Island Livin’

Vanuatu, here we come

Last year, in October to be exact, we had been asked to ‘save the date’ for a wedding in Easter in April 2013 … in Vanuatu! Vanuatu was voted ‘happiest country in the world’ in 2006, by the way. A very special friend and a young lady I had known since she was only six months old (yep, that makes me feel old!) asked Alex and I to attend her wedding.  Usually quick to say yes, we had already booked over five weeks to the States and Ecuador (you may recall that we would take my Dad to meet Alex’s family), so I wasn’t sure how feasible or possible that was going to be. There were ‘things’ happening with my work (nothing bad), and as it worked out, we were going to be able to go.

Port Vila fruit and veggie market

In true Ombi and Alex style, the instant we realised that it was going to be possible (only days before the RSVP date of course) to attend, we were on the computer trying to book a ticket.  Thanks to Alex’s good nous we were able to pick up two tickets using our frequent flyer points.  Bonus! A phone call to Chloe, the bride-to-be … “Guess who’s coming to your wedding!” She was stoked, needless, to say.  And so the next journey was about to begin!

Cruisin’ the streets of Port Vila

We had booked the flight, so all we really needed to do was book the first couple of nights in Port Vila, the capital, where we would be arriving. No need to look beyond more than a couple of days, it would all pan out … as it usually did. We ended up booking a place called A Room With a View for our first few nights in Port Vila, and we figured that we would take it from there. There’s nothing that we like more than an adventure or wingin’ it! As we did our homework, we realised that Vanuatu was not going to be as cheap as we thought it would be.  Although still classed as third world country, it is an isolated group of 83 Pacific islands, and thus many things are neither cheap nor plentiful.

Vanuatu flag

The flight over was approximately four hours; short and comfortable, as opposed to our usually much longer flights to South America, which are long and sometimes arduous. We got off the plane in Port Vila, and we had to walk across the tarmac to the airport and customs.  What a tiny airport compared to Melbourne and a microbe compared to the likes of LA and Miami. As we descended the steps onto the tarmac, we were greeted by a wave of tropical heat! Ahhhhhh, how I love this! I looked around and half expected to seeTattoo calling out “Da plane, da plane” as he did on Fantasy Island.  I was certainly looking forward to my next adventure!

Brekkie at A Room with a View

We made our way to our hotel, which was actually very close by.  The taxis were charging their usual overpriced ‘airport to centre’ rates, but we caught a local bus.  Just need to ask the right people the right questions. In no time at all, we were sitting on the gorgeous balcony of A Room With a View, overlooking the Port Vila Bay. Our host was the most gorgeous Justine, originally from Korea. As we sat, relaxed and took in the breathtaking harbour, Justine offered us a cup of Tanna coffee. The coffee is grown on the volcanic island of Tanna, and is a really good drop. With Justine offering us this coffee on a regular basis, how could we not like where we staying?  Great weather, great views, great coffee and a great host.  We would come back to this place several times in our two week stay, and Justine would end up holding a special place in our hearts.

Cruise ship central, Port Vila

As the wedding was in the second half of our two week stay, we had a bit of time beforehand to explore.  Our first couple of days were spent walking around Port Vila and taking in the local sights.  One of our first stops was the local outdoor fruit and veggie market, a ten minute walk from the hotel. It was all hustle and bustle, with the locals selling everything from fried taro chips to avocados to laplap (their national dish, made from grated cassava). I have often said that the marketplace is the heart of a nation, a great place to people watch and an excellent place to get an idea of how people live.  Port Vila is not that big and is right on the bay, where some 200 cruise ships enter yearly.  Now, I am not a maths super-whiz, but that works out to a cruise ship at least every other day, and sometimes two days in a row. It’s amazing to watch the little town of Port Vila morph on ship days … prices go up and yes, the ni-Vans or ni-Vanuatu (this is what the people of Vanuatu are called) go for broke, attempting to extract the maximum from its visitors. It’s not the fault of the locals that their one-day-stop-at-a-port-visitors have not done their homework!  For the rest of us that have, these are not the days to shop!  Oh, and we saw some seriously and inappropriately dressed people.  Do your homework kids!  If the locals aren’t traipsing the streets in bikini tops and micro minis, then neither should you!

Port Vila fruit and veggie market

Efate is the island of which Port Vila is the capital. We spent our first few days just chilling out and taking it all in. Mornings were laid back and lazy.  Every morning we would wake up to the most amazing breakfast … bread, croissants, fresh tropical fruit, eggs, avocados, an array of jams and spreads (including vegemite!) and coffee, of course.  We would kick back and eat as we overlooked the bay.  By mid-morning we were usually ready for a stroll. As Port Vila is on the waterfront, most of the action is in a pretty small space; garden markets, souvenir stands selling bright and busy clothing, waterfront cafes and restaurants and supermarkets.  The supermarkets were interesting, to say the least. A mish-mash of products, many things were expensive because they were imported, and other things were just of very average quality. Certainly no comparison to the over-stocked, over-the-top number of product lines we have in the western world. Stores are scarce outside of Port Vila, as most people live off their own garden produce. Food for thought most certainly.

Hangin’ out with the locals, Port Vila

We also enjoyed a yummy meal whilst watching a movie on an open outdoor screen at Nambawan Cafe on a couple of occasions … overlooking the bay, of course. On another occasion we went for a walk, and ended up on some beach chatting to a couple of ‘locals’ (originally from the volcanic island of Tanna, but in Port Vila for work). We also attended a ‘traditional’ Melanesian Feast at Coconut Palms Resort. It was a fun night where we got to try the local food, drink kava, listen to custom stories, watch some locals dancing, see a live cooking display and listen to a local string band. Kava is called the peace drug. Its hallucinogenic properties are supposed to make
your mind happy and you are supposed to feel clever?! Many ni-Vans wouldn’t consider a day complete without a couple of ‘shells’ of the stuff.  I must say, one sip of the muddy tasting concoction (made from the roots of a plant) was all I needed. Yuk!

On Pele Island

Vanuatu has three official languages; English, French and Bislama, which is a creole language derived from English. In addition, however, there are over one hundred local languages spread out over the archipelago. This makes for some colourful listening. The ni-Vans are also generally a very happy people, and if not greeted with a hello, you will most certainly get at the least a (very!) white-toothed smile. It made for good times and generally feeling happy.

Just outside our bungalow, Pele Island

Chloe and Trevor’s wedding was on Easter Tuesday, so we still had a week or so to fill in.  What to do?  We decided that we would visit a couple of islands around Efate.  We decided that our first stop would be Pele. Pele is only seven kilometres off the northern coast of Efate.  Consider that it only take a couple of hours to drive around the island of Efate and it really isn’t that far. A small island fringed by reefs sounded very exciting. We liked the idea of going somewhere where most people didn’t!  We knew it was going to be an adventure as soon as we jumped into the small speedboat.  Breeze ripping through our hair, mainland getting smaller, island getting bigger, we were there in no time at all.  I felt like I was in a James Bond movie; out we stepped onto a palm-fringed beach with sparkling white sand and turquoise water. The hotels? The shops? The restaurants?  None of the above existed. There were a couple of huts owned by the locals, so we walked around until we found one that we liked.  We were helped by a lovely guy called Alex who had been on the speedboat across with us.  What was in it for him?  Nothing.  He just wanted to help. We ended up on the other side of the island, which had less reefs, more wind, and a bit more character as it was more isolated (if that’s possible on an already small and isolated island).  Having said that, it was a great place to chill out and observe how the locals live.

Our bungalow, Pele Island

Upon finally choosing our ‘hut of choice’ we were greeted by the owner and his wife. They explained that they would bring us our meals three times a day.  I explained that I was vegetarian and they seemed fine with that.  We were also told that there was no electricity and so were given lamps. No fridges, no freezers, no TVs, but yes the odd mobile phone, this is how these people live. Oh, and we had a somewhat modern western toilet, which had been built outside for guests.  Their toilets aren’t so modern! If you can’t live without your mod-cons, this is not the place for you. In fact if you can’t live without your mod-cons, the resorts of Port Vila and Espiritu Santu (another island, which we did not visit) are probably the only places in Vanuatu that you could cope with. Having said that, I cannot express the feeling of being in a place that you feel that you have totally to yourself! I watched the world and the people go by and I loved it! Cooking, washing, surfing, ploughing the land, children playing on the beach … they seemed to have so little by our standards, yet they exuded a happiness which was extraordinary. I had a chat to some kids about what food they liked … Do you like chicken? Yes!  Do you like fruit? Yes! Do you like cassava? Yes! Do you like vegetables? Yes!  What a far cry from our kids who won’t eat this, that or the other and are given special and separate meals by their parents! By who’s standards do we judge quality of life?

Our Pele Island family

We spent three nights and four days in Pele, and the only other foreigners we saw were Peter and Gabriela, who were staying in the hut next to us. A lovely Dutch/Costa Rican couple living and working in Australia, they too were here on holiday. We would often chat about the meaning of life over our meals together. Our days were spent swimming, snorkelling, walking around the island and playing with the kids on the beach. We also happened to be on the island for Easter. The ni-Vans are generally quite religious; they follow a number of Christian religions.  No Easter bunnies and chocolate eggs here; on the island it was all about the ministry and preaching the word of God. Two different churches close to where we were staying set up tents and children from ‘the mainland’ (aka Port Vila) came across for a few days. They were given prayers and sermons, but there were also games, plays and dancing. We attended some of the activities; I am the ultimate people-watcher!

Time to leave Pele Island

Time to move on.  Where to next?  We wanted to fit in another island before the wedding, but somewhere that would not be too far … just in case. It’s all a bit ad-hoc here, so a missed ferry could easily equate to a missed wedding! We decided on Moso …as you do! How to get there?  Well, Gabriela and Peter were making their way back to the mainland, so we decided to go part of the way back with them and then wing it … hmm, as ‘we’ do! We said goodbye to our hosts on Pele Island and then made our way to where we would have to catch a small speedboat to the other side; this included a several hundred metre walk in ankle-high water as it was super-low tide.  With backpacks on our backs, we must have looked rather odd, or at the very least, out of place. We were on the other side in no time at all, and I must say that trying to get information on ‘how to get to Moso’ really was not as easy as  I thought. Geez, we could see the small island from the mainland.

Leaving Pele Island

Gabriela and Peter had been picked up by a mini-bus on the other side and we went the short distance with them to Havannah Harbour, ‘assuming’ that from here we would most surely be able to get across to Moso! Well, you know what they say about assuming! The only real information we seemed to be able to get about Moso was that it was home to the more costly Tranquility Island Eco Lodge and whilst it looked great, it was a bit out of the price range we were looking at for for a couple of nights. Anyway the guy who had picked up our friends in the mini van then told us he could drop us off at a ‘jetty’ up the road, and from there we could catch a ferry across.  OK, so our accommodation wasn’t organised, but really … how hard could it be!? As he dropped us off, he pointed down a road through what appeared to be a jungle and said … the wharf is about 200 metres down there!  Alex and I, none the wiser, looked at each other and started to walk down.  Hmm, 200 metres?  Distance and time, we had found, don’t seem to be measured in the same way here in Vanuatu. Island distance and time eat your heart out!

Fishing on Moso Island

Walking, walking, walking … 200 metres … I do not think so!  It was drizzling and we were hot and sweaty … a young boy walked alongside us who kept telling us that it was ‘not long to go’.  We did finally make it to the ‘wharf’ but I can assure you that it was much farther away than the 200 metres we were told it would be.  A small group of people were waiting to go across … we were in a landing in the middle of nowhere, not a nice clean ‘pick me up for Tranquility Resort’ kind of place at all.  We negotiated a price and we were soon on the little boat going across.  Of course we still had no idea what we would be doing and where we would be staying.

Plain boiled sweet potato … yum!?

We did indeed arrive safely at Taseriki Village on Moso Island. Someone spoke to someone who spoke to someone and we were soon greeted by a gentleman who guided us the short distance to some village owned bungalows that we would be able to spend the night in. When the lady who looked after them came back from ‘town’ (aka Port Vila) we would be shown inside. No problem, we could wait.  We thanked him and waited outside, which I must say was lovely and right on the waterfront. Or so, we thought! It was the day before Easter and the village was abuzz with activity and ‘ministry’, and we … thought we could just rock up and find a place to stay. Breathe in, breathe out! The ‘lady’ didn’t seem to be coming back … surprise , surprise, visitors who hadn’t made a booking just weren’t her priority the day before Easter! What can I say, we mostly get it right, but on this occasion we got it very wrong! Waiting, waiting , waiting … the mozzies were swarming around with a vengeance and I was becoming increasingly more uneasy, as I had visions of nowhere to sleep and a million mozzie bites.

Our bed for the night, Philip’s house, Moso

What to do?  Alex went out and tried to get some information on ‘where to from here’? He came back with a lovely man called Philip, who just happened to be the village chief’s brother (every village in Vanuatu has a chief). Philip offered to let us stay in his place. By this stage I was so worried that I splurted out yes please before I could say my surname! What then followed was the antithesis of what you’d read in a text book. His house was not too far away and we offered to give him some money for the night. When we asked him how much, he didn’t appear too comfortable with giving us a price, but we told him that we felt that we should give him at least what we would normally spend in a bungalow. Philip lived with his wife and daughter; his wife worked in Port Vila during the week (coincidentally across the road from where we had been staying) and so was not around and his daughter would stay with an uncle (the Chief) for the night. We felt honoured as Philip and his daughter cleaned their humble little place for us to stay in; a very simple place with very few belongings. How many people in the west would do this?

With Philip, Moso Island

OK bedding organised, we were shown the outdoor ‘shower’ (water was fetched and we would have to pour it over ourselves in scoopfulls) and given two chairs to ‘relax in’ outside in the dark.  Electricity?  No, lamp! OK, most things organised, the last bastion was food!  No take away food shops on this small island! So, I asked if it was possible to have some food prepared for us, as had been done on Pele.  I explained that I was vegetarian. John didn’t seem to have a problem with that, and told us that he would bring us over something soon.  By this stage it was dark, and Alex and I were sitting outside on the chairs, observing the spectacular sky and its constellations. Despite all, these are the events that make up the ‘minties moments’ of our travels. We laughed about our situation, and remarked on how it could only happen to us.  Seriously, this is what sometimes happens when you let life lead you and not the other way around.

Alex and Philip

Our food soon arrived. Philip placed it on the tiny table in his house and told us to enjoy it. He would be back the next morning with breakfast. We thanked him profusely. Alex had fried fish on a bed of rice and I had four big pieces of boiled sweet potato.  Yes, four pieces of boiled sweet potato … no salt, no seasoning, and well … no flavour!  But hey, beggars can’t be choosers.  Thankfully, I had some water, because after about piece one and a half, it was having trouble sliding down the gullet. Alex kept asking me if I was OK … all good, it could have been worse! Well, at least I was no longer hungry! Not much else to do, we went to bed soon after.  There would be no extra night on this island; we figured that we’d had about as much adventure on it as we needed.

Breakfast on Moso; Scotch Finger biscuits

After a fairly good night’s sleep we got up and got ourselves organised.  Philip came over with our breakfast; a plate of Scotch Finger biscuits!  Time to hit the mainland. We met his brother, the Chief, who would be the one to take us back.  By late morning we were on a small boat going back. It was Easter Sunday and everything seemed unusually still and serene. Once across, the Chief and another couple of men who had come across on the boat, waited with us by the roadside until we found someone who could take us back to Port Vila. It was lovely of them to wait with us. We would most certainly be leaving Moso with a multitude of memories.

With Philip, waiting to go back to Port Vila

We went straight back to our home in Port Vila , A Room With a View. We were once again greeted by Justine, who made us feel welcome immediately. It ended up being a very lazy Easter Sunday, with lots of Tanna coffee and relaxing on the balcony. We would stay here one night and then make our way to White Sands Beach the next day, arriving  a day before Chloe and Trevor’s wedding, which ended up being a blast!


Next: Chloe and Trevor get married at Tamanu on the Beach.

“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough”. – Mae West

Dedication: To my husband Alex, who is my eternal source of passion, compassion, friendship, humility and joy! You make my heart sing and you make me laugh! My world is a much better place for having you in it!

Kids playing in Port Vila Bay

With Justine at Room with a View
Saying hi to Philip’s wife in Port Vila
Alex enjoying a beer in Port Vila

Leaving Pele Island
Tusker, the beer of Vanuatu
Kids on Pele Island

Pele; stumbled across this fella on a walk
Local kids on Pele Island
Local children, Pele Island
Pele Island oven

Church on Pele Island

Pele Island
Brekkie at Room with a View

Alex, Port Vila Bay
Bananas in coconut milk

Street soccer, Port Vila

Island life … Port Vila
Port Vila Bay

Lady at Port Vila market
Iririki Island, off the coast of Port Vila

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One Life! Live It!
Alex & Ombi

Alex & Ombi

Ombretta (Ombi) Zanetti is a co-founder of She has been travelling the world since 1989 and since 1999 with her partner, Alex, who hails from Ecuador. They both like to venture to the lesser known places. Ombi shares her passion for different cultures through her travel stories and Alex through his lens. Come take a detour or two with them!

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