China’s Got Them Rattled

First came the odd story of how Chinese diplomats refuse to leave a property in Papeete, Tahiti’s capital. Now this week comes a report that “‘preliminary discussions’ were held between the Chinese and Vanuatu governments about the establishment of a naval base at a Beijing-funded wharf in Luganville,” and how that is “causing quite a stir in Australia.” The author of this particular report, a Kiwi academic, is skeptical, but it looks like the state of China/Australia relations is topic number one in the region these days, with stories just this month like Big chill between China and Australia and China challenged Australian warships in South China Sea, reports say. China has the southern Pacific rattled.

More photos: China, Australia, Vanuatu

Vignette: The Cyclone Cometh

Vanuatu

Suppose you want the ferry to Erakor Island, Vanuatu? You just kilem gong.

The first we heard of the cyclone was Monday afternoon in Vila. That’s Port Vila, main town of Efate Island, and the capital of Vanuatu, an archipelago east of the Solomon Islands, which in turn are east of Papua New Guines in the South Pacific Ocean. We sat pouring sweat at a terrace café on the only proper street in town. 

Burgers and beer were on the menu. The beers were cold and the burgers were more like carnivals on a bun, including the kitchen sink and beets, onions, carrots, eggs, bacon, cucumber, cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, salt, pepper, chilies, ketchup – and maybe a little tiny speck of free-range, insecticide-free Vanuatu beef.

A corpulent pinkish fellow at the next table was going on to his friend: "Bluh bluh rain bluh bla cyclone bluh Fiji." I leaned out from behind my mound of putative hamburger parts and inquired.

“Cyclone?”

"Yeah," he said, "Its southeast of here, toward Fiji. We just had a look at it on the Internet. A big, mean thing. It's what's been causing all the rain."

This was notable since we were bound for Fiji in 18 hours, although just then it was sunny, hot and about 600% humid in Vila, and we were just in from the nearby island of Espiritu Santo, where we'd passed sunny days blistering in relentless sun.

Yet sure enough, in the taxi home we heard the cyclone warnings in three languages on Vanuatu's only AM radio station, with a particular warning for the southeast island group centered around the cult-and-volcano Island of Tanna. By now, the cyclone had a name. May I introduce you to Jo.

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Fun for Frogs in Fiji

The first we heard of a cyclone was Monday afternoon in Port Vila, Vanuatu. We sat, pouring sweat, at a terrace on the only proper street, trying to lunch on burger and beer, but ultimately deconstructing a thing on a bun that started with the kitchen sink and then added beets, onions, carrots, eggs, bacon, cucumber, cheese, tomatoes, lettuce, salt, pepper, chillies, ketchup – and maybe a tiny little speck of free-range, no insecticide Vanuatu beef. In there somewhere.

Next table over a bright pink, corpulent fellow told his ni-Vanuatu lunch mate "Bluh bluh rain, bluh bluh cyclone bluh Fiji."

I leaned out from behind my mound of discarded non-burger and inquired.

"Yeah," he said, "It's southeast of here toward Fiji. We just had a look at it on the internet and it's a big mean thing. It's what's been causing all the rain."

Since we were bound for Fiji in 18 hours this was notable, although just then it was sunny, hot and about 600 per cent humid in Vila. We were just in from Espiratu Santo, another island in the Vanuatu archipelago where we'd passed endless sunny days in relentless, blistering sun.

But in the taxi home we heard the cyclone warnings in three languages on Vanuatu's only AM radio station, with a particular warning for the southeast island group centered around the cult-and-volcano island of Tanna. By now the cyclone had a name. May I introduce you to Jo.

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Pretty Far Off the Map in the South Pacific

This week, a couple of quick little impressions about flying in and around the Vanuatu archipelago – Here's one, another in a day or so. Pictured here is an outrigger off Espiritu Santo Island, Vanuatu, and there are a few more photos in the Vanuatu Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

Vanuatu

The Vanuatu domestic flight terminal is like the one in Nepal, and probably a dozen others we haven't seen yet. If you're a desperately underperforming, poor country in the first place, your inclination is to spend your tiny wad on the international terminal for transits and arrivals, your countrymen and the hardy few who venture by plane beyond the gateway be damned.

It's just the way it is.

Our flight from the capital to Espiritu Santo island this morning would stop at Craig's Cove, Ambrym Island. I broke out my map of Vanuatu and found two airport symbols on Ambyrm Island. Which would it be, I asked at the check-in desk.

Blank looks. Much consultation. Studying the maps. Asking the boy in the back, the baggage boy.

No one knew, but eventually I found it, a light blue marking of a physical landmark, not a town, and that brought grateful smiles from the check-in boy.

The door to domestic departures spoke three languages – English, French and Bislama. Respectively, it read: Passengers Only, Reservées aux Passagers, Pasensa No Mo. We filed in.

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Vanuatu to Fiji and the Cyclone: A Story

Vanuata

The Vanuatu domestic flight terminal is like the one in Nepal, or a provincial town in Eastern Europe just after Communism. The inclination is to spend the country’s tiny resources on its international terminal, their own countrymen and the few who venture by plane beyond the gateway be damned.

It's cute.

Our flight to Espiritu Santo Island would stop that Craig's Cove, Ambrym Island. I broke out my map of Vanuatu and found two airplane symbols on Ambrym Island and asked the check-in desk which it would be.

Blank looks. Much consultation. Studying the maps. Asking the boy in the back, the baggage boy. No one knew.

The door to domestic departures spoke three languages: English, French, and Bislama. Respectively, it read: passengers only, reservees aux passagers, pasensa no mo.

We filed in. 20 seats in this Twin Otter, today 16 full. One European family with their little girl, one huge white man in seat one, carrying on a running conversation with the pilot (it wasn’t a big plane), his son, a 20-ish couple-in-love, students from New Zealand (you learn these things because in about a day and a half you meet every expat in Santo), four local folks, Mirja and me.

Our home island of Efate, near the capital, Vila, brooded in cloud. Its out-islands likewise brooded, steely gray. But Malakula, just northwest in sight of our island, was fine, sunny with a blue chop off its shore.

On arrival at Ambrym, just 40 minutes later, there were no low clouds around the coast. They gathered only in the center.

Just a few houses in a pretty bay maybe three-quarters of a kilometer wide, that’s all there was of Craig’s Cove, gleaming in the morning sun. The airstrip used to be paved. Now it was pot-holed with grass growing through cracks. Landing roughly shook the wheels.

Not unusual. At the domestic check-in desk a chalkboard announced, "Longana air strip closed until further notice – tall grass."

Dirty boys with gleaming smiles ran out to meet the plane. A tan, ratty windsock had gone so into disrepair it had lost its utility, though it still hung on its pole. We let off two passengers and took on two in Ambrym, along with a bag of coconuts.

The two men who left had boxes from Telecom Vanuatu Limited Radio Systems Department and an antenna bundled into sections. It was so hot on the ground that, like prior to take off in Vila, the plane began to sweat, dropping beads of water onto our thighs. Two ancient pickup trucks appeared out of the jungle for the Vanuatu Telecom men, and while we sat in Craig's Cove we let in hordes of flies.

From Ambrym it was a brisk 20-something minutes up to Santo, flying at 4,000 feet, from where you can gaze intimately at the blue chop of the South Pacific. I read over the shoulder of a ni-Vanuatu man across the aisle. He was reading Charles Capps' "The Tongue A Creative Force."

"Watch your words" was the chapter.

I read the phrase, "I'll deny you before the Father," and a sub-heading, "God's word is wisdom."

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Dodging the Cyclone: Vanuatu

Vanuatu Excerpted from the eventual book, Common Sense and Whiskey:

It’s 6:15 on the Erakor Lagoon near Port Vila, Vanuatu. Women in bright print skirts paddle canoes across the lagoon from villages into town. Small, yellow-billed birds call from the grass by the water’s edge, roosters crow from somewhere, and the low rumble of the surf hurling itself against the reef is as much felt as heard.

Like every morning, the sky is grayer than blue. Clouds hang close to the hills and the water is green glass, reflecting jungle. We’re staying on a tiny island near the capital city, Port Vila. This is the morning of our third day and after snorkeling from an outrigger in the midday sun yesterday, we're well burned already.

**

Thursday in Vila was a rainy day. Every other morning was heavy with water, too, but on Thursday in Vila, the cloud never gave way. Offshore, south beyond the reef remained seductively blue but clouds swept from the east over our little Erakor Island and before long delivered over-ripe drops driving across the lagoon which, when they arrived (and we could watch their progress in waves from the far shore), fell with real heft.

A partnership of 2 yellow-billed, yellow-eyed, yellow-legged birds with a remarkable range of chirps, clicks and warbles and endearingly monogamous, toward whom we came to feel proprietary, worked a 10 meter radius of our back porch the whole time we lived there, building a nest with all the languor of the people of Vanuatu, until the rain forced them undercover.

It didn't rain non-stop though, and since we were horrified at the splotchy crimson we'd turned in maybe 40 minutes of sun, we decided on the only rational course of action for the day. Go to town for beers.

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