From Tanna Tuva to Tanna, Vanuatu

My mother would not have enjoyed this trip.  Mostly, it’s hot and humid, and there hasn’t been a lot of air conditioning (the A/C worked great in the hotel and rental car in Noumea, and was somewhat muted in Papeete).  She would have enjoyed seeing the lush vegetation, the poinsettia hedges in the resort where we’re staying, the palm trees, the colorful birds.  She wouldn’t have gone in the water to see the fish and the coral.

We spent a night at the Hideaway Island Resort near Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, located a couple degrees north of New Caledonia.  There’s a 14-person ferry that shuttles you between the shore and the island.  Its attraction is an underwater post office box, where you can deposit waterproof postcards.  It’s kind of far from the town, so we ate at the hotel restaurant, which was just fine.  In the morning we went into town to get stamps and a disposable underwater camera (name brands were $27 and up, but “Dolphin” brand was $16.  They’re all made in China anyway.  We haven’t tried it yet.)  The town was pretty crowded and not exciting aside from an interesting market. We bought a giant slice of banana bread for 100 vatu ($1) which wasn’t as good as the banana bread at home, either.  The banana situation in general was vibrant.  There are more different kinds of banana for sale at the Port Vila market than anyplace I’ve seen.

We went to the airport and got on a small plane for our ultimate Vanuatu destination, the island of Tanna, home to Mt. Yasur, a continuously erupting volcano (there’s a post office box there, too).  The plane seated 17.  No flight attendant: the pilot just announced that we should fasten our seat belts when we took off and nobody to instruct us how to put on the life vests.  No need to turn off electronic devices, as the plane was flown by two guys, one of whom was reading a paperback most of the way.  No door between the cabin and the cockpit; we had fun watching the pilots and all the controls.  The plane, like the underwater camera, was made in China; it’s a Harbin Y12.  It has been mostly localized, although the Exit sign is also in Chinese.

We spent four nights at Tanna Evergreen Bungalows, a very cute little resort kind of far from Tanna’s largest town, such as it is.  We’ve been eating dinner here every night.  The food is so far all good.  Evergreen Bungalows is located next to a turtle conservation area, though we haven’t seen any turtles, either in the ocean or on the menu.  why would a sea turtle come to this place?  I thought they liked to lay their eggs in sand.  I have yet to see exposed sand in Tanna; and only a smidgen at the deepest parts of the reef channels and holes.  There’s a shelf of rock which is exposed at low tide, and under two feet of water at high tide — there are coral and fish where this shelf drops off.  Low tide has been in the morning:  it’s easy to walk out on the rock, but a little tricky to find a place to climb from the deep water back up onto the shelf.  High tide is in the afternoon:  it’s tricky to swim out in two feet of water, but you can pull yourself hand over hand along the rocks.

The included continental breakfast is a delightfully large plate of fruit (grapefruit, oranges, tangerines, bananas, papayas, and pineapple), delicious toast.  And both Vanuatu resorts have served coffee in French presses, a wonderful respite from the Nescafe-based drinks we had in Polynesia.  Perhaps it’s even Vanuatu coffee.  On the first morning, a chap from New Zealand spotted a small pod of humpback whales swimming south just offshore, perhaps on their way to Antarctica where people can see them from cruise ships in December.

The first day we went on three of the tours sponsored by the hotel.  First we went to the Kalagia custom village (or is it costume village?)  It’s about a half-hour drive towards the center of the island, and the residents have decided to protect their culture and do things pretty much the way they always have.  They’re happy to dance for tourists according to their customs, wearing their costumes, which are various kinds of shredded bark.

When we arrived, there was nobody around.  Apparently the hotel forgot to phone ahead.  However, some kind of jungle telegraph involving a small plastic box that doesn’t have a touch screen was invoked, and after about twenty minutes came sauntering down the road a woman in a modest grass skirt.

Her name is Lorine.  She is a nurse at a small clinic built out of concrete blocks up the road.  The clinic was built by World Vision International.  It offers traditional and Western medicine.  She doesn’t wear a grass skirt at work; she does for tour guiding to blend in with the village people.  She grew up in this area; she was one of the ones who went to school.  (At one point someone explained about the society that usually the parents will send a couple of kids to school and the rest stay home to carry on the Custom.)

Lorine took us around and showed us all the plants they use for food:  taro, manioc, banana, coconut, hibiscus leaves, onions, etc.  She also showed us a coffee plant, whose small fruit tasted slightly sweet, and contained two coffee-bean-shaped seeds, which didn’t taste very coffee-like when we bit down on them.  We hung out with the women and children for awhile — first they gave us a snack of a roasted piece of taro and a roasted plantain with some shredded coconut (they use a seashell to shred the coconut meat out of the nut).  One woman grated a plantain on a stick over some hibiscus leaves which in turn were on top of a large banana leaf.  Another mixed in some coconut milk.  After awhile they folded up the mixture, tied it up, and put it on the fire.  We watched several little dances and games while waiting for the lap-lap to cook.  After it was ready, they unwrapped it, sliced it with the seashell, and served it — it was quite yummy.  (There were plates of lap-lap with chicken wings at the Port Vila market, but I’m sure it was much tastier fresh.)  We then headed up to an area around a massive banyan tree (with a treehouse) where the men were hanging out.  We talked to a few of them (the guide translated) and they showed us how Their People Make Fire.  How many kastom village males does it take to make fire?  Most of them, as it turned out.  That whole business about rubbing sticks together looks great in a Boy Scout manual but how many times have you actually seen it work?  To their credit, the men of la-Kalangia did make fire, without having to resort to butane lighters, which are childproof now anyway, easier to bring fire back from the volcano.

Then they danced.  It was a delicious and informative tour.  I bought a drawing on a piece of bark paper.  I’m not sure what the USDA thinks about wood products but paper is easy to hide.

By the time we got back, it was almost time for the next tour, to the volcano (the Vanuatu weather service, accessed the night before when the electricity was on, picked this day as having the best weather).  It’s about a two-hour drive, in a four-wheel-drive vehicle.  After driving down to the main town, we headed up the main road across the island which was your basic dirt road.  Much of it was in good shape, but there were many places where we slowed from 50 kph to 5 kph to go over a rock or rut.  Fortunately the drivers know every inch of the road.  Louis (our driver) said he’d driven to the volcano 700 times in the last 5 years.  As we approached the eastern shore, we took the road to the volcano.  First we saw ash dunes.  Then we drove across a vast ash lakebed which had been a lake as recently as 2000 until it washed out the ash dam that had been holding it in place, and still floods during the rainy season (which isn’t now).  The road went around the back side of the volcano (where a guy we met today had gone ash-boarding, like snowboarding but much dirtier).

Finally we ascended to the viewing area, after picking up an Australian volcano expert who’s been to 150 volcanoes (and has been to this one 150 times!)  He’s well-connected enough that he managed to get to Iceland four days before the large explosion there.  He said.  I want to verify all stories I hear from Australians.  We got there just before sunset so we could see the crater of the volcano.  The main viewing area is a bit back — you wouldn’t want to walk to the rim to see the pool of magma sitting in it.  Every three minutes or so, Yasur throws up a bunch of glowing blobs of lava with a great boom.  With the clouds over the crater and the humidity at 100%, the booms were often followed by a visible shock wave of condensing water in a rapidly expanding sphere.  Then the lava shoots up past the rim and several hundred feet in the air and hangs there, the blobs changing shape the way liquids do wen experiencing drag (remember the retro fixtures are called “lava lamps”) and drifts down like the last shot in “Koyaanisqatsi”.  People who are staying at the hotels near the volcano say the shock waves rustle their mosquito netting.  We stayed until well after dark (sunset is around 5:20 here, in the dead of winter), which made the eruptions appear much more dramatic.  There’s an official “danger level” which determines how close you can get to it, but the volcano guy said that’s completely ridiculous — it can have any size eruption at any moment.  The level was at 1 or 2, this evening.  They curtail the visits when the Threat Level reaches Orange.

We returned, had dinner, and proceeded to our third “tour”, a “Jon Frum village” meeting, which happens every Friday.  The Jon Frum believers are a cargo cult which met Mr. Frum many years ago, and is anxiously awaiting his return.  We didn’t actually see any evidence of radio worship while we were there — really it’s so arrogant for Americans to call any other society on Earth a Cargo Cult, when you consider the prodigious amount of goods and services we consume in the hope of a better life.

We got there later than we were supposed to, owing to overstaying at Yasur’s farm and having dinner.  The Jon Frum adherents seemed a little annoyed by our presence.  Maybe they were about to quit, or maybe they wanted a private moment (no other tourists were there at all), but it seems our driver slipped them a bill or two and we sat down on a bench and the music resumed.

In the center of a hut without walls were five seated guitar players and a drummer playing a series of short, upbeat, songs, all similar.  They did not have the feel of hymns, even of the gospel persuasion, but more of tiki hootenanny.  Outside, people danced: men on one side, women on the other.  The fluorescent light in the roof allowed us to see the legs of the dancers but not the faces — the light was blocked by the eaves.  A couple guys near us were incredibly exuberant and had very fancy footwork, and were fun to watch.  After some time, a guy said to me: “Last song.  Where’s your driver?” which, you decide what level of invitation to scram that is.  I’m not really sure whether they wanted to get rid of us before going home to sleep, or before getting on with the part of the evening where they burn a cardboard washing machine or whatever we Westerners think is unutterably weird compared with dog psychoanalysis and Botox injections.

[Ray:]  There was one person in the congregation who might possibly have been old enough to remember Jon Frum when he visited Tanna in 1936.  None of the rest of them were even our age.  I can’t really imagine the psychology of religion even when everybody in your country believes the same one; and it’s quite beyond me, the mechanism by which splinter belief systems survive and propagate in a society with dozens of splinter belief systems and the usual franchises (LDS, JW, Catholicism-Church of England-Science).  The residents of Tanna must feel no compulsion to be like anyone outside their immediate family.  No one from a society of followers like America would admit to waiting for Jon Frum unless you starved him on a Rajneesh Commune with no internet connection for years.

Maybe Mr. Bernoulli can explain the interesting hydrodynamics of the shower in our room.  First you turn on the hot water all the way, which produces a dribble of very hot water.  When you turn on the cold water, even by an amount epsilon, you get warm water in the expected proportion at first, but then it gets colder and colder.  Turning on the cold first and then the hot sometimes leads to hot, which then fades to cold.  To take a shower, you’re constantly turning the cold on and off and on again, and exploiting the brief interval of warm water each time.  I can’t even imagine designing a system which would exhibit that particular behavior, let alone breaking one.  We asked them to look at it but I doubt it’s possible for them to fix without dramatically increasing their water pressure, hot and cold.

** later.  I don’t think it can be done with fluids.  The heater is a gas-powered battery-controlled tankless device; I think something about touching the cold water faucet causes the heater to shut off.

The second day we recuperated from the massive amount of touring by doing basically nothing.  Ray went snorkeling in the morning, but spent most of the day writing postcards (I added “+ Dave”), and I continued to read my book (Cryptonomicon, which has some scenes in the Solomon Islands).  We watched the cute birds and butterflies around the hotel grounds, especially the White Collared Kingfisher and a Green Winged Ground Dove; but most of the effort has gone into the fish.  The bird book in the dining room was not very comprehensive and didn’t include the little yellow and green birds nor the little gray birds with the red heads.  My headache continues to subside, but it’s still kind of there — an aspirin a day has been enough to make it tolerable.  Some folks coming back from the volcano tour reported having been clouded out by fog or light rain, so I’m really happy we went the first afternoon, even if it did add up to a 14 hour day of touring.

The third day started out kind of cloudy, but it was possibly my last chance to snorkel at low tide, so we walked out, found a good place to sit down and spring off from the edge.  The sun came out enough to illuminate the walls of the dropoff, covered with large amounts of a great variety of coral.  There weren’t really a lot of fish, for some reason.  I was fascinated by two tiny fuzzy creatures on a rock, one of which retracted into its shell when I touched the rock nearby.  Some clownfish hung out in some tubular anemone-like creature, a pretty classic pose.

On our walk back we saw a fully exposed blue starfish, and three little shells which looked like little raviolis, so we went back to the room, exchanged snorkels for camera, and walked back out and took some tidepool shots.  California has different stuff in its tidepools, but I’ve never seen such a large flat area there.

After lunch we went on a little walk with young Adam from Sydney, checking out the rocks near adjacent resorts (which turned out to be fairly similar to our own) and walking up the hill to “the plains”, where there were some cows grazing and some allegedly wild horses wandering around, trying to stay cool under the trees and to stay out of any pictures we might try to take of them.  Eventually four children showed up and grabbed at our beards in the custom of this planet.  Sensing without any useful amount of common language that we wanted to take pictures of wild horses, “Albert” ran off across the savannah and returned in about three minutes riding a “wild” horse which he had bridled with a piece of rope.  The horse was chewing what looked like mango leaves.  Albert had his t-shirt wrapped around his head like Peter O’Toole.  One of the other guys held a machete and had dangling on a necklace a home-carved slingshot, which his friend said was sandalwood and they shot flying foxes with it.  “Wild Boys” is more like it.  William S. Burroughs would make them right at home in his worldview.

After that the all the clouds went away and Ray and Adam went back out through the high tide to get one last look at the fully illuminated coral.  Folks visiting the volcano Sunday afternoon had excellent weather.

The dinners here have by and large been really good.  There are lots of “curry” dishes — the lobster curry and Thai green chicken were awesome, but the Thai red fish curry was primarily peppery and had large amounts of oil pooling on the plate.  The garlic prawns and the lobster Thermidor were also quite nice, as was the tender beef fillet in garlic sauce.  But it’s all tourist food, and though it uses local meat and fish and root vegetables, it’s far from what the islanders eat most of the time.

We returned to Port Vila on a larger plane on which we were asked to turn off our electronic devices.  We used intermittent appearances of the sun between the clouds to look once more at the cute fish swimming around the Hideaway Island lagoon, then went back into town.  By the post office we met Clement, a man from Tanna who we’d said hi to a few days earlier.  We told him about our Tanna trip and he told us he thought we did it all wrong.  We both had a good time there but maybe next time we’ll ask him how to get the “island experience”.  We asked him and a few other people if there were any restaurants with Vanuatu food.  The answer was basically “no”.  So we went to a vaguely French place which had as its house specialty a dish of braised flying fox (which is a polite way of saying “fruit bat”).  It tasted pretty gamy, but that’s kind of what you would expect of a creature that eats real vegetable matter instead of the cardboard or grass or grain fed to cows or chicken or geese that make up the meat we usually eat.