Friday 29th October 2010

Overlooking Port Vila

Bislama word/phrase of the day:
Sitsit wota – diarrhoea

We’re back in England and Chris has seen a doctor and we’re on our way again but this time to the shiny white beaches of the South Pacific where we stay in beautiful beach huts and eat local veg and rice. Then I wake up disorientated and confused to the percussive sound of rain on tin roofs and the piglet-esque squealings of a tiny baby and I realise where I am.

We awake early and Chris is feeling better, so it seems for now (his discomfort seems to go in fits and starts and is different every time I ask him). He decides that the hospital can wait for another day. But, we are here to dive and Chris cannot, will not and should not dive whilst in this state, so what to do? Our options are either to stay here and while away the time but be close to the hospital or move further North up the coast and find somewhere else to settle that will hopefully be beachy. We will have to make that choice imminently.

I am not ashamed to say that Vanuatu has been a frustration to us. For all the research one can do before visiting a country, sometimes it just isn’t enough. It is beautifully tropical and the people are wonderful but everything is thoroughly stitched up by tour operators. If you want to visit the waterfall, the traditional village, the volcano or the blue holes you can only do so with a tour at great cost. The alternative is to grab a local and ask them to take you themselves but they will charge the same or marginally less than a professional tour (because they know they can) and you won’t get the lunch or the information. You can rent a vehicle for about £25 – £30 a day and drive around the island but due to land ownership situations you won’t necessarily be able to visit the same places. Those that you can visit (anything from a beach, waterfall, little island off the coast) you will be charged for entrance and prices vary considerably but it seems that the most (not including prices for volcano sites) is around 1000vatu per person (£8ish). This probably doesn’t seem a lot but of course it all adds up. Then there’s island hopping which is minimum £180 a pop which ever way you cut it.

You’ll also pay high prices for accommodation. There are few options in the affordable ‘back-packers’ price range with a lot of shared dormitory prices starting around 3500vatu per person (at the current exchange that’s £22ish). So for around £50 a night you get 2 single beds in a dorm or a basic double room possibly with an en-suite. There are few cheaper options unless you stick to the towns where there are one or two motels that offer more budget accommodation. But you don’t want to stay in the towns, there’s not a lot to do unless you’re using them as a base for diving or the tours. Food is also dear with nearly all places charging 250vatu (£1.75ish) for a can of coke, the cheapest drink on the menu, and food being British prices. There are apparently plenty of local bungalows which you can arrange to stay in (normally on arrival) and these are, although varied in quality, meant to be great experiences. Prices seem lower for this form of accommodation but you’re a fair distance away from civilisation and are bound by the food they have on offer. This is not a problem in terms of eating local food (we are actively seeking out ‘local cuisine’) it’s just the accumulative cost as meals, whether from a restaurant or from the back of a market or in these bungalow stays, are the same price. We are yet to stay in one of these bungalows and I’m sure we will as it would certainly be an experience.

When in Port-Vila we chatted to an Aussie ex-pat who has resided in Vanuatu for eleven years. We asked him about the tourist prices and he explained that in the last six years prices have soared unprecedentedly. There was no reason to it other then ‘they can get away with it’. Vanuatu is an approved tax-haven with a big tick of approval from the UK and therefore locals and ex-pat corruption is the crime that ‘never happened’. Most tourists visit PV from Australia for brief holidays and for them the prices are apparently on a par with home so they do not see it as too painful to the wallet and many come on package tours. Other visitors are cruise ship zombies who are plonked on PV for a day and they certainly don’t seem to mind the costs (although I did hear one lady complaining profusely about the price of coffee) and they are oblivious to the fact that cruise ship days = all prices in town go up. Our ex-pat has nothing but love for the country but he is also aware that the tourist trade is pricing many visitors out of the equation. Apparently Vanuatu is one of the few countries in the world that people won’t return to. It is a huge shame as it has much to offer.

I worry that our view is jaded and I so hope that we are totally off the mark but it is becoming apparent to us that it’s not a place for back-packers or for those who need their bucks to last them an extended stay. Perhaps our problem is more the fact that the GB Pound to the Vatu is currently not a favourable exchange rate. So as you can see, it’s frustrating. We are here and we came to see all these wonderful things that the guidebook and websites so joyously described but they’re only accessible if you throw money at them. The worrying thing is that we have been told that the Solomon Islands are worse. Prices have soared there too more than Vanuatu and even fewer experiences are achievable by the budget conscious traveler. I am sure that there will be those who read this and think we’re being brattish and haven’t tried hard enough. Perhaps that is the case and I hope it is and I hope we will try even harder. We won’t give up on Vanuatu and exploring has been fun so far. The question is do we give up on the Solomon’s before we’ve even started rather than waste money there that could be spent having better experiences elsewhere?

We are at a juncture both where Chris’s health is concerned and also with our trip. I am irritated with myself for not knowing all of this before we came but how could we? As we sit in our motel room sheltering from the gorgeous toe-tingling thunderstorm and monsoon-esque rain, we ponder what to do. Then the power dies and our plans to make a dash to the nearest internet cafe to research our options are blown out of the water. An evening in with the husband playing cards it is then. Well, that’s not much of a hardship really :).

I apologise for discussing money as I know it’s very impolite behaviour but if it forewarns some would be traveler to this neck of the woods then it’s worth it. Plus, that’s what you get for reading a blog which is basically my brain vomit.

Oh dear, cheery stuff eh? Well I thought I might have peaked too early with the first blog entry. Good job I have six months to make it up to you. Xxx

Pretty flowers
What kind of flower is this, any ideas?
Update: Thanks to Mr Will – we have plant names: “That their flower is Etlingera elatior (also known as Torch Ginger, Ginger Flower, Red Ginger Lily, Torch Lily, Wild Ginger, Combrang, Bunga Siantan, Philippine Wax Flower and so and so forth.” Thanks William!