“You go where?”
“North, where are you going?”
“Ok, can we come too?”
“You want to come to Malao?”
“Sure why not, how much?”
“1,000 Vatu each.”
“Nope that’s too much, how far will 500 each get us?”
“Ok, we will go there.”
We were in a jam. We wanted to explore the north side of Santo, but we were out of cash and the ATMs were all in Lugenville in the south. Earlier that day we had terrible luck.
First, the lodge we stayed at for three nights did not take card, which they did not tell me until check out. Then, I hit my withdraw limit. Pauline tried her debit card. She inserted it, entered her info, when all of a sudden, chomp. The ATM did not dispense any cash and it ate Pauline’s debit card. It was Saturday, so the bank would not open until Monday. We would have to make do until then with my remaining 3,000 Vatu, roughly equivalent to $30. Let the adventure begin.
We walked down the road, north, with a loose plan of going to Port Orly, the northernmost village. We tried to hitch hike, but all the trucks that passed were full or ignored us. After walking with our heavy bags for an hour, someone finally picked us up and agreed to take us to Champagne Beach, which we heard was beautiful.
They had to turn before the beach, so we got out to walk the rest of the way as it started to rain. We cut giant leaves from the jungle and held them over our heads as umbrellas. Soon, a few people came out of the trees with machetes and holding lettuce, freshly cut from their gardens. Contrary to everything I learned in America, we approached the people with machetes and started a conversation.
We introduced ourselves to them and got the usual you go where? We responded wherever you’re going. They asked where we were staying and Pauline, used to staying with locals and not shy at all asked if we could stay with them. They talked it over for a few seconds and said yes. Twenty minutes earlier I thought we would be sleeping on a beach in the rain, now we were being taken to a village by three people with machetes. I had no idea what to expect.
Our new friends waved down a truck and we piled into the back of the pickup. After picking up another four women, also with machetes (and lettuce), they took us to their village, Hog Harbor. It was almost Vanuatu Independence day, so there was a soccer game, Kava drinking, food, and music near the center of the village. They had been celebrating all week. We stopped in the shop where I contributed two bags of tomatoes to dinner. I was down to 1600 Vatu. Then, we went back to the house of our new friends, Larice and Ser, to drop off our bags and dinner supplies.
Ser, unaccustomed to random foreigners asking to stay with him asked us, “What do we do now?” Somebody suggested going for a swim, so we followed him to the ocean, a minute walk from his house. We swam for a while in a well protected lagoon, then rinsed in fresh water pools fed from underground springs. The water was beautiful and refreshing, and all of our worries, stress, and dirt from earlier that day washed away with the outgoing tide. We air dried and went back to the house to get ready for the festivities of the night, mainly kava drinking.
The house had a concrete foundation with tradition wood and woven palm leaves for the roof. There was another structure, a detached kitchen with a large picnic table, a hammock made from black fishing net, and an open fire “stove”. Adjacent to this building was a detached bathroom and shower with no running water. It was my first time staying somewhere with no running water, so I had to ask Pauline what I was supposed to do. I felt quite silly when she looked at me funny and said just fill up the bucket from the rainwater collection system and pour it over you. Duh.
That night Ser, Pauline and I went to the Nakamal while Larice watched the variety shows with the other women. The Nakamal is the gathering place for drinking Kava, and is only for men (and tourist women). It was my first time drinking fresh Kava although I had tried the powdered just add water kava at a backpacker bar in Fiji. This stuff was much stronger. My first cup numbed my mouth and throat and I felt very happy. We had another cup, then another, and next thing I know we were Kava drunk at 9pm and I was out of money.
We decided it was time to leave since we had had no food since noon (and were out of money). We found Larice next to the main stage watching religious skits with the other women and asked if it was ok if we went back to eat. She insisted on accompanying us, so we returned to their property famished. Larice made rice with boiled cabbage and cooked tomatoes for dinner, and after not eating all day, it was delicious. We went to bed immediately after dinner knowing we had to get up in the morning for church.
We awoke at 5am to a combination of a rooster right outside the house, which Pauline chased away, and religious pop songs played over loudspeakers for the outdoor early morning service. It was a ten minute walk to thee stage, so they were cranking it. At nine we walked through the village, once again in the rain, to church. I borrowed a shirt from our hosts while Pauline borrowed a dress. We looked the part, even though neither of us had been to church in a very long time. The service was Presbyterian, and in Bislama – the language of Vanuatu which is basically a variation of incorrect English, like Creole to French – so we could not understand much. The one thing I did understand was the service was about giving 10% of what you earn or grow to the church. I cynically asked where that money goes and they told me it goes to the widows of the community. Nobody is getting rich, but there is a very strong sense of community in these villages.
After the service the preacher led us outside to shake everyone`s hands as they exited the building, like we were guests of honor. There was a feast with rice, lap lap (ground taro or yam wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in an underground oven – delicious), chicken, fresh vegetables, and papaya. We ate our meals with two elders of the village, learning about their customs, the struggle for independence 39 years ago, fishing, magic, and much more. Since we were now part of the community, we could eat as much as we wanted for free, and they insisted that we eat more than we wanted.
We stayed one more night, and finally visited Champagne Beach the next day. Ser’s father owned land near one side of the beach so we avoided the 500 Vatu per person entrance fee. The beach was beautiful fine white sand and clear water. Pauline and I swam while Ser and Larice played with their young son. Then, we all walked back for one last night of kava.
After a few cups, Pauline and I weren’t feeling great and we promised to cook spaghetti (since Pauline is half Italian), so we said we would go back and prepare dinner but they could stay for the festivities. Since we were under the influence of kava, we weren’t particularly efficient starting the fire. Our phones were both dead from not charging them for three days and the lights in their kitchen were solar powered but it was dark. We found coconut husks on the ground and used them for kindling, which was a mistake because they produced an exorbitant amount of smoke, stinging our eyes and making us cough. We finally managed to produce dinner an hour later as Ser and Larice returned from the celebration. Perfect timing.
As much as we wanted to stay a week with them, we had to get Pauline’s debit card and explore more islands. We said goodbye and I gave Ser a massive bag of rice as a thanks, while he gave me a traditional shirt. Pauline and I headed to town, with flights booked to the volcanic island of Ambrym where we planned to hike the volcano and she wanted to meet a sorcerer, since she heard many tales about them and they still practice magic there. One of the elders said that they can fly from island to island and if you grab one you can go too, but if you open your eyes you will fall to the ground or into the ocean, depending on what you are over. I joked that we should have found a sorcerer to fly us to Ambrym, it would be faster and cheaper than Air Vanuatu and would have made a much more interesting blog post.