Saturday 13th November 2010
Bislama word of the day:
Mi no save kakae mit – I’m a vegetarian
Peering at a shabby business card advertising bungalows, I dial the emblazoned mobile phone number into a public telephone. A voice answers. I ask if there is a room. “Yes” is the monosyllabic reply. “Do you have a toilet?” I ask tentatively. “Yes” comes the same answer. “Are you near the beach?” I further ask and when the same droll positive answer arrived I begin to suspect that my conversant is perhaps just saying yes with little comprehension of my interrogation. I test him with “How far are you from the beach?”. “Mmmmmmmmmmmm Ten metre”. Ok, so he does understand, brilliant. “Do you have electricity?” I chirpily ask. “Sum” comes the reply swiftly followed by, “bus, tomoro, three. Bi”. Alrighty then. We have no idea what we have just signed up for but we are a little sick of the sight of Luganville and ready for an excursion however peculiar it may reveal itself to be.
The following day, after a sojourn into town for supplies and another fruitless attempt at spotting those dratted seahorses, we return to our motel to check out at 12pm and prepare to await our transportation. Now, we have been gently yet frequently warned about ‘Vanuatu time’. Allegedly, timepieces across the country are not synchronised and even if they are, this is no matter as no one should expect punctuality of any kind from a ni-Van. However, we have yet to experience this and in fact whenever we have been in need of a local’s arrival, they have been early and at times inconveniently so. Today was no exception and four locals sauntered into our motel garden three hours early. We were swiftly bundled into the back of a pick up truck that had seen better days and off we went. As we sat there like happy dogs with their heads out of car windows enjoying the rushing air and scenery, we pondered on our destination. It was more or less at that moment that I noticed an inordinate amount of congealed blood resting in the grooves of the truck bed. There was even more to be seen splashed up the sides of the wheel arches and door. Hmmm. My eyes scanned the rest of the pick up interior. Chris and I, two clueless tourists perched on wheel arches; our rucksacks; our food provisions; two lean, muscular men who only speak Bislama; a wheel; the branch of a hibiscus tree; an old dirty baby seat part of a pushchair with faded detachable parasol; and blood.
Half an hour into our journey our driver pulls over so that his passenger in the cab can have a ‘swim’ (a euphemism for a bowel movement) and whilst we wait, the driver comes round to the back of the truck and introduces himself. His name is Adrian. He is a customs officer. He is a rather large fellow. In an interrogative manner he wants to know how long we are in Vanutau for; how long we are staying on E.Santo; where we have been; where we have stayed; what are our plans. We answer as vaguely and as politely as possible as we sit there looking at this sturdy man standing at the end of the truck, dominating the main exit. “Ok, we can go now” he exclaims as his face erupts into a grin. The four men clamber back on board and we depart, everyone having suitably evacuated themselves and had a nicotine fix. Everyone, that is, save for Chris and I, who, whilst remaining positive, are a little unnerved.
We had not been back on our journey long before the truck once more veered off the road and came to a halt. The driver jumps out and after a brief chat with a local child outside a shack by the side of the road, he returns with several huge bundles of water cress. Our driver offers us a bundle and regales us with a marvellous recipe requiring a large pot, boiling water, onions and garlic. We set off again yet no sooner had we done so then once more the vehicle comes to another stop. The driver once again disembarks and explains that he wishes to show us copra. He gathers a coconut from the edge of a palm forest and signals to the lithe man sitting next to me who on request reaches by his right leg and lifts out a not so modest machete. I look at Chris with eyes that say, “I didn’t know that was there! Did you know that was there?”. Chris’s facial expression says, “oh”.
This is starting to look a little like the preparation of a weekend village banquet. They have collected their main meat ingredient and placed it in the back of a truck with inadequate suspension in order to tenderise the rump and they are now gathering vegetables and seasoning to accompany it. The meat option also fortuitously brought some garlic, onions and a pineapple. How joyous! In a further dastardly act of ni-Van humour, they have also discussed with their meat how best to cook it.
I look around the truck bed again. Perhaps we should have taken note of the blood spatter, discarded baby chair and scarred locals. Perhaps we should have looked upon the arrival of our driver announcing “we are here for the English” with caution. And perhaps we should have remembered that up until 40 years ago cannibalism was officially still practiced here. But hindsight is a wonderful thing and as I sit there I find myself chanting in my head “please don’t eat me, please don’t eat me” and hoping that the fear rising is poisoning my meat.
Suffice to say, I am not writing this from the inside of a large cauldron surrounded by soggy water cress, onions and coconut milk. We did eventually arrive at the village of Port Olry and were greeted by three beaming little girls, the sight of a concrete hut and one of the most extraordinary views that I have ever clapped eyes on.