October 14, 2008 – Port Vila, Efate, Vanuatu
Survivor fans will remember episodes set in these tropical islands. Not having seen any of the episodes, I’m uncertain which of the islands of Vanuatu was the setting for the series. As I write, we are sailing away from Efate, where we’ve had yet another adventure. It’s a full-moon night, all the more beautiful for being shared.
Gordon & Fiona, our new Scottish friends, joined us for breakfast and then willingly put themselves into Robin’s capable hands. We’re lucky to have the best tour director in the business as our guide.
Once off the ship in Port Vila, Robin led negotiations for a taxi driver. He started off at $50 an hour but finally agreed on $80 for a three-hour sightseeing drive. The competition is fierce, the opportunities for commerce limited, but bargaining is expected.
The driver introduced himself as Johnny Walker, no doubt accustomed to tourists butchering his real name. No amount of questions could pry loose his birth name. He owns the taxi you can see in the photo. It seats four in reasonable comfort, as long as they don’t insist on seat belts and aren’t bothered by seeing daylight through door panels.
We set out through the port city, which shares some of the rough-edged flavour of other Pacific island ports – ragged, unkempt but with all the mod cons that have become ubiquitous. There are computer stores, Internet cafés, hardware stores, restaurants, banks, car dealerships, and a hodgepodge of small enterprises.
To the northwest of Port Vila we came to Mele-Maat, one of the stops on the ship’s excursions. From there a free ferry shuttles visitors to an upscale resort on a small island just offshore.
Heading back through Port Vila, we stopped at the war memorial for those who lost their lives in the Coral Sea battle during the Second World War. We then drove out to Ekasup Village. It’s a cultural attraction, one of those places that recreates village life of yore for a fee that helps the local economy.
We had something more real in mind, and Johnny Walker reluctantly agreed. We wanted to see his home. He didn’t really want to take us there, but when nothing else would satisfy these crazy tourists, he headed out into the country.
Intermittent downpours had filled the giant potholes on the gravel road that led through lush tropical forest. Taking a rutted side road, he stopped at his village’s meeting place. When the bell (an empty propane tank) is rung, five hundred villagers gather here to hear what the chief has to say.
“I will be chief when this one is no longer,” he told us, showing us the kava bowl used for ceremonial occasions. He pointed out the thatched, coconut-leaf roof on a small shelter at the meeting place (in the photo with Robin). “This will last eight or ten years, then needs a new one.” Until that point, Johnny Walker was somber. He knows how different our lives are from his and was probably not keen to see judgment in our eyes. Seeing enthusiasm and interest instead of censure, he relaxed.
Back along the gravel road, we came to a track where we parked the taxi and walked.
The slippery path led past a large garden where a man and woman were tending a field of yams. Food was abundant in the forest through which we walked – papaya, pineapple, manioc, mango, breadfruit, bananas.
“I am a rich man,” Johnny Walker said. “I have shelter, food, land [200 acres], family. I just don’t have any money.”
What he did have was a modest sleeping hut with a mud cistern for catching rain to supply water for cooking and washing. Beside it was a crude kitchen for preparing meals over a fire. Tucked in the bush around his home are other, similar huts belonging to family members. (His brother-in-law and nephew are in the photo below.)
By comparison with our driver in Apia, Johnny Walker is a poor man, but he is a man of high standing in his village. He has a wife and three children. He owns his own taxi. He has 200 acres of land which supplies all the food he and his extended family need, as well as enough to sell at the Port Vila market.
We were honoured to be allowed a brief glimpse into a life that interested us far more than the manicured replica of a tourist village.
He dropped us off at the farmers’ market, which he said is always open. The offerings there were more varied and plentiful than in Apia: varieties of bananas, ruby berries, manioc and potatoes, watermelons, papaya, mangos, butter nuts (which Johnny Walker says are spread on bread like butter), cucumbers, and grapefruit the size of cantaloupe.
There were women selling plates of boiled taro and yams covered in coconut sauce, along with chicken and rice. Others were wrapping servings of chicken, yams and spinach in banana leaves – nutritious fast food with a small environmental footprint.
Everywhere we went in Vanuatu we were met with warmth and cheerful greetings by people who seem happier with their lives than in some of the other island ports we’ve visited.
We found a wireless hot spot in a café right on the beach front where we caught up on e-mail (until the slow server ground to a halt) and enjoyed the lovely bay in which beautiful yachts were moored. We overheard a conversation of one of the sailors, making her way around the South Sea Islands.