Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Vile voyage

"Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows." Quote from The Tempest by William Shakespeare (1564 - 1616)
Due to our engine failure near the end of our passage from Fiji, we had to bypass 2 of Vanuatu's southern islands: Aneityum (aka Anatom) and Tanna. Aneityum supposedly has great snorkelling with white sandy beaches and is an easy official check-in spot.

But Tanna, with its active volcano, we had been looking forward to since we heard about it when we were in El Salvador. So bypassing was a great disappointment, but it was prudent to check into the main town of Port Vila where we could remedy the motor problem (failed injector pump).

After ordering a rebuilt injector pump from England, we had some time to kill so decided to go down to Tanna. Flights were not cheap. The other choice: cargo ship. We discovered that a couple of junk cargo freighters will carry some passengers to Tanna. We checked with 1 but it was too late for us as it was already full and leaving in a couple of hours. So we continued to check every day until we saw another junk freighter, Maiko, which made the trip south to Tanna.

Maiko primarily takes cargo but also takes 50 passengers maximum along to Tanna for 4000 Vatu each (about Cdn $40 each). The boat looked pretty rustic, or should I say rusty, but it made weekly trips. We decided it would be safe enough; after all, the locals use it, right? Well, when we say 'junk' freighter, we are being real generous, let me put it that way.

Maiko and waiting passengers

With a free taxi tide in our friend's dinghy, we boarded from the dinghy to the stern of Maiko at 14:30 for a 15:00 voyage. We had to be careful while climbing on because of several large holes in the rusty 'swim deck' of the stern. This was our last chance to change our minds but we were up for a new adventure.

Judy in upper left (her seat for 22 hours)

The ship was still being loaded with everything from sacks of rice, flour, building material, beds, bikes, drums of fuel...all arrays of island life supplies, not to forget, finally a small work boat.

Loading the hold

Just before sailing, there was a roll call for the waiting paid passengers to climb aboard, each choosing their spot on the upper aft deck for the crossing.

Time to board!

As we surveyed our surroundings, we began to see what level of luxury our booking had provided. The craft was colourful - rust red! The views from our seats were nice as the decks were see-through. We were provided with 'natural' air conditioning as we were virtually exposed to the elements. Our smiles and nods were returned with quizzical gazes from the solemn natives. We finally slipped the lines at 16:30, wondering what we got ourselves into.

Motley passengers

Within half an hour, we were out in the open ocean, beating against a stiff wind and wave action. The passengers started to take their lying positions, some on their traditional woven mats but mostly on whatever horizontal surface they could claim. It quickly became rail-to-rail reclining human cargo.

It didn't take long for the passengers, not used to rough seas, to become seasick. There was only 1 bucket available which was not adequate for everyone to use. And to make it worse, it was a LEAKY bucket. We sat on our narrow bench seat as kids and adults who couldn't commandeer the puke pail hurled in their rolled up T-shirts, on blankets, on their dad's shoulder, or any open deck within close shot. The odorous drainage soon reached the floor by us and we moved our backpack just in time. This became the night's drama.

Being used to sailing on the open sea, Jordan and I took the motion in stride with no effects, especially since I had taken a seasick pill (Stugeron) before leaving.

Across from us, in the midst of and inconsistent with the scene of the sick and sleeping, sat a couple of young men oblivious to their surroundings. They were swaying, but not so much from the motion of the pitching boat but from the hilarity of a loud jubilant conversation. This went on endlessly for hours - with only us, I think, noticing.

With amusement, we watched as after almost every Bislama (native language) sentence they would rock back with loud open laughter or rock forward to head between knees, slapping their thighs and stomping their feet, roaring with a deep 'uncontainabl'" laughter. We thought What could they find so funny for so long? Actually we found it not unusual to hear such laughter in the scenes of Vanuatu. They are a happy people (except maybe for rough boat travel).

This chilly voyage lasted 20 hours (plus 2 hours on board before leaving) and thankfully we had brought a couple of sandwiches with us which we managed to eat while exchanging forced cheerful glances at each other in the dreadful conditions. But 22 hours is a very long time. Too long. So where could I find a toilet?

Jordan warned me and said I would not use it. Don't even consider looking in it! I didn't take him seriously, but when I saw it, I could not even enter the tiny room. Jordan described it as though it could be a scene from an exaggerated, humourous, horror movie! The evil lidless toilet bowl was covered in vomit and all kinds of 'crappy' stuff, as were its contents that it threatened to gush out upon its guest with every surging wave. And of course there was only the 1 toilet and no sink or running water.

Needless to say, Jordan stood guard while I quickly peed in a corner on deck, which was quickly washed away by the spraying ocean water over the sides. This little cutie who hardly said a word for the entire voyage was the luckiest being clad in diapers.

No worries for me!!

We had not expected the passage to take so long but the wind and waves were against us, slowing the ship's speed. When we finally arrived, it was to a concrete pier mostly exposed to the waves. As the boat bucked and rolled, we were helped off Maiko to terra firma at the little town of Lanakel on the west side of the island of Tanna. We had never been so thrilled to be back on land again!

At last, safely disembarking

The passengers, once on the pier, regained their jolly countenance and it was a abuzz with unloading activity that matched the jovial waiting villagers.

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