Waking up at 4 is rough, why do I do this to myself?! I had spoken to the woman who runs the hostel last night and told her I planned to take a bus to the airport but she looked at me like I was crazy.
At Air Vanuatu they said I’d have no problem catching at bus at 4am, but the hostel said everyone on the road will have been drinking lots of kava and will charge me extra to go to the airport. After yesterday I don’t doubt it one bit. So she has offered to drive me for 1,200VT ($15) which seems reasonable. It’s cheaper than what I paid to get here when I arrived.
Air Vanuatu also told me I needed to be at the airport at 4:30. I asked if I could swing 5 and she said “definitely not” but now here I am, at the airport at 4:30, watching staff arrive and set up to start the day. Some people show up as late as 6:10 when we’re literally ready to board. Better to be safe than sorry but it’s harder to feel good about that when I lost precious hours of sleep. An additional discount on my ticket (of about 3,000VT) meant I had to opt for non-refundable, so I wasn’t ready to take any chances this morning.
The flight to Santo is just 40 minutes so sleeping is not really a thing. I take a nap when I get to my hostel, which thankfully has my room ready when I arrive and even offer me free breakfast (3 pieces of toast with butter, but still appreciate it). I’m someone who needs my sleep. And if I’m going to have to be on my toes about haggling I can’t be tired. Maybe it’s the heat or the fact that I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in a couple days, but I pass right out.
After my lil mornin’ siesta I decide to walk to town. I’ll get my bearings and see what there is to do on the island. The Maps.me App says it’s a 45 minute walk which seems a little extreme, but I’m sure I can find a bus on the main road. My lodge is on a bumpy rugged side road, so some cars pass but I’m certain it’s not a popular bus route. A hear a “hello, hi! Nice to meet you” coming from about 200m behind me. I turn around and see one solo guy walking my direction and waving at me. K not a huge deal but defo ignoring him.
He keeps the same distance but tries again to shout hello every now and then. It’s not like there are other routes to take so I wouldn’t say he’s following me but I don’t love that he keeps calling after me either. I avoid looking back as much as possible but also need to ensure he’s not coming closer. I take my room key in hand as a weapon in case of an emergency, though I know I’m being way overly cautious and will be fine. Vanuatu is a safe place… but if we’re being honest nowhere is truly safe for a woman walking on her own. Im comforted that it’s the middle of the day, and the odd car passes now and again.
At the junction between the main road and the bumpy dirt road I have just been walking along, there’s a taxi. I have no interest in overpaying to go to town, but I am keen to have someone near me to dissuade this guy from coming closer. I stand next to the taxi until a bus comes moments later. I get on the bus before the guy who was following me even makes it to the end of the road, but I turn back to see him standing there waving at me. Definitely weird af, but I think overall a non threatening situation.
Santo is popular for diving, snorkelling, beaches, resorts, weddings etc., so I had it in my head that it would be full of restaurants and tourism offices. I was very wrong. I’m surprised to find that I’m the only tourist in town. I’m also the only person in shorts and a tank top. All the locals are wearing t shirts and long skirts or shorts. I’m feeling very naked as I walk along with my pale ass legs out for all to see. No one seems to mind, but I do. I come across a used clothing shop and choose a light t-shirt for 350VT ($5) to help cover me up, without sweating to death. I would have preferred loose pants but that wasn’t an option.
I head to the market for lunch, hoping to find another cheap 200VT ($2.50) meal, but I can only find fruit. After biting my tongue yesterday, just the thought of having straight pineapple for lunch burns. So I press on and stop into a restaurant with reasonable enough prices. I choose a beef stew which comes over a huge portion of rice for 500VT ($7). Everyone in the shop is watching intently as the tv plays some extremely dramatic but low budget action film I don’t recognize. I watch too but I think I’ve come to the party too late, and don’t understand what’s going on. I think there’s a clone involved though.
I decide to try and get to the blue holes. I’m also keen on the beautiful Champagne beach, but I’ve heard it’s 1,000VT ($13) for entry and that seems unnecessary. So blue holes it is. there are 2 but I don’t think I need to visit both and I’m sure it’ll just cost me, so I choose the Matevulu blue holes after someone recommends it. Making the straight decision instead of faffing about.
I start trying to hail buses and keep getting quoted 2,000VT ($25), and one guy just even tells me a flat our no. Not this again!! I just keep walking and trying to hail. Eventually I come across a gas station and pop inside to ask them if I can find a bus to the blue holes. It turns out this is the bus station. Really doesn’t look like a bus station… but I guess it’s sort of a two-in-one where the station attendants fill gas tanks and also arrange for people to hop in with drivers going to same direction. The people at the desk are so friendly, and say they will help me find someone to take me to the blue holes for 500VT ($7). That’s reasonable. I sit down on a bench and wait. Watching as the gas attendant asks everyone who pulls up to fill their tank if they’ll take me. I don’t wait long, and after maybe 10 minutes of sitting there, someone agrees. It’s not a bus driver though, just a regular taxi, which is surprising.
I don’t think I’ll do better than that, so I get in. My driver’s name is Ken (everyone here has a suspiciously American name) and he’s got great English skills so we chat the whole way to the blue holes, which takes about half an hour. He tells me that it’s still customary for people to pay for wives here. The most is $1,000 AUD. I still think it’s crazy, but he explains it’s more just a tradition to give the family something for stealing their daughter away. And arranged marriages are still a thing, but people are more and more commonly falling in love and choosing their own partners, which is nice.
I ask him about the safety in Vanuatu, and explain my weird situation this morning with the guy who kinda followed me down the road. Ken laughs and says it’s very safe, and that a few years ago the government really cracked down on crime. It sounds like there’s some form of death penalty, or at the very least someone who will “break your face” if you steal…which is maybe a little intense but I guess if it means no one is going to rob or murder me… He also then asks me why I got in a car with him, a strange man when I’m on my own. Good. Fucking. Question. I tell him I don’t know but I just have to trust that he won’t kill me. He pretends he’s about to steal my bag and push me out of the car and then laughs like crazy.
It hits me every now and again when I’m travelling, that it’s commonplace to get in a random person’s car/tuk tuk/bus whatever it may be, without really knowing where you’re going. I once walked into the jungle in the middle of the night with a man I’d never met before. I had arranged for a night tour so it’s not like I just blindly followed him out of the blue…and I totally walked away unharmed (actually one of my best experiences in Thailand) but in hindsight, wtf. Ken slows down and pulls to the side of the road a few times which never fails to alarm me, but it’s always just in an attempt to dodge a pot hole. I try to relax.
We arrive at the Matevulu blue holes and it becomes VERY clear to me that I never could have taken a bus here. There’s almost no one else on the main road for our entire journey and after we turn off we have to take a pretty intense steep and bumpy road before we get there. Even if I could have taken a bus I reckon I’d have had to walk this bit.
I am the only person here. I love the Pacific islands for this. It’s more stressful to get around but damn it’s nice when you’re on your own. I have to pay 500VT for entry to what must be one of the most beautiful places in the world. Crystal clear blue water, similar to what I visited in Port Vila yesterday, but surrounded by jungle and even bigger. This one is also cooler fresh water, while the blue lagoon in Vila was salty and warm. A beautiful giant bayon tree has had wooden slats nailed to it to create a ladder, leading up to a rope swing, but my poor tongue is still healing after yesterday’s face plant, so I don’t think I will, thank you.
I swim about until a couple arrives and I’m getting cold. Ken offers to take a photo of me and I am confronted with how extremely pale I am.
I get back in the car and Ken takes me back to my accom at the Hidden Lodge. He’s stoked because his brother is the manager there. He insists we stop for a kava and while I’m not a huge fan (tastes gross, doesn’t feel like much) I appreciate the offer, so I just have a small one and pretend it’s the first time I’ve tried it.
I’ve entirely given up on trying to do stuff on my own – tours need to be booked. So I ask the woman at my lodge about how I can best get to Ambrym or Pentecost. Ambrym looks absolutely epic. There are two active volcanoes with various hiking trails to the bubbling lava pools at the summit, a tribe that practices black magic, and numerous black sand beaches. I need to go, but there’s only one flight per week and I’ve missed it. This is my greatest regret and I will have to come back (one day when I have money).
Pentecost has always somewhat been my plan. This is where the N’gol land diving ritual is held…and while its wildly expensive at 33,000VT ($430) it’s also a once in a lifetime experience so I’m doing it. It also requires two flights and helps to sustain the economy of Pentecost island for the rest of the year, as it doesn’t make much income from tourism outside of these 3 months. I’m still feeling a lil risky because the N’gol is on Saturday and I have to catch a flight back to Santo, then a flight back to Port Vila in order to catch my Sunday afternoon flight home to Auckland, but I think it can happen.
Life is short, buy the ticket, right?