Leaving Ultra-wifey in Vanuatu
Day 3,314 since October 10th 2013: 200 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home, min 24 hrs in each country and 1 pandemic!
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross which I represent as a Goodwill Ambassador).
Sun and rain in paradise
Ultra-wifey and I have been spending some quality time together and enjoyed it as long as it lasted. Unfortunately, it always comes to an end as reality reenters.
Last week’s entry: Is Vanuatu the best country in the world?
Vanuatu is an interesting country. People have inhabited the islands for at least 3,000 years and somehow the populations common origins have led to a rich diversity? Why the heck would a small South Pacific country with 83 islands and a population of roughly 320,000 beating hearts be speaking more than 130 languages? Somalia is far larger than Vanuatu and is widely considered to be homogenous, yet East Africa has been inhabited for hundreds of thousands of years. Why such division in Vanuatu? I do not have the answer. I do however know that on Pentecost Island men jump off high wooden towers with tree wines wrapped around their ankles. The ritual is known as “land diving” and has turned into a tourist attraction. It is not unlike bungee jumping except the goal is to hit the ground! Some say this is where bungee jumping began before it was commercialized by the Kiwi’s. Who knows how anything develops into its own unique niche? With all of Vanuatu’s diversity you will only find land diving on Pentecost Island.
Ultra-wifey showing off her kayaking skills. We had as many days with rain as we did with sunshine. A lot of activities were not available due to the amount of rain such as the nearby cascades. An Aussie couple on their honeymoon told us they showed up ready to go kayaking the day before I took this photo - but water levels were too high and it had appeared more like whitewater rafting. This here was however a fine day.
Ultra-wifey and I are a couple just like any other but living in a relationship like no other. When we are together, we do ordinary couple stuff. Over the years we have created a list of things we like to tick off before she flies back home. It is not always possible to tick every box but we did well in Port Vila. One of our boxes is to have sushi. It is not hard to find sushi in Port Vila but we were delighted to find great sushi at VAN Japanese Restaurant. We also enjoy catching a movie. Going to the cinema in some countries can be a real cultural experience. But often it is a fairly streamlined experience and I think that’s why we like to do it. While in the dark, hand in hand next to each other, we could be anywhere in the world – we just feel like a normal couple doing normal couples stuff. Tana Cine (which I have proudly added to Google Maps) is a nice modern cinema and we sat down with popcorn and soft drinks to watch “The Woman King” which is loosely based on the amazing woman warriors of the Dahomey Kingdom. The ancient Greeks might have imagined powerful Amazons, but in what’s present day Benin, West Africa actually had them. I remember stumbling upon this while passing through the region 6-7 years ago. I’m happy to see more focus on African stories in mainstream media.
Fundraiser at Feiawa Park. Great atmosphere! :)
In some ways it’s a shame we spent so much time in and around Port Vila. Vanuatu truly has a lot to offer and somehow manages to rank among the least visited countries in the world. Vanuatu is relatively safe with no venomous spiders or snakes. The people are friendly and cannibalism is widely believed to have ended in 1969 ;) I would have loved to have spent more time on Espiritu Santo, which is the largest island, and the island I first arrived to. And I am dying to find my way to Tanna some day so that I can walk up to the rim of one of the worlds most accessible active volcanos and look straight into its fiery heart. Well, in some ways Vanuatu is not safe at all. Any place with an active volcano is a ticking timebomb waiting to explode. And Vanuatu is indeed disaster prone. If you can think of it then Vanuatu is at risk of it: earthquakes, cyclones, tropical storms, floods, droughts, sea level rise… In 2015 Vanuatu encountered what many called the worst disaster to hit the Pacific. Tropical Cyclone Pam ravaged parts of Vanuatu affecting nearly two-thirds of the population. Homes were flattened, rooftops were ripped off, schools were destroyed, and progress was set back. A sad story for an otherwise happy nation. Vanuatu prides itself in ranking 2nd in the latest Happy Planet Index (2019) in which Vanuatu was estimated to be “the most ecological efficient country in the world in achieving high well-being”. People are nice. There are plenty of smiling faces and warm greetings. Strangers are happy to wave at you from far away and say hello or good night when they are near. The local food is good and the country is undeniably beautiful. You owe yourself a visit to Vanuatu.
In Vanuatu children are referred to as "pikinini's".
While in Vila we began to frequent Gaston Chocolat to catch a breather from the hot humid air or to escape the rain. As ultra-wifey commented: "nice to see the place full of locals and not tourists".
Feiawa Park lies on the waterfront of Port Vila and always has a lot of activity. One day as we walked through the park tents had been erected and there was a large gathering. It turned out to be some sort of fundraiser event. There was food, drinks, a man with a microphone spoke Bislama (which I find enormously charming), the sun was out, the humidity was high, and there was an overall festive atmosphere. Ultra-wifey and I hung around to observe and had a great time doing so. We spent perhaps an hour watching two teams of grownups playing what looked like a children’s game. It was almost like a sporting event and more and more people gathered to watch. While Vanuatu has been open for tourism since July we hardly saw any foreigners. It was mostly just ultra-wifey, me, and then the locals. What the heck were the rules to this game!?! 7-8 people stood behind a line at each end of a rectangular “court”. Then seemingly at random someone would run forward in what resembled a game of catch. But it appeared like there were several catchers and that some people were immune to being caught? Some players also switched sides at random. We had a real hard time understanding the game which we found out was called “Mangena”. I posted a video on social media asking if anyone knew the game. A woman from Denmark found that it resembled a children’s game called “batteri” (battery). She shared a website and a short YouTube video, and I agree – it looked similar. Later on, the dancing began. Joyful happy dancing! It appeared as if some people might had rehearsed the dance but that anyone and everyone could join in. And lots of people joined in. It was a very happy place to spend the afternoon.
I had a nice (brief) time with the Vanuatu Red Cross Society. The kind Secretary General Dickinson Tevi sits to the left of me. Great team! I got to share a bit of my story with them.
I might have had one of my most efficient Red Cross meetups throughout the Pacific this week. I was hoping to meet with the Vanuatu Red Cross Society (VRCS) much sooner. But it kept getting postponed, in part as VRCS had been celebrating their 40th anniversary and also conducted a lot of staff trainings. I finally had an appointment with the kind Secretary General Dickinson Tevi who joined VRCS in 2013 (the same year as I left home). I showed up in a taxi-bus at their cute red and white headquarters and was asked to wait for a while as Tevi was still in a meeting. When he came out, we shook hands, briefly spoke, chairs were set up for a group photo, I was handed a VRCS shirt and cap, I briefly spoke some more with Tevi – and then I was offered a ride back. That was pretty much it. Nice, clean, and efficient. Wam! Bam! Thank you, ma’am! It was a rather nice experience although brief. I’ve had all sorts of experiences with the movement across the world. I went to sauna with the Finish Red Cross and had a “celebrity” press conference with Chad Red Crescent. Secretary General Tevi told me that VRCS was the very first national society in the South Pacific to open a subbranch. VRCS has six branch offices across Vanuatu corresponding to one in each province. In 2022 they have opened two subbranches and are preparing to open a third. The subbranches help decentralizing which in turn creates a much stronger response platform across the countries 83 islands. Well done.
Front row at Coco Beach resort, Vanuatu.
As far as I’m concerned there are at least two Vanuatu’s. One in which you are staying at a resort and the other in which you aren’t. And those two are worlds apart. When I arrived in Luganville I spent my first night at a guesthouse and walked the streets exploring the local life. Once in Port Vila I teamed up with ultra-wifey and we had a few nights at a hotel before moving into an Airbnb self-contained apartment. As such we went shopping for groceries and continued to explore local life on a daily basis. But for our final days together we decided to head to a resort. Resort life in Vanuatu is tropical paradise on earth. We stayed at Coco Beach resort overlooking Mele Bay. Tina and her husband Jorg are from Germany and have spent over a decade in Vanuatu. They have a few resorts and also own the Airbnb we stayed at so it all ties together. And Tina is absolutely fantastic. She organized for us to have a front row bungalow where we could hear the gentle waves washing up on the shore from our bed.
Our very first time on paddle boards!! Robert snapped this photo of us. Ultra-wifey did not want to pose in front of all of you in her bikini - so I fixed the photo ;)
Resort life set in. Wake up, breakfast, go snorkeling, go paddle boarding, eat some more, relax, repeat. Coco Beach resort is only a 30 minute drive from downtown Port Vila but we might as well have been on a secluded island. Resort life removed us from real life. The water temperature was perfect. Lush green nature. The colorful tropical fish were plentiful. Beautiful coral. A bright blue starfish. Palm leaf decorations. No sounds of traffic. No yelling. Just tranquil beach life for a few days. Interestingly we made the trip from the Airbnb to the resort in a taxi-bus chauffeured by Harriet – the only female taxi driver in all of Port Vila (according to Harriet). Possibly the only female taxi driver in Vanuatu? We had a good chat with Harriet as she drove us down the bumpy dirt road further and further away from Port Vila. Harriet has been taxiing for thirty years and has had her run-ins with the male dominated business. But nowadays they all know not to mess with her ;) Harriet also runs a kava bar…or at least works at one called the Kava Lounge. She explained that she was at window no. 5. I picture an establishment with many small windows with kava vendors slinging out the sedative liquid in competition with each other. We never went although we intended to. But we ended up getting our kava elsewhere.
Vanuatu kava! And slices of popo in the corner.
Kava is a crop from the pacific islands and the name originates from Tonga. They love their kava in Fiji where they call it yagona. In Samoa and Tonga, they call it ava. Vanuatu is known to have a stronger mix. It’s a bit competitive between the pacific nations regarding who does it best. Sort of like how every country in the Caribbean has the best rum. To the best of my knowledge kava is rather harmless and all it does is calm you down and relaxes you. Although I have never felt any real effect at all. Some describe the taste as unpleasant but I don’t mind it. In Fiji it’s not uncommon to drink 10, 20, or even 30 shells (cups) of kava over an afternoon/evening. In Vanuatu it’s more like 3-6 shells which also seems to speak to the potency of the mixture. The kava crop is mixed with water and I guess they add more water in Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, and other places. I’ve only tried in Fiji and Vanuatu. Anne-Marie works at Coco Beach resort and offered us to try. We gave her some money and she returned in the evening with a 1.5 liter plastic bottle with the grey/brown liquid inside. They had made it in her village. Lots of people in Vanuatu drink kava every day. It is however regulated so that shops cannot sell it on Saturdays after midday and on Sundays - just as it is with alcohol. Anne-Marie was super sweet and we liked her right from the very first moment. She also brought some “popo” (papaya) to combat the aftertaste. We each had three shells over the course of 30-45 minutes and apart from a bit of numbness of my tongue and that it became slightly harder to swallow I didn’t feel a thing. Ultra-wifey found that it centered her and made her more focused on the present.
Coco Beach resort, Vanuatu.
If you made it this far then you deserve a special story. Lets call it our little secret, I won’t be sharing this on social media and ultra-wifey and I have so far only shared it with a small group of friends and family. As some of you may know, ultra-wifey and I got married online back in 2020. We got engaged in Kenya back in 2016 and have always liked the idea that we would have a small intimate wedding somewhere in the world before I returned home. Before the pandemic we were planning on having it in New Zealand because it would have been easy and because ultra-wifey wasn’t worried about deadly animals in New Zealand compared to Australia’s drop bears and whatnot. But the pandemic broke out and changed a lot of things. Our online marriage enabled ultra-wifey to enter Hong Kong as my spouse on a dependency visa. But our online wedding could not be recognized in Denmark as a legal marriage. Therefore, we always knew we would get married again to have it valid all over the world. When ultra-wifey, my father, and my father’s wife came to visit me in Australia six months ago we were hoping to have the ceremony there. But it proved too difficult compared to New Zealand so we aborted the plan. But what about in Vanuatu...?
Coco Beach resort, Vanuatu.
Yeah – it proved really hard in Vanuatu too. So, we pretty much gave up. Ultra-wifey had been in touch with a resort in Vanuatu since long before she left Denmark. They promised a lot of things and it all looked hopeful for a while. But then it began to fall apart. People change their phone numbers a lot in Vanuatu and it proved impossible to get a hold of a celebrant. It all ran into the sand and we aborted the idea. But then we got talking with Tina (our Airbnb host). Tina is highly industrious and felt confident that she could make it happen. Although ultra-wifey and I stressed over and over again that we just wanted a simple, low-key, private, and intimate wedding, it kind of took its own life in Vanuatu. That is how we ended up at Coco Beach resort. Robert (the resort manager) was very helpful in coordinating locally. Tina was running all the behind-the-scenes stuff with authorities and practicalities. The Coco Beach resort staff was all giddy and excited and did an incredible job out of decorating the place. On the day itself our path was lined with smiling staff throwing flower pedals at our feet and resort guest holding up their smart phones as we made our way to Pastor Gideon by the seaside. We stopped within a large heart made by sand, leaves and flowers. We held hands and the ceremony began. As such we have now been married twice. And this time it is considered “a real marriage” back home in the Great Kingdom of Denmark in the High North of Europe.
Water taxi back to civilization...
After three nights at Coco Beach a water taxi brought us back to Vila where super-ultra-wifey-wifey had booked herself into a resort for her remaining days. When we booked all her flights (it takes 48 hours to reach Vanuatu from Denmark) Swire Shipping’s good ship Highland Chief was due to depart Port Vila on November 8th so we booked her departure for November 7th. But the schedule changed and Highland Chief arrived on November 4th. Originally, I had to join the ship on the 4th but fortunately I was able to join early in the morning on November 5th so we had a little more time together although we lost two days. As such I left ultra-wifey in Vanuatu and departed country no. 200 ahead of her. It’s usually me who’s left behind, returning to an empty room, and wandering the memory filled streets alone. This time she got to taste what it is like. Parting is such sweet sorrow. My goodness I love that woman.
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Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - Ultra-wifey's so nice I've married her twice ;)
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