Around 4:30 p.m. our customs and quarantine processes are complete. Neils, Margret, Andrew and I are gathered around a bar top at the Waterfront Marina. Before long, we attract the crew from Romano (a Scott, a Londoner, and one American), the crew from Prince Diamond (Canadians). Much to Brian’s chagrin, we all clink our glasses filled with Vanuatu’s national lager - Tusker. (He is of a strong opinion that raising a glass in your fellow drinker’s general direction should be sufficient to activate all goodwill associated with “cheers” and the effort taken to clink is wholly unnecessary.)
Ten conversations bubble amongst only nine people. “Nibbles” are brought to the table, and we spend a couple hours picking at spring rolls and the freshest calamari you can get. We learn that Vanuatu is known for its delicious beef, so Andrew is perusing the menu for the twentieth time trying to decide which steak he is going to get: Ribeye? T-bone? Filet? Scotch Filet? These decisions are important ones.
We watch the sun set, golden over the bay as promised by all the guidebooks. When our waiter Mac returns to check on our progress and refill drinks, Andrew is ready. “I would like a filet mignon, medium rare with the Kumara mash and a glass of the Shiraz.” Mac nods, cleans up Andrew’s menu and disappears to go fill drinks.
A hush falls over the table.
“Did you just order dinner?”
There is a saying out here: “The Brits are too nice to be honest, and the Dutch are too honest to be nice.” The Brits sniff the air and remain silent, but Neils and Margaret wail with offense: “But it’s only 6:30!”
In Classic-Andrew, he says nothing and blinks at them for a moment or two. “6:30 is dinner time.” He says.
Now the table erupts. Rounds of opinions layer atop declarations and outrage; European notes of indignation and mockery gel into a rage-symphony. “You can’t eat dinner at 6:30! How uncivilized are you? Americans! Have you no respect for food or your fellow man! It is drinking hour! There is a progression. You can’t just skip straight to dinner at 6:30!” Impressions of a Tennessee River Man floats above the din, complete with lisp due to missing tooth. Andrew adds to the debate, describing his own starving desperation and the fact that he will be too tipsy to enjoy his steak if we wait another two hours for European dinner time.
“Okay, okay, okay. Jeeze.” Given the signal, I scamper off to find Mac and tell him to hold the order. We will just have another plate of appetizers for now.
Another hour goes by. The table continues to roil on about respect for artisan foods and American’s offensive dietary habits. Neils extols the virtues of truffle oil, then nearly passes out when I tell him we love to add a dash into our popcorn butter. “Truffle oil on popcorn! What a waste!” Just to amuse myself, then, I explain the virtue of squeeze cheese - you know the kind in the aerosol bottle that my mother takes on road trips? Think of all the patterns and designs you can make atop the cracker with those neat spray triggers.
Another half hour passes and Margret starts perusing the dinner menu. “Oh, oh!” Andrew says, “Can we order dinner now? Is it okay to order dinner?” The whole table erupts in good natured banter for a second time.
Meanwhile, Mac loiters nearby waiting for us to make some decisions.
“I would like a filet mignon, medium rare with kumara mash.” Andrew orders. Imagine what would happen if he ordered it well done?
“Fill-ITMIGG-Non!” Margret echoes, mocking Andrew’s pronunciation of the French term, which wasn't actually that bad. The team of Americans all begin plugging their noses and tightening our pronunciation of the word to sound as French as possible. I order mine with “Freedom Fries”. Soon, Mac has orders of “fill-it Migg-non” all around. He disappears, then reappears with a sad look upon his face.
“I’m sorry, but there is only one filet left. Would you like to order a different cut of beef?”
For the slightest moment, Margret thinks Andrew will be a gentleman and offer her the last cut of filet. But, Andrew digs in his heels: “Oh no! This is your fault. If we had ordered dinner six hours ago when I wanted to eat, this wouldn’t be happening. We would all have Fill-it Migg-non.”
As it turns out, all that we heard about Port Vila and its delicious steaks are true. With Vanuatu’s former influence from the British, the French and the American WWII war-time presence, Port Vila is a haven for those who need a quick fix of decent wine, French cheese, and perfect steak. The “Au Bon Marche” is the local grocery store, brightly lit, clean and stocked with everything you could want.
The local market has its share of crisp, fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs, including the most ingeniously packed lettuce carrying device: heads of lettuce slid along the sturdy prongs of a palm frond. The local florist prepares bouquets from bundles of tropical flowers.
We enjoyed a trip to the Tanna Coffee Roasting Company, for perfectly roasted beans, a delicious espresso and to peruse the local art gallery.
While we were there, the President died in office. Everyone was quite sad, and reported that he was a good President who had cleared away a good amount of corruption. His body was taken from the government buildings at the top of the hill and through a procession down the main street lined with mourners. The Ni Vanuatu threw hibiscus, bougianvilla, and leaves into the street to line his path home. Respectful silence and tears were offered as he passed. He was to fly to his home island, to be buried with his family.
The taxi van industry ($1.50 to go anywhere in town) is alive and well; the streets are filled with a line of vans going here and there. Within seconds of emerging from the Au Bon Marche with our backpacks full, a van pulls over and offers us a lift. We don’t even need to raise our hand.
The SCUBA diving is lovely with nice reefs, cuttlefish, and territorial clown fish who really don’t want to let me take a picture of an old bicycle dumped in the ocean. Nautilus is a good scuba company with friendly SCUBA-shop doggies.
The streets are lined with wood carvings and the handicraft market is filled with interesting things made on the outer islands. These are “money necklaces.” In ancient times, Ni Vanuatu did not have money, but instead made, wore and traded jewelry in exchange for something they might want or need.
We even found another fun steak restaurant where they heat a granite stone very hot, place the steak on the stone and bring it to your table just as it begins sizzling away. You remove the steak when it is perfect for your particular taste, enjoy with a side of green beans, mash and some delicious blue cheese sauce.
And it was a good thing we found Stonegrill, too, to make up for Andrew's fill-et migg-non that first night. After everyone took another half hour to decide their alternative choice, Andrew’s fill-et migg-non had been on the grill for approximately that same length of time. Margret considered this his punishment for ungentlemanly behavior, and she enjoyed her prawns with the satisfaction of one so vindicated.