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Monday, August 22, 2016

Vanuatu: Mad Hatters of Port Vila

Horses and their jockeys trot around the track to get into race position for the start at the Kiwanis Charity Horse Race.
Port Vila, Vanuatu July 13, 2016.
One of many busses headed down 
he dusty road
 into Port Vila horse race track and .
What Vanuatu Port Vila event attracts 20,000* folks, raises an average of $40,000 USD for charity and uniquely bringing together ni-Vanuatu (native Melanesian) and ex-pat communities?

*that represents nearly 10% of the entire country of Vanuatu’s population!

Kiwanis’ annual Vanuatu Charity Horse Race, which celebrated its17th successful year on Saturday, August 13, 2016.

Crowds amble from the busses to the horse track for Port Vila's annual Charity Horse Race.  Vanuatu.
“Check it out if you’re in Port Vila then; it’s a real slice of Vanuatu culture,” recommended our friend Robyn.  She and her husband Mark cruise Vanuatu for about four months every year from New Zealand on their sailboat, Mintaka, mostly among Vanuatu’s more remote outer islands.  For the heck of it, Wayne’s Dad and his wife chose to coordinate their August visit with us in Port Vila to coincide with the races. 

Corporate-sponsored "giant raffle"; one of the many ways Kiawanis makes money with its annual Port Vila Charity Horse Race. 
Missing the gene that makes most teenage girls go ga-ga over horses, the thought of going to a horse race never crossed my mind before.   Even repeated trade show/conference visits to Vegas failed to induce any interest in gambling, much less betting on the ponies.  Thus, far more than a gander at Vanuatu culture, this would mark my first equine race exposure too.  The only time I ever visited a horse track – in Portland Oregon’s Delta Park -- was to collect horse-do compost for my garden.

Bet Haos, another revenue stream for Kiwanis
at the Port Vila Charity Horse Race.  Vanuatu.
Curious and clueless (at least speaking for myself) and with nothing better to do, we were all game.  Besides, we’d heard the race was free as was a bus there (and, one would hope, back, too).

Stumps.  One option for getting high enough above the crowd to actually see the race.  Kiwanis Port Vila Horse Race.  Vanuatu.
After asking several locals, we eventually wended our way to the street where the busses were track-bound.  “The free ones have a sign,” we were told.  Thus, we refused several paid taxis and bus drivers – Port Vila swarms with them -- who volunteered to take us, happy to charge anyone willing to pay.  Instead, we clambered aboard one of the free buses – vans, really, the only non-locals aboard.

No stadium seating?  No problem.  There's always the trees....
Kiwanis Charity Horse Race, Vanuatu.
The racetrack was a dirt road off Efate island’s “Ring Road,” a paved road encircling the entire island.  The afternoon was hot.  The van was sparkling clean, yet oozed with the all-too-familiar Port Vila scent of human sweat.  Dusty roads led to closed windows; the scent became more oppressive. 

Once the van  arrived, with much relief, we piled out of it as quickly as possible, following the other race-goers down the road to the tents and crowds in the distance.  Locals clumped mostly in family groups, carried rolled pandanus mats to spread out and gather atop for picnicking, crowd watching, and if they could see it, the races.










A child's eye view of the races, thanks to their daddies.  Port Vila Kiwanis Charity Horse Race, Vanuatu.
Given the ride was free, and there was no race fee, I was curious what aspects of the race provided Kiwanis with its charity revenue stream.

My first inkling was the corporate-sponsored raffle-ticket selling tent. 

Two family shade-making solutions:  umbrella and a large swath of fabric.  Kiwanis Charity Horse Race, Port Vila, Vanuatu.
Then came a long line of food booth and a beer stand and soda cart.  There was also special paid seating in the Kiwanas tent (USD $10/person), offering shade, seating, and for an additional fee, food and libations.

Paying for shade in the name of charity, Port Vila
Kiwanis Horse Race.  Vanuatu.
The Bet Haos took wagers for the race-goers willing to bet on the winners.

Corporate sponsor banners were all over, especially on the band tent, sponsored by the TVL, one of Vanuatu’s two cell phone service providers.

The only obvious structure offering a bird’s eye view of the races was the announcer tower.  Some felled tree trunks and rut balls provided a higher perspective for those choosing that King of the Hill spot.  More intrepid folks scaled a large tree to varying heights and perched where they in its massive branches.  Others clustered against the race track rail when the race ensued – there were eight races, widely spread throughout the day with large gaps between the races.






Announcer tower.  Best view, other than maybe the trees.  Port Vila Kiwanis Horse Race.  Vanuatu.
The sun broiled over the track.  There was little shade.   Some prescient folks used umbrellas like parasols for shade.  Others tucked under swaths of fabric they brought.

Beering coolness, Wayne's Dad Phil and his wife Gunnel atPort Vila Kiwanis Horse Race.  Vanuatu.
Like many others, we sought shade and cool beverages (I drank the water we brought, though there were cold Vanuatu Tusker beers available).  As the races stalled and lunchtime approached we drifted past the food stands, seeing what called our name.  I tried a slender beef kabob, and an Indian samosa (spicy curried yams and veg wrapped into a triangular dough casing then flash-fried). For my final indugence, I dipped into the local fare, tuluk a pork filled package similar to Vanuatu’s national dish, laplap.

Tuluk, yummy pork-filled riff off laplap, an earth-oven cooked
Vanuatu dish  at Port Vila's Kiwanis Charity Horse Race.
Laplap is…made from pounding taro or yam roots into a paste which is then placed on taro or spinach leaves and soaked in grated coconut mixed with water, sometimes a protein like fish is added. The whole shebang is then wrapped up in leaves then smoked in an earth oven.

Everything I tried was USD $4 or less.





This gal selling samosas and other Indian treats at the Port Vila Charity Horse Race definitely glammed it up.  Vanuatu.

Twice, we watched the horses trot around the track to line up for their race, then as much as we could see, the race itself.

I found people-watching far more entertaining than the two races we “saw. “

Couple mad hatters.
Port Vila Charity Horse Race, Vanuatu.
There’s something delightfully captivating about women touting their salon hair, heavily made up faces, sporting foo-foo hats and fancy dresses wearing either platform shoes or spiky heels in the hot, dusty uneven fields surrounding the track.   Especially the hats.  I had no idea the tradition dated back to Col. Meriweather Lewis Clark Jr.’s desire to elevate the status of the Kentucky Derby with elegant ladies.  Needless to say, I dressed much more casually, and felt perfectly ok with its appropriateness given the setting.

Still, sated with lunch and liquid refreshment, hot, dusty and sweaty, with a long wait until the next race, and another one after that, we decided we’d punched our race e-ticket. 
This gal had the looks to carry off this otherwise
outlandish hat ensemble.  Port Vila
Charity Horse Race.
Returning to the parking lot and bus queue, after turning away a couple taxis, and unsure how long it would take for a free return to town, we negotiated for ~$10 USD for the four of us.


Some of the few Ni-Van folks dressed up for the Port Vila Horse Races.
They'd win my best-dressed family prize!
Yes, Robyn, Port Vila’s annual Kiwanis horse race/charity fund-raiser was a great cultural slice.  I’d recommend anyone in Port Vila at the time its held to check it out, even if only for an hour or two.
Too much time between races.  We were done before the races were.  Port Vila, Vanuatu.






The race is on!  Port Vila Charity Horse Race, Vanuatu.
Location Location
We are currently moored off Vanuatu's Port Vila, Yachting World Marina, (S17.44.722 E168.18.726) though by the time you read this, we’ll likely be underway to Ambryn, hopefully in time to catch their Back to My Roots festival. There's still some Fiji catch-up posts coming, but seemed since we've been in Vanuatu for a couple weeks now, it was time for more than just an "arrived!" post here.

Cruising by the Numbers
  1. We cruised just under 440 miles in Fiji, between late May and early August.  
  2. Our August 2016 sail from Fiji to Vanuatu was 525 miles.
  3. Our May 2016 sail from New Zealand to Fiji was 1090 miles.
  4. December 2015 - May 2016 if we weren't cruising New Zealand or hunkering, we were making massive road trips from New Zealand's tip to its tail.
  5. From December 2014 - November 2015 we sailed from Northern Florida's Atlantic side to New Zealand, over 10,000 miles, with more than a few stops in between.
  6. Prior to that we sailed sailed from St. Lucia to Florida and also spent a season cruising the Bahamas.

Headed back.  Our hats weren't even in the running (and
I didn't wear any).  Port Vila, Vanuatu.
Up Next
After Vanuatu, New Caledonia.  After New Caledonia, Australia, by December 2016.  There, we plan to sell our boat, and go back to work, somewhere.