ME IN A NUTSHELL
- G’day, I’m Michael and I have two fantastic grown-up kids. I’m a jeans and singlet/T-shirt, cowboy boot, tattoos sort of fella, who knows a bit about this and sometimes a lot about that. I'll have a crack at most things, although having a relationship? ... well that ship has sailed. I'm past my use-by date anyway, so I'm gonna make it all about me and surviving life as I know it ... or make it.
Saturday, December 24, 2011
The Honeymoon, pride, honesty, the village people and other stuff
The view for the verandah at Dan's house.
There’s gotta be few things as good as sitting on a verandah at a super house, surrounded by beautiful gardens, perched high on a hill in beautiful downtown Bellevue, Port Vila.
There’s a view that cascades across a green, green valley to the distant, mist-shrouded mountains (OK tallish hills then). There are three sleeping dogs (it’s best to let them lie), music and an occasional rooster crowing in the background, a bird noise or three, a pig (Jeffrey) sometimes yelling in pigspeak that, if it’s not out of the question, he’d like more to eat, and a breeze that’s having a pleasant cooling effect on what is, in a shock twist, a hangover.
It’s day one (although I flew in on Thursday night) of what will affectionately be known as “Adventures in Vaughanuatu”.
I snagged a great cab driver to get to Tullamarine, although he must be the only Indian in the world who prefers AFL to cricket. Yeah, he did have tickets for the Boxing Day Test.
An early check-in for the overweight bag (and yep, I did get an emergency aisle seat) left me with two hours before lift-off. Just enough time for a less-than-good fruit salad … it cost seven bucks for not a lot, but it was cool and fresh … and a couple of last-minute smokes before giving the duty free a workout. Reckon at the airport I always smoke the last one right down, knowing that it’s gonna be five hours before the next.
Customs was a breeze, although I’ve never understood what makes my boots go off with the metal detector. Like, the studded belt with the silver buckle I can understand.
“Please take off the boots.” They’re a pain in the arse to get off without my bootjack (a timber device that allows me to slip ‘em off in a trice, however long that’s meant to be) but it can to pass. I passed through the metal detector again and I passed the test.
I emerged the other side of duty free with a litre of Jack, a litre of Pimm’s and five pouches of Old Holborn tobacco, which was a snip at less than $8 a pouch (usually it’s $33 for one). I was annoyed that they had run out of papers. No matter, I had enough to get me through.
There was nought left to do but sit at the appointed gate, read a book, glance at the clock and count down the minutes. Watching a clock is like watching a kettle … it never boils. But boil I did when the departure time was amended from 2pm to 2.30. No announcement, no reason, just a change to the electronic scoreboard … no way it wasn’t going to be a point deduction for Air Vanuatu. Surely it’s incumbent on the people in control there to keep the punters in the loop.
Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), boarding didn’t start until 2.18 … again no announcement … and it wasn’t until 3.15 that the pilot finally dropped it down a cog, floored it and the rubber finally left the tarmac.
What was planned to be a 6pm arrival became some time after seven. Yeah, thanks for not a lot.
In some strange quirk of fate, once airborne the announcements then came thick and fast … yep, flying time would be three hours and nearly 50 minutes, drinks and then a full lunch would be served. At last they were filling in and about to fill up the punters.
The drinks came soon enough (I had chardy) as did the miniscule packet of potato chips, which had a smell that took me back to the early teens years at the Royal Melbourne Show. I couldn’t quite get a handle on what exactly it was, but it surely transported me to somewhere else. Good feeling, that.
I try hard not to judge, but it was four hours of mostly screaming, bawling kids … some running up and down the aisle … punctuated by some really ordinary airline food (I was told that Air Van had changed caterers and it showed). The wine was OK. I reckon it’s the first time on a plane ride that I’ve actually been kicked in the head, courtesy of a screaming youngster being carried up the aisle by his less-than-careful parent, a man whose (I presume) wife didn’t smile for the entire trip. She would have given George Costanza’s mother, Estelle, a run for her money. Not so much as a tee hee. And yeah, I was snoozing at the time of the head kick. Again, thanks for that.
Finally it was touchdown just after seven.
Walking down the stairs from the plane, the air was thick, smelled of diesel and it was humid. It was foreign but somehow very familiar. I guess it should be given that it’s my fourth trip here.
Getting through the first Immigration check was quick (it seems to go for forever, but it doesn’t), my overweight case made an early appearance and I hit the Customs section. This was the first time in Vanuatu that there has been any check of my stuff. My laptop case was opened, my camera case too and the duty free checked to make sure I wasn’t bending the rules. I wasn’t.
“So, what’s in your suitcase?”
“Just clothes, chocolates, shoes toiletries, a kitchen knife set, a book, odds and ends and some music DVDs.”
I was hoping he wouldn’t want to open it because I had a skateboard securely strapped to it and it would take forever to get the bloody thing open.
“What sort of music?”
“Uh oh,” I thought.
And then he said: “OK, you have a great stay in Vanuatu.”
Out the door and into a big hug with Dan, a truly wonderful woman. Then Liam, a truly wonderful son.
Shit, it was good to see them … and, it was cigarette o’clock. It was a great first meeting with Dan and a great reunion with Liam.
And we did what I was expecting to do … we headed straight for a bar.
“Patto is singing at Baywatch. Are you up for it.”
Pretty soon we were breasting the bar at Baywatch and listening to Patto, Stuart and David serve up some excellent covers. Greeting Patto (I hadn’t seen him since February) when he’d finished his set was like meeting a long, lost brother. He’s a Scot, a big unit and he hugs like a bear.
It was a sea of meeting people, beers going down like ninepins … a great way to start the holiday. Then the beer hit a flat spot. They were having trouble with their pipes, so we did what any sensible people would do … we switched to bourbon.
Pretty soon enough was enough (does anyone know how much that is?) and we were in the ute bound for Bellevue.
A couple of bottles of white, some nibbles and catch-up/what’s up chat was enough to make sleep come easily, but not before stretching out on the bed and starring at the stars.
It seems as if there’s a constant show on through that window. The next morning on the flyscreen it was a small chameleon getting shitty and determined to have a small spider for breakfast … and the spider was having none of it. Up, down, across and back again. What a super way to wake up, hangover notwithstanding.
It was lots of tea, a smoke or three (OK maybe five) and sitting staring at the aforementioned view, before Dan took me on a tour of the garden (it’s a hectare plot) … oh, and to officially meet Jeffrey, who made a meal of the leftover crackers from the night before and a huge paw-paw (think Sherrin size here). He almost inhaled it in no time at all.
The back of the block is really heavily treed up the slope … and it’s really beautiful.
As you come down the slope there are fruits of all sorts … mango, avocado, custard apple, passionfruit, paw-paw, tree peanuts, pineapples … it goes on. There are also pumpkins, tomatoes, herbs of all sorts … there’s even a huge cocoon of spider webs, housing plenty of inmates, that the gardener is under strict instructions to keep intact.
Dan said that it was almost a case of accidental self-sufficiency, and that she’d had a story published about it. If I can ever get hooked up to the interweb thing, I’ll find a link.
Breakfast loomed large and Liam took over the kitchen. You’ve heard of the three egg omelette … well he went for the three-pot omelette with lots of ham and tomato. Speaking of lots of ham, Dan and Liam bought one for Christmas. It’s about the size of a small house … and so it should be. It cost about 300 bucks. Tastes good but.
After breakfast there’s not a whole lot to do other than hit the bed on the verandah and have a nap before Liam and I head to town to get a few supplies.
Post-nap, and armed with a couple of Tusker travellers, we pointed the ute at Port Vila and headed down a road that makes the Gibb River Road in the Kimberley look like a billiards table (more on roads in another post).
The traffic in downtown Port Vila was like it always is … a shit fight, but we managed to get a parking spot near the bank and after the banking was done, we bumped into Patto and his girlfriend Virginia, who’d been doing the last of their Christmas shopping. He was still a bit ginger, courtesy of too many bourbons the night before.
After a quick chat we headed to Bon Marche (supermarket) to stock up on some vino, beers, lemonade and dry ginger and cucumbers (for the Pimm’s).
French wine was the order of the day, with a bottle of Domaine Ventenac, a de Pennautier Syrah, a bottle of a de Pennautier cab sav and a case of Tusker (the local beer). Job done for about 100 bucks. Nothing left to do but to open the Tuskers, grab a couple of travellers and head home via a small but good bakery where it’s actually decent bread. Just what the doc ordered … wholemeal toasties with (of course) ham, cheese and tomato, the perfect prelude to an early-arvo nap. I woke about an hour later and Dan and Liam were having Pimm’s. He walked to the freezer, and grabbed on for me … “here’s one I prepared earlier.”
Ah, Pimm’s No.1 Cup, the most heavenly drink on Earth. Liam and I shot the breeze while Dan had a nap … her daughters Tahlia and Emmogen were flying in on the midnight special. To give her some breathing space (she was getting pretty toey), we boys headed to the local nukamal, run by Cathy and Abel for some kava and a beer and a chat with some of the locals (Liam knows, it seems, most people on the island … OK not all, but it’s a lot). It’s a weird place … there are tracks going every which way and a central bar where Cathy was sitting, waving a banana frond over some freshly cooked beef, snags and sundry other stuff. “They’re still hot,” she said to Liam who has the appetite of a small nation. He was into it.
We chatted with the local ex pats and solved a few of the world’s problems (especially the media), enjoyed a couple of shells of kava and a few beers before heading home to wrap the last of the Christmas presents, a task that was pleasantly interrupted by Patto and Virginia, who arrived with Christmas pressies (including a soccer ball for Jeffrey) and a thirst for bourbon.
If this is what my holiday is about, I like it. Oh, and my phone has no service and there is limited internet.
THE VILLAGE PEOPLE
Dan’s girls’ plane got in an hour late on the 23rd … at 1am on the 24th actually, a pretty tough gig for the girls. They didn’t go to bed until 3am, not the ideal preparation for Christmas Eve, but they did it well.
Liam and I went out to Mele to pick up a wide screen TV, which was to be part of the girls’ Wii Christmas package.
We wandered out on to Devil’s Point road where there is a security station … apparently there were a couple of murders out that was a while back, so the residents set up the manned boom gate.
It’s mostly ex-pats who live out there. The joint we went to is a pretty cool set-up. Private beach, a surf ski moored at the private jetty, a couple of sea kayaks all ready to check out things such as the pod of dolphins that we can see not too far offshore.
After a quick chat with the woman, who is selling all her stuff and moving back to Oz (why?), we loaded the TV and sundry other black boxes, a kilometre and a half of cords, and we hit the road.
Cruising back towards town, Liam jumped on the phone, said g’day to someone and told him we’d be there is a couple of minutes. (Everyone talks on the phone here while they are driving … they drink too and don’t wear seat belts … well they aren’t fitted in the back of utes … reckon the coppers are tolerant because the roads are so, so bad, it’s impossible to speed, hence I’m not sure there is a road toll. Yes, I’ve just read in one of the local papers that the year’s toll is three.)
We turned in to the Mele village … there are about 10,000 locals living there (that’s not counting the pig and dog populations) … it’s a maze of dusty, bumpy tracks that all looked the same to me. We twisted and turned and finally pulled up at Johnny Bangalulu’s place. Johnny’s a great bloke … we had a great time when I last saw him in February … and I got to meet his family, including his daughter Cathyfreeman. Yep, that’s right, it’s one word. She was named after Johnny became enamoured of Cathy Freeman’s performance at the Sydney Olympics.
We shared some smokes, a chat and then pointed the ute towards home although we did have to treat a huge pig as a roundabout just down the track from Johnny’s place.
We stopped on the way out of Mele so I could take some photographs of the black sand beach. My god, it was beautiful.
THE HONEYMOON IS ON
Christmas Eve was time for the girls, Em and Tahlia, to open a few early presents and get cranked up for the main event in the morning.
We did the full Christmas thing for dinner. Roast turkey with all the trimmings. It’s the first time I’ve ever stuffed a turkey. Dan and I kind of made it up as we went along, but in the end (that’s a turkey arse joke) the stuffing was excellent, as was everything on our plates.
Unusually, the girls slept in a Christmas morning, but it wasn’t long before the house was a sea of wrapping paper.
I did well … a whiter than white pig’s tusk mounted in silver (it was made by a local) to wear around my neck and a bottle of New Zealand pinot to put down my neck.
Then it was time for the Christmas Day activities. Nothing to do but pack the ute with everything … lots of food, grog, floaties, boogie board, Eskys, baskets of clothes changes , whatever … and head to Honeymoon Beach to join about a dozen families for some celebrations, which included lots of floating in the shallows, Tusker in hand, and enjoying the sunshine.
Everyone brought food and lunch was a smorgasbord … it was all there including the ubiquitous ham.
It was the sort of day that Christmas Day should be, including the beach, good people, good food, lots of beer and wine … and for me, a long sleep.
I woke to a long chat with a wild man called Jim, a nomad who was just cruising by on his motorcycle. He’s live all over the world and has some great stories to tell.
Pretty soon it was time to flee, so we pointed the ute towards Bellevue. Seems the ute is well versed in the ways of the world here. It only travelled as far as the local nukamal (yes, it was open on Christmas Day). It’s the closest to home and is a well landscaped block, with lots of table and chairs, a couple of thatched bamboo huts and a bar.
Dan caught up with some Ni-Vans she hadn’t seen for a long time … they were happy to see her. They storied on for ages and just before we left, they gave her a beautiful hand-woven basket as a gift.
Patto arrived solo … his girlfriend Ginnie had jagged a night shift at the casino where she works … and Kelvin and his girlfriend made it a crowd, a good one but. Through it all, we managed a few shells of kava and some beers, the kids had a great time just tooling around before we headed to home base to kick back and watch a White Stripes movie, via a projector to a big screen set up on the verandah.
We were running low on beers and Liam, Patto and I headed into town and cruised around to see if we could call in a favour at several resorts by borrowing a case of Tusker (we’d return one in the morning)
We interrupted the search to go to a nukamal that overlooks the Port Vila harbour. A shell and a beer later we were on the search again.
We got some and headed home. It’s the first time that kava has ever affected me. I had what’s known as kava legs. It’s kinda like a case of the feet refusing to do their duty.
PRIDE AND HONESTY
I really love the pride of the N-Vans. They are as friendly as all get-out and love their country.
I was standing beside the ute the other day having a smoke while waiting for Liam to get something from the shop.
A bloke called Steve walked up to me, held out his hand, and shot the breeze with me. He worked at the jail as a corrections officer (he was a major) and it was just great to chat with him.
A couple of days later, Liam got a call from Amy, an electrician who works for him. He needed some money. We cruised to pick him up (he travelled in the tray of the ute) and head for the bank.
When Amy got his Christmas pay and bonus, Liam told him that he would hold it for him so he didn’t blow it and find himself short. They met occasionally so Amy could get a drip feed of what he wanted. Five thousand vatu here and there just to get him by.
This time he needed it all to pay the rent and go food shopping.
While Liam was in the Bank, Amy and I had a smoke and a chat.
“I really love this place,” I said to him.
“Thank you,” he said in a beautiful, heartfelt and proud response.
Ah, you can’t beat pride like that.
Liam lobbed with Amy’s dough, told him to count it to make sure of the amount and in a touching display of honesty, he said: “That’s five thousand too much.”
Given that five grand is about a third of a week’s wages, it was a big call.
He then looked at me and said: “He’s a good man, Liam, we need people like him in Vanuatu.”
I met up again a couple of days later with Gabby, who also works for Liam.
The greeting was a cracker. Although he couldn’t remember my name, his face exploded into an almost complete smile … he has one front tooth missing … and he said: “Ah the old man.” He’s one lovely bloke.