When you’re popping pills to ward off protozoan parasites, that’s when you know you’re really traveling. I’m walking along a narrow path, and now the jungle has closed in around me, but the kids are still everywhere. Ciccio has one hanging off the index finger of his right hand, she looks to be perhaps three, but that tiny little hand is holding tight, and she’s keeping up with the older ones.
Andrea has about a dozen more following him close, their arms all reaching up toward him like branches. He blows up another balloon— ties it off…hands it to the next kid. You’d think he’d just handed the kid a brand new smart phone.The late day sun fills the balloons with light, and the orange, pink, and yellow plastic bubbles are glowing and bouncing along as the kids sprint through the jungle all around us.
The little pirates were on the beach when we arrived. We motored in slow through a gap in the reef. Mindful of the tide, we anchored the tender offshore— waded in. For some reason the coral isn’t so slippery when it’s covered by sea, but at low tide it’s slick as ice. Just a few boys goofing off with machetes when we first reached solid ground. One was perhaps five, and the kid’s wielding a long blade that looks very much like an old cutlass— sharp as hell too.
He’d been chopping open coconuts. The older ones had been too— they were all armed. Not an ounce of adult supervision in sight either. One kid’s gnawing at the sweet meat from inside a chunk of husk, using his perfect looking teeth to great affect— that coconut had no chance against him.
“What’s your name?” They all want to know as soon as you show up. And for the rest of your visit they will be calling to you by name— and you’re expected to answer back too because they’ve all introduced themselves already. These machete swinging kids are quite polite. There’s AJ, and Willie, Pascal, and Marvin—about a dozen more that I didn’t quite catch. Over there is Stephanie, and little Sarah who’s wearing a tattered teeshirt with a sequined pink flamingo on the front. I ask her if she knows that it’s a flamingo— to her it’s something completely different.
It wasn’t like this in New Caledonia. Sailing into Citron Bay after our passage from Brisbane, we dropped anchor amongst a dozen other yachts. That night we went into shore dressed for French dining, had a choice of a dozen restaurants— all with a wine list. But perhaps a stop at the club first? The club was already pumping by sunset. Ibiza style lounge music was going. Patrons relaxed on the beach amongst the palms, sat on chic furnishings— we had passion fruit mojitos.
When we arrived in Port Vila, Vanuatu, the first thing we did was visit the capital city’s huge open market. That’s another hint that you’re really traveling—the market. The one in New Cal was lovely. The language there is French—always… And the place is modern, spotless, and well organized— tourists feel at home… We make landfall in Vanuatu, and right away you notice the smell of the place— smells like wet jungle.
I’m walking through the crowded stalls, in between a jumble of rough-sawn tables loaded down with fruits and vegetables I do not recognize. People speak mostly dialect here, a sort of pigeon English with a lot of co-opted foreign words mixed in. But I think there’s somewhere in the neighborhood of one hundred distinct languages spoken in Vanuatu. All of them seem to be going strong here in the market. People are friendly though, everyone wants to do business. I buy an armload of freshly cut jungle flowers, heliconias and ginger in all sizes and colors— I pay the equivalent of three euros.
You can eat well in New Caledonia— very well…but it’ll cost you. It’s easy to spend a thousand euros provisioning here and that’s just for the basics. A night out will cost you the same as if you were in Nice during high season. Vanuatu is only 300 nautical miles away, but it might as well be Jupiter. Provisioning the boat here costs maybe fifty euros…yeah— I’m not kidding. The quality is excellent, and everything’s fresh— nothing imported, nothing packaged.
“Come stai!” No, the kids aren’t asking “how are you!” in Italian. Even though they pronounce the words perfectly as if they’d been taught by an Italian speaker. In their dialect, come stai, means “Run with me!” But more than that— run very fast! There’s no way to know how these words slipped into the local lingo in the way that they did, but forget about trying to teach them what you believe to be correct… This is their turf—they make the rules.
This morning we raised anchor and now we’re sailing to a new island. We just saw a whale—its massive tail rolling up above the sea. She showed herself twice before letting off a big blow and disappearing again. Most likely a humpback, they migrate through with their new calves this time of year. Earlier we watched a pod of spinner dolphins—perhaps twenty or so. Then there was the dugong, probably the most gentle sea mammal in existence—a cow with flippers. The crew has put out the gennaker, and we’re just sailing along at a pleasing, lazy pace in nine knots of breeze—the day is clear.
We can see all of the major islands on a day like this, but in reality, this is a misleading observation on my part, because Vanuatu is an archipelago nation containing 85 islands. They’re mountainous here— rising up from the sea, they surround us with deep green cloaks of jungle. Looking out with the binos, there’s hardly any trace of humanity visible other than the occasional cell tower. You only get Edge out here—forget about 3G. This place is hardly changed from the days of Captain Cook. The native culture still maintains its traditional structure—islands are governed by a network of chiefs. When you visit, its expected that you bring a small gift…maybe a few—pay your respects.
This is a garden of eden, but like the little kid brandishing his cutlass— Vanuatu’s innocence has a sharp edge to it. Each cyclone season, these islands get hammered. Vanuatu takes more direct hits than any of the other Pacific island groups. A dead giveaway is that lush jungle that covers everything—jungles like rain. You’ll notice that homes are often built from recycled materials here—not so much because people are too poor to afford more expensive materials, but because after the blow, its easier to collect up the bits and pieces—nail it all back together again.
These islands contain a number of active volcanos. I can see a big one from where I stand on deck—it’s venting a cloud of ash. That night we watch as it glows orange like a beacon, but not steady, more like it’s breathing.They have earthquakes here too, and there’s a volcano on one of the southern islands that has a giant, gurgling lava pit—tourists love to go there.
I’m still thinking about the kids on the beach though— so fearless. They’d captured a small wild pig from the forest— had it tethered to a tree by one leg. Next thing I see them all eating carambola fruit—fresh, and sweet, and the juice is running down their chins. When they get hungry they just pick something off a tree. There’s a tiny church at the center of the village, but school is three kilometers away in another village—they walk.
Ciccio is handing out cookies and candy to the kids. He has them all in his pocket too— the kids, not the goodies. Before each round of treats gets handed out, Ciccio tells them they must all sing a song together— or do a dance. They’re giggling away during the dance portion, but their singing is marvelous. When it’s time to go, we start for the beach, and the goodbyes last all the way out to the tender. A couple of the braver ones have climbed in with us—they evaluate the RIB, scrutinize the outboard— compliment us on our fine choice of fishing vessel.
Andrea kicks over the outboard, and now the kids are all running back to the beach— their bare feet skipping over the slick, sharp coral like it was carpet. They’re still waving as we motor out of sight— what a magical place this is…
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