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Barry In Vanuatu

Diary for January

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January 2005


In the tradition of New Year’s Day, I slept through most of it. In the evening I went to Robinson’s for kava. There were a couple of guys there who were getting a boat to Santo the next day, so I decided to join them.



The kava drinkers at Robinson’s yesterday had said to expect the Marie Andre to arrive at Ndui Ndui wharf around 9 o'clock in the morning. I left Londua at 1pm and got there with plenty of time to spare. The walk to the wharf was very sweaty with my big rucksack in the heat of the day. Luckily my load isn’t as heavy as before, I’ve left all non-essential stuff with Mr Stephen.

The Marie Andre had been chartered by the people of West Ambae to go direct to Luganville. As such, it was crammed to the rafters (or whatever the tops of ships are called) with people and their possessions. Luckily, I was one of the first aboard and so found a decent place to sit. The waters were very calm and we made the journey in a little over 4 hours with nobody being sick, which wouldn’t have been nice for anyone.

On arrival in Luganville, I checked in at the Unity Park Motel. Karen’s still there. She must be going crazy, cooped up with nothing to do for a month.


I slept in late and, by the time I’d eaten breakfast, all the shops were shut for a 2 hour lunch break. Such is the way of Vanuatu.

As well as Karen and I, there’s a German tourist called Thomas, who’s in Santo doing a dive course. He speaks English in a way only a foreigner could do and likes to ski up mountains (he doesn’t know the name of it in English).

After a day of sorting things out and getting used to flushing toilets, I went out for a Chinese with Karen and Thomas. There is a large Chinese population in Luganville, which reflects in the types of restaurants there are, but, as ever, there are no Chinese people eating in them.


Karen had a call from the Peace Corps office today - there’s a cyclone headed our way.

Have you noticed how amazing loos that flush are?


Karen, Thomas and I went out for kava today. We went to a nakamal that serves Ambae kava and met the guys who had been drinking at Robinson’s on my last night on Ambae. They all laughed at Thomas when he tried to sip at his shell. He may be able to ski the wrong way, but he can’t handle kava! Afterwards, we went for another Chinese, not out of choice but it was the only restaurant open and we didn’t feel like cooking (especially as me and Karen had to finish off two of Tom’s shells).

The cyclone has moved closer.


The flight to Malekula was short and cloudy - I got a window seat but couldn’t see anything. I’m returning to Hosia’s for the official opening of his guesthouse.

Crazy Pastor (I really should learn his name) also got the flight, but we managed not to notice each other until we touched down at Norsup. We were met at the airport by Lydian and Vorry, a brother of Hosia’s.

On arrival at the guesthouse, I met a white man called Brian. He thought I was a French speaker and so we talked in Bislama. I didn’t bother to correct him, mainly because I was quite smug that I could talk pidgin better than him. He was the New Zealand High Commissioner and had been in Vanuatu for 3 years.

I’m staying in the family home, sharing a room with Crazy Pastor. Hosia doesn’t want me to pay, which is fine by me.

All talk in the kava bar that evening was about the coming cyclone. The Ni-Vans are remarkably well informed, I assume by radio, trading latest wind-speeds, storm forces and anecdotes about previous cyclones. This one now has a name - Cyclone Kerry.


Fortunately, Kerry passed 24 miles to the west of us early this morning. We got a heavy battering of wind and rain that you couldn’t walk outside in, though, it’s hard to imagine what being in the path would be like.

The show, Hosia’s guesthouse opening, still went on, however, in quite a spectacular fashion. Enthusiastic kastom dancing performed by scary men with white chalked stripes on their black bodies was the highlight. There was also a pig killing ceremony, which was a bit of an anticlimax, the pigs dying quite easily with a single blow to the neck. There were speeches by various dignitaries, the President and Secretary General of Malampa province, Brian and a couple of other guys of questionable importance. They all managed to say exactly the same thing, and everyone was very glad to start on the food.

Kastom Dancing at the guesthouse opening


Hosia took me to his village of Tauto today. It looked, strangely enough, like any other Vanuatu village, an assemblage of rickety, part-kastom built, part-corrugated metal houses next to a lovely looking clean church and a football field. There were a load of white people there playing volleyball. Someone told me they were young Christians from an organisation called Youth With A Mission. That put me off approaching them.

We stopped off for kava on the way back at a different nakamal to usual. The kava was ‘smooth,’ meaning that the skin of the root was peeled off before being ground, taking away much of the horrible taste. Some drinkers I chatted to found it very amusing that my name was Barry and there was another Barry in the village. That’s ni-Van humour for you.


There was nothing much to do, so I went to Tauto’s church in the morning. The white men couldn’t be avoided, but they turned out to be a vaguely normal mix of Canadians and Swedes (?!). They are here to "spread the good news of Jesus and teach the gospels." Which I’m sure is a great help to Vanuatu.

It rained all day - well, it is wet season I suppose. On the way back from kava in the evening, we cut down banana leaves to use as makeshift umbrellas. I felt so bushman-y. We also usually carry burning coconut leaves to light the way, rather than waste batteries in electrical torches.


It was very, very hot today. Indescribably hot, so I won’t try to describe how hot it was. Anyway, the temperature was not conducive to doing anything more than lay in bed, sweating like a pig, until the sun went down.

On the way to the kava bar, we passed a Bon Annee group. I think that’s stretching the concept a bit far. At the bar, someone proudly showed me his cannabis leaves and asked me how to smoke them, assuming decadent Westerners were bound to know. I gave him a load of bullshit that seemed to satisfy him.


I went to Uri, yet another tiny offshore island, with Vorry today. First we went to a small wharf on a mainland to feed some fish. There were literally thousands of the silvery creatures competing for the scraps of bread I threw out. This area is a marine sanctuary proclaimed by local chiefs, so fishing is banned and fish are plentiful.

We then stood for an hour in the rain on the end of Lislits wharf, waiting for a speedboat to take us to Uri. When it was obvious no boat was coming, and we were completely bedraggled, we borrowed a canoe instead. At this point the sun came out, burning my unprotected skin mercilessly for the 1½ hour trip (who puts on lotion in the rain?).

On arrival, we were taken to the only village on the island and given lunch by the chief. Afterwards, we went out in the canoe again to the reef to snorkel amongst the coral, which the marine park was set up to protect. The numbers of brightly coloured fish were truly amazing and I could have happily spent a whole day there. As it was, we had to get back for the daily speedboat run to avoid another canoe voyage in the burning sun.

I didn’t feel like kava in the evening, which was probably a good thing - I’ve drunk it the past 6 nights.


A truck to take me and Vorry to a ‘spirit cave’ at Tenmiel in the Northeast was supposed to arrive in the morning, but this is Vanuatu, so it eventually turned up mid-afternoon. While waiting, I put some Oasis on the family stereo, which Hosia went mental to. Ni-Vans don’t have much music and they love anything different.

The truck journey was a cramped, 3-hour rollercoaster through bush, swollen rivers and coconut plantations. There were loads of other people on the truck, all getting off at different stops. This is obviously a ‘regular’ (if that word existed out here) bus-like service.

We finally got to Tenmiel village just as it was getting dark and found out … we couldn’t see the cave due to a dispute over kastom ownership. Which was a bummer. The villagers were very cool though, and gave Vorry and I food and a place to sleep for free.


We ended up seeing a cave at Tenmiel in the morning, one used as a cyclone shelter by the villagers. There were some very odd-looking handprints inside, which could have been prehistoric - or been made last week - I couldn’t be sure.

On the way back from Tenmiel, we stopped at Wala, Vorry’s home village. We were only supposed to stay about an hour, which turned into 5 when the rain came down. ‘Came down’ is a bit of an understatement. The Tenmielese were probably using their cave. It wasn’t very wise to step outside, to say the least. We ended up trapped in an elderly Peace Corps named Cynthia’s house. She was a bit American, but gave me a couple of books to boost my rather limited collection, not to mention shelter from a storm, so wasn’t all that bad.

When the tempest finally abated, Vorry and I hiked up to the main road and caught a passing truck back home.


A whiteman came to sleep at Hosia’s bungalow today. His name’s Nathan and he does Bibley stuff in Vila, but I still got on well with him. He missed his flight due to a late truck, a bit of a Vanuatu cliché, and so is staying overnight to get one tomorrow.

I was also waiting, for a ship to take me to Vila, but it didn’t turn up today. I went into Lakatoro to find out when it would be coming, but found out that it had been impounded in Santo for carrying too many passengers. Luckily, there should be a different one coming tomorrow. Also in town was a live band doing an awful cover of Candle In The Wind, which they quite impressively made worse than it already is.


The promised ship didn’t arrive today.

The terrible band was playing at the kava bar in the evening. Hosia got a song dedicated to me. Can you guess what it was? Yes, Candle In The Wind.


It was time to leave Hosia’s for the second and last time today. I had to take a plane in the end because the promised ship turned out to be cargo-only. We exchanged presents - he gave me a carving he’d made and I gave him a Telecard and promised to record Oasis on cassette and send it to him.

A white family got off the plane at Norsup before I got on, which was a bit scary. It was quite obvious they were tourists and not a planter family - they wore trainers, had over colourful island baskets obviously bought in Vila for 4 times what they’re worth, had baseball caps, weren’t very tanned and the girls had low cut tops. They were very scary indeed from sheer unexpectedness. Who the hell goes on holiday to Malekula?

I transited in Santo before flying on to Vila, staying in the airport for a few hours rather than spending money on a taxi to get into town. The plane to Vila was a ‘proper’ new 44-seat, fully-pressurized contraption that was as out of place as the tourists on Malekula. It bore Air Vanuatu (the international airline) markings so is probably something to do with the recent merger between the domestic (Vanair) and national carriers. Needless to say, the flight was a lot more comfortable than the Twin Otter ones I’m used to. It even had an air stewardess.

Len from Luron Guesthouse recognized my voice when I phoned from the airport to check if there was any room, but didn’t know who I was when I turned up in person. When I told him who he was, he looked utterly astonished and said, "But before, you were fat!" I have lost loads of weight while in Vanuatu, dropping three belt notches. Interestingly, one side effect of kava is weight loss.

Len’s brothers, Ben and Bena are both auditioning for Vanuatu Idol, so I went along to see their bids in the evening at Club Vanuatu. I felt very out of place amongst the well-dressed ex-pats there, in the clothes (including toothpaste-stained T-Shirt) that I threw on this morning in Malekula. Ben sang a remarkably good Brown Skinned Girls and might stand a chance, although the competition is very stiff. Bena, on the other hand, probably made a mistake in drinking kava beforehand to steady his nerves, his version of Sloop John B was hilarious for all the wrong reasons. He even did comedy hand-actions. I doubt he’ll get in the final 10.


The Pacific Ocean’s telecommunications satellite is currently on the blink, completely cutting Vanuatu off from the rest of the world. Overseas phonecalls, the Internet, credit card transactions and flight booking systems are all down and it's all complete chaos. Len, who used to work for Telecom Vanuatu, reckons everything will only get back to normal in about two weeks time when the Indian Ocean backup sat moves over. Apparently the Pacific region is the only one without a backup. Just my luck when I want to send a few emails.

Port Vila seems a lot bigger than when I was here before. It’s strange how only a few months on tiny islands has altered my perceptions. It can’t be that big, walking down the street today I met two people I knew: Nathan and Honiara, Brian’s wife. Then, on one of Vila’s fantastic minibuses (50p to go anywhere you want and about 20 go past every minute) I met Amanda, the GAP agent.

In the evening, I went out kava drinking with Len and Ben. The local nakamal’s kava tasted terrible. OK, kava doesn’t exactly taste nice usually, but this stuff was utterly rank. Instead we went to another bar, which sold more normal-tasting kava. Shells are only being half-filled, however, due to a kava shortage in the capital. Efate doesn’t grow enough to support Vila, so it is shipped in from other islands. No kava ships have called in recently, leaving us devoid of our favourite root.


Some connection with the satellite is back online, at least - Internet’s up but nothing else. At least I got to send some emails, at a much cheaper rate than anyone else (being a volunteer has its advantages - 10vt a minute rather than the usual 25vt).

Amanda phoned me to say that she can sort out my visa extension for me. Seeing as the reasons I came to Vila were to do this and get my flight rebooked, it has been a rather expensive waste flying all the way down south.

It rained heavily in the evening, so Len went out and got a plastic bottle’s worth for us to drink. Unfortunately, he went to the crap-tasting nakamal, but he was paying so I didn’t complain. They made up for the crap taste by cooking me some octopus for dinner, which was divine.


Internet’s down again, all contact with the satellite lost again.

An Australian called Trevor arrived at Luron today. I’ve been the only guest since I arrived. Trevor is very loud and won’t ever stop talking. Despite being in Vanuatu a month, he doesn’t speak a word of Bislama and doesn’t even know kava etiquette. When him, me, Ben and Bena went out to drink it in the evening, he had two shells straight off. That being terribly rude, by the way, you’re supposed to wait between drinking.


The ping-pong ball of Internet access was hit back to the ‘online’ side of the table today.

I finally found some shorts in Mr Stephen’s size in the colour he wants. I’ve hunted all over Vila and Santo for them. He’s just too fat for most shops.

Trevor may be very annoying, but he has his uses. He brought a load of DVDs with him and we watched Con Air with Len and family in the evening. I decided to skip kava tonight because my flight to the Banks leaves early tomorrow morning. Trevor is getting the same flight. God help me.


I woke early to catch a taxi with Trevor to the airport. Fortunately, he’s going to Mota Lava in the Banks, whereas I’m going to Gaua. Even more luckily, he’s got a portable DVD player so we could watch Enemy Of The State while transiting for ages in Santo airport. Maybe he’s not so bad after all.

For a remote island group, the Banks were getting a lot of white visitors today. Along with me and Trev, there were too other pale skins on the plane. One, an Australian woman called Annette, also got off at Gaua and is staying at the same guesthouse as me. Well, it’s probably the only guesthouse on the island so not really much of a coincidence. She’s some kind of engineer based in Santo doing a technical survey of a clinic on the island.

I fixed up with Charles, the owner of the guesthouse, to visit Gaua’s crater lake on Sunday, before trying out the kava of the island. There are about 61 different varieties of kava indigenous to Vanuatu (sucks to Fiji, which only has 8) and so every island’s is different. Gaua’s is all right, stronger than Vila’s but not as good as Ambae’s.


I slept off last night's kava until lunchtime and then took the half hour walk to the nearest sand beach with Charles and his kids. It wasn't that great a beach, only partially sandy, but I stayed there most of the afternoon, until scarily big rain clouds appeared on the horizon.

Charles turned out to be an internationally famous guitarist. OK, maybe not all that famous, but his kastom/pop band (a whole new genre) was based in Sydney and toured in the US and Europe. God knows how he ended up managing a guesthouse in the middle of nowhere.

The mosquitoes here on Gaua are large and plentiful. Stripping off to wash in the evening is a recipe for an itchy night.

I decided to skip kava in the evening, not wanting to be too tired for tommorow's trek.


My track record on crater lakes isn't all that good, but I'd heard that Gaua's was easier to reach than Manaro, so early in the morning me, Annete, John the guide and three of Charles' kids started on the bush track to Lake Letas. Initially, the going was easy, and we made the lake in good time. Along the path, we occassionally glimpsed a water pipe, which, in condominium days, was used to carry water down from the lake to provide a supply to coastal villages. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, the system no longer works now NiVans rule themselves.

Lake Letas is a lot bigger than Ambaes', but lacks the irridiscent green colour, sulphurity and ominous legions of dead trees. What it does boast, however, is the Crazy Smiling Couple, who live in a shack beside the waters and cook lovely meals for the likes of me and Annette. Lunch consisted of freshwater prawns (caught that morning), simborro (banana laplap wrapped in island cabbage and nicer than it sounds), pawpaw salad and, of course, rice.

As incongruous as the Crazy Smiling Couple was an aluminium-hulled rowing boat tied up close by. How the hell did they get that up to the lake!? We took a half-hour trip in it across the lake, where we disembarked and began the much-tougher hike to the Sara falls. Trekking was hard enough along a barely discernible track, and not helped when the heavens decided to open, quicky transforming the proto-path into a quagmire. And then my sandals broke. To top it off, when we reached the waterfall, it couldn't be seen for mist. Fate was really taking the piss.

The trek back down to the main road was, if anything, even harder, especially with my footwear slowly falling apart. By the time we got down the mountain, it was getting dark and the truck that was supposed to be waiting for us was long gone. Contemplating another 3 hours walk in the darkness, we spotted headlights in the distance. Collapsing with relief, we waited for the coming truck. Which didn't come. It seemed to just disappear into thin air. Demoralised, we tramped for an hour to the driver's house to find that he had indeed been coming... but his battery had gone flat. Maybe I should start going to church on Sunday

We finally made it back to the bungalow around midnight, stopping off for kava along the way to anaesthatise my extremely sore feet. I slept rather well.


Surprisingly, my legs weren't that stiff on waking, although my feet had been cut to ribbons by yesterday's exertions. There wasn't much left of my sandals, bringing the total of footwear losses to 7.

I went to the airport, a mercifully short walking distance, mid-morning to perform a true island-hop, 5 minutes in the air to Vanua Lava. The island looks terrific from both the air and the ground, three massive volacanoes dominating the landscape. From the airport, I took an overcrowded truck to Sola, the administrative capital of Torba (TORres and BAnks islands) province. I was struck by it's neatness and size, but then it is the only settlement on this side of the island. It has running water and even used to have electricity in the evening (before the generator broke down last November).

There was a choice of 3 guesthouses, none with any guests, and I went for the cheapest, a group of recently constructed huts set on a black sand beach owned by a cool guy called Jeffry. They have only been built in the last year because, um, the ones they had before got destroyed in a cyclone.

I slept off yesterday until late afternoon aka kava time. Sola boasts 8 nakamals, one of which is situated about 30 seconds from my hut. Perfect. I was a bit pertubed when I was told that it served medicinal kava because there weren't enough of the drinking varieties on the island, but I was bought shells by the drinkers there so I didn't mind. It was obviously a high-class drinking establishment; I met the Secretary-General and Education Officer of Torba and the chief Anglican minister for Vanuatu.


Jeffry showed me around Sola today. It's set over a much larger area than Ndui Ndui or other villages on Ambae. It looks very prosperous: the grass on the football field has been cut (very rare), the stores are well-stocked and the secondary school, Arap, Torba's one and only, looks remarkable undilapidated. I got a sense of peace and tranquility from the town (I use the word strictly in the Vanautu sense, would be more of a hamlet back home). Everyone seems even happier than most NiVans, quite an achievement, and they don't seem to dream of going to Vila or Santo. It has the feel of a laid-back European provincial settlement, even if most of the people live in bamboo huts.

We took the half-hour walk to the Anglican Diocese on top of a hill with a magnificent view of Sola Bay. This area contains the majority of Vanua Lava's population, there are no villages in the bush, though there are ruins of ancient settlements. According to legend, a god once sat at Port Pattison, the tip of one side of the natural harbour and burned down all the bush villages with his flaming arrows. Jeffry also mentioned another ancient story that accounts for the lack of settlements in the interior, but it lost credibility early on when he mentioned giant spiders. Volcanic eruptions are a more likely explanation. Fire leaping from the ground could be mistaken for flames from the gods, anyway.

Coming from Canterbury made me an instant hit at the Diocese, the main centre of Anglicanism in Vanuatu. Rowan Williams visited here on his Vanuatu tour last year. Of course, the NiVans insisted that I must be his best friend, coming from the same town an everything (er, right).

Drank kava with the same guys in the afternoon. They drink kava before dusk here, earlier than elsewhere; normally it's ready about half an hour after the sun goes down. The Education Officer asked me if I could teach at Arap this term. It's nice to be wanted.


Didn't do too much today - all the sights on Vanua Lava (waterfalls, crater lakes, prehistoric ruined villages) are a difficult walk away, and, after Gaua, I only have my flip-flops, not ideal trekwear. This wouldn't deter a NiVan, but I don't have an inch of hard skin on the soles of my feet. Jeffry tried to organise a speedboat round to the Sara Falls, where two rivers combine and drop into the sea from 120ft, but as noone else was going, it would cost 70GBP, so that's out. I didn't mind inactivity though, Sola is a lovely place just to wander round. It was also a really windy day - a welcome change from the usual oppressive heat that accompanies wet season. January is Vanuatu's hottest month, and it feels like it. I can't wait for it to cool down.

While drinking kava in the evening, Jonny Ralph (who I'd met at the Dausake gig in Santo) passed by. He lives on Mota Lava, another island in the Banks group, and was waiting in Sola for a ship to take him to Santo to get back to his studies at Talua Ministry Training Centre. Everyone at the nakamal seemed to know him and tried to get him to play the guitar for some reason. He was taking some people to the diocese, however, and so could only stay for a shell.


It rained heavily for most of the day, confining me to my bungalow. In one of the few dry spells, I went back up to the diocese to take some pictures. On the way, I noticed a dead sparrow suspended in midair by a spider's web. It was a very odd sight, but before I could take a picture, it miraculously came back to the land of the living and flew off. Bizarre.

Jonny Ralph turned out to be the greatest unknown guitarist of all time. He came back to drink kava with me in the evening and was eventually persuaded to pluck some strings. The barman must have been pleased, Jonny drew a large crowd with his amazing six-string prowess. He played a mix of his own stuff with some classics like Hotel California and, um, church choruses. Well, he is a trainee pastor. Unfortunately, by the time he'd finished, so was the kava, so we had to find another one nakamal to drink at.


I was supposed to get a flight back to Santo today, but a Vanair cock-up insured I didn't. Jeffry took me down to the police station to tuse the Teleradio to contact Sola airport to find that I was inexplicable 8th in the waiting list, when I should have been first. Oh well, if there's one thing I've learnt in this country it's to go with the flow. It just means I get longer in this cool place. One problem was that I only had about 1000Vt left, not enough for a single night's accomodation. Fortunately, Jeffry has a bank account so he agreed that I could pay direct into it when I got to Santo.

I spent the rest of the day eating ice cream (Sola really is THE place to be), restocking my depleted library from Jeffry's sister's extensive collection (promising to post them back when finished.)

You can guess what I did in the evening.


I got a truck to the airport in the morning, but due to some confusion I wasn't booked on the flight like I should have been. Jeffry harangued the airport manager for me, but all the booked passengers turned up and it looked like I would be stuck on Vanua Lava another 5 days.

Leaning against a wall, reading my book, the words started to go out of focus and then my eyesight faded to black, accompanied by an extreme sense of dizziness. The next thing I knew, I was slumped on the ground, looking up at a circle of concerned faces. I don't know what it was that caused me to faint, I should be used to the heat by now, so maybe it was dehydration. Whatever it was, when I finally got back on my feet, I found that a free space had miraculousy appeared on the flight. Score!

Arriving at Santo's Pekoa airport, I met Matt, who had stayed with Mr Stephen over Christmas, and we arranged to meet up in the evengin. He brought along his flatmate Jeffry, an ex-Londuan who was expelled last year for drinking on campus. We went to a nakamal first, followed by (Matt and Jeffry's first time to) the Sports Bar. I hadn't really noticed how depressing it was before, especially with ranks and ranks of zombie-like NiVans playing the slot machines upstairs for hour after hour, but its the only one of its kind in Luganville.

I met Crazy Pastor from Malekula in town today. I really should learn his name.