Sunday, July 23, 2017

Vanuatu to a Solomon Islands Retirement Party

My little room in Port Vila, Vanuatu was nice enough and did its job. Enough weird things had happened to me here though that I was ready to leave. Onward!

The bathroom here was interesting. It was essentially an outhouse that was connected to the building. You had to open the door to the outside in order to go to the bathroom.

It's funny how much more the cab TO the Airbnb is worth to me than the cab FROM the Airbnb. Everybody knows where the airport is so getting there is whatever. But finding my little hole in the wall to sleep in is a specialized skill. Plus there are enough foreign rubes at the airport that even if you are smart enough not to get fleeced they can simply wait for the next idiot. Now I'm out in the world and everybody's a cab driver. The Airbnb arranged ride cost me $20 and the opposite way cost me $5. The CD in this guy's car stereo kept skipping but I can live with that.

You know what type of airport decor really puts me in the mood to fly? The wreckage of previous flights! Hurray. To be fair this is from World War 2 so I guess enough time has passed. The sign said this was from a Scout Bomber Douglas (SBD 4).

I wandered around a bit and found the Harry Bauer Club Lounge. The sign said "members and invited guests only" and I figured that must mean me so I just walked in.

My complete lack of shame or sense of private space paid off because I immediately noticed a couple Priority Pass signs inside. Hurray for me! The lady who works here I think must also work at a nearby shop, because she entered after me, ran my card, then left again. They were rolling so old school that she put my pass card in one of those antique credit card facsimile machine things.

This definitely wasn't the lounge in Fiji but it was nice enough. There was a whole wall of windows and a great view of the planes on the tarmac.

What the place lacked in fanciness it made up for in unlimited free beers and cookies.

These Lapita brand cookies had some exotic ingredients. One was "manioc flour" which I understand is cassava root flour and the other was "nagae" which are nuts from the canarium tree. Tasted like a delicious hard cookie to me.

The front page story on a recent Vanuatu Daily Post was that an exporter was now offering a higher price for kava than the local market price in order to export to Europe and North America. One friend who visited Colorado and another who lives in Chicago have both reported the existence of kava bars. Soon everybody who's anybody is going to be enjoying that mouth numbing dishwater flavor.

Rather than the vapid plastic surgery ads that fill US inflight magazines Solomon Airlines' magazine was full of cool war history articles.

Had me at "bush lime".

John F. Kennedy was a ship captain in the US Navy during WW2 and his ship was destroyed, stranding him and his crew on an island in the Solomons. A couple of locals rescued him.

There's so many sunken ships left from WW2 north of Honiara that it's called Iron Bottom Sound.

When it was time for landing my seatbelt somehow got lodged under the butt of the local lady seated next to me so I just covered my lap so no one would know I wasn't buckled. How naughty of me. Life in the fast lane indeed.

There were a whole lot of people in flower print shirts on the flight and they must have been Fijian because of all the bula's and vinaka's they said when we landed. It was cute. Vinaka means thank you. Those were the only two words I learned in Fiji and it seems that I made good choices. 

The airport in Honiara, Solomon Islands had an unnerving chain link fence viewing area on the second floor. It felt a little like I was landing at a prison. The airport was formerly known as Henderson Field, and control of this airfield was the focus of the Guadalcanal campaign between the US and Japan in WW2. Guadalcanal is the name of the principal island of the Solomons. It's funny I'd definitely heard of Guadalcanal due to the battles fought here but I don't think I'd ever heard of the Solomon Islands before I turned into a travel maniac.

My Airbnb had some definite character. Sleeping on these was sort of like sleeping in a spiderweb.

I seriously thought that that door was a closet. I went back outside and asked one of the workers where the bathroom was because I figured there was a shared facility. He looked at me like I was a lunatic while he explained that the toilet was in the room. The room's toilet seat came pre-peed on which was nice because now if I wanted it peed on I didn't have to go to the trouble of peeing on it myself. Ah, island life. No worries.

There was one of these mosquito coils burning in the bathroom but there was also one under one of the beds. The bed with the netting that hangs down. I didn't want to wake up on fire so I slept on the other bed the first night.

The bathroom was open with only netting keeping the critters at bay. It was failing at this job and the bathroom was full of mosquitos the whole time I stayed here. I brushed my teeth real fast while doing jumping jacks to keep them off of my precious precious blood.

There was a complimentary fruit plate waiting for me in the fridge. That was a nice touch. I'm embarrassed to admit that I thought I had discovered a new fruit to sample when I bit into one of those red things and realized it was just balled watermelon.

It's funny this place is pretty basic but it's still way better than the Boy Scout camp I worked at when I was 16. Really I don't know if I've ever stayed in a worse environment than that and I lived there for weeks. A particularly horrid detail I can remember is that ants must have liked the warmth of my alarm clock because they would crawl up the power cord into the insides of the clock and live in there. I could see them walking around behind the glass when I checked the time.

The ocean isn't as magical as travel brochures try to make it seem. It's often smelly, dirty, and cold. But I'll give it one thing: the sound of it is amazing. Even just while sitting in my room reading I could enjoy that sound in the background. It's like a constant soothing white noise soundtrack.

My Airbnb was notable because it sort of was a real bed and breakfast. There were maybe 6 rooms total that I seemed to be the only person who hated themself enough to stay at, but the restaurant was solid and there were other foreigners eating there every time I visited.

The capital city of Honiara is essentially two roads that run parallel to the ocean.

It's Sunday so everything is closed so I can just relax and not feel guilty that I'm missing out on the cultural majesty of some museum somewhere. Even the market is closed.

I decided to check out some of the hotel bars in the city. The hotel was in White River, a suburb of Honiara, but the road to Honiara was totally walkable. I read in the guidebook that the neighborhood surrounding my room was sketchy and not to go out at night and I was like whatever I keep it real. I got maybe a block before I turned around and asked the staff to call me a cab.

I never felt directly threatened it was just really creepy. There were lots of little stands selling things and lots of people out but there was very little light on anywhere. I figured the chances of getting hit by a car alone were pretty high. I saw a dog limping around in the shadows. When a passing car's headlights met the creature it turned skeletal. I could probably see the thing's heart beating if I got close enough.

While I waited for my cab I overheard a big group of English speakers at the hotel restaurant. I asked about that and the guy said they were health aid workers of some sort. They sounded Australian.

Well I planned to sort of hop from hotel to hotel and see the sights but I only ended up going to the Heritage Park Hotel. For one thing the place was big and had multiple bars which fulfilled my hopping hopes but the streets were pretty lightless even here in the capital. Wandering around at night alone in the dark isn't usually recommended anywhere so... I did not do it. Heritage is the nicest hotel probably in the country as well so that didn't hurt. I want to say it was the governor's mansion dating back to when the country was a British colony. At time the area was known as the British Solomon Islands Protectorate.

Tell you what, if you asked me what I've learned so far from visiting nearly 75 countries, a big thing I've realized is the scope of colonialism. Most countries on this earth are either European or were ruled by Europeans. There are still corners of Africa speaking Dutch right now. Dutch! Who the hell speaks Dutch? Sure the Dutch seem pretty chill today but a couple hundred years ago they'd happily stab you and burn your house down for a handful of nutmeg. To summarize and really distill my travel wisdom down to one bit of advice it would be to never ever turn your back on a European. They will colonize you so hard.

I walked up to the first bar at Heritage Park Hotel I encountered and immediately hit it off with Alfa the bartender. He liked me so much he was getting yelled at by the other staff because he wasn't doing all of his chores. Everyone here is nice but I don't know what to talk to people about. Locals here do think it's cool that I'm from the US because white people around these parts are usually from Australia or New Zealand. When I heard about the colonial past importance of this hotel I was expecting the opulence of that place in Sri Lanka but it's really not like that here. The bar area was pretty deserted.

I kept telling people in the South Pacific that I wished I could stay longer and see their island, family, dog, or museum but I have to tell you it was always a lie. I'm feeling pretty good about the couple of days I've allotted to each country.

In these countries there are just ants everywhere. They were hanging out on the ceiling of the shower in Fiji, all over the cabinets of my room in Vanuatu, and all over the bar here in Solomon. I keep leaning on the bar out of habit and in short order I'm flicking ants off my arm.

I asked Alfa what he's heard about Vanuatu and he said that it's cleaner and there's more tourists. Yeah that's pretty much exactly right. Sigh. Eventually Alfa and I ran out of things to talk about and I figured it was time to bid him a goodbye and seek out another bar.

The bar by the pool was a little more lively. I liked how everything was lit up.

I ordered the local pale lager SolBrew and they handed it to me in this hilarious coozy. It was essentially a plastic cup filled with styrofoam. The can coozy has already been invented people. Don't fix it if it ain't broke.

I paid my tab and was about ready to roll to the next place when a lady came by and asked if I wanted any of the food or booze left over from her party. Suddenly I was overcome by an undeniable feeling I'll describe as hungerthirst.

The party I'd been invited to was a retirement/going away party for an expat Australian who was leaving his job at the national electric company. There was a whole group of Aussies and Kiwis and they were all very welcoming. It was nice to have someone to have a real conversation with after a few days on my own. They asked what I was doing bouncing around the world and I joked that I was running from the law. Well one of the guys was a judge so they laughed extra hard at that. Another one or two worked at the local water utility. It was quite the who's-who of Honiara expat society.

And boy did they know their diving. I mentioned a couple of spots nearby that I'd read might be cool to dive and they knew the meter depths of the places by heart. They were going on and on about meters for a while before I had to admit I have no friggin' clue what a meter is. We don't do science in my country, how many forearms down is that?

The Aussies and the New Zealanders had an amusing rivalry going on at the cocktail table. They went on and on playfully jabbing each other about history and which country won which water polo tournament in 1933. I had trouble remembering who was from where and I asked if there was a way that I should be able to tell from their accents. They pretty much admitted that there wasn't much of a difference.

One of the ladies was talking trash about my quest saying a few days in each country isn't enough. Haters out there hatin'. Gotta stay woke.

I must not have seemed like a total dirtbag because Ian the Kiwi said he'd give me a ride back to my hotel afterwards. Hurray! Everyone else went home and we were about to bounce as well but somehow we ended up chatting with a table of locals. They too offered me some beers. One of the women was sort of hanging on Ian a little and afterwards he said to steer clear of the local women because they all have AIDs. Noted. "You a nice bola" in the local parlance means that you're handsome.

He also said to avoid the nightclubs because they are full of pickpockets. I felt pretty good about my choice to stick to the hotel bars.

Ian was quite the wealth of Honiara wisdom. He even drove an indirect route back to my hotel so he could point out stuff along the way. He said the reason that there were so many stalls selling stuff in my neighborhood was that they were illegal in Honiara proper but I lived just outside the city limits. Most of them were selling the crimson teeth staining betel nuts but some were also selling this orange colored liquid in water bottles. I figured that it was some sort of drink and I asked him what it was. He replied: gasoline. Some of the cab drivers have so little cash on hand that they buy gas $2.50 at a time from roadside stalls.

Ian dropped me off and I wished him a goodnight. I needed to go to bed and wake up early for some scuba diving!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

I Ate a Fruit Bat in Vanuatu and I Don't Know Why

When I woke up one of last night's vampires was still passed out in the other room.

The remains of their fried chicken debauchery were here and there.

I can tell it's humid here because my passport has warped itself into an unrecognizable shape.

There weren't a whole lot of street signs around so I took a series of pictures from the Airbnb to the main road so I could find my way back later.

I've been seeing more and more Chinese influence in the developing world.

The first landmark I came upon was the Port Vila Market.

It was a little too crowded for my taste so I didn't interact with it much. I'd like to keep my pockets unpicked.

One thing that was kind of neat about the place was the bags for carrying the produce. They were hand woven out of leaves.

Jill's Cafe looked so kitchy that I couldn't resist stopping for lunch.

I went with the French toast. It was really homemade style.

I had been excited about checking out the Kava Emporium, which sold everything kava, but it had gone out of business since my guidebook was written. I was annoyed that they hadn't taken the damn sign down because I was confusedly looking around in some t-shirt shop until I figured out what had happened. Oh well.

I checked out a local hotel and found a tour for today that hadn't started yet. Awesome! There was all sorts of fun stuff on this tour. The only problem was that this tour was pretty much a total scam and we wouldn't end up doing almost any of these things. I was waiting at the hotel for the tour to start and the booking agent guy came over and mumbled something about there being a race on the main road that would cause some disruptions to the tour. He gave me the impression that this was a traffic thing. I didn't have anywhere better to be, so fine let's do the tour anyway right? 

Had to pretty much jog back to the Airbnb to grab my swimsuit as there was a water portion of the tour. As I approached the building there was a guy standing around. He was like "oh yeah we moved your stuff to a different apartment."

Why the hell would you think that was ok? I walked into what used to be my room and most of my stuff was gone, but a couple things were still there. They hadn't even had the courtesy to complete the job. Whatever, I didn't have time to be mad about it because I needed to get back to the hotel for the tour. Weirdos.

So when we got in the van and drove for a bit the truth was revealed. The real "disruption" was that the whole damn village that we were supposed to be culturing in was either running in or supporting this friggin race. Pretty much every picture on the damn brochure involves this one village that's busy doing some asinine Color Run. Whatever let's continue the tour anyway.

At first I was annoyed that the cultural village was canceled then I thought... I guess I'll make this the do whatever John thinks up tour. We have the van, guide, and we should have the same amount of time. Let's do some weird crap, shall we?

The story checked out at least. There were a lot of people running along the road and there were checkpoints with refreshments.

I was preparing for my jump into Eton Natural Pool, sometimes referred to as the Blue Lagoon, and an Australian lady was like "did someone write on your back?" Back in Fiji I attempted to apply spray sunblock on my own back and failed miserably. I now had red squiggles all over the back half of my body. And a continuously bleeding arm. Vacations are hard work.

My tour guide was also really my only contact with a non-vampire local so I made the most of our drive time and asked him about himself. He said his name is Cliff. I didn't get any indication on whether that was really his name or his "safe for dumb tourists' mouths name".

In Vanuatu village culture men acquire pigs so that they can throw feasts which allow them to gain rank in their village. I think it's a legit "I'm an rank 3, you're a rank 1, so you have to do what I say" type situation.

It used to be that pigs were prestigious but even more so was having human meat at your feast. So you also wanted to be a good warrior so that you could capture enemies to eat in battle as well as not end up on someone else's dinner table with an apple in your mouth.

Things got pretty real in the Lonely Planet description of the pig system. "Grade-taking is a system of ceremonies and pig kills where a tribal man rises in the village hierarchy - ultimately, perhaps, becoming chief. The higher a man rises in his grades, the greater must be the number and value of pigs he kills. To become valuable, a boar is first castrated and its upper teeth removed. Then it is hand-fed - and kept tied up to prevent it foraging or fighting - for seven years, until its tusks complete a circle and penetrate the jaw (very painful)."

There was zero chance that I wasn't going to ask Cliff the guide all about this pig business. Cliff said he's a level 3 in his village on a northern island of the country. Level one kill 1 pig. Level 2 gets 10 pigs but doesn't have to kill them. Level 3 kills 10 pigs. 

I don't think women were mentioned in the book explicitly pertaining to the level system so I asked about that. Women have no levels. Hid did say that women can drink kava in his village which isn't always the case.

Speaking of local culture the word "taboo" originates in the South Pacific's "tabu". Google says it was introduced into English by the famous Captain Cook, who recorded the first European contact with the Hawaiian Islands. Some notable tabus from the guidebook: "In some areas a woman may not stand higher than a male; nor may she step over a fire because its smoke - while she's standing it in - may rise higher than a man." 

There were stands every now and then with people selling produce. I spotted a stand selling grilled ears of corn. Seemed like a good thing to get our guide to stop for. I liked how the prices were different but the products looked pretty much identical. Locals definitely have the theory of price discrimination down. 20 Vanuatu vatu is about 19 cents US.

The corn went so well that I was like "how about some coconuts to drink later too?" I thought we would just buy them from another of the road side stands. Cliff wasn't having any of that. He just climbed up a tree and grabbed some.

This wall had a lot of inspirational people painted on it. You know, like Obama, Gandhi, and Mike Tyson.

Another of my "whatever crap that John dreams up" missions was to have the van drive us to a kava bar. I've been told, maybe by the vampires, that there are way more kava bars in Vanuatu than alcohol bars.

Although I'd read about the high quality of Vanutu's magical roots compared to Fiji's, I was not impressed. Tasted the same and I think there was less numbness to the mouth. Luna, a girl from China, was the only other person on the tour. She hadn't had kava before so it was fun to watch her face. It's really not very good tasting.

The signage was worth the stop by itself. It was written in the local Bislama, which is a pidgin form of English. Try to read it outloud and it makes a little bit more sense. "Nakamal" is a kava bar. "Kaon" seems to be short for "account" and I think refers to credit. I could sort of understand the gist of conversations I heard in this language without being able to tell you any of the words they had used.

The Vanuatu national anthem is written in Bislama. It's title is "Yumi, Yumi, Yumi" which means "We, We, We". You and me, yumi, makes "We". Kind of fun.

What better than roadside corn to go with one's root drink.

Our guide definitely said we'd drink the coconuts here but that did not happen. Our dude was pretty bad at this I must say. I felt bad for him because he said that he was working for a real tour company but he couldn't make enough money so he started his own company and he's only been in business about a month.

I carried around that damn coconut for a while before my arm got tired and I set it down. It was sad.

When I read about the local restaurant L'Houstalet I really had no choice but to go there. The claim to fame here was the civet de roussette which the menu described as "flying fox marinated in red wine, garlic, and herbs served with steamed rice." Flying fox is a hilarious euphemism for bat. Like a fruit bat. Notice the bat wearing a chef's hat on the restaurant's front sign.

They sure do love pigs around here.

Um, I don't know what to say. Bat is just not good to eat. It made my mouth sad. I used to wonder things like, why do we eat cows and not, say, sea otter? Well the reason is that sea otter is probably horrid. I had visualized bat as being a tiny little thing that tasted like the delicious fruits it ate. This was like the size of two fists and must've eaten a lot of dead moths. At least its wings were no longer attached.

This was like part meal and part alien autopsy. I'm not super familiar with the structure of a bat's body so I didn't know where to expect a bone to be.

After a long day of eating and drinking weird things I just wanted to go back to my sketchy neighborhood and go to bed. I was suddenly concerned that the keys I had may not fit the lock of the apartment I had been refugeed into. Luckily the key worked and I opened the door. A very surprised middle aged Australian couple was sitting at the kitchen table in their underwear. They had booked the entire apartment and were understandably inquisitive about why the hell I was in their space. I checked the room where my stuff had been and there was no evidence of it. I was then worried that I had walked into the wrong apartment. Nope. My charming landlord had decided to move my belongings back down to my original room. Thanks? Why do I keep getting these Airbnb nutjobs?