In November, I visited my boyfriend working onboard the ms Volendam, which was sailing the South Pacific. After leaving from Sydney, Australia, the ship visited a bunch of unremarkable ports, until we hit Wala Island, Vanuatu.
As someone who has also worked on a cruise ship for several years and travels pretty extensively in her free time, it’s hard to really grab my attention, but this tiny little island succeeded. It was the first time I ever felt I was really experiencing something new, tasting a culture as it really is.
After getting off the tender, we were greeted by a bunch of eager locals, offering to take us on tours of the village. Amidst the chaos, you could see farmers stalls everywhere with the locals selling every sort of tacky bauble imaginable and lots of children asking for a dollar in exchange to look at their fish or rooster. Tim, the boyfriend, and I decided to head off on the culture tour and were taken on a five minute walk out of the main thorough fare. From here on out there was a drastic change. We walked by huts made out of bamboo and down a dirt path, past pigs and enigmatic goat tied to a post in the middle of nowhere. After a few minutes, our guide had led us into the jungle. As we were beginning to relax for a peace journey into Vanuatian culture, suddenly 4 nearly naked men jumped out from the behind some trees and ran at us with clubs and axes. I screamed. Tim jumped in front of me. Then the men all burst into laughter and our guide, still grinning, gleefully informed us that we were standing in the spot where the original missionaries to the island, one hundred years ago, had been slaughtered. Apparently future missionaries got a little farther inland, because the guide, still grinning, told us not to worry, almost everyone is Christian now.
After having the daylights scared out of me, and being rather unsettled about standing in a spot where several men were martyred for their faith by people who could be these now nice natives grandparents, we did the proper tourist thing and snapped a picture of them. It turned out pretty foggy because my camera was still adjusting to the humidity on the island.
From there our guide took us to an enclosed area where several of the locals put on an interesting dancing show, with sea shells tied around their ankles to create a unique sound. We also saw older women working on bamboo crafts that are still used by the islanders today. A man blew into a giant coral structure, blowing out our ear drums with a resounding toot. We watched two men make fire. After that we paid our ten dollars and headed back to the main road.
After Tim and I took a romantic stroll along the beach, making us perfect targets to be offered a cultural tour every two minutes or so, we eventually decided we had no desire to have the colorful bamboo trinkets hawked at us anymore and headed back towards the tenders.
We stopped for our final adventure at the kava bar. I had a vague understanding that kava was some sort of potent alcoholic drink, occasionally used as an anesthetic. Once we saw the sign, we realized we had to give this local delicacy a try. It turns out kava is an herbal drink made of a mixture of root and water. As they handed me the mud brown drink, I made the awful mistake of sniffing it, but I was in true adventurer mode. Nothing was going to stop me. So I took a big sip. Immediately my tongue and tonsils went numb, but somehow, despite being unable to feel my taste buds, I was still able to taste the grainy and yet somehow filmy consistency of muddy water (at least it was true to its color) burn its way down my throat and into my stomach. It felt and tasted like I had just licked a frog. It was a memorable experience – certainly memorable enough for once in a lifetime.
I cannot recommend this island highly enough because of its unique cultural immersion and because of its lack of Diamonds International and Del Sol – although I’m sure 5 years from now, you’ll still be able to drink kava and see where the missionaries died, but you’ll probably be able to buy a diamond that changes colors in the sun too.