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FOF This Date In History – Thanksgiving in Vanuatu

Ramen and baked beans. That was our Thanksgiving 2009 dinner menu. So what are we thankful for this time around? Real food and great family. On this date last year, we dove a shipwreck, called an oceanside motel home, and Ash vomited after drinking the Vanuatuan traditional kava drink . Not your typical Thanksgiving to say the least.

Click here for our Thanksgiving 2009 post:

Remember this short film we put together last year? Yikes.

Happy Thanksgiving, beware the triptafen!

- Greg & Ash

Rest for the Travel Weary… Vanuatu

Overnight bus schedule quizzes, Spanish/Portuguese vocabulary exams, and meteorology tests were near daily experiences in South America.  Time for a slowdown.  Enter lazy beach days, cuddly pets, and the warm sun of Vanuatu.  No brainbusters here.

Paradise CoveLet’s face it.  Any island, whether it be the Caribbean or the African East Coast, is expensive.  Particularly for backpackers.  Remoteness has a price and the South Pacific is no different.  After intensive research via the World Wide Web (Internet) we reckoned the Blue Pango Motel was our preferred inexpensive option.  But not before electronic mail messaging (Email) the South Korean proprietor and negotiating a reduced rate based on our seven day stay.  Solomon (Blue Pango owner) even provided a lift from the smallish international airport (saved us $30).  Driving through the bush of Efate (Vanuatu’s main island, though not the largest), provided ample evidence of the tourist economy.  Resorts abutting squatter settlements and once fertile farmland now on the sales block for development.  Alas, we pulled down a gravel driveway, approached the ten unit motel, and saw the blue water crashing along the rocky shore.  So it wasn’t a five star resort, but it was on the Pacific Ocean, was serviced daily, and had the necessary cooking equipment.  Oh, and the premises was outfitted with furry animals that made our stay oh so memorable.

Surise at Blue PangoWe dropped our backpacks in Unit #7 and politely asked for a small loan of coins from Solomon to get to the local grocer.  Knowing that restaurants were obscenely priced for a vagabond’s budget, we had grand plans on how to spend the money saved by cooking most meals ourselves.  $250 later at the checkout, we weren’t so sure.  The cost of pasta, onions, bananas, ramen, baked beans, flank steak, cleaning supplies, pancake mix, eggs, cheese, bread, peanut butter, cereal, milk, jelly, two bottles of red wine, and some Aussie beers added up rapidly.  Like a cannonball to the groin, I was stunned.  Cooking the friendly animals of Blue Pango seemed to be an economical solution, but Ashley kindly pointed out that companionship is more important than cheap nourishment.  So with that, we flagged down a bus back to the Motel with five plastic bags each in tow  (they double as trash bags, yep, so cheap).

Yohan and a Fearless Crab Comfy Bed Yohan's Collar

Even before Ashley could clean the cooking surfaces, Unit #7 was overrun with hairy rapscallions.  “Yohan, stay!” I exclaimed.  “Ah, ah, ah… bad kitty!” Ash pleaded.  Aside from the proprietor’s family, the Blue Pango Motel had five additional inhabitants: Chellie (mother dog), Yohan (four month old puppy), Momma Cat (momma cat), Tiger (kitten), and Black Jack (kitten).  Perhaps they sensed our sincere love for animals because they targeted us for food and friendship without hesitation.  Each morning was met with tripping over Yohan as he awaited our presence on the doorstep, kittens infiltrating our room with the slightest crack of the door, and constant pleading for grub from every four-legged friend.  Certainly my favorite time each day with the Blue Pango animals was at dusk when Black Jack would cozy up on my lap, Momma Cat implored Ash for milk, Tiger toyed with fruit blossoms, Yohan attempted (quite successfully) to steal flipflops, and Chellie guarded the Motel entrance.  Whether I was drinking a cup of Joe in the hammock or Ash was gazing at the surf, Yohan was there wagging his tail and itching his fleas.  Ghostbuster Dr. Peter Venkman was correct, “cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria.”  So it wasn’t the end of the world at the hands of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, but the canines and felines were happy co-inhabitants of the Motel.  In the midst of two Animal Whispers.

Rocky Shoreline Shoreline Paradise Cove - v3

You would think Vanuatu is simply a sanctuary of animals, but there is actually a lot more to it, believe it or not.  We took a daytrip to Paradise Cove (location of the hotel we wanted to stay, but deemed too expensive) where we packed a lunch of PBJs and four cans of beer.  Here we happened upon two Aussies who pointed out where we could see octopus while snorkeling.  We had been carrying snorkels and masks for over three months, so we hit the turquoise water straight away.  Though we failed to spot tentacled sea creatures, Ash was looking good.  So good in fact, that small fish literally wanted some of her flesh.  After numerous nibbles while 200 feet offshore, we turned back for the white sand beach.  After our only dinner not prepared in the motel, we waited impatiently under the starry night for a bus as cockroaches scampered across Ashley’s flip flops.

Ferry Dock to Erakor Island Starfish Erakor Island

Still reeling from the grocery bill, we were elated to hear about a free ferry to Erakor Island, a heavenly place across the bay from Blue Pango Motel.  The flatbottom vessel chugged across the shallow blue water and as we approached the sandy island, starfish the size of frisbees came into focus.  Finding refuge from the blazing sun below a palm tree, we chatted with an unlikely French and Argentine couple about the greatness of Ignacio’s country: provoleta, malbecs, and scrumptious beef.  All was right in the world on this day, except that we were 1,000s of miles away from the Argentina taste explosion.

Natural Pool of Spring WaterAside from our Thanksgiving Day adventure of scuba diving and kava tasting (Ash will never imbibe again), our big excursion while in Vanuatu was the Mele Cascades.  Picture crystal waterfalls in the jungle.  We were psyched as we plodded our way uphill on the worn path ($15 entry per person) and spied our first pool of clear fresh water.  Ash was less excited about the massive spider that nearly lured her into its web.  Regardless, we continued on until being rewarded with a massive waterfall with ferns and green moss clinging to its vertical channels.  While tourists in watersocks frolicked in the spring-fed pools below, Ash watched in fear as I climbed up the falls until I was suitably frightened.  We then discovered a nice rock from which we could soak in nature’s beauty.  Here, Ash noted that this venue is similar to a place we all dream about when needing to seriously mull over a decision.  It was that serene.  But the sun was setting and the dense forest is nowhere to be left in the moonlight. 

Mele Cascades Come Close to My Web... Sunset over Port Vila Harbour

Tuskers (Vanuatu’s national beer) in hand, we watched the fiery ball dip beyond Port Vila Harbor into the Pacific Ocean one last time.  This slower pace of life on the road was like a 1600 SAT score… perfect.  
- Greg         

Learn From Our Footsteps:

1) Inspect food packages closely before cooking.  Even sealed packages.  Ash was preparing pancakes one morning and noticed the batter had a mind of its own.  Black little bugs (harmless) had somehow infiltrated the sealed bag of mix and some were still alive.  That batch of flapjacks found the trashcan, though we did eat my pancakes the day before, bugs and all.
2) Countries all have different entry requirements.  And some enforce them more strictly than others.  Had we not had an exit flight from Vanuatu, our carrier would have prohibited us from boarding in Los Angeles.  If you come across the requirement of an onward ticket, but don’t know where you will be going next you can do two things: a) roll the dice or b) buy a fully refundable ticket.

We Give Thanks for Ramen, Wreck Dives, and No More Kava

Dark or white meat? Green bean casserole or yams? Garlic mashed potatoes with gravy or stuffing? Pumpkin pie or vanilla ice cream? One helping of each please; to start. We wish. Such a plethora of options were not sitting on our table. Rather, it was ramen noodles or… ramen noodles. “Ash, would you like some baked beans?” I inquired. “It is either that or tasteless BBQ chips,” I told her gently. Ah, Thanksgiving in the South Pacific. We were really missing home.

BVIs - RandomWe started our day by awaking to the numerous animals at the Motel Blue Pango on Vanuatu’s Efate Island. I put the kettle on the stove, prepared coffee, and we read novels as the surf crashed in the background. Finally, 1:00pm rolled around and we headed for Nautilus Dive Shop. After the required four pages of release forms, we were headed out to sea. While diving the Konanda wreck, we were afforded the rare opportunity to witness Plymouth colonists and Wanpanoag Indians share a feast together. Maybe it was the depth of 80 feet that blurred our vision. We did have an underwater tea party complete with barnacles and seaweed.

The divemaster, Paul, was nice enough to invite us along for an excursion into a small Vanuatu village to taste kava. Kava is a popular drink throughout the Pacific including Hawaii and comes from the root of the namesake plant. The beverage is always consumed in the evening prior to dinner then followed by rest as the main effect is a relaxed feeling. We were to meet at the Port Vila Casino at 6:00pm, but of course we arrived at 6:15pm and they were long gone. I was quite bummed, but decided that the Cincinnati Bengals never give up so I shouldn’t either. Thus, we flagged down a minibus ($1.00 each way) and headed for Pango Village, a town of 2,400 souls including squatters living in the forest. The friendly driver directed us to a shack with a faint red light on top, indicating they had kava prepared.

Kava Down the Hatch Kava Bar

We meandered into the sand floor “bar” and surveyed the situation. Four men were shooting pool as we made our way to the corner where a young gentleman sat with a red bucket and several small bowls. “Two 50 vatu bowls,” I said. And with that, he handed us two cups of the dark green substance. We sipped the peculiar drink like hot cocoa until a friendly local named Samuel befriended the two clueless gringos. SamuelAfter both complaining of numb tongues, he instructed us on the proper way of drinking the local beverage: you chug it down then spit the remnants in the sand. The pungent drink could not be described as delicious. Maybe awful is a better adjective.  Not wanting to offend our hosts, we marched along. Samuel went on to tell us about Vanuatu’s rich culture then guided us to another kava bar, this one serving a more potent elixir. Outside the establishment, sixty men (local women are not allowed to drink kava) sat in the shadows, smoked cigarettes, and spit. We patronized two additional kava bars before saying goodnight to Samuel. I wanted to send him our photo together, but he didn’t have an email address. So he came by the Motel Blue Pango the next morning and dropped off his mailing address. If just one half of the globe’s population were one half as beautiful as the average Vanuatu citizen, the world would be in great shape.

By now the kava had Ashley and I relaxed and wanting to rest. But it was Thanksgiving! So I whipped up the traditional meal. Traditional meal of backpackers that is: ramen noodles and baked beans. Did I mention we were missing home? We did our best to stay busy and not imagine the smells of freshly baked turkey. But this won’t be a Thanksgiving we will soon forget. Both of us are thankful for everything in our lives. Principally our friends and family. And thankful kava won’t be on the menu next year.

If the above story has bored you to death, let’s hope this major motion picture will raise your heartbeat. After reviewing the short film below, Ashley exclaimed, “this is so Greg.” You be the judge.

Gobble Gobble Gobble.

- Greg

Learn From Our Footsteps:

  1. View taxis on Vanuatu’s Efate Island like the plague. Opt for the minibuses with a red “B” on the license plates instead. They cost about 10% of a taxi and will get you to the same destination in a similar amount of time. Plus, they are everywhere and easy to flag down.

  2. Prepare to pay island prices for everything (see expensive). The only cheap item in Vanuatu is beef, its main export.

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