Vanuatu: Explosive, Exotic, Exciting
Vanuatu: Explosive, Exotic, Exciting
It's the people. If I were to say nothing more, I'd have still expressed the essence of our experience in Vanuatu. When assessing a nation as a cruising destination, one must certainly include the white-sand beaches, the emerald-green jungles, the smoking volcanoes, and the coral gardens. And I will describe them soon.
I've found similar backdrops elsewhere, but never within the context of such a society. There's something special happening here, something specific to this small cluster of islands and yet universal in its importance. It's called happiness.
Admittedly, in Western terms, this nation is struggling in its attempt at modernization. This became apparent upon our approach from the Loyalty Islands, French holdings to the west of New Caledonia, to Port-Vila, the capital of Vanuatu on the island of Éfaté. The country's most important aide to navigation, the Pango Point Light, was extinguished. It was of little concern to us because Roger Henry, our 36-foot steel cutter, had ripped off 200-plus miles in 30 boisterous hours, making for a perfectly timed dawn landfall.
We anchored in the designated quarantine area and by VHF notified the bureaucracies of our arrival. After two hours without a visit, Diana decided it was safe to take a bath in the cockpit. She was no sooner soaped up than a boat buzzed alongside, and without so much as a by-your-leave, several uniformed men jumped aboard, catching her in all her splendor. Had there not been a trail of bubbles leading below, I would've sworn she disappeared into thin air.
You couldn't call Port-Vila pretty. It's a dusty, run-down town, yet it's surprisingly charming. That's due to the atmosphere on the streets, one of vibrancy and contentedness. Everyone has a warm smile for you. I believe it's a convergence of several factors. For one thing, Vanuatu, which had been administered since 1906 under an arrangement called the Anglo-French New Hebrides Condominium, won its independence from France and Britain in 1980, an achievement delayed long enough for the people to have developed a keen longing for self-determination yet a struggle not so prolonged that the people experienced protracted conflict and inherited a bitter legacy.
Next, the island is so lush that it amply supports the slim population of 210,000. Virtually every citizen is assured of access to a productive garden of fruits and vegetables and a fishing spot.
Also, the citizens have one foot planted in a reaffirming past that's reinforced via a cohesive system of tribal affiliation; the other foot is planted in a democratic future with an informed, enthusiastic, and active citizenry.
I don't mean to romanticize the lives of the ni-Vanuatu, for there remain issues surrounding health, education, and economic opportunity. Nor do I mean to evoke Rousseau's sentiments of the noble savage. Recently, a prime minister was caught with his lava-lava down, counterfeiting the local equivalent of $23 million. He was jailed briefly, but after the usual "Let the healing begin" pronouncements, he was pardoned by his handpicked successor. So you see, they're learning Western ways. But they're a free people, shaping their own destiny, and clearly happy to be doing so.
Yachting World in Port-Vila offers moorings in the central harbor at a reasonable rate as well as fuel, water, rubbish disposal, a secure dinghy dock, and a classy waterfront restaurant. Vanuatu beef is reputed to be the finest in the world, and I won't dispute that. A local brewery produces quite a quaffable beer served at a temperature to tame the tropics. Each night a stunningly talented band plays beneath a thatched pagoda.
The bustling open market of Port-Vila is a colorful hub of daily life. Flowers, firewood, and an amazing array of fruits and vegetables are trucked daily from the outlying regions. Wild-looking vendors hawk coconut crabs, penned pigs, caged chickens, and fried fish. Down an alley of plywood stalls, Diana and I sampled foods totally unrecognizable to us.
In her enthusiastic pursuit of local weaving, basketry, and art, Diana discovered artist and activist Juliette Pita. Despite her growing international reputation, Juliette appears barefoot daily in her little stall on the waterfront, where she sells tapestries depicting her unique interpretations of kastom, or traditional, dancing. As one of the founders of the Nawita Association of Contemporary Artists, Vanuatu's first contemporary artists group, she carries on her work of promoting women's rights and eradicating domestic violence with a humble, yet determined, nature.
As we mingled with the locals, we realized that Melanesians are an attractive people. The men are well proportioned and heavily muscled. I have always been a fool for a pretty face; and my goodness, the girls here are easy to look at.
For some cruisers, the Vanuatu experience begins and ends in Port-Vila. And you can't blame them-it's seductive, lovely, and lazy. But we had come to see the wilder side of the fabled former New Hebrides, so named by Captain James Cook in 1774. Cook was by no means the first European to set foot here. It's believed that Pedro Fernandes de Queirós was the first, with his 1606 landing at Espiritu Santo, the largest of the more than 80 islands.
The first missionaries arrived in 1839. They were promptly killed and eaten. This discouraging trend slowed the rate of so-called progress, but it ultimately didn't deter the invasion of sandalwood profiteers and colonizing powers. As a rare example of Anglo-Franco cooperation, Vanuatu was run under the Condominium between those two nations right up to its independence.
As a boy, I wore out the issue of National Geographic that pictured young men of Pentecost island hurling themselves off a rudely constructed tower of bamboo and vines. Their head-down plunges toward the ground were arrested only by a jungle vine tied to their ankles. If the old shaman who cut the vine had calculated its length, its stretch, and the height of the tower and boy correctly, the diver's head hit the soil firmly but without injury, and the boy gained entrance into manhood. If not, well, the gods have spoken.
I'd burned in envy at the exotic daring of it all, and I even tried to sail here almost 30 years ago in the hopes that they might allow a dim-dim (meaning "white man" in Bislama, Vanuatu's English-based pidgin) to join them in their sacred ceremony. Cyclone Fredrick thwarted those plans, but I still hoped to witness some of the old customs of a life that's too soon to vanish from this world.
A mile from Port-Vila, the paved roads turn to mud, the electric lights to kerosene lamps, and the automobile traffic to the soft cadence of human footfalls. The veneer of a modern western civilization peeled away with every mile that we sailed north.
Balmy breezes carried us into Havannah Harbour, on the northwest side of Éfaté. The thatched housing in the main village indicates a simplicity of life; the paths are swept clean, the yards are orderly, and a sense of pride prevails.