Luk luk, plei plei, tok tok

Yup, look, play, talk.  That pretty much sums up Santo.  More Santo here.


Champagne Beach – 3rd best beach in the world according to CNN (
so it must be true, right?)


World’s coolest pikininis? Quite possibly

Boys. Anywhere. Any age.  Same story.


Loru Conservation Park in Santo – the walk was decisive until we realised the things flying about above us were flying foxes …
    
Blurry shot marks the realisation that the coconuts FALL off the tree. Near miss.

Emerging victorious: fresh coconut juice, it’s hard to go past

Dirty work

It was 4.30am when a polyphonic ringtone pierced the silence.

Sleepy and apprehensive, I weighed up the possibilities.  I could: a) get up to do the Piste Bleue, a 28 kilometre walk that Toby, Bec and I had signed up for or b) go back to sleep and enjoy a leisurely wake-up at a respectable hour.

The answer would have been simple, but with an excited husband and friend who was also enduring a rude awakening, the Piste Bleue seemed to be my only option.

This is 4.30am in Vila.  Jolted awake by my trusty digicel mobile complete with polyphonic ringtone..who needs an iphone, hey? 

Close to a thousand people gathered before dawn as organisers registered and branded runners and walkers alike.  The elderly, teenagers and Japanese people wearing jeans converged at the starting point, eagerly awaiting the siren.

    

Branded and ready to go. I started to wonder why they were at pains to identify us all so carefully….I soon worked it out.

The French MC welcomed us in an almost seamless mix of French, English and Bislama.

“There will be six sexpoints on La Piste Bleue,” he declared. The crowd responded with uncontrollable fits of laughter.

Realising his mistake he clarified.

“Ch-eck points.  I mean check points…anyway bonne journée. Enjoy your bush,” he said, unaware that the gag continued.

We were off.  Barefoot runners streaked past us as we began our walk, bleary eyed and well-prepared with first aid materials, water and walking shoes.  Swept up in the crowd of ni-Van people with little more than thongs and giant smiles we became painfully aware of how precious westerners can be.

The first signs of sunlight soaked the trees and paddocks in a pale yellow.  Suddenly the early start became a small price to pay.  lluminated paddocks, glistening paw paw trees and a silvery sky that hinted at a beautiful day.

Yup, they’re SOCKS, and over to the right they are THONGS.  We soon learned we were the ones who were crazy…turns out toes give the best grip on muddy tracks.

    

A woman and her pikinini made it up that hill at break neck speed. Kitted out with all the mod cons we were a little less hasty.

At the edges of the track locals gathered to laugh at the people who were walking 28 kilometres for fun.  We found it funny too until the silvery sky we’d admired so much gave way to a torrential downpour. Within minutes we were soaked and the clay paths became a slippery, sloppy mess.  As it turned out that was the least of our worries. Barbed wire, river crossings and a pseudo-abseiling episode were just part of the journey.

As I grappled with the rope and slowly edged my way down a slippery ravine, I heard the cheeky laughter of my husband.  A moment later he shot through the bushes sliding on his bum, narrowly missing the shocked safety officer.  Needless to say he got to the bottom first.

You know you’re in trouble when the ambulance gets bogged…3 times.  Particularly when you are the patient in the back being rescued.

I laughed until my stomach hurt.  This was no City to Surf.  We jumped, climbed, waded, dodged and scrambled our way along the muddy track.  It was all a bit barmy but so much fun.

By the seventh hour conversation had died and aches had set in.  Visions of food were our only fuel.  A steakburger with bacon.  Hand cut chips. A wine. It was a sign that maybe gatorade, muesli bars and lollies were not the breakfast of champions.

Hungry, muddy and sore we turned the final corner and arrived – close to 8 hours after leaving – at our final sexpoint, I mean, checkpoint.

Into the wild

I think we were talking about the weather when a colleague calmly worked into conversation that 60 children had been missing for 5 days in the Efate mountains.  I was a little taken aback.  Um, kids roaming around in the jungle and everyone is ok with that? After a daring rescue that included one helicopter and 20 air lifts the youth group arrived safely back in Vila to a remarkably non-plussed public.

I don’t know about you, but I have a pretty active imagination. A slight bout of turbulance can leave me mapping out my escape route, selecting potential buddies (we’ve all seen Lost: there are some people you just don’t want to be stuck with on an island…) and thinking of which items to smuggle off as the hosties bark “leave everything”.  So what would you do if you were stuck in the jungle of Efate?

The answer I came up with was eat.  In the newspaper they said the youth had survived on fruit and coconuts after exhausting their rations.  It made me think of the recent walk Toby and I did with a local guide.  We were keen for some exercise so we met with Henry, a ni-Van guy who is the equivalent of a Kalahari bushman.

Machete in hand, Henry led the charge as we descended into the thick humid jungle.

This is his tough face.  I purposely didn’t include the photo of him handing Toby a dainty sliver of grapefruit, it didn’t go with our idea of the hardened jungle warrior…

We walked for about 20 minutes before Henry darted off into the bushes, emerging with a handful of the most incredible berries.  That was the beginning of our bounty….coconuts, sweet grapefruit (who knew?), paw paw…a decisive slice of the machete was all it took.

Organic fresh fruit coupled with the most extraordinary scenery…starting to see why the public had so little sympathy for the kids? The water was so pure you could drink it, and the local vegetation was a handy mix of functional and delicious.

Toby sporting a bush umbrella, a giant leaf that is said to be the best way of combatting tropical downpours.

Even I could give Bear Grylls a run for his money in this environment.  No poisonous snakes, no lethal spiders, no deadly sharks.  They say the jungle is so safe you can walk barefoot (bear in mind they also say you can sell fireworks to kids…).  We paddled in a clear rockpool, explored untouched caves and hiked up sun drenched mountains dotted with brightly coloured fresh fruits.  It was so much like a postcard I had to  keep pinching myself.

Now I’m not saying children stranded on a mountain is akin to hiking with a seasoned guide, but I do see where everyone was coming from.  Organic fruit, fresh water and warm weather.  If you are going to be stranded anywhere the Vanuatu jungle is a pretty good option.

The race that stops a nation

Wading through mud has become a bit of a past-time in this tropical paradise.  See, what they don’t tell you about tropical islands, is that they rain. All the time.

Race day was no exception.  The tropical downpour the day before had prepped the track, and left the dirt road leading to the Races a sodden mess. The result was pretty funny.  A cavalcade of 1980’s taragos and nissan urvans braving the muddy track and carrying 10,000 Vila locals to what would be, we were assured, “the day of the year”.

 

Recent experience had left me skeptical. In the past three weeks I’ve been on a bus where the door fell off, narrowly missing women and children, then was locked inside another bus until 2 men and an elderly woman were able to break the lock.  Despite this we managed to arrive in one piece.  A little muddy, but all ok.

I’m happy to report race day did live up to expectations.   With an average of four horses in each race (and odds of four to one for every horse…) it made betting pretty simple, and gave us time to focus on the important things: people watching.  Families came from all over the island with picnic gear in hand. Pikininis darted between picnic mats, people and horses while mamas unpacked a never-ending supply of food (most of which was lap lap).  We went for the easy option, sharking the food stalls and placing a bet on the final race.

 

 

The trusty form guide: race 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 5.  Um, anyone see a problem….

Thanks to a mis-print in the form guide and my trusty name selection method we backed a winner (Mystic? No. Onyx.  Ooh, I like that.  Technical, huh?).  With a princely sum of 1600VT or $16 Australian in our pockets we headed home for a gin by the bay.  All in all it was pretty a spectacular way to end what was “the day of the year”.

Raw food and rice paddies in Ubud

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Ok, so now I admit it. I TOTALLY get Ubud (minus the yoga pants: they continue to be a point of contention with me…)

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Just us and the European tourists – we were the ones with crinkled clothes

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I will never speak another bad word against raw food: COCONUT BACON…no really! 

Ubud: the quest for zen

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It was expletive #63 when I realised I had a problem.  With sweat dribbling down my neck and my eyes burning with car fumes I had to take a cold hard look at myself.  Was I missing something?

This holiday was meant to be many things. A fresh start. A moment of zen. The beginning of a virtuous path of yoga, raw food and all things healthy. Yet there I was, standing in the centre of Ubud in a traffic jam, surrounded by throngs of pious looking Europeans wearing yoga pants.

How exactly did I get there? And perhaps more importantly, how the f&*$ could I get out?

I’d spent years avoiding Bali, chortling at the prospect of braids and bintang t-shirts. Yet after two days in Seminyak I had eaten humble pie – incredible food, luscious cocktails and boutiques that could make even the non-shopper turn. So, what would Ubud, the place synonymous with tranquility, health and zen deliver? The expectations were high. Tripadvisor’s endorsement even higher. It seemed inevitable that this would be the romantic getaway we needed.

As I stood on the pavement confused and groggy a small child looked up at me and smiled…as he urinated between the cracks in the pavement.  At that moment I knew. My salvation was clear.

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Ubud Starbucks: quiet and relaxing. I thought that was the point of holidaying in Ubud??

Yoga pants and virtuous eating just aren’t my thing. And this may make me a total nerd but I don’t really get Ubud.  Why does everyone look so serene when the traffic is in gridlock and hawkers barter with you at every turn? Why is everyone wearing Lorna Jane and hippy clothes in public? And why, oh wh-yyy will noone eat cooked food.

Brandishing my Starbucks bag I knew I had visited the most serene place in Ubud. Empty, air conditioned and quiet.  Right at that moment a Dutch woman grabbed me with glee, screeching “Staaaa-bucks – wee-aa?”

I had found my zen in Ubud. It just wasn’t quite what I was expecting.

More on Ubud

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Yup, doesn’t get more ironic: Starbucks Ubud

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Snakeskin fruit: Lychee and garlic’s lovechild

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Ubud: Bali’s art centre

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Finally, serenity in Ubud, a villa in the middle of the jungle. NOW I get it…