Un-Settling In

A Little About the Ni-Vanuatu (people of Vanuatu)

In 2001 the Ni-Vanuatu (indigenous people of Vanuatu) were told that the Mir Space Station would fall to earth, and in so doing, the Ni-Vanuatu would instantly be vaporized. Unsure of this information, they approached the local “white men” thinking they would know the answer.  When asked if this was true, the white men said it was white man magic.  This cruel tale is a reminder of how real colonialism was and still seems to be.

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Getting to Vanuatu: An Adventure all its Own

Getting to Vanuatu took five flights and nearly three days.  After awhile it felt as though I was traveling the long way to the moon.  If I had gone a bit further to the west, I would have been on my way back home in the other direction.   As it was, my first flight landed in Phoenix where I experienced dry desert heat for the first time.  Then it was off to LAX where the international terminal was like an Asian bazaar.   People carried all sorts of luggage ranging from surfboard cases on wheels to large rice bags with zippers and cloth handles.  I never knew such things were allowed on planes.  Everything was strange and exciting.  I felt like an anthropologist, and wished I had majored in it rather than sociology.  I joined the throngs of passengers and child toting parents winding their way through ticket gates, luggage checks, customs, and TSA checkpoints.   If anyone wants to make it hard for themselves to smoke, try flying internationally.

Waiting for my plane, I checked alvei.com to see if there was word from Evan and Alvei having arrived in Luganville, my final destination.  It read, “August 27, 2015, Alvei at port in Nelson, New Zealand”.  What!  It was supposed to on its way to Luganville, Vanuatu.  Had something happened that forced them back to New Zealand early?  After all, it was a sail boat.  Maintenance issues can come up any time.  But, there I was sitting in Los Angeles, about to board a 12 hour flight to Fiji and two more lights to Luganville.  I was already stepping into the unknown, and I felt panic try to rise up my throat.

I found Jim Bandy’s contact info, the only person who has 24/7 radio access to Evan when Alvei’s at sea.  If I didn’t reach Jim, I’d wonder all the way to Fiji if I was going several hundred miles in the wrong direction wasting precious money on the wrong flight.  Also, I needed Jim to answer then as I would soon lose phone service until arriving in Vanuatu.  My nerves were a bit frayed from the lightening fast departure that included seeing Colin off to college for the first time and Maddy back in Omaha sick. The question was whether I was going in the right direction, or needed to abort, and get a flight to New Zealand, or a bus ticket back to Omaha.

Jim answered right before I hung up, and assured me the boat was two days from Luganville, and that I had seen the old website, which is no longer maintained–whoops!  That was to be my first project, take down the old website.  Twelve hours later, I arrived at an air strip that looked like the movie set of Casablanca compete with the roll up stairs for departure that emptied us onto the middle of an airstrip.  I followed the crowd through what felt like a tunnel and emerged to see a desk.  It turned out to be the first stop at customs.

The agent pulled me aside with no explanation at first.  It was 5:30 a.m. in Fiji, and I hadn’t slept at all since the night before I left Omaha.  Four men in flowered shirts stood along the wall, and began to play island music.  I wanted to say, “at ease.  Go back home.  None of us are awake anyway.”  But, there they were with bright smiling faces welcoming us to Fiji.  (These guys should be paid extra.)

Finally, the customs agent told me my flight to Port Vila, Vanuatu had been cancelled, and asked if I had been called or emailed about it.  Of course I hadn’t. I’d been in flight for 12 hours.  That was my first experience with “Fiji time”.  Fiji time is all the time.  They do their best to do things the western way, but it’s just not part of their culture to be very concerned about schedules and deadlines.  For island people, things get done in due time.  Why fight thousands of years of culture?

On the upside, Fiji time got me a free room at the Sofitel Resort for the rest of the day.  Alas, it took five hours to make the arrangements to get me there.  At least, I got a shower and a nap before returning to the airport at 5:30 p.m. for my 8:20 p.m. flight to Port Vila.

Fiji time has chain reactions.  Because I missed my early afternoon flight to Port Vila, I missed my contact there.  He’s the owner of the Nambawan Cafe. He’s a good friend of Evan’s, and helps find cheap and safe overnight accommodations for Evan’s incoming crew.  You’ve got to love it.  This was the biggest scavenger hunt of my life, and it wasn’t over.

A little concerned about going to an even more remote island than Fiji, as an alone female, in the dark, I wanted to say, “get a grip on Fiji time”.  It’s only cute for a little while.  But then, I met three women in the ticket check line for the Air Vanuatu flight to Port Vila.  It was as though God had sent me angels.  Ana is a Fijian civil servant turned teacher working on the island of Tana in Vanuatu.  Jesse is a very bright Fijian student studying law in Port Villa, and the third is a Chinese young woman teaching primary school through an international aid organization.  We had all been dispossessed from our earlier flight, were tired, and eager to get a night’s rest.  The difference is that the Fijian women  possess resilience in spades.

In Fiji, everyone smiles constantly.  It’s not like in the U.S. where you want to say to some workers, “it’s okay to stop smiling now. I can tell you’re having a bad day, but the boss says you’re required to smile no matter what.”  Yes, Fijian smiling gets exhausting.  But, it’s real to the core.  They aren’t trying to smile.  I think from birth, they learn that no matter what happens, in a day, something worse could happen.  While we awaited our departure, Jesse and I talked about her college experiences, and that Colin had just started his freshman year.  It came up that, at the last minute, Colin had asked me if he could leave school and come with me on the ship.  Then I said that Colin had been bitten by the sailing bug.  Jesse looked perplexed and very concerned.  For the first time, she wasn’t smiling.  She asked if Colin was okay, and about this “sailing bug”.  I chuckled and Jesse checked herself saying, ‘there’s no sailing bug, is there”?  I explained that is it an idiom, and noted to myself that I can have a lot of fun using American English idioms–with the right people, of course.

As the three women and I shared, we talked about where we were each headed.  I shared that I wasn’t sure where I’d stay for the night, and that I was a bit concerned about it.  Ana, suggested I share her room at this motel because it had two beds, and she only needed one.  Ana is motherly and warm.  After considering my options, I took her up on her offer.  Besides, the room was paid for by the Fijian government–not sure about the Fiji-Vanuatu connection there.  Nevertheless, I was grateful.

We arrived at 11 PM. The gate to the “motel” was closed, and there wasn’t a soul in sight.  Ana thought she might be in my predicament for a moment.  Finally, a man wondered over and said the motel was now closed for the evening.  I decided to just let Ana handle it.

She explained the usual information that she had already reserved a room and that our flight left six hours late.  After a phone call to “the boss”, and the boss’s arrival, we checked in.

This place was like nothing I had ever seen.  If you’ve been to the tropics or Hawaii, I suppose you’ve seen thatched roofs, palm trees, birds of paradise, and every other exotic plant we buy potted and kill two months later, you know what I mean.  There was tile everywhere.  The walls were covered with plants and flowers.  It had an outdoor kitchen, and it was beautiful, until I saw the room, that is.  Even still, the room looked as though it was decorated courtesy of the Salvation Army Store.  It had bunk beds, and a twin-sized bed.  The bathroom was down the hall.  But, all was well because I made it to Port Vila, and was safely with one of the most motivated and devoted civil servants I’ve ever met in my life.  We made fast friends.

I was so tired that I decided to fly the last leg of the trip up to Luganville, on the island, Santo.  My original plan was to take the ferry, Big Sista, about a 40 footer.  But, it’s an overnight jaunt, and I didn’t feel like adding sea sickness to the waves of exhaustion I was already feeling.  So, I left at 6 a.m. for the airport with Ana, and caught an 8 a.m. flight to Luganville.

The Luganville flight was a prop plane that loaded from a staircase in the lowered rear door.  All I could think of was how this journey just kept getting more and more interesting.  The plane was old, and the leather seats sticky.  It smelled like a hippy Rainbow Gathering as showering is not a high priority for many islanders, except for the few indigenous businessmen and government officials.  It was easy to tell westerner from non-westerner.  More noticeably was Ana’s absence.  I was back to negotiating island culture for myself, which was fine.

We landed in Luganville, and a young women overheard me telling someone I was supposed to take a taxi, of which most cars are, to the Beachfront Resort and ask for Dave Cross, one of the owners.  This woman, Val and her boyfriend, Rudyard were going there too.  So, we shared a 200 Vatu cab ride, the equivalent of $2.00 US, to the resort.  There stood an older tall man who turned out to be David Cross.

David seemed strange, and it seemed he realized we noticed it.  He went on to say that he had suffered a mild stroke four days prior, and had just returned from the hospital.  He apologized for his rather slow state, and we fell all over ourselves asking if someone else could do his job for awhile.  Dave is Australian, and has adopted Vanuatu as his home.  Like all other islanders in this part of the world, he politely smiled and accepted his circumstances–not a hint of resentment for returning to work too soon.

Dave checked me into the Alvei special, not one of the thatched roofed bungalows the couple I arrived with went off to.  Although, I will never complain about the bunk-beds because the room was otherwise quaint and as enchanting as I could have imagined.  The bathroom sink was positioned on a solid hard wood, two-shelf  vanity that was beautifully made and varnished.  The closet was made of the same wood, and had open shelves and a place to hang clothes on the other side.  It was like something out of Ethan Allen’s English Caribbean collection, but I was receiving the Alvei rate.

There I stayed, watching out over the bay every little while looking for a tall ship to arrive.  After two days, and learning most of the staff’s names, helping the gardener pick up coconut shells that float up daily on the beach, I awoke Tuesday morning to the sight of the large red and black ship called Alvei.  There she was.

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Published by: So the World Goes

What began as a data collection endeavor, following Cyclone Pam, has become an adventure that has taken me from Vanuatu's central islands on to the north, and back, spending time in remote island villages and cosmopolitan cities, all while living on boats. Since I arrived in August, Vanuatu has experienced a 7.3 magnitude earthquake and the jailing of 14 government officials, for corruption, the last of which brought a UN warning of riots. Luckily the latter didn't happen. But, from flying fish to the red glow of volcanoes, I wish this waking dream could last forever. Frequency of Posts While the intention was to blog almost daily, either being at sea or experiencing limited internet access, has put me way behind on posting. The upside is that there are still many stories to share, the lack of internet access being a story all its own. That said, life in a developing nation that toggles between old the world and the new, is both romantic and frustrating. So, please be patient as I must also be. Contact me at lydiaajohnson@gmail.com

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