My travelling companion was my son, who I'd gone to visit in Australia. As the plane flew over the island of Efate, our first stop of call, it was easy to see the effects of the cyclone. The islands are all densely forested and though the majority of the trees were still there, it looked as if a demented, giant gardener had been let loose with an enormous strimmer. Arriving from that direction, you don't see much of the town and so it felt like we were are in the middle of a jungle, not the capital city of a large group of islands.
I find that the arrival area of an airport is often much more low-key than the departure, and this is certainly the case with Port Vila, where the arrival hall gave the impression of a largish shed compared to the glamour of Australian airports. We were quickly stamped through and told where we could get a bus to the town. In common with many countries, Port Vila has a wonderful minibus system; you get on one of the numerous vans, pay the set fee and get dropped off where, or close to where, you need to go. If more people get on than there are seats, everybody good-naturedly squishes up a bit. No matter that we didn't have a road name for where we were staying - the dread-locked driver knew where it was. Some "comfortably built" ladies got on and as the radio played some reggae we set off - I briefly wondered if I'd gone to the right island and had been transported to Jamaica. Later I realised that the constantly visible national colours: red, black, green and gold also encouraged that impression.
After briefly settling into the “motel”, which, strangely enough bore no relationship to the photos we’d seen online, I was itching to have a look around we headed downtown on another of the numerous minivans.
When you have such high expectations of a place, you have to be very careful not to be disappointed; I’d prepared myself that things could be very different from how I’d imagined them to be. Anyway this wasn’t evenTanna Island and I didn’t have any great hopes for Port Vila, even expecting it to be quite dull. But the moment I set foot in the town, I was in love. There were women wearing the same Island dresses I’d seen in that first photo and everything seemed very low key and relaxed.
A few days before I’d been in a hot, humid Indonesian city with motorbike screeching in my ears and people trying to sell me things on every corner, so the balmy warmth and lack of people hassling me was wonderful. I was used to the scruffiness and broken pavements from other countries and so hardly noticed them, but at the same time it seemed totally different from anywhere I'd been before.
As you can imagine from the name, Port Vila is on the seafront, in fact it's the most important harbour in Vanuatu. Every Friday a cruise ship comes in and boosts the income of craft sellers and there seems to be quite a large, wealthy yachting community harboured there.
There are two important things you should know about Vanuatu to give you an understanding of its people. The first is its languages:
Before I’d got to Vanuatu, I knew a little about its languages. There are 65 inhabited islands with 115 different languages spread across them. Tanna Island alone has 4 different languages apart from the national languages: English, French and the main one,Bislama . One of the reasons for this is the remoteness, not just of the islands from each other, but also between the villages on them. There are no roads at all on some islands and people get around by boats and other islands the roads are difficult to travel on. Each part of the islands is owned by one tribe or other and one village may speak a different language from another just a few miles away. A lot of the tribes don’t even speak Bislama.
When the English and French came along and used people from different parts of Vanuatu to work for them in them, there was a need for a common language, and so the Pidgin/Creole language of Bislama was born.
What I wasn’t prepared for, was how adorable I’d find the language. Not only is it close enough to English to be able to work out - eventually - but it sounds exactly how you think it should! The word “blong” is used very frequently. It means “from” and any words associated with it. For example the meaning of “Sue blong England” is pretty obvious and “our” is “blong yumi” (pronounced youme). “Bigfella” means big, but the phrase for flippers, as in diving, was my favourite: “leg blong duck-duck”. In fact I’m still smiling at it as I’m typing this several weeks later!! The word for “children” is “pickninies” which the people don’t see as having any racist connotations. The expression for anything good is namber wan. I also had a great time using the phrase “Thank you Tomas” at every opportunity, which means “Thank you too much”.
So, you can imagine that trying to read all the signs was a great, absorbing activity! I even bought a little book with a traditional story translated into English; unfortunately this now seems to have gone to the great backpack in the sky along with all the other things I’ve lost on my travels!
The minibus dropped us at the “City Centre” where we had a look around. There were other foreigners there. It seemed they were a mixture of yacht people; expats who worked/retired there; NGO workers helping to rebuild after the cyclone; a Lithuanian couple travelling around the islands (more about these later) - and us.
I tried to gauge the size of the city, but there didn’t seem a lot to it. There were a few small supermarkets and a lot of general stores, a western clothes shop and an inside market area with women sewing island dresses. Later, as I flew over the town, I could see it was a bit bigger than it appeared.
In the centre there is a new purpose-built food market. It was selling a rather reduced selection of stuff. The cyclone had pulled up the above ground plants and fruits and they were just beginning to grow back again – relatively quickly thanks to the climate and the volcanic nature of the islands. There was a better selection of root vegetable and also some “kastom” medicine. However, coconut and coffee will take several years to grow back to their original abundance. A lot of the produce grown in Vanuatu is organic. At the back were some food stalls. People were waiting outside for transport laden down with large bags of rice and other staples. One of the first things I’d noticed after arriving were the posters for the “Namber Wan Rice – blong yumi” and the advertising slogan seemed to be working, even though the rice came from China!
I wandered about the market taking photos, tentatively at first, but nearly everyone seemed to be very happy to be photographed. I noticed someone wearing a t-shirt with Survivor Cyclone Pam written on it and I found that not only were people happy to talk about their experiences, but they seemed to need to do so, maybe as a healing process. Every conversation ended with the reassurance that they were still smiling and that the process of rebuilding was well under way, island time. Ni-Vanuatus, the name for people from Vanuatu, pride themselves on being the happiest nation in the world, but the aftermath of Pam was stretching this to it’s limits, but they were coping amazingly well.
Island life does seem to have a different rhythm to it, well islands in the sun anyway. People were walking in a different way – sort of sloping and unhurried, flip-flops dragging on the ground, but you knew that they were capable of covering several miles without appearing to make much effort! Later, after being on Tanna Island, I’d look back on Port Vila as super urban, but for now, I delighted in its laid-back atmosphere.
Now and again we were offered taxis, but were never pushed when we said no. We went to the craft market where Island ladies tried to sell over-priced souvenirs. I’d read that you didn’t need to bargain here and that everyone charged the right price – I took that with a pinch of salt after the silly prices came rapidly down after I walked away! I was told that they were waiting for Friday, when the cruise ship came in and they sold most of their stuff. There were signs of damage still around the place apparently a lot of it was still there because of the insurers’ universal reluctance to pay out!
So many people were happy to talk and I heard a lot of people’s stories; the lady who’d been to Australia and thought it was ok for a holiday but too much hard work to live in; those who’d been frightened as their houses were blowing apart in the cyclone; people from other remote islands who were worried about their families.
But there was one unfortunate fact about Vanuatu that stopped all my daydreams about spending a lot more time there – the cost of living. After Indonesia, it was incredibly expensive, probably on a par with Australia. This may have been compounded by the cyclone damage, but, like many other Pacific Islands, it had already been an expensive place to visit.