Thursday, March 13, 2008
Vanuatu: Kava, Coolidge and Coca Cola
To see Troy's fabulous photos of Vanuatu go to our photo website.
Unless you have watched Survivor from almost day one, most people have never heard of Vanuatu: It is a country consisting of about seven islands that sit between Fiji and Australia. Oh, they also had cannibalism up to 1969 - gives a whole new meaning to "mystery meat". Troy and I have also found it to be home to the worlds most expensive internet - $15/hour - and the worlds most expensive postcards - $4 to mail a waterproof postcard from the worlds first underwater mailbox. I about shit my pants when I did the currency conversion and realized we spent $24 on six of these things!
Remember when I mentioned the kava in Fiji and how it was realtively weak and that after eight bowls all I had was perma-grin? Well on our way to Vanuatu we were told by several people that kava in Vanuatu was ten times as strong as in Fiji. Oh lordy, let me tell you, they were not kidding. Three bowls for me and I was blitzed! After a day of diving we met up with our dive guides and some fellow divers to go to a very local kava bar. We originally all met in front of a small hotel then proceeded to walk down a very dark, unlit street. We had a choice between the red light kava bar and the green light kava bar. Hence denoted by the green and red lights right outside the entrance. We were told the red bar was better so in we went. The bar was nothing more then a packed dirt floor, a few wooden planks nailed to the wall for benches, plywood stacked on concrete blocks for tables and the kava bar. This was by far the sketchiest place we have ever been in and we have been in a few. It was so sketchy we felt like we were doing something illegeal. The only light was from a small tv in the far back corner and a single bulb burning over the bar. We could barely see each other, not to mention the people sitting next to us. The most we could see of them was the end of their glowing cigarettes. The funniest part was when you ordered. It is ordered by price, 50 Vatu, 100 Vatu or 200 Vatu. Being the brave bunch we ordered the medium size, 100 Vatu. The guys behind the counter then proceeded to act like he was working at a hamburger joint. Instead of yelling out "5 hamburger, 5 hamburger, 5 hamburger" it was "5-100, 5-100, 5-100"! Nevermind the fact the guy pouring the kava was two feet away from him, he still shouted it out. So two bowls of this filthy stuff later, we decided to head across the street to the green bar. When we saw how small the 100 Vatu pour of kava was here we started complaining amongst ourselves. "There is hardly anything in my bowl! What a rip. I want more kava!" Ten minutes later when I am trying to keep from falling off the bench, I decided to shut my mouth about how small the pour was. Unfortunately for Troy, he felt nothing. For some reason he had a tolerance to it while the rest of us just got rippped!
Vanuatu is also home to the cult religion of John Frum which is an adaptation of "John from America". He is depicted as an American World War II serviceman who will bring wealth and prosperity to the people if they follow him. On the island of Tanna, a native named Manehivi adapted this alias and told all the islanders he was a god who would bring people houses, clothes, food and transport if they followed him. The religion gained traction when large number of American troops were stationed in Vanuatu during WWII. The islanders were impressed with the American wealth and power and started seeing Uncle Sam, Santa Clause and John the Baptist as mythical figures. (Who doesn't see Santa Clause as a mythical figure?) Followers of the cult started building symbolic landing strips in the hopes that American airplanes would bring them "cargo". The native islanders believe that John Frum will return to them on February 15 so each year that day is celebrated as John Frum Day. See, there are some places in the world that like Americans. Even if they live in la la land and have no idea what we are really like!
And of course, the main reason we came to Vanuatu was for diving. During WWII, the island of Espiritu Santo had the largest American naval base outside of Pearl Harbor with over 300,000 troops stationed here. It was on the edge of this island that the S.S. President Coolidge sunk. Built in 1931 it was a 655' long passenger ship used mainly by wealthy Americans for travel. jn early 1942, just after the bombing of Pearl harbor, it was refitted and adapted to carry large number of troops and was dispatched to the South Pacific. On Oct 6 it set sail for Santo. On Oct 26 it approached the island that was surrounded by friendly mines. There was only one narrow channel that was not mined but upon seeing a wider channel the captain decided to go this route. When the naval controllers realized what the captain was doing it was too late to stop the massive ship from going forward. After hitting the two mines the ship was able to get close to shore where the troops could climb off the ship and make it safely to land. The captain left the ship and decided to go back the next day to retrieve things left behind. 90 minutes later the ship had sunk! Today the Coolidge is the worlds largest accessible shipwreck with the ship laying on it's port side (yes, I know what the port side is) with the bow starting at about 40' at the bottom of the stern about 240'.
When we were in Chuuk diving the WWII wrecks, we were hesitant everytime we approached 150' in depth thinking it was way out of our diving limits. On the Coolidge half of our dives started at 150'! We definitely did some things that went beyond our training, but as you can see I'm writing this so we made it out of the ship and back alive. Because the ship is laying on it's side, divers are able to go all the way down the B, C, D and E deck with out having to get super deep. Some of the rooms we saw were the doctors office, captains toilet, first class dining room with the carpet still on the floor (or what is now the wall because of how the ship is laying), lobby, galley, barber shop, engine room, bathrooms with rows of toilets and cargo holds with dozens of trucks and tons of ammunition. We even saw the swimming pool which still had water in it! (How many sorry souls are sitting there scratching their heads because they didn't get that joke?) It was an absolute maze twisting and turning through all the rooms, bending our bodies around doorways, getting stuck on miscellaneous protrusions all the while not trying to not lose our guide because we stopped to look at the massive potato peeler in the galley.
The main hazard of doing these kind of dives is keeping your wits about you. Personally I tried to not think about where I was. I tried to not think about the fact that I'm at 190', deep inside this ship at deck Q or something ridiculous, way back in the stern looking at the gigantic gear mechanism for the rudder or the fact that if we lost our guide we would be.... well.... let's just not go there. The other problem about being so deep is you get nitrogen narcosis which starts happening after 100'. Basically you are drunk from the nitrogen in the air you are breathing. You see absolutely no problem in giving your air to a fish, you have this sudden urge to tear everything off of you and swim naked and you are overjoyed to discover that 4+4 does equal banana. When we were at the pool, which is at 180', our guide told us to count the number of different color tiles to see if we could do it. Honestly, I could have cared less. I gave up after counting a blue and red tile. Then when we went to the stern at 209' to see the name "Coolidge", we were so narced we could barely spell it. C...O...O... wait...C... O.... ooooh, look at that pretty fish! Our dive computers were also not happy we went so deep. After a certain depth they started beeping, screaming at us "What the hell are you doing down here? I don't like it so deep! Go up, pleeeeaaaaassee!" The scary thing is when they stop screaming at us. You're not so sure if they have died or if they have given up on you and assumed we have died!
The best dive on the Coolidge by far was the night dive. In fact it was probably the best night dive we have ever done. I know a lot of divers will say they've done great night dives but there is no other night dive like the one we did on the Coolidge. Troy and I have talked about how best to describe it but we have agreed it is almost impossible to get across to readers exactly what we experienced. I will try though so hold on to your shorts. Hidden in the deep, dark holes of the ship are thousands and thousands of flashlight fish. They are about 4" long and have a gland under each eye filled with bacteria. When they breath, the flap opens and the bacteria glows. They don't like the light so they are only seen when it is absolutely dark. So for our night dive we were to descend into the ship when it is completely dark out... without lights. That was unnerving to say the least. It's one thing to dive without a light, it's another thing to go into a wreck without one. But it was unbelieveable. As we enter the ship there are thousands and thousands of these "lights" swimming all around us. It's like being in the solar system with all the stars flying by you. Because it is pitch black you can't see anything else but all these lights zipping right past your eyes. It gave you a horrible sense of vertigo because you felt like you were moving but you were not. I'm laughing and screaming with excitement at seeing this that all Troy had to do was follow the sound to find me. Then as we're leaving the ship it is now dark enough outside the ship that all the flashlight fish are leaving. So there is this waterfall of light pouring out of the ship and flowing away. The ones remaining in the ship are so dense that the ship looks like it's alive with the low glow of light emitting from the portholes. As we get farther away from the ship and turn back, the flashlight fish swimming around looks like a big city viewed at night from an airplane. It was absolutely unreal! Then to top it all off there is tons of phosphorescence (glowing plankton) in the water so whenever you agitate the water with your hands and fins it swirls with glowing particles. We looked like a bunch of tinkerbells with trails of sparkles coming off our fins. Not to mention how stupid we looked swirling our hands all around us like we're some sort of spastic flamenco dancer.
One last thing before I let you go. There was one last very unique dive site we had to go to. It's called Million Dollar Point. At the end of WWII there was a surplus of army equipment that no one wanted. The American Army didn't want to take it back to the states partly because of foreign soil on the equipment but also because it would hurt the economy. They tried to sell it to the local government for pennies on the dollar but they didn't want the equipment. So the local American base built a ramp running out to the sea and they drove millions of dollars of equipment into the sea. Today there is a gigantic pile of cranes, bulldozers, trucks, semis, ambulances, fork lifts and cases of Coca-Cola just a few hundred feet off the shore. Troy in fact found a Coke bottle dated 1942. If you can get over the fact that all this crap was dumped in the ocean it is defintely a one of a kind dive site.
Before our long flight home we had one last stopover in Fiji for three days. When we were in Australia a fellow diver told us about a shark feeding dive in Fiji. We have done shark feeds before but when we learned there would be bull and tiger sharks on the feed I decided we had to go. We never saw a tiger shark (which is a good thing since they are man eaters) but we did see about 15 different bull sharks. These sharks live up to their name "bull" by being absolutely enormous. Their girth is...well enormous! They are completely unlike any other shark we have ever dived with so we were very excited. A little side note about them: they are known to dwell in shallow waters so they are more dangerous to humans then any other shark species. Nice comforting thought. To keep our group safe we had several dive guides with us that had long metal poles that they used to discourage the sharks from getting too close to us. I don't know what it is about these island countries that think long sticks will protect us from dangerous creatures such as bull sharks and Komodo dragons. Personally I would opt for a big ol' gun!