Anyone who has been to Thailand will know that it is often referred to as ‘The Land of Smiles’. However, due to Thailand being a country run by a corrupt government that uses its power to bribe and manipulate, a destination where tourists are scammed on a regular basis and a place where it is difficult to determine if a smile is genuine or a an attempt not to ‘lose face’, which is a huge part of Thai culture, I believe there are more countries in the world deserving of this title. This statement takes a lot for me to admit as Thailand holds a very special place in my heart and my time there was much more positive than it was negative.
After a recent trip to Efate Island, home to the countries capital, Port Vila, in Vanuatu I have been completely blown away by the Countries happiness and friendliness. A previous visit to the Pacific saw us on the Islands of Fiji, while the people there appeared equally as happy and friendly, I got the feeling much of it was for show. You were welcomed everywhere by song and dance, happy smiling faces with flowers in their hair. This welcome was present in the airport, restaurants and hotels, just about everywhere the tourists were. Vanuatua however, felt so much more genuine to me. Right from the start I felt at complete ease in Port Vila. Armed with verbal directions from our hotel staff who had no concerns with us walking into town by ourselves, even at night, we headed in to the city (more like a town) through a small alleyway between local houses. Of course, within minutes we were lost. As English is widely spoken in Vanuatu we asked a local man who was just walking home from a nightshift for directions and he happily walked with us to show us the way, discussing all the latest football scores with my partner. I couldn’t help but think “what does he want?” and expecting him to ask for money or to try and sell us something in return for his help. “Have a nice day” he said as he left us to walk the final metres into the town. Why was I so gobsmacked at such a genuine act of kindness!? Travelling the likes of South East Asia had clearly left me with my back up when it came to accepting these sorts of offers of help.
One thing we were warned of when arrived in Efate was to be mindful of cruise ship days. On these days 2000 people flock into Port Vila to spend the day on the Island. Prices are often jacked up to three times their original price. Inflating prices for foreign visitors was something I was used to so I wasn’t too worried. To my surprise, once our faces became familiar and we were seen on days that the cruise ship wasn’t in, we were considered ‘Vatu’ (a local) and not tourists. Even walking around the local markets in town was a pleasant experience, as long as you accepted that bartering or haggling wasn’t a custom in Vanuatu and prices were set. I was never hassled to buy anything and even when people would try and get you to take their taxi services or buses etc a simple “no, thank you” was enough. I just couldn’t believe how easy it all was. The shop and market sellers found a great starting point for conversation in my ever growing baby bump. “When’s the baby due!?” one lady asked, sparking conversation about my baby being born in May and May being a ‘good month’. Other ladies recognised me ‘because of my belly’ and didn’t hesitate to wish me good luck. Like many countries, the market place seems to be the central hub with people smiling, dancing and singing along to loud speakers pumping music into the streets. While I have never been to Jamaica, the atmosphere around Port Vila market was something like I had always imagined i would find there.
After a group of friends and I fell victim to a moped hire scam in Thailand (I knew better than to let friends leave their passport with the rental company but others were willing to take the risk) I have always been weary of renting vehicles. While this one bad experience hasn’t stopped me renting numerous vehicles in a number of countries I’d be lying if I said I did so worry free. Vanuatu was no different, even renting from what is supposed to be a reputable company, I worried about damaging the car, losing our $300 excess (that I had already paid to reduce from $2000!) or discovering hidden costs. The poor condition of Efate’s roads made worse by the recent Cyclone Pam meant navigating some pretty bad pot holes and collapsed parts of the road. However, we survived a drive the whole way around the Island of Efate only to hit a deep pot hole back in the town of Vila, causing a puncture in our tiny hire car! I worried all night that we would lose the whole of our excess or that the excess wouldn’t even cover it as there would be some hidden exemption about ‘off-road’ driving. I worried in vain though, the guy at the rental company laughed at our expectations and told us we would only have to pay to replace the tyre. He even discounted the replacement cost by half as he pointed out that the tyre was in very worn condition in the first place. It dawned on me that this wasn’t a case of getting lucky but that perhaps these people were genuine, professional and honest. Halle-bloody-lujah!
The Island drive itself was beautiful. We passed through local villages and watched with admiration the locals go about their daily lives. I can’t think of many places I would feel safe seeing people walk down the road with huge cleavers and machete’s, especially those whose ancestors were cannibals!! But, their huge smiles, polite ‘hello’s’ and friendly waves as we drove passed with our windows down were so welcoming. In fact, it was a surprise when someone didn’t shout hello. The smiles of the children were the most infectious, whether they were playing in the trees along the sides of the road, swimming in the sea or playing in the streams, their smiles were beaming from cheek to cheek. I didn’t think it was appropriate to shove a camera in their faces (even though they would have likely been more than happy to pose for a picture!) or impose on the villages so capturing the images i am describing in my photo’s wasn’t always possible. I thought to myself what happy people they were considering just 9 short months ago their whole lives were devastated by the cyclone. The aftermath of which was still evident with huge trees uprooted, roads washed away and skeletal homes still present in villages and the city
I am not naïve to the fact that my observations have been made over only 7 days and on the Island where the countries capital lies. Consequently, Efate would likely be considered more civilized compared to other islands in Vanuatu where cultural activities such as arranged marriage and branding of wives with tattoos or knocking their front teeth out still exist. All countries have their gruesome pasts and controversial cultural activities, although a short visit, Vanuatu has been nothing but a pleasant experience from start to finish0 one that felt genuine and not just to impress tourists, a land of happiness, kindness and nothing but smiles. To me, Vanuatu is the true ‘land of smiles’.