Cannibals, Cults, and Kava

After only a week in Port Vila, Vanuatu, it is difficult to offer a fair assessment of the city or of the country. Initially, we were disappointed on approaching the island of Efate to find that rather than the towering volcanic peaks that we were expecting, there were only rolling hills draped in ever-present clouds. The drab first impression was not improved by the fact that we were in Vanuatu six days before the sun made an appearance. Instead, every day was an overcast, rainy affair that did not encourage the exploration and general frolicking about that we had hoped for. Further compounding our suffering, both Anna and I spent the week battling colds that we picked up as we were leaving Fiji. Usually, after a couple of hours of sniveling and coughing ashore, we retreated to the boat, where our main activity for the week was watching the spaghetti western trilogy. When I am old and senile, my memories of Vanuatu are going to include Clint Eastwood shooting some Italians as a group of cannibals look on sipping kava. Whatever its charms might be, Port Vila is not a city that is intended to handle rain. The dirt sidewalks turn into a muddy obstacle course that requires pedestrians to hurdle puddles and dodge erratic cars while being dowsed in a steady, cold drizzle. The buildings seem to be designed to deposit the rain collected from the roofs directly into the middle of the sidewalk. In the absence of bright sunlight, the pastel-colored buildings appear neglected when speckled with mud. To be clear, Port Vila is not really a city in the American sense. The town is more accurately what urban planners would describe as an exurb: the suburb of a city that has grown to become its own smaller, independent city, such as Stamford, CT or White Plains, NY. Since everything in the South Pacific is a little more spread out, in Port Vila’s case, the larger city would probably be Auckland and Sydney/Melbourne. Perhaps the only thing to recommend Port Vila is the main street full of shops and restaurants. Inexplicably, many of the businesses are open at all or nearly all hours of the day. Both the grocery store and the outdoor produce market are open 24-hours, although I’m not sure how many people are buying 50 cent lettuce at 3:00 AM. More likely, it just allows vendors to leave their products at the market and, in the rare case of an after-hours customer, then a neighboring vendor will record the sale. Oddly, even the bars that do not get crowded until 9:00 PM and sit empty for the rest of the day tend to open at 6:30 AM. One aspect lending Port Vila a cosmopolitan air is the variety of languages spoken. Vanuatu claims the highest concentration of different languages per head of population of any country in the world. There are 106 indigenous languages, eight of which are extinct and 17 of which are endangered. Fortunately, English is one of the languages that are widely spoken. This international influence is reflected in the superb restaurants that specialize in French cuisine sans the snooty waiters. Formerly called the New Hebrides, Vanuatu has an interesting history. The 83 islands are spread out over twelve thousand square kilometers and, as a result, the interaction of cultures within the group was limited until the last several hundred years. The first European visitor to the islands was the Spaniard Pedro Fernandez de Quiros, who thought that he had found Australia. One hundred and fifty years later, Louis-Antoine de Bouganville would disprove this claim when he sailed around the islands. James Cook visited on his second Pacific expedition and gave them the name of New Hebrides. As usual, the explorers were quickly followed by missionaries. The first missionary, Reverend John Williams, arrived in Erromanga and made it about ten steps ashore before he was promptly killed and eaten. In an unrelated story, disease and fighting reduced the population of Vanuatu from roughly one million heathen souls in the early 19th century down to only 41,000 people in 1935. Perhaps one of the most ill-advised political schemes of the 20th century was devised for Vanuatu when, in an attempt to counter the German expansion in the region, England and France agreed to form the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides. Under this agreement, England and France set up dual administrations that resulted in two education systems, two police forces, and two currencies. The inefficient arrangement was finally relieved when Vanuatu was granted independence in 1980. Finally, during World War II, Japan’s advance through the Pacific reached the Solomon Islands, just to the north of Vanuatu, before the U.S. forces arrived to construct bases on the northern islands. After the war, withdrawing US forces either left behind or dumped their surplus equipment in the sea. “Cargo Cults” appeared on several islands as villagers believed that by imitating Europeans, then more cargo would automatically be delivered. They are still waiting. On Monday morning, we officially cleared into the country. Normally, after completing the requisite paperwork for customs and immigrations, we follow the proscribed process of lowering the yellow quarantine flag and then raising the courtesy flag of the local country higher than our American flag. If we are anchored in a quarantine area, we then proceed to the designated anchorage for sailboats. Because of exceptionally poor holding and a crowded harbor, Port Vila has limited anchoring space and most boats opt to pay 1,000 Vatu (roughly $10USD) per day to tie up to a mooring. Since our anchor was already well-set in the quarantine area and we were not inclined to pay any more than necessary, we decided to follow the example of a handful of other boats and to simply remain anchored in the quarantine area throughout our stay in Port Vila. So far, this has not caused any problems since there has been plenty of room for arriving boats and we have been able to use either of two town docks to go ashore. Despite the unsavory weather, we did our best to see the sights of Vanuatu’s capital city. On Tuesday, I went for a morning run in the cool, light mist. I had read about a small park with attractive waterfalls and refreshing swimming, so I set off in that direction. As usual, I was a little overzealous in my planning. Back in the day, I could click off a 15-20 mile run for breakfast. Those days are no longer. The route took me through an industrial section of town that gradually transitioned into undeveloped forest along the coast. After about eight miles, I finally reached the park. Stopping to hike through the trails of the park, I was rewarded with a series of roughly 40-foot waterfalls cascading down into deep pools. Stripping down to my running shorts, I went for a brisk swim and enjoyed having the entire park all to myself. Exiting one pool and heading for another, I accidentally stepped on an eel that quickly scurried to the shelter of a rock. Being entirely ignorant of what animals are dangerous, I have no idea whether eels bite, shock, or just squirm when threatened by strange outsiders, but I did not linger too much longer in the pools to find out. Not surprisingly, the second half of my run was more difficult than the first half and I struggled to cover the last few miles. Anna was about ready to call the police when I finally trudged back to the boat. On Friday, I presented myself with one of the dumber challenges that I have undertaken during this trip. While perusing the menu of an American restaurant called “Jill’s Café,” I noticed a dessert that announced “The San Diego Zoo – We Dare You!” The menu went on to describe the desert: “Scoops and scoops of different flavors, a variety of toppings and chunks of fresh fruit, all piled high and topped with whipped cream, and served in an elephant’s trough. A special award is presented if you can manage it (no helpers though).” I am nothing if not curious and I had to know what the special award was. Plus, I really like ice cream and have been on the losing end of an ice cream challenge before (Last summer, my cousin Eric challenged me to eat a gallon of ice cream in two hours; I didn’t even come close). Here was my chance for redemption. Another failure would be an unacceptable blow to my manhood and I believe that would place me one solid ice cream failure away from becoming a dessert eunuch. In order to enjoy the maximum pleasure prior to what would undoubtedly be an unusual form of pain, I waited until my cold abated to imbibe the unhealthy amount of dairy. Finally, on Friday, with the sun shining and my nasal passages clear, I decided that the time for action had arrived. With considerable embarrassment, I ordered the enormous dessert and then blushed like a schoolgirl when the waitress carted out a huge tub of ice cream to the obvious pleasure of the other diners. Cool, calm, and collected, I set to work. The ice cream was creamy and the flavors inoffensive, a good early sign. Had I been served some of the buttery ice cream that they seem to favor in other areas of the Pacific, all might have been lost. Pacing myself, I alternated between flavors, moderating fruit and syrup to assure the utmost variety of tastes. Despite my moderate pace, I hit the wall around the three-quarters mark. There comes a time in every worthy challenge when the body screams to quit, but the mind must plow forward. Let there be no doubt, every fiber of my being was revolting against such a substantial serving and my resolute though feeble mind weakened under the strain. Could this painful outing result in scarring the future enjoyment of my beloved ice cream? Could I ever appreciate the cool, sweet taste again, or would every encounter with ice cream remind me of my present pain? Such introspection is for the weak and I wisely extinguished such prudent thoughts before they grew dangerous to the cause. After taking a quick breather and looking to Anna for moral support (none provided), I finished the bowl with a flurry. Too tired and bloated to revel in my success, I could only sit quietly for a few minutes and reflect on my unusual accomplishment. What drives me to such madness? I cannot even take pride in such gluttony, but yet I know that it was something that I had to do. Otherwise, I would be sitting in some ice cream parlor ten years from now, talking about the challenge in Vanuatu that I was too timorous to meet. I tried to take solace in the fact that I am probably the only person alive who has both run a sub-3:00 marathon and polished off The Sand Diego Zoo, but such rationalizations proved shallow. In the end, my shameful feat was rewarded by an appropriately disappointing “special award.” The proprietor of Jill’s Café, Jill, presented me with a paper certificate signed by the entire staff. Not even so much as a coffee mug emblazoned with the logo of the establishment, just a piece of paper that I could make myself on my computer. It read: “Be it known that on this date 6 October 2006 at Jill’s Café Port Vila, Vanuatu, in front of locals and tourists alike, Aaron Cook from Connecticut did hereby successfully and singlehandedly devour an entire trough of ice cream, known as “The San Diego Zoo.” To recap: I traveled half way around the world to come to a tropical paradise, only to eat a disgusting amount of ice cream at an American restaurant and to be presented with a humiliating certificate by a fat woman from southern California. This is the end of the innocence. Anywho. The week did include slightly more cultural events. If unlucky with the weather, we were fortunate to arrive in Port Vila the week of the country’s largest festival. Fest’Napuan is a musical festival that brings bands from throughout the Pacific to Vanuatu for four days of free concerts. Braving the cold and rain, we bundled up in every stitch of clothing we had onboard and attended the first three days of the festival. The atmosphere was similar to an American high school football game on a crisp Friday night. Families sat on blankets sharing food. Small children ran around playing in small packs. Teenage couples flirted. Drunk men danced. Women chatted. About half of the audience listened to the music. The music varied from surprisingly good to cover-your-eyes-awful. To be clear, the concert wasn’t really intended as a display of authentic culture. Even though tourists made up almost a quarter of the audience, the festival was actually a display of pop music from throughout the area and the intention was to entertain instead of to innovate or to educate. A few of the bands covered American groups, ranging from Bob Dylan to the Goo Good Dolls to the Bee Gee’s. Other bands played a derivative form of music that sounded like a bland version of some song I had long ago forgotten that is doomed to an eternity of easy listening on a mix radio station. The most interesting bands dressed in tribal costumes and danced frantically around the stage. Just about every band, no matter how huge and fierce the lead singer appeared, screeched in a high, grating voice. Much of the music was in English, although it is difficult to determine whether the gifts of irony and metaphor have made it to this part of the world. One song was titled “White Pussycat” and I couldn’t tell whether it was really about a white pussycat or whether the pussycat represented something less literal. In any case, the song sounded like they were skinning a cat and it may well have once been white. Another band went by the clever moniker of the Ranon Beach Boys, though I am not sure whether they were influenced by the Beach Boys of Brian Wilson fame or if they just live on a beach. By far the best act we heard was a group from Papa New Guinea fronted by a man called Telek. Their music utilized tribal chants and the voice of singer George Mamua Telek served as a versatile instrument. Rolling Stone said of Telek, “whether in sparse semi-acoustic settings, chanting over pounding or complex percussion, or telling stories in fields of ambiance, Telek is utterly compelling.” Anna described Telek as “the Papa New Guinea Paul Simon.” Personally, I think he was more like the Papa New Guinea Edie Brickell or, perhaps, Art Garfunkel. In any case, the music festival provided a much welcomed break from the same stale songs on my iPod. Despite having nearly 5,000 songs at my disposal on the boat, it is always a struggle to find something that I haven’t overplayed at some point along the way. I’ve reached the point where I now identify playlists with locations that I have visited since I associate certain songs with the place that I listened to the song. By the time we set sail, I am usually so tired of listening to the same set of songs that I have to find some new ones to fill the void lest the silence allow my own thoughts to begin to run rampant. Apparently, Anna doesn’t share this affliction since she has listened to the same set of Regina Spektor songs non-stop for the past two months. At least my musical associations with Vanuatu will be actual music from the region instead of some random Wilco or Death Cab for Cutie song that I stumbled upon buried deep in my music collection. On Saturday evening, we set out for a kava bar that the Lonely Planet praised. After a 20-minute walk into the hills, we found a dilapidated shack with the contents of several pots boiling away. There was a small seating area and a long table beneath a corrugated sheet of metal propped up by sticks, but there were no other customers in sight. We admired the rustic setting for a few minutes before an old woman, a young man, and a couple of shy children came out looking confused. When we inquired about getting some kava, we were informed that the kava bar had closed over a year ago and that all of the other establishments would be a taxi ride away. Returning to Port Vila, we decided to head to the festival to get some kava there. The kava we purchased was doled out from a large plastic bucket with a ladle into a small ceramic finger bowl. The liquid looked like muddy water and tasted like what I would imagine muddy water tastes like. I offered Anna a sip and said under my breath “it’s terrible.” She repeated my statement loudly for clarification as I looked embarrassedly at the woman serving the concoction who sympathetically assured me that it is an acquired taste. The kava of Vanuatu is known to be the strongest version of the drink in the Pacific. Almost immediately after drinking it, first my tongue and then my entire mouth went numb. I quickly downed a coke to alleviate the hideous aftertaste of the kava and we sat down to listen to music as my mouth gradually regained feeling. On Sunday morning, we departed Port Vila and set sail for Erromanga, the “island of mangoes.” The overnight passage was a hard beat to windward. Fighting contrary seas and strong winds tested both the boat and crew. As usual, both answered the call. We arrived on Monday afternoon, escorted into the empty bay by a pod of dolphins. Our first impression of Erromanga is that it has an interesting rugged landscape. The rocky vistas along the shore and rolling mountains appear largely uninhabited. There is a small village near a river that leads into the bay where we are anchored. There are two long beaches within view, one is dark sand and the other is white. Tomorrow, we plan to go ashore to explore the village. The past week was unexceptional. Port Vila was a good place to provision, to recover from a cold, and to pig out on ice cream. However, those are not the reasons that we came to Vanuatu. In the upcoming week, we are hopeful that the islands of Erromanga and Tanna will offer the spectacular scenery and interesting culture that we are seeking.

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