Strange Geographies: Village Life in Vanuatu

I've written a lot about strange places in the U.S. -- an airplane graveyard in the desert; a mock Iraqi village in the suburbs of San Diego; a town killed by a modern-day dustbowl two hours north of Los Angeles. But the strangest place I've ever been -- the strangest and most beautiful, I should say -- is a developing nation 1000km northeast of Australia, populated by the friendliest former cannibals you'll ever meet, called Vanuatu. I wrote about it a little bit back in April, right after I returned from two weeks in country, but I'd had such a whirlwind trip, and taken thousands of pictures I'd hardly even begun to cull, that I needed six months or so to process just how profoundly different life in Vanuatu is.

It's an archipelago comprised of 84 volcanic islands, each separated by many miles of shark-filled seas and unpredictable weather. Travel between islands is difficult and expensive, and as a result, to many of Vanuatu's 200,000 citizens "international travel" means going to a nearby island every few years to visit cousins. They've had some exposure to foreigners -- missionaries starting in the 19th century (some of whom were eaten); American soldiers during World War II, who established a base on the largest island to fend off the Japanese, stationed in the nearby Solomons; some British and French, who co-governed Vanuatu in a bizarre arrangement for many years; and tourists that come to a few of the islands nowadays (mostly from Australia, which is where they all assumed I was from). But even on the largest islands, which are mountainous and covered with tough-to-penetrate jungle, there are remote villages where locals have rarely, if ever, encountered outsiders. I didn't make it quite that far afield, but I did find myself in a few off-the-beaten villages that were definitely not on the tourist trail, and luckily, I brought my camera.

There's one main city in Vanutu, Port Vila, which is heavily westernized and caters to tourists who come in on cruise ships, and another large-ish town, Luganville, which is a few dusty streets of Chinese-owned shops, French restaurants and hotels catering mainly to scuba divers. Villages throughout the rest of the country rarely have electricity or running water, and though the people are very poor, they own their own land, and the rich soil and unspoiled seas make farming and fishing easy. Food that tourists consider delicacies, like coconut crab, mangoes, pineapple, and all manner of fish, are everyday dishes for the locals. A fisherman on Oyster Island at dusk:

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Families make money by selling what they grow in village gardens at roadside markets like this one:

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coconut boy

Cows are everywhere and beef is plentiful. The grass-fed, organic beef raised on Espiritu Santo is considered some of the finest in the world, and is exported to top-tier restaurants in Japan and Australia. What else would you expect from cows that get to hang out on the beach all day? I ran across these ladies while kayaking:

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Of course, when a cow is slaughtered, nothing goes to waste. Fresh oxtail, anyone?

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Pigs are a big deal on Vanuatu, as well. Pigs are a traditional form of monetary exchange, and the most valuable pigs are the ones with the longest tusks. PIgs whose tusks grow so long that they make a loop that pierces the bottom of the animal's jaw -- gruesome, I know -- are especially valuable. Some pig jaws on proud display in an Espiritu Santo meeting hut:
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Homes are made from branches and folded palm leaves, which are sturdy enough to keep out the most torrential rain, but tend to blow away during cyclones (which are frequent). Here's a detail of the underside of a hut roof:
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Here are a few views of typical Vanuatu villages, homes and a Catholic church, all woven from grass and leaves:

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Christianity came with missionaries in the 19th century, and while churches abound, many villages still practice customary religions and black magic. There are also a number of fascinating cults on Vanuatu -- especially on the volcanically active island of Tanna, where tourists come to ogle a lava-spitting mountain they call Old Man Yasur.
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You can climb up to the rim of Yasur, which puts on a humbling show after dark.

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I was disappointed that I wasn't able to visit either of Tanna's cult villages, the best known of which is the Jon Frum cargo cult. A white man known as Jon Frum (possibly "Jon from America") supposedly visited Tanna sometime before the second world war, predicting that white men would drop from the sky with food and all sorts of goods -- which is exactly what happened when the war began. When the Americans and their cargo left, the Jon Frum followers began praying to him, using faux American flags, red cross symbols, and military uniforms, hoping that more cargo from the sky would arrive. It hasn't come yet, but the Jon Frum cultists continue to worship. (Jesus died 2,000 years ago, they like to remind us, and Christians are still waiting around for him to come back.)

The American military left its mark on Vanuatu in other ways, too. Rusting quonset huts are everywhere on Espiritu Santo, and all the country's few paved roads were built by the American government. This wide, pothole-filled road, for instance, is the remnant of a WWII airstrip. Calling it "paved," however, is charitable -- It's in such bad shape that you have to drive in a zigzag pattern just to avoid the axle-breaking holes.
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The Americans also introduced a species of fast-growing vine to Espiritu Santo, in order to cover their installations and hide them from Japanese air surveillance. Those vines covered much of the island in short order:
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The locals I talked to weren't bitter about the American military presence in Vanutu, though. If anything, they seemed grateful: "You are our big strong brother!" one man said to me, flexing a muscle. "You saved us from the Japanese, then gave us our country back!" Which is true, I suppose -- whereas the French and British hung around and tried to run Vanuatu for more than a hundred years, the Americans came, established some bases, and left. Still, it was a novel experience, being thanked by someone abroad for something my country's military did.

Villagers are nothing if not resourceful. Just as they'll use American airstrips as roads, other goods have multiple uses, too. A baby named Florence enjoys an unusual tire swing:
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Once you get away from the beach, getting around the island can be a bit difficult -- rivers and tall, volcanic ridges are everywhere. But villagers, lacking concrete or asphalt, make do anyhow. This is a somewhat treacherous bamboo bridge across a river, on the other side of which is a steep ladder up a hill formed by branches.
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Later, a villager took me to an amazing, bat-filled cave (too dark to photograph) followed by a great deal of scrambling over boulders in a rushing river -- again aided by a number of seemingly death-defying hand-made bridges. (If you look closely, you'll notice that my guide is wearing a Dora the Explorer floatie around his neck.
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Finally, we floated down the river for a half-hour, nipped at by curious fish, walls of rock rising above us. Waterfalls and a riot of vegetation fell down from the cliffs above. It was, in a word, ridiculous, and the cheap waterproof camera I took this picture with does the scene no justice.

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Families and kids are everywhere on Vanuatu; the population is very young.
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Everywhere you go, kids follow, laughing and having fun.
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It was unsettling at first to realize that even the smallest kids carried machetes with them almost everywhere they went. I soon realized that they were invaluable -- the fast-growing jungle constantly needs cutting, and machetes can cut down coconuts and open them, and their blunt handles serve as hammers.

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These kids were showing me their pet eel, which they'd grown to an enormous size in a small, waterfall-fed freshwater pond in their village. They used to have two but the other one had been stolen; the remaining eel was guarded 24/7 by boys with slingshots (and machetes, naturally).
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waterfall girl

Blue kid

Kids in Vanuatu, you won't be surprised to learn, spend a lot of time in the water. Not only is the South Pacific warm year-round, but Vanuatu's islands are dotted with magical "blue holes" -- rain- and river-fed reservoirs of deep, cool, crystal blue water which provide drinking water to nearby villages and swimming holes for its young people.
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After a snorkel:
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After a scuba dive, I came up to find these boys playing on a rock jetty; they'd been following the divers' air bubbles. My lens was wet, and the result is sort of impressionistic, but totally captures the feeling of the place.
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We found this boy smiling at us from a hole in the jungle. A nearby adult explained that he'd just gone through his circumcision ritual, which meant he had to wear a namba (a huge penis-sheath), mud makeup, and hang out in holes for a week or so (this guy's English was about as good as our Bislama, so I'm not totally sure on the details).
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In short, Vanuatu is one strange and beautiful place, and it's people couldn't be friendlier. The South Pacific is a mind-bogglingly huge constellation of little island worlds, and though there are so many more to explore, I'm certain I'll be back to Vanuatu one day.

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Check out more Strange Geographies columns here.

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November 20, 2009 - 2:00am
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