10/05/2013, Norsup Island, Malakula, Vanuatu
Well I can't ever say that Jon didn't inherit some very good fix-it skills from his dad because he managed to fix his bike last week! He cut the end off the stripped nut off with the Dremel, reversed it to expose the good threads and screwed it back on. It's temporary but so far it has held. It allowed us to do a great bike ride on Epi Island where we were passed by 1 pick-up truck during the 6 hours we were on "the road". We had anchored at Revolieu Bay on Epi which is a pretty & protected anchorage away from the swell for a change. The village was set next to a stream and the kids had elaborate rope swings for staying cool in the fresh water. Since we'd reeled in another mahi on the way over, we brought some fish & the skeleton in to the village, then strolled around. And the following day, we took our bike ride. The island is filled with old trees, cute villages, calm coves and steep hills in a few spots. Like the kind you can hardly walk up, let alone bike up. It was a great day and felt so good to be moving.
We've noticed that Ni-Vans sure do a lot of joking around & laughing. We can hear them quite well when we're out in the anchorage. I read about some survey done a few years ago that voted them the happiest people in the world. They certainly live in close quarters in some villages. Often they remind me of weekends at a campground. Everyone is outside at their "campsite" with their outdoor kitchens & communal sitting areas. We easily waved & said hi to a hundred people on our bike ride.
We checked out Lamen Bay for it's famed dugong (manatee) named Bondas who's reported to be really friendly but he wasn't in. We saw some sea turtles and did some so-so snorkeling but there wasn't much drawing us to stay there. No stores filled with produce like we were hoping for. On the last night, after dark, the island ferry named Big Sista came in and decided to pass about 3 feet off our bowsprit. Its a miracle our anchor chain wasn't sucked up into the prop. There were 3 boats in the anchorage and we were all startled. So we each put our deck lights on to be as bright as possible and then stayed up till the ferry left so that we could at least see if we were going to get clobbered. They passed much more reasonably on the way out, but still close enough so I could make out the banana tree on the stern. We found that Lamen Bay had some internet but it was just good enough to SEE you had emails but not good enough to actually READ any of them! We made friends with a New Zealand couple named Ocean Pearl in this anchorage. They'd bought their boat in Ft Lauderdale, sailed all the way up to Canada, then back down & across the Pacific. Now the boat lives in New Zealand. We haven't seen many cruising boats in this part of Vanuatu, so when you see some, it's usually cause for a happy hour together.
We were disappointed to find out that we aren't going to be able to do the popular volcano hike on the island of Ambrym because it is October, an important month for the sacred customs of the north. Hikers aren't permitted because according to our cruising guide & a local we spoke with, "the spirits are working to assure a good yam harvest during this season". Which brings up a few other inconveniences that we've noticed as we move north. The customs intensify and therefore, there are more restrictions. We need to check in with a chief for nearly every anchorage now. You may get permission from one to walk around or dive but then another will show up and say he owns the reef and you should have checked with him. Fiji was way more organized so you knew exactly what to do. There are many more taboo areas including certain men's only paths & other women's only paths and of course these aren't marked! So you're supposed to get a guide but we're generally not in to that. Vanuatu people are known for their beliefs in magic and scared things. I remember in Tanna, we spoke with a man who was responsible for using his sacred stones for controlling the weather. They'd been passed down to him. He could either hold off rain or bring it on as needed for their crops. We all felt like this would be a good thing for our passage to NZ next month- if it worked! On Tongoa, the chief related to us that the reason they hadn't had a cyclone in so many years is that some people can chew a special sacred leaf and then spit it into the wind in order to stave off the storm. Isn't it funny how different beliefs can be?
We're all taking malaria med since it's around but we haven't noticed much of any mosquitoes yet. It's so hard to remember to take a pill every day. But we do have Malarone and it's been exactly the same as taking nothing as far as side effects go. The water hasn't been as clear or the snorkeling as outstanding the past few days but it's supposed to improve further up. There are some dangerous bays that have a history of shark attacks so there's that to contend with. We always wonder how it can be that the shark attacks only happen in certain bays while ones only a few miles away are apparently OK. I just hope we get out of here without seeing any big sharks and I'll be happy. Although they say you rarely ever see the shark that gets you- very comforting.
From Epi, we sailed westward with Mark & Anne to the Maskelyne Islands off of Malakula. We anchored behind a cute little island named Awai with a shallow reef forming the end of the basin. Within minutes, dugout canoes began to materialize out of nowhere. They would paddle over to one of both of us and weren't bashful about getting right in to asking us for stuff. They ask us where we're from, then say "rich country". Well, we personally aren't rich but we are rich compared to them. But then, we can't help where we were born either and we did work for what we got. We can give some, but if we gave as much as they wanted, we wouldn't be able to afford to be here..... For the first time this trip, we felt like nothing more than a dollar sign. Tom, who paddled over from a neighboring village & was well spoken, proposed that his village was a kastom smol namba village and they could show us a dancing performance. He would also "show us" a good diving spot although we're pretty darn good at finding our own dive sites. He said he could also show us the dugongs. In a weak moment, we said "OK" and it was scheduled for the next day- Jon's birthday. It would be $5000Vatu for each couple or $55US for the dancing & for Tom to show us the dive site. That evening Mark & Anne had us over for dinner to celebrate a day early since we knew the next day would be full. We had a great evening, and we both showed a slide show of our past lives- them flying their plane out west and us backpacking & traveling around in the camper. Seeing those pictures really messed with my head.
The next day came and we moved the boats a few miles into the Uliveo anchorage to be near the village. It says it's a tight entrance with 2 shallow bars but at mid-tide, we never saw less than 10 feet. Once settled, a canoe came over with 2 guys in it. Very little to say, just talking among themselves, hanging around the boat waiting for something. We headed out in our dinghies to go see the dugongs. We saw several, but every time we got in the water to swim with them, they would disappear. Jon & I had such a great experience with them in the Crystal River, Florida, that it would be hard to top that but we were hoping. It ended up there were plenty in the anchorage and from the boat, you could see them pretty well and hear them snorting when they came up for a breath. Next was the dancing. It ended up being 4 men dancing & 1 man playing a slit drum rather than the village participating as is advertised in most spots- oh well. After 3 songs, they got Jon & Mark out there to "dance" for the last song but not before they painted them up with mud and gave them sticks to carry. Our pale skin sure doesn't look as good as the Ni-Vans do when painted up. The contrast is missing. The smol (small) nambas are the penis sheaths made of pandanus leaves that the men wear for kastom dancing. A picture is all that is needed here and I'll produce one at some point. We handed over the money immediately following thinking we should have known better to fall for this.
Immediately following the short dance, we went scuba diving to catch the high tide. The vis was just OK and the reef wasn't nearly as perfect as we've been seeing although we did find several new flatworms. When we finished, we were cold & sort of ready to be done but Tom urged us to come ashore for some kava, "it goes with the dancing; it's a welcome ceremony" he said, and we felt obliged. We get in there to the campsite village, and they sit us down and say that each cup is 100 vatu and then quietly say that it is customary for us to buy a round of kava for all the men. Customary where? First we've heard of this "custom" and we didn't want any anyway and they grow the kava themselves and we didn't even have any money on us, whatever!... Jon & Mark had a cup and then we got out of there. The next morning, 2 of them came paddling out to collect their money for the kava and they started asking for more stuff! Anne gave them 3 cans of food and they offered her a papaya. She gladly accepted it thinking it was an exchange but then they said: "200 Vatu" ($2). Meanwhile papayas are dropping from trees all around in Vanuatu, there are so many. People just give them to us all the time. How infuriating. One good thing about being the smaller boat, we don't get bothered as much as Mark & Anne do. Everybody heads for the big white boat first!
So... we had a nice time together as we always do but really, this place was the worst of Vanuatu in our book. It reminded me of parts of the Caribbean, things I haven't seen in all of the Pacific and it casts a very big shadow on this area. Whatever you give, it's never enough so the whole encounter was negative on both sides. We have decided that the response to where we're from will now be "Gibooblia, It's a small country over near Canada." Here is something from the Jason's Vanuatu Visitor's Guide that I find interesting. There are a group of people on Tanna island who live in two different" John Frum" villages. One of them was over near the volcano we biked around and we had planned to visit it but we got sidetracked by the soot. The book says: "They worship a figure named John Frum who is claimed to be returning from the USA at some point with worldly goods to give to them. The villagers celebrate John's impending return on Friday nights with music & dancing. Visitors are welcome."
Well this answers it! Perhaps my wonderful Jon is THE John Frum and the people here think he's arrived! Needless to say, we vacated Uliveo as fast as we could the next morning and sailed all day to distance ourselves from it both mentally & physically. It was a lovely sail.
09/29/2013, Epi Island, Vanuatu
I suppose if you're not a diver, you would find our lives pretty boring right now since that's how we're spending most of our time lately. But we only have a few weeks left of the season so we've gotta get it all in! We tucked into an anchorage in Havannah Harbor off the coast of Efate for the weather system that passed and everything worked out. It dragged it's heels a little bit getting there but that allowed us an extra day to play around in the water. First we went trolling in the dinghy along with Jan Bart off Victory. He is an expert fisherman & we're little sponges trying to soak up all we can from him. We came from the deep into the shallows and I felt like the dinghy was shaking a little. The reel hadn't budged but we thought maybe it had gotten stuck on the bottom as we putted along. I got in the water to free it, but it turned out we had a grouper on it & it swam into a hole with our lucky lure. All three of us dove down to help free the fish, and save the lure. We let it go since groupers have ciguatera- we know! Then, we just anchored the dinghy and poked around snorkeling for quite a while. It' so fun to just swim along looking for things and there was no one around anywhere; so peaceful.
The next day, the barometer plummeted and it rained & blew 40 kt gusts for the morning but then the system passed and the sun came back out. My kind of bad weather! We used the morning to fix some things on the boat and I got heavy in to pressure cooking 2 different types of beans. Like bread & pie crusts, I haven't mastered beans yet. They never really soften up no matter how long I cook them. Well anyway, now we're sick of them for a while so I can start all over in a few weeks when we get "in the mood" for them again. We settled into a long game of dominoes on Victory for the rest of the day.
On the sail over to Emae island, something big hit our lure, then took the entire line and oh yes, we lost the lure we'd saved 2 days before. No more Big Mac, chapter closed. We stopped at a day anchorage on Cook Reef to do a dive but it was so rolly we felt uncomfortable descending and not being able to keep an eye on the boats so we just snorkeled. It was OK but we weren't in the right place for the "spectacular diving" we'd read about and we knew we wanted to get out of there in good light so we all hauled anchor and continued on to Emae.
Emae is a relatively small island that doesn't see very many sailors. The 6 of us did a long walk to explore it and met several very friendly islanders. We met several chiefs from neighboring villages that were attending a meeting, when we passed by the school we met a bunch of the kids, and then we met 3 guys on the road that reached out to us with a handful of some kind of fresh nut that they'd just harvested from a tree. They were holding the nuts in part of a banana leaf, using it as a bowl. They tasted similar to almonds and were very good. The guys couldn't speak much English but still, the whole encounter was so warm. These people really live off the land. They're happy & have tight family groups. I'm amused at the homemade toys that the kids have to play with. We've seen a stick with a ski shaped piece of palm stuck through one end that the kids push along on the dirt road, I've seen two half coconut shells with holes drilled in the center and string tied through each hole. The kid holds the strings up in each hand while standing on the coconut halves and walk around on them like shoes and it kindof sounds like a horse. We've seen sticks with coconuts used for wheels and volleyball "nets" made from pieces of vine tied together. I wish I could be the bearer of new toys for them but so far I've only ever given colored pencils and similar. I need to stock the boat up with balls and group outdoor toys. Vanuatu has a very wild feeling to me, the most remote country we've been in. At first I was reeling from our experiences in Fiji and now, like a guy said on the radio net this morning, each island that we visit here just gets better & better in a way. The diving certainly has, but also something in our thinking has too, perhaps just perspective. Anyway, we had a great walk and then jumped in the water afterward for a snorkeling expedition that lasted until almost sunset. That's when all the creatures are starting to come out for the night. We saw a very curious octopus, with the last of the sun's rays shining right into his hole, so you could see everything he did. If we backed away, he'd stick his head up like a periscope to see if the coast was clear. We're all finding so many flatworms & nudibranches now it's funny. One was bright pink looking like a piece of chewed bubble gum, others look like ribbon candy.
Yesterday, we left Emae to sail over to another island named Tongoa, famous for..... you guessed it: DIVING and after a lot of whining about how we'll probably not catch any more fish ever again, Jon reeled in a bull mahi. It's great to have the fish, sad to take it though. It bit the pink squid so I guess maybe we won't starve after all.
We've come to know that in both Fiji & Vanuatu, the local people value the skeleton and head of any fish we get. They've said time again that that is the best part of the fish to them. Since they don't have boats or gear to get the ocean fish, they appreciate these from the cruisers. So, we made an appoint to bring in the remains of the fish after Jon filleted it. They were happy as ever to get it. He tried first to explain that we'd caught it on the way here and would they like to have it, but the guys he met on the beach didn't speak English. So he gestured with the bag of fish holding it toward them. Their eyes lit up, they said tank yu tumas and then headed up toward the village right away. It felt good, like nothing would go to waste. What he should have said was "yu wantem?" and he would've been understood right away since that is Bislama.
We did 2 dives on the North wall of Tongoa. It was written in the cruising books as an awesome spot and it was! Pictures are what is needed here but sorry, no internet. It was so great to finally do a wall after not having many opportunities lately. I love to look out into the blue for big fish. The reef was PACKED with life and color. It doesn't seem possible that all that could be real. There seems to be every shape, texture and color present. When we first descended, we were all piling up on the same spot, waiting to show each other things we've found. I've never seen so many large cowries, sometimes 3 in a crevice on the wall. It always makes me think I'm in an Easter egg hunt- these shiny, perfect shells just sitting there slightly hidden in a little indentation or among a soft coral. Fascinating diving and it is so addictive.
But then tonight was our last night with Victory since they're heading to New Caledonia this season, then to Australia while we're saving it for next season so we have more time in Vanuatu. We had one last happy hour on Blue Rodeo all together and then said our goodbyes. I find that this is by far the most painful part of cruising. Intense friendships develop & then inevitably, you must part since everyone has their own agenda & dreams. With any luck, we'll run into them again someday. In sailing circles, it surely isn't out of the question.
Tomorrow we'll head off to the next island- Epi along with Blue Rodeo. It's supposed to have the manatees. It'll be weird to not have Victory on our tail pushing us to sail as fast as we can since that's what we've been doing lately- so fun. Maybe we'll relax instead and pick up a book for a change! But I don't think so.
Lukim yu! (goodbye)
09/20/2013, Lelapa Island, Vanuatu
We had a splendid time in Port Vila, but we've since split. As usual, it was great to get there, then after a week, it was great to leave. Most cruising boats pick up a mooring in the inner harbor from Yachting World Marina. It was a really friendly marina and a good hub. When we were checking in at the office, I casually looked at the bulletin board with all the cruiser's boat cards pinned up, accumulated over the years and wouldn't you know, my eyes fixed on our friend's card- Mark & Judy from Windbird. They passed through here in 2006. It made me think about how in some places, years can go by and it's like time stands still. It looked like the pin was just stuck in that card last week.
We accomplished most of what we intended while in Port Vila. Amazingly, we found the correct size Powercoils (threaded inserts) in order to fix the stripped out screws on the staysail furler, I slopped on some varnish, we got the groceries, propane, laundry, fuel & various other items we needed and we did some small maintenance projects. Prior to 1980 when Vanuatu gained independence, it was ruled by both the French & the British in a unique "Condominium" style government. This helps us because the French influence made for French grocery stores that are leaps & bounds better than the usual. So, we were able to get things we've been missing like artichokes, fancy mushrooms, dry sausage, cornmeal, wheat flour, brown rice and paper coffee filters! A few of us went shopping together and at one point Richard, Mark & Jon were all standing near the checkout with the carts waiting for us girls to finish shopping. Jon showed them the 13% chocolate granola cereal he's been getting & said it was really good. So Mark holds up his 11% chocolate and decides 13 is better, so he slinks over to the cereal isle and gets some for the cart, then Richard said he already put some in the cart but Ali took it back out again. So he goes back over and grabs some more & puts it in the cart. Normally, this wouldn't even be an option, but the French love their chocolate for breakfast. There was also a wonderful pastry shop with great eclairs. Needless to say, we indulged some!
The produce market was the best ever also. There were the usual horizontal bodies gracing the stalls but there were tons of alert vendors ready to sell you their stuff at great prices. We were able to get fresh herbs & a type of raspberry, which was something new. There was a lot of prepared local food available as well which was nice to see but we didn't feel like eating any of it.
We looked around for souvenirs but didn't see anything that jumped out at us. They do get cruise ships in Port Vila so we had to share the city with a lot of tourists at times. Perusing a shop one day, a lady storekeeper says to Jon "you're not off a cruise ship are you?" I guess we look a little brown & faded? I hope that's all! I know we're certainly not cold anymore. We've come 3 degrees north so far as we move up the island chain. It's funny what a difference it makes. Vanuatu produces wood carvings, the women so some basket weaving & make colorful clothes and there is the usual shell jewelry. That's pretty much what we've seen so far.
We found some really nice biking at Port Vila which was great until the second time when we got about 25km outside the town on a lonely county road & Jon's back tire popped. The spare tube was.... in the dinghy of course! We still think that these things won't happen to us. But no problem, we just walked a couple miles out to a busier part of the road and a very nice man gave us a ride all the way back to the marina in air conditioned comfort! We were able to buy a new tire the following day but not the special 10.5mm new screw we need to replace the one that's stripped out now from changing the tire so no more bikes. One minute you have something & then the next you don't! It's such a bummer since we're always amazed at how much ground we can cover on bikes. Plus, we had big plans for the upcoming islands with lots of recommendations for trails. So we did some hot walks to see the sights such as the cultural museum & some monuments but nothing was a standout.
After a week, our little group of three (Victory & Blue Rodeo) headed out fully stocked & ready for some clear water & diving. We anchored in a cove a few miles away from Port Vila at a dive site called Paul Reef. It turned out to be a great dive with really tame fish since some of the dive boats feed them. We had our own pet grouper for the duration, following us around with his mouth open. We have such a good dynamic diving together. Everyone is calm in the water & good on air so we have long, relaxing dives just poking around taking pictures and looking for stuff.
The following day, we moved a few more miles to where we are now- Lelapa Island. It was a little tricky getting into the anchorage since there's a lot of coral all around but once we got settled, it became obvious that this place is a jewel. We discovered a knock your socks off dive yesterday with deep swim-through canyons full of soft corals & bannerfish. It's like something out of a fairytale with all of the pink, purple & peach colored frilly corals and multicolored fish. The water clarity was outstanding. Some people have told us that Vanuatu's diving wasn't as good as Fiji but this is so not true for us! We think it's been fantastic! Now the internet, that leaves a lot to be desired so no pictures for a while until we get to someplace that has it.
We met Rubin, the chief & his wife Narry who live on the island & operate a little day tour business. Guests can come from the mainland to this island for snorkeling, to see a cave & have a look at an old WWII plane wreck. We went ashore to introduce ourselves & ended up doing these things also. Devil's cave was interesting as you can walk in about 60 meters. It was filled with small bats. The plane was nothing more than a pile of twisted aluminum but the trail to get to it was nice. Rubin brought each boat a few grapefruit and we in turn gave him a few items for trade and then yesterday, after Jon & I took a long walk following a trail on the island, we came back to the dinghy to find they'd prepared a box of shells and fruit for each boat as a farewell since we're leaving today. This has been an absolutely beautiful spot for diving and it's great to feel so welcome. Even looking out toward the cliff walls on shore is lovely, especially with the light of the full moon we've had recently. The six of us shared a great dinner aboard Victory a couple of nights ago & finished it with a late round of dominoes. We've spent so many fine days together I can't count. This morning, there's a school of squid under the boat. The water is so clear I can see all the fish swimming on the bottom- my kind of anchorage.
But we're leaving today to find more shelter from a low pressure system that's headed this way. We just have to decide where.