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Unlock the Past Cruise March 2011 - Day Four

Today was without an Unlock the Past program so people were free to spend their time in Vila without being tempted to attend talks or group discussions. I walked down the gangplank at 8.10am, ready for my tour at 8.30am. The sun was intense once more, and I knew it would be a hot day. The forecast was merely just above 30 degrees but the humidity was far greater than I’m used to.

People went off on their tours and I hopped onto the bus taking me on the ‘Ultimate Vila Discovery Tour‘. The reason for my choice was that it included a trip to Vanuatu Cultural Centre as well as a cannibal’s hut (I had low expectations as to what this would look like but figured it would be fun saying I visited a ‘cannibal’s hut’). Our tour guide was Merelyn, our driver Joe. The Hyundi mini-van was one of a long line of Hyundi mini-vans, and across the road was a long line of Nissan 8-seater vans. Strange place. Once the mini-van roared to life, we were immediately stuck in a traffic jam. Vanuatu has no road rules besides ‘stick loosely to the right-side of the road and give way to things that are bigger and more pushier than you‘. Crazy! The road leading away from the harbour was so narrow that vans coming one way met the vans coming the other way. Taxis were lined up on the side while their drivers were out hassling  my fellow tourists as soon as they stepped outside of the ‘safe zone’. Buses and taxis looked the same with the only difference being that buses had a ‘B’ on their license plate, taxis ‘T’ (rental/hire cars ‘H’, if you’re interested. It‘s very practical), and the difference in cost is phenomenal with buses being far cheaper.

After half and hour we finally managed to get on our way, and I realised what kind of driving it would be as Joe increased in speed past a  sign which said ‘slow down’. We had four stops, the first being an outdoor museum-cum-art centre. It was semi-interesting but being surrounded by plants meant the heat was really oppressive, so I couldn’t wait to get back onto the air-conditioned bus. It too was a strange place. The guide at this museum stated that it used to be Vanuatu’s only museum, but since the building of the national museum it had become disused and in need of funding. I would agree. We then trundled off to its rival and found a man waiting for us wearing nothing but a grass skirt and things on his legs that jingled when he walked. He welcomed us and did a sand-drawing, a traditional form of artwork within the islands. It was quite amazing to watch as he made geometrical shapes without his finger lifting from the sand board. Then he sang and played a welcome song, then played the Australian National Anthem. I was somewhat disappointed with this museum, it being half empty and lacking in presentation. All who desired it were given a coconut with a straw sticking out to take back on the bus, before we headed off to a look-out point in the French area.

Just as an aside, until 1980, when it gained independence, Vanuatu was controlled by the British and French. As a result Vila is strongly influenced by both countries, with all those who go to school (it is not compulsory) knowing French, English, pidgin English and their island language. There are approximately 115 different island languages. There is an English quadrant and a French quadrant, and even an ex-English prison and an ex-French prison. The only street sign I saw was in the French quadrant…

The Secret Garden was next on the tour and  it turned out to be a treat. It was a garden filled with the typical Vanuatu plant-life (everything was green!), but it had far more cultural display and interpretation than the other museums combined. Traditional stories were written up and placed around the garden; three men demonstrated the making of fire by rubbing wood together; a coconut was broken with a man’s bare hand (we weren’t sure what the point of this skill was, other than it being a rite necessarily if a man was to be considered marriageable). The cannibal’s hut wasn’t exactly worthwhile going to (in fact, I can’t even remember why it was anything special), but afterward that we were given light refreshments and then on to the animals! One iguana, four bats, two snakes and a massive - and very disturbing - coconut crab (google it, it’s scary) later, we were heading back to the bus. At this point I also met my first non-English speaking person (he couldn’t even speak limited or Pidgin English). He grunted and made hand-gestures to make himself understood; it was rather interesting.

A 20 minute visit to a city market was our final destination before we were dropped off at the ship at lunchtime. I was shocked that the restaurant had altered its menu slightly so the shepherd’s pie was no longer an option but I quickly discovered that they had a new pasta dish which was oh so delightful that instead of dessert I had a second helping as an entrée. I look forward with renewed anticipation to the lunches ahead. Following lunch I disembarked once more but this time took a left turn (away from the guided tour pick-up area) to the harbour markets. These little make-shift tents consisted of similar products, occasionally with a different colour and occasionally a slightly different cost. This was my last chance to buy presents for family members so I scoured the stalls in the by now sweltering heat. By the time I finished I felt like I was literally melting and was, for the first time, appreciative of the ridiculously cool environment on the ship.

We sailed into the sunset and then went and had tea. The Pirate Show followed, which I quite sadly found disappointing. Others were highly amused but I only managed a few laughs. It was performed by the same crew as last night (the dance show) however they did more singing than dancing, which obviously isn’t their strong point. The sound was also such that when the silly blue parrot ‘talked’, or the lead lass ‘laughed’ it was assaulting to my delicate ears. But it kept me out of mischief for an hour and parts were quite enjoyable. I was certainly much more cheerful when I discovered the heritage section of one of the on-board shops…

As a final note, as promised I did a stair count. I assumed it would be rather low seeing as I was off the ship for most of the day, however you can imagine my surprise when I counted 68 flights of stairs (this includes the final 5 to get me from where I am to my cabin for the night). This equates to 1,297 steps up and down. I wait in anticipation to compare with tomorrow.