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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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Disney Has a Pair of Abandoned Properties
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You’ve probably heard about all of the new stuff coming to Disney Parks over the next couple of years—Toy Story Land, a Star Wars hotel, new rides, new attractions, and more. But what about all of the old stuff?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Disney closed the gates on two of its smaller properties: Discovery Island, an island filled with interesting plants and animals, and River Country, a water park with a rustic “swimming hole” theme. More than 15 years later, both remain abandoned.

DISCOVERY ISLAND

In the early 1960s, when Walt Disney was flying over the Orlando area to scout locations for his newest theme park, he noticed a little island that looked particularly secluded and peaceful. When he completed his Disney World land purchase, he made sure the island, then known as Riles Island, was included.

Disney originally planned to call the place “Blackbeard’s Island” and give it an elaborate pirate theme. Construction took about a decade longer than they intended, but in 1974, the island did open to the public under the name “Treasure Island.” It wasn’t as heavily-themed as Walt had wanted—in fact, the only pirate "relic" was a shipwreck replica. Other than the fake wreck, the main attractions were exotic birds, animal demonstrations, and various walkways, lookout points, beaches, and lagoons.

Disunplugged // The Walt Disney Company

Treasure Island was open for just two years before Disney decided to make it bigger. They brought in 50,000 cubic yards of soil to expand the island to 11 acres, added more than 250 plants and flowers, and introduced 140 new exotic birds and animals. It was eventually renamed “Discovery Island” and was re-branded with an ecological theme.

It was never one of Disney’s most popular attractions, so it was a no-brainer to close Discovery Island after the bigger-and-better zoological park, Animal Kingdom, opened in 1998. The island’s animals were relocated to the new facilities and others were placed in non-Disney zoos across the country.

Discovery Island is still there all these years later, though it’s been completely abandoned. An urban explorer found his way onto the island in 2009 (don’t try this at home, by the way) and snapped a few pictures of what it looks like these days. Though it appears pretty desolate now, there have been some thoughts about how to resurrect this valuable piece of real estate.

Soon after the island closed, Disney met with Robyn and Rand Miller, the creators of the hugely popular computer games Myst and Riven, hoping to recreate a real-life version of the adventure game. A certain number of guests would be admitted to the island each morning and would have a set number of hours to explore, unlocking secrets and finding hidden passages in the process. No two experiences would ever be the same. Storylines were plotted and plans were sketched, but the Myst island never fully materialized.

In 2009, one site suggested that Disney had extensive plans in place to transform the place into a Lost-themed island, but that turned out to be a hoax. Nevertheless, diehard fans immediately rallied to the cause, even starting an online petition that show producer Damon Lindelof signed. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to visit the Hatch or purchase DHARMA Initiative-branded fountain drinks anytime soon.

RIVER COUNTRY

River Country, a quaint little water park featuring tire swings, a barrel bridge, and two water slides called “Whoop ‘N’ Holler Hollow,” first opened to the public in 1976. The first rider to christen the water slide was Susan Ford, the daughter of then-President Gerald Ford.

The Huckleberry Finn-esque swimming hole, located near the Fort Wilderness campground area, was a popular vacation destination for 25 years, and was even the focus of a Wonderful World of Disney episode called “The Mouseketeers at Disney World.” At the end of the 2001 season, however, River Country was shut down for good. The rumor has long been that the death of an 11-year-old boy contributed to the closure, but the tragedy—the result of a rare amoeba found in freshwater lakes—occurred in 1980, 21 years before the proverbial windows were shuttered.

What’s closer to the truth, according to Yesterland, is that River Country simply became too expensive to operate. Theme park attendance dropped after September 11, forcing Disney to make budget cuts. Because two newer, easier-to-access water parks had been opened in more recent years, closing River Country was likely an easy decision to make.

Though a spokesperson said that River Country could potentially reopen if there was “enough guest demand,” it never did. Disney drained and filled in the 333,000-gallon Upstream Plunge pool just last year. There are currently no plans to demolish what remains of River Country, but there’s been speculation that the area will eventually be converted into timeshare units for the Disney Vacation Club.

Photojournalist Seph Lawless documented the decaying park in 2016.

Abandoned Disney World

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10 Legendary (and Probably Made-Up) Islands
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Often, islands come to represent places of extremes: they serve as utopias, purgatories, or ultimate dream vacation destinations. When it comes to mythological islands, utopias are especially popular. The Greeks had their Fortunate Islands, or Islands of the Blessed, where the luckiest mortals whiled away their time drinking and sporting. The Irish had a similar concept with their Mag Mell, or Plain of Honey, described as an island paradise where deities frolicked and only the most daring mortals occasionally visited. 

But mythology isn't the only engine creating islands that don't actually exist—some of these legendary land masses popped up on maps after miscalculations by early explorers who interpreted icebergs, fog banks, and mirages as real islands. Some of these cartographic “mistakes” may have been intentional—certain islands depicted on medieval maps might have been invented so they could be named after the patrons who funded the explorations. Even explorer Robert E. Peary wasn't immune: Some say he invented "Crocker Land," a supposedly massive island in the Arctic, to secure funding from San Francisco financier George Crocker. Crocker Land didn’t exist, although that didn’t prevent major American organizations (including the American Museum of Natural History) from sponsoring a four-year expedition to find it.

Much like the fictional Crocker Island, here are 10 more imaginary isles, all of which have a place in world history, literature, or mythology—despite not having a place on the map.

1. Isle of Demons 

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Supposedly located off the coast of Newfoundland, this landmass (sometimes depicted as two islands) appeared on 16th century and early 17th century maps, and was named for the mysterious cries and groans mariners reported hearing through the mist.

The island was given a somewhat more solid identity after 1542, when nobleman and adventurer Jean-François Roberval was instructed by the King of France to found settlements along the North Atlantic coast. He brought his niece, Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval, along for the voyage, but she began a passionate affair with one of Roberval's officers. Annoyed, Roberval put his niece (and maybe the officer—accounts differ), as well as her nurse, ashore on an otherwise unspecified "Isle of Demons" in the St. Lawrence River. Marguerite gave birth on the island, but the child died, as did Marguerite’s lover and nurse. However, the plucky Marguerite survived alone for several years, using her firearms against the wild beasts. After being rescued by Basque fishermen and returning to France, she reported that she had been beset "by beasts or other shapes abominably and unutterably hideous, the brood of hell, howling in baffled fury."  

Marguerite’s story appears in several historical accounts, including versions by Franciscan friar André Thevet and the Queen of Navarre. Still, the location of the “Isle of Demons” on which she landed has never been found for certain. Maritime historian and veteran Atlantic sailor Donald Johnson thinks he has identified it as Fichot Island, close to the Strait of Belle Isle at the northern tip of Newfoundland. Johnson notes that Fichot Island lies on Roberval's course, and is home to a breeding colony of gannets—a type of seabird whose guttural cries, heard only while breeding, may have been taken for the sounds of demons.

2. Antillia 

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Also known as the Isle of Seven Cities, Antillia was a 15th century cartographic phenomenon said to lie far west of Spain and Portugal. Stories about its existence are connected to an Iberian legend in which seven Visigothic bishops and their parishioners fled Muslim conquerors in the eighth century, sailing west and eventually discovering an island where they founded seven settlements.  The bishops burned their ships, so they could never return to their former homeland. 

According to some versions of the legend, many people have visited Antillia but no one has ever left; in other versions of the tale, sailors can see the island from a distance, but the land always vanishes once they approach. Spain and Portugal even once squabbled over the island, despite its non-existence, perhaps because its beaches were said to be strewn with precious metals. By the late 15th century, once the North Atlantic was better mapped, references to Antillia disappeared—although it did lend its name to the Spanish Antilles.

3. Atlantis 

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First mentioned by Plato, Atlantis was supposedly a large island that lay "to the west of the Pillars of Hercules" in the Atlantic Ocean. It was said to be a peaceful but powerful kingdom lost beneath the waves after a violent earthquake was released by the gods as punishment for waging war against Athens. There have been many attempts at identifying the island, although it may have been entirely a creation of Plato’s imagination; some archeologists associate it with the Minoan island of Santorini, north of Crete, whose center collapsed after a volcanic eruption and earthquake around 1500 BC. 

4. Aeaea 

In Greek mythology, Aeaea is the floating home of Circe, the goddess of magic. Circe is said to have spent her time on the island, gifted to her by her father, the Sun, waiting for mortal sailors to land so she could seduce them. (Afterwards, the story goes, she would turn them into pigs.) Some classical scholars have identified Aeaea as the Cape Circeium peninsula on the western coast of Italy, which may have been an island in the days of Homer, or may have looked like one because of the marshes surrounding its base.  

5. Hy-Brasil 

Also known as Country o'Breasal, Brazil Rock, Hy na-Beatha (Isle of Life), Tir fo-Thuin (Land Under the Wave), and by many other names, Brasil (Gaelic for "Isle of the Blessed") is one of the many mythical islands of Irish folklore, but one that nevertheless made several appearances on real maps.   

Like the Mediterranean's Atlantis, Brasil was said to be a place of perfect contentment and immortality. It was also the domain of Breasal, the High King of the World, who held court there every seven years. Breasal had the ability to make the island rise or sink as he pleased, and normally only let the island be visible when his court was in full swing.  

According to legend, Brasil lay "where the sun touched the horizon, or immediately on its other side—usually close enough to see but too far to visit." It first appeared on a map made in 1325 by Genoese cartographer Daloroto, who depicted it as a large area to the southwest of Ireland. (Later maps placed it farther west.) Its shape was usually drawn as a near-perfect circle, bifurcated by a river. Numerous explorers searched for the island, and some, including Italian navigator John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), even claimed to have found it. 

Today, scholars think Brasil may have been a reference to Baffin Island, or to now-sunken lands visible only when sea levels were lower during the last Ice Age, or else an optical illusion produced by layers of hot and cold air refracting light rays.  

6. Baralku 

Among the indigenous Australians of the Yolngu culture, Baralku (or Bralgu) is the island of the dead. The island holds a central place in the Yolngu cosmology—it's where the creator-spirit Barnumbirr is said to live before rising into the sky as the planet Venus each morning. Baralku is also the spot where the three siblings who created the landscape of Australia, the Djanggawul, originated. The island supposedly lies to the east of Arnhem Land in Northern Australia, and the Yolngu believe their souls return there after death.

7. Saint Brendan's Isle  


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This piece of land was said to have been discovered by Irish abbot and traveler Saint Brendan and his followers in 512, and to be located in the North Atlantic, somewhere west of Northern Africa. Brendan became famous after the publication of the Latin Navigation of St Brendan, an 8th/9th century text that described his voyage in search of the wonderful "Land of Promise" in the Atlantic Ocean. The book was a medieval best-seller, and gave the saint his nickname, "Brendan the Navigator." The island was said to be thickly wooded, filled with rich fruit and flowers. Tales of St. Brendan's Isle inspired Christopher Columbus, among others, and had an important influence on medieval cartography. Sightings were reported as late as the 18th century.

8. Avalon 

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First mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century Historia regum Britanniae, Avalon is the place where the legendary King Arthur's sword is forged, and where he is sent to recover after being wounded in battle. The island was said to be the domain of Arthur's half-sister, sorceress Morgan le Fay, as well as her eight sisters. Starting in the 12th century, Avalon was identified with Glastonbury in Somerset, in connection with Celtic legends about a paradisiacal “island of glass.” Twelfth century monks at Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have discovered Arthur’s bones—although later historians believe their “discovery” was a publicity stunt to raise money for Abbey repairs. 

9. Island of Flame 

In ancient Egyptian mythology, the Island of Flame (also known as the Island of Peace) was the magical birthplace of the gods and part of the kingdom of Osiris. It was said to have emerged out of primeval waters and to lay far to the East, beyond the boundaries of the world of the living. Associated with the rising sun, it was a place of everlasting light.  

10. Thule

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For the Greeks and Romans, Thule existed at the northernmost limit of their known world. It first appears in a lost work by the Greek explorer Pytheas, who supposedly found it in the 4th century BC. Polybius says that "Pytheas ... has led many people into error by saying that he traversed the whole of Britain on foot … and telling us also about Thule, those regions in which there was no longer any proper land nor sea nor air, but a sort of mixture of all three of the consistency of a jelly-fish in which one can neither walk nor sail, holding everything together, so to speak." Later scholars have interpreted Thule as the Orkneys, Shetlands, Iceland, or possibly Norway, while the Nazis believed Thule was the ancient homeland of the Aryan race.  

Bonus: People Used to Think California was an Island  

Between the 16th and the 18th centuries, many Europeans believed that California was an island. Like other islands on this list, the place was reported as being a kind of paradise. In fact, the name "California" first appears in a romantic novel penned by Spanish author Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo, who described it as an island filled with gold and precious gems, populated by a race of Amazons who rode griffins.  

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