Thursday, May 15, 2008

Smiling in the Rain

*

Port Vila. The guide books make it sound awful, what with its hideous political history and their assurances that it was now a booming tourist metropolis. Should I go ashore or not? I did fancy a walk. But…
I got up at 5am, did my gymnasium bit, and climbed up to the bridge to cast an eye over the town as we sailed in. Nothing. Just a wimple of mist and rain. And when finally the town peeped greyly into view it looked very ordinary. Forget the walk, I thought. But I wanted some local ‘vatu’ (100ish to the US$) for tomorrow’s jaunt in Santo, and the guide book said there was an ANZ in town. And from the deck the local greenery looked so deliciously lavish. I dithered. And then I heard the jolly sounds of other folk going ashore. Well, why not …?
Uniform for malarial countries. Super-light cover-all. I decked myself out in my thin cotton Arab pants (closed ankles), my Monoprix lawn shirt (closed wrists) , shoved Dad’s old opera scarf (silk) which does me as a turban (neck covered) into my bag, donned my new Logan for-the-trip shoes and off I set.
The rain was falling lightly. Lovely, warm droplets of soft tropical rain. The others were catching the bus to town. Not this boy, of course. I strode off along what passes for a dockyard in Vila and immediately thought ‘I like this place’. The containers coming and going sit not in a vast yard, but alongside the road that leads to town, and the trucks and lifter-machines do their loading and unloading in the middle of the public highway!



The road to town passed by the usual range of shabby tropical buildings, cracked, faded and forgotten businesses of sometimes unlikely kinds, and I’m sure that there would have been some nice views if one could have seen through the grey haze. Mostly no footpath, but when there was one, I wished it finished for it was ten times more dangerous and precipitous than the road. A road on which drivers actually took huge trouble to avoid puddles, so as not to spray a pedestrian. Amazing! Where else in the world…?
Then, a couple of kilometres into my walk, the heavens emptied themselves upon earth. Drowningly but deliciously. So, as the locals sheltered under vast coloured umbrellas or shop awnings, I just carried on, heading along the road in Kurt-length strides. Well, I was soaked utterly through, a living wet-T-shirt advertisement, so what difference did a bit more warm-n-wetness make?





Down the main street, half touristy, half-shabby, past the grandiose food market with its bananas and coconuts, and the sodden tourist market, selling plastic grass skirts and those shirts that we all used to pray our friends wouldn’t bring us back from their holidays in Fiji. Past the ANZ bank where an elderly German lady tutted me that I should get home and have a good rubdown and a whisky. Then, firmly, off the waterfront. Up through Chinatown – all Chinatowns smell the same, but this one was really deliciously spicy and ramshackle -- up to a little residential suburb where I stumbled upon the local Chamber of Commerce, an aged clapboard house with a lavish tropical garden. On, then, to the quarter, back from the more commercial area, that housed the schools, the church, the theatre (Australian provoked, alas), a magnificent playing field with a stand Lords would envy, and a palatial establishment which turned out to be the catering department of Vanair.
And all the way, along my way, I was greeted with smiles, shouts, helloes, and bonjours on all sides. One small young man with a huge umbrella even ran after me – two strides to my one! -- to try to have a conversation. Was it just that the sight of an elderly chap in Arab pants and a silk scarf, drenched to the skin, doing a seven-league-boots act along the road was the novelty of the season? Or are the people of Vila just the joyously friendly islanders that I’ve met in other like countries? For, of course, except for the German lady, every one of the more than a hundred folk who greeted me, spoke to me, shook my hand (and in one case made me shake the baby’s hand) were of course ni-Vanuatu: the local Polynesian (?) people. And mostly young men. Several blokes in vans stopped and offered me a ride. One was at the helm of a pick up truck and I thought back thirty-five years to St Maarten where I circumnavigated the island standing on the back of such a truck, wind in the hair I then had and blissfully happy. Would he take me round the island, I wondered. Not enough time, but dreams are free.
One couple of girls giggled shyly as they whispered ‘Alo’. I looked down. Not only was my shirt pasted transparently to my body by the rain, so were my super-thin cotton trousers. ‘Kiwi flasher arrested in Rue d’Artois’ I thought as I strode on without bothering to ‘adjust my clothing’, as they say.

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Back down the wharf yard accompanied by hoots, yells and cheers from the dock workers who’d seen me set out in the rain two hours earlier…
Thank goodness I did go. I’m sure I shall remember Vila for a long time. Not its scenery, its greenery, its buildings, views, markets or even its bank. But its people, The Ni-Vanuatu. And that lovely, soft, warm rain.

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