Sunday, 13 August 2017

Harvesting And Cooking With The Locals In Vanuatu

Anyone who knows my husband and myself will know we love to travel but we are not resort people. I deign the thought of visiting a foreign country and sitting around by the pool or on the beach sheltered by the confines of a resort. It just isn't us.

In our recent trip to Vanuatu we hired a car and were out and about everyday. We swam in waterfalls, snorkeled with the local fish, visited villages, drove around waving to all the friendly locals, ate at restaurants and shacks all over the island of Efate. We were so busy in fact that we didn't even get in our hotel pool until the very last day of our trip. I will write a detailed blog post about travelling in Vanuatu and tips on driving but for now I wanted to touch on a day tour we did that was one of the highlights of our stay on Efate.

Now let me tell you it wasn't all peaches and cream. I'll set the scene for you. We are halfway up the side of a mountain. It is humid, my legs from toes to knees are caked in mud and with each step my feet slip and slide across the muddy ground threatening to hurtle me on the my sizable arse. Jean Pierre and his sister, our local guides are up ahead, walking in thongs no less, as if they are out for a Sunday stroll on the promenade. I wonder what the hell I am doing and then I think back to the time that my husband coerced me into riding a bike down a volcano in Bali and despite it being one of the most terrifying 20 kms of my life it was memorable beyond description. So I forged on.

As we passed by a little tin sided shack some tiny puppies ran out to greet us. The shack turned out to be home of our guide, the word basic doesn't begin to describe the house. It's something as a westerner you can't really even fathom living in, it bought me out of my self absorbed haze and back to the realities for the people living in Vanuatu. Jean Pierre enthused that the benefits of this type of housing is that when it blows away in a cyclone you can just collect it up and knock it back together, now that's a glass half full point of view if I have ever heard one.  After a brief stop at the house we continued up the mountain until we came upon another shack, this time with a group of people waiting for us. There were two children, their father and their grandfather, all relatives of our guides and happy to see us. We were shown around their plot of land, harvested some garlic chives and talked about the livestock and produce they cultivate to sustain the extended family who all have their own separate houses and plots scattered around the family land. The family were not well off by any stretch of the imagination but they sustained themselves on home grown spinach, plantains, coconuts, taro, tapioca, tropical fruits and locally caught fish. The meat situation was minimal and we didn't see their livestock except the chickens but the family had pigs and cows which they slaughtered themselves. It was apparent though that they were primarily eating rice and spinach and told us that they eat spinach like we eat meat.

We were each set tasks, I harvested the spinach, a green leafy vegetable very different to what we know as spinach. The men went off and uprooted the tapioca and were was shown how to cut down the banana tree and the locals collected tropical fruits. Loaded up with the harvest we headed back down the slippery slopes, stopping briefly for Jean Pierre to knock down some coconuts from high up in the trees, a feat he nailed first shot.

Once safely down the mountain we were set up around the campfire and were shown how to skin the plantains which were then roasted in the flames and tasted much like potatoes once ready. The local ladies set about turning our harvest into what I can only describe as an above ground hungi (a tradition in the south pacific where food is cooked in a pit dug in the ground). Large banana leaves were laid out on a flat surface and topped with all of the vegetables we had bought back with us from the family plots. They then garnished this with a little chicken and beef and poured over some coconut milk. They took the hot rocks that had been heated amongst the coals of the fire and buried them in the food. Once all the rocks were situated the banana leaves were wrapped back up over the food and rocks to encase the feast completely. This was insulated with coconut husks and a large rug was then placed over the top to help retain the heat and in no more than five minutes it was ready to eat.

As the bundle was unwrapped the steam was released and you could see the hot rocks had created a very hot and steamy environment which cooked the food quickly. They had effectively cooked a feast that could feed half a dozen people only using a pair of tongs, no other kitchen equipment touched the food.

The stew was accompanied with fresh caught fish that had been cooked in foil amongst the coals and the roasted plantains. We sat with the family and shared the feast together. The food itself was simple but the variety of vegetables steamed in the coconut milk made a tasty dish.

The feast was an impressive use of the limited resources they have on Efate and made me reflect on what a luxury the vast array on produce and ingredients we have access to in Australia is. It is easy to forget that large parts of the world can't just wonder in their local Coles or Woolworths and access food imported from all over the world. Efate does have small supermarkets but the reality for many of the village dwelling locals is that the imported food is not affordable or accessible.

We finished the day with a paddle in the stunning bay we set up on and on the drive home Jean Pierre took us on a detour to his house where some baby goats had just been born moments before, their little bodies still covered in blood struggling to stand on their newly found legs.

It is these types of experiences that I hope all travellers get to experience, they imprint on you and expand you view of the world. This particular tour is sold here is Australia by Urban Adventures, an offshoot of the Intrepid Group who specialise in small group adventure travel. It is called the Hunters and Gatherers Tour and I'm so glad we did it. I now have such a strong appreciation of the way the Ni-Vanuatu people live and what a resilient people they are.

Much of this story is better told in photo form so please enjoy:

Jean Pierre, our local guide

Originally posted on Sunday, 13 August 2017 by


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