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”.

Lost in translation

Learning bislama has been an interesting experience: it excites and stupifies in equal amounts.  While initially I thought I had this pidgin language (English and French) in the bag, I’m beginning to realise that I am very far from holding a basic conversation without embarassing  and/or disgracing myself.

The thing I love and hate about bislama is its sheer functionality.  What is the word for piano you ask?  Try this:

a black fala box we igat black teeth, hemi gat white teeth you faetem hard I singout…

Lyrical isn’t it?  The thing is there’s a whole new complexity when you have limited nouns, even fewer adjectives and virtually no tenses.  It means you really have to read people – something that can be really hard when you are from a different culture.

The other day we were travelling into town in one of the work cars.  I insisted on sitting in the back so that one of the boys could sit in the front (common rule in Australia: long legs equals front seat priority).  He looked blankly at me, said “I stret” then took the seat.  Later, a French friend said that I had to sit in the front seat on the way home.  He said I’d made the guy uncomfortable by sitting in the back.  You see people in Vanuatu hate conflict.  While “I stret” means it’s good or it’s fine and he had a blank look on his face, he didn’t give me an enthusiastic response.  That was my sign that he was in fact, very uncomfortable.

So, I guess all in all I am still a very long way from understanding both the language and the silent politics of this place.  But I’m trying.  Of all the lessons to date, I have learned a few that are helping alot:

1. When in doubt, just add blong.  It may sound silly, but in bislama it makes a world of sense.

2. Try. Then try again.  The more you try speaking bislama, the more people appreciate it.  They also normally pretend that what you said made perfect sense in bislama (although they were paying particular attention to your hand gestures at the time…)

3. When your husband refers to you as “woman blong mi” he isn’t being a jackass. That’s the official term.

4. Feel like you want to emphasise just how strongly you feel about something?  Just add “full speed no brakes”, yup, “mi likem full speed no brakes”…

5. Tone is infinitely important here.  Like this little pearler (below).  In Australia this would be a derogatory term, but in Vanuatu this is what it is.  A bikini top is quite simply a basket blong titi.  It’s hard to argue with really…