Friday, May 23, 2008

May 22, 2008 - Port Vila

[Note: I've added pictures to our posts from the past few weeks. Scroll down or visit the April and May 2008 archives to see them.]

We're having a love affair with the food here - not the starchy root vegetables that most of the population, living in isolated villages on outer islands, subsists on, but the gourmet legacy of the French who once controlled these islands in conjunction with the British. There is a French bakery on the front street of Port Vila that makes exquisite little pastries. The deli counter at the big Au Bon Marche up the hill from the anchorage is like a vision. Several nights in a row now we've gorged ourselves on ripe French cheeses - Camenbert, Chevre, and Roquefort - and pates - all the while mumbling to each other "this is so good." Baguettes are cheap and tasty, so there has been a steady stream of French toast coming out of the galley in the morning. We traded for some bananas in Tanna. They've just reached the perfect point of ripeness for banana pancakes.

Six days a week ladies from outlying villages and other islands set up their fruits and veggies at the open air market on the edge of the harbor. On the tables they display piles of cucumbers, peanuts, pineapples, limes, grapefruit, leafy greens, bananas, banana leaves, lap lap, ginger, mint, cilantro, and lettuce. Between the rows of tables, baskets of chickens, crabs and giant root vegetables such as taro, casava and swamp taro line the center of the aisles. Once their goods are arranged, the market ladies spread out woven mats behind the tables. They sit on the mats, tending to their children and providing change to whomever happens to purchase their goods. There is no attempt to steer a customer towards their table. There is no bargaining; it just isn't part of the culture.

On the island of Tanna, they grow coffee. The beans are picked and shipped to Port Vila, where they are roasted and packaged. The medium roast is a smooth, full bodied blend, that is perfect for morning coffee. Our Norwegian friends Lars and Neel on Luna have been singing the praises of the dark roast, so we may have to give it a try one of these days.

The beef in Vanuatu is famous for its flavor. We spent a few days deciding where to try it. Tonight we went to dinner with Giff and Patty, at Cafe du Villages, a restaurant set on the waterfront in a compound of old French colonial buildings. We sat on the patio under a trellis of flowering vines and perused the short menus. Including the specials, there were four different preparations of beef available. Between the four of us, we managed to try three of them. It was very tasty, if a bit tough.

And then there are the Magnum bars. Anywhere the French are or have been, you can find these divine ice cream bars. The Double Caramel is easily the best thing that has ever happened to ice cream. Start with high quality vanilla ice cream. Dip it in dark chocolate. Coat it with a layer of caramel. Then dip it again in chocolate. Complete decadence.

To work off all this good food, we've been walking around, exploring the various neighborhoods of Port Vila. In this polylingual culture, most signs are in English, French or Bislama, a pidgin language. The heart of the French neighborhood is a Catholic cathedral with giant clam shells filled with holy water mounted by the doors. The heart of the English neighborhood is the Presbyterian church. The neighborhoods are named after the pidgin for the names of the radar stations established by the US during WWII, Number One, Two, and Three: Nambawan, Nambatu, Nambatri.

Bislama is such a fun language. There are no rules. To say thank you, you say "Tank you tumas." I understand is "Mi save." I don't understand is "Mi no save." I love that. If I don't really understand something it slips out of my brain quickly. I don't save it. "Mi no save" strikes me as the perfect way to describe not understanding something. The key to speaking this language seems to be to throw a "blong" into every sentence. Boxes of Tusker, the local brew, are stamped with the moto, "Beer Blong Yumi," ie, this beer is tasty. Money is issued by the Reserve Bank of Vanuatu, also known as "Reserve Bank Blong Vanuatu." And when in doubt, say each word twice. If I was looking for someone named Joseph, I might say "Mi lukluk Joseph." Bislama is so fun, and so much easier than trying to speak French.

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