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Uncovering Vanuatu


The first thing that hits is the humidity, nudging 100 percent on arrival at Vanuatu’s tiny, gaudy international airport. The hotel bedroom window has almost a waterfall of water running down its glass doors and camera shots show an instant, all seeing misty view with verdant ferns and red flowers staking their claim in the foreground.

It seems to be a land of smoke and mirrors and indeed black magic and white magic are still performed across its 83 principal islands, the first used to exact revenge in cases of perceived wrong doing.

The tourist is confronted with a very shabby town in the capital, Port Vila, in the shape of potholes and coloured concrete buildings, accumulated rubbish a burnt down jail and a razed Supreme Court, its grandish steps the only reminder of its earlier status. But such images are partially redeemed by inviting cafes, especially Café du Village with its whitewashed walls and flowering vines creating an artistic entry to a small paved terrace, a habour and  fancy yachts.

But by the wharf, near the market selling trinkets, clothes, wood carvings and tourist sundries,  local boys with skinny legs ,big wet feet and huge smiles climb like pelicans, one by one, onto a row of poles and jump, twist, leap and, turn, one at a time, into the bay. Looking like multi handed gods or leaping frogs, their huge smiles give credence to the much publicized claim that Vanuatu is the happiest nation on the planet from a 178 nation survey.

This is a country with 120 dialects, where only six percent of the population finish their education and where pigs are still given as a bride price.

The country has sophisticated hotels on the main island of Efate but when asked for an ice cube tray, this causes much perplexity with five staff standing around whilst one of their members draws a picture with his fingers, illustrating this tourist request!

The people will willingly guide a tourist into town, like a gentle guardian angel, but they will most likely let it be known that they are very poor, that they took ages finding work and that they are paying for their brothers or children to have the education they never had.

And amongst the beautiful hedges of red  hibiscus the smell of burning plastic joins with melt down humidity to create a feeling of sticky, dirty skin.

A blind beggar man carrying a white stick shows coloured necklaces school children have made for sale. It is a scene of pathos….he is skinny…..he holds out a bunch of tangled beads.

At this same wall – less café it is possible to buy burgers, kebabs, manioc chips, potato chips – and yes – even a vegetable burger. But on inspection the vegetable burger only contains lettuce, cucumber and tomato. Where is the burger? The waitress explains that their vegetable burgers never actually have a burger in them – only ever salad. This seems to epitomize the logic of much of Vanuatu.

In some ways the gods have been kind to Vanuatu – the white blinding coral beaches, the prosaic palm trees, the abundance of bananas, the spectacular coral with huge fan like forms, massive brain coral or elegant plate coral and the iridescent fish which swarm in multi coloured joy in and out of the smallest coral clusters making a thrilling environment.

But looking behind the lime green hedges and tropical red flowers, the village huts look dark and damp with rusty corrugated iron structures, plaited palm leaves and occasionally concrete.

A supermarket touts the possibility of winning a “Supa Dream Home”. The picture shows a cabin shaped concrete hut painted brightly.

The people exude a white smiling charm and you feel that if you asked them to catch a meteor falling in a couple of hours they would say “it’s a pleasure”. This pleasantness does not necessarily indicate any future action. A friend who is a development officer with Vanuatu Radio said that he held a management meeting scheduled for 9am. The first topic was ‘punctuality’ Many didn’t turn up till 4pm and didn’t offer any excuse.

He recently introduced talk back radio to Vanuatu and says it is popular. He said that a popular topic is “religion” and whether it is better to pray at home or pray in a church.

He said that often callers dropped out because their mobile phone credit had expired……and mobile phones are being heavily promoted throughout the country even showing the incongruity of village folk in traditional costumes doing traditional tasks whilst  holding these contemporary communication tools.

Adapting to mobile phones is one thing but when offered  jelly candy snakes as a reward for success in school tests, the children shriek and refuse to eat them, even though their local snake, the boa, is harmless.

Boys jumping into the harbour, men jammed and upstanding in the tray of utilities, men playing petanque…..the clannishness is obvious.  And so it was no surprise to happen upon a tribal ceremony held at the Cultural hall for Vanuatu’s prime minister and a visiting senior minister from New Caledonia.

According to ‘Sam’ a nominal chief attached to the hotel where we were staying and a relative of Vanuatu’s prime minister, the ceremony was to heal bad relations between the two countries.

Gifts to the visiting New Caledonian minister included a pile of taro roots, a roll of woven carpets and a live pig tied to a pole.

Following vigorous dancing by be-skirted men and women, the poor pig was carried squealing to the side where it was bludgeoned with a carved mallet, letting out horrendous moaning noises. This didn’t kill the poor thing and neither did subsequent bludgeoning –even though the pig was coughing and choking. According to Sam it wasn’t until the pig’s blood ran free that peace could be fully restored between the two nations.

But over on Moso Island just to the north of Port Vila, endangered Hawkesbill turtles are being rescued at the egg stage, placed in hatcheries and finally released to the sea, although their survival rate is only three percent. They can grow to a metre and live longer than humans.

The shells were used for tortoise shell combs and decorations but now every effort is being made to promote the survival of these vulnerable creatures.

And yet in another contrast the boat which takes us out to a coral reef drops its anchor and this anchor is a small bollard of concrete. Surely dropping this could smash some of the delicate corals?

This is Vanuatu..a land of smoke and mirrors but also, now, mobile phones.

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