Christmas in Northern Vanuatu, Day 12: Avocados!!! and the Tale of the Cooking Oil Car Solution

Friday, December 29th, 2017

Car troubles.

Today we woke up at our own pace, with Emma already off and gone to the airport as Colleen and I had a bit of time before heading into Lakatoro to try and catch a truck to Vinmavis again.

It was nice to have a lazy start, just hanging out with Colleen and Laura at the latter’s home, sipping on tea while sitting on a cushioned futon. It was the first day in a while that I felt that I wasn’t rushing off somewhere or feeling the obligation to head out to make the most of the day. Laura was kind enough to give me a jar of honey, a pricey commodity here in Vanuatu (around $7 USD for a few ounces), to aid in my sore throat, which was getting worse each day. I love me some honey, so I was grateful.

Several phone calls later, Colleen informed me that we’d need to head into Lakatoro as it was nearing lunchtime, and she didn’t want to get stranded again today. Yesterday’s situation was a rarity, as trucks typically head back to her village in the early afternoon around 3pm, but she didn’t want to risk it. We thanked Laura and her family and headed into town.

All the fresh produce an island can provide!

String O' Crabs

Our first stop was the mama’s market, which sells fresh produce from neighboring villages. Among the familiar sights of carrots, tomatoes, manioc and mangoes we spotted something green and softly teardrop-shaped. Is it? Could it be? IT WAS AN AVOCADO! Avocado season has begun, with just the very first of the trees blooming here in Malekula. Colleen and I shrieked, practically jumping for joy, as a couple mamas laughed at the free entertainment. We bought some for the cheap price of 100 vatu total for four giant avocados.

Gas station in Lakatoro

We return to the downtown area near the gas station, or rather, the giant storage container housing some gasoline. Beside it is a strip mall of five or six shops selling basic groceries. Colleen spots a familiar blue truck, and confirms with the driver that he’ll be heading out around 2:30pm. Once he knows that he can’t leave without us, we are free to do our own thing until departure time.

THE restaurant. The only one.

We haven’t eaten anything but a light breakfast at this point, so we decide to go to the restaurant in town. “The move is to get a cold drink here and bring it to the restaurant,” Colleen explains, as the restaurant doesn’t have a fridge, only a freezer. Because of this, the restaurant doesn’t store drinks in a cold environment, and instead when you arrive at the restaurant you can request they put your coke or beer in the freezer, but it usually isn’t cold by the time the food arrives. Therefore, it’s best to grab a cold one in town and carry it with you. Plus, it’s cheaper that way. The restaurant has no qualms regarding carrying outside beverages, so I grab a somewhat cold Fanta (nothing here is ice cold, but at least this is gathering some condensation) and bring it with me.

I take a look at the menu and decide the best choice per my cravings and Colleen’s recommendation is the steak and fries at 650 vatu. After polishing off the last of the fries, we pay and head out to town.

Colleen and I sit on a curb awaiting the blue truck to come back to the main area of town, among dozens of other locals who are in town for the Friday payday, the busy day in any town in Vanuatu, as evidenced by the long lines at the banks and ATMs. As we wait, Colleen spots another familiar truck, this time a grey one, that is heading out right now. Well, we’re ready, and we have no loyalty to the blue truck, so we hop in.

The driver and passengers indicate they’re in a bit of a rush to leave, so we toss in our bags and settle in. My backpack is placed atop a string of live crabs, and some other children hop in the back of the truck, shoving their backpacks under the benches and arranging themselves to avoid the raw meat of a cow carcass jutting out of a giant rice sack.

Before we depart town around 2:20pm, the truck pulls up beside the mamas’ market, and we sit and wait as the driver runs off somewhere. I look around at the other passengers of the truck. Do I have time to get a cold drink? By now my throat is killing me, my tonsils beyond swollen, with no ibuprofen accessible. A cold fizzy drink would do wonders. I turn to the young girl beside me and ask if I have time to run and grab a drink from a store 100 yards away. “We’re going now,” she tells me, but “now” here can mean anything from “within 30 minutes” to literally “right this moment.” I take my chances and hop out, running across the market to the strip mall. Running here is abnormal, as no one ever hurries. I hurried.

Getting cozy on the truck

After grabbing the coldest drink in a fridge of lukewarm beverages that were most likely just unloaded from a cargo shipment into the fridge, I return to the truck. Colleen and I exchange glances, as if to silently say, “only in Vanuatu” as we look at our packed predicament. Colleen and I are squished in this truck along with about 10 other passengers, with no such thing as legroom, as the truck is overflowing with luggage, produce and live (and dead) animals. Colleen then laughs and says, “are you comfortable? It’s a long 1 hour and 45 minutes.”

The truck almost immediately heads off, and Colleen laughs as she turns to me and says, “this isn’t the usual road.” We pull up to another store and some passengers get out and spend about ten minutes inside. Only then, after they return, do we actually head off to Vinmavis. It’s 3pm. Rush indeed.

The gravel road starts off modestly, and I look at Colleen, who’d previously told me the 1 hour 45 minutes seems much longer due to the pothole-ridden, unpaved dirt roads. She smiles with a look that reads, “You just wait.”

We head up some hills and the gravel turns to dirt and then rows of divots and then to potholes, kicking up dust all along the way. Everyone in the truck just braces the discomfort as a usual way of life, with the woman beside me leaning forward using plastic bags filled with minced raw meat as a pillow.

After a very large hill, the road flattens out and the truck pulls to a stop in the middle of the road. Some men beside us open up the back panel of the truck and lay on its now flat surface. Then we head off again at full speed as a young child and three adult men dangle their feet off the back of the truck, with full cargo pressed up against their back. Safety seems secondary to comfort of more leg room. Again, only in Vanuatu.

Around 3:30, the truck suddenly stops on a flat stretch of road. I ask what’s going on, as passengers start to get out, as well as the driver. Apparently the brakes are “slack,” and they are trying to figure out what’s wrong. Colleen believes it needs transmission fluid, and I curse her for jinxing us for not taking the blue truck like we said we would. Our lack of loyalty came back to bite us!

We sit in the middle of the road and wait. No vehicles pass on this road, or at least, not very often. The driver gets on the phone and the other passengers hop off and into the bush or sit in the road.

The blue truck we were originally going to take to Vinmavis arrives, full of cargo and passengers, and pulls to the side of the road. Bafflingly, they just sit and wait for us to get the help we need, instead of dropping off the passengers in Vinmavis first in order to give us an empty truck. Some men from this truck hop out and look under our truck’s hood. The conclusion is that no one can do anything with whatever is happening with our truck.

The driver of our truck calls not a “mechanic,” but instead a “truck doctor,” which leaves Colleen and me to wonder if he has a PhD or something. We continue to wait until this truck doctor arrives to assist us. Meanwhile, two trucks pass us on the road towards Vinmavis. We’re sitting there for so long that one even returns to head back towards Lakatoro The one that returns is the truck with a massive decal across the windshield that reads in 7-inch tall block letters that resemble the Terminator’s font choice, “BUBBLE BUTT.” Yes.

While I normally don’t mind being patient with waiting for things like this, my throat is killing me and my Fanta is finished. Therefore, I am pacing the road and frustratingly sitting on the gravel staring off into the bush, wincing every time I painfully need to swallow and wondering when I will have access to Colleen’s medical kit at site with infinite ibuprofen tablets.

Colleen notices the raw cow carcass is still sitting exposed in the back of the truck, attracting flies and sitting in the bright afternoon sun. Yum.

Finally, the “truck doctor” arrives and looks under the hood, along with pretty much all males present, including children. Colleen and I watch as he gets a water bottle filled with what looks like car oil and pours it in somewhere under the hood. After tinkering and looking around, someone then walks up with a bottle of actual cooking oil (palm oil to be exact) and also pours that in. Then the doctor crawls under the car, positioning himself just beside the driver’s side wheel. At this point, there are about twelve men and boys looking under the hood or into the driver’s seat, assessing.

Around 5:15pm, it seems we are nearing completion, so I walk towards the truck. Some passengers also return to the back of the truck. All of a sudden, the doctor does something and the truck starts to wheel backwards slowly. I shout in English, “HE’S GONNA GET RUN OVER!” as I rush behind the truck to push it forward. No one else seems to panic, despite the two-ton vehicle coming close to rolling backwards across the torso of a human man. One younger man near me slowly moseys to the back of the truck to push it forward along with me as another man casually mentions to a kid to get a piece of coral or rock to block the wheels. This is the afterthought, not the first thought, before a two-ton vehicle is coming close to rolling backwards across the torso of a human man. Meanwhile, that human man lays there, seemingly oblivious to the surrounding danger, tinkering away.

After putting the chunk of coral under a single wheel, I continue to push forward just in case as the doctor gets out from under the wheel well and successfully starts the car. Hooray! Apparently cooking oil works for fixing cars!

We all hop into our now functioning truck, as the doctor gets in his truck and drives off. The only vehicle remaining is the blue truck, which now doesn’t have a driver, as he has walked off to the nearest nakamal to get some kava. Did I mention we’re pretty much in the middle of nowhere, or at least between two villages? This guy had to have walked far.

Our truck starts up and heads back towards Lakatoro to pick up that driver, going for a good seven or eight minutes before reaching the nakamal. Words are exchanged between the driver and people from our truck, but the conclusion is that the blue truck driver is still busy drinking kava, so he’ll head back when he wants. This nakamal has to be at least a mile or two away from the truck, so not only have the blue truck passengers been waiting for a few hours for really no reason at all, they still have to wait another extra 30 minutes or more for their driver, who will be kava drunk by the time he returns. I look at Colleen and apologize, telling her that while we did have car trouble, the grey truck was definitely the way to go.

We go off at full speed, with two hours having passed since our truck broke down. We need to make some good time. We chat with our fellow passengers as we drive through Malekula towards Vinmavis, with the occasional person shouting, “ROPE!” to indicate hanging vines that could easily slap you in the face if you’re not paying too close of attention. Passengers get dropped off along the way and more room becomes available in the back of the truck. Colleen almost gets violated by the stem of a pumpkin jutting up between her knees, and as she attempts to move it, the stem breaks off. The other passengers think it’s an absolute riot and nearly die of laughing. When we arrive in Vinmavis, the truck completely empties and some crabs go on the loose from their strings, but are quickly scooped up by a vigilant mama. It’s 7pm, four hours after we’d left Lakatoro, and now we have finally arrived in Colleen’s village of Vinmavis.

Colleen's house, with her kitchen just off-camera on the left 

Colleen's kitchen, with her host family's kitchen to the left

Colleen’s setup reminds me a bit of a campground: the houses are very close together and surround a shared running water tap in the ground used for drinking and washing. Her house is a traditional natangura roof house with bamboo walls, small yet large enough for what she needs. Without a solar setup like I have in my house, she carries her PC-issued solar light from kitchen to house to shower, illuminating whichever room she needs.

Colleen's living room, with the doorway to her bedroom and "closet" on the left

In her house there’s a small bedroom with a door, an identically-sized room without a door that she essentially uses as a walk-in closet, and a larger living space where she has a mat to sit on and eat or write or watch movies. She has no furniture at all, her mattress lying on the floor of her room, which explains her many run-ins with rats. While there’s no furniture, the lack of such doesn’t seem completely out of place. Darwin, Colleen’s adorable little white kitten, scurries into the house and Colleen scoops her up for a nice cuddle. Darwin is amazing for a good cuddle, never once trying to escape your arms. As Colleen carries Darwin around the house, Colleen assesses the rooms and floor. No rat poop! Maybe Darwin is finally doing her job! Colleen gives her an appreciative squeeze.

Darwin, in her semi-natural habitat

In the living room area, I set up my hammock. It’s dark already, and I am exhausted and sick and thrilled to have a chance to sleep. I do my routine and lay in the hammock, enjoying the cold that a natangura roof allows, unlike my home on Nguna that has a tin roof which in effect turns the house into an oven in daylight.

As I lay there, I hear Colleen outside chatting with her host family and explaining that I’ll meet them tomorrow because I just need some rest. Her dad repeats to her, “Oil! Oil! Oil!” which follow-up questions reveal means that he is suggesting that I rub coconut oil on the sides of my neck. Somehow I don’t think that will solve my viral tonsil infection.

Colleen returns to the house and we both shut off the lights after a long, exhausting day. Time to sleep.