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Friday, September 4, 2009

August 10 - 30, 2009 Vanuatu - land of naked children, active volcanoes, waterfalls, mosquitoes, black magic and Bislama! Part 1 of the experience

It has been nearly 20 days since my last posting, and may actually be even longer depending on whether or not this transmission gets through the airwaves. Our first landfall at Oyster Island Resort was like a refreshment after a workout - not a full meal but just enough of a snack to nourish our need for creature comforts.

The word "resort" should not be taken in the sense that Americans refer to a resort. It was more like a quaint get-away for those seeking solitude and tranquility, owned by a partnership of Kiwis, and operated by Grant, Colin and Sunshine. (two Kiwis and an American). It consists of several adorable and comfy bungalows at waterside, and a restaurant/bar/lounge area, nestled in a lovely, calm bay giving shelter to a resident dugong, which we understand is similar to a manatee. The restaurant prepared excellent food and the resort management did their utmost to welcome us and to keep us entertained. They provided laundry services, ground transport around the island of Espiritu Santo, limited internet access and a staging area for our meetings, craft markets and local entertainment. We spent a very busy week there.

Our first order of business after clearing Customs was to get to an ATM machine and visit the hardware and grocery/supply store. Luganville was less than 10 miles from Oyster Island, yet it was a 45-minute drive by motor vehicle because the roads are little more than deeply rutted dirt pathways just wide enough for a vehicle to traverse. Frank and I, along with Dave (from Baraka) had the unfortunate fate of sitting in the rear seat of the dilapidated15-passenger van. We doubt that the tires held much air and knew beyond a doubt that the suspension was already shot as we slammed, jolted and hurtled up and down bobbing painfully along. By the time we arrived at Luganville we barely managed to unfold our wobbly legs and stand on terra firma without crying out in pain. Our lower backs had taken such a jarring that we swore our spines had compressed at least ½ an inch. Unfortunately, the ride back was even worse, as we got manipulated into the back yet again, and this time were even more cramped as people shoved their packages in and around us all. Did I mention that it was stifling hot in the rear of the van? It took two days of Ibuprofen to relieve our aches and pains from that ride.

Anyway, while in town we noticed that Vanuatu, although only a few hundred miles from Fiji is far less commercialized and developed in spite of a major occupation of Americans, French, English and Japanese during the World Wars. In fact, many Western and Eastern cultures had tried to introduce commerce and industry over the years, however, it seems that Vanuatu is not interested in these kinds of advancement. They have managed to maintain a culture that remains very close to the missionary times when Christians brought civility and modesty to the cannibalistic indigenous people. Villages are still full of people living 100 years in the past, without electricity, running water or even toilets. This we had read about and would soon experience personally. Luganville is the main town on the island of Santo, and resembles Tonga in that the cultures seem to be in a battle between the old and the new. Ni-Vanuatu women still wear the Mother Hubbard dresses, which were introduced perhaps a couple hundred years ago by missionaries in an effort to cover up the near naked women. Men in the towns wear standard garb, but in some villages wear next to nothing. They are trapped in a time warp, yet many of them carry a cell phone on a halyard around their necks. They walk either barefoot or in Crocs. The shops are mostly owned by Chinese (as in Tonga) and are dusty and dirty (as in Tonga), although there are one or two nice and tidy businesses that appear to be owned by French. Local fruit and vegetable markets seem to be reserved for and limited to Vanuatuans. There seemed to be several empty and rotting buildings among the thriving ones and perhaps a hotel or two that may have been in business although it was hard to tell by the looks of them. It is a bizarre clash of styles and culture that sent our senses into a frenzy of adjustment.

Back at Oyster Island we took our laptops to shore trying to get some banking and other personal business done but got frustrated and gave up. If there were more than two computers online at a time it just overloaded the system and shut us all down. The resort probably never intended to get bombarded by a crowd of internet-starved cruisers. The access they had was intended for their own business purposes, and because they offered the Wifi to us at no charge we did not complain but tried to minimize our use of it. That night, ICA had arranged for a welcome feast at the restaurant. It was wonderful, with lots of varieties of both Vanuatuan food and Oyster Island's specialties. Some of the fish that cruisers had caught during the competition was prepared. Awards were given for the fishing tournament and for those who had made their first open ocean crossing. Paul and Michele aboard "Free Spirit" won a night in the resort for having caught the largest number of fish - 16 - and for the largest fish - a Sword Fish. Wow - they blew us all away.

The next day we were granted permission to visit an indigenous village, which is NOT a tourist venue. Rather is a working village that had adopted Grant's father as Honorary Chief. He has been working with them to teach them gardening and farming techniques. Because it had been raining for the last 24 hours, we got out of the van (this time Frank and I grabbed the second row of seating!), and negotiated our way through a series of mud puddles onto the path leading into the village's first structure, which was the home of the resident chief, medicine man (witch doctor). He wore nothing more than a string around his waist into which was tucked a long flap in the front and a long flap over the middle of his backside. He is an amazing man who spoke to Grant in Bislama. Although there are over 108 different local languages in Vanuatu, Bislama, a form of Pidgin, is the universal language of the people. For instance, "Where do you live?" would be "Yu blong wea?" And "Thank you very much" is "Tank yu tumas". "I'm sorry": "Mi sori tumas". It's fun! But they talk so fast we can't keep up. So, we got a personal tour of this village where the children are called pikininies, and wear no clothing. They are nearly completely self-sustaining. Everything that they eat they grow. Even their medicines come from their own plants. We were shown plants used for curses and for spells. This village and the people, who are seemingly untouched by modern advancements, fascinated us. They are not Christian - they are Kastom, and very superstitious, and up until not long ago were cannibals. Vanuatu has an extremely violent past. Even into the 1970's they were eating man. By the way - women were not eaten - just males.

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