Monday, August 06, 2007

Tanna, Vanuatu 's ten hour check in process.

Port Resolution, Tanna Island, Vanuatu.
19 degrees 32 minutes South by 169 degrees 30 minutes East

Our current anchorage in Port Resolution lies nearly in the shadow of the active volcano called Yasur. This evening when I stepped out on deck in the darkness I can see a faint orange glow emerging from the continuous plume of ash and smoke belching from the crater. On the steep lush green hillside that forms one half of the bay, steam vents create misty clouds amongst the foliage and hot springs gurgle on the beach at low tide. One boiling hot pool of water is used by the locals for cooking purposes (i.e. hard boiling eggs). An adventurous Swiss couple on a neighboring yacht bought a live chicken from the village and last we saw them they were heading to the beach to cook it in the every ready steaming caldron of super heated volcano water. Kathy suggests that we might do some laundry and get our whites whiter in the hot water, although we'll need to let the chicken flavor abate first I guess.

Today's adventure was a trip across the island to Lenakel to check in with customs, immigration and quarantine. Samuel, the chief's son paddled out the evening prior to offer his services in arranging a ride to Lenakel and anything else we may require. We agreed to meet the next morning at 7:30AM at the "Yacht Club". We arrived on time and Samuel greeted us with the bad news that the truck he'd planned to have us ride in was full so it had already departed. No problem since it would be back around 9:30. This seemed a reasonable answer at the time until a few hours later I did the math and realized that the journey typically takes two hours each way so the soonest he would be back would be 11:30. In the meantime and on the repeated assurance of Samuel we started to walk. Walk, walk, walk and then around 11:00 our ride was still a no show and a compassionate or perhaps opportunistic employee of a nearby resort offered us a ride for $2000 Vatu (Approx. $20USD) in his newer SUV. We agreed as this was the standard rate. Bumping along in the jam packed SUV with one man standing on the back bumper and another hanging on for dear life on the roof rack we were now more than glad to have missed our ride in the back of an old Toyota pickup truck and instead enjoying the relative luxury of a old SUV. The road traversed steep mountain sides, lush green jungles and even took us across grey barren sand dunes in the downwind wind shadow of Mt Yasur. We passed an amazing number of people on our journey and each time those on the road would step off and turn their full attention to the upcoming vehicle. It was a social event and the driver seemed to know nearly everyone along the way. Occasionally, we would stop for a brief chat other times he would shout out the windows and in nearly every occasion he would honk. The type of honk that would scare the wits out of you if you were standing along side a road and just at the time of passing a vehicle were to honk it would make you jump. However, in this culture it was a privilege to get a honk and in return waves, shouts and all smiles. Likewise, everyone would return our waves from the back seat. Younger children were ecstatic about our passing as if we were the highlight of a New Years day parade. When the vehicle slowed children would come running for a closer look. Another observation is that everyone wielded a machete, even very young children say right down to three years old. On one occasion a three year old boy ran full speed a good one hundred yards down the road with a meat cleaver raised in hand, barefoot and half naked chasing a younger sibling. In America a million mothers would have an instant heart attack. Not so here, mom followed and may have been proud to witness the foot speed of her young son.

Once in Lenakel a glorified village with modern roughly finished concrete block buildings intermixed with corrugated tin sheds and grass thatched huts. Despite the rugged appearance and dirt streets this town is the commercial hub of the island and basically the only place to shop. First stop at the bank to get some money. Good thing we brought some dough as this bank could change money, but provided little other services and certainly no ATM. It was housed in a concrete block building with rusty rebar grids covering the windows.

Next was lunch on the water front; of course everything is on the waterfront in this one half a street town. The restaurant is also the only one and comprised of a ten foot wide by fourteen foot long grass hut complete with palm thatched roof, and woven bamboo wall panels. The entrance door was about five feet tall requiring a mighty duck to enter. Once inside and ones eyes adjusted to the dim light creeping through the walls and two tiny shuttered openings serving as windows you began to notice the dirt floor, two rough hue tables and woven grass partition separating the dining from the cooking. In one corner was a wash bowl and soggy rag for those who wanted to share their germs with the other patrons before or after their meal. The lunch special was a huge plate of fresh stir fried vegetables with beef chunks, fresh bread smothered in fish sauce (they were out of fish, but some sauce remained) and huge scoops of white rice also drenched in fish sauce served up with a glass of red Cool-Aid. Good tasty food if you could get past the fact that it was fifty-fifty if the food or drink would make you sick first. $200 Vatu or $2USD per person so a great value none the less.

After lunch we took a five minute ride to the police station / immigration office. A very nice woman checked us in and then off to meet the customs officer. He was late so we poked our heads in a few of the local shops and found zero items we needed. Let's say we were incredibly thankful we did a good job provisioning for the next few months as it is slim pickings in this town. Mondays and Fridays are market day so vendors set up on the waterfront to sell fresh fruits, vegetables and some crafts. Mandarin oranges are in season so we loaded up with forty or so for $100 vatu or $1USD. Other than that we were stocked up so it was just fun to look. Six foot by eight foot incredibly time consuming hand woven grass mats were $10USD and seemed a great value, but no need for mats on a boat so I had to pass that one up.

Once the customs officer, Fred returned to his office around 2:30PM he then handed me a six page form in French to fill out. Humm, Vanuatu used to be a French protectorate so I thought it just a thirty seven year hanger on that no one bothered to translate. I asked Fred several times for help since Fred mentioned he spoke French and then instead of helping he would just laugh and make himself busy. Instead the taxi driver offered his sketchy assistance and I struggled onward getting about thirty percent of the form completed before giving up. At this point the customs official Fred finally realized that I REALLY did need help and just because the boat name "La Vie" was French I was not fluent. Magically he pulled out the same form in English, geez, that would have been helpful!

Speaking of languages, the island land of Tanna is quite small (twenty miles long by twelve miles wide) yet is home to 32 different languages. With the common denominator a variety of Pigin English called Bislama. Although, Bislama is comprised heavily of English and French derived words it can be hard to understand. A question such as "Do you speak English?" Would translate to "Yu savvy tok tok Inglis", Hello is "Alo", Thank you is "Tankyu tomas", My name is… "Nemblong mi…", Sorry I don't understand is "Sore, mi no save". All very phonetic bastardized English mixed with French and believe it or not the above examples are accurate spelling for Bislama.

The two hour ride back across the island was uneventful and quite enjoyable as we asked out guide Samuel and driver Isaac many questions along the way. So the trip we'd planned five hours for took a mere ten as should be expected. Next National Geographic moments include an evening trip to the volcano, visits to a Jon Frum Cult village and Kastrom village.

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