Vanuatu, like most island groups in the South Pacific, lies roughly along a line running southeast to northwest. That means if you want to visit the southern islands you want to hit them first because the trade winds generally blow from the southeast. Fiji insists you clear Customs at ports of entry well to the north, so you’re forced to sail nearly 200 miles passed one of the most desirable destinations, the unique Falaga. We waited for weeks for a weather window that would take us back south against the prevailing winds and seas to the island we had sailed so close to on our way up from New Zealand, but for us, and for many Fiji visitors, it never happened and we had to reluctantly scratch Falaga off our to-see list, something we’ll always regret.
Vanautu’s official ports of entry are also well north of the southernmost island but they’ve made a small concession, allowing entry at Aneityum with prior written permission and an additional fee. We requested permission and after four tries finally got an official letter granting it.
The morning after our night entry into the anchorage we hailed Customs on the VHF radio but the only response we got was from a nearby yacht who told us Customs doesn’t have a radio but would come to the boat in their own time, probably later in the morning. All we could do was wait onboard and hope they came soon. After 3-1/2 days at sea we were eager to get ashore, stretch our legs and get a local SIM card for the phone so we could access the internet and retrieve our email.
By and by we were visited by a friendly local in a beautiful newly-crafted outrigger. We had a long conversation during which we mentioned we were waiting for Customs to come clear us in. After a while he paddled away but returned not long after to tell us Customs didn’t have a boat that day and said we should meet them ashore. Our new friend Jesse pointed to a spot across the anchorage where we could land and ask someone to guide us to the guesthouse where the Customs and Immigration officers were staying.
We dinghied in, pulled the boat up on the beach and followed a man along a path to a small house where, without a word, he pointed toward an open doorway and then disappeared. Inside we found the Customs and Immigration officers, here temporarily in anticipation of the arrival in a few days of two cruise ships. We filled out the usual paperwork, paid some fees, and were granted permission to take down our Q flag. We need to complete the entry procedure when we get to Port Vila in a couple of weeks but at least for now, we’re legal.
The yacht we’d spoken to earlier told us to ask for “Esta” ashore and she’d sell us a SIM card. We asked the Customs man where to find her and he told us there was another shop right next door where we could also get a SIM card. Ok, I said, but thinking the other yacht had already scope it out, asked again where Esta was. “She’s Samoan,” he said, I thought just by way of conversation.
We found Esta by wandering down the beach and asking anyone we met along the way. She was supervising a gathering of women and children, most of whom were sitting on the ground eating food served on broad leaves. She told us it was a women’s day of prayer and we’d arrived at lunchtime. I said we were after a SIM card and offered to come back later, but instead she offered me a leaf laden with cassava and pumpkin cooked in coconut milk, while Jack darted away before she could give him some. When she asked if he didn’t want to eat too, I leaned forward and whispered, “He’s a picky eater.” She nodded knowingly, and glanced in his direction. He’d suddenly found something about a nearby tree very interesting. Smooth.
Esta told her helpers she was taking us to the shop to get us a SIM card and as we followed her further down the beach she told us she was indeed Samoan and that she’d married a man from Aneityum who worked on the cruise ships — I think that’s what she said — and that they had traveled all over the Pacific before retiring back here. Like many Pacific Islanders she has grown children in New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere because eventually they leave for higher education and better opportunities.
Her shop is surprisingly well-stocked but we didn’t want to keep her from the prayer gathering any longer than necessary and quickly completed our transaction. On the way back along the beach she told us her name was actually Marinessa but that the nuns in Apia where she went to school decided she would be called Esther instead because they felt she embodied the qualities of the biblical Esther. “But it’s not my name,” she said solemnly, and I could see that she felt something had been taken away from her a long time ago and that it still grates. “Marinessa,” I repeated. “It’s a pretty name.”
We said goodbye and returned to Escape Velocity, eager to get the SIM card installed and check email. Jack wanted to get started on diagnosing the port engine, too, assuming an overheating issue and a relatively easy fix. The weather was fine. More exploration of the island could wait for another day.
Back on board, after getting the phone up and running, and while Jack was making his usual engine work grumbling noises below, it dawned on me that the Customs man may have told me that “Esta” was Samoan by way of encouraging us to patronize a Vanuatan rather than someone he considered an outsider. I have much to learn.