Vanuatu in June 2017: Living Dreams, Part I

Vanuatu fulfilled buried fascinations planted decades ago through American television (Growing up, I’d often watch 8 hours of black & white television daily!). From the comfort of a California living room, I viewed: people walk along active volcanic craters, naked dark-skinned men and women dancing alongside costumed figures, young men leaping high atop rickety stick towers with fresh vines tied to their ankles, hitting the ground with their heads, unfathomable tropical bays more beautiful than anything Las Vegas or Disney Resort could build, and a WWII shipwreck dive. And this is what I experienced in Vanuatu in less than 2 week’s time, thanks in large part to the advice of Seven Seas Cruising Association’s Vanuatu hosts Dr. Alan and Debra Profke.

Two months prior to arriving in Vanuatu, before even vacating our French Polynesian dock space in Marina d’Uturoa, I reached out via email to Dr. Alan, asking advice on what to see in Vanuatu in a short time. In his reply, Alan painted a step-by-step itinerary to maximize a brief Vanuatu archipelago visit. Except for the recommended port of entry, we stuck closely to his program. We intended to land in Port Vila, Vanuatu’s capital city, as previewed but winds and seas drove us further south, directly to Tanna, home of famed Mount Yasur volcano.From Fiji, a week prior to our arrival in Vanuatu, I duly filled and electronically submitted all required paperwork to Vanuatu Customs. In route to the archipelago, we reached out to Vanuatu Customs, via inReach satellite, asking if we could instead land in Tanna. Tanna’s Vanuatu Customs officer, Iau, directed us to anchor in Port Resolution on the southeast tip of Tanna. Capt. Cook named the bay after his ship more than 200 years earlier. Port Resolution is the closest harbor to Mount Yasur, but unfortunately on the opposite side of the island’s official port of entry. A $40 USD non-designated port penalty fee, plus $50 for land transportation were added to the standard $10 clearance fee. Later seeing the road conditions against which Officer Iau drove for 4 hours round-trip, it made the $50 transportation fee seem a bargain. Not having to sail a half-day against trade winds, from Lenakel to Port Resolution, made the $40 worth the penalty.

We arrived in the small bay of Port Resolution at dawn, Friday, June 16th after a 2-and-half day sail from Lautoka, Fiji. Motoring into Resolution, we were flanked by cliffs to port and starboard. The end of the bay quickly shoaled into a dark sand beach spread broadly across and in front of a lush tropical valley. A wild tropical landscape straight from the pages of National Geographic’s laid before us. A small fleet of fishermen in self-made dugout outrigger canoes paddled out toward us, casting and setting fish nets of fine monofilament. To the south, above, on the cliffside edge, a simple wooden thatched-roofed house delicately stood on stilts over-looking the magnificent bay, seemingly designed for a character out of a far-away, 19th century adventure novel. To the north, steam vented from the cliff side just above sea level, reminding us just how close we were to an active volcano, having witnessed its reddish plume against the darkness of the pre-dawn sky earlier that morning.

A few hours later, after clearing in with Customs Officer Iau, we reserved with Stanley, the Port Resolution Yacht Club representative, four places in a 4-wheel drive truck to take us to Mt. Yasur Volcano Park for the next day’s sunset excursion: $25pp R/T transportation and $100pp park entry fee. The volcano exists on private tribal lands, providing the community the right and privilege to operate an exclusive tour business, charging what they will. We soon learned that the businesses in subsistence-living Vanuatu elect to charge rates equivalent to those in Australia, while not paying staff accordingly. So restaurants, bungalows, movie theaters, and grocery stores are out of the general population’s price range. Thus we rarely saw locals frequenting these establishments. Anyway, we’d come this far, so why not spend the coin to take us the rest of the way for an experience of a lifetime, “Priceless” as the Visa commercial used to state.

‘Greeting’ formalities became quite clear and distinct after the first couple introductions. In Vanuatu, people want you to know their name and want to know yours. Instead of the generic “hello” or “how are you?,” it’s “My name is George,” followed by a look that begs, “and your name?” Then comes, “How are you?” Casual physical contact among Polynesians is rare. In French Polynesia, we say, Bonjour, Kaoha (Marquesan) or Ia orana (Tahitian); shaking their hand if it’s a guy, or a girl for the first time; and kissing both cheeks (more touching cheeks and making a kissing sound) if it’s a gal you know, or friend or relative of a friend. That’s it. In Samoa, people were very friendly, exclaiming, “Talofa,” when seeing you, even as strangers in passing. When being introduced, a handshake was less customary. It was an odd transition after two years in French Polynesia. It felt impolite not to faire la bise (pronounced, bees, meaning “kiss”). On a side note, in Fiji, “Bula” or “Bula-bula” was exclaimed at each passing or meeting. Apparently the government asked its population to greet any and all tourists with this customary Fijian “hello.” It works. You really feel your tourist presences appreciated. Fijians touch even less than Samoans. Handshakes are accepted but not expected. In Vanuatu, another Melanesian culture like Fiji, physical contact introductions were the same. Vanuatu differs in that they smile all the time, big bright beautiful cheek-bulging smiles. It’s relaxing and warm. As white people, dressed as cruising sailors, we were immediately recognized as interested tourists and treated courteously.

Chez Leah, Port Resolution, Tanna, Vanuatu.
Rigneyskandu Inside Chez Leah Restaurant, Port Resolution, Tanna, Vanuatu.

The next day, Saturday, we arrived ashore in time for our lunch reservation at Chez Leah’s, a 1-table restaurant in the village. We had three restaurants to choose from, but we liked the look of hers best. The others had more tables, but no one to speak to. Meeting Leah the afternoon before, we pre-ordered (no waste) our main courses. While Trent would have the omelet, we’d have the fresh fried mackerel. Both main courses were served on family-style platters, including separate platters of fruits and vegetables picked fresh from Leah’s garden. Even the lemon in the lemonade and the coconut cream for the vegetable sauce came from her garden. The eggs came from her hens; the mackerel, from the fishermen below fished that morning. Organic? Fresh? They don’t know any other way. From Leah speaking in French, we learned a little about village life, including utilities. Mini solar panels charge household cell phones and Bluetooth speakers. A single medium-sized household panel installed at the community store recharges portable battery-operated lights for all village households. Water comes from a hand-pump well in the center of the village—all you can carry.

Girls play volleyball; boys play soccer. Some villagers speak French as their third language, but most spoke broken English. The village dialect is spoken at home; the national language is spoken to other Ni-Vanuatuans (the Vanuatu term for native Vanuatu people). Leah’s French was so good, the island elected her to represent their craftsmen at New Caledonia’s annual Inter-Island South Pacific artisan festival. The experience changed her, made her appreciate more what she had, her lifestyle, etc. City’s are exciting, but nothing beats the simplicity of life in her beautiful part of Tanna Island. We were grateful for her generosity. Leslie gave her several gifts of basic food items and a handy sack that she appreciated. We think of Leah when we think of Vanuatu.

Leslie Rigney and Leah from Leah’s Restaurant, Port Resolution, Tanna Island, Vanuatu.

The same day later in the afternoon, the drive to Mt. Yasur Volcano Park was a learning experience. Beautiful country with people’s quick smiles, these smiles made more radiant against their dark skin. At the park entrance, I asked if there was a different price for kids. “No. Sorry.” After filling out the paperwork (there are apparently risks associated with walking on the unrailed edge of an active volcano, especially at night), they asked us to select a wooden picket sign with our country of origin written across it. “USA” having been collected by someone else, so having been recent residents of both Nuku Hiva and Uturoa, sister cities of Tahiti, we picked “Tahiti.” No one believed it, but I didn’t care. I carried the sign with all the French Polynesian pride I could muster.

RigneysKandu guys trying to stay dry and film atop Mount Yasur crater, Tanna, Vanuatu.

A brief native dance and chiefly request/acceptance ceremony later and we were loaded into pick-up beds for the ride up to the crater. A bottle of water was included. The official language of Vanuatu is an English-French pidgin. It’s so much fun to try to figure it out. Try your hand it. The water bottle label read: “Nambawan Wota, Belong Vanuatu, Gud wota, gud laef.”As we approached the pathway to the crater’s ridge, we could hear its explosions more and more impressively and feel the action of the volcano spitting up pent up gasses and red lava. We were all so very excited. We didn’t even see the pending rain cloud coming. After another warning by the guide to follow him and to not endeavor on our own paths (Bryce wanted to snowboard down it!), we headed up the steep hillside of grey ash. Having not walked more than 20 feet at a time on Kandu for the past couple weeks, this proved more labor intensive than normal, . . . oh well. Once at the edge, the guide recommended we stay to the left side, opposite the potentially deadly sulfuric gas spewing cloud, the one four others where standing in . . . so much for listening to the expensive guide wanting to spare you. As each untimed burst occurred, with particular ferocity, we could not help but be humbled by the power, the earth jumps, the heat, the (shall I say it?) shock and awe of it. The backdrop of darkness from the setting sun made the experience even more impressive, more dramatically awesome. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my cold, wet face (yes, it was cold on the windward side of the crater, not the smoky sulfuric side). I was turned into an 8-year-old boy, so grateful and exhilarated. I wasn’t going to leave until the wise guide forced me. It was worth every Disneyland Park penny of it (about the same price, after all).

Leslie & Bryce Rigney atop the Mount Yasur crater, Tanna, Vanuatu.
Mount Yasur, Tanna, Vanuatu.

On the drive from the park back to Ireupuow Village, our driver mentioned that tonight, in his village, was a talent show to support the local schools. Every few months, in different bays around the island, youth groups lead by adults gather to perform in an ad hoc talent auction, the proceeds of which benefit each group’s respective school. Tonight’s talent show auction happened to be in his village, the bay where we had anchored Kandu the day before. How could we miss this? The event was held in the covered community center, a medium-sized cement-block hall with newly mounted tin roof following 2015’s Hurricane Pam. We tried to view the spectacle from outside, but those inside soon covered the windows. No freebies. The local kid standing outside next to me said, 50 vatu per person ($0.50). So we went around back to pay our entrance fee: 200 vatu per person (tourist price, perhaps?). Oh, well, it’s for a good cause. Sitting on the floor in the midst of the villagers was magical, transformative. The young lady next to me explained what we were witnessing. The performers sing and/or dance. A member of the audience will pay the kitty to remove a particular performer from the stage, vanquishing them from performing. Less than a minute later, another member pays more to have that person returned to dance again. It’s all in good fun, no hard feelings. Mothers were pulling their sons off while their sisters or aunties paid to have them renewed. After about 10-12 minutes, the emcee cuts the music, and then starts the process of auctioning the price to have them start again. When he got to 1000 vatu ($10 USD), I handed the vatu currency note to Bryce and insisted he be the one to brave the crowd and pay the ransom. The emcee was surprised to see a young tourist come to him. He asked Bryce what he wanted for the money. Bryce said, for them to dance again. This impressed the villagers. “Dis is a gud ting,” smiled the young lady next to me. And the dancing renewed. We LOVED it! Almost 9:30 p.m., understanding the event would run past midnight and not having the habit of staying up much past 8:30, . . . and having to dinghy back to Kandu, we decided to call it quits and left between two acts, all eyes on us. It felt odd to be ogled as foreign objects, but so it is.

Eric Rigney on Tanna Island, Port Resolution, Vanuatu.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *