Flying into Port Vila from Tanna, I spotted columns of smoke rising from the city. It was Sunday afternoon and the ni-Vanuatu residents were cleaning up their yards. A mildly irritating blue haze of burnt leaves and plastic accumulated in the valleys. Welcome to Port Vila, Vanuatu's capital.
Port Vila has grown too big. There are too many cars and the roads are too narrow and potholed. Downtown Port Vila is hot, congested, noisy and there's a café every 100 metres. Vila has crime (read the Daily Post). Vila is expensive. Eating out generally costs the same as in Australia, or more.
Port Vila is a place of contrasts. The ni-Vanuatu areas remind me of the fringes of Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania: 'just poor sheds and too many people, jammed together, everyone sitting in puddles' (Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari). The white areas of Port Vila have many big new houses with gardeners and house girls, high fences and security patrols. Expatriate wives zoom around in double-cabin, four-wheel-drive trucks with the windows up and air conditioning on. They buy their groceries at Au Bon Marché and their kids attend private schools. Despite the inequity, most ni-Vanuatu tolerate their white and asian 'masters' as a necessary condition for obtaining access to western goods and services.
Excuse me for focussing on the negatives. There are some things in Vila I like: eating at the market house for example and riding on public buses. Vila can be interesting for a day or two but it's a place most travellers would only want to visit once when the outer islands are so much more beautiful, relaxing and genuine. Sure, you can lash out and hide away in a nice resort but the blue smoke might still find you on a Sunday afternoon.