Emua Wharf. We throw our backpacks on board one of the many idling banana boats, apologizing to the captain for their heft and weight. Salt spray stings our eyes as the boat zooms across Undine Bay. The sun moves from behind a cloud and everything is jarringly technicolor: neon yellow banana boat, bright aqua blue bay. We realize we are not dreaming; it actually looks like this.
The boat comes to rest in pinkish-white coral sand. We hop into the crystal clear tide and our bags are put in the sand, looking incredibly out of place on a quiet tree-framed beach. Vatus change hands and slowly the banana boat's motor fades. The gentle lap of waves on sand is the only sound left. A young barefooted woman with child in tow appears and takes us to our accommodation. I had called ahead to inquire about vacancies. Were there any? The owner had said yes but that was all I understood during our abysmally static-filled exchange. Apparently he has not phoned his wife to say we were coming. At the bungalows Mariam, the aforementioned wife, is rushing to make a bed in the one free room. Our room. We apologize and she reassures us with a smile. Our now-sandy bags go on the black and white checkerboard floor. I am captivated by the sea breeze blowing the sheer curtains on our windows. We can see that aqua blue water beckoning us to swim. Yes, we answer.
Snorkels & masks in hand, we stroll along the shore. If the coral and shells at our feet are any indication, there must be something to see out there. We pick a spot and off we splash. We are just a few yards from shore. We don't have flippers - our bags didn't have the space. But we needn't worry, there's a coral garden at our doorstep. The familiar hush and bubble of undersea is in our ears. A little coral here, some more there. We crest a dead coral head and come eye to hundreds of eyes with a cluster of giant clams. Around a corner, angelfish dart in and out.
On shore, we adapt the hunched figures of people many years our elder. There are so many shells, you see. Empty cones, crab-occupied murexes, sun-bleached clams. We cannot walk without stooping and looking. Stopping and marveling. A skinny tan dog with white sock-feet joins our treasure hunt. He gnaws a papaya hull. The sun nears the horizon and we return to the bungalows for dinner.
Mariam is an excellent cook. Under solar lantern, a hefty plate of sauteed vegetables is placed before us. Next is a smaller plate with simboro - banana leaf rolled around grated taro root. And one more plate, bearing two large slices of pineapple. Our bungalow-mates have the same except some chicken accompanies their veg. Talk is of our travels, the usual. Where have we been in Vanuatu? Where are we from? Large geckos chirp and scurry in the palm rafters. Plates are cleared and we stay up talking with a young British couple on a whirlwind trip. They've just been to Singapore, Borneo, the Solomon Islands. Grateful for their sun-drenched memories, tomorrow they fly home to graduate university and climb the corporate ladder.
The next day, breakfast table gossip confirms that our plans for the day are doable. The island's circumference is indeed walkable. Bellies full of egg and papaya, we set off. The tide is up and the beach is narrow and then gone. Nearly stepping on a small blue striped sea snake, Emmett opts to snorkel around a rocky outcropping. I scramble across. In front of us is a large crescent of shore, embellished by a beached palm trunk. Emmett surfaces as I tightrope tiptoe the palm and then crunch back onto the coral rubble. Every step brings more intriguing finds. There are so many massive clams, so many faded purple cones.
We come upon a tiny harbor, a village's edge. Our countrymen were here: a USAID-built cistern is noted with a sign. We walk a sandy path through the trees. A young guy falls into step with us. His name is Morrison. We forgot to bring water, does he know where we can get some? He says to join him in the next village. On the way, Morrison reveals that he has a girlfriend in Colorado. He thinks about visiting her but probably will not. He does not like the cold. The village, Worasifiu, is a cluster of concrete and tin homes among trees dripping pollen-coated flowers. Morrison's friend brings us a kettle full of water and two glasses. We shyly drink and say thank you. Grinning but quiet, they hand us a bottle full of rainwater to take with us on our walk. They won't accept our vatus. Morrison points us in the direction of the next stretch of beach, He says goodbye and just like that a friend is made & gone in twenty minutes.
Surf breaks heavily over reef on this side of the island. Tiny distant points of land like old shark's teeth peek out of the Pacific horizon. The sky is overcast. We drink our water and walk the beach. With every dozen steps walked, it gets rockier. And rockier. The black, porous, and sharp volcanic type of rock. Some sort of bizarre fish climb out of a tidal pool and up a solitary rock. Blink and they're gone. Every few feet I find handfuls of colorful pencil urchin spines turned smooth by the surf.
More rocks. Scrambling gives way to climbing. Over each tongue of rock, we find coves full of coral rubble, coconut husks, debris, and shells. When we find a nearly whole nautilus, we gasp. It's nearly the size of my face. Another descent down a cliff reveals a patch of gooseneck barnacles clinging fiercely to stone. We must be nearing the bend of the island that we know will take us home.
Finally we finish the rocky Pacific face of Pele, and nearby Nguna Island looms ahead. It's been a few hours since we left Morrison. The promise of sundown and sustenance is on the breeze. Soon, soon... Now we are back at the bungalows. Showering is a bucket of rain water poured over head. We relax in sea-side hammocks until Mariam gives the dinner call. It's a smorgasbord of fried egg, sauteed cabbage with chocko & carrot, rice, boiled taro, and pineapple slices. Tonight we are joined by an Aussie/Kiwi couple and a mother daughter duo from New York state. The daughter, Liz, is one year into a Peace Corps placement on the island of Ambae. Except for the Peace Corps presence, she says, there are rarely Americans in Vanuatu. We are a bit of a surprise.
Pete the Kiwi brings out a bottle of rum. Mixing it with tonight's pineapple just-crushed, hot water, and sugar he makes a bush cocktail. We are all impressed. Soon we find ourselves sharing the rum, drinking our own bush cocktails, laughing about anything. Rum-glad and sun-worn we all part ways. Laying in bed in the reaches of slumber, I can hear the waves so well it's like the tide is at the foot of the bed.
The next morning, we have an appointment with Undine Bay. We hurry to finish our fried bananas. Clutching snorkels and masks, we only think about getting in and startle at the tiny octopus just near our feet. He scoots away, gone before we can remember what he looks like. Plunge, we're in. Today is an incredible sunny day giving us the best kind of underwater visibility. There are great sandy spaces between the coral heads here like distant, vibrant condominiums scattered across a desert. Each cluster blooms with muted colors. A shimmering, writhing anenome reveals a pair of defensively curious clownfish. They charge me and quick as a flash hide in the tentacles of their jewel-toned home.
We could stay all day but we know we are the last guests to check out of the bungalow. According to the woman herself, Mariam needs a break from hosting. We wait with our bags for a banana boat that she has called on our behalf. We thank Mariam for her hospitality and the three of us munch on Oreos drawn from a tube that had been buried in one of our packs. Down at the beach we hug her and say farewell from the banana boat as she waves and her patterned dress blows in the breeze. Aqua bay takes us to the mangroves of Efate and Emua Wharf. Paradise is now distant.