Vanuato: Not Your Typical South Pacific Experience
by Marshall Snider
anu-what? Vanu-who? Vanu– White?
These are the three questions that were most frequently asked of me when I told people earlier this year that my wife and I were traveling to Vanuatu. Unlike better-known Pacific islands, such as Fiji, Tahiti, and even Samoa (not to mention Hawaii, Australia, and New Zealand), most people in North America have never heard of Vanuatu.
The Republic of Vanuatu is an independent nation comprising of 83 islands in the southwest Pacific. In geographic context, Vanuatu is about a three-hour plane ride north of Australia or New Zealand and an hour’s flight west of Fiji. Only 200,000 people live in this country, which has a land mass roughly the size of Connecticut. Outside the main island of Efate and its colonial-style capital of Port Vila, the adjoining islands are for the most part sparsely populated. Many islands are roadless, consisting only of a few coastal villages and an impenetrable, mountainous jungle interior.
The next question I was asked was Vanu-why? Why travel all this way to go snorkeling or to drink a beer on a pretty beach. Mexico is a lot closer.
True, but can Mexico boast a culture in which the last reported act of cannibalism took place in the 1960s? Can you visit a wood and thatch World War II “museum” consisting mostly of 70-yearold Coca Cola bottles, dented metal canteens, binoculars, and other memorabilia left by departing American troops? Do Mexicans dive off high towers into a pile of dirt just to ensure a good harvest? The culture of Vanuatu is rich and as different from North America as it gets.
The Happiest People on Earth
Ni-Vans (as the Vanuatu people are known) are said to be the happiest people on Earth. I couldn’t get into their heads to verify this cultural assertion, but from all outward appearances they have a pretty good claim to this distinction. Ni-Vans have a lot to be happy about. There is virtually no unemployment in Vanuatu, and who needs a job anyway? If you live in a village, as most people do, you have your family garden, pigs, and chickens. Fresh seafood is just a fishing line away. The village and the forest provide everything ni-Vans need to stay well fed and healthy.
And the ni-Van smile—big, engaging smiles—all the time. They are friendly, helpful, and welcoming. In nearly two weeks we probably ran across two grumpy people (even ni-Vans can have the occasional bad day, I guess). When I wandered into a village church on a Sunday to take part in the raucous singing and dancing that went along with the service, two women introduced themselves and welcomed me. Several days later, in a supermarket in Port Vila, one of these women saw me and said hello. I was not surprised that she recognized me; not too many foreigners stumble into her small village church. What surprised me was that she remembered my name—the last thing I expected in the Au Bon Marche store in the capitol was for a local villager to come up to me and say, “Hi, Marshall,” as if I was in a Safeway in Denver running into a neighbor.
Ni-Vans also have wonderful senses of humor; there is a lot of laughter going on around this country. And they are not shy about kidding foreigners. We walked into a bar in a rural area of Efate and asked the server if we could get a couple of beers. Her answer was a straight-faced “no.” We were taken aback, and there was an awkward pause, until she broke into a huge smile and a laugh and went to get us a few Tuskers (the local brew, itself worth the trip).
The Many Languages of Vanuatu
A nice feature of Vanuatu is that most everyone speaks English, yet there also is a major French influence. In colonial times Vanuatu was known as the New Hebrides or the Nouvelles Hebrides, depending on the colonial power with which you identified. Eventually, the French and the English agreed to a dual administration of the islands, a marriage that, to put it mildly, was not made in heaven. Inevitably, the Europeans threw up their collective hands and the islands gained independence.
The linguistic consequence of this history is that most ni-Vans speak four languages. There are more than 100 native languages in Vanuatu. Villages only miles apart developed distinct languages as a result of the historic isolation that resulted from the mountainous jungles of the islands. Each ni-Van thus speaks what they call their “mother tongue”—their local language.
All ni-Vans speak the national language, Bislama, which is a Melanesian pidgin English, similar to that spoken in the neighboring countries of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Bislama, like other pidgin languages, is pretty easy to pick up. “Yu” means “you,” “mi” means “me,” and “we” are “yumi.” “Thanks a lot” is “tank yu tumas.” And most importantly, to order a beer a simple “mi wantem Tusker” gets the point across (after all, Tusker is the “bia blong yumi”—our beer).
After mother tongues and Bislama, people speak English or French, depending on which school they attended. But, even people who went to an English school speak a little French and vice versa.
Many ni-Vans in remote areas live very traditional lives. These villagers often follow ancient rules known as kastom. They may dress in traditional ways—women in grass skirts and men who wear only penis sheaths. The penis sheaths worn in these traditional villages are known as nambas, and nambas are often divided into two groups: big nambas and small nambas. Whether you are a big namba or a small namba does not mean what you think it means (and I know what you’re thinking). Nevertheless, I won’t get into the details of the distinction in this family publication.
Land Diving: The Original Bungee Jumping
We were privileged to travel to Pentecost Island, north of Efate, to witness one of the most unusual of Vanuatu customs: land diving. As we landed at Pentecost, our first experience was the entire village coming to the airstrip to greet us with flowers and the singing of a local band playing guitars and handmade instruments. One bass-fiddle-looking device was actually a large box with a handle and strings. We enjoyed the music and mingled with the locals before taking the path to the village where land diving takes place.
Land divers propel themselves head first off of a 60-foot tower situated on a steep hill. The tower is made of wood and bamboo and looks like a castle built by pre-schoolers with Popsicle sticks. This activity occurs only in April and May, and is engaged in to ensure a good yam harvest.
Westerners who saw the Pentecost land divers developed the modern sport of bungee jumping. But, Vanuatu land diving is much more exciting. The divers tie long vines to their ankles and instead of a vertical dive they launch out horizontally. Gravity takes them down as well as out (their path looks like a graph of the 2008 economy). Eventually, when they are about five feet from the ground they run out of vine and are yanked back and up the hill into a pit of soft dirt reminiscent of old sawdust pole vault pits. The divers engage in this feat with no more protective equipment than a penis sheath and, as far as I could tell, without signing a liability waiver.
While the diving is progressing, the rest of the villagers (in grass skirts, penis sheaths, and that’s about it) keep up a constant singing, wailing, and whistling. It was not clear whether these sounds were intended to encourage the yam harvest or merely served as an incentive for the divers to get it over with so the noise would stop. Nevertheless, the primary reaction of a traveler viewing this spectacle is generally: “Well, this is something you don’t see every day.”
Vanuatu has it all. There are posh resorts and basic village accommodations. You can drink kava with the locals (kava is a vile but intoxicating liquid made from pepper roots). You can buy laplap—a paste of taro root, yam, or manioc with fish or meat, wrapped in leaves similar to banana leaves—from a lady crouched with her basket along the roadside. Or, you can drink fine wines and indulge your taste buds at elegant French restaurants. The snorkeling was among the best I have experienced anywhere in the world.
Tourists are mostly from Australia and New Zealand, and not in such numbers that it feels like Cancún in December—beyond the tourist centers, you can have the beaches to yourself. It is easy to get lost in the unusual culture or to merely luxuriate on a pristine beach.
Yeah, it is a long way to go, but if you are traveling to Australia or New Zealand it is worth a stopover—it could be the highlight of your entire trip. D