Christmas in Northern Vanuatu, Day 1: It'll be easier if you don't puke on the ferry

Monday, December 18th, 2017

While most of my friends at home are (not so much) enjoying the bitter cold of Chicago, I am living in Vanuatu, a country comprised of a small series of islands in the South Pacific region, working as a Peace Corps volunteer.

It’s already month eight in my service, and while it’s a small dent in the overall 27-month adventure, I am enjoying the beginning of my first school break, as we, down here, are enjoying summer. On the islands, we don’t get any commercialization of the Christmas holiday, so other volunteers and myself often forget it’s even Christmas until we are in Port Vila, when we hear a reggae remix of “Jingle Bells” blaring from the Au Bon Numbatu speaker system, or see the inflatable, sparkly, LED display of Christmas decorations outside and inside of the Westernized gift shop known as Uncle Bill’s.

School ended in late November and won’t start up again until late January. So, what to do during that break? What to do for the Christmas/New Years holiday? Do I see what the local villages do to celebrate, or do I go to visit other volunteers to get a taste of American holiday festivities? I decided I would go up to visit a handful of volunteers from G29 up in Santo and Malekula for some work leave, which means I do literacy project-related work while visiting them. I can also use the opportunity to celebrate the holidays with some familiar faces.

Frances C., Annalisa and my first stop was Luganville, where Sydney and Eve live, on the island of Espiritu Santo. It’s the second largest city in Vanuatu with around 40,000 residents. While Luganville is significantly large enough to house an international airport, the 45-minute flights from Port Vila to Luganville are around $160, twice the price of an overnight ferry. Since we are were in no rush and we all want to try the ferry at least once to see what it’s like, we decided to take the Vanuatu Ferry up north to Santo.

Annalisa and I are ready to board the ferry!

There are two major companies that run that ferry route, Big Sista and Vanuatu Ferry. While ferry travel here is nothing exotic, we each have heard better reviews of the latter company. For example, after Santiago’s sleepless trip to Port Vila from Santo last week which departed hours late, made several stops, and arrived ten hours late, he heard we were getting on the ferry and subsequently gave us the Catholic air-waved sign of the cross in front of our faces. But he rode Big Sista, and he was alone, so we believed in our pack of three on the superior option we would be fine.

Santiago advised for us to bring plenty of snacks and water, and a straw mat to sleep on if we had one. We didn’t have a mat, but we would make do. You see, the ferry is three levels: the entrance/cargo level which looks like a cross between a cave and a warehouse, where you can store as many bags as you wish. The second/middle level is the cutely named “Eat and Sea’T” which is a completely enclosed level with cushioned benches, a large screen TV and a small cafeteria area, but not as luxurious as it may sound. We were recommended to sit in the final section, the upper/open deck level, which is covered in a plastic corrugated roof in the middle but is mostly open air. We’d heard while the middle deck is air conditioned, at this time of year there are so many bodies that the AC can’t catch up and it ends up being the hottest part.
Frances and Annalisa chill in our headquarters on the upper deck

We boarded the ship around 4:45pm, as the departure time was scheduled for 6pm. However, the ship didn’t depart until just after 7pm, which is typical and expected for this sort of journey. We were just glad we didn’t have to wait, standing around, and instead were able to immediately get on board and settle in.

As soon as we got on the ship via the cargo level, we climbed the stairs, strangely had to remove our shoes for the middle/dining level, then put our shoes back on to climb the stairs to the upper level. Here we found a table for four, shoved our luggage underneath, and created our headquarters for the 20-hour journey.

Just before we departed, a woman climbed the stairs to the top level where we were sitting and informed us that there would be a safety presentation on the middle deck that we needed to attend. Everyone around us complained that the staff should just do one on the upper deck and refused to get up from their seats. Frances and I went down to the middle deck to watch the presentation while Annalisa watched our bags.

Everyone on our level and the middle level who were not sitting on benches already got the memo on bringing a straw mat, as many were spread out, sitting or lying on the floor throughout the ship. The safety presentation was done by a woman wearing plainclothes, who claimed to be a passenger. Frances and I were confused as to what that meant...did she mean she was, as boat staff, also a passenger on the ship and therefore had to abide by safety rules? Or, did she mean she was a random lady who had ridden the ferry so many times that she felt comfortable giving instructions to strangers? We never found out.

The presentation was completed on one side of the ship near the life jackets (only about I’m a bit concerned about quantity as there are about 300+ people on this ship) by this possibly random passenger, in full view of only about 60 people who chose to pay attention. Well, I guess it works out that we know where the life jackets are, as there are just enough to cover those who know where they’re located.

The first 70% of the presentation covered vomiting. She first explained that hey, you are on a ship and may get motion sickness. The cafeteria has plastic bags that you can vomit in, and need to bring to the designated vomit trash bin in the back of the ship, and not put in the cafeteria trash because they don’t change those liners and it would smell, be gross, and cause more people to vomit. I personally was concerned that vomit-prone people would be walking towards the food counter to get bags to puke in, as we later learned that napkins do not exist on this ship. Also, we learned to remove our shoes on the middle level because our shoes smell, and will cause people to vomit. That part made zero sense to me, as everyone on this ship is wearing flip flops, so I am pretty sure it would be your actual feet causing the smell and not the shoes. Therefore, removing them doesn’t make the smell go away, it just makes the (incorrect) source of them move away from your body. And again, FOOD is being served here on this level. Why is this place the shoeless, vomit storage level?

Anyway, once we covered what makes us puke, how to puke, and where to puke, we got to the lifejackets. She covered the women and children first protocol, as well as how to tie it on, how to turn on the light, and how to use the whistle. There was a part about life boats, which made me wonder where those would be located.

Finally, the woman informed us that if there was anyone who had difficulty walking, or needed some assistance in any way, to just inform one of the women walking around the aisles of the benches and they would be able to help. It was unclear if those were staff or also “fellow passengers” like the woman providing the presentation, as no one was wearing uniforms.

When the presentation was over, there was a roaring applause. What’s great about Vanuatu is how efforts are always appreciated. Frances and I then walked over to the cafeteria and got some rice and stewed chicken for 400 vatu each to eat for dinner. This is when we learned napkins are absent from this ship, so I really hope I never have to vomit or encounter it, as hand-wiping will be impossible.

That brings me to another comment, that the bathrooms do not have functional sinks. Not sinks that are busted on accident or by a fellow passenger, but rather, sinks with a plank of wood blocking the bowl so no one even attempts to turn on the faucet. I am beginning to feel quite un-hygienic.

Upper deck floor accommodations

After several rounds of Seven Lock (a local card game similar to Uno or Crazy 8’s), eating dinner, and watching a movie (Office Christmas Party, to remind myself what Christmas in Chicago looks like), I curled up to sleep. Frances and Annalisa already had put their sunglasses on to block out the fluorescent lights and were sitting up in their chairs to sleep. I unrolled my hammock and laid it out on the floor between the benches and used my sleep sheet as a bed sheet and my backpack as a pillow. It was much more comfortable than I’d expected, and simply having space to spread out made it far more luxurious than an overnight flight. I was happy I was saving money, and doing the journey with company made it not only less stressful, but even a little fun.