Greetings from the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. The archipelago of volcanic origin is 1000 miles East of Australia, 300 miles Northeast of New Caledonia and West of Fiji (just hit the link or get a map). This independent nation of just 30 years was an amazing experience. People, we are talking true adventure travel in every sense of the word! Although our decision to visit was off the cuff, we all left with a sincere appreciation of Vanuatu and Melanesian culture, and we hope to return one day. Here's a few words and pics of a vacation that we will long remember. (as always, click on any photo or go to our Flickr site to see all the photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/efusco/sets/72157625804238645/ )
After a couple of weeks of taking our malaria prophylaxis, we flew into Vanuatu on a Sunday on an Air Vanuatu flight from Sydney. The sweltering heat and humidity that greeted us as we stepped out of the airport was a true indication of the week ahead.
We were soaking wet by the time we arrived at our booked hotel. Although we had a wonderfully welcoming reception, the lizards in the entryway, ants on the kitchen counter, mold in the bathroom, and no air conditioning (quite a restless night) convinced the entire family that perhaps I had budgeted a bit too much on this accommodation. Feeling a little sheepish over our need for creature comforts, we switched hotels the next day and blissfully enjoyed the functioning pool, free breakfast and passable a/c. Hello Melanesian Hotel, we love you!
We stayed in the capitol city of Port Vila (population ~ 40,000) on the island of Efate (ee fot aye). Efate is one of the 83 different islands that make up Vanuatu, and the only one that has paved (loose definition) roads. The electricity for this island ends just outside the city limits. The “ring road” around the island was completed in 2008 from a grant from the US.
Most people speak English and French, (as both of these countries ruled jointly until Ni-Van independence,) as well as Bislama, a pidgin English. There are also 115 different native cultures and 115 different languages in Vanuatu, so some people routinely speak 4 languages---and we consider ourselves educated!
Vanuatu calls its people “the happiest people in the world”, and I believe it. As we roamed the town our first day there, many people came up to greet us and ask if they could help us with anything.
Our first tour was booked with a company whose owner, after hours, gave me a verbal tour of the island, pointing out areas of interest and throwing in tidbits of culture and history. Although the Ni-Van people are truly poor by our standards, there was no begging, no homelessness that we saw, and no hustling. Uniformly, the Ni-Van appear happy with their lives and do not feel that their lifestyle is inferior in any way to ours. They are unbelievably proud, friendly people.
On our first night in Vanuatu, we wandered the ocean front and ended up at the “Nambawan Cafe and Juice Bar” for a little Ni-Van pizza, Tusker beer (kids had fruit smoothies), and a movie shown on a rigged sail over looking the harbor. Ah, paradise!
Over the next few days, we explored Port Vila and the outdoor markets. Refreshingly, there is no bargaining or badgering. We enjoyed some traditional local 'street food' at the market, which is open 24/6—closed only on Sundays. The market food was very inexpensive compared to any of the local restaurants since it caters to locals rather than all the holiday folks.
We took a tour around Efate with John, the adorable older man we met our first night in Port Vila. We saw a kastom village where the people still live in houses like their forebears (more the norm in Vanuatu than the traditional housing we are used to).
In a different village, we were entertained by the menfolk with traditional warrior dances in traditional costume. Fortunately, cannibalism and head hunting went out in 1940, so other than a hibiscus flower tucked behind our ears, we left fully intact!
Did you know the US had a military base on Efate in WW2? Yeah, we didn't, either! We saw the remnants of the airfield and swimming pool before journeying onward to “Survivor Beach”.
Survivor season # 9 was filmed in Vanuatu. We snorkeled off the beach seeing, “Nemo” fish, sea cucumbers, parrotfish, giant clams, angel fish, and blue starfish. Wonderful! Evan even tried his hand a opening a coconut in preparation for a future “Survivor” appearance!
Another fantastic experience around Port Vila is the Mele Cascades. This is a waterfall that people can hike up. At the top are beautiful twin cascades that just scream, “tropical island paradise”. Brendan, Heath, and Amarra loved this even with the tropical shower that ensured we were fully drenched before we left. This is definitely “a must” if you're in this area.
Other places on our “to do” list were the Secret Garden and the Vanuatu Cultural Center. The Secret Garden is a privately owned park (mosquito spray provided at the entrance) that has an incredible amount of information on the history and culture of Ni-Van people. There was no way we could absorb all the literature provided, although we tried! Besides the displays of traditional housing and local fauna (lizards, snakes, and coconut crabs), we learned about the history, culture (Evan claims to be a big namba---ask him about this), and lifestyle of the indigenous people.
The Vanuatu Cultural Center is the national museum, although the opening hours are dependent upon the one barefoot curator's arrival time. Island time is lovely! It was very small, but packed with priceless statues, hats and pictures. We most appreciated the sand drawing demonstration, complete with story and song. The kids had a chance to practice their drawing as well!
Perhaps the highlight of our trip was our visit to the outer island of Tanna, a couple of islands South of Efate, to see an active volcano. We crammed into a single engine Cessna 206 , and dodged clouds for an hour to our destination.
Tanna's “international airport” had 2 flights that day---both private single engine planes! Yep, we did see chickens on the airfield. We were met by our guide and driver there. Half of us were in the truck's cab and the other half in the bed of the truck.
It took ~ 1.5 hours to traverse 20km to the other side of the island. The dirt road was washed out and very rough with few vehicles but many bush knife carrying villagers on bare feet. Once we reached the base of the volcano, we saw a few hardy souls attempting “sand boarding”, so, of course, the kids wanted to try as well!
We were surprised that the volcano actually had twin craters, both active.
The eruptions were indescribable with first, a sound like a canon blast, and then flying pieces of magma soaring hundreds of feet into the air and a constant rumble of the earth under our feet. Of course, there was no railing, so even though Evan hung on the edge to take photos, the kids and I kept a judicious distance away from the rim. We could have stayed there all day, but our guide shooed us back to the truck to go for lunch and then start the long trek back to the other side of the island.
My description does not even begin to tell you how amazing this was. If you ever have a chance to see Mt. Yasur on Tanna, do it! (On a side note, since vehicles are few and far between on Tanna, we had several pedestrians stop our driver and jump in the bed of the truck to hitch a ride back with us to Lenakel!)
To wrap up, I have to say something about kava. The Ni-vans claim that they are so happy because of this. They say if someone fights or has a problem, just give them a little kava. They get happy and sedated (opposite the aggression and poor judgement with alcohol), and all problems are solved! Personally, although Evan and I did try it, the taste is awful! I can only describe it as bitter liquid grass taste. I think I'll stick with a glass of wine.
We're still having amazing adventures and enjoying the ride! We have just about 2 weeks left to our time in Australia before setting off on our 2 month around the world trip and expect to be back on US terra firma on April 20th.
Cheers, my friends,