The Pacific Ocean is vast and the cruising season too short to do it justice, so by the time we arrived in Vanuatu on the first leg of our circumnavigation we could only spend a week there if we were to reach Australia by the start of the cyclone season. We wanted to avoid getting caught in a cyclone like Pam, which hit Vanuatu three weeks ago leaving 16 people dead and causing widespread destruction. We’d experienced wind of more than 70 mph once in a storm in the Gulf of Mexico, and the noise it made as it screamed through Stella Maris’ rigging was terrifying. I can’t imagine what it’s like to experience the sustained 155 mph winds they had in Vanuatu, but a man we met in Honduras told us that he would rather die than relive the terror he felt when Hurricane Mitch passed over the island of Guanaja in 1998.
Reading about Cyclone Pam made me think of the friendly and welcoming people we’d met in the village of Sunae who had made our few days in Vanuatu so memorable. We’d left the hustle and bustle of the capital, Port Vila, to anchor in a protected channel between six-mile-long Moso Island and the main island of Efate. It was beautiful spot, with turquoise water bounded on either side by lush vegetation and sandy beaches. To the northeast rose the dramatic peak of an extinct volcano. Following local custom, we immediately went ashore to see the village chief and ask for his permission to stay. Chief Kalfau had a kind face that reminded us of the Dalai Lama, and he not only said we could stay as long as we liked, he also invited us to come to his son’s wedding the next day. Of course we gladly accepted, and couldn’t believe how lucky we were to get such a unique opportunity to glimpse real life in Vanuatu.
Before the wedding, Chief Kalfau showed us around Sunae. It was a neat village with simple houses of corrugated iron scattered around a wide, sandy road, their well-tended gardens filled with bright red and pink bougainvillea flowers. He was particularly proud of a water pump that had recently been installed, and told us how they lived as a community, growing subsistence crops, and cooking and eating together beneath a shelter where we would later enjoy the wedding feast, including a cake brought from Port Vila.
Unlike other villages in Vanuatu that still retain their ‘custom ways’, Sunae had been converted to Christianity by missionaries in the nineteenth century, and with the bride wearing white, the groom in a suit, and the bridesmaids in matching red dresses the wedding somehow seemed strangely familiar. But as the pastor conducted the ceremony in Bislama, the local pidgin English, and the women in the congregation were all wearing their colourful ‘Mother Hubbard’ dresses, it was all magically unfamiliar as well.
We had managed to find some suitable wedding gifts for the newlyweds onboard Stella Maris, and when we left at the end of the day Chief Kalfau thanked us for coming and gave us a handmade raffia mat as a memento. But he had given us a lot more than that by generously inviting us to be part of his community for such a special day and making our visit to Vanuatu one of the highlights of our trip. It would be nice to know that the early warnings issued before Cyclone Pam struck allowed the villagers to reach evacuation shelters, and that with the help of the international community they can soon rebuild their lives on the bank of Moso Island.