Farewell, Vanuatu

The final days in this South Pacific paradise find Alvah and Diana Simon bidding generous adieu to new friends. From "The Roger Henry File" for November 30, 2007

Alvah Simon and Family 368

Alvah Simon and his wife Diana along with their crew Halifax the cat.

This week I faced the dreaded process of obtaining an official "Yacht Outward Clearance Certificate" for exiting Vanuatu. Aside from my frugality and fears of last minute trumped up fees and fines, I can break out in hives at the mere thought of dealing with chest-beating, stamp-wielding bureaucrats. If one decides to give me a personal demonstration of his imperial power, he can send me into near epileptic fits.

But Vanuatu lived up to its reputation of fine and friendly people to the last. Immigration thanked me for visiting their country, and asked if there were any last minute favors he could do for us. Customs, after reducing my port fees, said, "Of course you can stop in the Torres Islands on your way to the Solomons. We wouldn't want you to miss that."

We set sail at pre-dawn for the extinct volcano, or at least Diana hoped so, Uraparapara. This one clearly blew big time, as a hole was rent in its side, filling the deep crater with seawater. After a dramatically narrow entry, a precipitous fiord-like bay runs down to a village hidden behind a line of mangroves.

A man in a canoe was waiting to direct us to his choice of anchorage spots. This is always a sticky moment. Do you rely on local knowledge, too willingly offered by too many people who may or may not understand the problems specific to anchoring a yacht? Or, do you carry on with your own judgment, risking offending the locals and getting off to a bad start?
I went with the local option, which turned out to be the right choice because he confidently climbed aboard and introduced himself as Chief Nicholson. Make no mistake--this chief is in charge. He laid out the details of our stay like a practiced tour guide.

Once the anchor was secure and snubbed, the sail covers on, the sun tarp up, and the dingy launched, we went ashore as instructed. Chief Nicholson escorted us through the clean and orderly village. The architecture is simple yet elegant. Thatched roofs with long eaves sit on top of walls either of woven pandanus leaves or lashed saplings. The windows are latticed with bamboo strips in clever geometric designs. Other than the occasional sleeping bench, most of life's activity occurs at ground level on sleeping mats, eating mats, around cooking fires, etc.

The "streets" are sand and constantly raked and swept clean. Nearly every tree providing the ample shade bears some food, be it mango, breadfruit, nali-nut, oranges, limes, papaya, or banana.

The aluminum pots aside, most of their daily implements reflect their ongoing dependence on the jungle, starting with the ubiquitous dugout canoe. Thick slabs of wood are carved into lap-lap boards (scalloped serving trays lined with banana leaves piled with food cooked in coconut milk and eaten with the fingers), woven baskets to carry garden goods, trap fish, or delicately cage birds, thick hardwood mallets to pound tapa cloth, mash breadfruit, or dispatch a pig.

The men bathe in a pool in the stream to the right, the women in a pool to the left. Their feminine sense of modesty is slightly different to ours. Bare breasts bounce around with unabashed abandon, but a flash of thigh is a very provocative thing.

Footpaths fan into the jungle towards their many gardens, and canoes fan out into the bay for those gardens further a field. The island is so steep and the bush so dense that the sea is still the easiest avenue of transport.

The village has no electric lights (until we arrived), thus the working day starts with the first hint of light, and ends only when the burnt orange rays dip well behind the crater wall. Then they live by the dull glow of the cooking embers alone.

There is, however, a telephone. A single household type phone is nailed to a post, linking the Uraparaparans to other islands and even the outside world. As a sign of the changing times, one man asked if instead of the fish hooks I was offering him as a gift, could I give him a Telecom Card with some minutes left on it.

A wealthy yachtsman had given Chief Nicholson a small generator, a DVD player, and a television, which explained why the chief had immediately hit me up for videos. It's not just that I have a hard time picturing the Uraparaparans understanding Monty Python and the Holy Grail; I just felt that this technological windfall might be put to better use, such as household lights to meet or study by at night.

In any event, gasoline is expensive and running a generator to drive a single light inefficient. The Chief had a 12-volt car battery that tested well on my multi-meter, but he didn't know how to charge it. I showed him how to charge it simultaneous to watching Bruce Willis blow up the world. Onboard, I found a 12-volt light socket, a few bulbs, some two-strand wire, and a switch.

I spent the afternoon electrifying the Chief's house. For the chief's wife there was something special about that switch strapped to the overhead beam. Her smile was brighter than the bulb the first time she pressed the button.

The next dawn, we took advantage of a light easterly and set sail for the Torres. After 25 years of cruising I finally parted with my white-knuckled, hard-held cash and bought a small refrigeration unit for the Roger Henry. You don't want to rush into these new technologies. The theory was that we could now catch and keep bigger fish, the occasional cold beer just an incidental side effect.

Even if I had bought the super-sized unit, it would not have held the massive Wahoo I landed on the way. Normally, there is a hungry village at the other end of such a struggle, so the animal does not go to waste. Upon landfall in Hatyr Bay on Tegua Island I was upset to find no village at all. I filleted the fish and packed the reefer with slabs of meat, kept the carcass cool, and hoped someone would show up in the morning.

Smoke over the coconut trees at dawn held some hope. We rowed a shopping bag full of meat to shore to find a single hearty family trying to scratch a living from this remote bay. The setting was so South Pacific idyllic with white sand beaches and swaying palms that I almost envied them until I saw on how little they were living. It just breaks your heart to see four lovely children dressed in rags, a bent pan, a machete, and a few broken tools for possessions.

Johnny and his beautiful wife Lea jumped on the fish, and in return offered us some coconuts and papaya. The coconut crab they gave us was just too hideous for Diana's taste but I found it quite palatable. Their children set to work cracking tree nuts with heavy slabs of stone. I kept waiting for the cry of smashed fingers but they handled the crude tool with skill.

I rowed Johnny out to the boat and scraped together enough spear gun parts to get his broken gun shooting again.

That afternoon Di and I dove in the clearest waters of this trip. The reef was deep and dramatic, with massive heads, deep caves, and enticing tunnels.

In the morning I rowed in a gift of some clothes, sugar, flour, fishhooks and line. Johnny and Lea were so sincerely sad to see us go, that upon my return to the Roger Henry I told Diana that I was not ready to leave Vanuatu or its warm and lovely people.

She pointed to the calendar in response. The message was clear and correct. It was time to get Halifax, the Roger Henry, and ourselves further north before the big busters began.

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