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I missed the Kentucky Derby this year which is just as well since I’m not a huge fan of Mint Juleps which, to me, taste like a child’s version of bourbon, if such a thing is possible. Like marzipan and fudge, the julep is just way too sweet for me. What it lacks is some sort of tart component to balance out all that sugar and mint. Which is why I much prefer a cocktail invented by the King of Cocktails, Dale DeGroff, called the Whiskey Smash, which is very much like a Mint Julep except better. Much better.

Now I say that DeGroff created this drink and maybe he did, but the Whisky Smash has a long history although, like a lot of cocktails, the exact ingredients have changed over time. Jerry Thomas, who is generally considered the patron saint of bartenders, briefly mentions a Whiskey Smash in his landmark cocktail guide, How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon-Vivant’s Companion, first published in 1862.

“This beverage is simply a julep on a small plan,” he writes, and then lists the ingredients as 1/2 tablespoon sugar, 1 tablespoon water, and 1 wine-glass of whiskey.

Well, okay, we get the idea: bourbon, mint, and sugar. A bit anemic, that.

Flash forward to 2005 when Bobby Flay opened Bar Americain in Midtown Manhattan. One of the most popular drinks on the cocktail menu was a Whiskey Smash, which was quite different than the Thomas concoction. To whit, while muddling the mint with simple syrup, Flay added a couple of lemon wedges and smushed those up to get some of the juice as well as a little of the lemon oil (think bitters). Then ice, add the bourbon, and—this is a bit unusual—top the whole thing with a splash of soda.

Did DeGroff come up with his version of the Whiskey Smash before or after Bobby Flay? Who can say. What we know is that his version calls for Makers Mark Bourbon, three lemon pieces, five mint leaves (five: not four, not three—five) and no soda. The version they serve at Bemelmans Bar in New York City’s Carlyle hotel, which credits DeGroff as the creator, insists on Bulleít Bourbon, which I quite like, and lemon juice instead of muddled lemons. I don’t know. I could go either way on the lemon issue. On the one hand, muddled lemons do give you that slightly bitter lemon oil which I find quite nice, but just using fresh lemon juice makes the drink a little smoother I think. Maybe try it both ways and see what you think.


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Nambawan at the War Horse Saloon

The War Horse Saloon in Port Vila, Efate. Photo by David Lansing.

The War Horse Saloon in Port Vila, Efate. Photo by David Lansing.

We had to be packed and ready to go this morning by eight. I said good-by to Martha and Terrine, who have been so lovely to us each morning, and then loaded my luggage into the small motorboat for the thirty-minute trip over to Luganville for the short flight to Port Vila.

Once here, I had several hours before my flight to Auckland so I decided to drop in on the War Horse Saloon which every one on the island just calls The Saloon.

The Saloon is owned by Don and Donna MacQuid, a couple of ex-pats from Denver who thought they’d take a break from life and go sailing for a couple of years. That was in 1984.

“We ended up sailing around the world—twice,” said Don who was wearing a floppy cowboy hat and drinking a Nambawan, a draft beer he brews on the premises (say the name of the beer slowly and you’ll understand what it means).

Don, in cowboy hat, shares a Nambawan with patrons. Photo by David Lansing.

Don, in cowboy hat, shares a Nambawan with patrons. Photo by David Lansing.

I asked them how they ended up owning a brewery and saloon in Vanuatu, particularly one that looked remarkably like the Traildust Steakhouse in Arlington, Texas with its stuffed buffalo heads and big-screen TVs playing sports, and Donna chuckled and said, “Well that’s a long story. You got all day?”

Here’s a brief version: They were on their boat, Solitaire, headed for the Solomon Islands when they heard there was a cyclone in the area so they changed course and headed for Vanuatu instead. “Once we got here, we never left,” she said.

Don had always wanted to make beer so he thought he’d open a brew pub in Port Vila but the government wouldn’t have any of that. “They are half owners in Tusker (the local beer in Vanuatu) and they wouldn’t allow me to build a brew pub. So I sued them. Which was kind of a crazy thing to do but it got their attention. Eventually they said I still couldn’t open a brew pub but I could open a brewery which is what I did. And then in 2006, we just happened to open the War Horse Saloon right in front of the Seven Seas Brewery and a couple of years ago, we started selling our Nambawan beer in Vanuatu to compete with Tusker.”

And then Don had to excuse himself. He said he needed to help a local country band set up for tonight. I asked him where he found a country and western band in Vanuatu.

“Oh, they’re natives,” he said, adding, “I think ni-Vans are the most naturally talented people I’ve ever met. People wonder where I find a band in Vanuatu that can play Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash and I tell them, Well, you just find some local musicians, give them a couple of western CDs and a week to rehearse and you’ll swear they grew up in Memphis.”

With that he headed off and I finished up my Nambawan before catching a taxi for the airport.

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Coffee with Kandy

Ratua's chef, Kandy Tamagushiku. Photo by David Lansing.

Ratua's chef, Kandy Tamagushiku. Photo by David Lansing.

I’ve been trying for days to meet the chef here at Ratua. She seems a bit mysterious to me but Frederick says she’s just shy. A couple of times he’s brought me back past the pond where the ducks, who provide us with eggs, live to the kitchen. Each time she’s been elsewhere—out in the organic garden or off to the markets at Port Vila. But tomorrow is my last day here and I really wanted to talk to this chef who has made us such fabulous meals so this morning at breakfast, Frederick went into the back and came back dragging the chef by her arm sleeve.

Her name is Kandy Tamagushiku and, over coffee, she told me a little bit about herself. She was born in Port Vila but her father, a park ranger, moved them to New Zealand when she was five. After that, she’d make it back to Vanuatu maybe once a year to visit relatives.

“Vanuatu was always in my heart,” she said. “I never forgot it.”

A year or so ago, she was working in a café near Auckland when a cousin of hers who was doing some electrical work on Ratua told her that the resort was looking for a chef. She knew immediately, she told me, she’d apply. “It was an experience I simply couldn’t turn down. And it was a chance to return to Vanuatu.”

I asked her if there was a difference between living in New Zealand and living here. She said life was much simpler here and, because of that, she thought the people were happier. “They don’t know troubles the way we know troubles.”

We talked a bit more about her life here on the island and then she looked at her watch and told me she needed to get back to the kitchen. “I’m roasting a whole pig for dinner tonight,” she said standing up and shaking my hand. “And a pig waits for no man. Or woman either.” And then she walked past the ducks back to the kitchen.

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Storm clouds gather as we canoe to Malo's blue hole. Photo by David Lansing.

Storm clouds gather as we canoe to Malo's blue hole. Photo by David Lansing.

Where was I? Oh yes, upside down in a drifting canoe searching for my submerged camera bag. Well, I found it. Weighing twenty pounds, it hadn’t drifted far along the muddy bottom.

“This is not good,” I said to G who’d lost her hat and her new sunglasses. The straw hat she was able to scoop up before the current had taken it too far. The glasses were lost. I held my pack up high in the air as water gushed out of it like a broken pipe as I plunged towards the shore like a plow horse through viscous mud that swallowed me mid-calf. At this point the other canoes had caught up to us and were idling in the stream, watching us as we scrambled to secure paddles, canoe, clothes, towels, and my camera bag. Nobody said anything except, “What happened?”

What happened? I’ll tell you what happened. The New York mouse capsized our canoe. All right, it probably wasn’t strictly her fault since I was the one who’d instructed her to watch out for the mangrove branch, which she’d successfully accomplished by rolling our little unstable vessel into the drink. Still.

Well, it took awhile but we were able to get everything to shore, roll the canoe to get the water out of it, and recover everything but G’s polarized sunglasses which really had looked quite stylish on her.

“Are you going to look at your camera?” G asked me.


“Why not? Don’t you want to know if it’s okay?”

“G, my camera bag was on the bottom of the river. When I picked it up, water ran out of it for five minutes. Of course it’s not okay.”

“So you’re not going to look?”

“We’re not going to talk about the camera bag anymore. The next person who even says the words camera bag is going to be thrown out of the boat by me.”

“So you’re not…”

“What did I just say? We are not talking about it anymore.”

We got back in the canoe. The tropical rain, which had seemed so charming only a few hours earlier, now seemed to be biblically punishing me. What, overturning the boat hadn’t done enough damage? Now god was going to hit us with an afternoon monsoon? I didn’t care. What more damage could be done? I draped a wet towel over the backpack and paddled as hard as I could. G did the same. Neither of us spoke. For the full thirty minute trip.

When we got back to Ratua, Frederick was standing on the dock, in the rain, waiting to greet us. G took him aside and told him what had happened. Frederick ran off and came back with dry towels and two hairdryers.

“Can I help you with your equipment?” he asked. Frederick is such the gentleman.

“No, thank you,” I told him. “I think what I’ll do is go back to my villa and sit on my veranda and open up my camera bag. If you hear a long scream in the jungle, it means I might be late for dinner.”

Before heading back to Crocodile Villa, I went to the bar and asked Claudia to make me an Espiritu Diablo. “Don’t be stingy with the tequila,” I told her. She made me a very large drink with very little ginger ale. Then I walked back in the rain, which had diminished, to my room, took a warm shower, changed into some dry clothes, and then pulled up a wicker chair in front of a small table on the veranda and opened up my camera bag.

The view from my villa after the storm. Photo by David Lansing.

The view from my villa after the storm. Photo by David Lansing.

Not too surprisingly, everything was wet. Very wet. So I took all of the equipment out, piece by piece, removed batteries and lenses and memory cards, carefully dried them with the towels Frederick had given me, and then used a hairdryer to dry everything with hot air. The whole process took me about two hours. Then I spread all the gear out, unassembled, on the rustic desk in my room. I made myself a gin and tonic and sat on my bed. The rain stopped. The sun went down. After awhile, there was a knock on my door. I opened it just a crack. It was Frederick. “Is everything all right?” he asked quietly.

“Oh, sure. It’s fine,” I said, not having the heart to tell him the truth.

“The others are worried about you. Will you come join us for dinner?”

“Soon,” I said, and then I closed the door and sat back on the bed with my drink.

Tomorrow I will put everything back together. I will twist on a lens and slip in the lithium ion battery and install the memory card. And then I will move the switch to ON and see what happens. But not tonight. I’m just not ready to do that tonight.

Instead, I walked in the darkness towards the Yacht Club where I could hear voices and music in the sticky hot air, stopping at the bar to ask Claudia to make me another Diablo, and then I stepped into the candle-lit light of the dining pavilion and sat down next to G who, when she saw me, looked as if she were holding her breath under water.

“And?” she whispered.

I patted her hand. “We’re not going to talk about it.”

“But Frederick said everything was okay.”

I smiled at her. “We’re not going to talk about it,” I repeated. And for the rest of the night, we didn’t.

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Lost in a blue hole

G paddling upriver to the blue hole on Malo Island. Photo by David Lansing.

G paddling upriver to the blue hole on Malo Island. Photo by David Lansing.

I usually hate the rain, but it’s different here on Vanuatu. It’s warm and it’s comforting and there’s something about it that just connects me to the earth in a primitive way. It’s like the way my sense of smell is aroused by a smoky campfire or my taste buds ignited by bacon sizzling up on a cast-iron skillet outdoors. There is some DNA is our bodies that connects with the smell of fire, the taste of food cooked outdoors, and the feel of tropical rain.

Yesterday we were supposed to go on a day-long bush walk along a narrow jungle path across creeks and cascades and over a bamboo bridge to the Millennium Cave on Espiritu Santo, but in the morning, Frederick looked up at the rather gloomy sky and announced that the hike was off. “It is going to rain—hard,” he said, “and you’ll be up to your hips in mud.”

Instead, he suggested that if we timed it properly, we might be able to get in a canoe trip up an estuary on nearby Malo Island to a blue hole that, he said, was quite beautiful. Now, usually when I think of blue holes I think of the great vertical submarine caves off the coast of Belize or Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas which were formed back in the Ice Ages when the ocean was 300 to 400 feet lower than it is now and these limestone depressions were formed from rain and chemical reactions and then, eventually, filled by the ocean.

That’s not what the Malo Blue Hole is. It’s simply a swimming hole far back in the jungle where a freshwater underground spring meets the ocean. The result is that the water is a brilliant cerulean. Thus the blue hole moniker.

So late in the afternoon, after we’d gotten one of those long, warm tropical showers that lasted for no more than twenty minutes before the skies cleared, we hoped into one of the resort’s motorboats and Amos took us over to Malo where several canoes were pulled up on the sand where the estuary empties out into the ocean.

Now, here’s the thing: We had three canoes and seven people plus Amos, our guide, so two of the canoes had three paddlers and one had two. Because I was bringing my camera gear and wanted to shoot photos as we rowed, I wanted to go with Amos and someone who could actually paddle a canoe while I shot pictures. The only problem with that is that it left the other two boats with mostly inexperienced paddlers. Which was a problem almost immediately. One boat, with three women, would either paddle into one of the other boats or, worse yet, straight into the shore.

“Don’t try and power it with your arms,” I thoughtfully yelled out to the women. “Use your core and your lower body. Paddle with your hips and your legs.”

“What the fuck do you think we’re doing!” replied Marguarite. Evidently she didn’t appreciate being stuck in a boat with two New Yorkers, neither of who had a clue as to what they were doing.

Meanwhile, my boat, guided by G and Amos, was doing fabulous, allowing me to sit comfortably in the front of the boat and take pictures, despite the fact that about every 15 seconds G would say something like, “Those guys in the other canoe are going to drown. We have to let Amos go with them and take one in our boat.”

Absolutely not, I told her. I’m shooting here. They’ll be fine. Just give them a few minutes to get the hang of it. Which is when the three women rowed straight into the concrete piling of a low bridge. Not good.

So G got her way. We all pulled up on to shore and a little mouse of a woman who looked absolutely terrified by her five or ten minutes on the water, got into the canoe with me and G while Amos gracefully slid into the other boat. And off we went.

There were howler monkeys screaming madly at us from the trees and legions of crocodiles sunning on the banks and when we came around one bend in the river, there was a rather frightening looking headhunter swinging two shrunken skulls at us and calling out that he had a special going today—two of his heads for one of ours.

I kid you, dear reader. I’m a kidder. There was none of that. In fact, the jungle was eerily silent. Like the calm before the storm. Also, it was getting rather dark. Very dark.

This estuary we were paddling up was shallow. In fact, every few minutes one or the other of us would ground their canoe and the occupants would have to carefully climb out, so as not to tip the boat over, and push or pull the craft over a sandbar. The two paddlers in one of the boats decided, after they’d both grounded their boat several times as well as flipped it, that it might just be easier to walk with the boat up the estuary, which is what they did.

Ah, but G and I and the nervous New York mouse navigated cleanly up the waterway, searching out the deep channels that often ran close to shore and avoiding any mishaps and after about an hour, we’d arrived at the blue hole. Which was a sort of milky azure color instead of the crystal clear cerulean I’d been expecting. But that was due, no doubt, to all the sediment-carrying rainfall feeding into the estuary. We tied the boats to mangroves and went for a swim. The water was much colder than the sea but not nearly as saline though, for some reason, it seemed heavy to me; like swimming with weights around your ankles.

The blue hole on Malo. Photo by David Lansing.

The blue hole on Malo. Photo by David Lansing.

After about half an hour, the rain that had been threatening for some time started to come down. Not heavy, not intense; just small rain. But you could tell it was going to get worse. Which was a problem for me since I had stupidly not brought any protection for the backpack holding my camera gear other than the towel that I now wrapped around it like a turban.

We got into the canoes and, ignoring the others, G and I paddled quickly and silently. We had, on the trip up river, gotten into sync and now could sense when to switch sides paddling or let the other paddle left or right to maneuver us without the need to say anything. It felt splendid. Still, I was worried about the rain and my camera.

At one point the river narrowed to no more than ten feet with mangroves reaching out from both banks like zombie arms. Which is when I made a tragic mistake. I spoke to the New York mouse, sitting trembling with her hands in her lap as G and I did all the work, to watch out for the branch coming up on the right. Which is when she rolled hard to the left. And the canoe and G and I rolled with her.

What did I think as my backpack with a Canon 7D, four lenses, six filters, card reader, and numerous (spent) memory cards went underwater?

Just one word and it begins with an F. In fact, I thought that word three or four times. As in, F—, F—, F—, F—.

And then I was swimming to the surface and watching as my camera bag floated in the current away from me. Not good, I mumbled, or maybe it was more F—, F—, F—. It’s hard to remember. Suffice it to say that I was not a happy camper. But forget about that. I needed to quickly swim after my bag before the current claimed it.

To be continued…

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