Christmas in Northern Vanuatu, Day 11: Island-hopping via the bush-knife friendly skies

Thursday, December 28th, 2017

Blue, blue, blue.

Early at the crack of dawn, Annalisa cooked us some omelets as a farewell breakfast. Annalisa and Frances were headed back to their respective islands via plane, while I still had some time before my flight to Malekula around noon.

Sydney and I said our farewells to the girls before I headed off into town to get some wifi before going to the wifi-less (or mostly wifi-less) island of Malekula. On my walk into town I saw the familiar sight of the cruise ship that we’d seen the day previous at Champagne beach. Uh oh.

I entered Natangura cafe to a nearly-empty restaurant around 9am, and enjoyed the super-fast wifi. After I finished my tea, however, wifi speed began to wane and I looked around and noticed the passengers of the cruise ship had arrived in town and in the cafe, leaving no open seats. Luckily, it was time for me to head out to make my flight.

After saying farewell (only for a few days) to Sydney, I gathered my things to head off to the airport.

I was lucky enough to hail a bus, which is only 150 vatu no matter the destination, versus a cab, which to the airport costs 500 vatu. And, I was the only passenger on the bus so the bus driver took me directly there, while attempting to hail passengers (slowing down to ask any white man on the road) along the way, to no avail.

Luganville airport check-in

I arrived at the airport quickly, and despite being early, I was able to check in at 11:20, ten minutes before the official check in time. Upon arrival, the ratio of airport staff to passengers was approximately 20:5, as in there were 20 staff and 5 passengers in the entire place. As I walked in, a woman in a polo shirt exited the cafe, walked ahead of me while finishing her yogurt cup, towards the two empty check-in counters, climbed over the scale, and sat down in her seat as she tossed her snack in the trash. Ah, she works here.

Definitely not packing light.

I told the woman at the check-in desk my name, just my first name, and she told me how she had a friend with the same last name that she knew from New Zealand, and she was hoping I was related to her friend. She was very friendly and asked if I was checking any bags. I had my usual filled-to-the-brim backpack as well as a tote bag with some miscellaneous items, and a purse. I asked if I needed to check luggage. She looked, and said, no, I should be fine, plus it’ll be faster when I arrive in Malekula if I just have carry-on. This lady GETS it. Then, she asked me to get on the scale. I have heard this from other volunteers, so I expected it...she wasn’t asking to weigh my luggage. She was asking to weigh me. So I grabbed my tote and wore my backpack and stepped on top of the luggage scale a foot off of the ground, just beside the conveyor belt. The lady looked at the screen and marked on a piece of paper, “Melissa – 75 kilo.”

She then printed my ticket, and told me to wait around until boarding began at 12:30pm. Then I sat in the waiting area overlooking the tarmac. Please note that I have described all of this interaction. There was no ID check, no metal detectors, no xray scanner, no liquids limit, no measurement of bags, nothing. I checked in with my first name, a “Melissa” in a sea of non-Melissas, and then promptly was seated by the gate. Other volunteers have carried island cabbage and bush knives through security; I carried full-sized bug spray and sunscreen and my filled water bottle, and my nail scissors and shaving kit and there I was. It was so worry-free.

I sat in the waiting area, which was completely empty but also fairly large. Overhead I noticed giant cobwebs around the fluorescent lights and rickety ceiling fans. I saw the fans and sat there, noticing my comfort in the room’s temperature. From what I’ve heard, Malekula seems like a place where I will not have a comfortable temperature-controlled environment, by way of fan or AC. I basked in this moment.

Heya there, pilots!

When the plane arrives, they board early. The assigned seats for the 12-passenger plane don’t matter, as I quickly realize when a man took my seat because another lady took his. There was no flight attendant, just a cramped plane in which I happily placed my massive backpack on my lap and my tote by my feet. I had a clear view into the door-less cockpit, the first time I’ve seen a cockpit on a commercial flight since getting a winged pin from a pilot while I was still in elementary school, pre-9/11.

The flight was a brief forty minutes, and the in-flight entertainment was playing a silent but competitive footsy with the middle-aged man sitting across the aisle from me, who was manspreading, and aggressively pushing his left foot across the aisle, into my right foot and into my unofficially designated foot space. We played this silent game as we both pretended to look out the window, not caring, but trying to express dominance regardless. While he did keep his foot across the aisle near my space, I successfully kept the edge of my right foot on the edge of my foot space. I considered it a win.

Here's the airport!

I thought the Luganville airport was small and a bit unstructured. But I’d heard about the Norsup airport in Malekula. While Malekula is the second largest island of Vanuatu, the rumors surprisingly held true. Upon landing, I saw the airport...if you could call it such. There was a tin shack in the middle of a field beside the single runway. That was the Norsup airport.

A handful of locals crowded the shack, along with the familiar face of Emma from my group. She happened to be walking the road and saw a plane landing and correctly assumed it was mine.

We hitched a ride on a passing truck into town, where it dropped us in the strip mall containing the post office and bank so Emma could get some cash, before we continued on the road towards the restaurant.

That’s right, the restaurant. Not a restaurant, but the single restaurant in Lakatoro, the provincial center of Malekula. The “big city” which is not much of a big city, but a small town with a population of around 700.

There, at the restaurant, I met up with Colleen, Cris, James and Angela, who were finishing off their steak and fries or rice and soup meals from lunch. Once they finished, we headed into Lakatoro. While Santi once told me that the roads of downtown Luganville had no shade, Frances told me the roads of Malekula were dusty. And they were: white, dusty gravel, kicked up any time a pickup drove past, and reflecting the bright sunlight into our eyes as we walked on the sidewalk-less road.

Downtown shopping!

I explored the barren shops of downtown, which have everything a local would need (and can find in a village store) but occupy much more space than necessary. I go into one store that sells ice cream, but they tell me the ice cream hasn’t hardened yet, as it just unloaded from a ship where it sat unfrozen for several hours. Another store successfully sells me a scoop of some just-hard-enough ice cream that drips down the edge of the cone. Colleen looks around but doesn’t see anyone from her village, and she doesn’t see any familiar trucks. After several phone calls, it becomes clear the trucks all had returned to Colleen’s village of Vinmavis before noon, and now it was nearing 3pm.

The shops are WELL stocked

We make a last minute decision to head to Laura L’s house in Tautu, near Norsup. It’s only a brief truck ride away. Basically, we try calling her, can’t reach her, and arrive at her doorstop as she returns our call. Surprise! I meet the infamous Mama Jackie, Laura’s host mama who knows plenty of PCVs, both on Malekula and elsewhere, as many pass through Laura’s house on their way to and from the airport. Along with us, Emma was also sleeping here tonight.

Laura's home

Laura gave me a tour of the grounds, as I’d never been before. Laura’s house was a traditionally-constructed house with a natangura roof and bamboo walls, and adorned with lovely flower gardens spotted throughout the gravel grounds. On the left side of Laura’s house is a massive tree, and under its shade sits her family’s and Laura’s bush kitchens. Behind the tree is a well that they use to fetch drinking water, and beyond that is the family garden in the bush, growing everything from manioc to pineapple. On the right side of Laura’s house is her family’s home, constructed of concrete and adorned with a large concrete patio in the front.

Laura's living room

Laura’s house is cozy and lived-in, as she has been here for over 3 years now as an extendee who has worked as one of G29’s PCVLs. Her village has power, so in her living room area, she has a mini refrigerator and a multi-plug outlet. Beside her desk is a foldout futon. In her bedroom, there’s plenty of space to house an additional mattress on the floor for guests. As a PCVL, she even enjoys the luxury of her own personal wifi router to get work done from home.

Laura has lots of cats. Here's one, sleeping weirdly.

We met Laura’s family on her compound. Because the little children of the household were born just before or just after Laura’s arrival or the arrival of the PCV before her, the children aren’t afraid of “white men” or any foreigner, after having grown up in a household while one has always been present.

Mama Jackie making kava

Mama Jackie is an entrepreneur. She sells food from her garden in the market, she has a nakamal selling kava every night, she has a store, and she sells Digicel top-up cards. It became a running joke between myself and her when she would tell me something she did, like make the homemade papaya jam we were enjoying for dinner, and I would ask her if this was her 7th job or 8th? Or 12th?

Colleen and Emma enjoyed kava from Mama Jackie’s nakamal, which is housed just in the front yard, while I abstained due to an oncoming cold and sore throat. Instead I drank tea and ate bread with Laura’s host family. It was the first time since being in my home village that I’d been in an environment able to speak conversational Bislama. At some point, my trip to Central Asia came up, and I brought over my laptop to show them pictures of the street markets of Uzbekistan. After they saw pictures of the frosted cakes I saw in Khiva, one of Jackie’s daughters asked how they were able to display such lovely cakes, or do they not have flies? I laughed and told them it was winter time and flies were most definitely not an issue.

After exhausting the most of my vocal cords with waning strength, I retreated to Laura’s house with the rest of the group and went to sleep.