Vanuatu: Welcome to the Repablik

By Steve Sole

Hello. Welcome." calls a big male voice from among the banana leaves and hanging palms. We can't see anyone. The air is humid and everything smells like a tropical fruit salad. The chopping stops and footsteps approach.

"Hello" again and a 1.8m-tall man emerges carrying a machete. He's sweating and smiling. "Where are you walking?"

A good question. My partner and I had one full day left in Port Vila. We had been to its colourful market, full of taxis, trucks and utes unloading fruits and vegetables and families full of laughter and banter.

We had bought our papaya that dribbled down our fronts and, in the craft market where every stall sells the same leis, shells and carvings that its neighbours do, I bought a yellow, red and black shirt with turtle motifs that now comes out on tropical occasions.

Not being ones to lounge beside the resort's pool or take our chances at the casino, we decide to go walking. On a 10km route around the Emten Lagoon, we bump into an assortment of locals with such ease that it's hard to believe the whole day wasn't prearranged.

We leave early but the vicious dogs are always on patrol. They lunge and bark at us from behind the steel fences and security gates their wealthy masters have built around stately homes.

On the busy intersection of Teouma and Erakor Rds, we find sanctuary in Korman Stadium. While we are exploring this large, vandalised structure, about 30 soldiers arrive and run around its athletic track in time trials.

But that doesn't stop Sergeant Jippa Matas and Warrant Officer John Selwyn coming over for a chat. As others throw their legs above their heads and stretch their arms down their backs, these two tell us they have been to New Zealand, and would like to return but right now there was a New Zealand Army officer with a stopwatch waiting for them.

Staying on Teouma Rd, we hear our first and only French in Vanuatu; "Bonjour."

When Cook mapped what he called the New Hebrides in 1774, the English and French spent the next 132 years arguing about who controlled what. At an impasse in 1906, they declared a condominium. This wore thin by 1980 when indigenous people declared the Ripablik Blong Vanuatu but French, along with English and Bislama (pidgin English), remain its official languages.

"Bonjour," we reply to the young woman who, wearing a cannabis necklace, is doing the family's laundry in a large basin under an outdoor tap. Her grandmother is husking a pile of coconuts under a corrugated iron roof. Her grandfather sits in the shade of a large tree on the edge of the lagoon. He knows less English than we know French and our conversation, I think, is about what such a great job he's doing fixing his jandal with a machete. Whatever, it is brief.

That isn't the case with Victor Telukluk, one of Vanuatu's many kava-makers. No one knows how many kava-makers there are in Vanuatu but there are enough to cater to the even greater multitude of kava drinkers.

Wearing nothing but a pair of shorts, jandals, a thin gold necklace and with his son, Junior, as a constant companion, Victor has time to burn and he likes to chat.

He says in his village alone there are eight nakamal (kava bars), where kava drinkers scull the world's only legal narcotic. But we can't see a village - not even another building. Never mind, Victor has a lovely spot with raked white stones, a few banana and papaya trees dotted about, bench seats shaded by sheets of black plastic and the lagoon behind. For 50 vatu (40c), he'd give us a coconut-shell scoop of kava but his daily batch of about 20 litres isn't ready yet.

We're still on the main road that circumnavigates the island and there's the occasional vehicle. We turn right down a narrow dirt road and the only traffic to pass us here is a man on a bicycle.

Through a gap in the trees, we see a chap huddling over a bench, sheltered from the sun by sheets of corrugated iron. His name is Peter Simon. Like everyone else, he welcomes us and, like everywhere else, others quickly materialise through nearby trees.

Peter designs shirts and his wife, Kathy, paints them. They sell them for 500 vatu ($7) and tourists pay up to 2000 vatu ($28) for them at the market. Their young son proudly shows us the small, probably dead, fish in the plastic container he carries as carefully as an urn. The assembled congregation all say "bye-bye" and wave as we leave.

The trees are taller, the breeze gone and the sun bakes us relentlessly. Yet Wedo Nimnim, a horse trainer at Club Hippique, isn't breaking a sweat as he leads a large brown horse around the corral. With bare feet, a steady hand and, it seems, a gentle spirit, he saddles this horse for the first time. There's initial resistance but it accepts the strange apparatus. Wedo comes over for a talk.

He's been working here for three years and lives in a tin house just over there with his wife and two kids. "I take two weeks to train a horse. There are horses all over Vanuatu."

Papaya and bananas are also all over Vanuatu and we buy some at what is possibly the world's least busy roadside stall. We are carrying these in our arms when a 1.8m-tall, machete-wielding man, Tom Felix, asks us where we're walking. His two children and wife, Asneth, quickly join us and we tell them about our 10km loop walk. They're amused because, Tom says: "We don't see many tourists here."

Tom was a United Nations peacekeeper in East Timor. He found the people there "very hospitable and friendly" and they named their first-born son Timor. They bought this section, a piece of tropical jungle, and moved from Erakor, about 6km away, "because we like being in nature".

He cuts us two 40cm-long flowers with his machete; one is scarlet, the other vivid green, yellow and red. Timor fetches a plastic bag for us to carry our fruit and flowers.

They say our resort is only 30 minutes away and, as we leave: "See you. Good to meet you. Enjoy your stay."

GETTING THERE
Air New Zealand flies to Vanuatu once a week on Sundays and code shares services on Air Vanuatu twice a week. For flights and holiday packages see airnewzealand.co.nz; call 0800 737 000 or visit an Air New Zealand Holidays Store.

MORE INFORMATION
You'll find information on accommodation, tours and travel in Vanuatu at www.vanuatutourism.com

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