Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Vanuatu Part 2 Erromango and Efate

Working our way north from Vanuatu’s island of Tanna, we made an overnight stop at the island of Erromango where we stayed long enough to see some of the village and take a long hike to a high plateau where we found the island’s airport.  The grass runway sits in a jungle clearing and has a small, stone “terminal” building nearby which was boarded up when we were there.  Air Vanuatu flies commuter-type aircraft to most of Vanuatu’s islands several times per week even though, based on the limited tourism and rather primitive conditions in what most people live, it’s hard to imagine much demand for the service.  It’s quite conceivable that someone arriving by air would then walk 7 or 8 kilometers to a village or complete their journey in a leaky, hand-carved dugout canoe.  While the airport lacked the fences, security guards and metal detectors that we see at commercial airports in the US, the grass strip was recently mowed and, by Idaho, back country airport standards, would have been a piece of cake to land at.  Mark couldn’t help but imagine how different his job might have been had he flown for Air Vanuatu instead of American Airlines.

While in Vanuatu, we have been so impressed by the warm welcomes we receive from the friendly people we encounter.  We have not, in any way felt any concern for our safety or security.  Shortly after going ashore at Erromango though, with friends Jon and Heather from the yacht “Evergreen”, we watched two young men paddle their canoe toward “Blue Rodeo”, “Evergreen” and another boat, “Victory”, who was anchored near us.  From a distance, we watched the canoe disappear behind “Blue Rodeo” and could then see the canoe reappear with just one person aboard.  We stood in amazement wondering what they could be up to.  As is our routine, whenever we leave our boat, we close the hatches and lock it up but occasionally leave fishing or snorkeling gear in the cockpit.  Were they up to no good or was is just innocent curiosity?  I guess we’ll never know.  But later, we learned from friend Jon-Bart, who was aboard “Victory” at the time, that he yelled at the men saying that they were not allowed aboard without our permission.  It stands to reason that there are likely to be a few rascals within every group but we’ll continue to enjoy, what we feel, to be this safe and crime-free tropical paradise.

Port Vila, on the island of Efate is Vanuatu’s capital and biggest city.  It is also a popular port of call visiting cruise ships.  For these reasons, the town has pretty much everything one might need including an amazing fresh produce and craft market, several well-stocked grocery stores and dozens of assorted shops and restaurants.  Also, because it caters to the cruise ships, it has a number glitzy duty free stores in case a traveler might need a new Rolex watch or Louis Vuitton bag to go with their cheap bottles of Absolute vodka.  We small boat cruisers are often entertained by the spectacle of hundreds of pasty-white and overfed cruise ship passengers being disgorged from a ship and completely changing the dynamics of these rather small tropical towns.  As we did our errands and wondered about, we couldn’t help but notice how different our travel style was from those from the big ship.  We also took it as a bit of a compliment when merchants would remark to us: “ You are not from he cruise ship are you?”  What clues had we given them?  Was it that we appeared more healthy (we hope)?  Or, was it that we appeared more weathered and smelled a bit of diesel and mildew (we hope not)? 

After nearly a week in Vila where we re-provisioned and sampled a few of the local eateries, we sailed around to an anchorage on the west side of Efate near a recommended dive spot.  Our excellent dive there would be the first of many in the coming weeks that made feel so privileged to have the mobility and opportunity to visit these amazing spots that are well off the normal, beaten path.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Vanuatu Part 1

Except for some strong winds and sizable, short-period swells from aft our our beam that produced uncomfortable sea conditions, our passage to the Island of Anatom (also known as Aneithym), southern-most in Vanuatu’s 83 islands, was uneventful.  The anchorage there is in a bay off a small village and is protected by a nearby, uninhabited island and adjacent reefs.  It’s possible to begin the official customs and immigration clearing-in process there with the village’s policeman.  Once anchored, we quickly launched our dinghy and prepared to go ashore to do so but were informed by another cruising couple who were just returning to their boat that the officer had simply gone fishing and that we could check in the next day. The next morning, along with friends from the yachts “Evergreen” and “Victory”, we accomplished the task and exchanged currency to pay our fees at the tiny, one-room bank just down the path from the police station.

We had been told that the village’s primary school was always appreciative of donations of school supplies so we figured this would be a good place to drop-off some pads of paper, pencils and coloring books that we had aboard “Blue Rodeo”.  A friendly and helpful resident pointed us toward the school where we met a young man named Webster, the school’s head master.  He proved to be a warm and gentle person and, over the next few days, would serve as our guide in the area and escorted us along a multi-hour, jungle trek to a beautiful waterfall.  Our stay at Anatom quickly confirmed what we’ve heard about the Melanesians of Vanuatu.  While a bit more reserved than the Fijians, they are as sweet and warm as can be.

Before sailing on, we had the opportunity to do a nice SCUBA dive in the nearby reef pass and take more walks on shore.  Soon though, with many more islands to see, it was time to head for the island of Tanna, our next intended stop to the north.

Tanna is famous for its splendid natural beauty, fertile soil that produces world famous coffee and especially its accessible, active volcano.  After a pleasant day sail from Anatom, we anchored in Tanna’s beautiful bay known as Port Resolution.   Within minutes of anchoring, we were greeted by a friendly local who had paddled out from shore in a traditional dugout canoe accompanied by two, nearly-naked children.  After an introduction and some pleasant conversation, he asked if we had any “action” DVD movies that he could borrow.  We couldn’t help but chuckle inside a bit thinking about the way most islanders are living in simple, wood huts, without electricity and cooking on open fires yet probably gathering around this gentleman’s battery-powered DVD player to watch Bruce Willis, shoot’em-up movies.

Since the trip to Tana’s Mount Yasur volcano is considered a “must do” for visiting cruisers, we wasted no time in making arrangements for late afternoon transportation to the mountain the next day with a suggested stop at a “kastom” (traditional) village were we could see a dance presentation.  Before the trip, we had time to take a few long walks to explore the island’s nearby villages, beaches and dense forests.  Most residents continue to live in the most basic of homes made from natural materials but seem to have a sense of pride in their surroundings.  The pathways amongst the huts were sept daily with palm branches and the entire village appeared to be a lush garden.  Everywhere we walked, we were met with smiling faces and warm greetings even though few were truly conversant in english.  Dozens of local languages are spoken in Vanuatu’s remote areas but the most common language is Bislama which has a phonetic similarity to english.  Over the next few weeks we would chuckle a bit when we struggled to read and understand signs written in Bislama.  By sounding out the words and speaking quickly, we could often understand the meaning of what was written.  As friend Jon pointed out, it’s as if Bislama evolved from hearing english spoken without ever seeing any of it written.  A couple of examples are the following translations:  I want:  me wantem,  Where are you going?:   yu go wea?, and Thank you very much:  tank yu tumas.

The trip to the volcano proved to be somewhat of a physical challenge as our transportation was a FWD pickup truck with a couple of wooden planks for benches in the bed.  Along with Jon Bart and Monique from “Victory” and Jon and Heather from “Evergreen”, we climbed aboard and set off down the rough dirt road.  Due to the vehicle’s stiff suspension and the road’s irregular surface, our group spent the entire ride bouncing into the air while clinging to the truck’s uncovered canopy frame trying to minimize the trauma to our tender posteriors.  We couldn’t help but think about how this rivaled many of the amusement park thrill rides we’ve been on.

The stop for the dance presentation at the kastom village proved a welcome break from the pounding and was interesting but seemed too artificial and tourist oriented.  It’s clear that the people of Vanuatu are encouraging tourism and attracting the associated dollars by giving outsiders a glimpse at their beautiful islands and rather primitive, subsistence life style.  Unfortunately, the simple and unspoiled character of it all is a bit tainted.  We would all comment later that, although interesting, the dance presentation, with mens’ privates barely covered by a leaf held on by some woven material and women, bare breasted but with arms crossed over them, made us all feel rather uncomfortable.  We wished so much that we could just observe unnoticed the authentic, unique and fascinating cultural displays likes flies on a wall without being part of the tourist scene.

Just before sunset, we reached the parking area high on the slopes of volcanically active Mount Yasur and quickly scrambled a few hundred feet higher up a path to the viewing area on the crater rim.  With a cold, howling wind buffeting us about, we watched the spectacle as chunks of molten lava were ejected from the cauldron accompanied by loud rumbles and clouds of dark smoke.  While the currently level of activity is tame enough to allow safe viewing from such a close vantage point, we were all very impressed by seeing one of nature’s truly remarkable shows so up close and personal.  We continued to watch until well after dark before scurrying back to the truck for the brutal, hour-long ride back to the bay where our boats were anchored.  All in all, it was a very full day.

One more day was spent in Port Resolution before continuing our travels north.  As we prepared for the next leg, we couldn’t help but feel excitement from the thought of what new wonders we’d discover up ahead.