I received an email late Tuesday that my flight to Pentecost Island on Wednesday at 7AM had been cancelled. Hm. In my normal life, this wouldn't be catastrophic because there'd be another flight an hour later. In my Vanuatu life, this still wasn't catastrophic, because Vanuatu is paradise, duh, but it was a bit errr inconvenient. The next flight to Lonorore, Pentecost Island from Port Vila wasn't until Saturday morning and a main purpose of my South Pacific Islands trip was to see the Nagol (land diving) on Pentecost Island...on Saturday morning.
Silas Bule, a retired school principal and current Vanuatu MP, is listed as the contact for Noda Guesthouse, bungalows within striking distance of the Nagol that had received stellar reviews. When I was planning my trip, I reached out to him to ask about staying at the guesthouse and he went out of his way to help me plan my trip on the island, arranging transfers and visits. I called him as soon as I knew my flight had been cancelled so he could call his people on the island. I was so disappointed!
Then, I spent an hour on hold with Priceline through which I had stupidly booked my ticket when I had trouble doing so directly with Air Vanuatu. (This call will probably cost me more than $100.)
Word of travel advice: if you can't get through to an airline because their office is closed, Priceline can't either. Don't bother.
Wednesday morning, the Air Vanuatu office in Port Vila opened at 7:30AM and I was first in line. The reason for the flight cancellation: "not enough planes." Hm. I had done my research on Vanuatu, though, and I had a back up plan. I changed my Pentecost flight to Saturday and booked a second domestic flight. Tanna.
Tanna. Even the name sounds exotic. Apart from development on the west coast, the island itself is wild, hosting extremely traditional kastom villages and Yasur, an active volcano you can watch from the rim. The island is also the namesake and place of a wonderful 2016 film featuring the Yakel tribe. (You should check it out!) Tanna was a good consolation prize for missing out on the cultural experiences I had planned leading up to the Nagol in Pentecost.
Getting to the airport in Port Vila was a cultural experience all on its own. A day before I had arrived in Vanuatu, the president had passed away unexpectedly and Wednesday, June 21st, was declared a holiday so his coffin could be carried in a procession and flown to Banks, his home islands in the North. I grabbed a bus to the airport, the same route as the procession, and felt a tremendous sense of selfishness about my travel plan worries as I witnessed the Vanuatu people lined up along the road to honor their late president. The experience was really quite emotional for me.
At the airport, thousands from town gathered to see the coffin off, all in flip flops or barefoot, eating peanuts and popcorn, kids running around freely. The only indication of "security" was twenty feet of yellow tape condoning off one place in the airport driveway. I arrived about three hours early for my flight--because of the coffin procession--and eventually, I felt overwhelmed. The cultural differences were so many and nonstop. All around me, babies were roaming in little friendly gangs, unaccompanied by adults. Every adult there knew every third person or so and the crowd was a tangle of handshakes and salutations. I saw one policeman and he didn't have a gun. Where was the crime? The security threats? The fear? Everything was so perfectly peaceful, friendly, and welcoming.
I felt panic coming on. No possibility of a cultural touchstone. Why was I doing this alone? I found a corner and sat down on the ground, my head in hands.
I took a picture of feet to distract myself.
I found a white girl with an expensive doll.
I took a selfie. Was starting to feel better.
This tourism poster sums up what I was realizing.
Back home, I had managed to fill my life with countless stressors, so many things that really don't matter. Luxuries of affluence and materialism. And everyone is afraid of everyone else. There are announcements in the airports at home, fueling the suspicion (and with reason, I suppose; there truly are security threats): "If you see something strange, report it." Here amongst the chaos, was civilization.
When it was time to board, I walked out sliding doors onto the runway and into the plane. There was no security checkpoint.