Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Vanuatu: A Step Back In Time

Map picture

Vanuatu, formerly known as New Hebrides, achieved independence in 1980. The country is a chain of islands that run north to south in the South Pacific Ocean about three-quarters of the way from Hawaii to Australia. There are more than 80 islands in the chain, but only 65 are inhabited. All of the islands are volcanic in origin, and most of them still have volcanic activity, some even underwater. We are indeed right at the heart of the so called “ring of fire” which surrounds the Pacific Ocean.

Our first stop, of course, was to clear the ship with local officials. This can at times be a tedious affair, or it can be a matter of minutes. Well, in the case of Vanuatu it took days! At first there was the usual long line of officials, well actually there were only a few “actual” Officials, the rest of the entourage were relatives, friends and who knows what, but they all knew where to find a “good meal.” I guess some actual “official” work took place, but within minutes the breakfast area was besieged by locals. As is the custom in some parts of the world, before departing the ship, several of the dignitaries managed to receive “tokens of appreciation” meaning wine or alcohol. What was unusual was that three rather huge men remained onboard for our entire three days that we would be cruising in Vanuatu. It was hilarious, really! For example, our lunch room remains open for lunch between 12 and 2pm. To us that means that you can go for lunch anytime during those hours. The officials from Vanuatu appeared to think that meant to go to lunch at noon and to remain until 2, eating as much as possible in the interim. They ate so much food that I could not believe it. I can assure you that when we left they were a sad lot.

As you know I was grounded from going ashore on our first stop in Vanuatu, Tanna Island. During the morning, the ship stopped first at a small island near Tanna called Aniwa Island. Here people did some serious snorkeling on a shallow reef. Lisa and I stood on deck and waved them on. Moving the ship over lunch, we arrived at Tanna itself around 2pm. The first activity was to make a wet landing onto a black sandy beach, and from there to be transported by truck to the village of Port Resolution. First, however, we had to be greeted in the traditional manner. Now, I was really feeling much better, in part to all the pills the doctor had given me, but hey, I figured what he did not know would not hurt him, so Lisa and I went ashore to view the ceremony and visit the village.

It seemed that a large number of locals had come to welcome us to the island as well as to watch the festivities. They were gathered in large groups and were colorfully dressed. In several groups, they had bands playing; all in all, it was great fun. We were seated on coconut tree trunks and then officially welcomed by the chief. DSC02103There followed several colorful performances by both men and women after which we were transported to the village for a tour. Because of my back, the crew made sure that I was able to sit in a real seat while most everyone else was confined to sitting on boards across the rear of a pickup truck. We then set off on one of the god awful lest rides I have ever undergone. There were no “roads” only muddy dirt trails that twisted and turned at every tree and went up and down like a roller coaster. I had to hold on for dear life as our driver took the roads at mind numbing speed. We kept getting lost and backing up a great deal, before finally arriving at the village.

You know you can tell a great deal about a people by the way they live.DSC02114 These people might be living in relatively primitive conditions, but the village was neat as possible. The entire village had been raked clean, and all around villagers had setup stands and locations where they demonstrated how they functioned. We, of course, saw the school, but we also saw how they slaughtered and cleaned a hog. They showed us how to weave some really exotic bags and mats, and all of this was done with great pride. I just about fell off my log when my guide calmly pulled out a cell phone to answer a call! It appears that they have cell coverage all over the island, and they also have smart phones and access to the internet on their phones and in certain locations where they have electricity there are computers. After a fun visit, our group was scheduled to be transported up to the rim of the Volcano, and from there they could walk approximately 1,200 feet uphill on a very rough terrain so that they would be on top for sunset. The volcano on Tanna Island is continuously active, and is constantly throwing out a stream of molten lava which at night is spectacular. As much as I wanted to get those pictures, I was smart enough to realize that walk was way out of my ability right now with my bad back, and so Lisa and I returned to the ship where were could see the red glow coming from the top of the mountain.

The next day everyone on the ship was bone tired from two long days in a row so thankfully we had a morning to rest before reaching our next destination which was the island of Ambrym, Vanuatu. We made anchor around 3pm, and went ashore in the zodiacs to land on a beautiful black sand beach. The sand was black of course because the island itself was of volcanic origin, and in fact, it too had an active volcano at the center of the island. We came to this remote island at the invitation of the Great Chief to witness the rarely performed “Rom dance of Ambrym”. I will tell you that Lisa and I have been witness to many elaborate native dances, but this was without question the best we have ever seen. The dancers were all male and wore elaborate costumes. These very special coverings can only be worn once, and then must be destroyed. Before the dance may be done again, they must all be recreated. If you look at my pictures you can see that the male dancers leave nothing to the imagination. Their only attempt at modesty is to wear a cover on their penis. Of course the Chief must have the longest cover, and I can let you imagine how the rest go down in size. DSC02209The ceremony, which goes on for quite some time we later learned is actually preformed for the villagers once a year after harvest, and at that time the young boys of the village are circumcised. Thankfully we were spared that part of the ceremony. After the dancers were done, they came out for photographs and then everyone disappeared leaving the Chief and his assistant standing. We were told that we could approach no closer than 3 feet to the Chief, but that we could take photographs. To our surprise both Lisa and I were separately invited by the Chief to have our photographs taken with him – actually pretty amazing.

At this point, we were invited to walk along the beach to the Village. I asked our guide how long the walk would be and if using my walking stick I could make it. He thought for a moment and replied that it should normally be a 5 minute walk, but in my case perhaps 10 minutes. The ship was offering to move me down the beach in the zodiac, but since the surf was very high, I decided a 10 minute walk was better than fighting to get back into and out of the zodiac. WELL, if I could find the guy who told me 10 minutes I would give him a piece of my mind. The walk took over an HOUR. The ship assigned two crew members to help me through the mud and across the rocks. At one point, they literally had to carry me over a river. By the time I reached the Village, I had missed the tour and I immediately had to board the zodiac back to the ship. Yet another Grrrr!

Last night the crew through a huge party by the pool for the 32 of us. The Chef was happily squeezed into a corner grilling the biggest lobsters I have ever seen. They had a huge affair and we had music, drinks, and in the background the top of the volcano maintained a constant red glow with the moon behind it.

Today we visited the largest island in Vanuatu, Espiritu Santo. Our ship actually got to dock for the first time on this voyage and we were whisked away to our first stop – well for as long as we stayed there it might as well have been our only stop. We had been travelling along on muddy roads when suddenly we pulled onto a large concrete pad and stopped. At this point we were deep in the jungle and there was a light drizzle. The air was humid and still, and the temperature was quite high. The concrete was slick and covered with moss. Apparently during World War II, this had been a large Army base and the concrete was the foundation for the base Hospital. For the next two hours, we walked slowly around this area and at various openings in the jungle we would stop at yet another concrete pad where the locals had setup a demonstration about how they managed to live on a small island. Frankly it was boring, and after almost two hours my back gave out and I had to hurry ahead where I could sit for the performance which was to follow. Once again we were treated to a ceremony; however this was a very brief presentation and was rather poorly done in my opinion.

From here we were driven about 20 minutes to what the natives call the “million dollar point.” At the end of the war, this island was divided between France and Great Britain. The Americans, therefore had to withdraw, but they had both a huge Army base and an airfield on the Island all full of equipment. They offered to sell the equipment to the French or Brits and neither would bite. So the military tore down all the buildings and promptly drove every tank and vehicle into the ocean after which they threw away absolutely every piece of equipment into the ocean. Today it is a divers’ paradise! Just down the beach are the ruins of the Ocean Liner SS President Coolidge. This magnificent ship was converted during the war to carrying troops and cargo throughout the Pacific. Near the end of the war, it was entering the harbor on Espiritu Santo when it hit mines, exploded and sank almost up on the beach. Sadly the mines were ours. It seems that no one had notified the Captain about the presence of the mine field.

We returned to the ship for a quick lunch and then we were to head out for an afternoon of swimming. Lisa and I decided we were just too tired, and so we spent this afternoon getting caught up on our pictures and this blog.

So everyone, I am back, and I hope you are enjoying these.


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