Stories of the South Pacific filled my childhood, but this was my first visit, and it was simply magical.
Arriving in Port Vila
Visiting Port Vila turned into one of those unexpected days which prove the delight of travelling.
Although the islands of the South Pacific are beyond beautiful, too often the larger towns wear a dusty, run-down air. Having spent the previous day snorkelling with reef fish and sea turtles, I had little desire to go ashore when the boat pulled into port. The rain refused to vanish, and there were no shuttles into town, though a gauntlet of taxis waited for anyone brave enough to venture forth. It was a scene repeated many a time around the world, and always disheartening.
A stretch of markets along the port offered some temptation. Every market I explored in the South Pacific offered a relaxing way to pass some time. With the prices firmly set there is no haggling, and I was neither hassled nor offered ‘special’ prices should I dare turn away. I simply wandered at my leisure with no pressure to buy – indeed, once or twice I had to hunt down the stall owner to pay them! Australian dollars were more freely accepted than US dollars, with the exchange rate often treated as interchangeable.
Touring the Port
Meanwhile, as I strolled my husband was surrounded by a dozen taxi drivers. In the time it took me to buy a sarong he’d negotiated a deal with “Jason” - basically, for $150 Australian, Jason drove the five of us around the island for the day.
Yet Jason did more than drive us around Vanuatu, he totally entertained us. Here was a man who was simply happy, always laughing, singing, calling out across the street at someone he knew (and he knew everyone, or was related to them), all the while giving a running commentary on everything we passed. At the end of the day Jason was still the happy soul he had been when we started. He didn't leave us stranded, or demand more money to take us back to the boat, or ask us to smuggle a nephew into Australia; he took us into his life and showed us the Vanuatu he loved, earning a buck for his family and having a ball as he did so.
Driving Around the Island
Harking back to Vanuatu’s time as a French colony (Port Vila being the capital of Vanuatu, on the main island of Efate), the cars here drive on the right hand side of the road – when they either stick to a side or adhere to road rules. Jason saw all roads as his own personal kingdom, with road rules subject to his whim. Even the main roads are pocked with pot-holes; in between his singing and story-telling (amongst other things, our driver once played in a band) Jason waxed lyrical on government corruption, and how foreign aid has ever been syphoned off by those in power.
A main road runs the perimeter of the island, with a few roads managing a short distance inland before they peter out. The remote weather stations and radio beacons are reached on foot – the verdant jungle is simply too difficult to penetrate by car.
Jason began with driving us through Vanuatu. The town was all it had promised to be as we sailed in: a main street filled with pot-holes, dust and tired tourists in equal measure. The forlorn air too many years under foreign control and influence remained draped over her streets. Half a dozen kids played soccer on the lawn outside the Parliament House. Evey shop catered to tourists, and too many large bars advertised very cheap drinks; by nightfall I envisioned a place filled with loud, sun-burnt, drunk tourists.
Beyond the town, however, the island is simply beautiful.
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The Secret Garden, Mele Bay Cultural Centre
Our first stop was at the Secret Garden, Mele Bay Cultural Centre. (Our drive incorporated most of the tours the boat was offering, all rolled into one at a fraction of the cost). A guide walked us through the grounds pointing out the wild life, such as beautiful green geckoes impossible to see in the bushes; bats (similar to one I had seen that morning flying home in the slip stream beside the boat, slowly overtaking us as we neared shore), as well as parrots, pigeons, snakes – even coconut crabs (the largest land-living arthropod, known to climb trees and pick coconuts).
To one side stood a large hut, quite dark inside, so it took a while to notice the giant cauldron once used by head-hunters and cannibals. On the walls photos documenting the history of these people, along with some showing the island during WWII. Outside, a section of the ground had been roped off; inside the ropes were a series of sand drawings, along with an explanation of the symbolism.
As we huddled under umbrellas and giant leaves, a man dressed in traditional grass skirts and head-dress cracked coconuts with bare hands. Another rubbed sticks together on a hibiscus log to make a fire – he only managed smoke, but considering this was in the middle of a tropical downpour, no one begrudged him the lack of flames.
Discovering The Beach Bar
From here Jason drove along bumpy roads to the Tanna Coffee Factory. At every turn a beautiful vista of the ocean, of beaches, or of the rolling hills covered with lush jungle stretched before us. An island paradise spread around us in every direction, with Jason singing away behind the wheel, encouraging me in a spiritual duet.
The beans for the Tanna Coffee Factory are grown on another island, brought over to Efate and roasted. I could smell them long before the place came into view. Most importantly, the factory sold had a decent coffee (something the boat had never managed to produce).
Lunch was a delightful find at the Beach Bar, where we sat under the thatched roof of an open bar, well protected from the rain, a gentle breeze playing around us. Drinking a local beer I stared out into the soft rain. Before me beckoned yet another idyllic beach, with kids diving off a half-sunken yacht. A resort was just a short swim away across the causeway. My fish and coconut milk curry was delicious; my husband had fish cooked in lime, while the girls were happy with their burgers and chips (they were great chips). As we ate Jason played pool with his mates nearby.
After doing our bit for the local economy at the markets, Jason took us to his village, hidden away from the chaos of Port Vila. We drove through a few villages, where the houses mark their borders not with fences but with flowers, and the gardens are well kept despite the rampaging jungle just outside. Chickens and piglets wandered at will, women in brightly flowered dresses tended the local churches (of which there were many denominations) as kids ran and tumbled everywhere.
With the rain now gone the sun had turned the world to a shimmering green. The road became a dirt track which petered to a stop; we got out of the car and walked down to the water. Here, on a forgotten beach, Jason found his son and nephew swimming. The water was full of fish, coconuts and breadfruits grew everywhere, and colourful birds darted all about.
Slowly, with Jason singing for the rest of the way, we made our way back to the boat. Soon the boat was underway, and I sat on deck sipping a mojito a I always do when leaving port. (Some traditions must always be adhered to!) Jungle-covered islands slid past, with the first lights of evening glittering amongst the trees. Behind me, fading in the gloom, floated an idyllic world where least I had expected to find one, peopled with a gentleness and happiness so often lacking in those from my own.
Since the devastation of Cyclone Pam in March 2015, tourism remains a major way to restore Vanuatu's economy and help the locals re-establish a life so brutally destroyed.
© 2015 Anne Harrison