The day we arrived in Port Vila we spent a few hours tidying up, as you do after a passage, then followed the other cruisers into the nearby bar for happy hour. We probably should have made a beeline to customs where we needed to complete our entry paperwork and pay a fee, but tomorrow’s always another day and the beer ashore was cold and cheap. The next day, it turns out, was Constitution Day and a national holiday. Great! we said, and how is it celebrated? We got the lowdown from various locals at the bar and made plans to get up extra early the next morning.
We were following the stream of Ni-Vanuatu towards the central market by 7:45 and stationed ourselves on the forward edge of spectators. Beyond our position were men in uniform who tacitly made it clear we’d gone far enough. Shortly after 8:00 the military band marched down the street playing a rousing 19th century style number that had Jack commenting the you can always tell when the English have been around. The French, too, I said. The band was followed by a color guard who stopped directly in front of the government office building, while the band marched to the end of the block, did a fancy inside-out turnaround maneuver, and finished off in formation right in front of us. The band and the color guard showed their stuff for another upbeat number, then they all stood at ease as the uniformed guards kept their eyes trained down the street in front of us. We were obviously waiting for something, but what?
Just when we were about to ask what was happening, a woman crossed the street with printed programs and we did our best to decipher the Bislama, with the help of our fellow spectators. We learned we were waiting for the arrival of the prime minister and the president — they’ve got both! — and they arrived in due time in heavily guarded black SUVs.
After a musical fanfare and military salute for each dignitary the president inspected the honor guard and the band, then took his place on the dais with the other bigwigs for the singing of “Hae God, Yu God Blong Mifala” or “O God Our Help in Ages Past.” This was followed by the reading of the preamble of the constitution, which includes a passage about “cherishing our ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity.” Gotta love that it’s baked right in.
The president spoke for about 15 minutes during which I tried my best to get the gist, but managed only to understand a few words here and there but did come to recognize some verbal patterns in this very interesting creole.
The ceremony concluded with the traditional kava drinking, then more salutes by the band and the honor guard, followed by refreshments, to which the spectating public were invited.
We had a date for breakfast with friends so we decided to forego the chocolate cake and kava, but I did take the opportunity to get a photo with two of the Supreme Court justices, who graciously obliged.
On our way to breakfast we passed the second parade of the day, this one celebrating International Teachers Day, complete with a village chief or two.
I’d say we had quite the welcome to Port Vila, and Jack topped it off with a high five from his favorite tennis player.