Cruising Solo (pt4)…Vanuatu and Port Vila.

by Anna Buckley

IMG_5915[1] Port Vila, Vanuatu and the ship had docked at a container port a few kilometres out of town. There was no need to scrabble into little boats to get to shore, we were already there, free to step off and explore at our leisure. Vanuatu was even further north and closer to the Equator and it was the middle of summer. For a brief moment I considered walking until a blast of searingly hot air hit me. The cabs were lined up, ready to move the 2,500 passengers into town. And in a population of 25,000 that’s a whopping 10% increase in people.

IMG_5919[1] But I didn’t feel like riding in a hot, un-airconditioned car and walked out of the dock area to the waterfront and chose a water taxi instead. They were nestled on rickety jetties behind the market stalls and a method of travel I was unfamiliar with. But I had nothing to fear as I was quickly joined by about 8 other people keen to share the experience. The driver was friendly and let the kids travel free.

IMG_5921[1] I climbed aboard and when the boat was full we made our way out into the bay.

IMG_5925[1]Past an Island resort.

IMG_5928[1]Straight to Port Vila’s central water front and all for the small sum of $5, which was paid on arrival. I had looked at what tours were available and saw many of them involved action adventures such as dirt (mud) biking, cascade climbing and white water rafting. Or golf or a bus tour of the region. None of these appealed.

IMG_5973[1]My friend Jen had been to Vanuatu a few years back and she’d said the produce market was worth a look. And so I decided I’d look at Port Vila from a foodie perspective. I could see the markets were just a short stroll away and headed there first.

IMG_5952[1]The entrance was decorated with buckets full of beautiful tropical flowers.

IMG_5946[1] Inside tables were groaning with equally gorgeous exotic fruits, in particular a huge selection of different looking bananas and plantains.

IMG_5933[1]To the back I saw a sea of root vegetables-sweet potato, yams, manioc and taro.

IMG_5931[1]All these sold in their own unique packaging.

IMG_5935[1]These were so obviously peanuts but it was the first time I’d seen their asparagus-like stems.

IMG_5942[1]To the far side of the market were fishermen selling their catch, each ice chest filled with different types of reef fish.

IMG_5947[1]Behind the fishermen I saw a woman sorting what looked like watercress. I asked her how would she prepare it for eating and she said it was boiled or used in soups. “No salads?” I asked and she shook her head vigorously. I later found out it was extremely dangerous to eat the cress raw as it grew with a water snail that carried a very nasty parasite. This parasite, if ingested, contained a potentially lethal neuro toxin. Raw freshwater products should be avoided at all costs.

IMG_5949[1]I assumed these snails would be cooked and wondered how they tasted if done with garlic and a little butter…the French and British were both once colonizers of this cluster of 80 Islands.

IMG_5955[1] Back inside I came across an aisle of what looked like cooked, savoury food. A shopper told me it was Lap Lap, Vanuatu’s national dish. She went on to explain how it was made. First Taro is grated, then pounded to a paste. This is then spread onto banana leaves, sprinkled with coconut milk, a layer of native cabbage and the process is repeated. A final layer of meat or fish is added. Next the large package is wrapped and sealed in more banana leaves then placed on a bed of hot rocks, covered with more leaves then left to cook for about 30 minutes.  This is the most basic recipe and each cook will have her own version. The villagers bring their Lap Lap into market, divide into smaller 6 inch portions ready for sale.

The Lap Lap above was made with dried piranha looking fish that reconstitutes with steam during the cooking process.

IMG_5958[1]It was easy to see what each woman’s specialty was…chicken.

IMG_5962[1]Mud crab.

IMG_5960[1]And after doing a double take the rather ghoulish looking fruit bat…yum!

IMG_5967[1]But I was not so adventurous…

IMG_5968[1]and opted for a fish curry instead!

IMG_5937[1]As I was leaving I saw swathes of banana leaves, some used to wrap fresh produce others used for the city cook wanting to do her version of Lap Lap.

IMG_5945[1] Even bundles of firewood were sold, so an authentic hot rock oven could be put together in a suburban back yard!

IMG_5969[1]All this walking, talking and eating was hot work so I ventured into a café to grab a coke. I sat at a table with a ridiculously stunning view of the bay and Iririki Island resort.

IMG_5970[1] After the sun-burnt back incident I was reminded I’d need much more block-out and called into the supermarket, next to the café, to do a quick shop. It was really pathetic how much time I spent trying choose from so many unfamiliar brands…shampoo, moisturizer, bottled water. It wasn’t rocket science!!

I wandered around the supermarket, curious to see what filled the shelves, and was surprised to discover the meat cabinet with these chicken tails, something I’d never seen in Australia before. Well I had seen chicken tails, or ‘parsons noses’ as we so stupidly call them, just not separated from the whole bird and in such large quantities. I wondered how they would be served?

IMG_5978[1]Back on the busy main street, taxis and buses were hurtling past. Lots of tourists could be seen, bags in hand, doing a bit of duty-free shopping. With the weight restrictions on my luggage I wasn’t particularly interested in acquiring too much stuff but I was curious to pop into a few of the stores.

IMG_5983[1]The side streets were a little quieter and held an interesting array of shops. Away from the bustling crowds and with a bit more space on the pavement I also became aware of how wobbly on my feet I’d become. It still felt like I was on the boat. I had totally lost my land legs. I wondered if people thought that maybe I’d had one too many beers? The feeling was quite disconcerting, coming in waves and completely uncontrollable.

IMG_5972[1]Many of the stores were mixed businesses. The one above sold everything from bra’s to birthday cakes.

IMG_5974[1]But as it wasn’t my birthday I settled on a coffee and a little pastry at one of the French patisseries! A very much appreciated remnant of Vanuatu’s colonial past.

IMG_5976[1]They even sold lobster but by this stage there was absolutely no room left and my skirt was starting to feel alarmingly tight.

IMG_5981[1]This add caught my eye and I wondered if I could raise the money to buy this little piece of paradise and then remembered just how far away I was from a million dollars worth of book sales.

Come on guys, help me out here, just one more book…you’d be most welcome to stay!

IMG_5985[1] It was late in the afternoon. I’d toured the markets, checked out the shops and walked the length of the town. It was really hot by now and I was almost tempted to stop for one of the local beers but the swimming pool on deck 9 beckoned. I was near the water taxi stop…it was time to head back.

IMG_5929[1]I climbed into the boat and was pleasantly refreshed by the sea breeze as we zoomed back to the ship.

IMG_5988[1]We passed a ferry full of local people about to leave Port Vila. I imagined what wonderful islands, with sandy white beaches and warm turquoise water, they were being taken to.

IMG_5990[1]Our taxi docked behind one of the market stalls lining the shady road to the Port and I had a quick look to see if perhaps there wasn’t some little trinket I could buy. But I didn’t need a Bob Marley T-shirt, a plastic tote bag or a nylon sarong.

IMG_5917[1] So I turned to walk back to the boat and, upon seeing it, a strange thing happened. It felt like I was heading home. That great big ship and I had bonded and I became quite sentimental when a crew member greeted me as I stepped aboard.

“Good afternoon Anna, welcome back.”

“Thanks Sam, I’m very glad to be here.”

And I was. It was cool, inviting and I felt like I belonged.

When I bumped into Dorothy in the lift we hugged like long lost friends.

“Dinner?”

“Yeah, my treat. The Italian restaurant…7 o’clock.”

“See you then.”

IMG_6007[1] The restaurant was full of happy diners. Some I noticed had braided hair. Perhaps they’d spent a different day to mine? I had seen this hairdressing service being offered at a number of places, but wasn’t convinced I’d look good attempting a Bo Derek impersonation from the 1979 movie ‘Ten’!

IMG_5992[1] It was great to swap travel stories with Dorothy and Wayne. I showed them my pictures of cooked fruit bat and we were glad that this was not on the menu tonight!

I also told them of the wobbly leg thing on land and Wayne said that may not have been the entire problem. Apparently, during the day, there were a high number of earth tremors, with a particularly big one just after lunch! Vanuatu is in an area of high seismic activity and earthquakes are very common. I wondered whether this had something to do with the origins of cooking Lap Lap on hot stones. Maybe, once, hot volcanic rocks were used? I would do a bit of research when I fired up my computer again.

IMG_5997[1] The prawns were delicious and just a small part of the many classic Italian dishes we shared.

IMG_6001[1] The lamb cutlets juicy and tender.

IMG_5995[1] The wine list even better as they had my all time favorite Nero D’ Avola…Raphael, Christina’s Italian confidante, would most certainly be pleased!

IMG_6004[1] We finished the night with a selection of sweet temptations from the dessert trolley and all vowed to eat a little less tomorrow. I returned to my cabin utterly content. Happy that I’d caught up with friends. Pleased I had something new to bring to the table and really glad I’d created my own, unexpected, little adventure.

Perhaps next time I might just try the fruit bat…?

What are some of the strangest things you’ve eaten?

Love to hear your stories,

cheers,

Anna x

Coming up…blue lagoons and stunning beaches.

Anna Buckley Books

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The Lost Woman series follows the sexy adventures of Christina as she makes her way through a world of new media, design, fashion,  travel, and … men.

A perfect read for those of you looking for something after Fifty Shades of Grey.
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