relief for them on such a hot day. I was afraid to get my camera wet, but Paul took some photos.
A group was repelling down the top waterfall. I couldn’t see the top of the mountain, so I asked one of them how far they’d come. She said the waterfall I could see was a 50-meter drop. Before that, they’d come down an eight-meter rock wall (not a waterfall) and then a 25-meter waterfall on top of the big one I could see. When all the white people were finished laboriously making their way down, the local guides came down, only they came down quickly and gracefully, carrying a ton of gear, and barefoot or in flip-flops.
We caught another bus back to the Beach Bar, where the fire troupe had moved their rehearsal. I was amused to see a bunch of guys juggling, all trying tricks I’d done earlier that day. Rik said they had all raved about me and my juggling, like they had “secret crushes” on me. I showed a few of them how to do chin rolls. By tomorrow they’ll be better than I am.
They weren’t ready to start their run-through, so we caught a free ferry to Hideaway Island. As we walked on, we saw signs posting an island fee, but a woman was closing up shop and let us on free. We had planned to go snorkeling and talk to the dive shop to compare options for tomorrow, but they’d closed up early, so we could do neither. Instead, we walked on the beach. The coral beach made tinkling noises under our feet and when the waves hit it, and a coconut made a loud bang when it fell on the tin overhang of the dive shop.
I saw what I thought were volcanic rocks sticking out of the water, but maybe they were dead coral. I waded in and saw tons of black things that looked like thick ropes with feathery ends. I had recently read an article about a Harvard professor who makes her students look at one piece of art for three hours. I thought about her while I stood in the water trying to move less and look closer. A medium-sized crab jumped from rock to rock before scurrying into a hole. Hermit crabs pulled large shells. Small bright blue fish had orange stripes on their backs. Almost clear fish walked on their fins. The best thing I saw was a large, bright blue starfish clinging to the rock. I didn’t touch anything in the water, but as I was walking back to the ferry, I picked up two hermit crabs that were right in my path. I liked the way they pinched my hand. I put them back off the path.
Dress rehearsal was great. We sat on wooden reclining deck chairs. To my complete surprise, the clown act was one I’d written! Last summer Rik had told me he was translating it into Bislama for his troupe, but I’d forgotten all about it. The funniest thing is, I’ve been trying to come up with a new clown act and was hoping I could steal one from him! The show also included four different aerial acts, diabolo, club juggling, flair bartending, quartet adagio, and fire manipulation. It was super fun to watch the show and to see Rik direct.
Rik pointed out his favorite thing about their beach stage: when he’d set up the performance program at Beach Bar, they’d installed two tree trunks in the beach to serve as supports for a tight rope. Now, the trunks have started growing leaves and turning back into trees. You can see one of the tree/wire supports in the first photo of Rik directing, above.
Afterwards, he drove about 10 people home in the back of his truck. We picked up Derek and, at our request, had dinner at L’Houstalet because we’d read it had bat. It did! We got the civet des roussettes that we’d read about in the Air Vanuatu magazine. It isn’t even that exotic here; Rik and Derek had both tried it. It was okay, but there was way too much of it. We also split a chicken gizzard salad and a garlic coconut crab.
In the morning, we called the Big Blue dive shop for a pick-up. The man we’d talked to yesterday, probably the owner, picked us up and then drove through villages to pick up one other passenger. Only twenty-five percent of Vanuatu’s population lives in cities. I was happy for the detour. As we slowly made our way over the bumpy road with rocks for lane markers, he explained that while roads like this one caused dust problems, people mostly preferred them to paved roads, because in villages with good roads people drove too fast. Paul thought he said the villagers worried about cars hitting their kids, but I thought he said pigs.
On the way back to the dive shop, he told us stories about his previous life working on cruise ships. One time in the 1990s he was on a ship that lost power and drifted for three days in the pirate-infested South China Sea. They had to pull mattresses onto the deck because people couldn’t stay in the dark, un-air-conditioned cabins. Finally another boat, maybe an oil rig, towed them to Vietnam. Most of the passengers were Australian, but a few were American veterans of the Vietnam War, who were terrified of what the Vietnamese would do when they saw their passports. In fact, the Vietnamese authorities herded all 2,000 passengers and 500 crew members into a giant aircraft hangar, where it kept them overnight with no information. Maybe it was longer; I don’t remember all the details, but eventually they opened the hangar doors and boarded them onto a fleet of waiting Qantas jets, after, apparently, demanding and receiving a ransom.
It was much easier to complete my paperwork now that I had the temporary Open Water certification. The dive shop was so low key that it made me a little nervous. We didn’t get snorkels or dive computers, and Paul didn’t even want a wet suit. I took one but wound up not using it since the water was pretty warm. We didn’t do the standard buddy final dive check or anything like that, and it all seemed very informal.
However, my fears were misplaced. The show was tiny, but the equipment was nicer than in Cairns, the guys on the boat checked everything unobtrusively, and the shop insisted on dive masters accompanying all divers, which was an optional extra in Australia. There were four passengers on the ship, three master divers, and one, uh, driver? Captain? It was just a tiny motor boat. He seemed more like a driver than a captain.
We only rode about 15 minutes from downtown Port Vila to our first dive site. Two master divers came with Paul and me to Katie’s Corner (a reef site) while the third master diver took the other two passengers to a wreck site. I didn’t feel ready for a wreck and was delighted to have one-on-one professional supervision. I wasn’t too nervous, but my ears were bothering me more than before, and the pros are better at spotting stuff underwater. They spotted two big spiny lobsters and tons of other cool stuff.
After about half an hour, we surfaced and all met back on the boat for a light snack of passionfruit , bananas, coconut, something they said was grapefruit but I still think was pomelo, cookies of the kind commonwealth people call biscuits, tea, and coffee. Then we rode about five minutes to our next dive site, Twin Bommies. Paul’s been diving about five years, and he said it was his best dive ever. I saw shrimp, a cuttlefish (that I thought was a giant shovel nose lobster aka bug aka big version of that thing I ate in Melbourne), tons of starfish of all different colors and shapes, lots of things that looked like huge inchworms, an eel, two different kinds of pipe fish, an entire school of those neon blue fish with an orange stripe down the back, big clown fish, little things that looked like bright blue bottle brushes, and weirdest of all a nudiebranch (I heard “nudie barn” until a reader corrected me. We were down 45 minutes, and I would have been happy to stay much longer (and had plenty of air), but other people were getting tired, which was fine. As I surfaced, rain started to hit the water.
As we hid out from the rain, I filled in my dive book and got the shop to stamp and sign it like a teenager collecting autographs. I also borrowed a pencil to fill out my waterproof postcards and gave those to one of the other passengers to post from Hideaway Harbor. I won’t actually be dropping them in the world’s only underwater post office, but apparently they will be passing through it.
The rain let up, but it didn’t stop. I read the entire Vanuatu newspaper, which filled up an enjoyable 30 seconds and included two “custom” (traditional) stories. One of the women from the dive shop told me about watching a land diver’s vines break.
Eventually we gave up on waiting and walked back to the market for lunch. I walked back through the aisle of what I think is called laplap, but none of the options appealed. Each had a layer of starch, in most cases a thick square of mashed manioc but in some cases a pile of fat bananas or sweet potatoes, and then most had some kind of meat on top of that, either fish, chicken, or squid. Some had vegetables in between. The starches looked huge and bland, and the meats looked sketchy or boiled.
Neither of us bought one. Paul had another full plate of fish, rice, manioc, and salad. I felt okay wimping out on laplap because I bought the other traditional Vanuatu meal sight unseen from a woman with a cooler labeled “hot tuluk.” It turned out to be sort of a Vanuatu tamale, a mush of something starchy, probably manioc, with a filling of mushy meat, probably beef, all wrapped in two sets of leaves.
I also ate a carambola, which was a tad bitter but juicy and refreshing.
By the time we were finished with lunch, it was already after 2:30pm. We had planned to hire a driver to take us around the rest of the island, but Paul didn’t want to pay for a full day when we only had a half day left. I thought Caleb, the driver yesterday, had already quoted us a half day’s price, but really neither of us knew what was a fair rate, so I stopped a driver in the street and asked. He quoted us a price slightly higher than Caleb had. Then we walked to the tourism office, and the woman there estimated an even higher rate. We had a few sites in mind and asked her which things she’d recommend if we only had a half day, but she refused to recommend anything and would only give us information on things we asked about specifically. The one thing we knew for certain was that we wanted to visit the World War II Museum, which we’d been told was a tiny room full of Coca Cola bottles, privately owned by a passionate collector. Unfortunately, the tourism office woman said they only stayed open if they had tours coming in and would probably close in any case by 4 or 4:30pm. As it was already 3:30 and maybe an hour away (and we still didn’t have a driver), we decided to do the island tour tomorrow and instead set off for the one place the tourism office woman kept pushing, the National Museum of Vanuatu.
Only somehow we got distracted by clean bathrooms and an air-conditioned lobby at the Grand Hotel and Casino, where we lounged and recovered for a while. Some of my mosquito bites have turned into a horrible rash that was stinging from the salt water, so I also took the opportunity to rinse them with fresh water. It didn’t help, but the AC was sweet relief from the steamy day.
We got to the museum at 4:23pm, and we didn’t fight for the seven minutes till official closing because while the main room looked more interesting than I’d expected, the admission price included a tour, sand drawing demonstration, and a bunch of other stuff we certainly didn’t have time for. Plus, the grounds included all kinds of other buildings that I wanted to explore with more time. I did read the wall explanation of sand drawing aka sand writing and was delighted and fascinated to hear that UNESCO had proclaimed it a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” How beautiful does that sound?
The Museum building was dark and had only four men sitting in it waiting to close. The National Archives next door, however, was bustling with activity. We could see a “Sorry we’re closed” sign and a table of fruit and sandwiches, so at first I thought it was rented for a function, but I asked and was told it was an opening, so I walked right in.
The room contained a bunch of the country’s founding documents, ephemera from the independence movement, and photographs of the last British High Commisioner of Vanuatu, Andrew Stuart, who died relatively, so we’re guessing the exhibition was in his honor. The free pineapple was delicious.
Just for the heck of it, we walked across the street into Vanuatu’s Parliament House. That was also closing for the day, but the receptionist told us we could come back Monday and watch the MPs debate a motion. She wrote down our names and saved us a spot, but when I told her our flight from Tanna landed about noon, she crossed out our names and said they’d be done by then. Later Derek told us the “motion” is to replace the government and that over 20 MPs are being held virtual captives with even their phones taken away from them while some coalition tries to secure a majority to overthrow the Prime Minister. Apparently his one-year tenure is the longest of any recent leader here. This all sounded very dramatic, but Derek said it was business as usual.
We walked around a bit and tried to peer into the jail. Paul also had to refill his data plan. I enjoy browsing shop shelves while he tries to explain what he needs to clerks. None of the pre-paid data cards are big enough, so he bought four. I’m mostly enjoying not using anything on my phone except the camera and compass. Then I looked up and realized we were in front of Derek’s office building. Rik had mentioned Derek’s fabulous view, so we walked up five flights of stairs to check it out, but Derek had left. Instead of walking down, we walked up to the roof, and indeed the view was marvelous.
My bad back has been acting up, and we had time, so I suggested we walk back near the casino and check out the Thai massage parlors. We were so hot and sticky that we hoped they’d have showers for us to clean off before they touched us, but they assured us they didn’t care. Paul wanted an oil massage, so we chose the place that offered those. I didn’t know the difference, so I asked which one was stronger and harder, and two people told me to get the Thai massage. It was also cheaper, $25 for a full hour.
Paul said his was okay, but my massage was perfect. A lot of the initial signs were bad: no shower, no massage table (no face ring), no pillow under my shins, no oil, but the wide bed turned out useful because my masseuse wound up climbing on it too so that she could pull me around with her whole body, and I was actually relieved that nobody had to touch my sweaty skin because she did the whole thing through a towel. I have no idea how such a tiny woman could be so strong, but man did she maul me. I didn’t want it ever to end.
We waited for Rik in the local Brewery, which was a bit of a waste since I don’t drink and Paul didn’t like the local beer. Then Rik, Derek, Paul and I went to the world’s slowest restaurant for sushi. The rain isn’t letting up, and Rik says to give up on Internet, so I’m writing this in Word and hoping to post eventually.
By morning, the rain had finally stopped, but the Internet hadn’t started. We packed our luggage and dragged it down the dirt road to the main street, where Caleb, our bus driver from the other day, picked us up to drive us around the island. I really enjoyed the ride, during which he pointed stuff out, explained local history and culture, and waved to every person we passed so I did too. I told him we didn’t wave to strangers where I come from, and he seemed upset and confused. “Why not?” he asked, “don’t you make enemies?” I said we could talk to strangers to ask questions if we needed something but otherwise we ignored each other.
Mostly I marveled at giant banyans and wondered about all the villages we passed. Caleb said a few people bought solar panels or generators, but that most people lived without running water or electricity, made their own houses out of wood they cut themselves, and gardened for their own subsistence. Today was a public holiday, so tons of kids were running around, some playing and some working. I saw different children, aged about five to ten, wielding a machete (cutting a coconut), an axe (fire wood), and a big knife (maybe stripping thatch for a roof).
Many of the sites of interest are remnants from the American military presence here during World War II. Here’s the American pool.
Our first major stop was at an open hut, where we paid a man named Ernest to tell us about the Coca Cola bottles he’d been collecting for 39 years. He was animated and charming. In very fast English he explained how people didn’t remember their history, but we collected things to preserve it. I think he started finding bottles left by US GIs in WWII, but then he expanded the collection to include other WWII detritus and other Coke bottles.
Mostly we drove through tropical wilderness and small villages, but we did pass a coconut plantation, banana fields, and a cattle ranch. Besides food, the coconuts are used to make biofuel.
We drove onto a disused US air strip, still marked on the maps as “disused US air strip.” It was a functioning airport till 1987 but now looks like a field with one long set of tire tracks. Next to it are the remains of an S and U of a big “USA” made of berms.
We stopped at a roadside shack so that I could pee in a hole.
Of course we needed to order some food there too. I had a small piece of fried fish and a long skewer of nuts. Paul had a more traditional plate of meat on rice with noodles. He gave me some of his island cabbage.
When I’d washed my hands with water from a barrel, the woman running the stand had pointed to the ground and told me to be careful. As the ground around the barrel was all muddy from the water, I thought she was warning me about mud, but when we stepped back in the car, it didn’t smell so good, and Caleb started checking his shoes. I asked him to stop the car, and I walked about ten steps off the road into the ocean to wash my feet, flip-flops, and legs. I wish I could clean up that easily when I step in New York’s foul smells.
Although it’s his fourth language (village language, Bislama, and then French before it), Caleb’s English is quite fluent. Still, he has a strong accent that sometimes made it hard to understand him. In Bislama, S’s are pronounced “sh,” so Bislama is “bishlama.” As we were driving by some ruined buildings, Caleb told me how the land used to hold a manganese mine, but that when Vanuatu gained independence, the French burned all their factories so the natives wouldn’t be able to take them over. I asked whether the English also destroyed their property, and he said no, they left everything in perfect condition for the Vanuatu people to take over because the British weren’t shellfish like the French. A moment later I realized he meant “selfish.”
We stopped to take photos, to visit a village, and to snack at roadside stands.
Our last stop was at the Blue Lagoon aka the Blue Hole, which is not the Blue Lagoon from the Brooke Shields movie, which we think is in Fiji. We paid five dollars to enter this blue lagoon, which was a remarkably blue lagoon. Fresh water ran in from a river and mixed with salt water from the ocean. I swam through impossibly beautiful coves that twisted around. I was planning to swim through to the ocean, but since I was out of sight of anyone else, I promised myself not to be too stupid. At the moment when I saw the ocean around a bend, I felt the current suddenly pick up and start pulling me out much faster than I wanted to go. I swam sideways across the current until I got back to stiller waters. I jumped from a rope swing into the water, but I wasn’t happy with my form (my feet touched the water before I got full height), so I did it again and got a nice jump and a full Neti’s pot worth of salt water up my nose. It wasn’t unpleasant actually just weird. Since we’d already packed to head straight to the airport, I didn’t have a towel. As I dried, I hung out watching kids wipe out, men swing from a higher part of the tree, and kids jump off branches of another tree, maybe 20 feet above the water.
When we got back in the bus, it started to rain hard, and Caleb’s windshield wipers stopped working. Paul suggested switching out a fuse with the one that was powering the outlet he was charging his phone on, and I realized he’d been texting and playing games much of the time I was gawking at the scenery and grilling Caleb about Vanuatu. My attention span might have gotten longer since I haven’t had phone service. I don’t get tired of the exotic landscape. Paul sees one banyan and thinks, “banyan, check.”
Close banyans don’t fit in the photo frame, but here is part of one.
We stopped at one more stand, and I bought a skewer of meat and two siboro, which turned out to be a mush of taro wrapped in island cabbage. Paul got a dish of rice with curry fish and a meat skewer.
When Caleb dropped us off, the domestic terminal was packed. He said everyone was sending away someone’s dead body. Indeed, when we entered, we saw what looked like a receiving line of crying people. The terminal is hot and filled with flies.
I wanted to visit at least one more island in Vanuatu. We were torn between Santu, which promised one of the world’s greatest wreck dives or Tanna, but we went with Tanna because it offered an active volcano and a cargo cult as well as probably fine diving and other things to do. Neither of us had any idea how undeveloped it was going to be. We’d invited Rik and Derek to join us on our travels, but when I’d talked to Rik, he thought he’d be too busy. It turned out Derek had unfinished business from when he lived in Tanna, so they booked flights to join us for the weekend, which was fantastic. Derek took care of booking a hotel, hiring cars, and finding meals, and his “business” as you’re about to read, wound up providing the highlight of my trip.
Only downside? We missed the cargo cult ceremony. It just didn’t time out well. So here’s a photo from a Vanuatu newspaper, and I’ll provide some easy links for you to read about John Frum and cargo cults if you’re interested. The short version is apparently these guys march around imitating US WWI soldiers (with wooden guns) under the impression that their displays will cause supplies to be dropped from the sky.
We had been told check-in opened an hour before the flight. We arrived half an hour before that, so we took turns walking over to the international terminal for something to do. When I got back from my walk, Paul had moved our stuff into the check-in line, so I joined him there, where we stood without moving for 40 minutes. We got to watch the Vanuatu tourism video of the fire show, underwater scooters, and something that I have no idea what it’s called that involves people balanced on jets of water above the sea.
Although nobody had appeared at the desk to check in the long waiting line, an announcement asked Tanna passengers to proceed to the gate, and a bunch of people walked out onto a plane. I left our line to ask the woman checking people in how we could get boarding passes to get onto our flight. She ignored me for a while, then said, “second plane,” and went back to ignoring me. Although our plane wasn’t scheduled to leave for another 25 minutes, once everyone who already had a boarding pass walked through, she closed the door, and a plane took off.
People started getting upset with the lack of movement or information, but any time someone could get anyone official’s attention, the official would tell the passenger to wait at a counter, and then would disappear. Eventually we found out that the big plane never came from Caledonia, so they were running a small plane as a shuttle. Once the plane took off, they did check in the next 18 to wait till the little plane got back from Tanna. The passengers in front of us in line were nuns. It was fun watching them weigh the nuns on the baggage scale. My carry-on bag and I weighed a total of 67 kilos. I wanted to weigh myself without the bag, but I wasn’t willing to make the folk behind me wait a second longer than they already had.
We wait two and a half hours in the little domestic terminal. Finally the plane returns from Tanna and we board. It’s adorable but hot. There is no security and no safety announcement of any kind. I flew with my back pack on my lap and my phone on, yet somehow the plane didn’t crash and no terrorists attacked.
The views from the plane were lovely. Although Vanuatu is officially an archipelago of 83 islands, that only counts the ones inhabited by locals. There are a ton of other islands that either have no houses or only resorts. We fly over one shaped just like the hole I peed into earlier today.
When we landed in Tanna, Rik and Derek were waiting for us, but our luggage wasn’t on the plane. Nobody’s was. We weighed too much, so they just sent over passengers. The Tanna airstrip doesn’t have lights, and the sun was nearly setting, so our bags are supposed to arrive tomorrow morning. I have no toothbrush or pajamas, a (still wet) swimsuit but no change of clothes, and a laptop but no cord. Oh well. Less to carry. We’ll hope to see the rest of our things tomorrow.
Rik and Derek were with Mary, the island woman whose late husband’s family gave Derek his village name, and they had hired a driver. We piled into the bed of his pick-up and made a few stops for Derek to catch up with old friends. Rik told us that everywhere they’d been all day people had been excitedly shouting at Derek. Somehow he’s a rock star on Tanna. We stopped at a few places where he knew people, including resorts called White Grass and Evergreen. Along the way were wild horses by the side of the road. The grounds were gorgeous.
We walked around to the back where women were folding laundry, children were hacking vines with giant bush knives, and roosters were running up tree branches. His friends warned us that everyone on Tanna was related so anything we say will get back to them. I wasn’t worried that we’d be gossiping.
We came back to Sunset Bungalows to drop off our stuff, although we didn’t have stuff to drop off as we were expecting. Paul was relieved to see that our bungalow has electricity, and I was delighted that it has mosquito nets. We were both pleased it has a bathroom. The bungalow is ragtag but charming. It has a high, thatched roof, and the walls are painted bright blue. There’s what looks like cracked wallpaper on the wooden floor, and bright fish patterns on the curtains. There were fresh hibiscus blossoms on each of our towels, the back of the toilet, and the sink. I took the good (double) bed, since he had the good bedroom in Port Vila. It was completely dark when we arrived, but I am sure we walked though a garden, and I can hear the ocean from the room. It’s going to be gorgeous when we wake up.
After we dropped off our stuff and oohed and aahed about our bungalow, the four of us walked in the dark to a kava bar, where the men drank shells. The kava dealers sit under a thatched roof, but we were all outside, along with maybe ten other customers, all men. There was no moon and only minimal lights. The sky was full of stars, and everyone was very quiet except for constant spitting. Kava makes you warm, so most of the men had their shirts off, and they shuffle around, spit, and smoke. A woman sat with about four children under another thatched roof with one candle. She was selling ears of corn, hard boiled eggs, and snails. I’d already had hard boiled eggs while I was waiting in the Port Vila airport. I asked for a snail, but it was 20 cents, and she didn’t have enough change for my dollar coin, so I bought two. I couldn’t figure out how to get the snail out of its beautiful shell, so she took one of the shells from me and shook it violently until the snail and a smaller, flat shell fell out on the banana leaf. I shook the other shell but nothing happened. I shook it again. The kids and I were all laughing at me. The woman offered to help, but I wanted to do it myself. I couldn’t. Eventually, I gave up shaking the shell and gave it to her, but she couldn’t open it either, so she gave me a different snail. I offered one to Paul, but he was too grossed out. I liked them fine, but I had to pour bottled water over my hands to rinse off all the snail juice. Derek caught up with friends while Rik, Paul, and I chatted together. I still didn’t drink kava. Some men don’t think women should drink it, so I felt pure and traditional instead of like I was rejecting Vanuatu culture. I took a photo of the kava hut, but I didn’t use flash in the still darkness.
We walked home on a much longer route, still without flashlights, making me happy. Sunset bungalows was dark and quiet, but when we got to the main building, we only stood for a moment before the door opened, and the owner welcomed us into the restaurant and served us passion fruit juice and plates of chicken with rice, vegetables, and some starchy tuber. I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re the only guests here. Tanna does have a bit of tourism but it also has a black fella movement fighting to keep fewer ex-pats from buying land here than in Efate. We’re hearing very different opinions about the benefits and drawbacks of tourism and immigration. I am already fantasizing about moving here.
As I suspected, Tanna is breathtaking. Our bungalow is in a garden full of flowers, and an avocado tree overhangs the front porch. The ocean is clear, blue, and studded with volcanic rocks. I heard a strange sound, looked down, and discovered two women washing clothing in the cove.
The owner served us a breakfast of papaya, pineapple, banana, and thick slices of toast. We didn’t want to leave until our luggage arrived, but three of us walked down to the ocean, and Rik swam while the Derek and I explored the rocks. Some kids also showed up to swim. My suitcase beat me back to the room. Paul turned his phone into a hot spot so I could check my email, but it stopped working almost immediately, saying he’d run out of bandwidth. He had just bought a ton of data yesterday, so he was frustrated and kept trying to buy more all day. I don’t think he could have used it all up, more like something went wrong, but who are you going to complain to?
Derek’s friend Mary arrived, and we the five of us took off in a hired truck. Even though we’d booked it for the day, we let the driver stop to pick up some people who had clearly been waiting a long time for one of the island’s only four buses to come by. We took turns riding in the cab or in the open back. In one village the driver slowed down, and a child handed him a cell phone. The driver gave the child a handful of cigarettes, and we drove away without any words being exchanged
Last night when we stopped at the resort, the list of tours they had posted included one called“Big Banyans.” At the same time, I’d thought, “a whole tour of big banyans?” like that would be boring and “a while tour of big banyans!” like I’d love it. Well, today I found out that I’d love it. I never got tired of staring at the freakishly large trees. Many had hollows between the roots, and I and found myself wanting to move in for a few months.
Hardly any of the roads are paved, and some were so narrow that plants hit the car on both sides. Sometimes the plants were taller than the car. Pretty soon we weren’t on roads at all as we drove onto an ash plain. Derek and Mary told us how the plain used to be a lake, but about 2001 a cyclone burst the wall of the lake, and the water flowed back out to see. Derek lived in Tanna at the time, and everyone from his office ran out to watch, but he didn’t know what was going on and missed it.
Some of us explored the otherworldly ash plain beneath Mt. Yasur volcano. We could hear it erupting and see smoke coming out of it. “Where is everybody else?” Rik kept asking. There were no signs of other humans the whole time we were there.
Then we drove down to White Beach at Port Resolution. Our side of Tanna only has volcanic rock around the water. White Beach was sand, striped with white pumice, which Paul said floated. A sign on the beach said to contact Susan or David in the village for a White Beach restaurant, and Mary went and made arrangements with them for lunch but said it would take a while. We spent the wait in the ocean. The water was impossibly clear, blue, and relatively warm. A fairly strong cross current pulled us over to where a group of local boys were surfing off a reef about 30 feet from shore. Maybe because of the reef, there were no violent breakers on the waves, but there was enough of a swell for the junior surfers. Paul stayed closer to shore, but Rik, Derek, and I all cut our feet a bit on the coral, which even without goggles I could see included purples and yellows. Mary saw a sea cucumber.
Mary and I sat in the sand and chatted while Paul read on the beach and Derek and Rik bobbed in the waves. I don’t usually like sand, but Mary plopped right down, and I realized why not? You can always rinse off again. We sat right at the border where some waves were strong enough to get to us.
White Beach restaurant turned out to be Susan and David cooking us lunch. It was lovely. Under a thatched roof, they laid out a spread of three different kinds of starch steamed with coconut milk (if I were guessing I’d say sweet potato, manioc, and yucca), a vegetable like a green pepper, rice, curry chicken, and papaya. Instead of plates, we ate off banana leaves in woven coconut frond trays. I don’t usually like chicken too much, but this was so good I even ate the boiled skin and sucked the bones. We ate so much I think the three guys all fell asleep, Derek and Rik on the grass and Paul in the truck. The only part that wasn’t perfect was the flies.
We drove to the other side of the volcano and were stopped at a very fancy entrance gate. I walked in to ask what the admission fee was. The guard asked if there were five of us. I said we had six in the truck. He said “let me count,” looked at Mary and the driver, and then said we had to pay for four people. “Locals,” by which he meant black people, are free. The admission fee for white people was a steep $3,350. Derek was sad that they made him pay because the old guard knew him and treated him like a local and disappointed to hear that the volcano was only at a level two. Since they start shutting down access when it reaches level four, I was fine with two.
We drove up an ash field to the world’s only volcano-top post office, and I mailed the cards I’d already written.
It was about a ten-minute walk to the summit. Can you see the sign on the ash field? It identifies the second parking lot. Really? How many visitors were they expecting? We stayed at the top for maybe two hours and saw fewer than 20 other people all together, including a family of three whom we recognized from the flight and went to chat with. Turns out Rik had done business with the father in Efate.
As we approached, we heard noises and saw two different colors of smoke. Mt. Yasur contains three craters in the same mountain, and all three were erupting, one with black smoke and two with bluish white smoke. We could see one crater spitting out lava constantly. The other two sent periodic bursts of lava and smoke into the air. As I watched a big chunk of lava fall on the ash plain, the family’s guide came over to warn me that while I was mesmerized by “one lava,” another “more lavas” could hit me. He and the other not-first-time visitors, including Derek, all said it was the most active they’d seen it, definitely above a two. Even while it was still light, we could see lava spewing in the air, but once the sun set, we could see it glowing red through the smoke.
Some of the bursts were actually terrifying. Paul didn’t like the eruptions or the height, so he walked back and watched from a distance. Where we were, we could see and feel a ring of noise emerge before we could hear it, and after each big blast, we’d watch the red pieces land on the ashes just below us. Then, we’d get rained on by sharp pellets of ash and stone and suffocated by their sulfurous smell. I kept trying to take a photo, but I was so taken by each blast that I’d forgot to pull out the camera, pull it out but press a wrong button, or otherwise fail. Plus, even when I thought I was getting a photo, I found later that you couldn’t see the lava in the air.
Mary had already walked back to the car, and Paul already had a good photo, so he was ready to leave, but Rik, Derek, and I kept begging to stay for “just one more really big one.” By the time we walked away, we were all covered in ash.
Mary had, for some reason, announced that Vanuatu had too many problems, and she wanted to move to Berlin, where she had never been (although she has traveled outside of Vanuatu and in fact represented the country at a Pacific Island summit at which she met Hilary Clinton). In the car on the way home, Rik tried suggested she visit first. Then I told her that in Berlin, you don’t say hello to strangers. She gasped in horror, as Caleb had, and then announced that she didn’t want to live there any more.
The road home was long and bumpy. It was so late by then, we went to dinner before washing off the ash. The Sunset Bungalows owner made us fish, rice, vegetables, and potato wedges. It was simple and delicious. Then I came back to the room and tried to rinse off the ash but learned that we don’t have hot water. I rinsed for a bit and got the rest of my body clean, but I can still feel pebbles on my scalp and in my ears.
I love sleeping under my lace mosquito net, but when I woke throughout the night, as I always do, I kept thinking I smelt a bonfire. I think it was the ashes I couldn’t shower out. By morning, there were fewer pebbles in my scalp and more in my bed sheets, but I still decided to go bathe in the cove. I floated on my back, scratching my scalp and then dried in the sun on a rock, all before breakfast. Plus, I saw two different types of sea snake.
Today was the big day. Did I mention that a local “custom” aka traditional village had given Derek a name years ago but he hadn’t been back to Tanna to confirm it, so he had scheduled the ceremony for today. His friend Mary had set these wheels in motion, and it was her late husband’s village, although he, like Mary, had grown up in a Christian village, so this was really his ancestral village.
Anyway, Derek packed the back of our hired truck with gifts he’d brought for the village, and then when we stopped to pick up Mary and some of her relatives, they piled more into the truck, so we were sitting in a pile of woven mats, a case of rice, and a live chicken.
We passed an impossibly rusted ship, and I couldn’t get my camera out in time. I said, “Oh well. It’s not going anywhere. I’ll get it on the way back.” On the way back, Rik remembered to remind me when we were getting to that cove. The ship was still there, and I tried to get a photo from the moving truck.
Did I mention Tanna doesn’t have any paved roads? There isn’t even a symbol for them on the map legend. We bumped up through the jungle, occasionally spinning the wheels and having to back down a bit to try a part again. The plants lashing our backs were taller than the truck, and we passed bananas, coconuts, vanilla, and my favorite banyans. I want to move into a banyan for a month. We went over a few “bridges” that were just two sets of logs, one for each tire. Later, Mary told me that she’d had to get permission from each chief whose land we passed through on the way.
When we got to the village, about 25 men and boys were already waiting in a dirt plaza. We separated by sex and watched the group circle around and perform a dance that I was told was to welcome us and Paul was told was a sign of respect for the chief. As the men danced, about six women ran onto the field, some tying on grass skirts over their clothes as they ran. Apparently the were late to the ceremony, and the growing crowd of onlookers laughed and cheered as the women joined the dance. Both the men and the women wore a mix of traditional and western clothes. Hardly any wore shoes, and nobody carried anything more than a baby or a cell phone.
After the dances, Derek was given a chair, and the rest of us got woven mats to sit on. The villagers all sat directly on the ground. Various men took turns making speeches in Bislama and a village language, and occasionally Derek would stand up and respond, also in Bislama. The chief didn’t speak, but one man spoke on his behalf, and another spoke for Derek. The custom in these villages is that the chief acts as judge in village issues, making sure that everyone (probably every man) gets his say and that decisions are amicable. As far as I could tell, the speeches asked and answered a little bit on why Derek deserved this honor and a lot on what getting the name meant in terms of becoming part of the family and incurring responsibilities and privileges, which Derek humbly accepted.
Keep in mind that most of the proceedings were in Bislama and some of them were in a village language, so what I’m reporting is what I gleaned or what people told me later. At one point one of the challengers asked Derek what he was going to do to help the village, and Derek said he wasn’t going to promise them a new water tank to impress them because he didn’t know what would be most helpful and that he planned to get to know them over the years and learn how he could help. Although Mary said the name just makes him part of the family, Derek said it confers obligations that he takes seriously and that he expects to develop a continuing relationship with the village over the years.
Apparently some villages in the north islands confer names on foreigners fairly regularly. Not this one. Derek was the first outsider to get a name in the history of the village, and this was a very big deal that they took super seriously. Derek was actually pretty nervous about every detail. For example, we watched the men divide the rice he’d brought into five piles. The chief took one, and the others were sent out along the cardinal directions. Derek was relieved to see the rice taken, because if someone in the village ate the rice, it symbolized that the people of that village accepted the chief’s decision to grant Derek the name. If they had left the rice sitting there, it meant they weren’t taking the decision seriously.
Derek’s new name is Nulkasik. I have no idea how to spell that. Neither did any of the villagers we asked and neither does Derek. They only told him that Nulkasic was the name of a vine and that it meant strength. He knows there’s more to it than that, and that the stories will be revealed to him over time. Mary’s brother-in-law told Paul that it also has significance in a founding myth of the village.
Before and after the speeches, all the men from the dance shook each of our hands like a receiving line. Some of the villagers had sharpened teeth, and some of the older men hardly had teeth at all. I think a few had red betel nut mouths. One of the chiefs was wearing the traditional woven penis sheath, only it was tucked into an elastic band that said “Police” on it and he had a button-up camo shirt too. Mary encouraged me to take photos, but I felt awkward. I took a few, but they didn’t nearly capture the experience.
Officially, the village men had agreed to give Derek the name last night and sealed it with a ceremonial kava. Today’s speeches confirmed it, and several times they told us how white people needed to sign things, but they confirmed with public speeches. Still, they needed to have a kava with Derek, so the men all went into the ceremonial meeting place, or nakamal, to drink kava. Women weren’t allowed in the nakamal, so I joined Mary and the others on side. While we were waiting for the men, I asked Mary for a toilet. Sure, I wanted to pee, but really I wanted an excuse to explore. She asked the villagers, and I saw some confusion and commotion. She told me, “these are very traditional people.” I asked where they go, and she just waved around. Maybe they all pee in the bush, but can everyone really poo in the woods around their houses? There’s so much I don’t understand. After a little more back-and-forth with the other women, she led me into the village where there was a thatched outhouse and a canvas one. After I used the thatched one, a woman brought me a bucket of water to wash my hands. I felt a little guilty because I’d heard their water had been cut off by some scandal with the Catholic church surveying land, but I still washed my hands.
My needing a toilet ploy worked great as an excuse to explore. I was surprised at how large the village was. We’d driven by cinder block houses and metal ones, but these were all fully thatched, and some were two levels on stilts. A group of women were weaving fronds, maybe for mats or bags. On one house was written “Welcome. I am home again.”
Mary asked whether I’d tried kava, and I said, “No, I’m a woman.” She screamed her approval: “You’re like me!” Lots of foreign women drink kava. Later in the truck, a man asked me whether I’d drunk kava. I said the same thing, and he shook my hand and congratulated me for respecting their custom. Now I feel better about not trying it. Sure, I’m curious, but I was pleased to have the woman’s eye view of the ceremony and of the village.
When the men finished their kava shells, Derek, or as we now know him, Nulkasik, and Rik were pretty wrecked. Also, they were a little grossed out, although they did a good job hiding it. According to one of its legends, kava came out of the vagina of the first woman. That’s why women aren’t allowed to touch it. More relevantly to the gross-out factor, men who have touched women aren’t supposed to touch it in preparation for drinking, so young virgin boys chew the root and spit it out into the drink. Only Derek said the first time he drank it, he saw old men with open sores chewing it to prepare it. This time they didn’t have to watch it being prepared, but they said there was a foam on top and an oil substance on the bottom of the shell that they couldn’t avoid but didn’t want to think about.
We drove back with a truck full of outgoing presents that looked very similar to the ones we’d brought. Derek got a (different) live chicken, a bunch of woven purses, a woven mat, a colored feather, and most excitingly, a huge amount of “topanga,” a kava that is only supposed to be drunk by kings. It was a big sign of respect that they gave it to him. His kava root was tied up in coconut leaves with big red leaves lashed to it. Once everyone else had gotten out of the truck, he secretly slipped the chicken to a friend, but he kept the unwieldy kava.
I don’t know what else to say about this morning. I wasn’t taking notes, videos, or even very many pictures. Paul might have a better account on his blog, or you might be able to view Derek’s Facebook photo album of the trip here, depending how he sets his privacy.
It was definitely the most exotic event I have ever witnessed. This village doesn’t even use money. It was a huge privilege that the people invited us in and treated us as guests.
Mary got out of the truck when we got back to the village where she lives, but some of her relatives asked to be let out in what looked to me like the middle of the jungle. Apparently, they had gardening to do.
We picked up a different friend of Derek’s. Everyone on the island seems to know him. As the truck goes down the road, we wave to everyone we pass. Occasionally they shout back, “Derek!” I never learned the friend’s name. Like most of the people we met today, he didn’t speak English.
We drove to Evergreen and had lunch at the resort. I ordered too much food because I wanted to try the Mighty Tanna Soup from a cast iron marmite (I have no idea either) but I actually wanted the spicy seafood rice.
My soup was a bland mush of noodles and vegetables. The spicy seafood was fine. Everything here has been plain and fine.
After lunch, Rik and Nulkasic left for the airport. Rik’s fire troupe is performing tonight in Vila. I’m sorry to miss it, but I’m glad we saw the dress rehearsal. Paul and I stayed at Evergreen and asked for snorkeling gear. Although the resort has signs all over saying the beach is for its guests only, they gave us the gear without even a rental fee. White privilege.
We could see children standing on the water way out in the distance. We’d thought we needed to swim out to a reef, but there was hardly any open water. The whole ocean was full of volcanic rock and coral, making it too shallow for comfort. I didn’t want to touch the coral, but there wasn’t enough water over it to float on, and there was no place to stand. Paul gave up and walked back. I kept trying and saw many different types of fish, crabs, lizards, sea cucumbers, another blue starfish, tiny green shrimp, purple coral, a fish that holds coral vertically and then disappears into crevices faster than I can watch, and an anemone. Eventually I gave up too and sat out to dry off. My belly and legs were pretty scraped from the rocks and coral, and the flies had a field day nibbling at my bloody parts.
Paul had long since gone inside to avoid the flies and use the free but very slow wifi. It seems like we’ve tried every store on the island, but he hasn’t been able to refill his phone. When the flies had had their fill, I joined him at the resort restaurant to drink passion fruit juice and watch the sunset. It was crazy gorgeous.
While we were there, the owner asked us whether we’d be staying for dinner. We told him we’d already arranged dinner at our own hotel. He said too bad because they’d just gotten a fresh poulet (“fish taste like chicken”). We admired the big, red fish while he told us how living so deep gave it a special layer of delicious fat. It did look tasty.
I felt guilty that we’d been at the resort for so long and bought so little, so we asked the receptionist to call us a bus. She tried, but by then it was after sunset on a Sunday night, and the bus drivers had quit for the night. She called our hotel, and our hotel’s driver was also done working. She started calling taxis, but we could hear her getting rejected over and over. Nobody wanted to come out on a Sunday night to drive two dumb tourists on unsealed and unlit roads. We started calculating whether we’d rather walk or stay over, paying for two dinners and two hotel rooms and not having any of our stuff. We both decided we’d rather walk. Paul was pretty sure a truck would pass and pick us up. I kept picturing those people sitting waiting forever for a ride. Luckily, the receptionist finally reached someone willing to get us. She said he’d be there in 20 minutes. While we waited, she set the tables in the restaurant, although we’re pretty sure the last of their guests had flown back to Efate. Maybe she felt sorry for us, but she brought us a snack of freshly fried plantain chips while we were waiting. I guess if you fry and salt anything it would be good, but these sure were delicious.
The taxi showed up as promised and took us home. It was a 25-minute drive, so it would have been a hella walk in the dark. Helen was ready with our dinner, a beef stew and rice with some kind of fat, boiled banana. Helen’s cat wouldn’t leave me alone and grabbed a piece of meat off my plate.
We’d told Mary we’d see her at the market in the morning, but by the time I got up, Paul said she was already at our bungalows waiting for us. Paul woke with a dodgy stomach, which he attributed to yesterday morning’s kava. We ate light breakfast of pineapple and toast and then the four of us, Mary, Helen (or possibly Ellen, we’re not sure), Paul, and I walked the maybe 10 minutes to the market. I walked ahead to try to get a photo of that boat I kept missing yesterday. It was still in the cove, but it was docked, and people were boarding, so you can’t see it in its full seaworthy glory, but here it is.
As we got to the market, Paul needed to turn around and go back to the bungalow for a toilet and bed. The three of us ambled around. Mary introduced me to a few people and answered my questions about the fare. I saw huge pawpaws, fish on a tree, and local tobacco. There were also roped of tobacco, but the little pieces just came in chunks.
I bought Rik some feather sticks he’d requested, and Mary got peanuts. Helen offered me a ride back to the bungalows, so I got in the van, but almost immediately I decided I’d rather explore for my last hour, so I hopped back out and wandered through the local stores. All the stores were exactly the same, clothes hanging form the ceiling, minimal canned goods and staples on the shelves, individual tablets of Panadol on the counter, and no lights to see anything by. The streets were much busier on a Monday than they’d been during the weekend.
When I got back to Sunset Bungalows, Helen tallied up what we owed, and it was 2,000 vatu (about $20) more than we were expecting because we weren’t expecting to have to pay for the truck that picked up our lost luggage. I woke Paul up, and we counted our collective money. We had exactly enough to pay Helen, but we also needed 2,000 vatu for the ride to the airport. Paul had tried the one ATM on the island a few days ago, and it hadn’t taken his card, but he had American cash, so we walked to the bank to change it. The ATM still didn’t take my card and then ate mine, so he got in the long bank line while I followed customers’ instructions about which doors to knock on and who to ask for my card. They were right. My guy recovered my card immediately and agreed to change $20 US without making me wait on the long and apparently unbudging line. I had to find Paul to get the cash, because when his line hadn’t moved in two minutes, he’d punted and gone next door into the Western Union line. We got a horrible exchange rate on the $20, but we had some change and thought we’d have just enough to pay for the bungalow, the ride to the airport, and the domestic departure tariff. Once we got to Port Vila, we figured we could find an ATM to get enough money to get us home and through the next 24 hours till we leave the country.
After that little panic, we had two strokes of money-saving luck. First, I told Helen that we had thought her truck was going to the airport anyway and hadn’t expected to pay for the luggage pick-up. She agreed that was what she’d told us and explained that the driver had had to make a second trip because something came up. She agreed to accept 1,000 vatu instead of 2,000 because we hadn’t known. Then the truck who’d promised to pick us up didn’t show up. We walked to the street, got lucky, and caught one of Tanna’s only four buses, which was passing at just that moment and saved us $14 over the hired truck. Now I’m feeling loaded heading back to Port Vila with about $10 each, which probably won’t get us through 24 hours.
Our plane back to Port Vila was much larger, maybe 60 seats, and more official. We had a flight attendant, who insisted everyone sit in their assigned seats despite some grumbling from passengers. Our fellow passengers, however, were just as casual. Some were barefoot, carrying luggage made from woven banana leaves. Our checked baggage was on our plane. Rik appeared at the airport to give us a ride home. Life is good.
I’m still having fun decoding Bislama. The bank had posted “taem blong bisnis,” literally “time belong business” for its business hours.
I’d wanted to attend the morning’s parliament session, which the parliament house had told us would involve the MPs considering a motion and Derek had told us was the opposition trying to oust the parliamentarian, who had already lasted a full year, significantly longer than most of the country’s leaders. For the last few days, the opposition had been locking up MPs to control them till the vote, but the government got sneaky and boycotted the meeting, so the vote had been postponed till Thursday. Apparently now I’m interested in Vanuatu politics?
Anyway, nothing was happening at Parliament House by afternoon. We washed our clothes, hung them to dry, and headed back into town for lunch. Paul was feeling better after some Advil, but he still felt shaky enough not to want to risk market fare. I, on the other hand, was determined to try laplap without wimping out this time. We split up, and after a few passes through laplap alley, I settled on plain square of ground root with some smudges that might be pork with coconut milk on it. It cost $0.50 and was huge. The vendor wrapped it in a banana leaf and handed it to me with no implements.
Meanwhile, Paul had gotten frustrated when his restaurant didn’t pay attention to him, so I caught him wandering out looking for another restaurant, and we went to one that was advertised in the Air Vanuatu magazine. When I walked in, the waitresses all seemed excited that I had laplap. Instead of being upset that I wanted to eat outside food in the restaurant, they just seemed happy that a foreigner was trying local market food. I got a fresh lemonade and a fork for my laplap, but it was pretty gross, so after eating about a quarter of it, I asked for a Greek salad. I was feeling fresh vegetable deprived. Paul ordered a grilled cheese sandwich, a chicken schnitzel, which came with fries and fruit, and a Coke, so I thought he was recovered, but when he finished eating he said, nope, he needed to go home and go back to bed. It’s probably just traveller’s diarrhea, but traveller’s diarrhea sucks.
Believe it or not, in the tiny town of Port Vila, Efate, Vanuatu, I had four things I wanted to do with my afternoon: visit the National Museum (sand drawing, history of all the islands and cultures), check out the Secret Garden (custom stories, cannibalism info, and local flora and fauna), get my hair braided (like Bo Derek!), and go juggle at Wan Smolbag. I figured Paul might want to go to the museum or the garden, so I decided not to go without him, and we’d have plenty of time in the morning. I walked to the market where the hair braiders were, and I saw the signs but didn’t look for the women. For one thing, it cost $20, and I didn’t have that many vatu left (and am slightly stressing about how much money I’ve been spending), but more importantly, I hadn’t washed my hair while we’d been in Tanna without hot water, and it was caked with salt and ash. You can wash your hair in braids, but they wouldn’t stay in so well after the scrubbing I wanted to give my head. I decided to head to Wan Smolbag, but Rik didn’t get out of work till 5, and I was in no hurry. I walked around town and then went to a downtown park, sat by people playing boule, and chatted with a man named Chuck who plays baritone horn in a police band.
I had thought I’d be killing time, but time disappeared, and suddenly I had to make my apologies to Chuck and race out to catch a bus since Rik wasn’t expecting me, and I wanted to catch him before he left work. I got there just as he was walking out to the grocery store. We went to the same store in which I’d marveled at the bottled mixed drinks and off-brand liquor. This time I noticed that the liquor wasn’t even labeled gin, vodka, whiskey, or whatever, just “spirits.”
I thought I had checked out the whole store last time, but this time, Rik led me past the groceries, through the furniture, and into the arcade and carnival games! The grocery store had an entire ring with about eight bumper cars in it. All the games were turned off, and nobody was playing. I guess you could either ask them to turn them on so you could play in the store, or you could buy an entire video game.
Rik and I walked back and passed clubs for a while. One of the members of his troupe came and, without saying a word, nudged Rik aside so he could pass with me. I miss juggling. We had to leave to see a fire show, and the troupe had to leave to do one. They all complained that I was leaving, and I said I didn’t want to go either. Rik asked me if I could meet them there at 8:30 to juggle in the morning and went off to see whether they could meet me in the morning. Tom said he’d see me at 8am, and I made a face and said, “8:30?” Rik grimaced at me because he’d told them 8, expecting them to be late. Tom caught Rik’s face, looked at me, and reassured me I wouldn’t have to get up too early: “it’s okay,” he said, “8 black fella time.” We all laughed but Rik begged them actually to show up at 8 because I’ll be flying out in the afternoon.
We picked up Derek aka Nulkasic and drove back to their house to get Paul and feed the dogs. The dogs were hungry, but Paul wasn’t. He said he had a fever that felt like sunburn and thought he might have dengue fever or malaria. I asked him to promise me he wouldn’t look up his symptoms online, but he said he needed to know what he might have. I filled a few water bottles for him and said I’d pick up some bread or crackers. Poor guy. It sucks to be sick. I hope he’s better by morning. Also, Paul was trying to rinse a large cockroach or palmetto bug down the drain, so I squashed it and threw it away. He doesn’t like bugs either, but he asks me to hide my murder scenes. That can’t have helped his queasiness.
Derek, Rik, and I drove to Eratap Beach Resort, another gorgeous hotel where the Vanua Fire was performing on another gorgeous beach. The show was more fun for knowing some of the performers. One of the pregnant women in Vanua Fire had told Rik she was going to name the baby Riky, which is what they all call him here. He was incredibly flattered. Then Derek told him that meant he’d be expected to pay the child’s school fees. It is a huge honor to have a baby named after you (or to be allowed to choose the baby’s name), but it also incurs huge responsibility, not only to that child but also potentially to any brothers or sisters.
After we all joined the final dance, I was winded and hot, so I walked down the sand and waded into the ocean up to my knees to cool off. Then we had a fancy last dinner together. The hotel manager is a friend of theirs, so she joined us too. She’s white, but she grew up in Port Vila and is at least third generation Vanuatu. I was actually jealous. I freaking love Vanuatu.
When I packed in the morning, a little lizard ran into my bag. I got it out, but I wonder whether I’m bringing home any other stowaways.
Paul was fine by morning, either because he took antibiotics or because his bug ran its course. However, he didn’t want to go anywhere. I left for Wan Smolbag for my juggling date with Jimi and Tom from Vanua Fire. After all our discussion about the timing, and Rik stressing how this was their last chance to juggle with me, we didn’t even try to get there at 8am. Rik had a lot of work email, and his Internet works better at home than at work, and he had to pick up new juggling torches from the Post Office, which turned out to be a long process of forms and declarations. While I was waiting for him downtown, I broke down and ordered a slew of Bislama t-shirts for my family. While they’re way too expensive for souvenirs, I justified the purchase by thinking of them as Christmas presents. I didn’t give the shop any money though. They said they’d look into shipping and email me the total price. We’ll see if I get any t-shirts.
Rik and I got to Wan Smolbag about 9:40 for our 8am date. As we pulled up, Rik got a little nervous about which of the two possible outcomes we’d face: either the guys would have been there since 8am and be upset at us (he says they get upset if he’s even a minute late) or they might not be there at all. They weren’t there. I juggled a tiny bit with another guy but then curled up to try to take a nap since the heat was overwhelming, and I hadn’t slept very much.
I hadn’t yet fallen asleep when Jimi showed up around 10:30, and we juggled together till noon in the insane heat. A crowd gathered and watched the whole time. I taught him a ton of tricks and two two-person passing routines for him to teach Tom.
Around noon a girl walked up and handed him a fried bread thing with meat inside. I think he called it a “kado.” A tried a tiny bite and then walked to the mysterious grocery store/bumper car alley that also sells furniture and arcade games. This time I noticed a huge hot tub for sale. I bought us each a cold juice and walked right back. All the kids who had been watching us juggle had taken over the space and were trying to juggle the clubs. I drank my juice and watched, but after about 30 seconds I couldn’t take it, so I got up, gave the littlest kids a club-passing game, and showed the bigger kids how to hold and throw the clubs. One kid succeeded enough that I made him try three. When Rik came to get me for lunch, I had the kid show him. The boy collapsed into giggles the first few tries but eventually got three throws. I’m kicking myself for not getting a photo of all the kids.
We got to the Nutrisen Senta a few minutes after 12pm, and they were already out of soup. “What time do people eat?” I asked Rik. “At noon,” he replied. I looked at him quizzically. “Everything else starts late, but everyone comes to lunch at exactly noon,” he explained. I had rice with vegetables and a salad of shredded carrot and maybe green papaya. Over lunch the staff chatted about the electric fence. Wan Smolbag is hosting Vanuatu’s first entry into the junior Olympics for field hockey, and it recently put in a fancy new Astroturf field. The company it hired to install the fence, subcontracted to another company, and that company hit an electric line, so now the fence is electrified. Since electric fences aren’t ideal for youth sports, the organization is trying to get it de-electrified, but company A blames company B etc. In the meantime, guys were playing soccer on the field with only occasional yelps of pain.
After lunch, a small group was gathered around while Jimi juggled, Tom played a traditional one-string percussion instrument, and someone else sang and played guitar. At first, I could not figure out where the other musician was, but I found him sitting in a tree over my head. It was just lovely. I sat to listen and wait, and I put a club on my face. Immediately, everyone tried balancing clubs on their faces. After a few minutes trying to explain the technique, I lost interest and took away everyone’s clubs so the three of us could juggle. I didn’t mind taking them away from all the kids, but I wanted the one woman who had been juggling rocks to keep practicing, so I found a long stick and showed her that worked just as well. I don’t think she was interested in balancing a stick, although I think it’s cooler to be able to do things with real objects than with objects made for manipulation.
Jimi, Tom, and I juggled for another hour. We did some three-person patterns, and then Jimi and I showed Tom his two new routines. When Rik came to let me know it was time to go, I started reminding Jimi of all the new tricks he had to work on. He interrupted because he remembered them all and said when I came back I’d see he could do everything. I said if I came back tomorrow he’d be able to do everything. It takes me so long to learn anything, and I can teach so fast. Seriously if I do come back, I’ll have to learn some new tricks. They’ll both be caught up with me by then.
On the way to the airport, I fantasized about getting grant funding to bring the group to a juggling festival, but Rik told me how hard it is to get visas for Vanuatu citizens to come to the US. There’s no American embassy in the country; Vanuatu is represented by the embassy in Papua New Guinea. If it seemed daunting to get funding for them to come to the US, I can’t even imagine trying to get funding for them to take trips to PNG and to the US. I may actually need to come back.
In my moment of free wifi at the airport, I texted Rik, and he wrote back, “Jimi is on cloud nine…loving his new tricks and is beaming. You rocked his world!” I wrote back in my pidgin Bislama, “Me wantem tu kostom husbands.” All four of us were upset we forgot to take pictures. Maybe I can come back and teach English and circus. Seems like two things they need here.
Paul had already checked in by the time I got to the airport. He’d spent the day at home on the computer. At the airport, we went through our usual attempts to spend our remaining currency. I was actually interested in a $2 Vanuatu magazine, but I didn’t want to get even more attached. Actually I thought I could check out more options and then get the magazine, but Paul was eager to get into the departures lounge, and in an odd moment of formality, there actually was a security check-point, and we couldn’t get back. I was so sweaty and gross from juggling in the stifling youth center that I got a lime slushy because the ice cream guy said lime was his favorite and the least sweet. Paul said he was just as sweaty from standing in the heat and got a bright blue vanilla one. Then I didn’t have quite enough money left to get a “reading book.” I guess the ones above that section are for something else.
This is the first place I’ve really hated leaving.
Thanks for coming along for the virtual ride!
Vanuatu was the third of four countries I visited on one long trip in the beginning of 2014. To find out about the rest of this trip, please read my posts on Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji. For a different perspective on the same trip, check out my travel companion Paul’s blog.