Friday, August 31, 2007

Our holiday in Vanuatu

Just imagine waking up each morning to that lovely veiw of the sunshine glinting on the clean clear blue waters of the harbour at Port Vila, Vanuatu.


While sitting dejectedly around the fire in the lounge trying to get warm for the 5th day in a row of the depressingly cold, greyness and rain of winter, Erle and I asked each other just why we were here freezing when we could quite easily be somewhere else in the world, much warmer and comfortable! We decided to see where there was a reasonably inexpensive trip going anywhere that was warm and tropical. First place that caught our eye was Vanuatu in the Pacific, near Noumea but much hotter, as we started checking it out we knew we would be going as it sounded like a good place to relax in the sun.
We very quickly decided to stay firstly at Sebal, a brand new smaller place on the harbour side, near to the town centre that had a swimming pool and coffee making facilities and air conditioning, our only extra requirements. We tried to check this Hotel/motel out on the internet but as it was so new there was almost nothing to find, except it shared facilities with Iririki Island Resort; a much bigger establishment built on its own private island with a free ferry to get there. We would have 7 nights here, then to go on to another much bigger place with its own private beach with free water sports and a Casino for me to play at! This place, Le Meridian, while still in the same town of Port Vila looked like it was quite some distance away on the opposite side.
As per usual, for us, there was a slight hiccup with the bookings; Erle had all his tickets issued under the spelling Earl and had to pay $85 extra to change the spelling for the airline. We didn’t want him refused entry to Vanuatu on the ground that the name didn’t match the passport, or in fact refused permission to leave New Zealand on false papers.
Vanuatu was a very popular destination so we couldn’t just jump on a plane instantly; we had to wait 3 weeks before there where spare seats on the plane, by that time temperatures were warming up here in Blenheim, but we still looked forward to our holiday as usual, and time flew.
I mentioned to my Mother our plans to visit Vanuatu; she told us that her Church had a Mission in the country on the Island of Ambrym. They run a school at Utas had recently had a group of local church people over there repairing buildings and working generally. I suggested to her that we would be happy to take any mission goods they wanted, with us, if it would assist them. She contacted the Minister of her Church and a large bag of goods were duly delivered to us, plus a bag of goods my Mother had donated, so we also filled the rest of a large suitcase with pens and pencils, books, toys and footballs and tennis balls and lots of pretty hair clips for little girls.
One of the coincidences that seem to happen to us; was that the little old lady sitting beside me in the plane turned out to be a missionary going to Ambrym on mission work, she was a Catholic Sister going to the other side of the same Island we were sending Presbyterian goods to!
I have long been drawn to the idea of sponsoring an overseas child, we who have so much as compared to those who have nothing at all, but always reject the idea because I wonder just how they select one child from so many millions of all so needy children, I imagine it must be the Chief’s favourite child or some one like that who is the lucky one. (The person least needy in the whole village) But it does seem that my wish to help in some way has found a way that appeals to me, in assisting small village schools where every child has a chance to benefit a little. Remember we did the same kind of thing in Fiji. We are limited by weight on what we can take, but one extra suitcase is not a lot of a problem. We don’t send money, only goods at this time though that could change very easily.
After a relatively short flight we arrived in the hot sticky but fragrant heat of Vanuatu, where customs gave no more than a cursory glance at Erle’s passport as they stamped it. We asked if he would have been sent back home if he had travelled with the wrong spelling on his tickets and they laughed and said ofcause not. We still felt it better not to run the risk of deportation or something like that.

Sebal Hotel, from the water.

Time was only 1pm when our transfer dropped us off at Sebal Hotel, the biggest newest in fact only, 6 story high-rise Hotel in Port Vila! What a surprise, we were expecting a small cosy place and we got the height of luxury with the best view on the whole island. We quickly changed into tropical gear and were off to the local market for fresh tropical fruit to feast on while we set out to explore the town of Port Vila.

We also bought a packet of the local delicacy Laplap to try; laplap is a little like a meat pie, it has a ‘pastry’ outer layer of snow white tapioca completely enclosing a delicious meaty centre all wrapped up in a piece of banana leaf to form a small parcel. The local ladies cook hundreds of these every day in an in-ground oven at their local village; it is transported on the back of a truck every morning to the market to sell. There is also 3 other different types of laplap, these other three are cooked flat in huge sheets and are cut into squares at the market, these are made of either sweet potato, banana or taro and have a piece of chicken or a whole fish cooked on the top of each small square. We didn’t try them all, only 2 of the different kinds, we found they tasted delicious and smelled even more so when you unwrapped them, but they really were rather too stodgy and heavy for our taste, very filling. As the Islanders do not have potatoes I guess they have to make do with what they do have.
As most of you will never go to Vanuatu, I shall tell you a little about Port Vila and the country generally. Vanuatu is made up of 80 islands some very small but other quite large, spread out quite widely in a ‘Y’ shape, nearly all are very volcanic, several still erupting and shooting our red hot lava regularly, there are tours that take you right into the crater of active volcanos, but we were not that adventurous, this is to be our lazy relaxing holiday.
There is a population of about 200,000 dark skinned people, clustered in small areas and tiny villages, they make their living from the sale of Copra and exporting beef and fish plus some logging, marketing fruit and vegies and ofcause tourists! Most of who come from Australia. Port Villa is the largest town, in fact there is only one other town of any size in the nation, the town is built of a mixture of French and Colonial English and Island kind of design, some of the buildings are quite attractive, the town looked pretty from our 5th floor view at the Sebal Hotel, built as it is along the waterfront and harbour. The whole town revolves around the huge Market, which is the size of two football fields, all built undercover in Island style with high pointy roofs full of the most interesting array of fruit, vegetables, fish, crabs, flowers,
firewood and the laplap and there is a part of this market where ladies have set up small restaurant stalls selling hearty meals mainly to other stall holders and shoppers, and also to us as well once we found the place, we had some lovely meals here at a cost of $2.50 each, plus we had the company of some very nice friendly local ladies. You can buy a fish or a crab and these ladies will most likely cook it for you if they are not too busy at the time. When we tried to do that we chose a lady who was too scared of the crab we wanted to buy as it had the most wicked claw pincers I have ever seen, designed to break its way into coconuts to eat the flesh, it could snap a finger without even trying, so we never got to try the famous Coconut Crab unfortunately ….. next time.
The next day we were up early for a walk before breakfast, not like us at all, early morning temperatures are just perfect. We visited the elderly men who were fishing along the waterfront and they showed us how they catch their fish, already they had two lovely fish so they had the secret. All they used was a long piece of nylon line with the smallest hook on the end you have ever seen, considerably smaller than my little finger nail, not much more than a bent pin we used as little kids to catch cockabullies. The men bait this tiny hook with a big chunk bread and hurl it as far as they can; not far because there is no weights attached to the line only the weight of the bread carries it through the air, when it lands it floats on top for ages then slowly sinks, giving the fish plenty of time to nibble. The sea was very shallow with lots of knobbly bits of coral so the tiny hook with no sinker might be the only way to fish here.
After breakfast we caught a small bus and went to see the local Parliament buildings built high up on the hill above the town, as it was Sunday everything was shut, no worries we didn’t want to go into the establishment anyway, we walked on from here exploring in all directions till drawn by sound of singing and Church Bells pealing all around us, as there are many Churches, we went to the closest one that turned out to be the Presbyterian Church we were looking for to deliver our mission goods, later in the week. We thought about going to the service but as the lovely singing was all in the local Bislama language, so we just stood in the grounds listening and watching all the ladies in their Sunday best colourful dresses all decorated with lace and ribbons, arriving.
We decided to head back to our Hotel and just relax around the pool for the day in the sun with our books and suntan lotion.
In the morning we joined a round the Island tour, with 7 others from all around the world, (Danish, German, English, Australian, Philippine, Vanuatu driver and us Kiwis) this trip takes a full day on roads only slightly better than Fijian tracks. The roads were all made by the USA troops during the war and have never been touched since then, we were taken to the old US airfield and base, not that there is much to see the tropics quickly over-grows neglected buildings, we also saw several old tanks and other vehicles that had just been driven into the sea and left to rust away, at the end of the war.
We were taken into the small village of Watu on the far side of the island and met by 3 lovely ladies who placed flowers in our hair and welcomed us shyly into their village. The tour lady whispered ‘don’t be scared’ just before with loud whoops and bloodcurdling screams a dozen half naked warriors leap out from behind every blade of grass and small coconut tree, brandishing clubs and spears in the most menacing way possible! Terrifying! I can imagine just how the poor explorers and missionaries of old felt when confronted by hostile natives; unarmed settlers wouldn’t have lasted very long at all with these fierce warriors. Once we had been challenged the men all started dancing around us and put on a great cultural show for us, a small band of musicians also appeared from nowhere to assist them. I imagine that also would of happened of old, just before we had been put into the cooking pot!
We were able to enjoy swimming at the villages’ nice beach and buy a few handicrafts from the ladies, before we journeyed on to another lovely beach and a tiny open air Sara Restaurant, this place has no floor, only beach sand and only side wall and poles to support the roof, it was most pleasant enjoying a delicious meal in the sunshine, it was in buffet style with several ethnic dishes to choose from as well as more, to us - ordinary food.
After a long drive we pulled into another village where we all went snorkelling and swimming among the little fish and the pretty coral and chatting with the natives over a hot coffee made with local coffee beans, nice too. It was here that we saw and patted the only cat we saw on the island, though there were a few scared cats on Efira island, this one was a real pet.

On we drove past a beautiful series of cascades at Mele, we didn't walk up to the main waterfall but did see the smaller cascades and they were lovely.

We all had an enjoyable day; more so because of the great mix of foreign people, there were some diverse opinions on some things. Later that evening we met up again with some of them over our evening meal.
We spent the next few mornings trying to contact the Paster of the Ambrym Presbyterian Church to deliver the mission goods, it proved quite difficult, but we were assisted by Mildred and Christopher at the front desk of Sebal, and became quite good friends with Christopher
who invited us to visit his own home on Efira Island a place where no tourists go as it is just a village settlement with no accommodations or shops, though there are two Churches. We were most happy to accept this offer as we had been watching the small boats heading for this island full of natives day and night – all the workers arriving and departing after their shifts. Christopher could not go with us as he was working, but he arranged for his lady friend Neevan and baby Tricia to meet us and show us around the small island. Everyone on the small boat going over to Efira wanted to know just why we would be wanting to go to Efira, there was nothing there for us they said, who were we meeting and why? All were very curious about us.
The island was really very pretty with many flowers everywhere, and a delightful covered walkway, made of trees and vines and flowers that was cool green and inviting to walk through.

Neevan a French speaking Vanuatun, met us and the delightful young lady enjoyed showing us all around the island, the 2 churches,
her home, the women’s house, chiefs house and the special tamtam drum used for calling everyone to a meeting, and all the pigs fattening in small cages at every small house of which there were many all close together with no fences much. There are no motorized vehicles on the island, no roads either only narrow walking tracks. We intended to have a swim at this island on the nice golden sand beach but the wind came up and the sea got rough, so we gave it a miss. Neevan couldn’t understand why anyone might want to swim really as it is wintertime in Vanuatu, though it is very hot to us. A hot sweaty kind of heat that leaves your skin moist at all times, so you don’t really get a good suntan, just very hot.
After the guided tour we returned to Neevan’s home and all ate a picnic of food we had brought with us, on the lawn, with Tricia the dear wee baby playing happily beside us. There could be no cuddles of the baby; Tricia had not seen a white person before and was frightened of us. Christopher is from Ambrym and rather black skinned, Neevan was born on Efira and is less black, so baby was very pretty.
Erle and I both got wet with waves breaking over the small boat on the way back but we agreed it had been worthwhile to meet a real local native and see how they really live, and more importantly to us, to do something almost no one else ever did.
We also took the free ferry to Iririki Island to have a days swimming in the enormous swimming pool complex on the island. There were four huge irregular pools in the part we swam in and at least two other pools we saw in another part of the island, goodness know why they ever built so many pools in such a small area. There are several very expensive resorts on this island; maybe everyone expects a pool of their own!
Took several days of trying but finally we got hold of the Paster from Ambrym and made an appointment to visit him at the local Church where he is staying at the moment. We had really built this up in our minds til it was a huge event of great importance and significance; we were to be humbled!
When ushered into his office, we shuffled past all the big high piles of paperwork and boxes and met the big very black man with a huge smile, he welcomed us and said thankyou for the big bags of goods we had brought, and we settled down to have a nice talk with him, but the phone rang and he sort of waved us out and attended to the phone, it was all over in a few short seconds, we left feeling very up in the air, wondering why we had bothered. Still our name and address are in the parcel so maybe we shall hear from the children of the school in time; maybe. It would have been so nice to hear all about this school and the children in Utas, Ambrym and the area generally, and also just how these goods were going to get to Utas and when.
We did later in fact run into a taxi driver who was from this very small place and he had attended the Utas School and he was very pleased to think the School was getting some extra support.
Every where we went we seemed to meet people from Ambrym Island, I bought a nice carving from one man and a great unusual pendent from another, it is made from the spike of a sea urchin he told me, it is all carved with totem faces, quite unlike anything else I have. We also bought a storybook for children about an Ambrym legend written in English French and the Bislama they speak in the islands; this we will give to Mums Church so all the people who donate to Ambrym will get something back they can have a read of.

Two faced Carved Tamtam Drum from Ambrym Island.

Heard of a Melanesian night being held at another resort just down the road, so we went to along for the evening. The meal was possibly the worst we had in Vanuatu, a BBQ meal where we were the unfortunate last people in the queue who got the odd left-overs of steak and a sausage and the dregs of two tired looking salads, followed by scraps of dessert, not worth paying for at all but in fact it was very expensive because it was followed by a cultural show.

Now this show of mainly dancing was very good, the men wore the native costume which is only a few flaps of leaves that covers very little, plus masks and head gear and ladies wearing grass skirts and coconut shell bras and flowers, the men drummed on their tamtams and the music was very stirring, just a pity the meal let the evening down.
Our time of staying at the Sebal came to an end all too soon and we had to leave for the Le Meridian Resort and Casino, we had been looking forward to this but we really missed the fabulous view from the 5th floor balcony of the Sebal, plus Christopher and Mildred at the front desk, and an especially smiley young waitress who were so friendly and cheerful.
It was unfortunate that when we arrived at Le Meridian our room was not ready for us and we had to wait in the lounge for 3 long hours just wasting time, surrounded by our entire luggage. When we finally did get into our room the whole room smelt musty and everything was damp including all the bedding, because the air-conditioning system was not working well, on hindsight we should have asked for another room, but I think it might have taken another 3 hours so we just accepted it, and by the end of the next day we had both come down with colds, in my case it quickly became the flu with a raging temperature. I was very sickly for the rest of our stay in Vanuatu, fortunately I was able to buy a packet of sustained relief cold and flu tablets that are no longer available in New Zealand because there are so useful when making ’P’, I was very grateful to get them and be able to continue to enjoy our holiday without ruining Erle’s good time.
One reason we were at the Le Meridian – beside the fact they have a casino – was that they have free water sports including catamarans and kayaks both of which we really enjoyed playing with on the resorts own private beach. Skimming across the bay with the sail full of wind was fun, the small boat just flew, and then, sitting around waiting for the wind to blow again was also rather nice way out on the water in the sunshine.
Erle also was able to play a few rounds of golf, while I set about loosing heaps of money in the casino, $100 just vanished as quickly as snow would if it ever fell in Vanuatu. The odds must have been terrible no body seemed to making much, specially not me, so surprisingly I soon gave it up as a bad job, while I still had some money left!
Decided to have a massage on the beach where two lady masseuses wore putting their strong hands to good use, while I was relaxing getting my lovely massage I listened to the ladies discussing how old they thought I was in their own language, I was very amused to hear them decide I was 45 years old. Then when they asked me how old I was, they were amazed to hear I was in my sixties, they were both 54 years old but both looked much older than me. I was told ‘the years had been merciful to me’ and I guess that’s true.
A big surprise for us was turning around and spotting an old friend of ours staying in the same Resort, he was pleased to see us as well since he had been travelling on his own, it was most pleasant to have dinner together and spend an evening catching up with all the things we had both been doing during our holiday. He left the next day and we left the following day. Although there had been many disruptions of the airline flights previously both our flights went smoothly and on time.
Because we staying in two different places we were in the unique position of being able to judge how each resort did things, both were good in their own way, but the training given to staff at the Sebal was vastly superior, everyone had a smile on their face at all times and gave the impression of being over joyed to assist you in any way at all, they all spoke to you as you left the lift or the swimming pool or the dining room, even the ladies cleaning in our room were friendly. Nobody did that at Le Meridian and we really missed those smiling faces, in fact I asked a couple of waitresses to smile for me and after that they did when they saw me, but it was not the general thing, no one of the staff spoke to us unless we spoke first, we missed that too. But service was still very good it just wasn’t with a smile or joyful. Food was excellent in both places.
We do intend to go back to Vanuatu, its such a pretty sweet old fashioned kind of a place, where life is lived as it used to be and most people are happy and content and very law-abiding. Most likely won’t stay in either place, both are too big and expensive for us, we would rather have a smaller cosy little place close to town and the market.

What a lovely sunset as seen from the 5th floor of the Sebal Hotel Vanuatu.



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