Scenes from Vanuatu, the Happiest Place on Earth

Today is the 33rd anniversary of Vanuatu's independence, called by some the happiest place on earth. Back in 2009, Ransom Riggs stopped by to see what all the fuss was about.

In 2006, the "happy planet index" named Vanuatu, a tiny archipelago nation in the South Pacific, the happiest place on Earth. Determined to find out what all the fuss was about (and having already been to Denmark, 2008's "happiest country," and not finding it all that excessively cheerful a place), I booked a ticket and, two weeks ago, went there. Actually, I went there to go scuba diving and watch volcanos spurt lava from unsafe-by-Western-standards distances, and partly because whenever I told people where I was going they would scrunch up their faces and say where?, which pleased me (as if they had already forgotten season 9 of Survivor). But I figured as long as I was there I'd see if I couldn't get to the bottom of this happiness business, and maybe get a little happy myself. 

Upon arriving on the island of Espiritu Santo (originally dubbed La Austrialia del Espíritu Santo in 1606 by a religious-minded Portuguese explorer who mistakenly thought he had found Australia), I didn't get an overwhelming happy vibe. The dusty streets of Luganville, which is the country's second-largest town but little more than a narrow strip of Chinese shops and seafood restaurants, were clogged with hundreds of listless people who seemed to have nothing better to do than squat in whatever patches of shade they could find and stare blankly. High unemployment and general disgruntlement, I thought. Not a good sign. (Later I learned that people who hold civil service positions on Santo have to come into Luganville every other Friday to collect their checks, which can take all day. Waiting in long lines makes me vaguely disgruntled, too.)

Vanuatu's people are poor -- very poor. Many families earn only what their garden-grown vegetables will fetch at market. Going to the market to sell your vegetables is a royal pain -- it means an arduous journey, sometimes with your whole family, from wherever your village is to the main town's market, where you jostle for free space at one of many long, wooden tables to display your wares until they're sold. This could take days -- and as a result, many markets are open 24 hours, because families simply sleep at their stalls until all their vegetables have been sold, and then go home, with the equivalent of $20 in their pockets if they're lucky.

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Market at night, Port Vila, Vanuatu

And then there are the roads. Vanuatu has thousands of miles of roads that crisscross and encircle its 83 islands, but of those thousands of miles of roads perhaps twenty are paved, and there are approximately zero traffic lights. That's because there's really no need to tell drivers to slow down, use caution or stop when the enormous potholes that scar Vanuatu's roadways make it impossible to drive more than 10mph, navigating in a swerving zigzag pattern in a vain attempt to avoid them. (Even at 10mph, it's a wild, ass-numbing ride.) One day, after two hours of such unceasing bum-punishment, a weary bus driver asked me, with the faintest twinge of optimism, in America, the roads are better, yes? Yes, I told him. But in my city we don't go much faster than this anyway because there are too many cars. He looked at me like I had a second head growing out of my neck.

When it rains, forget it. The roads turn into brown slush, and the potholes into mires that swallow vehicles whole. I discovered this the hard way, after my vehicle was swallowed whole in just one such mire. Luckily, people in Vanuatu are exceedingly nice, and actually seem to enjoy watching cars slosh around helplessly in the mud and then jumping in themselves to help push them out. (Where I come from in Florida, this activity is actually an informal redneck sport, known as "mudding.") For the sake of illustration, here's the spot where I got stuck:

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... and here are the guys who helped push me out. Thanks, guys!

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OK, so the people are poor. But even though most poor people in Vanuatu don't have any more money than most poor people in, say, India, their poverty is not nearly as grinding. There are several reasons for this. One is that clean water is readily available: it rains buckets, and there are clean, clear freshwater rivers all over the place. You can't go more than a few miles without running into some impossibly beautiful waterfall or cascade. It's terrible. Then there's the volcanic soil -- it's so rich in nutrients that you could drop a candy wrapper on the ground and it would sprout. All manner of fruits and veggies are naturally occurring and easy to grow. Add to that thousands of miles of reef-encrusted shoreline, teeming with colorful and tasty sea life, and you've got the makings of a gourmet meal more or less whenever you want it. I was walking in a village on the (very active) volcanic island of Tanna when a kid showed me two wild rice seedlings he had found; accidentally dropped, that had sprouted on their own:

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As for the roads, the truth is that it doesn't really matter how bad they are. No one's in a hurry anyway. Not once did I see anyone in Vanuatu consult a clock or a watch, or run somewhere because they were late, or for that matter run anywhere at all. It's too hot -- and who cares what time it is? The only appointment many people have each day is at the kava bar at sundown, where they pony up the equivalent of $0.75 for a coconut shell-full of dishwater-brown root liquid, which tastes like boiled shoe leather but whose quick narcotic effect makes standing up, much less going anywhere in a hurry, a challenge to say the least. (More on kava in a future blog.)

What's more, the population of Vanuatu is very young. Something like 40% of Vanuatans are under the age of 15, and if there's an unhappy kid on Vanuatu, I never met one. They always seem to be laughing and playing, and every single one of them waved and smiled at me as I passed them by. Also, they're all issued razor-sharp machetes from the age of three, and as we all know, machetes are great fun. (Seriously though, the jungle grows so quickly there that the same path you bushwhacked just to get from your hut to the toilet needs bushwhacking all over again on the way back. Those not armed with razor-sharp machetes are simply swallowed up by creeper vines and never seen again.) Here's a kind-of-graphic picture of a kid I met, holding a machete and a recently hacked-off oxtail, the latter of which was sure to make an appearance on his family's dinner table that night. (That's the other bit of food that's naturally occurring on many islands in Vanuatu: organic, grass-fed cows, whose beef is so famously good that the Japanese import prodigious quantities of it for use in fancy restaurants.)

These happy campers were chasing my car, as kids in Vanuatu will do:
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On the surface, one of the unhappiest things about Vanuatu is the land disputes. After independence in 1980, when the people reclaimed their country from the British and French and it went from being named the New Hebrides to Vanuatu (literally: for me and you), all land was meant to return to its original owners. The trouble was, it had been so long since village chiefs in Vanuatu had owned their own land, they often couldn't remember the boundaries of their territory. So for the last three decades, the country has been mired in ceaseless (but usually bloodless) land disputes, and as a result there are lots of places you can't go because it's impossible to know whose permission you need in order to go there. But according to the New Economics Foundation -- the people behind the "happy planet index" -- this is one of the primary reasons that Vanuatu earned the top slot in 2006. "This has prevented raping of the land, if just anyone could have bought the land it would probably be a very different place," says Peter Robinson, a recent volunteer in Vanuatu. "As it is, there is an awful lot of land that is not being used." The people own their own land, and they're not being pushed out by resorts or wealthy ex-pat landowners. As it is, foreigners can't legally own land in Vanuatu -- they can only lease it from the chiefs, for a maximum of 75 years.

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Grandmother and child, in a village on the island of Tanna, Vanuatu.

Naturally, perhaps, some of the ex-pats living in Vanuatu are a little bitter. A few that I talked to didn't have many kind words for native Vanuatans, who they characterized as slow, unreliable employees. "They'll work for months with no problem," one business owner told me, "and then disappear for weeks or months at a time with no notice. Then they'll come back just as suddenly and expect to get their jobs back." I asked him why. "The trouble is, they don't need to work. If they want food, they can just pluck it from the land or the sea. They spend their paychecks as soon as they get them because they don't really need the money. It makes it very hard to have long-term employees." (Sounds like heaven to me.)

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A fisherman catching his dinner, Oyster Island, Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu.

Norman Shackley, chair of the British Friends of Vanuatu, has an even better story (which originally appeared here, on the BBC):

While living in Vanuatu, Mr Shackley was once stranded for three weeks on one of its most remote islands with his 10-year-old son, due to an airline dispute. With no shops and nowhere to stay, they were looked after by local people. One day he came across a young local man who had just returned to the island after studying at Nottingham University.

"I asked him what he was going to do with his life now and he just pointed at his fishing rod and said 'this'. He could have been one of the top earners in Vanuatu if he wanted, but he was contented with his simple life and didn't want anything else.

"It was a real eye-opener for me and made me look at what life is really all about. It just sums up what the place is about."

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See more photos from Vanuatu! And you can check out more Strange Geographies columns here.

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July 30, 2013 - 11:20am
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