Angels With Dirty Faces

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“I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.”
 – Winston Churchill

I love the way that all the livestock just wanders freely around the Island here. Pigs with their piglets and Chickens followed by clouds of little chicks are everywhere you look. Even the church had a shifty-looking pig lurking about in the garden in front.

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Neiafu, the main town, is pretty easy to navigate around given that it’s just a small line of bars/cafés/the odd shop along the harbour. On my second morning here I was whisked up by one of the couples who’ve set up business just out of town. They run a totally organic and waste free farm where they grow vanilla and coconuts to export to Japan and Australia. I loved hearing the processes by which they re-use any potential waste products: Coconut husks are used as ‘compost’ around the base of the vanilla plants or shredded to form a base for the mushroom farm they’re trying to set up. The shells are burnt to make charcoal, the heat of which is used to extract salt from seawater to cure the pig meat with. Any waste from pigs/chickens is given to the mud crabs in the mangroves which they catch to sell in town. The pig excretions are used to create a kind of ‘bio fuel’ and so on!

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Some kids playing in the gorgeous red dirt!

Some kids playing in the gorgeous red dirt!

The vanilla trade in Tonga used to be one of its main exports – the couple running the farm are trying to rebuild it again.

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When the sun goes down all sorts of crazy things start to happen. On the first night, some of the locals were putting on a traditional dance show. They cover themselves in coconut oil as the customary way of showing appreciation for a dance is sticking a dollar or two to the dancers body! Very strange!!

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This only got more hilarious the next night: Wednesday evening, the ‘Bounty Bar’ host ‘Faka’Lati’ night. Just a note on the language here: pretty much everything sounds either made up or offensive. The word for beautiful is ‘Faka’Ofa’Ofa’…pronounced…well…much like something crass you could say to someone who’s annoying you. To say cheers you say ofa atu, meaning ‘I love you’. Faka means ‘like’ so Faka’Lati translates as ‘like a lady’. On Faka’lati night at the Bounty Bar, the transvestites around town (a surprisingly high proportion of the population) have some fun, dress up and dance on stage for the crowds. Again, the tipping took the form of sticking notes on the performers but here they had no oil on so the notes needed to be tucked in anywhere…much like a strip bar! They particularly liked to pick on the uncomfortable looking men who’d been dragged there by their friends/girlfriends -Very funny.

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Sunny Side Up

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As soon as I sorted out somewhere to stay – things immediately began to get easier. Having a place to come back to with a bed is seriously underrated. Showers are still cold but it’s a definite improvement!

Day 1 in Vava’u, Kingdom of Tonga, and straight to work! I’ve been gathering together a network of contacts here to provide info/details/photos for articles. Lots of people are keen to promote Vava’u, particularly on the ‘off season’ so I’ve been hosted on many different tours and excursions. The first was a sailing trip with a lovely couple called Denis and Donna (or Donis and Denna, as I kept accidentally saying). They took me out of the harbour into the beautiful array of little islands that make up the ‘Vava’u’ region.

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The Islands all have hilarious names. Donna and Denis have just leased one called Malafakalava. Nuku Island was my favourite spot. Just look at the colour of the water! I couldn’t resist bothering the clown fish again when I headed out with the snorkel…

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Find Nemo!

Find Nemo!

Playing about with the colours a little

Playing about with the colours a little

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There are also the most incredibly caves dotted about the place. Swallows cave is famous for the clarity of the water for diving. It’s also got a huge series of swallows nests dotted like bats all over the roof, hence the name.

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The perfect introduction to Vava’u – enough to lift anyone’s moods!

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Kingdom Of Comfort

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To say that things went downhill after the previous post would be an understatement. Don’t be misled by my photographs – pictures tend to reflect the highlights! It would have been pretty unusual for me to have been ill, homeless and hungry and then whacking out a camera to take a photo of the patch of street.

The volunteer organisation I was with in Fiji are essentially a scam. The Brit I’d been sharing a room with rightfully complained about the bed bugs which were steadily chomping into our skin each night. As a result we were moved out of our home. I was very sad to leave the lovely family we had been staying with – they were pretty much the only positive aspect of life in Suva. The family were quite torn up about the episode too, deciding not to host volunteers in the future as they’d had the house fumigated previously but it was too difficult to get rid of the pesky bed bugs.

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'Bimbo' the family cat. I tried to tastefully explain the concept of what bimbo means in England which they all found very amusing.

‘Bimbo’ the family cat. I tried to tastefully explain the concept of what bimbo means in England which they all found very amusing.

My roommate and I were moved to a small double bed in a hostel which seemed more like a mental institution, aptly fitting my current state of mind at the time. We were then told by the organisers that they would be wondering around the village to try and find us somewhere to stay… needless to say – we were both horrified at the idea of setting up camp with a random Fijian family that had never hosted foreigners before etc etc. Meanwhile other volunteers were having money regularly stolen from them in their homestays…

I by no means had it the worst – my roommate had paid (a significant chunk of money) to do sports coaching. On arrival into Fiji she was told that it was school holidays so she’d be handing out fliers at the museum. Another girl was supposed to be helping disabled children in a school. Instead she was put into the leprosy ward to help bathe the patients and was asked to stitch up open wounds! Far from having a place to wind down after the challenging working days we all have ‘accommodation’ that pushes the word ‘basic’ to its limits.

My work at the Fiji Times started out extremely shakily – but I decided not to put up with sitting around being told I just needed to wait around all day. I ended up getting out to report on a few stories but to be honest they were boring as sin – making their way into the business section of the paper. Although I’ve had five articles published – the style of the paper is pretty shoddy in my view so I’m not particularly proud of them. My writing is by no means of a high quality but it was edited to have sentences beginning with ‘and’ and ‘because’…I thought that was frowned upon?!

The experience helped me to fairly firmly establish that I’m not interested in working in a news room. Horrific events and deaths are ‘stories’ to be probed into and dissected. If a girl is raped or killed the reaction is ‘great – let’s get someone round to the family, someone to the police and someone round to the hospital to try get something out of her’. The writing itself requires absolutely no creativity – being stripped of anything other than raw facts in their simplest form.

In my semi-homeless state after being moved out, I arrived at the magazine where I’d transferred my internship to. I jumped upon the offer to ship me out to Tonga for a series of articles – partly because I relished the opportunity to do some serious travel writing but also partly because I desperately needed an escape clause to get out of the situation I was in. The organisation had my passport in the process of getting a working VISA, so for one horrible moment I thought they were simply going to not let me leave the country…eventually we managed to sort it out though.

However – out of the frying pan…

I arrived into Tonga to end up wondering around for several hours with my luggage as every hotel seemed to be fully booked. It’s scary enough arriving into a new place (especially in a developing country) with no knowledge of where you are, how to get around, what the people are like etc. I eventually managed to sort a place to stay for the night but by this stage I had a horrible stomach bug and was feeling very sorry for myself.

I collapsed for a while but had to pick myself up the next day to head out around the island in order to get material for the articles. It was a truly beautiful place – perhaps I can post a draft version of my article once I get it sorted but for now I’ll let the photos talk for themselves. I’m now in a different part of Tonga but more on that later!

Natural land bridge on the south coast

Natural land bridge on the south coast

Kids waiting outside the church in their 'ta‘ovala' - short mat tried around the waist - traditional church-wear!

Kids waiting outside the church in their ‘ta‘ovala’ – short mat tried around the waist – traditional church-wear!

The ta‘ovala for women are longer.

The ta‘ovala for women are longer.

Lots of red and white houses dotted about the villages to match the flag! There's also been a recent coronation so there are bunting-esque decorations all over the place

Lots of red and white houses dotted about the villages to match the flag! There’s also been a recent coronation so there are bunting-esque decorations all over the place

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My Tongan taxi-driver!

My Tongan taxi-driver!

The most spectacular part of the island, in my view, were the miles of blowholes stretching down the south west coast!

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More of the same idyllic beaches!

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Slow Poison

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Kava is an unavoidable part of Fijian life. It is used to welcome visitors, on special occasions, and just generally for social drinking – so potentially every night! For the traditional ceremony, you sit cross-legged on the mat floor in a sort of semi-circle. The chief sits at the head and next to him someone mixes the kava and a sever waits to hand it out to people. After the initial spiel, when it is your turn to drink the kava, you clap once and have the bowl handed to you. You say ‘Bula’ to everybody, meaning hello, or good health, or pretty much anything you want it to, then drink. It’s important that you drink the entire bowl of kava in one go. This is difficult for a number of reasons: partly because you’re drinking out of half a coconut shell with uneven edges, leading to embarrassing spillage onto your lap, but mostly because it is one of the most foul tasting drinks I’ve ever encountered.

Kava is a root of a particular plant that is grown here. It’s pounded into a powder and mixed with water. It then acts as a sedative. It tastes like very dirty water with a large amount of grit in.

After you’ve downed this flavour sensation, you clap three times to say thank-you. Once everybody has drunk you have a round of ‘story-telling’ or general chatter. This goes on until somebody calls ‘taka’ (or something along those lines – no idea about Fijian spelling). This always sends waves of dread through me as signals a call for another round of drinking. Just two coconut shells were enough to make me headachey and drowsy.

'Grog' is the local nickname for kava - quite apt, I think.

‘Grog’ is the local nickname for kava – quite apt, I think.

Fruit and Veg market in town. Grog's upstairs!

Fruit and Veg market in town. Grog’s upstairs!

First day at work today – no idea what I’m supposed to be doing – just been sat at a desk and not given anything to do…hopefully things will improve as not a happy bunny at the moment.

P.B. The internet is pretty much a no-goer. Have snuck into a hotel in town to post quickly in my lunch break….I’m afraid spectacular scenic photographs etc are going to be scarce until i find a way to get out of the city for a bit!

A Kind Of Magic

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My last full day here on Efate, Vanuatu, was packed full of surprises. It started off, as expected, with me heading back to Mele and the ‘Secret Garden’. They had to wait for enough people to arrive before they could put on a show, so I whiled away the time reading about various stories from the different Islands. They had an information section about cannibalism, where they’d stuck various news stories onto boards inside a cave. This was pretty horrific but also fascinating, as many gruesome parts of history are! What were, perhaps, most disturbing, were the photos taken by visitors to the ‘New Hebrides’, as they were called then, who happen to stumble across cannibalism in practice. It was largely done as a form of sacrifice, but also to conquered warriors in order to ‘take on their vitality’, during times of great starvation and very, very occasionally to the missionaries! By the time I’d finished picking through the cave, the show was ready.

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A man from Ambrym, the island where ‘black magic’ is said to originate from, prepared himself to display some magic tricks. Below you can see him kitted out in the traditional sheath from the area he comes from. A couple of men from other islands assisted. Here you can see him breaking open a coconut with his hand. I’m not sure if this is a magic trick, really, more just a demonstration of brute strength!

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This man cut off the leaves of one side of a palm branch, waved it around on the floor for a bit, then lifted it to show how the cut off leaves had been restored!

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The most impressive trick was when the man from Ambrym took a palm leaf, made a pit in the floor and planted the leaf in. It was then completely impossible to pull out! So much so, that one kiwi – who couldn’t handle the affront to his strength – ripped the branch entirely from its stalk in his attempt to pull it from the ground! Very impressive!

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After the show had finished, I headed off, on foot, back in the direction of Port Vila, hoping to flag down a bus on the way as I’d done the day before. Instead, I bumped into some girls wearing grass skirts, asking me to come and watch their show for a ‘donation’. With a ‘why not’ attitude, I followed them into their village where they showed me their bow and arrow, a couple of hilariously uncoordinated dances, and sang to me to thank me for my visit. One of the smallest girls, 10 years old, then took me by the hand and walked me through the village, pointing out her pigs and each member of her, typically enormous, extended family. After I complimented her face paint, she sat me down and got out the powders to draw on my face too!

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Whilst she was in the process of drawing these coloured lines on my face, a man with a sack strolled past and asked me to come and watch his coconut demonstration. Thanking the girls, I followed him to the beach where he promptly shot up a coconut tree! He gave me a coconut to drink, for which I gave him an appropriate ‘donation’, then I carried on my way down the beach.

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I eventually managed to clamber onto a crammed bus, hoping it was heading in the right direction! They tend to only run between Mele and Port Vila really. We ended up winding through all the back lanes of Vila for half an hour before getting to the town!

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It’s now Sunday morning. With a flight in a few hours, I’ve hurriedly put together this recollection of yesterday! Hopefully I’ll have a little more time (and better internet!) in Fiji, in which I can reflect properly on Port Vila itself, and my time here as a whole. If there’s no internet at all then I guess this is it for now!

Old Habits Die Hard

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This morning I headed out, with an Australian couple, to another little village where they do cultural demonstrations, around 20 minutes from Port Vila. The lady was terrified of spiders which became pretty problematic once they started playing about with their ‘toys’, as they like to call them. A man from the village, kitted out in traditional attire, talked us through a number of different aspects of their culture.

Firstly he explained to us about their methods of food preservation. In earlier times when banana and breadfruit were the staple parts of their diets, they had to work out methods of preserving them in case the crops were destroyed by cyclones. They’d grate bananas using a piece of coral then place in all in a large sack to let the water drip out over a period of time. They’d then place the dried mush in a hole in the ground lined with coconut leaves – larger waterproof leaves would be wrapped around the banana which they would replace everytime they went brown. To secure the ‘fridge’ they’d cover it in heavy rocks. Apparently this could then last over 5 years! This seems hard to believe! To make the dried brown mush palatable after such a long time in the ground they’d add coconut milk – covers a number of sins.

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He demonstrated the various traps they use to this day to catch chickens and pigs in the bush. Then similar contraptions for marine life.

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He showed us a weird looking staff with vine tied onto the end which apparently sucks the oxygen out of the water as it expands. In large quantities (50 men or so each with a staff) they can kill all of the fish in a rock pool through sucking out the oxygen.

The most fascinating was the spider web net – they spin the wooden structure around in spider webs like it’s candy floss until the web gets thick enough to act as a form of net for smaller fish!

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The various herbal remedies he was talking about, again, seem a little hard to believe. It seems such a strange concept that you’d go out into the jungle – pick a plant – then squeeze its juice into some water to get rid of a headache… He then told us a story about how he broke his leg a few years ago from falling out of a coconut tree. Instead of taking him to the modernised hospital on a different island his father had carted him, a similar distance, over to a traditional hospital where they ‘operated ‘ with their bare hands and, crucially, without anaesthetic. He says he cried for a week then was furious with his dad for a month. Thankfully, he recovered fully!

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The most fascinating area that he talked us through was the history of the spirituality of the country. In the past, ‘black magic’ was widespread, and still believed in to this day. The man explained to us, completely in earnest, how somebody practiced in black magic could strike down someone’s house with lightening or remove their intestines. He says some people do it now today but it’s difficult to tell who because ‘we’re all Christians – they pretend to be Christians too so we cannot tell’. He went on to describe ways in which the missionaries made ‘good changes’ to their culture. For example, until a hundred years ago or so women were made to mourn for 100 days after the death of a husband in which time they could not leave their house – which would be kept in complete darkness with no daylight. They were also not allowed to wash at all within this time!

Chiefs could have as many wives as they had tusks. By tusk, I mean a special kind of pigs tusk which curls right the way round to form a circular shape. The importance of this circular tusk is such that it is on the country’s flag! If a man had kept a pig long enough for it to grow a tusk like this, and then killed it – he would earn himself the right to one wife. One notable chief around 200 years ago had fifty circular tusks on each arm! All of those women were then buried alive with him, as was also tradition, when he passed. All of the people who have brought up the subject of marriage have stressed that they are thankful to the missionaries for changing this as ‘one wife is much better’ they keep saying, through giggles.

Another previous tradition which the missionaries fizzled out was the tactical manipulation of the blood line: a first born to a family HAD to be a son. Any unwanted daughter would have to be disposed of. He proudly explained that over the years their culture has changed for the better: any good suggestions, they take on board and any bad ones – they ignore. This is the main reason why they maintain this primitive way of life in this particular village – they want to show to tourists and their own youngsters how life used to be in the country in order to maintain a sense of their own culture.

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Their village's banyan tree, or 'cyclone shelter' as he called it!

Their village’s banyan tree, or ‘cyclone shelter’ as he called it!

After fish and chips in town and a stroll around the market to pick up a couple more lavalavas (sarongs) I went off to ‘survivor’s beach’, which apparently has something to do with the TV program ‘survivor’. Will let the photos speak for themselves, again! Armed with the underwater camera, I found a pretty massive giant clam – a very weird looking creature!

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P.B. a few fairly major spelling mistakes have been pointed out to me over the last few days (draw-dropping seemed right at the time, haha) so apologies for my lack of proof reading – am so relieved once everything finally uploads on this horrendous internet that I then promptly retire.

Beach Side

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I’m clearly staying in the wrong place here. I did a trip around the whole island today (with a new taxi driver) and got a glimpse at the amazing beaches on the south east coast. They still haven’t fully recovered from the tsunami in 2009 which destroyed all of their beach-side homes – most of the locals have moved back up onto the mountain – but they’ve built a series of fales for tourists to stay in on the beaches themselves. Lalomanu, on the south west peak of the island, was the widest stretch of beach with four separate families setting up a series of beach fales there. That would definitely be an amazing place to stay if anyone is looking to take a trip to Samoa!

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Alternatively, further west along the southern coast you come to the Tosua Ocean Trench. This is a stunning natural hole in the ground where the sea seeps through the volcanic rock to create a pool. The locals who own the land made the most of this by setting up a place to stay around the top of the pool – it’s now become a ‘must-see’ on any tourist’s itinerary. In front of the hole are a number of little blow holes in the lava rock where the waves crash through. If I came back for longer I’d love to spend a day or two exploring the area of little islands and blow holes you see blow.

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Continuing along the ocean road we came to Sopoaga waterfall, where one entrepreneurial family converted their garden into a view point. There are a few of these dramatic, high waterfalls dotted around the island. Another is Papapapai-uta which is right in the middle of the island on the central road which cuts down the middle. Both are worth a visit if you’re passing by. The only downside is that you have to view from a distance as there’s no path down the steep cliff sides. For a swim in a fresh pool try Togitogiga. This area is a ‘natural reserve’ where people cannot built. You take a 10 minute walk into the thick green foliage and eventually turn out at a beautiful little set of falls which you can swim beneath. Perfect to rinse off the salty water of the ocean trench and Lalomanu beach!

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A couple of the resorts are very flashy and come with a suitable price tag, but the vast majority are simply family owned and consist of a series of open air fales like the one in which I’m staying currently. Maninoa was the best example of these two extremes side by side. There’s a small set of fales surrounded by two of the most expensive resorts on the island!

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Teuila - Samoa's National Flower

Teuila – Samoa’s National Flower

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Finally we looped around the tip and came to a large ocean pool adjacent to the sea. The taxi driver picked a couple of papayas and began chopping them into pieces and throwing them into the water. Within no time around 8 large sea turtles appeared! He explained to me that small turtles caught in fishing nets would be brought here to grow a little bigger before being released as they get eaten by the tiger sharks. The principle seems good but there were some very large turtles in the pool so I’m wondering whether they just decided to keep them like a sort of pet! Very cute and remarkably tame. You could feed them by hand and stroke their smooth heads!

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Love the flailing limbs in this one

Love the flailing limbs in this one

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Look at that series of expressions!

Look at that series of expressions!

This little one crawled right up to the shallows to try grab a piece of papaya that everyone else had missed.

This little one crawled right up to the shallows to try grab a piece of papaya that everyone else had missed.