Posts Tagged ‘Vanuatu’

One of the truly interesting things about taking a vacation is the opportunity to observe another culture closely.

Port Vila on Vanuatu itself is a surprisingly compact town, with its few dusty main streets offering up a supply of souvenirs next to bright, busy clothing and fresh food markets, and waterfront restaurants and cafes.

You can do the whole place in half an hour. So on our recent trip we made arrangements to get away from the markets and tourist traps to visit an indigenous village – Ekasup. The village was on land owned by the tribe. All tribes in Vanuatu have their ancestral lands on their original island, and also some land on the main island, Efate, for them to utilise when they visit from their home.

On arriving at Ekasup, there is a short 5 minute walk through the tropical forest. This is itself was a wondrous experience, ducking under low branches and surrounded by lush vegetation. We were delighted to have been told that there are no poisonous snakes or spiders on Efate. It was interesting to ponder that such a walk in Australia would be extremely unwise without sturdy boots and all skin covered.

This was a great opportunity to learn and experience traditional life which has hardly changed in centuries. We learnt how to prepare products from the world around us, like using native herbs for medicine, clever techniques for food preservation and roasting, how to make fishing and hunting traps using local plant materials, not to mention weaving mats, hats, and baskets.

Three moments in particular gave us deep cause for contemplation.

girlsThe first was when the most adorable child imaginable walked into our midst clad in nothing but a grass skirt, and shyly wandered up to the Chief who was telling us about bush medicine. He casually mentioned that this was his six year old daughter and she had been sick when she was first born and her mother had died in childbirth, but she was healed using local knowledge of plants and herbs.

It was a stark reminder not only that There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy, but also that maternal health care is still a major problem in the third world, and that such countries still struggle with life-threatening situations that are largely forgotten in the West.

It also, simultaneously, caused us to pause and wonder how many “bush medicines” will be lost as climate change, habitat change, and increasing urbanisation separate us from the wisdom of centuries.

Our guide mentioned herbal cures – prolifically growing all around us, apparently – for ailments such as kidney stones, hepatitis B, accidental poisoning, and other serious illnesses for which invasive operations or expensive medicines are the norm in the West. It is clear that this voluminous knowledge is being blindly ignored or wilfully discarded by the world, and that is a tragedy. He explained how every island has its own bush medicine repertoire, and guards this knowledge fiercely, as it is, to an extent, the equivalent of money. It can be traded with other tribes and communities, making a meaningful difference to their lives. It also follows that if an island or area becomes depopulated, (for example if poverty forces the people into urban areas), and the people scattered, then these traditions will die, and possibly as quickly as within a single generation.

spiderThe second moment was when the Chief showed us how he kept a pet spider, who was encouraged to weave its web between the V of a cleft stick, thus creating a de facto fishing net. As he talked, he allowed the spider to wander all over his upper body, as we might play with a kitten or puppy. To say the spider was fearsome looking would be an understatement – some lily-livered members of our party could hardly watch – but it was clearly quite at home and he resolutely assured us it was both amiable and not poisonous.

We weren’t about to pick him up, mind you.

The Chief’s intimacy with his natural world was fascinating and rather humbling.

The third moment was when he described the typhoon that had hit the country some nine months before, Cyclone Pam, with winds in excess of 300 kilometres an hour demolishing many homes and other structures.

The damage left behind had been obvious everywhere as we drove around. Around 75,000 people were left in need of emergency shelter, and 96 per cent of food crops were destroyed.The island had been denuded of mature trees and virtually all the crops that many islanders relied upon for their living, especially coconuts, and tropical fruits, simply vanished.

Immature replacement trees were springing up everywhere, to be sure, but one could so easily imagine the depressing sight that must have greeted these very poor people as they came out of wherever they were sheltering when the storm had passed, to see their cottage gardens or farms simply obliterated. Luckily aid from nearby countries, especially Australia, arrived very promptly. We were proud to hear that an RAAF Hercules had arrived with emergency supplies even before the local Parliament had met to make a response. “You got here the day after,” he smiled, “we love Australia.” It was a nice moment.

banyan_tree_5The chief’s tribe had sheltered from the howling storm in the hollowed interior of an ancient banyan tree, his ancient bushcraft judging it safer than wandering around outside, or even staying in any of their flimsy homes, which are designed to survive tropical storms but which sometimes get destroyed anyway.

He laughed – he laughed a lot, and shrugged – as he explained “If the banyan tree die, we die.”

It was a fatalistic response from a man who knew, because of his daily closeness to the natural environment, that in a life and death struggle with the planet, when “push comes to shove”, humans will always lose out to the planet. The banyan tree was a refuge of last resort. Some things in the natural world are simply un-survivable, and if the banyan tree was going to go, well, there wouldn’t be all that much left around to survive for, so, under the tree, everyone, and it is what it is.

It was a striking demonstration of how different their “stone age” attitude is to that in the developed world. (For such it is, essentially un-changed since before the arrival of technology, and “stone age” is not intended to be in any way a dismissive moniker as used here.)

In the “civilised” world we like to believe we control everything, everywhere, and nothing is insurmountable. How wrong we are. As we looked around at this environment – which was as different to our day to day experience of life as if we had been miraculously transported to the Moon – we thought about the current debate about climate change. And how, if we tip the planet too far in one direction, we are taking a risk that we have no idea how to survive. And how the damage wrought will damage things we don’t even properly realise exist.

turtleIn another spot, a rather battered but fascinating turtle sanctuary, one woman quietly told us with great dignity how they had retreated inland as the giant typhoon approached, and when they returned, her home had simply vanished. But homes can be rebuilt, even if somewhat higgledy-piggledy in style or with salvaged materials. A roof is a roof even if it’s made of corrugated iron and held on by scattered bricks that used to be in your kitchen wall. What seemed, though, to make her even more sad, was when she said “We used to have many big sharks here, they would come and we would feed them, but since that night, they all gone. All gone.” “Will they come back again?” we asked, curiously “I don’t think so, she said, almost in a whisper. “Think they dead.” If was as if she had lost relatives.

As we sailed away from the islands a few days later, and neared our home port of Sydney, we heard that Vanuatu had again been swideswiped again, this time by Cyclone Ula. Part of an uptick in typhoon activity which has been very in evidence thanks to a warming world in recent years.

We hope the banyan tree made it through.

Bobbing along

 

Well, Dear Reader, a very Happy Christmas and a Bonnie Hogmanay and 2016 to you.

We have been a little remiss in not posting much in the last few days due to two simple and conjoined facts: one, Mr and Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink are officially on holiday, (on a swanky cruise ship, no less), and two, the internet is so cripplingly expensive that we decided to hold off a few days before plunging headlong into our usual travel-ese. That this has kept us off the all-consuming Facebook has been a relaxing coincidence.

We are, in fact, swooshing up from Sydney to Vanuatu and New Caledonia for a brief and – trust us – well-deserved break, and so as we write we are somewhere south of Lougainville and north of Port Vila in international waters off Vanuatu. It’s easy to work out that we’re in international waters, because the casino is open.

There, a bunch of dour Chinese and one cheery Brit will take your money with remarkable rapidity if you absolutely can’t think of anything else to do at all, and you have to be somewhat desperate as there are at least three trivia competitions running concurrently 24 hours a day, and the brain training they offer is free – and we simply luuuurve trivia competitions – so you’d have to be dead keen on the masochism of cards, craps and roulette to spend too much time buried there in the bowels of the vessel.

Then again, we did notice some other people actually winning, which is somewhat of an alien concept to us, so maybe we just haven’t got the knack of it yet. After thirty years playing Blackjack, and almost invariably losing, we are close to assuming the knack will never arrive. Or that there is, in fact, no knack to be got. But we are not quite at that point yet.

And then again, again, there do seem to be a large percentage of young couples in there, with her gazing adoringly up into his eyes, as he rashly slams down another $20 to buy a card on twelve, and ends up duly eviscerated with 22. It’s as if, time after time, the young lad is saying to his belle, “there be no dragons around for me to slay on your behalf, sweet Princess, so have a look at how painlessly I can lose a week’s wages while you watch”. Maybe it’s not masochism but rather machismo that’s on display. Indeed, it deserves it’s own word. Masochismo works.

As first time cruisers, we have been simultaneously entranced, horrified, and sometimes simply bemused by the experience.

It’s hard, for example, not to simply sigh with pleasure when this greets you as you sit down to write.

 

IMG_4966

 

Cruising is gaining rapidly in popularity around the world as the new “go to” middle class vacation. We say “middle class” because the upper classes only cruise in uber-luxury mini-liners with 20 guests and 437 crew, either on a bateaux of their own or at a pinch a ship owned by a friend or even a discrete tour company called something like BlueOcean Wanderer – the name chosen to imply “unhurried, un-shackled, off the beaten track, and above all, daahling, no middle class people”. (We apologise in advance to the owners of BlueOcean Wanderer, which no doubt exists somewhere.)

The poor can’t afford anything more than a quick trip up and down their local capital city waterway on a Sunday. Even if they plumped for an interior cabin and no drinks package* – of those, more later – they couldn’t chuff up the vast sums cruise companies charge for all-you-can-eat corned beef hash** – more on that later, too – and hot and cold running 70s music trivia.

Which leaves us ensconced with our fellow middle-class pretend-riche, some of whom are very nice, and some of whom are utterly horrid. A bit like life in general, really, but with waves.

We have discovered that we can ascertain someone’s status back on dry land pretty accurately by the grade of orange in their fake tan – the more orange, the more entre nous – and their level of bling.

Bling is in inverse proportion to social status. A discrete golden chain married to a demure and only half-awful pair of what used to be called Bermuda shorts suggests an accountant in training, or a teacher. Especially with a tired looking wife and squalling toddler in tow.

When blinded by what looks like half of Australia’s national debt coiled round and round a neck the size of a small bull matched with a disturbingly tight pair of bathers revealing, as it were, a substantial package, you can pretty much assume “delivery driver who earns twice what you do, but who missed out on Mrs Dalyrymple’s finishing school”. And that’s just the girls.

Most of the passengers are white. Most of the staff aren’t. Many of the staff are from the world’s low-income countries –  Indonesia, Philippines, India, Bangladesh, China, South Africa, Mexico – and they work very long hours and extremely hard. It’s also easy to assume that they get paid the best part of bugger all, as the cruise line charges a quick and easy 18% “gratuity” charge on everything you spend on board – although one has no way of knowing whether that gratuity charge actually gets to the workers, or if it does, whether that simply makes up a substantial portion of their wages, thus reducing the wage bill of the employer.

One is also encouraged to tip exceptional service directly, which means that 95% of the staff are obsequiously gracious, ineffably cheery and obsessively intrusive the entire time.

This is due to a number of factors – including their quite and innate genuine niceness – but also very clearly their desire to get tipped.

To an egalitarian Aussie eye it appears forced, and demeaning, for both staff and customer. It is, of course, the “American way”, a country where a campaign to establish a national wage of just $15 an hour has been met with furious opposition from employers happier to pay $6-10 an hour. To put that in perspective, Miss Wellthisiswhatithink gets A$25 an hour for babysitting/nannying, and wouldn’t accept less, nor would it be offered.

 

Cocktails. Or as the young and restless with a drinks package call them, "Breakfast".

Cocktails. Or as the young and restless with a drinks package call them, “Breakfast”.

 

The other outcome of this low wage environment is that all staff – and we mean all staff – seem utterly preoccupied with selling drinks packages*, whereby one (outrageously expensive) daily charge covers all your drinks, except top shelf stuff, but where that tariff is set so high that you basically have to set out determinedly to drink your weight in rum and coke from about 10am every morning to get your money’s worth. Selling a package equals kudos, and job security.

For the delivery van drivers this temporarily-arranged alcoholism isn’t a problem, so long as there’s going to be a decent break between them getting off the ship and getting back behind the wheel, and they are all cheerfully smashed pretty much 24-seven. For those who don’t wish to be unsteady on our feet by lunchtime, or who want to avoid falling overboard, it’s an egregious waste of money.

But every time one orders a drink or a bottle of wine – which are triple or quadruple what one would pay in Australia for very average drops – one is incredulously asked “You don’t have a package, Sir?” and the sales spiel starts again while you feel obliged to dream up new excuses for your parsimony. It is, in a word, bloody annoying. Two words.

 

"Hello Ladies."

“Hello Ladies.”

 

The English language skills of the staff also often leave much to be desired, but the effect is also frequently very funny.

Watching a diminutive high-pitched Chinese waiter go up to a table full of six giant buffed Aussie blokes and start with a squeaky “Hello, Ladies, my name is Kwan and I am your waiter tonight … now, ladies, I just need to tell you about our wine special for this evening” has it’s own wonderful schadenfreude.

Needless to say, the Aussie blokes are both too polite and too anal to correct him, so night after night the cabaret repeats.

The world that is today intrudes on our idyll every time anyone wants to get on and off. Security is as fierce as at any airport, with sniffer dogs checking for bombs, and machines that go ping scanning us all on at initial embarkation and on and off whenever there is a shore excursion. I am not sure what they think we’ll be bringing back on board – nerve-gas-infused coconuts? – but it seems churlish to object and no one does. This is the one place that all the smiles disappear to be replaced with rapt attention and scowls. We are not aware that the South Pacific is a key target for terrorists of any ilk, but “you can’t be too careful nowadays”. The security officer busting a quick dance move to SuperTrooper by Abba which was blasting out to keep us amused was a welcome and timely diversion from pondering just how depressing much of the world has become. Before we left from Sydney we happened across two Border Force (customs) personnel taking snap after snap of the Sydney Opera House on their iPhones from an upper deck of the ship. “Refuse to believe that’s security focused” we opined. “Nope,” said one, “We just don’t get up here much.”

Somehow their extra-curricular casualness made us feel safer, rather than worried. But somewhere, as we write these words, we know this very scene will be stolen by a hack writer in Hollywood and coming soon to a screen near you will be pictures of the soul-less terrorist or brutal bank robber unknowingly snapped by a bludging Border Force officer, which happy chance is the vital clue that leads to their discovery and arrest. You heard it here first.

 

Corned Beef Hash

All hail the Hash

 

Which leads us, tortuously but inevitably, to the corned beef hash**. Which delightful concoction, as we haven’t traveled all that much in the USA, was a very pleasant and new experience for us, and which we have been devouring assiduously since Day 1. Corned beef, (yes, like the stuff that comes in tins), onions, and potatoes. Hashed. And fried. From the French, hacher. (Never let it be said our writing is not educational.) Or as the civilised world would call it, mashed.

Despite being a cholesterol bomb it is, quite simply, delicious, and goes perfectly with eggs and bacon and baked beans and tomatoes and fried bread and anything else one can squeeze onto one’s all-you-can-eat breakfast plate. Or plates. And it is matched very well with scaldingly hot American coffee, too, which actually isn’t anything like as bad as everyone else likes to pretend. Provided one adds lashings of milk. When drunk black it is indeed unpotable bitter mud and would be better used as tar on the bottom of passing leaky native canoes.

What is really interesting about the corned beef hash – beyond its Satanic moreishness – is that it appears to be comprised of at least 50% salt.

As was the buerre blanc on the escargots, the bifteck minute which was cut so thin that anything over thirty seconds would turn it into leather, and the beouf bourgingon which had no discernible red wine in it (not even the cheap crap; it hadn’t even had an open bottle of cheap crap waved anywhere near it) but plenty – plenty – of salt.

We are most grateful that our arteries are only temporarily being loaned to America. God knows how anyone there over the age of 50 ever survives their middle age – their blood pressure must be at least 200 over 120. In all seriousity, the difference between the two cuisines is stark. The food quality is genuinely pretty good, especially considering the number of people being fed, (nigh-on constantly), but the salt content of many dishes would put the Dead Sea to shame. We reckon someone, somewhere, as we speak, is injecting honeydew melons with salt water.

The cheese is, needless to say, inedible.

Anyhow, tonight is New Year’s Eve, meaning we are now going off to be dragooned into a mass party (all dressed in formal clothes, no less), by our talented and relentlessly cheerful MC/Factotum/Trivia Quizmaster/Tour Director, who will cram us into a small and sweaty space to shout “Ten, nine, eight, seven …” before what seems like ten thousand yellow balloons are dropped on our heads, and everyone starts kissing each other frantically.

As the outbreaks of Norovirus on cruise ships has led them to placing hand sanitisers everywhere – Heaven forfend that you would try and get into a restaurant without the cheery chappy from Indonesia squirting germ killer onto your hands – “Time for Washy-Washy! Time for Washy-Washy!” – there’d be a bells going off and a near riot if you tried to sneak past un-washy-washied – one would imagine that thousands of extremely drunk and hot strangers kissing each other repeatedly might not be the wisest activity. But hey, when in Rome.

More tomorrow. After the trivia, natch.

This literally just arrived in my email, courtesy of a Virgin Australia Holidays marketing exercise.

Under the banner Sale into Summer – SALE into summer, geddit? – the email is offering holidays, including Vanuatu for $725 pp for 5 nights. Sounds like a good deal. Interestingly, though, the conditions for the holiday included this little gem. Which makes it an incredibly good deal.

Vanuatu Includes return airfares to Hamilton Island, baggage, 5 nights accommodation. Departs Brisbane, on sale until midnight 24 November, unless sold out prior, for travel between 05 November – 05 December 2013 and 02 February – 27 March 2014.
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Flights to Hamilton Island included in all Vanuatu holidays. What a great promotion. I like Hamilton Island.

Quite why Virgin would include return airfares to Hamilton Island in their offer of a holiday to Vanuatu is beyond me, but it’s very generous. Much better than a free cocktail on arrival. I’ll take ten. Wonder if there’s a limit on how long you can keep the airfares in your back pocket for?

I note the email seems to have been prepared in Singapore by an organisation which appears to be called Planet 49 and/or “Vertical Response”. A cursory search online reveals they might be part of this global company.

I cannot help but wonder how hot their phone lines will be running after this little quality control issue is pointed out. Which they will be, just as soon as I get hold of the marketing manager at Virgin Australia Holidays and pipe up with “My name is Mr Wellthisiswhatithink, I’d like to go to Vanuatu please and I claim my free flights to Hamilton Island too.”

Tee hee.

Meanwhile we note in the media yesterday that Virgin Australia is raising $350 million from shareholders to reduce debt and provide cash for its new business strategy.

The airline will offer existing shareholders five new shares for every 14 that they currently hold, at a discounted price to their current market value.

“This capital raising is designed to enhance liquidity and the gearing position of Virgin Australia to ensure we are in a stronger position moving forward,” chief executive John Borghetti said in a statement on Thursday.

The airline has been restructuring its business, including an update of its technology, implementing a stronger passenger loyalty program, and increasing its access to global markets.

Our italics. Might we suggest as part of the effort that 10 additional cents worth of proof-reading wouldn’t go amiss either? Or should we ask why you don’t use an Australian company for your outbound email marketing …. hmmm? No, we couldn’t possibly do that.

For the dozens of other Advertising and Sub Editing F*** Ups we have spotted, just type F*** Up in the search box. And in particular don’t miss yesterday’s Social Media F*** Ups of all time.

Enjoy.