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  • Writer's pictureGrace Hamilton

UV13 is just the beginning

How to survive a week in Vanuatu: plus every culture shock I learned


My 2022 Christmas and New Years week was spent in the very beautiful, and equally humid, Vanuatu. Port Villa that is, because third world travel needs to be taken in baby steps. While my mum had been three times in the past, it was an inaugural trip for myself, my sister and Dad. As a result, there were some parts of our daily adventures that uncovered culture shocks I'd never seen coming. Now, I feel it is only my duty to share those with you. Whether for entertainment, education, or humorous benefit, I hope these come in handy. In the case you do have a Vanuatu retreat on the horizon, I suggest taking notes: these 12 WILL come in handy.



ONE - The airport. Everything about it

If you've been to an international airport before, there are some things you are prepared for. Baggage collection, customs and air con for example - right? Yeh well, Vanuatu has one (almost) fully-fledged version of those things. The baggage collection exists, but be prepared for a delay. And during that delay, be ready to sweat it out. My family of four stood around the singular carousel for about 30 minutes before our luggage arrived. Giving credit where it's due, nothing was missing or damaged so I suppose that can count as a win. In that time however, my sister had the misfortune of finding a particularly creepy crawly bug in her shoe. Don't ask me how it got there, because the mystery remains 12 months on. Nonetheless, lesson learned to check your shoes even after you've been wearing them for hours. No feet are safe.

About the customs - or lack of - this was the first MAJOR shock. Most countries (and I'm referring to the first world countries I've been to) have a procedure of 'declaration - sniff or metal detection - extra questioning - screening - blah blah blah,' or something along those lines. Vanuatu however, is more like 'paper declaration - security asks if you're telling the truth - free to go.' While I was thankful for it at the time (we'd landed at midnight,' it also leads me to wonder what you'd have to do to raise suspicion.

And the air con? It just wasn't a thing.

SURVIVAL TIP: Wear light if you're going in summer. I sweated through my singlet and (light pink) tracks at midnight.



TWO - Driving rules (there are none)

This one has so many layers it's not funny. Not only are seatbelts optional, no one knows which side to drive on. Like, usually they drove on the right hand side, but there are no road lines so one can simply take turns on the left if they wish. Then there's the fact 90% of the island owned a ute and used it to transport 10-15 people at once. No, I don't mean the Utes had 10 seats - I mean the tray back was filled with extras who didn't fit in the actual seats. I thought at first 'surely police will pick up on that.' But no, a police ute with officers in the tray came speeding past on our first morning, so safe to say it's not something they worry about.

SURVIVAL TIP: Don't get in a ute



THREE - Public transport buses

Here's one that piggybacks off the above. Buses are THE form of public transport. On our first morning, the hotel owner said he'd catch the bus with us to the main strip in Port Villa (about a 5-10min drive both ways). I was expecting to sit at a station and wait for a bus, naturally. But that idea was quickly quashed when I found out that 'buses' were actually mini vans driven by everyday locals who had registered a vehicle to transport people. They have about 6-8 seats each, usually the seats are peeling, and you pay the equivalent of $2 AUD per person for the fare (more if it's a longer trip). Note, you don't need to be at a 'bus stop' to flag one down. In fact, those don't exist. You just have to stand on the side of the road and wave.

Sometimes you can arrange with a driver for them to transport you for a full day from place to place for a fixed rate. We did this on our fourth day to get between the Blue Lagoon, Hideaway Island, and the Cascades for the equivalent of $190 AUD total ($45-50 per person). They usually love this because it guarantees them work, and it saves you the time of waiting. While you're enjoying the sites, the driver simply (sleeps) sits in his/ her bus and waits.

SURVIVAL TIP: If the bus flashes at you, that means it's not in use or is too full



FOUR - Water safety does not exist

This one has two meanings. First off, you can't drink tap water. I know there are plenty of countries with this stipulation, but if it hadn't been for my mum, I would have happily sunk a litre during the first night without knowing. So that means you have to buy bottled water everywhere you go, and more when you run out. Secondly, pools and what not don't have any fencing. Maybe it's an Australian thing to not want little kids running around bodies of water, but it totally shocked me.

SURVIVAL TIP: Have a bottle of water near the sink for when you brush your teeth (even this is enough water to make you ill)



FIVE - Honking is the new hello

We've circled back to the road rules again, but I promise you this is a good one. Drivers in Vanuatu ALWAYS honk at each other. Not like we do in Aus, though. It's not a 'get off the f-ing road' or 'move shithead' honk, but a 'hey' honk. Quite literally, it's a way for drivers to wave at each other as they drive past. And I still wasn't used to it by the end of the week.


SIX - Hello is the new nod

Likewise, everyone you pass on the street, in cafes, on the boat - in the water even - will say hello. The funny thing is when you don't speak the language they've said it in and you're left second guessing if it really was a hello. I found most people assumed my family were English speakers, with the occasional person saying 'salut' or 'bonjour' (not mad about it really). Coming back home was odd, since no one does that to strangers in Australia. So I guess reverse culture shocks came into play.

SURVIVAL TIP: Just say it back



SEVEN - Measurement is overrated

We were sitting at a happy hour bar on our third day, and my sister and I had ordered these 'Toblerone' cocktails. Baileys, frangelico, kahlua and milk + ice. We watched as the bartender made our drinks, loosely measuring an ounce of each, before he got to the baileys. He held the bottle, swirled it, poured the ounces and then realised it was nearly done. Instead of leaving it for the next drink, this bartender poured what was about two more ounces into the blender to finish the bottle. Look, I'm not mad. In fact, I wish more places pulled tricks like that. But it quickly became apparent that this was an island-wide trend. Sometimes our pina colada would taste like juice, other times it would knock us out in three slurps. Combine this with the no pool safety thing - and poolside drinks take on a new meaning.

SURVIVAL TIP: No need to double park, I promise


EIGHT - RSA, who's that?

You may as well leave your ID at home, because no one gives a shit anyway. In fact, Kava was being offered to underaged patrons without a worry in the world. It's of course a cultural activity - Kava drinking I mean - but nonetheless a shock to me. And by the way, Kava is not exactly a tasty drink, but it's definitely something you should try. Be wary, you can't hesitate with it. Once you sip, there's only one thing to do - scull. Otherwise it's impossible to continue. The best way I can explain it is: mud-like matcha with a cold spice that tingles.

SURVIVAL TIP: I've given it up already: scull or nothing



NINE - Those aren't my dogs

There seemed to be an endless supply of stray dogs roaming the streets - on every part of the island. At first it was hard to compute the whole 'not pat safe' thing, but the fleas became a pretty strong indicator. The thing is, they weren't afraid to follow us. At the cascades for example, we were given a fruit platter to enjoy while swimming, and two strays seemed to take that as an invite. Unfortunately they also enjoy public breeding (not the sightseeing I was expecting that's for sure).

SURVIVAL TIP: Don't pat, don't feed, don't call and you'll be safe.


TEN - The fries situation.

Soggy fries. That's all I have to say. They're cooked - that's for sure - but no where near the level of crisp I've grown accustomed to.

SURVIVAL TIP: If you're the kind of person who asks for their fries extra crispy when using drive-through, I'd consider ordering something else.



ELEVEN - Ah yes, the wiping issue

This one is NOT to be taken lightly. Not all public toilets have paper. So be prepared to be unprepared. This shock can be extra, well, shocking when you have to do *that* business and don't realise your predicament until you're deep into it. You'll usually find hotels and restaurant toilets are safe, since they are tourist hot spots. Local shops and cafes however are hit and miss. Make sure you ask the workers if you'll need to bring your own 'wiping material.'

SURVIVAL TIP: Carry tissues wherever you go, just in case


TWELVE - Shoes, no sir

You know how socks and slides are frowned upon by Gen X as 'lazy?' Wait until they see the footwear trends in Port Villa. I mean, lack of footwear that is. It's not uncommon to see people walking barefoot along the street paths and in shops. No one minds, no one questions, and most importantly no one seems to be hopping in pain despite the 43 degree heat. When dining at a nice restaurant, you'll usually find thongs and sandals as the primary footwear, with the occasional vans knock-off.

SURVIVAL TIP: Follow the trend. It's easier, comfier and leaves more room for packing



SOME EXTRA HINTS:

  • Most shop owners, drivers and hospitality workers speak basic English and many also speak French. So if you're worried about a language barrier, I'd suggest have your bases covered on both

  • If you are eating out, stick to fish and chicken meats unless you feel confident in where the beef and other meats are sourced from. While it may be a sanitary venue, Vanutu is not a first world country and you do run the risk of dealing with your food choices at 1am in the bathroom.

  • An umbrella would be a smart choice of packing for day trips. There is a trend of rain, sun, shower, sun, pour, sun. You just never know.


SO...

While it's not for everyone, Vanuatu is a cost effective family friendly destination for young and old(ish) - depending on your fear of reckless driving. I personally haven't ventured during the winter months, but I can vouch that summer is a spectacle and spring would be all the same. Bon voyage, tout le monde!

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