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.
Sunday, January 8, 2012
Time for some island hopping, some local food and a homemade corkscrew
Pele is a short boat trip (just seven clicks) north of Efate. It’s a pretty smooth boat trip, skirting the whitecaps that emerge from the reefs that seemingly surround the place.
It was about a 20-minute drive from Port Vila, notwithstanding a smoke break and a chance to grab another traveller from the Esky in the back of the ute, to get to the pick-up point at the jetty.
Greetings and happy new years out of the way, our man pointed the bright yellow tub out to sea. It was as flat as a shit carter’s hat (I’d love to have written “the sea was angry that day, my friends” as a tribute to George Costanza in the marine biologist episode of Seinfeld … alas) as we motored towards a neighbouring island, got up close and personal with it and then turned left and headed to the far side of Pele.
About 20 minutes later we arrived at the village that would be home for the night.
It was a beautiful beach, with plenty of kids splashing in the shallows, and a big smiley greeting from out host Michael. That was a bonus because I’m not usually good with names.
A couple of woman offered us flowers for our hair (it was like being in the sixties again although my flower of choice then was usually jasmine … this was hibiscus) and then was got the lay of the land (it was the only lay I managed for the entire trip).
Our digs consisted of a bungalow with a separate bedroom with bunks for the kids, another bedroom for Liam and Dan and a mattress on the kitchen floor for me, which turned out to be a bonus because it was apparently the coolest place (that’s temperature cool not Fonzie style) to sleep.
We moved the kitchen table and chairs outside into an area with a palm frond roof.
There were bowls of water with flowers floating about and soap for hand washing, a couple of small water tanks with a saucepan and a bucket for flushing the dunny, which equates to no running water, and the promise of a couple of kerosene lamps later to light our night.
There wasn’t much left to do but put our chairs under a pandanus tree and relax with a beer while the kids splashed about in the shallows, albeit with a warning to wear shoes because there were a lot of stonefish about.
To the right of us was an outrigger (still in use) one the beach and a little closer, a bloke sleeping on a palm frond mat on a bamboo platform he had built into the tree. Chooks wandered here and there looking for tucker. Not a bad way to spend a day, all to the sounds of church singing somewhere in the village.
The first interruption was women from the village arriving with our lunch (that was part of the deal). We tucked in to thick slabs of tuna with onion sauce, rice, a salad of sweet potato, beetroot and something else I’ve forgotten, and lap-lap, which is a traditional Vanuatu dish. (We had five village dogs visit during lunch, three of which (I swear) looked just like dingoes.)
Lap-lap is made from grated vegetables such as manioc, taro or yam, which are soaked in coconut milk to form a paste. On special occasions (although no meat for us), pork, beef, chicken, fish or even flying fox may be added, or the paste may be sweetened with a few bananas (ours was).
The mixture is wrapped in banana leaves, tied with vine to form a parcel, and placed into a traditional uma, which is created by digging a hole in the ground and filling it with red-hot rocks. The parcel or food is placed in the centre, covered with more hot rocks and the whole thing covered over with dirt and leaves.
After about three hours, you get your rocks off (that’s my joke) and the lap-lap is ready. It’s best served hot and eaten straight away.
After lunch the only thing left to do was move the chairs back to the shade of the pandanus, sit down, lift the lid on a cold one (OK it was a few) and chill while watching Liam and the kids snorkelling in the shallows. (Dunno where he gets his energy from … it’s obviously not in my genes.) OK, there was some walking on the beach, twice in fact, the second time to collect driftwood for a fire on the beach for when it got dark (which is early in these parts … think 6.30 or thereabouts).
It’s amazing how time flies when you’re doing bugger all.
All of a sudden it was kava time. Then Michael arrived with the sad news. “Sorry, there will be no kava today. The man who makes it is not back until tomorrow.” Yeah, right. Sorry, Michael, but that’s bullshit. Kava is a way of life in Vanuatu … there’s no way you don’t have kava. But it was our first kava-free night for my whole time in Vanuatu.
Next thing, the women (armed with the promised kero lamps) were back with dinner, this time chicken stew, rice, banana lap-lap and yams. And what better to have with it than a bottle of Château Belles Eaux Fûts de Chêne, a tasty red we’d grabbed the night before at the supermarket and a snip at about 12 bucks. It was a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Carignan.
Then the following conversation happened. “Did anyone bring a corkscrew?” “No, nah, nup.” “Shit, I’ll have to push in the cork.”
I always travel with a Swiss Army knife with a corkscrew, but not this time. I did, however, have my Swiss Army mega tool, with pliers, screwdrivers, blades, hacksaw, wood saw and a partridge in a pear tree.
“I’ll make a corkscrew,” said Liam, who then took a round thing off his keys and proceeded to, well, make a corkscrew. A bloody good corkscrew it was too. Its one shortcoming was that it shredded the cork. Nought to do but to push it in carefully and slowly. Yeah, right. He may have been impatient for the fruit of the vine and pushed a little too quickly. As a result, the first wine into his being was via his eyes, a stinging and none too pleasant experience.
Eventually we enjoyed the dinner and wine, despite the fact that lots of flies and more than a few mozzies got up close and personal and this time just two village dogs visited.
Sleep came pretty easily (we gave the beach fire a miss), courtesy of the waves hammering the beach, but lasted until just after 1am when one of the kids decided she’d rather be with mum.
No matter, it was a chance to ease out some of the excesses of the day … peeing on the beach is very liberating … before settling back into zed territory, which for me was interrupted by a small lizard tickling my feet. Ah, the joys of sleeping on the floor.
The village came to life at 5.15 just as we were snoozing.
And it came to life with a bang … OK, a six-or-so-year-old boy playing badly what may have been Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells with a piece of metal pipe belting an old gas bottle. There were lots of other kids whooping and yelling. Jesus wept, no one slept.
Liam, who speaks and understands a fair bit of Bislama, conveyed the message that perhaps the kid could keep the Tubular Bells to a dull roar.
For me, sleep or bed just wasn’t an option, so I did something I haven’t done in years. I got up at about 5.40. Jesus was still reaching for the tissues.
What followed was an amazingly pleasant experience. I rolled a smoke and just watched the village unfold into life as the sun eased its way upwards.
Women in brightly coloured dresses, carrying babies and woven mats, wandered around looking for shady spots into which they could sit their pickaninnies.
An old woman in a bright blue dress was bent at right angles and sweeping the path outside her house. I’m not sure that the sweeping wasn’t detrimental to her brightly coloured washing that was hanging on a cord and providing a bright contrast to the mostly rusted galvanised iron that was the side of her house.
Chooks and dogs mixed freely, oblivious to each other’s company, in search of anything that would pass muster for breakfast.
A pleasant breeze found its way through gaps in the palm frond wall that was all separating me from the already hot sun as I watched men wander around looking for a comfortable spot that was probably going to be their home for the better part of the day.
Kids played by throwing stones or sticks, and then picked them up and threw them again.
Life is pretty simple and really enjoyable, given the laughter from the kids.
Not so for me, however. My most arduous task was to separate the cigarette papers (OK it was a problem last night too), which had become one thanks to the excessive humidity.
Just after seven o’clock, one of the men from the village wandered over and asked if we were ready for breakfast. A bit early, I told him. “Everyone else is still trying to sleep.” No matter, he said, I’ll come back later.
I finally managed to split some papers and get a gasper rolled. It was coming up for 7.30 and I thought that I may as well get a start with breakfast.
A cold stubby of Tusker was the preferred choice. A good choice it was, too. It was refreshing and anyway, it was at least 11 o’clock somewhere in the world.
It was great company as I watched tiny hermit crabs wander around the crushed coral patch that surrounded our blue welcome mat. Skinks,too, darted hither and tither looking for something other than hermit crabs that may be fair game.
My idyllic watching was interrupted by Dan’s mock horror at me having a beer. “You’re kidding, aren’t you,” she said.
Pretty soon the rest of the troops were up and about to face the day. I reckon they’d missed almost the best part of it.
Breakfast arrived and it was worth the wait. Toast cooked on a griddle, fried slabs of plantain, chunks of freshly picked pawpaw and a cup of tea. It doesn’t get a lot better.
A chin wag, a smoke or two, a splash in the water later, it was time to pack our grip, organise Michael to get us a boat (11 o’clock was the appointed time and it arrived exactly at 11) and head home.
Settling the bill was the easy part. It was 30 bucks a head for the adults and 15 for the kids … and it was a boon for the village. The rule of thumb here is to multiply the dollar amount by 10, which means they got the equivalent of 1200 bucks.
On the way back, our boat dropped another family at the neighbouring island … their farewells and smiles were genuinely beautiful … and the next thing we were at the jetty again.
We loaded the back of the ute with our goodies. Liam and I say on a rusty 44-gallon drum for one last smoke before we hit the road. He sat there with his arm around my shoulder. For me it was a beautiful moment that I didn’t want to end.
But end it did and we headed off around the island with the plan to find a resort for the night for some upmarket R&R.
AIRLINE WATCHING ITS PENNIES
Air Vanuatu is a full-service airline. My previous trips on the carrier involved airline food that was actually good and decent wines.
It was interesting to note on the way over that during the meal service the plastic bag that housed the bread rolls was in fact a recycled party ice bag.
And the milk served with breakfast on the flight home was Coles home brand long-life milk.
SHOW US YOUR TATTS
Given that there was a $31 million Tatts draw on New Year’s eve, we did the right thing and tried to buy a ticket online.
I registered to be a Tatts member, but had a bullshit time trying to buy a ticket. I know that I’m a Luddite but I reckon the Tatts site is a bitch to negotiate. I gave up.
Dan then decided to register and have a crack. She had no problems getting them to take her money, but she used her mum’s NSW address …
It seems that Tatts rules dictate that people in NSW cannot buy a Tatts ticket online.