Saturday, January 25, 2014

Port Villa - The Cascades

Before I get into the Cascade Waterfalls, I wanted to talk about how you get around in Vanuatu.  The easiest way is to catch a bus, which is actually more of a passenger van or a people carrier.  They were everywhere and could be identified by a B at the beginning of the license plate.  All you had to do was glance toward the driver and they would stop to ask if you needed a ride.  It cost us about $12 to get pretty much anywhere on the island.  The drivers were always friendly and often had their children riding around with them.  They were proficient at weaving in and out of traffic and most trips took us no more than 15 minutes to get anywhere.  We were very shocked when traffic was at a standstill heading towards Hideaway Island and were wondering what was going on when the driver wove past people running.  We had just gone by the Olympic Torch and had no idea until we were flying around the contingency of people, so no picture - but a great experience!

Beginning our climb
Everyone who has visited Vanuatu told us to make sure we visited the Cascade Waterfalls, and we were so glad we did!  You start your journey out on a beautiful path through the bush, only catching glimpses of the waterfall.  Eventually you are actually climbing through the waterfall, stopping to swim in the pools and playing in the falls.  The water is crisp and cool, which is very welcome in the humidity of the tropics.  It is crystal clear as well - we had a ball playing around.

We made sure to leave fairly early to visit, under the assumption that it would get fairly crowded because a cruise ship was docking in the morning.  When they docked, it felt like the population of the town doubled!  We didn't see many people while we went up, but quite a few on our way down.

This was one of the boy's favourite experiences, and a reminder of how Brian and I spent much of our honeymoon.  I don't have a lot to say about it - it's pretty self-explanatory.  It's a case of a picture being worth a thousand words, so enjoy!

The path through the falls

In front of one of the larger falls

The boys climbing up and into one of the pools

Look, it's a literal slippery dip! (Aussie slang for a slide)

Mum and her boys!

Brian climbed down on the side of this waterfall.  The boys and
I followed later.

Nath swimming into the waterfall

Another picture, mum?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Port Vila - Part One

We began and ended our holiday in Port Vila.  We weren't so excited to have to fly to another island in the middle, but that's just how it worked.  Brian had already used up quite a few of his vacation days when we visited the US, so we worked around the public holidays of Christmas Eve, Christmas, and Boxing Day to make the most of what he had left.  That boxed us into specific dates of travel.  Since planes don't fly to Tanna every day, we would've had to travel in the middle of our time there anyway.

The kids are old enough to have opinions on things they want to do, so Brian and I decided they could each choose something within reason - we were allowed veto power.  Nathan opted for horseback riding months ago, so that was one of the first things we did.  Nathan picked the 2 hour rain forest tour, so we saddled up and headed off on the adventure.

Poor Brian's view!
We were paired up and helped onto our horses, given a brief set of instructions, and off we went with our guides.  The kids weren't so sure about the first steep hill we went down, but quickly enjoyed the feeling.  The both ended up being tethered to our guides, as they weren't quite strong - or forceful - enough to keep their horses going the way the boys wanted them to head.  I gave the camera to Brian, since I figured it would be less painful bouncing around on him!

All of our horses had distinct personalities.  Bri and Will's horses just wanted to eat, given any bit of slack on the reins.  Nath's horse was stubborn and had to be fussed at fairly often.  Mine liked to stay on the path and gave me a bit of excitement when he decided to start to rear up on me.  I yanked on the reins hard for him to stop and just clung on for dear life.  Brian swears I'm exaggerating, but it felt scary!

The bush was lovely and the views from the top were stunning - but we don't have any pictures of that because Brian's horse got very fidgety when we stopped.  The boys were exhausted about halfway through the tour and we had to tell them to stop whinging - all of our bums were sore!  They didn't realise that you used different muscles riding.  All in all, they had a good time and are pestering us to go again here!

Nath's sweet face

Looking fantastic in our riding helmets

Will picked riding U-power boats around the harbour.  The boys kept calling them U-boats and not understanding why Bri and I were laughing.  Basically they were two-seater pontoon boats.  The real appeal here is that the boys could drive them as long as we sat behind them.  Off we went behind our guide, with the throttle open and the boys giggling as we wake hopped.  We took a bit of a break in the middle of our hour tour for a swim.  The water was absolutely crystal clear and were surprised to hear that it was 30 feet deep, since we could easily see the bottom.  The boys adored this part of the holiday. Alas, I'm not risking my camera on that ride, so no pictures!

We also saw a fire dancing show at our resort.  When they came out and weren't in traditional dress, I was a bit disappointed.  However, that feeling was quickly lost watching the show.  Here are a few of my favourite pictures.

And now the kids think it would be cool to breathe fire...

Hideaway Island
We also spent time wandering the town and hanging out at the beach.  Our favourite was Hideaway island.  It was about fifteen minutes from Port Vila by taxi bus and then another five minutes by ferry.  Not only was it beautiful, but the snorkeling was amazing!  We saw angel fish, parrot fish (my favourite), puffers, other beautifully coloured fish, and blue sea stars.  The boys were champs with their swimming skills, although we did get Will a life vest so we didn't have to worry too much about him.  At one point we thought we were swimming up to a huge black coral to be surprised when it was a massive school of fish - just like the school in Finding Nemo that form the Opera House.  Speaking of Nemo, we found several of him as well!

Hideaway Island is also home to the world's only underwater post office.  There is a postbox you can dive down and mail postcards in, which we did.  I have no idea when they'll arrive to the people we sent them to, but fun for the kids to do anyway.  Twice a day the postman goes out in scuba gear to man the post office.  The kids thought he was really fun!

The guy with the massive hair?  That's the postman.

My three guys snorkeling

Nath was done

Wills "borrowed" my sunnies for the return ferry!

Back to the mainland - hope to be back to Hideaway Island someday!

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Tanna - Cultural Village and Departing

We wanted to make the most of our short time in Tanna, so we decided to visit a village and receive a cultural tour on the day we were leaving.  We didn't fly out until 3pm and the tour was in the morning, so we had plenty of time.

We hopped into the resort's 4X4 and headed off towards the jungle once again.  Our driver stopped at the main part of Tanna on the way to the village, where we took some time to look around the market.  I wanted to buy one of the woven bags as a souvenir, and general use.  Each island has their specific tradition of weaving and I actually liked Tanna's the best.  You can see a traditional bag in the picture of the market below.

Those are some cucumbers!

The main port in Tanna, directly across from the market

After a few minutes of looking - buying food isn't really a choice, as you don't know what contaminants might be lurking - we hopped back into the car and headed into the jungle.  These roads weren't too bad, certainly better than the ones heading towards the volcano.  I took a picture, it's still a bit blurry from all the bouncing, but at least it gives an idea of where we were!

The typical roads in Tanna

We had no expectations of what this tour would be like.  The only thing we knew was that this was an authentic village, they weren't putting on a show for the tourists.  How do we know that?  Well, partially we trusted what we had been told but, more importantly, we had walked by a village close to our resort and seen lots of villages on our trips around the island.  Grass huts were the norm, as were gardens, cattle tied to the fence, and chickens roaming freely.

Statue of the chief
Our tour guide was a lovely young lady that had been picked by the chief to go to school and become fluent in English, French, and Bislama (the local language).  She is now teaching some of the children school.  Not as easy a process as one might think.  Firstly, the families of these children had to negotiate with the chief for two weeks before school was even considered.  Secondly, the children have to be fluent in the village's culture before they are able to attend school.  I would love to know more about how the children are actually picked - is there some sign of intelligence that's important to the tribe that is picked up on, or is it the more respected families that are able to learn?

We were welcomed with a necklace made from reeds and a flower - similar to a daffodil - and then allowed to enter the village.  We were given a small fruit to taste and some lap lap to try.  This is a traditional food on Vanuatu that has some sort of tuber, coconut milk or cream, and is wrapped up in the island cabbage.  All of this is wrapped up in banana leaves, placed in the ground, and cooked through.  It looked a bit like the layers in lasagna.  The boys were polite about trying, but weren't too thrilled with the taste.  We thought it was fine, just a bit bland.  Some are cooked with chicken or pork and more seasoned - I would've been interested in trying that.

Serving the Lap Lap
It is fairly hard to imagine being a woman in this type of culture.  There are parts of the village that only men can be in, but in all fairness, the same holds true for the women.  Only men are allowed to drink Kava - a drink made from the root of the Kava plant, which has sedative properties.  The women respect the men during these daily ceremonies, thinking they are becoming strong.  Women from other villages are arranged to marry the men by the chiefs of the villages.  Upon marriage, the woman is no longer allowed to visit her family or even speak her language.  I can't even fathom marrying someone I didn't know and then not being able to communicate with the others in the village.  They must learn the new language very quickly.  I also suspect that they are just too busy to get very bored or lonely.  They make what they eat, their medicine, and clothing from what is around them.  Everyone looked very fit!

Our boys took everything in and luckily didn't say anything that could be construed as offensive, albeit unintentional.  You never know what a six year old might say upon see in mostly naked men as a normal form of dress.  Both boys were concerned about the whispering and giggling going on by the other children.  We assured that the kids weren't making fun of them, but that they were something of interest.  Have to admit, I've never been quite that much of a novelty before!  Will spent the whole trip having his blonde hair rubbed by strangers, which he found very strange.

Our tour guide leading us into the village.

Making fire.  Also, their hair is short, which means they are eligible for marriage

A Kustom welcome dance.  The women sang as well, but didn't dance.
This is also where many ceremonies and celebrations are held.

This is why I think travel is so important.  We learn so much about the world around us and are given the ability to respect others.  I can't fathom living this way, but they do and seem very happy about it.  The world is a very big place, yet so very small.  We watched as the village children played a version of tag - or tips, if you're an Aussie.  I feel very blessed to live where I am/have living/lived.  But would these people trade how they live?  I'm honestly not sure?  For example, not everyone on the island is very happy to be gaining electricity.  It is seen as an invasion to them, whereas I can't imagine life without.

I'll get away from my serious thoughts now.

We headed back to the resort, packed our bags, had lunch, and were driven to the airport.  We go to check-in and learn that our flight has been cancelled and they are not sure when we'll be able to leave for Efate.  About the time we were getting ready to call our travel agent - with a fair amount of reluctance since it was Christmas Eve -  the owner of our resort pulled up in her truck.  They had noticed that our plane hadn't arrived, so she called up Air Vanuatu to find out what was happening.  When it became clear that we weren't leaving, she headed out to pick us up so we could return to our room for the evening.  She assured us not to worry - Air Vanuatu would be paying for our room and food and she was on top of finding out what flight we would have.

We decided to spend some time at the pool, then clean up for dinner.  We let the boys have a swim in the resort pools most day, it really helped with their swimming confidence, which was lovely to watch. When we sat down to dinner, we were informed that our flight was leaving at 8am on Christmas Day, so we needed to leave the resort at 6:30am.  They assured us we would be able to have some breakfast in the morning, even though the dinning room didn't open until 7am.  We assumed toast and jam would be the answer.  Wrong!  The owner's husband came in early to cook us anything we wanted.  We ate some lovely pancakes served with a fresh fruit platter and some very yummy Tanna coffee and were on our way to the airport, where we were greeted by...

Santa chucking lollies to the pikininnis

Not to mention our plane!  We said hi to the friends we had made the previous day at the airport and got ready to board our plane.  I was able to pull our my camera for this trip, so enjoy!

Our boarding pass.  We found this hilarious

Look - the cockpit!

So long, Tanna!  Thanks for all of the lovely memories!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Tanna - Our arrival and journey to Mt. Yasur

As I stated in the previous post, my main desire for visiting Vanuatu was to see the volcano.  But first, we had to get there.  Now, I'm not an anxious flier typically, but I am not a huge fan of propeller planes.  I knew this was going to be one, but I didn't stop to think about how small it was going to be - until I noticed that they were weighing the passengers at check in!  At this point I was having a mild panic attack - trouble getting a deep breath and shaking, but trying not to make it so bad that the kids would notice.  Plus, I can handle most anything for 45 minutes, I reckon.  Since my prayers were answered with a no to the "bigger" plane, I changed the request to a smooth ride, which was thankfully answered with a yes!  I was sad that I didn't have my camera our for the flight - the views were stunning.  I did have to get it out upon arrival to get a picture of the airport.

The, ahem, baggage carousel

Our plane - how cute!

Getting on the plane was a bit easier here - no metal detectors, no long speech by the flight attendants.  Although, in fairness, there were no flight attendants.  The pilot told us where the life jackets were and we were off for Tanna.  There was no door in between the cabin and the cockpit, and you could sit wherever.  I relaxed and was able to enjoy it after about 10 minutes.  I knew I'd be fine heading back to Port Vila.

Our hotel from the plane
We stayed at the White Grass Oceans Resort - and they were fantastic.  We were driven from the airport to the resort by one of their drivers.  We were greeted at the resort with lime juice and a reassurance that they had their own water source, which was safe to drink.  There are no restaurants on Tanna, so we ate all of our meals in their dining room.  They would make special meals not on the menu for the kids, which were more to their liking typically.  They also arranged and drove us on all of our excursions.

The boys loved the mosquito nets.  Truth be known, I've always wanted to sleep in one.  I read way to much as a kid and had some romanticised version of it.  I will say, it felt very snuggly.

Melanesian statue outside our bungalow.  Nathan is wearing
a chief's necklace from the cultural village we visited.

View from the dining room

Now for the volcano trip.  It was scheduled to be a six hour trip - leaving at 2:30 pm with a stop to hear a children's choir sing.  I had decided to get a massage on the beach earlier in the day and was glad I had.  The road was rough, to say the very least.  I would've liked to have gotten a picture of what we were travelling on, but there was no way it wouldn't have been blurry because of all the bouncing we were doing.  There are very few paved parts of roads on Tanna.  The travel time was about an hour and a half.  I have no idea how far it was.  The dirt roads were the easiest part, as ash doesn't hold up well during rain, leaving massive holes to navigate around and, occasionally, through.  Technically you drive on the right side of the road.  Realistically, you take the path of least resistance!

Sweet voices

About an hour into the trip, we were on the ash plains.  It was a bit like driving on the sand near our beaches, just a different colour.  It was beautiful, but I'm not sure how we made it out of these on the way back.  Clearly our driver knew exactly where he was going because it was dark, ash was flying, and the landmarks were few and far between!

You can see which way the wind was blowing

We had to drive around the long way, as the wind was blowing towards this side.  So, off we went into the jungle.  It was quite a climb and I was glad we had a Land Rover - it was absolutely necessary!  After 30 minutes, we met our guide and were in the parking lot for the climb up the volcano.  Not as tough as it sounds - there were steps carved, but they weren't very even!

Hearing the first eruption.  Also, it was very windy, hence the closed eyes.

Our new family portrait!

We stayed at below the crater for a little bit until our guide could see which way the lava was blowing, ensuring that we were (mostly) safe.  Of course, they can't predict when lava is going to go it's own way, so you're told to keep a watch on things.  After a few pictures and deciding things were fairly safe, we were asked if we wanted to head to the top.  Of course Brian, Wills, and I did, but Nathan is our cautious one.  He was scared, but decided it would be worth it to view the volcano from the top.  Bri and I were very proud of him - he's grown so much since we've moved to Australia.

This was a harder climb, as there were no steps.  We just slogged through ash up and up so we could see down into the crater.  Everyone agreed that it was worth it.  We didn't stay super long up there, as it was much noisier with the sound bouncing all around.  Fantastic views, though!

Words can't even describe - nor can pictures

We climbed back to the lower level to stay through sunset and into night.  It was truly incredible.  Nath described it as awesome, but scary.  I told him he now understood what awesome actually means, not the trite way we use it today.  I think everybody in our family lists this as their favourite part of the holiday - I think Brian thought it tied with the snorkeling on Hideaway Island.

"Look mum, God likes fireworks!"

We eventually climbed back down Mt. Yasur and headed back to the resort.  We were tired and very, very dirty, but in awe of God's creation.  I think He had a lot of fun thinking things to make!  We got back around 9:30 and had a quick wash off of all the ash covering us.  We were glad to have been told to order dinner before we left.  We ate fairly quickly and, after showering, fell happily into bed.  What an incredible day!

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Our Vanuatu Holiday

On the ferry from Hideway Island into Efate proper
When I told people in the US that we were going to be visiting Vanuatu over Christmas, I got a lot of "I've never heard of that place" and several "Why there", so I'll start a series of posts to answer both of those questions!

First of all, Vanuatu is an archipelago (or arch-i-pel-a-go) north-east of Sydney, 3.5 hours by plane.  It is a relatively new country, having gained independence from British-French rule in 1980.  The hyphen is not a mistake, the two countries co-ruled together.  During the Coconut War, which was their brief war for independence, it was called the New Hebrides.  Previously, it has been referred to as the Sandwich Islands, named by Captain Cook.  There is also a large American influence, leftover from World War II.  Many GIs were stationed there and there is superb diving where the US dumped their tanks, jeeps, etc.  In fact, on the island of Tanna, there is a cult called John Frum, so named because so many of the GIs would say they were John from wherever.  There is still a belief that John Frum will return with many of the goods given out to the natives during WWII.  The airport, Bauerfield Airfield, is named after a US Marine that laid the first airstrip on the island of Efate, where the capital city of Port Vila is found.

Many people may know of Vanuatu because one of the seasons of Survivor was filmed there.  This is apparently hilarious to many of the Vanuatu natives, as there are no poisonous animals found in Vanuatu and fruit is incredibly plentiful.  In fact, one of our favourite things to order was a fruit platter - the best mangoes and pineapple, along with other tropical fruits.  Will and I fell in love with Sup Sup, of which we can't find the proper name.  It was white, tasted a bit like a cross between a coconut and a melon, and had the texture of a pineapple.

Secondly, one of the things I wanted to experience while we were living in Australia was visiting a South Pacific island.  We looked at Bali, but Brian ruled it out because he knew he'd never hear the end of me singing "Bali Hai."  Jokes on him, I can sing songs from South Pacific all day long.  Fiji was a possibility as well.  We settled on Vanuatu for two reasons - firstly, it seemed a bit less touristy and secondly, it has the world's most accessible active volcano.

View of the volcano from the ash plains.  The boys are "holding" it.
More on this later.

We are also interested in showing the boys how incredibly blessed we are.  Vanuatu is not a third world country, but it's not much higher.  You can probably drink tap water in Port Vila, but we didn't chance it.  The resort we stayed at on Tanna had their own water source, and we were happy to be able to put our toothbrushes under the tap!  Most people on Tanna have to get their water from the rivers and proceed to boil it for three hours.  Several places had tubing above head to transport the water.  This tied in beautifully for the boys.  At our church, the children raised money to buy a water filtration system for somewhere in the world, but I don't think our kids truly understood how needed it is until we visited somewhere that could use one.  For that matter, I'm not sure we understood as adults!

The poverty is immense in Vanuatu, but it's a different kind of poverty than what we are used to seeing.  By any standards, they are much poorer monetarily than our poorest in the US.  That said, Bri and I had a discussion about how much better off their poor our than ours.  There is a huge abundance of fruit growing everywhere.  Very few people have much money, so grass huts and tin sheds are not abnormal.  Tourism is the real income of the islands, so we really did feel like we were helping out many people.  An interesting feeling, since it combined with the feeling of guilt from the amount of money we have - and we are by no means what I would call rich.

Typical outdoor market with the women in standard dresses or skirts.  There are a few
grocery stores, but not so much on Tanna.  I love the woven baskets.

But the lasting impression we took from visiting was how incredibly happy the people are.  We thought Aussies were happy people - and they certainly are - but I don't think we walked by anybody that didn't offer us a beautiful smile and a hello.  All the kids wave to you, practising their English.  You certainly never felt like you met a stranger!

Christianity has had a major influence on the island.  Many missionaries have come - a few were eaten, which the kids found fascinating.  Apparently the chief of a village would get the head!  A lot of the schools are sponsored by churches. In fact, the boys school in Australia sends students over for mission trips and supports one of the schools in Port Vila.  Because of this influence, it is respectful to cover your shoulders and not wear short shorts outside of the resort.  One of the blue holes we snorkeled at on Tanna was across from a local village and we swam with lots of the villagers.  I was thankful to have the foresight to have grabbed one of Brian's shirts, as it was loose and long on me.  The women in Vanuatu swim in a shirt and shorts typically.  I took a pashmina with me while we walked around, just to be on the safe side.

Along the same lines, men and women do not touch in public, as this is seen akin to having sex in public.  I don't think of myself as one that is keen on PDA, but found myself slapping Brian's hand away from holding mine - and vice versa.  We were standing at a market and I leaned against him - certainly nothing I would think of as remotely inappropriate, but he quickly shoved me off of him as people were looking at us.  Sometimes strange the things you have to think about, but we do try to be respectful of other cultures.

I will put up other posts with specifics, but that should give a brief overview.  We had a lovely time and didn't realise quite how much we needed this break until we were there.  It was a lovely mix of beach and adventure, I think the best trip we've had with the boys, mostly because they are at an age to do more things.  In fact, Will cried when we were leaving and both boys are planning trips as adults to go back!