Tuesday 23rd November 2010
Bislama word of the day:
Skwisim – to squeeze

Port Olry - Santo - Vanuatu

I have so much to say about our last ten days in Vanuatu yet I feel that my words can not do it justice. No amount of writing and rewriting passages of intricate descriptions can paint an accurate or evocative enough picture. Suffice to say, I could not leave Vanuatu without attempting to portray our time at Port Olry, however inadequately that might be.

A Paradise of Sorts

Port Olry was extraordinary in every way. Our accommodation comprised of an unfinished concrete brick hut traditionally roofed with woven palm leaves. It housed a large sparse bedroom with a wafer-thin foam mattress and a kitchenette furnished with a tiny, single portable stove. There was an outhouse containing a western style flush toilet and shower, however infrequent rains in this region meant that water was in short supply and the ‘fancy’ ablution facilities were null and void. The kitchen was haphazardly hilarious, stocked with a peculiar assortment of crockery and cutlery and requiring much improvisation, such as the use of pants to protect delicate hands from scolding metal. Cooking was completed with expert skills by Chef Christophe in the dusk of the day shortly before the sun set and our light was gone til the morrow. Yes, you guessed it, our ‘some’ electricity was actually ‘no’ electricity. We had but the moon and a tiny solar lantern to guide us to the powder room in the dark of the night and the cows, manic horses and stray dogs to serenade us whilst we marked our territory. We received ritualistic daily wake up calls from 3am from the numerous roosters strutting about the village and at 5:30am the owner’s daughters would arrive before school, deliver two of the largest baps known to mankind (I admit, I did snigger a little as I typed that word) and some peanut butter (of which there is a disturbing abundance in Vanuatu). This was of course our ‘cooked’ breakfast that we were informed was part of our accommodation rate.

Then there was our host. If Crusty the Clown (from the Simpsons) was black, shaved off his green hair, wore tatty sleeved t-shirts and carried a machete then he’d look uncannily like Frank, our host. So of course, poor, lovely Frank was renamed Crusty. Every day, shortly before Kava o’clock, we would see Crusty waddling gently over from the village. At times his advancement was so dubious that it was hard to tell if he was walking forward or skilfully backwards, or if he was in suspended animation. But sure enough, he would eventually arrive to see how we were and maybe plant a tree or two in the little fenced off area by the hut that he was ‘developing’ into a garden. His three daughters were enchanting to say the least. Monicha, six years of age, had a fiercely impish face and lost boy demeanour. Crowning her magnificent complexion was a crown of fiery wiry afro hair, which only served to enhance her look worthy of a Brian Froud illustration or Jim Henson puppet. As with all young children, language is often not the barrier that we as adults find, for in reality, body language is the most universal and effective form of communication. So, we became great friends instantly and a game of monsters along the powder sand beach resulted more frequently than I’d like to admit, in me face or bottom down in the sand with a mouthful of grit. Maria, nine years of age, was a stunningly radiant girl with glowing white teeth, an infectious smile and a coy self-consciousness that made her all the more intriguing and beautiful. She was never without a shawl over her shaven head and she toyed with the edges of it like a younger child might with a pet blankie. When she was confused or amused she would giggle and squirm whilst covering her mouth and eyes with her shroud. Like a masked princess from some Arabian tale, she would reveal her eyes and shining toothy grin only for a moment before hiding them to precipitate a chuckle. Larinda, thirteen years old, was the quiet supervising older sister. She sat silently with us, observing with seemingly idle interest and occasionally answering questions in French. Once or twice she did break into a giggle but embarrassingly turned away when we recognised that she had done so. Their company was greatly received by us and like most ni-Vans, when they weren’t laughing they were content to sit in silent companionship.

It didn’t matter how much we smelt from not being able to wash properly, or how tired we were from the broken sleep due to raucous farm animals, or how many heart attacks I had on my way back from the bush loo in the thick darkness as I heard rustling and grunting right by my ear (later to be discovered as snoozing cows). As soon as we open our room, stepped out and fixed our gaze on the view before us, nothing was of consequence. “Well”, you might say, “surely one white sandy beach is the same as the next?” Perhaps. But this one was different. The white coral sand was so powdery in places that it seemed almost like talc-on powder and the sea…sigh! I have been lucky enough to view some stunning beaches in my life so far and in all cases, regardless of how magnificently turquoise the sea is, when those dark grey thunder clouds loom overhead, they drain the sea of it’s vigorous light and replace it with a tarnished version of it’s former colour. Not this sea. It didn’t matter how dark the clouds were, how low they were or how much it rained, the azure blue glowed as if it was illuminated by millions of glowing creatures or by the electric lights of the Nautilus. When I swam into the shallows, the coral talc rushed about my body and hid my torso from view and as the waves came gently rolling towards my bobbing head I expected to see the clarity of water. Instead, the sea was as luminescent azure close up as from a distance. For our whole stay our only beach companions were local children playfully dashing out of their beach-view classrooms to spend their lunch break playing chicken with the waves and poking crabs. The sea we shared only with lonely fishermen traversing the tiny islands off-shore in their home carved outrigger canoes.

The village was a collection of ramshackle huts built from natural materials or corrugated tin. Muddy pathways connected the houses, washing lines adorned the edges of fences and verandas like festival bunting and dogs fought toddlers for shade under which to nap. Behind the village the forested landscape draped in the blanket of Morning Glory* reached up into the low mist. As we sat on our veranda looking in front of us at the sea, to left of us at the beautiful village and behind us at the fairyland forest, we have never felt so part of something yet wonderfully secluded.
Port Olry - Santo - Vanuatu

Our Last Days in Vanuatu

From idle forays into philosophical ramblings with the travelled and inspiring to impromptu intoxicated giggles at an 80s party with the young and excitable, our last days ensured we left loving Vanuatu. The warmth and friendliness we have felt from those we have encountered so far has been overwhelming and I hope that the single-serving friends we have made will be more than that. I feel lucky to have met people with real passion, for the ocean, for travel, for adventure, for nature. I have never felt so naïve or unworldly and I have never loved being naïve or unworldly. To be in awe and to be aghast and excited by stories, tales and anecdotes and to feel like the world is so vast and yet so small. For sure, the ocean is always bluer on the other side and I am envious of everyone I meet yet wonderfully content in my life and in our choices. But of course, I now have greater fuel for my day-dreams; sailing across the roaring ocean dodging prehistoric sea dragons and to float across starlit lagoons serenaded by the whale-song of sirens, fighting through jungle thickets to reach mythical waterfalls sparkling with flecks of Gold, gliding through warm waters in search of colourful gardens of magical seahorses.

In conversation with an eccentric gentleman who was sailing round the world, I childishly asked, “of the places you have visited, where is your favourite?”. He replied, “the next one”.

So, we leave for Fiji.
Port Olry - Santo - Vanuatu

*The locals have re-named this ‘American Rope’. It was introduced by the US during their stay in 1940s for camouflage but, along with everything else, they left it here when they departed and it has spread like the plague suffocating the natural fauna and flora. Whole swathes of woodland including endangered species of trees, are under threat from it and yet no one does anything to remove it.