VANUATU: Clarisse (pt. 2)

Banana Bay, Efate

Banana Bay is beautiful in the sense that the water of the calm bay reflects everything the sky displays almost like an artwork, a masterpiece oil painting. Fossilized coral cliffs jut, and then drop to the gritty sand of the bay about 2 metres below. If you were to swim out with mask, snorkel and fins handy and can shimmy yourself horizontally across relatively shallow coral flats and a field of stinging anemones, the flats suddenly drop down to reveal, in parts, shelf walls edged with plate and branch corals sheltering an abundance of tropical fish. Ever the adventurers, the boys instantaneously discovered (or re-discovered from a previous trip) a swim-through cave/archway hybrid fashioned through the coral shelf that they disappeared into and popped up on the other side, unrelenting and never tiring of the thrill of swimming through the same cave again and again. Not surprisingly, the water is tepid, however tiny vents popped up through the sand release shimmering streams of salty cool water that blur your vision and tickle your skin with goosebumps momentarily as you pass through them.


I’ve always felt strongly about immersing & experiencing the culture of any certain place I visit rather than just being a ‘tourist’ in it – which is why I’ll probably never, ever go on a cruise or a contiki tour. I got to experience the next level, the next layer, something only one can experience when closely linked to people of a certain culture – and this is what manifested when Clarisse died. Our vans were just about to pull up at our dinner location at Banana Bay, and of the group received a text message that she had passed just as we slid the van doors open.

As the orange glow of the evening’s sunset spread out across Banana Bay the shockwaves seared through our group and we all sat in groups in silence – processing the information with blank expressions staring out into nothing, while those closest to Clarisse, her non-biological family, those who hadn’t been able to say goodbye, went to grieve alone. This tragic turn of events in the centre of what had been a joyful, peaceful, calm and happy trip had suddenly blanketed us in a thick smog of sadness. We moved from the cramped bus to the clean, thick grassy lawn in front of the beach and sat in mutual silence. Bassy music bounced in the distance from some unknowing strangers evening party, and suddenly three chunky puppies came rolling over and settled right in front of us to play with each other & stretch out to rest.

As we watched them nip each other and roll around – on the grass, on each other and their fed up mother, on us – we all awoke out of our reveries and sat in a line along one of the cliff edge walls and watched the brush-stroked sun slide out of view before returning to our vans to take us home to the farm. The ride home was pitch black and silent except for the wind whipping through the bus windows. Finally, my friend Melodie, sitting in the back corner, asked us all to sing a song that had sprung to her mind then and there – Hallelujah by Rufus Wainwright. With not a scrap of musical talent between us we all whisper-sung the half of the song that we knew the words to – unbeknownst to us, in the second van carrying the other half of our group – the same song had been suggested and was being sung at exactly the same time.

I don’t know how and when exactly it happened, but it seems that the song was the catalyst for the end of the shock and immense grief that came with the news of Clarisse’s death and the beginning of the celebration of her life instead, in typical Vanuatu style.  Somebody had suggested buying a bottle of Kava – a tradition of Clarisse’s to enjoy after church service – however as everyone settled in for the evening it became apparent no-one was going to make the short journey to the Nakamal, so out came the bottles of whiskey, wine and vodka instead. After a shot of whiskey to toast the life of “Aunty Clarisse” we went about making dinner as a family with a drink in hand. Talk of “I can’t believe she’s gone” turned instead into stories about the woman that was, as it became apparent our native friends felt the need to share every strand of memory they had of her – and I drank every word of it in, drawn into the joy of their story telling and jubilance in which they laughed and openness in which they cried.

Even as I type this I can feel the intensity of the love I felt at that moment for the people and the country that I was visiting because of the love that they carry for everyone around them. Emotions are openly expressed, people intensely love each other, everybody is family regardless of blood and no one is left out. Life is lived minimalistically yet enjoyed grandly. Lost lives are grieved intensely but only for a short period of time – and then celebrated onwards and made legend through stories and memory. Throughout the next few days, we made Aunty Clarisse proud by wholeheartedly celebrating each day. We sang songs that she liked, jumped from trees, held hands, and talked about our deepest fears and anxieties, and our grandest hopes. We speculated exactly what kind of party that our dearly departed would have waiting for us when it was our time to go.

As that night came to a close and people were starting to make their way to bed, a small group of us sat around a log fire, wine in hand and reading out angel cards. The night was balmy and calm. We all hugged each other a little tighter goodnight and went to sleep with light hearts, ready to explore the next day as fully as ever.

Aunty Clarisse – until we all meet again, I’m sure you’ll be waiting for us Kava in hand.

[pt. 3 coming soon]



mini story-time: panic on Pele

Don’t get me wrong – when I tell this story you may think that I overreacted and was over-dramatic and in answer to that, I’d say that you’re probably correct.

My boyfriend, Gaby, has a habit of disappearing on his little adventures at the most convenient (read: inconvenient) of times… and this was one of them. On tropical paradise island Pele for the day, on a draining reef flat, with minimal time to leave come the afternoon, as predicted, Gaby disappeared to go on a snorkelling adventure 300m out to sea and I, being ever the over-planner and anxious human that I am – took it upon myself to go on a retrieval mission (after a big buffet lunch).

Have a watch, let me know what you think.

If you liked it, let me know and I’ll keep on with these mini travel storytime videos!

– anislandmermaid

VANUATU: Island style, baby (pt. 1)

If you’ve ever been in love with a place, you’ll understand exactly where I am right now. If you’ve ever felt like your soul had landed in a place before your physical body has, you’ll get it too. I was in love with the people, the sights, the smells, the azure colour of the ocean, the texture of the sand and abundance of coconut trees before I ever stepped foot on the land itself. I dreamed about it and saw it in my very subconscious. If I didn’t believe that the soul could transcend time and space and make me yearn for a place I didn’t even experience, I do believe it now.

Stepping foot in that country to me felt oh, so right. It was red-eye time, close to midnight when our plane landed in Port Vila and the airport staffers welcomed us with beaming smiles. As our bags began to spin around the carousel in the cramped baggage claim area, I heard a few strings start to play some chords on a ukulele somewhere in the close distance. A few more strings joined in with a jubilant voice that seemed to not be able to resist the catchy and delicious chords the ukuleles were offering. The song continued again and again, on its own carousel. With our bags thrown onto a push trolley, we walked through the security checkpoint out to the free area of the arrivals and turned the corner to realise that, at midnight, there was a band consisting of 4 members standing in the corner, huge smiles on their faces, cheesy island-printed shirts donned and singing to us, the new arrivals, welcoming us to their country. Yes, the airport had hired an island-style string quartet to greet us. I could have stayed there all night. Welcome to Vanuatu. This is just the beginning.

We bumped along the road that eventually morphed into even bumpier dirt track. All the windows on our bus were open allowing us to get our first scent of Vanuatu – by night even in the city, the air smelled clean – like freshly mown grass and a hint of rain. Indeed, it had been raining the week before we arrived, and the next morning we awoke on our dear friend’s 400-hectare piece of land in the south-east of Efate (the main island of Vanuatu) to the sight of lush, rich green land in every which way we turned. To settle ourselves in, and with not a single bar of reception or strand of wifi signal within grasp, we spent the day exploring the farm (including the beach belonging to the farm) like children let loose in the wild. We napped on the coral-dotted sand of the private bay and shaded underneath overhanging trees. The air was warm with a hint of humidity, the ocean was invigoratingly salty, lunch was lazily eaten and throughout the afternoon we indulged ourselves in naps, quiet conversation and discovery. When the sun started to sink, we went back down to the beach to watch the orange glow of the sunset stretch across the sky and the orb of the sun slide down into the horizon. On the way back home, we stopped by the local Nakamal and took home a 1L bottle filled with the gritty, thick liquid that is Kava to celebrate our arrival in paradise.

Pele Island, Vanuatu

We soon learned that all pre-meditated plans should only be used as suggestion at best in Vanuatu. “Island time, baby” is a regularly used catchphrase that encompassed; waking only when the heat of the day nudged you out of your slumber, big family breakfasts that – without the distraction of technology – soon became boardroom discussions on life, love, the universe, our plans, and everything else that we forget to divulge & share with each other in everyday life.It’s a beautiful thing to become more intimately acquainted with friends that you’ve known for years, but it seems, have yet to scratch the surface of life with.

Eventually, we would venture out for the day, following plans that had only been set that morning at aforementioned breakfast meetings. One of our first stops was a day trip to Pele Island – a white-and-turquoise paradise postcard that you need to experience to believe.

Arriving at the departure dock to meet our boats to take us to the island, we had in fact realized that we had over-utilized our “island time” allowance that morning, and our boat had taken off some 45 minutes prior. While us Australians would normally have then gone into panic mode, our “island Mama” Lorna instead giggled, dropped her backpack and pulled out a bunch of peanuts still on the stem, picking apart the shells to access the soft raw nuts inside before offering the bunch to me. Not a missed boat, a change to the day’s plan, something that could affect the proceedings of the whole day ahead, could rattle our native friends. It was then that I subconsciously unclenched, uncoiled and surrendered to the joy of adventure. Keep calm & giggle. Two boats came to ferry us across not too long after.

Island time, baby.

The motorboat zipped away from the dock and through some of the most crystal turquoise water I’ve seen thus far. I sat on the edge of the boat and kept leaning over the side to brush the water with my fingertips and trying to see clearer, the large shadows that were coral masses zipping past and underneath the boat. After about a 20-minute ride the boat turned to the left and started sliding into a cool, calm bay of bright white sand and even brighter turquoise water, toward two women in local dress waiting for us to arrive.

Lunch was served as a buffet under a grass hut and we all sat on hand-woven mats in silence, gazing out at the view. At one point one of my friends turned to me and asked, “can you believe this is real life?” nodding out at the vista. Amongst the expanse of blue were several islands dotted along the horizon and the sunlight glinted off small waves, and all I could do was nod while I watched.

The reef surrounding Pele Island plateaus off the beach for around 200m before dropping away. The bay is protected by the most part from the wind, making for an easy snorkel over the flat reef (and the occasional solitary brain coral) that house small tropical fish, painted crayfish and the occasional moray eel.
Alas, after an afternoon of relaxation as one can only do in such a place, the time to leave came way too quickly.

As the afternoon sun started to weaken, the boats carrying us back to mainland Efate glided over still, glassy water as the wind disappeared. Light grey clouds covered the entirety of the sky except for one patch, where a rebellious sunbeam blasted out of the opportunistic gap to put on a show. In the rear of the boat, our Vanuatu friend David snapped a cloud formation that only he had seen; a cloud-heart over the ocean perfectly chiseled and shaped by an edging of sunshine. Thirty minutes after witnessing this, after arriving by bus to our dinner destination in Banana Bay, we learned that our close friend & Auntie to many of our native friends, Clarisse, had passed away some thirty minutes prior from complications stemming from dengue fever.

[pt. 2 coming soon]