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Vanuatu Islands of Fire

Vanuatu, the  Islands of Fire,  most people have never heard of Vanuatu as a country, yet alone visited it. For me coming to this amazing chain of islands, nestled in the middle of the Pacific was a dream for over a decade. I remember watching season of Survivor (yes the reality show) and seeing Jeff Probst standing on a rim of this massive volcano, staring down the Carretera, into pot of boiling magma. …I knew on day I had to visit this remote place; I just didn’t know when and how that would have happened. So, when I left on my round the world trip that lasted 16 months, and I made it as close to Oceania as Australia and New Zealand. I knew it’s going to be now or never. First, I visited magical Fiji (post coming up), and instantly fell in love in the Melanesian culture. Vanuatu was relatively very close, so I booked flight from Fiji, and soon enough found myself on amazing, off the beaten track adventure. There are no words describing the feeling when you land in foreign place, especially place you don’t know much about. Your expectation rarely meets reality, and in my case, it has always been a nice surprise. So, when I landed on a small island of TannaI didn’t know what a ‘ride’ I am in store. Since public transport, is really scare in Vanuatu (expect pretty decent minibus network in Port Villa, on Efate) I had the owner of the tree house lodge picking me up. It cost extra 25$ per person. There were 2 other girls going to the same location, so we jumped into Robert’s pick-up truck, and embarked on an interesting 1h ride on pretty bumpy, gravel roads. The minute we hit the road I could sense the adventur; foreign land, lush jungle, local markets with all kind sort of exotic fruits, little barefoot kids smiling and waving at us, (it’s a local tradition for tourist to greet kids with lollipops, so make sure to buy some at the market), very primitive villages, ‘gas stations (usually a girl pouring gas from gallon container using just a funnel), and the very traditional kava shops. It all felt like time traveling so some unknown century, in unknown to me culture…

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What is Kava?

What is kava? When in Rome…one must try kava. Kava is very potent traditional drink in the Pacific derived from the root of kava plant, and sold in very specific kava bars. (For the most part nothing but a shack made out of baboo) It’s very old tradition for social gatherings, but also in many regions of Oceania kava rituals have more of spiritual assosiation. Kava, from Tongan means ‘bitter’, and bitter or ‘earthy it tastes. Usually served in coconut shell (you’re supposed to it down it in 1 hit, and spit out the very distinct aftertaste (it’s not a sign of disrespect). On average you’d drink 2-3 cups before starting to feel any of the desired effects such as calming, relaxing state. Numbness on the tongue is felt right away. Kava drink has very muddy color, and somehow its flavor may resemble that. To me it has very earthy aftertaste…It either grows on you, or it doesn’t’. But when visiting Vanuatu one must stop by these traditional kava bars.Most traditional kava bars are very simple structures. They usually have a light in front of them to signal whether it's open or closed. Red light means it's open. In the past most kava bars were only available to men, but these days usually both women and foreigners are welcome.


Traditional Kava Bar

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Jeep Ride to the Village

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Visiting Mt Yasur

Back to my story… For the best views and experience, I sat in the back on the truck. Let’s say ‘bumpy road’ got a whole new meaning, especially when Robert decided to make sharp turn literary onto steep side of a volcano Mt Yasur, and inevitably I ended up on the other side of the truck. Once we pulled over, on gray, ash coated side of this beautiful volcano, everyone’s reactions was simple- wow! The reason, that brought me to this beautiful, authentic destination was standing right in front of me in all its majesty.

Later we got to our accommodation (a tree house), which was very simple and unique, but neither sound nor …rat proof, yet magical in its own way. Each of them, was nestled on top of very sturdy Banyan trees. There were no showers, just basic sink with water barrels, toilet and bucket with water, I got so used to by now. Actually, the same week, I arrived at Roberts’ lodge, was the first week local communities got water connected to their huts, as opposed to having to drive miles with big containers to bring it. I was pretty excited for all the villagers. It was very joyful moment for them, very humbling and refreshening experience for me. After tasty dinner, I got to my tree house (as I mentioned very basic, funky accommodation with serious rat problem, but hey...it was part of the very off the beaten adventure). That night from my shaky balcony, I got first glimpse at the orange glow in close distance. Yasur was so close… Entry to the National Park was literary across the road from Robert’s. The fees are ridiculously expansive, mainly because one company (Chinese owned) has monopoly. First time entry costs around 85$US (very steep price, but it’s once in a lifetime opportunity…it really is till…), 2nd visit costs 50$ , 3rd is free…I highly recommend doing all 3, mainly because sunrise and sunset both offer something different, plus not every trip guarantees all 3 viewpoints. It all depends of the weather and direction of the wind carrying serious amounts ash. Sunset tour also offers traditional dance spectacle, I found very interesting. Note: Tourists are not allowed to enter the park without guides. It all starts from short, bumpy ride in a jeep to access point higher up the volcano. From there it’s a pretty easy and short hike up to the rim. On my first trip (for sunrise) we went only able to get close to 2 viewing points. It’s still pretty incredible to literary stand on top of volcano, watching magma shoot up in frequent intervals. That day I also did sunset tour, which allowed me to have another mesmerizing and thrilling experience. We were able to walk to the other side of the rim, with great visibility this time, and perfect angle looking down the crater at the pool of boiling magma. THIS was why I came here for. Absolutely mind blowing, breathtaking, and exuberayting experience I will never forget. Masks or face coverings were highly recommended, mainly because the conditions were changing fast, and we were getting occasionally blinded by serious gusts of ash wind, which also drifted really irritating smell of Sulphur. It all  added extra element of adventure, and exploration, but the ash was no joke.


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Other Things to Do in Tanna and Port Villa

After that I ended up spending 5 more days exploring Tanna island. My favorite highlights were visits to authentic kava bars, but also very special authentic visit to this one village. Every Friday, locals would gather together and perform some of the most mesmerizing music, in honor of important person for Vanuatu John Frum (who was  associated with cargo cults on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu, often depicted as an American World War II serviceman who would bring wealth and prosperity to the people if they follow him.) This tradition would go on whole night, in very rhythmic pattern, performed by different families, that would rotate after each song, using traditional drums, and humming like chanting or singing. Just imagine sitting under palm shelter, with no lights just few candle lights, and bunch of stars, hearing waves of the Ocean crashing in the distance, and listening to beautiful mantras and music…magical. The whole Vanuatu experience was. I also spend 4 days on the main island Efate, hanging around very interesting city of Port Villa. Transportation near the capital was very good. For 1-2$ you hop on one of many minivans that take you around the island. I ended up visiting there many peaceful beaches, with very few locals, mainly peaceful locals. I also visited amazing coffee factory I can’t recommend enough Tanna Coffee. Coffee is second most grown products in Vanuatu after kava. And because of its rich and fertile soil, Vanuatu produces some of the most delicious coffee in the world. Tanna Coffee is the most notable company in the country, where everything is done by hand, so I highly recommend checking it out. That place also produces sandalwood oil, and many other local products. Another thing to do around Port Villa is to just walk around and visit many local markets, handicraft fairs, and not to be missed is a visit to an incredible fire show at the famous Beach Bar (every Friday).


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