I am enjoying a Beef Carpaccio at the recently established Reefers Bar and Grill. The meal is great and so are the views of Port Vila Harbor and the company I am with. I am sitting with Michael Benjamin, one of the owners, who casually drinks a beer and tells me that yes, he is actually working right now.
Michael Benjamin is someone who enjoys taking care of people. From working as an intensive care paramedic to now running a couple of successful restaurants in Port Vila, Michael has always been a ‘hospitable’ kind of guy.
Michael, or ‘Mick’ as he is known, worked as an intensive care paramedic for 23 years in the inner city and outer suburbs of Melbourne, where he is originally from.
He started coming to Vanuatu in 2007 to volunteer at Promedical. “The union put out a notice for volunteers after the operations manager, who was a friend of mine, passed away. I used to come and spend a month or two here each year during my annual leave.”
Early in 2011, the board asked him to become Promedical’s operation manager. After discussing it with his children, he accepted the position in July 2011. Back then Promedical had four staff members and two vehicles.
During his time as operations manager, Promedical’s staff more than tripled. The not-for-profit organization has grown into a fully equipped medical emergency response team, consisting of 20 staff members, eight vehicles including four ambulances and a rescue vehicle, with a fully operational branch in Santo. From November 2016, Promedical in conjunction with Air Leasing and Air Taxi will be able to provide domestic and international medevac utilizing their air ambulance.
Mick retired from Promedical in 2015 to a ‘quieter’ life. “I am still on the board and I will attend to a scene if the case is too big and will overwhelm the staff, such as the incident that occurred at Erakor where two buses collided with each other.”
Mick says the biggest challenge working in pre-hospital care in Vanuatu is the limited resources. The majority of patients are taken to Port Vila Central Hospital (PVCH) and over the years, Promedical and PVCH have developed a good relationship. “Sometimes we have to call on Vila Central Hospital and sometimes they will call on us. There are times when we have to jump in the ambulance with them as they are not staffed with paramedics. You have to be flexible and open. It is not as easy as driving patients straight to hospital – patients need to be tested and treated before they get there. The standard of care is also challenging, and although improving, it is not at the level of, for example, trauma hospitals in Australia with much bigger resources.”
Another challenge is that many times, here you know the patient. “When I was in Melbourne, there was only one case in my 23 years of career where I knew the person I was treating. The community is very close here, and many times, either you or somebody within the team, knows the patient. It is challenging because it is a bit personal.”
In 2015, Mick decided on a change of career and arrived at the hospitality scene by buying into the War Horse Saloon with Troy Lee Neel. The restaurant was successfully sold in 2016.
The elegant and groovy ‘Lava Lounge’ Restaurant and Bar was Mick’s next venture. Together with business partners Shaun McNamara (Mack), Troy Lee Neel, and Eric Chatelain, the Lava Lounge was launched in November 2015.
His next project came only six months later. Mick, Troy and Mack opened Reefers Bar and Grill on May 1st 2016, “The name derives from Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band. I concentrate mainly on Reefers and we are very proud of it. It is becoming known as having some of the best food in town and we have regular bands playing every week.”
Right on the water, with great views of the Harbour, Reefers brings bands from overseas and it is a popular venue to hold functions.
Mick enjoys ‘the relaxed atmosphere’ of hospitality work. “I have come full circle. I used to work in pubs and hotels before becoming a paramedic and now I am back in hospitality. I am very content working here.”
When not working, Mick enjoys fishing and a game of golf with good friends and spending time with his beloved ‘Red’. Mick and Red were married on August 2015, after five lovely years together.
Mick is a well-travelled man who has often wandered off the beaten track. The most amazing place he has been to is Zanzibar, a little island off the east coast of Africa. “It just grabbed me with its amazing mix of African, Arabic and European culture. I love travelling to places that are off track. I have been to Africa, gone through deserts, seen incredible animals, paddled down a river in Rhodesia, trekked through Vietnam. My kind of travel is staying at budget hotels, meeting amazing people and being spontaneous and adventurous.”
Next on his ‘to go-do’ list is Peru. “I would love to go to America and do the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. That is next on my bucket list.”
Mick has no plans to go back to Australia. Vanuatu is home. “I call Vanuatu home now. I have a beautiful wife, amazing friends and a great restaurant. I love this country and it has not taken me long to call it home. Every time I fly back from Australia, after going through the immigration lounge I hear the string band playing and think ‘Finally, I’m home.’’
Don’t we all.