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]