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Scenes from Vanuatu, the Happiest Place on Earth

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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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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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Five Years via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
The Town Built On Asbestos (Population: 3)
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Five Years via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Welcome to Wittenoom, Australia, where the weather is beautiful, the scenery is unparalleled, and toxic substances seep from the earth.

Located in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, Wittenoom was once one of the top blue asbestos mining locations in the world, causing families to flock to the area for jobs. Also known as crocidolite asbestos, blue asbestos was a valuable commodity used for fire protection in ceiling tiles, insulation, electrical work, battery casings, and more. But it was also an incredibly dangerous one—all types of asbestos can cause fatal illnesses, but because crocidolite fibers are as thin as a strand of hair, they’re easily inhaled and may be responsible for more deaths than any other type of asbestos. In Wittenoom—where workers once held asbestos-shoveling contests, and families thought it safe to let their kids play in the stuff—thousands of former residents have died from asbestos-related causes.

The mining industry in Wittenoom was halted in 1966, not necessarily for health reasons, but for economic ones—the company which owned the mines was $2.5 million in debt. Health concerns weren’t really addressed until the late ‘70s, when the government started taking steps to shut the town down completely. Buildings were demolished, the airport was closed, and residents were urged to leave. By 1992, less than 50 citizens remained, and by 2007, it was down to eight. Today, just three brave souls still call Wittenoom home.

Why would three people stay in a town that’s still riddled with cancer-causing materials, a town with no electricity or water, one that has literally been erased from maps by the government because of the danger it poses? They all have different reasons.

Peter Heyward, a resident for more than two decades, stays for the nature and the “silent stillness” of the surroundings. “The hills, the plains, the openness, the quiet. I love the country," he told Australia's The Age in 2007. Since so many buildings were razed, he now has a perfect view of Hamersley Mountain Range.

Mario Hartmann stays put largely because he was unimpressed with the amount of money the government offered to buy him out—$40,000 plus $10,000 in moving costs: “What can you buy with $40,000? They'll have to offer $400,000, what it takes to buy a house somewhere else.”

This year, Lorraine Thomas, a 30-plus year veteran of Wittenoom, told WA Today she refuses to let the potential presence of asbestos scare her away. "It's only the dust that's dangerous," she said, a threat she believes has dissipated after the mines' closures. An official report begs to differ, calling the risk to tourists (of which there are still up to 40 a day) and residents alike "extreme."

Neither Thomas nor her fellow residents have any illnesses relating to the asbestos that still looms large in the area.

For a closer look at the ghost town's holdouts—filmed when there were still eight people residing there—the short documentary Wittenoom is worth a watch:

Wittenoom from Caro Macdonald on Vimeo.

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