Sharing Lap-Lap in Vanuatu

In Vanuatu, Lois and Günter watch a local knead dough for lap-lap.

One of our favorite things to do when traveling is to finagle an invitation to the home of a family who lives there. Or, when we were sailing around the world, we liked to invite locals on our boat.

My first experience receiving such an invitation was during a Cruising World charter. Heading back from a Polynesian church service in Yassawa, Fiji, a couple beckoned us from their thatched-roof dwelling. “Would you like to join us for dinner?” a man in a sulu (sarong) asked. My husband, Gunter, nodded and we walked over, took off our shoes, and went inside.

“We only have one fish, but we’d like to share,” his wife offered, while her young boy tugged at her muumuu-style dress. The meal had already been spread out on the floor on top of a tapa cloth. The small fish occupied center stage, surrounded by mashed sweet potatoes and what appeared to be back-eyed peas. We all gathered around on the floor and took part in the meager meal while answering questions about “those boats anchored in their bay.” They wanted to know about our cruising lifestyle and we wanted to learn about theirs. “Breaking bread,” although none was offered here, was a ritual we would repeat often during the nineteen years we’ve been retired, sailing and traveling the world.

Many years later, we were no longer sailing charter yachts; we had retired and purchased our own yacht, Pacific Bliss. While sailing to the Northern Banks Islands of Vanuatu during our world circumnavigation, we anchored in Vureas Bay. The villagers there had a problem, they needed to fish to provide for their families, but the propeller for their only boat was kaput. Would Günter take a look? The propeller was beyond repair, so Günter offered to give him the spare prop for our dinghy. It was brand new, but we planned to leave Vanuatu to sail to Bundaberg, Australia, where we would store Pacific Bliss for the cyclone season. We’d buy another one next year. The villagers were flabbergasted and threw us a “Thank You Prop Party.” They strung flowers over fishing line hung high to surround the feast area. On top of mats, they spread various dishes donated by the villagers. One lady brought four of her precious eggs in a homemade basket as a gift!

The locals in Vureas Bay, Vanuatu threw us a Prop Party.

The locals in Vureas Bay, Vanuatu threw us a Prop Party.

During the Waterfall Bay Festival we invited Chief Jimmy and his wife Lillian for afternoon tea. I recount this in my second book, Sailing the South Pacific. I’d put a double-sized load of cinnamon-raisin bread mix into the Breadmaker. The story continues:

“It is far too hot for tea…I served cold juice in cartons, and we talk in the cockpit. The Breadmaker beeps. Both visitors rush to see the machine. They had never seen a Breadmaker before! The chief makes that loud whistling sound, common to all Ni-Vanuatu when they’re impressed. We allow the bread to cool while we attempt to continue the conversation, but Jimmy is distracted. He just stares at the loaf on the breadboard. I slice half the loaf and place a slice on each of the small plates, along with knives to spread butter and jam. The jar of raspberry jam is labeled “Made in Port Vila, Vanuatu” but our guests have never tasted anything like it. It goes fast. I ask Jimmy whether he wants another slice. Of course, he does!

‘Go ahead, slice it yourself,’ Gunter says.

Jimmy cuts a thick slice. No tea-sized portions for him! As he slathers on the butter and jam, he says, ‘Very good. American lap-lap.’ He devours that slice and cuts even more. Before long, the entire loaf is gone!”

Lap-lap is the national dish of Vanuatu, similar to pizza, that’s baked in earth pits covered with hot rocks. The locals cover the crust with small fish, coconut paste, or smashed sweet potato (see my blog Why Travel.)

Ni-Vanuatan women demonstrate how to make lap-lap.

Ni-Vanuatan women demonstrate how to make lap-lap.

Our most recent “breaking bread with locals” occurred during our trip to Uzbekistan. To our delight, Zulya Rajabova, owner of Silk Road Treasure Tours, had arranged a surprise visit to her childhood home in Bukhara. We had the opportunity to meet her parents, sister, numerous relatives, as well as two other travelers and their guide. The home is typical of Uzbekistan family compounds, a one-level U-shaped structure surrounding an inner courtyard. So while Zulya was busy running her company in New York, we enjoyed having a marvelous lunch with her family! After multiple courses, nieces and nephews performed for us. Saying goodbyes was difficult, but despite the surprise visit, we still had a schedule to meet—including a stop in Nurata on the way to a Yurt Camp near Aydarkul Lake.

Lois and Günter with Zulya's parents.

Lois and Günter with Zulya’s parents.

Uzbekistan bride

Günter poses with a recently married family member.

About the Author: Lois and Günter Hofmann lived their dream by having a 43-foot ocean-going catamaran built for them in the south of France and sailing around the world. Learn more about their travel adventures by reading this nautical adventure trilogy, now on sale.

1. Myanmar is more open to tourism than ever before. The country welcomed some 3 million visitors in 2014, about half of those international tourists. Five million tourists was a target set for 2015, although the numbers are not in yet. The number of tourists to Myanmar (Burma) is exploding because tourists may now enter freely after acquiring a visa online and picking it up on arrival; they can travel freely throughout the countryside without escorts (this was not the case during my first visit in 2006); and Myanmar is the most authentic and untouched of all the countries in Southeast Asia. Tourists are rushing to see it before it turns into another Thailand. So now is the time to go!

My husband and I chose Myanmar as our international vacation destination for 2014. Because of skyrocketing tourism, hotels tended to be scarce during the high season, so we chose to leave in October and return in early November. We booked through Enchanting Travels, Myanmar. They organized an independent “slow travel” tour for us via auto and plane, with a local tour guide at each destination. Our round-trip tour included the bustling city of Yangon, the fertile farms of Shan state, the mountain villages of Pindaya, the fishing villages of Inle Lake, the stupas of Bagan, a two-day cruise up the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay, and relaxing at Ngapali beach, where I had an opportunity to journal before heading home.

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You can access my blog posts and photos about my trips to Burma here:

Why Go to Myanmar?

Burma in My Blood

Walking a Village in Myanmar

Burma, My Next Favorite Place

I recommend booking hotel rooms in advance through a local travel company—at least for the first few days of your trip. Cash is king in Myanmar. You can exchange dollars for kyats as you go.  Credit cards are not widely accepted but ATM machines are readily available. WiFi is like dial-up internet of the 1990s in most places, but that only forces you to adapt to the slow travel approach. Just be patient, take it easy, and enjoy the spectacular scenery and friendly people. Pack for hot weather. The “peak season” to visit with the best weather is from November to February. We traveled in October during the “shoulder season” because we wanted to be home for Thanksgiving. If you visit in other months, you’ll suffocate (110F/45C in Yangon) or you’ll soak during the rainy season.

2. Cartagena, Colombia is one of the most charming cities we visited during our entire sailing circumnavigation. Now you can fly there from almost anywhere in the world. The city holds a special place in my heart because this was our refuge from a Force 10 storm that we encountered off the coast of Venezuela during the Maiden Voyage of Pacific Bliss. In fact, I wrote this about Cartagena in Chapter 7 of In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss: Maiden Voyage:

Cartagena is a magical place that must be experienced at least once in a lifetime. But a word of caution: Once you come to see her, you will dream about when you can return. From its charming, old walled city to its historic naval and land fortifications to the posh, modern high rises and its tourist beaches, Cartagena dazzles and thrills. However, this is a city that cannot be devoured; she needs to be savored—slowly and deliciously. Mark my words: Gunter and I will be back!

The photos below are taken from Maiden Voyage.

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Although we haven’t returned to this marvelous destination yet, rest be assured, it is on our bucket list! If you want to see the city, just book a hotel and take a city tour or travel around by cab. Be sure to spend a full day in Old Town Cartagena. While you’re there, you might want to take one of the many Spanish language courses offered. Or you might want to book a day sail to Islas del Rosario for some swimming and snorkeling. If you’re more adventurous, contact Worldview Travel about one of their jungle tours.

3. I never tire of Bali, Indonesia. But beware: Once you go there, you’ll return again and again. Bali has a special significance to me because Gunter and I spent our honeymoon there back in 1995. We rented a hotel at world-famous Kuta Beach, not far from populous Denpasar. If you like loud music and crowded beaches, this is for you. If you are more adventurous, you can do what we did. We checked out of our hotel after two noisy days and booked a four-day boat trip to Lombok and then to the Komodo Islands to see the dragons. Back in Bali, we spent the second week at the far side of the island, at a quiet beach resort with a volcanic, black-sand beach. We were instructed to hit the dong of a wooden carving outside our door to call for coffee service. Later, a server asked us, “Did you know that Mick Jagger slept here—in your bungalow?” Hmm. But our favorite part of Bali was the traditional town of Ubud in the interior, where we watched Balinese processions, visited carving and silver shops, and took in a Legong Dance at the King’s Palace.

When we visited Bali the second time, during our world circumnavigation, we knew exactly where we wanted to stay. With Pacific Bliss safely berthed at the Bali International Marina, we took a taxi to Hotel Tjampuhan on the outskirts of Ubud. For one week, we enjoyed a totally hedonistic experience in a secluded hillside bungalow overlooking a lush valley.  Birds called back and forth, their high notes overriding the deeper sounds of rushing water far below. Squirrels raced up tall tamarind trees and red hibiscus blooms added color to the verdant landscape. We swam in a cool, spring-fed pool, and enjoyed side-by-side massages at a spa dug into the hillside above the waterfall. In the cool of the evening, we walked into town and enjoyed performances at The Royal Palace. Later during our sojourn in Bali, we booked a few days with friends in Sanur Beach—a much better alternative to Kuta. I haven’t been back to Bali since the advent of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love book and movie but rest assured, this island will never lose its charm.

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4. Vietnam is a must visit that combines history and beauty—and they openly welcome Americans. We visited Vietnam in June 2006, along with a cruising couple who had set up our private tour for four with a local travel agency, Focus Travel. That worked out well because we could share a van and driver. In fact, the total cost for each of us to tour there for 10 days, including guides, private transportation, four-star hotels, tours, a cooking class, 10 breakfasts, 4 lunches and one dinner, plus domestic flights from Hanoi to Danang and from Hue to Saigon was $673. We flew from Langkawi, where Pacific Bliss was berthed, into Hanoi and out of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon).

Vietnam has over 2,000 miles of coastline and our route from Hanoi to Saigon covered most of it, backed by central highlands and jagged mountain ridges throughout most of it. Fertile farms line the rivers and deltas. We loved Hanoi with its charming French colonial boulevards and landscaped lakes. The city was a wonderful mixture of old and new. In addition to taking in a Water Puppet show and a Vietnamese cooking class, we toured the Military Museum and the sobering Hao Lo Prison Americans called the “Hanoi Hilton.” 

DSCN2056 (2) Rice Fields of Vietnam

We found the people giving, gracious and anxious to please. I was fascinated to learn what the younger Vietnamese think about what they call “The American War:” According to them, that was but a blip in their history, following a1000-year war against China and a 30-year war against France. Yes, the older generation of Vietnamese are battle-hardened, proud, and nationalist. But for the energetic younger generation (the median age is 29) Vietnam is a place to succeed, to earn a lot of money, and to have a good time. They care little about politics; they were born since all those wars occurred.

From Hanoi we drove along the coast to Halong Bay, a World Heritage site, then flew to Danang with its stretches of unspoiled sandy beaches, and drove on to Hoi An to relax at a beach resort for a couple of days. In a town famous for its tailors, we dropped off clothing to be “copied” and picked up the next day. Next we drove over the mountains to Hue, the former capital city of Vietnam where we took an evening barge trip down the Perfume River. We flew to Saigon and checked into a 1920s hotel in the heart of downtown, great for shopping and touring a city that, in 2006, had no McDonalds, KFC, or chain stores of any kind. From Saigon, we toured the Mekong Delta and then drove through industrial areas south of Saigon—car assembly plants, and numerous manufacturing complexes. There, we could see that rapid industrialization was underway.   

DSCN2035 (2) Tourist Boats, Halong Bay

With over 90 million inhabitants in 2014, Vietnam is the world’s 13th most populous country. A full 65% of its population is under 30. Since 2000, the country’s GDP growth in has been among the highest in the world, with the U.S. as its largest trading partner. When we were there, the populace was very excited about joining the World Trade Organization in 2007.  Since then, much has changed dramatically, so if you want to see parts of the old Vietnam with the simpler life, go there soon!

5. If you want a more adventurous vacation, check out Savu Savu or Fiji’s remote Lau Island Group.  We sailed almost all the way around Fiji’s main island, Viti Levu, then left our yacht in Savusavu, on Fiji’s second-largest island, Vanua Levu. We had obtained a special permit in Suva to visit Fiji’s remote Lau Group for a thatched-hut-on-the-beach experience. Not easy, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Chapters 8 and 10 of Sailing the South Pacific, my second book in the adventure series, describes two sailing seasons we spent in Fiji, where we had too many adventures to list here. Feel free to ask for advice in the COMMENT section below.

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What are your travel plans for 2016?

I’m busy writing another chapter in the second book in my nautical trilogy In Search of Adventure and Moments of Bliss: SAILING THE SOUTH PACIFIC.  This chapter is about our adventures in Fiji. I laughed about this story of our circumnavigation and decided to share it with you here:

Beaching the Cat

Before we leave Denarau to go cruising again, we will need to replace the zincs—a maintenance that must be performed every one to two years or whenever they are eaten up by electrolysis. These sacrificial electrodes are not-so-conveniently located on the bottom of the propeller shaft which entails pulling the craft out of the water or simply beaching the boat on an incline that allows access.

At 1000 we pull anchor to head for such an incline. Buried in oozy mud, the anchor makes a giant sucking sound, like the hundreds of U.S. jobs that Ross Perot said would go to Mexico with the implementation of NAFTA.

Now Pacific Bliss sits in the still bay, waiting patiently. Her instruments show Force 0 wind.  The sky is baby blue with white fleece clouds, serene as the scene on a toddler’s pajamas.

Yet Günter and I sit here watching the clock, shaking with trepidation. We are waiting for a certain moment: exactly 45 minutes after high tide. Then we will motor on to the mud bar and attempt to beach our catamaran. We ask God to make sure that our Guardian Angel comes along. Then, together, we let loose with a primal scream, “A-a-ah!” waving our hands above our heads. After sailing over 17,000 miles—one-half way around the world—we will beach Pacific Bliss for the first time.

Günter starts the engines. Events unfold as in a film set in slow motion.  We snake through the well-marked Denarau Marina channel, meeting two excursion yachts, Captain Cook Cruises and Whales Tale.  Their passengers cheerfully wave us on. A pair of moon jellyfish glide along our hull: one floats flat like a purple-rimmed plate, the other puffs open its bell, trailing translucent tentacles. We motor slowly to the row of posts where the workhorse vessels tie and straight for the post bearing the huge sign: an anchor symbol with a red slash running diagonally through it and the words NO ANCHOR.

It goes against my grain to continue to inch forward.

“Nice and easy now,” I caution Günter, who is still at the controls.

We kiss the bank, surrounded by water. No scraping. No scratching. Just a gentle settling in. We are beached.

Günter deploys the dinghy, Petit Bliss. He checks the depths at the props, dagger boards, and rudder. I dutifully mark down the measurements. “She must be resting on her belly,” says Günter.

“Two bellies. Like a pair of beached whales.”

“Piece of cake. Beaching a Cat.”

But beaching the Cat is only part of the story…the worst is yet to come.

Günter calls David, the trusty mechanic at Denarau Marine. He arrives in a small powerboat with his assistant. They get out at the same time and promptly sink up to their knees. David reaches back into his boat for a tarp and lays it down lightly over the mud to catch anything that might fall.

He knows what he’s doing.

But to get at the zincs is not easy. Both struggle to wrench the propeller free.

It’s a race against time. I can’t help holding my breath.

They finish the job before the tide rises again and take off.  Now we must stay here overnight and wait for the rising tide to free Pacific Bliss.

Pacific Bliss on Sandbar

Unbeaching the Cat

I awaken at 0600 after a fitful sleep. The most difficult part of our maneuver is yet to come. Today we must unbeach the Cat!  As I sit at the helm seat with my morning coffee, the sun breaks dramatically over the highlands of Viti Levu. The tide is rising nicely. Pacific Bliss shifts in her muddy cradle, adding a little more weight toward the stern. I see that as a good sign, perhaps she will float off all by herself at high tide!

Captain Günter is not persuaded. His dire ruminations kept him awake most of the night. He fears that we have miscalculated.

“How could that have happened,” I ask, “despite our careful planning? We beached Pacific Bliss at exactly one hour after high tide, so that the high tide the next day would float her off.”

“Here’s the problem,” Günter says. “Every night since the highest tide at the recent full moon, the high tide is less. So for May 20th the tide table forecasts 1.7 meters at 0932.  For May 21st, it predicts 1.6 meters at 1029. Remember, the evening tide at 2227, which we stayed up for, was a little lower than the daytime tide: 1.5 meters. We didn’t want to float her off in the dark anyway…but when we walked around the top deck at 10:30 p.m., she was clearly not floating.

“What else could we have done?”

“We should have been more conservative. Maybe we should have waited until two hours after high tide. We left little margin to allow for a falling high tide… in fact, to be really conservative, we should have planned this maneuver during a rising high tide, before the full moon.

Waiting on this mud bank for the next full moon, however, was not a viable option. Why bring it up?  But I know better than to talk out loud right now.

Fortunately we are in mud instead of sand,” Günter continues.  “It should be easy to hire workmen to dig two channels to pull the hulls back.  But that would mean at least another day here…Unfortunately, we are in the mud instead of sand. Pacific Bliss could have settled in with all her weight, nesting comfortably in a cradle of mud. After all, she didn’t budge at high tide last night.”

We decide to tie our extra long “palm-tree line” to one of the poles to which the barges tie up. We winch it tight. The tide rises slowly—much too slowly. Günter takes a measurement at the swim ladder. It is 3.1 feet versus 3.5 feet when we beached. The bottoms of the dagger boards are stuck tight into the mud. Günter has lifted them up as far as they will go.

He starts the engines. “Let’s just give it a little test.” Pacific Bliss does not budge.

“See that barge over there!” I point. Maybe he could help.”

Günter talks to the barge captain on VHF Channel 69. The captain agrees to deploy his powerboat at 1015, 15 minutes before high tide. It has a 30 horsepower outboard motor. If that fails to work, he’ll use the big barge proper. “But I do not think that will be necessary,” he says.

For a five long minutes we agonize over the potential damage to the dagger boards, or worse yet, the rudders. Then we pray again for the safety of Pacific Bliss.

Now it is time for action. Günter deploys a second heavy line to use, if needed, as a towline for the barge. Promptly at 1015 a man motions to me from the barge. I signal for him to come over. Günter offers the captain and crew $50 Fijian to help get us off, money well spent.

Mechanic Changes Zincs on Sandbar

We fashion a bridle to the powerboat and cleat it at each stern hull of Pacific Bliss.  Günter begins to rev both of our 40hp engines in reverse. The men in the boat pull their line taut. We have also winched the long line to the pole taut.

It is 1030, high tide.

“Let her roll!” Günter says.

Engines scream. The reluctant mud makes another giant sucking sound and gives up her prey.  Pacific Bliss leaps back with joy. Her engines purr. She is so happy to be out of the mud!

After all, she is a sailing vessel, not a pig. 

But it’s never over until it’s over. I always find it amazing how fast a positive situation can deteriorate on a boat. The barge crew fails to watch the towline. They let it go slack. Their line begins to drift underneath our prop. Thank God, our engines are back to neutral! Günter quickly dons his mask and fins and dives underneath the hull to free the line.

We have arranged to berth on Denarau Marine’s dock, next to the mega yachts.

But first, we anchor in the bay, wash down the Pacific Bliss decks with our salt-water hose, and share a can of ice cold Fiji Bitter. “To no…more…adventures,” I toast.

“Here’s to no more adventures for a very long time…but I know they’ll come,” Günter adds.