Have I Really Been To Vanuatu? I am part of a community who is attempting to travel to every country in the world. According to the United Nations there are 193 countries. So far I have been to 117 countries which sounds impressive, until you realize I still have to travel to 76 countries. It is believed that less than 200 people have traveled to every country in the world, making it more of an exclusive club then those who have traveled to outer space, who number over 500. There is a very active and passionate group of individuals who are on a quest to enter this august club.
There is a heated debate on what counts as visiting a country. A passport stamp, sleeping overnight, tapping your foot over the border, airline transfers, a travel experience? There is no universal governing body dictating the rules of what defines a visit. But the online community of country counters passionately argues their position, and often it evolves into arguments and insults.
My personal rules are quite flexible. But my one rule is I do not count airport transfers. To me that is cheating. I do not need to stay overnight … I never slept over in Monaco or Lichtenstein both of those were day trips to these micro-nations.
I am missing many passport stamps, for instance once you enter the EU and transit to another country you typically will not get a stamp. I even counted Montenegro which I visited by accident. I was driving from Kosovo to Albania and entered the country when I got lost. And I also count Macedonia. I entered the country from northern Albania and drove down the west side of Macedonia and reentered southern Albania to visit Lake Orchid. The roads were better in Macedonia so this saved time. But I did have some travel experiences. My muffler fell off in northern Albania on some rough roads and I had it repaired at a service station somewhere in the middle of Macedonia.
And before exiting southern Macedonia, I stopped in at a petrol station where I hung out with the gas station attendant and friended her on Facebook before entering Albania.
After New Year’s in 2018 spent in NYC, I had planned a 3 country Pacific Island trip before I settled back into Bangkok. I was to start off with 5 days at the Hilton Resort (a free stay courtesy of a lot of Hilton points) in Fiji, relaxing at the pool and taking some snorkel/boat trips. After that, I was to visit Vanuatu, spending a couple of days in the capital of Port Vila, but the highlight was to be a visit to Tanna Island. Tanna Island is home to Mount Yasur, an active volcano, where you are able to walk up to the rim of the crater. And a finally a visit to Solomon Islands where I was going to learn about WWII history. A lot of fighting took place on the main island of Guadalcanal.
The trip started on a sour note. My flight from Boston to Nadi, Fiji was canceled due to the Bomb Cyclone, a viscous snow storm which shut down Boston. Instead, of leaving on Thursday after NYE, my flight was rescheduled on Sunday. My five nights in Fiji were truncated to a brief two nights.
It was a quick two hour direct flight from Nadi, Fiji to Port Vila, Vanuatu.
I boarded the back entrance of the prop plane and squeezed myself into my seat. Within moments of the flight departing, the muscles in my chest started to convulse. And when I say chest, I mean the left side of my chest. I started sweating. My breath was short. Was I having a heart attack? Was this the end? I focused on controlling my breathing and my sweating ended. The muscles in my chest were still clenched. It was a scary feeling.
The flight arrived and I made my way through the molasses-slow immigration line. The Port Vila International Airport was more bus station than airport.
I whipped out my iPhone and snapped a photo of a large sign advertising emergency medical evacuation near the immigration line. I wasn’t quite sure what my future might hold.
I found a taxi and navigated my way to my hotel, thick humidity set in. I arrived to my hotel room, after puffing up the stairs. I snapped on the AC and plopped down on the bed. I reasoned maybe I had simply pulled some muscles in my chest. I just needed some rest. I stared at my surroundings. The room was tiny, only 120 square feet, bathed in white with several tropical flowers scattered about, placed by the housekeeping staff. The only furniture was the bed. Seventy dollars doesn’t go as far as it used to.
After a couple of hours, I started Googling. “Best hospital in Port Vila”. “List of Port Villa hospitals”. The results were not very comforting. Port Vila is not known for its medical tourism. I searched for the US Embassy in Port Vila, looking for their advice on medical options. Vanuatu is so insignificant, the US did not bother opening an Embassy in the country of only 250,000 people. Diplomatic services were provided by the Embassy in neighboring Papua New Guinea. This is what the US Embassy wrote: “Hospital and medical facilities in Vanuatu are limited. Doctors and hospitals often expect immediate cash payment for their services. In the event of a serious illness or accident.” Not exactly comforting for any potential open heart surgery.
I reasoned if I was not better the next morning, I would need to cancel my snorkel trip and find the hospital. I slept fitfully but awoke to discomfort. My breath was short and the tightening on my chest was painful. I ambled to the lobby and requested a taxi to the hospital. The staff member smiled and suggested I could simply walk. Location, location, location. The hospital was only five minutes from the hotel.
I puffed down the road to the Vila Central Hospital.
The early morning sun was already peeking out. I passed a road crew, weed-wacking the grass in front of the hospital. I approached the simple one story structure and spotted the Emergency Room entrance.
I pushed open the doors, and my optimism and hope was abruptly stifled. The entrance was humid with no AC; three locals sat silently on some chairs leaned up against the wall. I stood momentarily waiting for some medical staff to assist me. I waited a bit more. Then I slid my head around the corner. I then spotted a darkened room with the word Cashier on the window. I spotted a man sitting in the office. I poked my head in and asked if there was someone who could help me. The man disappeared and reappeared with a uniformed man with a light beard. Was he a doctor? A nurse? A technician? I never found out.
He led me to a room thankfully with AC and directed me to lay down on one of the beds. Was the bed stained or a unique design on the sheets? The room was dirty, the floors marked with dirt and spots of blood.
He slid up my shirt and started shaving my chest (and we had just met). I was about to have my first EKG.
He asked me some routine questions and slid several pink pills into my mouth. I noted he was not wearing latex glove. He blasted a sneeze and a moment later grabbed another pill. “Open your mouth, and put this pill under your tongue”. I kept my mouth closed. He asked again, and I reluctantly opened my mouth as he slid the pill under my tongue with his sneeze covered hand. Next he was checking my blood pressure and heartbeat. His conclusion was my heart was healthy. He speculated that I was having acid reflux or some sort of other gasto issue. He handed me four packets of pills, told me to return to my room and rest.
I was unconvinced and concerned. I paid the bill, 3000 Vanuatu Dollars, also known as $28 dollars.
I returned to my room, started researching the medicine as best as I could with the weak wifi. I popped the pills and spent the whole day resting in bed; hoping I would get and feel better. I binged Peaky Blinders from Netflix which I had thankfully downloaded prior to the start of my trip. At dinner time, I felt better. I was breathing better and the pain in my chest subsided. I walked over to the hotel restaurant munched on a chicken sandwich.
I had a decision to make. The following morning I had a flight to Tanna, a neighboring island. I was to spend two nights here, visiting the volcano, snorkeling and visiting some local villages. I was feeling better. I had already paid for my flights and hotels. And I was excited for this part of the trip. I also didn’t want to cancel the trip since I had practically planned out my entire 2018. It is not simple of cheap to travel to this part of the world. I didn’t want to waste my time over a false medical issue.
But the risk was also greater if I traveled to Tanna Island. In Port Vila I had witnessed the lack of medical facilities. Tanna would be even worse and I would be even more isolated from professional medical help. I reasoned if I was feeling OK, I would travel to Tanna. I didn’t want to be a hypochondriac.
Morning came and my fear grew. I wasn’t feeling better. In fact, I felt worse. It was difficult to breath and my chest felt squeezed. I grabbed my iPhone and opened my Skyscanner App. I needed to leave Port Vila and get some medical help. Quick.
After some research I booked an $1100 ticket to Bangkok. It was going to take 24 hours and was three flight segments. I found some shorter flight with a duration of 18 hours but it was over $3,000. Even in my concern, I was too cheap to buy the ticket. I figured at this point another six hours would not make a difference.
So I flew from Port Vila to Sydney, then Sydney to Guangzhou, then I landed in Bangkok. It was a long series of flights with two long connections. Upon arriving in Bangkok, I headed to my apartment dropped off my bags and decided to shower. It has been two days, and I figured if I croaked I wanted to be a good smelling corpse.
I then sped over to Bumrungrad International Hospital, an internationally accredited hospital. I had been here before when I injured my leg in a tuktuk accident in Cambodia. I knew the service and competency was good. I spent the next eight hours receiving a battery of tests including my first CAT scan.
The conclusion of the staff: completely healthy. Yet, they had no explanation for my pain or shortness of breath. So now what? What happens the next time I get sick on the road? Will I think it is a non-issue and travel-through? Or will I pack my bags and head off to the nearest hospital?
And have I really been to Vanuatu? I spent two nights on the island…but my experiences were relegated to the hotel, the airport, and hospital. Not much of a trip. But time and money are finite resources. Do I go back?