Katy and I had an uneventful 90-minute flight from New Caledonia to Port Vila, the largest city in Vanuatu. It was operated by an ATR-72, which is a large turboprop plane. A weird thing about the plane is that you usually enter from the rear, so we reserved seats in the back and were some of the first people off the plane. We breezed through immigration (they did want to see our return ticket, but I was prepared and had it downloaded). Customs was a little more chaotic. Since we said we had packaged food they wanted to see it, and we went to a counter and showed the women some stuff, and finally, she said that I didn’t need to unpack my entire bag to get all of the food. It was very disorderly with agents that showed very little interest in their jobs. We then finally entered Vanuatu.
We took an airport taxi with a preset price to our hotel to meet my parents who were getting in a couple of hours later. Our driver was a great tour guide and even pointed out that the largest supermarket was 100 yards further down the street from where we were staying.
We settled in and made a trip out to the Chinese owned supermarket to buy some snacks and a couple of beers. The supermarket was trying to be a Walmart with all the assorted goods that they sold. We dropped off our treasures in the room and then headed the opposite direction of the supermarket towards the center of town. You can tell that Vanuatu is a developing country that is not on the same economic footing as New Caledonia. Things looked a “little rough around the edges,” where functionality was desired over aesthetics.
Part of our strategy while walking was to withdraw cash from as many ATMs as possible. Vanuatu is still a cash-based society, and very few ATMs outside of the two main cities accept foreign cards (I know of two). Coupled with the fact that most ATMs have ~40,000 vatu (roughly 1,000 vatu is $8.70) withdrawal daily limit, it meant that I needed to stop at my fair share to get money for the next week. Before we made it to the first ATM, we arrived at the central produce market. It is actually a 24 hour, six-day a week market, closing at noon on Saturday and reopening at noon on Sunday. We purchased a bag of taro chips ($1.30) and a container of raspberries. The raspberries were not normal ones. They had smaller kernels and slightly larger seeds with a less sweet taste and were a brighter red. After utilizing several ATMs, and Katy purchasing a new pair of harem pants, we headed back to happy hour at the hotel bar to await the arrival of my parents.
While we were marveling at the cheapest mixed drink that we had purchased since moving to New Zealand, my parents arrived, roughly 40 minutes after their plane landed (including a 15-minute taxi). We enjoyed another beverage and then headed out to dinner. I had a steak for dinner. Yes, that sounds odd. Vanuatu is actually known for its high-quality beef. I guess life in the tropics agrees with cattle. After dinner, we headed back to the market, and many of the venders were doing karaoke; it definitely had a unique feel to it.
After an early morning wake up we took a taxi to our 8 am flight to Tanna. Our aircraft was a Dash-8, which is a small one, and one Katy does not approve of (Katy: the seats are like a school bus, and you can see a crack of air around the closed door that you must sit by 😬). After getting weighed, we were assigned seats out of the roughly 24 seats on the plane and began our 50-minute plane trip to Tanna.
Tanna is on the standard tourist track and is known for two things, volcanoes and a movie of the same name. We took a truck ride (in the quad cab) to our accommodation and booked a volcano tour for that evening and then went out for a snorkel. The snorkeling was done in what is called a blue hole, which is basically a sheltered section of reef. The coral was fantastic and so were the fish. Lunch consisted of spam and egg sandwiches and was less fantastic than the snorkeling. The three cats that roamed the dining room were given roughly 12 ounces of spam from our sandwiches in an attempt to fatten them up.
We then started on our volcano tour. Mount Yasur is one of five volcanos in the world with an open lava pit. You can also walk on the rim of the volcano and watch the lava explosions. We started with a two-hour truck ride, half on paved roads (Australian and Chinese aid paid for the roads) and half on dirt roads. Almost all the vehicles on the island are trucks. People fly to Port Vila to purchase their truck and then have it shipped on a boat to the island. I was surprised that typically they could get their truck the next day, nothing like overnight mailing a truck (~$350-500 depending on the island).
We arrived at the volcano your later than the 4 pm check-in time and were hurried to join the 80 people that were waiting for us to arrive to start. It sure beats getting there early. After a short program, we loaded up in the back of pickup trucks and headed to the volcano. There were so many people that they ran out of hard hats for everyone to wear. I am not sure that a cheap, thin hard-hat would stand up to raining lava anyway.
We then walked 10 minutes to the edge of the crater and realized our mistake, lack of eye protection. I thought that it might be a little sandy, so I had grabbed my sunglasses, but I should have grabbed my snorkeling mask or wrap around glasses. The wind at the top would kick up fine ash and sand particles and fling that at your eyes, which was distinctly unpleasant. What was pleasant was seeing the volcano. There was a general red glow accompanied by the roar of the volcano. The volcano would then occasionally spit lava into the air in a spectacular faction. I had only packed my phone as my camera, and this was a time that I wished that I had my real camera. The iPhone’s camera does not do a good job at nighttime lava explosions (hopefully someone from Apple reads this and addresses this issue in the next version of the phone). Some nice assorted volcanic fumes also accompanied the lava explosions, which led to a cacophony of coughing. It wasn’t the most pleasant experience with the sand and wind, but it is one that I won’t forget.
We then had our two-hour ride back to where we were staying and were served some of the most overcooked fish that I have ever paid for. Needless to say, we figured out why the cats always hang out near the tables.
The following day Katy, my mom, and I went to see the Kustom village that the movie Tanna is based on. The Kustom villages are villages that largely keep to traditional ways and have chosen not to partake in many modern conveniences. The village that we went to was in the interior of the island and was a “highlands” village. Our guide was a 51 year old man, and one of three people in the village that spoke English (one also spoke French).
Vanuatu has three official languages: English, French, and Bislama (a pidgin English/French language). If you see something written down in Bislama and say it out loud, you can often figure out what it means, but when spoken by a fluent speaker it is hard to decipher. Everyone also speaks their own native language, of which there are 120+. Bislama is the most commonly spoken second language and is spoken by almost everyone, then English. The school system does not have a lot of money and often how they teach changes based on foreign countries providing funding. This can change the language that the curriculum is taught in. Currently, many of the schools are taught in English.
Our guide showed us around the village, and it did not feel obtrusive like I was imagining I would. They eat a vegetarian diet except for special occasions, and his grandfather lived to be over 100. They had brought a pig from Port Vila on the boat to slaughter for a circumcision ceremony that was happening that evening. I never did figure out why they imported a pig from another island instead of sourcing one locally; maybe the Tanna pigs are second rate.
One improvement that the village did accept was water lines so that they no longer have to trek to the river for fresh water. One thing that they did not accept is western religion. It is one of the few places that we have traveled in Vanuatu that does not have a church.
We returned for lunch and discovered that they were out of bread and eggs. This does not normally sound like a problem, but when your lunch choices are omelets or sandwiches, this does create some issues. They recommended that we walk 20 minutes to the resort next door for lunch. The walk was rather miserable. This was due to the road having a couple of inches of dust on it. You got a free entire body dust tan, minus where your sunglasses tried to block the dust from assaulting your eyes. Luckily, the delicious lunch at the fancier neighboring resort made the dust-bath worth while.
After lunch, we had another snorkel in the blue hole. Dinner was beef. Dinner really was cat food. It was the most overcooked slab of beef I have come across recently, and there was some general consternation when my dad fed one cat a sizeable chunk, and the cat immediately began to gag on the amount of gristle in the meat. We saw the cat the following day, so it did survive.
We had an excellent stay in Tanna, and the following day we began our adventure off the beaten path.