Way back in 1998, I decided I wanted to take a holiday, I wasn’t exactly flush at the time, but I managed to scrape together enough funds, and roped my boy James into coming along as well. Conveniently, in the same building I was working at the time there was a small crappy travel agency, I spoke to them about various options, and settled on Vanuatu, I don’t exactly recall why, there was probably just a cheap package available.
I should emphasise in advance that back then I was a bad traveller, I’d travelled all over New Zealand of course, and jetted over to Australia a few times, but I hadn’t figured out that if you want to have fun you have to do things, for example, when travelling to England, it is lame to hit London and just sit around, you could do that in Auckland, and you’d be bored, doing it in London is just as boring, only several times more expensive, what you need to do is hit London, launch off into Scotland, take a train to France, jet over to Italy, etc (Europe is actualy wee, you see, and the huge amount of competition has lead to relatively cheap and easy travel).
Anyway, digressing. Suffice to say, I was a lame ‘sit around and hope to be entertained’ traveller see Bali for me as the ‘do things and have an awesome time’ traveller.
Anyway, enough of all that. The flight was made to feel much longer than it really was by the cramped plane, it was a little thing. Sub-optimal, but tolerable (and all I was paying for, so there you go).
Flying in to land at Port Vila airport felt just right, looking out the window as we sank below the level of the palm trees which stretched off into the distance. Out of the plane and into the humidity, you really know you’re in a different place when you travel into the tropics, even the very air your breath is telling you that everything is different.
Through customs and into the dirty little airport. Grabbed our bags, and jumped onto the coach that was hauling everyone around to their hotels.
We went past some really nice places, very flash, but our place wasn’t flash, it was just an ordinary cheap motel, the likes of which you’ll find pretty near everywhere – only with more lizards.
Kaiviti Village Motel, as I mentioned, not flash, but it was ok, nice pool with a bar, pretty good room service, and a quick walk into the heart of Port Vila.
Speaking of the pool bar, it was while sitting at said bar that I met the most ignorant Australian I’ve ever had the good fortune to encounter. After asking if we had Pizza in New Zealand, he was surprised to find that yes we did, and yes we also have Chicken, and ahh, you’re pretty drunk aren’t you pal?
We got our own back in the drunkness stakes a few nights into our stay when we tapped into our duty free. At about 3AM the manager phoned us and told us off. We felt very naughty.
Something you should know about Vanuatu is: it might be dirty, but it sure ain’t cheap.
Every thing was over priced, meals, hotels, drinks, everything. But you can have a good time there without blowing your budget, number two on my list of fun cheap things to do in Vanuatu was to hit a nakamal – we went to the Chief’s Nakamal – and grab a couple of bowls of Kava, this shit is nasty, it tastes like some sort of raw dirty root mashed into muddy water, and filtered through someones undies, but it does something very entertaining to your head, and it only cost about 60c a bowl (knowing that place, it is now $18).
The first bowl isn’t really so bad, but the second one, oh my god, it tastes fucking awful, if you can face any more than two, good for you, we couldn’t.
Finding a nakamal should be easy enough (James found the one we went to, I don’t recall how, he probably just asked someone at the hotel), but they don’t tend to be on the main drag. They’re kind of quiet places, it isn’t a social activity, you buy a bowl, then go off and drink it (don’t sip, it really fucking sucks, just gulp it down as fast as you can, get it out of the way).
You’ll probably only be able to do it once, maybe twice, before you get some serious taste aversion, just the thought made me feel queasy (now, 5 odd years later, I don’t feel anything, so I am probably just about ready to try another dose or two). The effect was nice, mellow, started off by making my mouth feel numb as we were walking back into the "city", then the numbness spread and turned into a general feeling of altered niceness & wellbeing. While talking to someone in a bar, I was told that Kava was very good for detoxifying your body, all I can tell you is I certainly did get rid of a lot of toxins the next day, in a lovely squirty manner. (TMI?)
Depending on where you’re from, and where you’ve travelled to, you might be surprised by the general state of the place, which is to say: dirty, kind of run down, with crappy footpaths, and rubbish on the beaches. This is not a super flash blinding white sands, sparkling clean piece of paradise, which is not to say that it isn’t a nice place to spend a week (forgive the double negative), because we had a good time.
The dirtiness I guess in on a par with Bali, only the people (Ni Vanuatu) in Port Vila were really nice, while the people in Bali where aggresive sales people.
The number one cheap fun thing to do, for me, was to travel around to some of the smaller islands off the main land mass and go snorkelling, including a partially surface wreck dive right in the harbor of Port Vila, there was a free ferry over to Iririki Island (which features the Iririki Island Resort, one of the places on our short list of places to stay, and thankfully we didn’t go there, because while it seemed like a much nicer place than where we went, it turned out that while we were there they were having a problem with the sewerage. Gah.) we circumnavigated the whole island, and I’ve got to tell you, the wreck is the only thing there worthy of excitement, there were many crazy cool long spined (like 30cm – 50cm) sea urchins, but for the most part it was pretty dead.
I’m sure that if anyone experienced with diving had seen me swimming inside the wreck, wearing just shorts and a mask, they would have had a heart attack and told me off for being reckless, but I had a really good time, and I didn’t even die! (Yay for not drowning, or carving off great hunks off flesh on rusty old hatches, and such.)
If you want less in the way of wrecks, and more in the way of an incredible profusion of brightly coloured tropical fish, huge growths of coral, and generally good fun, take a shuttle out to Hideaway Island, again the ferry is free, but you have to pay to use the beach (I think it was about $5), you can rent snorkel gear (it looked really crappy), take rides in glass bottomed boats, or even go for a SCUBA dive, but I’d actually lugged flippers and mask all the way from Auckland. (The stuff for rent looked like really shitty gear.)
This was the best snorkel I’ve ever had in my life. The coral was amazing, and totally accessible, right off the beach I was immediately surrounded by throngs of lovely fishies. I had an awesome day there, in small part thanks to the bar on the beach (no, I didn’t drink before snorkeling), including the really nice guy tending the bar.
One of the best dinners I’ve ever had was in Port Vila, there’s a little French restaurant at the edge of town (I don’t remember the name of the place, it is either next door to Gino’s or very near it, which is right next to the Kaiviti Village Motel), I had the coconut crab, in a sort of garlicky sauce. It was AWESOME. I have no idea what it cost, I never got very good at translating the currency, and price for the most part seemed divorced from value, things were just a rip, in whatever currency you used, so it was best to just not think about it too much.
Now, if I was going to go again, I’d definitely try the Flying Fox, which is a specialty in at least one of the restaurants, and appeals to me for some reason, probably because it sounds like such a weird thing to eat.
We also went to a farmers market sort of thing one morning, grabbed a pineapple (one of the best I’ve had in my life) and some weird nut things, etc.
This was in my pre-digital days, also apparently in my pre-taking-interesting-photos days. Regardless, I’ve got a gallery of my photos up, I couldn’t be arsed doing the job right with my good scanner, so I just dropped them through my rubbishy auto feeder scanner.
I got a couple of carvings before leaving, one is a really dodgy fertility god wooden-cock-looking-thing, and the other is a happy wooden pig. Check them over carefully for holes (caused by borer, termites, etc) before buying though, if there is any sign of insect life, customs will take them away and burn them for you (James was annoyed that I even declared my carvings, but I reckon it’s better to be safe than really really sorry).
Oh, and check out the cool number plates, the smallest number we saw was something like "7". And the taxis and buses are pretty cool (and interchangeable). They’re mostly just van sort of things, the difference between them being tiny little labels ("[B]" is for bus, etc).
Pidgin is widely spoken and written, and it really is a funny sort of language with a highly limited vocabulary and odd syntax, leading to some comical advertising.