If you’ve been following my blog, you will know that we had a bit of a diversion and a change in the order of our ports en route to our first port of call, Port Vila on the island of Efate which is one of Vanuatu’s 83 islands. Three days after sailing from Sydney, we disembarked on this special island.
We were greeted by the usual cacophony of eager taxi drivers, whose minivans and occasional sedans were lined up on the access road just above the port and on the road leading to the port, where the colours of the port market displayed their own cacophony. Without doubt you will find the aggressive taxi drivers to be intimidating and perhaps a bit difficult to understand and you may be a bit uncertain about their rundown vehicles, but hey, mate — go with the flow — this is part of leaving your cruise ship cocoon behind for a few hours and ‘going island,’ but do remember to stand your ground and negotiate (or wait til afternoon, when both the taxis and the market prices do get cheaper).
If I can compare our welcome with the last time we were here (about 18 months ago), our welcome yesterday was even more enthusiastic because earlier in the week, three cruise ships cancelled their port calls because of Cyclone Freda.
I asked our driver to take us to the National Museum, but it was Sunday, and wouldn’t open for another two hours, at 12:30 so after adamantly telling him that no, we didn’t want to go to the waterfall, he dropped us off in town.
The town of Port Vila looks dusty and in urgent need of road and sidewalk maintenance, but it isn’t the infrastructure which steals your attention, but the wonderful people who live there. Whilst the army of taxis is literally manned by men, the women design, manufacture and sell their colourful clothing, sarongs, jewellery and souvenirs. Walking through the sheltered and cooler outdoor Mama’s Market with its distinctive grass covered individual stalls arranged in a circle (almost a clone of the women’s market in Durban), we were greeted by warm, sincere smiles and wishes of Happy New Year. We stopped and chatted with some of the women, and were struck by how well educated they are, and genuinely interested in who we are, where we are from and how life is treating us. When we asked one woman if they were affected by Cyclone Freda, she replied, “No, not really — it was just a tropical low.” It was the precision of her reply which struck me.
We also wandered into the shops in the main street, and as in other island states in the South Pacific, you can’t help but be struck by the sheer number of Chinese shopkeepers. In fact, there seems to be an even division of Chinese shops, duty free shops, and Vanuatu-owned shops. The Chinese presence is not a coincidence or accident, it is part of the Chinese mercantile expansion. In fact, we saw a rather elegant “South China” sewing machine in one of the indoor markets. As to Vanuatu’s duty free shops, I suppose they are good value for liquor (and indeed we saw many bottles in airport-style carrier bags waiting to be taken into bonded storage on the ship, awaiting collection upon disembarkation in Sydney), but the prices in both Prouds (also in Fiji) and the Downtown Duty Free Shop for other goods was, well, simply eye-watering. I’ve coveted a Nikon D300 digital camera for quite some time, but to pay twice of what it costs in New Zealand? Rather have the cruise AND the camera!! And as to watches, FAR cheaper on the ship. Notably and expectedly, there are plenty of cheap “Burberry” jackets and “Gucci” handbags in the local markets.
However, it was the first shop that we wandered into which gave me that special travel moment, that special incongruous travel moment. Located anywhere else in the world, it probably would be called a $2 Shop, you know — the kind of shop which sells $2.00 kitchen spatulas when a $5.00 one would actually do and $2 tubes of epoxy glue that expoxy as soon as you open them. However, it was just one the many local shops that sells cheap clothes, cheap homewares and surprisingly, some electronic goods. Playing on one of the TVs on display was an English-language documentary DVD which immediately caught my attention, of Ellis Island, in New York, where my four grandparents entered the United States from Russia. And there I was, standing in the middle of a dark, stifling, islander-owned shop in Main Street Vanuatu, married to a New Zealander, the auntie to two gorgeous half-Chinese kids, whose sister-in-law is Chinese, being seductively transported back more than a century to where the Americanisation of my own family started. I guess that’s why I travel — to inch ever closer to the fundamental truth that we are but one people.
A bit warm and tired, and we found the water taxi. The chap in the hotel, the tallest building in Port Vila, told us that yes! It would take us back to the boat! Whether there was a mis-understood “ship vs boat,” or whether there was something else going on, no — it didn’t take us back to the boat, but to Iriki Island, the site of one of those typical, beautiful island resorts, with its individual rooms-as-huts-on-stilts pinned into the beach. It was a pricey exercise just to get to the island, but the 3000 Vatu (A$30) ticket for two could be redeemed for food in the resort. Trouble is, we just didn’t feel like eating, so took the very pleasant short ride back to the mainland, where we were refunded all but A$5, well worth the return trip to see Port Vila from the water, and have a respite from the unusually high humdity of the early afternoon.
Energy-sapped, we decided to go back to the ship so found a great taxi driver who charged us only $5 — half the price it was in the morning, when prices all over Port Vila are at their day-beginning highest. He dropped us off about half-way down the long market along the road to the port, so we had another 300 metre opportunity to shop. Nothing really to buy, so we walked through the port gate, bidding adieu to one of my favourite South Pacific islands, until next time.
Dripping and tired, we cooled off enough on the walk from the top of the gangway to our suite at the blunt end of the ship to venture out again on our balcony, to be farewelled by a large group of young men, standing on the roof of their minivan parked on the road above the port, yelling “Aussie-Aussie-Aussie-oi-oi-oi.” At least I saw more than one taxi in town with a big Silver Fern painted on the door!
As we pulled in our lines and started back out to sea, I watched some kids fishing with just a string off the rocks, in the shadow of our very large vessel. Undoubtedly, a cruise ship is not a novelty for them, but instead, probably a wonderment. For those of us leaving Efate, it will also be both a novelty and a wonderment, a place which invites back all who go there.
Wendy R. London is a HAL Mariner and corporate affairs manager and founder of CruiseBubble.com, sailing aboard Oosterdam.