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!

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