We had a good couple of days in Santo. It was nice having a little more infrastructure compared to the previous week where we were void of hot water and charged most of our devices via a battery pack. Before we left our accommodations, I asked if the ATMs at the airport work, and I was told that they did. The reason that this mattered is that Vanuatu is mostly cash-based and the next island, Gaua, that we went to did not have an ATM and only had a bank that was open a few hours a week. I had about $300 in cash and wanted some more. I did not want to get too much since we only had two days after Gaua, and I wanted to avoid transaction fees transferring Vatu back to NZD or USD.
We had a very informal check-in, and I then went to use the ATM and discovered that both of them were out of service. I instantly got rather grumpy since we needed more cash, and our plane was leaving in about an hour. I walked to the only taxi there, and no one was at it. A man came up and said that he would take me, and we negotiated $9 for the return journey. The first ATM we went to was also out of service, and I ran across the street and the second one was in service, and I withdrew an additional 44,000 vatu, about $400.
I made it back to the airport in time to have a few minutes to relax before we boarded our 20 seat aircraft for the 40-minute journey to Gaua.
We were given boarding passes that had seat numbers on them, but no one followed them, so it was every man for themselves. Part of Katy’s gripe with the plane is that sealing between the Twin Otter’s door and fuselage is a loose connection, and you can see outside and sometimes feel a breeze through the gap. I think it was a perfectly acceptable airplane. Katy’s distaste of the Twin Otter was not assuaged when we lined up to land on a grass runway/soccer field in Gaua. I have to admit that the landing was smooth and a lot less bumpy than I was anticipating.
Gaua is not a heavily touristed island in Vanuatu and is part of the Banks Islands chain. Gaua is connected to the rest of Vanuatu by plane three days a week and a cargo ship about every two weeks. Tanna gets a cargo ship just about every day, Lamap/Maskelyenes get one weekly, and Lakatoro gets about two a week. There are four functioning trucks on the island, along with one broken one, and one working ATV. There is a road that goes about a third of the way around the island. The western and southwest side of the island are the real remote parts. A contingent of people from the western side went to New Zealand for a season to work and were able to purchase a boat with their earnings when they returned. This allowed them to be connected to the rest of the island by a couple hour boat ride instead of a full days walk.
We disembarked, and John from Chez Maureen Bungalows was able to find us easily since we were the only westerners on the plane. John informed us that Maureen was not there to meet us since her mother had passed away at 8pm the previous night. We then walked across the runway and down a road to the ocean and the bungalows. The bungalows were the most expensive place that we stayed at $89 per night, but we were able to use the fourth night free to get them for around $75 per night. The property was gorgeous with a lot of flowers around the two bungalows. There was not a beach, but there were hammocks, picnic tables, and snorkeling right from the property. The sandy beaches on Gaua are on the north and south side of the island, not the eastern side where we were staying.
John told us that the tradition was to have five days of mourning and then a traditional kustom ceremony and feast, all of which were happening at the property. The first day was pretty awkward. We felt out of place, there was a lot of praying and crying, a ton of people around, the hammocks and picnic tables were occupied, and no one really told us what to expect and what was going on. We were served lunch at around 1:30p and around 7pm dinner. We had just about the worse timing possible for our stay, but things happen, and I am grateful that they were still willing to have us stay during everything that was going on. We spent most of the day reading and playing games on our patio. We did go for a walk to explore the area and discovered that the president of Vanuatu was in town speaking. Since our Bislama is rather weak, we decided to not stick around for his speech. We did learn later that one thing that the president talked about was that people are not supposed to grow marijuana. One thing that we did not find were any stores that were open. We found one that was closed, and Maureen also has a store/kava bar, and that was also closed.
That night John came back and described some options for tours that were available, as he was also the guide and Maureen’s cousin. Katy asked him if it was okay to swim and use the rest of the property with everyone around, and he said yes. He also explained the funeral process and that it was going to be a multiday event. The food was a highlight on the first day. The food had a French flair and actually was well seasoning compared to a lot of the food that we have had on the trip.
Our second day in Gaua, we were treated to a lot more clouds than the first day, along with breakfast promptly at 7am. After breakfast, we went for a snorkel, but the tide was too low to pass over the reef. We then tried to find an open store on the island and failed. It is amazing how being at 16 degrees latitude the sun can make a day unbearably hot when shining or rather cold if it is hiding. Katy and I had a conversation about what we thought they did with dead bodies on an island with only solar electricity and generator power. There is no way to keep them cold. The answer is to bury them on your property like we saw in the Cook Islands. They had what sounded like a church service, and then everyone sat down while they built an elevated grave out of cinderblocks (a layer of plaster was later added). That night we had a nice big lobsters for dinner.
The next day we went for a hike to a waterfall. It was originally described to us as what we thought was the shorter and easier trek of the two main ones on the island. It was definitely a jungle walk. John used his machete a lot. The ground was uneven, and you could not see your footing a lot of the time. You also did have mystery plants, some of which stung, rubbing against your legs as you walked. There may have been bugs too. We made it about seven miles in and caught a glimpse of the waterfall and decided to head back. It was interesting to see how the island had changed over time. In the 1600s there were 25,000+ people living in the region where we were, whereas now ~1,000. That meant that there were not any really old trees since they have been cutting them down for centuries. I think it is often easy to think of remote, sparsely inhabited areas as always being that way and having ancient trees. It turns out people have been in many of these areas for a really long time and have been using the natural resources for centuries.
John said that the local story is that black magic was responsible for the decline in population, but the truth is probably that western disease from explorers was the prime culprit. The worst part of the walk was in an area that was a really large taro field up until the 1980s. The people that grew taro there moved, and the field was left to be taken over by two types of vines. One was called the American vine since it was not in Vanuatu until the US arrived there during WWII. It was just a solid mass of vines with a faint trail that involved a lot of machete swinging and avoiding tripping over the ankle level wines that escaped the machete. The areas where there were trees were a lot easier to walk because many of the vines need the sun and grew over the trees instead of through them. We got back and were thirsty and dirty. Luckily we were greeted with a cold jug of lemonade. Katy took a shower and drank the last of rum.
The next day the weather was medium, and we spent most of the day around the property, and then on Friday, I went for a hike to the volcano on the island. Katy’s jungle tolerance was maxed out, so she stayed back. I went again with John, but his son and one of his son’s friends who had never been to the volcano before came along. John’s son went to the French school on the island and understood English but did not really try to speak it. His friend spoke decent English and was interested in talking which broke up the some of the trip. They also brought their dog along who was a pet and enjoyed eating coconut.
We began Saturday by having eggs with tomatoes and onions accompanied by two hot dogs for breakfast. I would put the hot dogs closer to being spam dogs than all-beef frankfurters.
We then were ushered to a waiting vehicle to take us to water music. One thing on Gaua is that we will tell them we want to do an activity and then we are told when the activity is starting, not that water music will be at 8am. Maureen, her daughter, a Frenchman (who is possibly her husband), and another woman joined us for the truck ride there. Water music is traditional to Gaua and is created by women (men do not make water music) with their hands in the ocean to create different sounds. Sometimes singing is added into the mix.
The water music was surprisingly good, and the sounds that they made were very varied. It is rather expensive at $18 per person, but the money does go directly to a village that does not have a lot of income sources. The group that we saw was one that occasionally is sponsored for international tours but mainly performs in their village for the occasional tourist that wanders up to Gaua.
We got back to our bungalow and packed our bags. The Kustom ceremony for Maureen’s mother’s funeral started shortly after we arrived back. The ceremony was an adults-only event, and in the middle of it, her 10-year-old daughter stopped by to let us know that our flight was canceled. Since the skies were clear and blue, I was not anticipating that. With a rush of nonpositive thoughts, we trudged up to the airfield to investigate. We were having slight SIM card issues, with Katy’s provider not having service on the island, and one of the SIM cards was only working for phone calls while another worked only for data.
I could not find anything online or in my email about the flight being canceled, so we gave them a call. That is, we attempted to call Air Vanuatu, but the first two numbers listed on their website were out of service. We eventually got a human on the third call and were informed that our flight was canceled due to aircraft maintenance problems. The next flight out of the airport was not scheduled until Monday and had us getting into Port Vila at 4 pm, 40 minutes before our Fiji flight was to depart. The agent wanted our phone number and was going to look into things and then our cell phone minutes ran out, leaving the two of us a little red-faced, standing in the middle of the grass airfield, baking under the sun, wondering how we were going to get more money on our SIM card to call back. We asked some people wandering across the airfield (which also is the soccer field and the road to drive on if you want to make your truck go fast), and they pointed down the road. Alas, the store (which was actually open for the first time of the week) did not do Digicel top-ups, so the owner tried to call his son to get it done but couldn’t reach him.
We tried another store, but it was closed. Back on the airfield, I was able to figure out how to add money online. I then realized that I will probably try to do a credit card trip delay claim where you can claim $500 in expenses per person if your flight is delayed more than 6 hours, so 48-hour delays on remote islands should qualify. I trudged the 400 meters back to our bungalow and got the credit card we had we booked the flights with and used that for the top-up. I figured that the cell service is directly related to the delay, so I will submit a claim.
I was then able to talk to someone, and they rebooked us on a 5 leg itinerary to get from Gaua to Port Vila. The itinerary included one connection of 10 minutes that required switching planes and reclaiming luggage and checking back in. I guess that Air Vanuatu does not have minimum connection times for flights. I am not sure if my confidence in the flights working out was misguided, but I was feeling very confident that it would work out. The itinerary got us to Port Vila 140 minutes before our flight to New Zealand via Fiji left, and we didn’t need to check in until 60 minutes prior to departure, plenty of time.
It was then lunchtime, and we had a Caprese-ish salad. We were told earlier in the day by Maureen that we have been served less seafood than normal partly because of the weather, and it not being good conditions for diving and fishing. We then made a trip back to the airstrip to revisit the store since we had planned our snack strategy around leaving the island on Saturday, not Monday, and our stores were rather low. Unfortunately, the shop had closed for the day. We then spent a minute using the internet to take care of some urgent business like downloading more kindle books and checking email.
Maureen’s was a hub of activity during the day with the Kustom ceremony earlier in the day and a feast later in the day. We read our books, I worked on the neglected blog, and we went for a snorkel since conditions were right. We did have to swim through the 10-20 kids that were swimming in a wide array of attires near the steps to the water.
We were served a variety of local food for dinner that was cooked in their traditional below ground oven system using rocks and banana leaves. Chicken was the main dish that was served to us, and it had about 1/4 of an inch pink smoke layer.
Sunday according to Katy’s trusty Norwegian weather forecast was supposed to be miserable and rainy. We awoke at the standard 6am time to sun and few clouds in the sky. We ate breakfast and went for a morning snorkel. Maureen stopped by and asked what our flight numbers were so I gave her them. I also called Air Vanuatu to confirm our flight for the next day. They said it was a go and also sent me a confirmation email, fancy.
We then spent a minute on the airfield getting some internet on. Katy needed to update her Headspace meditation streak and log onto her word puzzle app in order to get a new badge, an animated Mer-lion (obviously it’s a very classy game). The family cleaned up the from the funeral, and one of Maureen’s daughters practiced water music with her friends. You could see one of the girls instructing the correct hand positions and movements.
Later in the day, the weather did turn nasty, but we had already had a great day with really good weather. We played some pirates and some Catan. Maureen came by with the bill which I was hoping to have enough money to cover, and I did, barely. The fee for the first five nights was 45,500 and 30,000 for the last two. Being a cash-based economy, we had 76,740 cash. Literally just enough to pay her and 1,200 in departure taxes, leaving 40 vatu or $0.37 leftover. When I pulled money out to go to Gaua, at the ATM, I was planning on just taking an additional 40,000 out, but decided on a whim to take 44,000 out. I am glad that I did.
We were instructed to be ready after breakfast the following day since reportedly they were putting on a special flight for us with only four seats so that we would make our international connection, and they did not know when that would be other than in the morning. I was rather confused on what was happening since this was not what our confirmation email said.
We got to the airport, and we were told by Maureen that plans had changed, and we were going to Sola (another island), and then on to Santo on a second plane. She then asked Katy if she could take a bag to someone who forgot it at her house during the funeral. We said sure, and then she bounced.
A plane landed, and they unloaded some people and cargo. A large part of the cargo was plastic chairs and mattresses. The airport/airline employee then told me that we were not on this flight and to wait for the second one. I was still rather confused about what was going on, but at least we now had some official directions. About 45 minutes later, another plane landed, and we were told to get on it along with a few other people. That plane then went directly to Santo, cutting out three legs of the trip. I think that they split the airplane schedule into two flights so that we would make our international connection. We had four more airplane rides over the next 24 hours and arrived back in New Plymouth.
We had a great trip, and it was great to share part of it with my parents. The trip went relatively smoothly for being 25 days long and going to really remote places for about half of the trip. It has been great being able to explore the South Pacific with a three-hour flight.