Category Archives: Vanuatu

Vanuatu… it’s just not fair

In Jake’s Orangutan blog yesterday, WordPress dropped his photo captions initially.  Many of the captions tell little stories, and they have now been restored so those of you who “follow” our  blog (get emailed our entries) might want to have another look at https://1year1family1world.com/2015/03/17/the-awesome-orangutan-trip/

We’ve had 4 great days in Hong Kong and leave for Nepal tomorrow evening.
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Anyone who has read our postings from our 3 weeks in Vanuatu knows that we fell in love with the country. It is so tragically ironic that it is some of the very qualities we admired that made Vanuatu so vulnerable to cyclone Pam. Nivans build their homes from local materials. Woven bamboo walls and thatched roofs. I can’t imagine how any of these homes would withstand a category 5 cyclone.

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bamboo walls, thatched roofs ... gone!

We also admired their food self sufficiency. They work very hard in their gardens so they can eat all year. Very little food is canned/bagged/stored and consequently their food “footprint” from carbon or packaging is next to nothing. But many of these gardens have been destroyed, and there is no store of any size to find food. And even if there was they don’t really focus on saving cash because they are self sufficient.
They live close to the sea and so many homes in Lamen Bay (where we had such a wonderful Christmas) are not more than 1 or 2 meters above high tide.  Apparently the storm surge was 8m in some places. Their home-made wooden fishing (read “food”) boats will be smashed.

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We haven’t been able to find news of how Lamen Bay made out though we did learn that our hosts Rob and Alix at the Epi Island Guest House at the south end of island (we spent Christmas Dinner and evening on their beach) are alive and that their guesthouse is intact.
I wanted to write this post for two reasons.  The first was to highlight what has been well documented in the media – that they are so vulnerable as described above.  But I also wanted to pick up on a theme also in the media – that this cyclone is a result of climate change.  This is the assertion of Vanuatu’s president Baldwin Lonsdale and it has received much comment in the media.  I follow climate change science closely, and the consensus among peer reviewed science is that:
a) it is not possible to link any particular storm event to climate change
b) storm events in general are becoming more frequent and severe as a result of climate change
c) the frequency of cyclones and hurricanes in particular is NOT increasing, but the severity is

The folks in Vanuatu say they’ve never seen a cyclone like Pam.

What troubles me most is the fact that these Nivans have done virtually nothing to contribute to climate change and hence the severity of Pam, but are ultimately the ones now without homes, food or water.  With the exception of some folks living in the main centers their carbon footprints are virtually zero.  They cook on carbon neutral wood fires and source their food and building supplies locally.  Many Nivans know all about climate change from government and school education programs.  So it is not lost on them that it is us in the wealthy north that are basically responsible for their mess.  And I use “us” quite literally, because I am actually rather ashamed of the carbon generated by our air travel this year.
Friends in Canada who follow climate science will know that the brutally cold winter at home is not out of line with the “more frequent extreme weather event” prediction of scientists.  And extreme flood events in Canada and abroad have unmistakably increased in frequency and severity.
Another climate “summit” approaches in December (Paris).  I can only hope that an election comes in time to rid Canada of our federal “leadership” that alternately denies/lies/obfuscates and otherwise does nothing to solve the problem.  I am at least relieved that our Peterborough riding is no longer represented by Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro.  The first time he visited my classroom (on invite in 2008) he denied that the climate was changing and said that Al Gore had it all wrong.  Last year some of my students and Kaia and Jake and friends visited Mr Del Mastro at his office.  When Jake told him that he was ashamed of Canada’s record at climate conferences and Canada’s perpetual winning of the “fossil award” (given by NGOs to the country that has done the most to prevent the successful negotiation of a climate treaty), Del Mastro cut Jake off before he could finish, turned all red in the face, then barked at Jake “who produces more CO2, Canada or China?”  Dean Del Mastro is irrelevant of course, as he awaits his sentencing on election fraud.  But that he would  have this asinine quip on the ready speaks volumes of his party’s approach.  Was that ever a powerful hour of learning for my students and kids!
Yes, Vanuatu is a half world away from Canada.  But we are connected to them much more closely than most Canadians know or care to admit.  Good thing the proximate Australians, with carbon footprints similar to ours, are at least lending a hand.
To our Nivan friends:  Famili blong mi givim yufala nambawan wishes blong spid recovery.

Cam

Epic Epi

We are nearing the end of our time in New Zealand.  In three days time (well actually, three days have now gone by – we are at the airport) we fly out of Christchurch on our way to Cairns, Australia.  I’m typing in Mueller Hut on the South Island, high up in the mountains.  It’s the first time we’ve been in snow since last April when we were still in Canada.  From here, we can see Mount Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain.

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We had had a great time on Santo, but we had time to visit one more island in Vanuatu.  Any island would do because they all have great stuff to do.  My dad spent 3 hours looking on the Air Vanuatu website for a flight from Luganville to another island with availability, but because all the people who worked in the bigger centers like Port Vila and Luganville were going back to their home islands for Christmas, the Air Vanuatu flights were completely booked up.  It turned out that the cheapest way to get to any island was to charter a flight to Epi, an island about halfway between Santo and Efate (I never thought chartering an airplane would ever be the cheapest way to get somewhere!)  We wanted to go to this island because there was a good chance to get to swim with dugongs, what we call manatees in North America.  There’s one there named Bondas who is very well known for his friendliness and curiosity towards humans.

In the morning, we went to the Luganville airport and met our pilot Paul, a New Zealander.  Since the plane was so small, we and our luggage had to be weighed and Paul loaded the plane carefully so that it would be balanced just right.

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Me, my mom, Kaia and Paul in front of the little plane.

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We got into the plane and taxied to the runway, and off we went!

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Before we took off, Paul tested the engines, then recited the 23rd psalm. We weren't expecting that!

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Some of the little islands off the coast of Santo.
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As we passed the island of Ambrym, we could see smoke coming out of the volcano!

The flight took about 45 minutes, then we arrived in Lamen Bay, Epi’s biggest village, located on the northwest coast.

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Approaching the Lamen Bay runway.
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We collected our luggage off Carousel 4 in Terminal 3 of the Lamen Bay airport.

We watched Paul take off again on his way back to Luganville, then took a quick truck ride to Paradise Sunset Bungalows, one of only two guesthouses in all of Epi, and the only one in Lamen Bay.  We were the only people staying there.

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They even have Bondas the dugong on the sign!

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Tasso, the owner of the guesthouse is a Lamen Bay local and was there to meet us when we arrived.  The guesthouse is right on a nice beach. The room was nothing fancy, but it was clean and there were beds for all of us (pretty unusual in Vanuatu, most nights, either me or Kaia had to sleep on an air mattress on the floor).
The guesthouse is a family business.  Tasso’s wife Legon did the cooking, as breakfast and dinner were included for every night we stayed.  Breakfast was always delicious pancakes with fresh fruit like pineapple, mango, grapefruit and papaya.  Dinner was a variety of meat, fish, and root vegetables like potato, taro, cassava and delicious yam patties.

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Tasso, my dad, Kaia and I sitting around the table.
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Tasso's son Douglas is an excellent fisherman, and every day he'd come back with dozens of big fish to sell and for us to eat for dinner.

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In Vanuatu, people eat only eat the root of the cassava and throw out the leaves, so my dad showed Legon how to cook cassava leaves which he learned during his time in Sierra Leone.

There’s a lot to discover around Lamen Bay.  Of course, there are the dugongs, which we looked for several times while snorkeling.  We looked in a certain place at high tide where and when we were told we had the best chance to find them.  We never found a dugong unfortunately, but the bay is full of sea turtles!  They like to eat the short sea grass on the bottom, which was shallow enough for us to dive down to.  Most of them would swim away if we got close to them, but a few didn’t mind us getting close to them and even touching them!

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By the time I would reach the bottom where they are, I would already be running out of air so I couldn’t touch them for long, but a few of them let me dive down to them several times and they wouldn’t swim away.

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I found this little guy on Christmas morning. I dove down to him at least 4 times and he even let me scratch his neck!
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This is what a dugong looks like Btw.

Tasso showed us his grapefruit tree.  The fruit were huge!

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They were also delicious!

Tasso’s son Joshua also showed us a pair of puppies that one of the dogs had given birth to a month earlier.

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Aren't they cute!
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We named this one Frost.
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And this one Smoky.
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We gave them some water in a coconut shell.

Geckos are everywhere on the walls of Vanuatu in general, and one morning, we noticed one had jumped onto my dad’s shirt, then crawled up into his hair!  We picked him up and let everyone hold him.

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We named him Nimble.

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One day, we went to see Lamen Island across the bay.  About 500 people live there.  We hired a guy named Jimmy to take us across the bay in his boat.  We went snorkeling on a coral reef, then Jimmy ended up giving us a whole tour of the island and brought us into his house to meet his family and have some snacks.  The houses are still built with some local material, but they also have tin roofs and other modern tools and boats because a lot of them, including Jimmy and his brother, go to New Zealand for 4 months per year to work on grape vineyards and on apple and kiwifruit orchards.

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Main Street Lamen Island.
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Inside Jimmy's house. That's his wife.

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Papaya and breadfruit trees grow everywhere.
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If anyone ever criticizes my dad for his lack of safety equipment while working with a chainsaw, he'll show them this picture.
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The primary school is putting in these tables because they're getting computers. A Peacecore volunteer is coming to teach people how to use them.
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This is Lopivi volcano. A few days before we arrived in Epi, it was closed off to tourists because it was getting active.
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On our way back, we saw these guys going between the islands in a traditional canoe. Since people are going to work in New Zealand, they are starting to buy motorboats and these boats are becoming rarer.

We spent Christmas in Lamen Bay too.  If you didn’t read our Christmas blog entry, here it is: https://1year1family1world.com/2014/12/26/we-wishem-yufala-wan-gudfala-meri-krismiss/

We loved Lamen Bay – it was so relaxed, friendly and beautiful.
On Christmas Day, we left Lamen Bay and went to Valesdir on the southwest coast of Epi.  Our flight was leaving from there back to Port Vila the next day, so we stayed at Epi Island Guesthouse, the only other one on Epi.  It’s owned by Alix and Rob, an Australian couple who’ve lived in Vanuatu for 18 years.  We were going to camp outside, but we left the fly off the tent and sudden rain made everything in it wet, so we ended up sleeping under a beach shelter.  We’ve put the fly  on right away ever since!

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Our emergency shelter - not bad!
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Watching the Christmas day sunset
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We woke up the next day to the sound of the waves.

We took our time packing up because we weren’t flying out until the afternoon, which has been unusual on this trip.  The Valesdir airport is just as small as the one in Lamen Bay – beside a coconut plantation.  image

The flight only took about 20 minutes or so to Port Vila.
We didn’t really do much there that day and we went to bed early because the next morning, we had to get up at 4am for our Air Vanuatu flight to New Zealand.  Ale tata Vanuatu!

Jake

Blog blong Bislama

When Vanuatu became an independent country in 1980, they needed an official language for everyone to speak. This was not an easy task, as Vanuatu is the most linguistically rich country in the world, with over 100 distinct languages! That ruled out all of the indigenous languages, because each of those is only spoken by a small population in a small area. Then, there are English and French, because, like Canada, Vanuatu was colonized by those two countries. That means two school systems- so depending on which school someone went to, they speak either one or the other. The Vanuatu government did not want to favour one language over the other, because that would mean favouring some niVans over others. That ruled out English and French.
That’s how they decided on Bislama, a “Pidgin” or “Creole” English (language based on a simplified version of English), with some French mixed in. It is part of the Pacific Creole language group, which also includes the Pijin of the Solomon Islands, and the Tok Pisin of Papua New Guinea (PNG).
Bislama (say Bishlama) originated during the “Blackbirding” years, the 1870s and ’80s. My dad talked about this in his entry: Vanuatu: Why are they so happy?  It was pretty much enslaved niVans being forced to work on sugar cane plantations in Fiji and Australia. NiVans, Solomon Islanders, and Papua New Guineans from different islands had to work together, but they all spoke different languages! That’s why a Creole English language emerged, and later evolved into different dialects in different countries.

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This symbol is on a shirt that Jake got for Christmas. "Wantoks" is a soccer league that includes New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and PNG, all the countries that use a form of Pidgin English. Wantoks... one talks... one language.
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Design on left ("kebab"-looking) is sign of indigenous New Caledonia. Wild pig on right represents Melanesia. Blue & green left sleeve is Solomon Islands.
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Big yellow bird is PNG and tusk is emblem of Vanuatu.

Very surprisingly, Bislama is extremely similar to Krio, the Pidgin of Sierra Leone in West Africa (my dad spent time there). That is still a mystery to us!
NiVans in urban areas mostly learn Bislama first, and most people in the rural areas learn it as a second language. In Canada, speaking two languages is good, and speaking three is amazing. In Vanuatu, most people speak their native language, Bislama, either English or French, and sometimes the native language of their mother or spouse! Speaking 3-4 languages is no big deal.
I think that choosing Bislama as their official language was a very smart choice. It allows niVans from different islands to communicate, and it also helps communication between Vanuatu and other South Pacific countries. It makes it much easier to go to University or travel in Solomon Is. or PNG. It’s very useful, but it’s also a lot of fun to speak and read! Now I’m going to give you a mini Bislama lesson. Bae mi givim yufala wan smol lesson blong Bislama!
The pronunciation of Bislama is very easy. Once you know the basics, there are no exceptions. Vowels:
A= like in the word after
E= like in the word melt
I= “ee”
O= like in the word no
U= “oo”
The consonants are pronounced the same as in English, with a couple of exceptions:
J= “ch”, so chest is spelled Jes. Jake is a very difficult name to say in Bislama- one girl we met called him “Cha”!
S= “sh”, so Bislama is pronounced Bishlama.
The most important words you need to know in Bislama are blong and long. They appear in almost all sentences, often multiple times. These words are everywhere!
blong
Blong originates from the English word belong. It is used for:
possession
example: Taro blong mi, The taro that belongs to me/ My taro.
because
for
of
from
-and a bunch of other things, too!
I named this blog entry Blog Blong Bislama, Blog of Bislama.
Blong often gets shortened to blo.

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"Tusker" is Vanuatu's national beer. Bia blong yumi... Beer that belongs to you and me... our beer.

long
Long is used for distance, location or position. Some examples:
-Taek mi long Luganville (Take me to Luganville)
-Kaia stap long haos (Kaia is inside the house)
-Mi bin kukum long ples ia bifo (I have cooked at this place before)
Long is often shortened to Lo.

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Here are some more Bislama expressions we liked:
Hello, How are you? = Halo, olsem wanem?
I’m good = i stret nomo (it’s straight no more) *Jake’s favourite
What’s your name? = Wanem nem blong yu?
My name is Kaia = Nem blong mi Kaia
Where are you from? = Wanem ples yu blong? (Which place do you belong)
I am a Canadian girl = Mi wan gel Canada
Goodbye! = Ale Tata!
Children = pikinini
Thank you very much! = tank yu tumas! (Thank you too much)
eat/food/bite = Kaekae
I like this food very much! = Mi laekem kaekae tumas! *Cam’s favourite
Us/We = Mifala (my fellas)
You (plural) = Yufala (your fellas)
You and me = yumi
everyone = evriwan
ocean = solwota (salt water)
Sea plane = Plen blong solwota *Yvonne’s favourite
Sightseeing = lukluk ples * Kaia’s favourite
No smoking in public transport = Tabu blong smok long pablik transpot
Do not wake chickens! = koaiet! no noes! yu no wekem jikin! (Quiet! No noise! you don’t wake chickens!) *All-around best

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Please keep gentlemen streets clean all the time!
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Good people toilet paper
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Look out! Dog bites men

Tank yu tumas blong ridim blog blong Bislama! Ale tata long evriwan!

Kaia

The East Side Story

Other than the capital city of Luganville, the east side of Vanuatu’s Santo island is the only area that has been settled/developed to any significant extent.  Our trend-setting friends George & Erica who put us onto the Marakai Trek recommended this very relaxed part of the island as a good way to “decompress” from the Marakai experience.  They spoke of little bungalows on white sand beaches …. they seemed to be making sense.  So upon arrival back in Luganville after the trek we stocked up on a bit of food and stumbled onto the taxi guy who picked us up from the airport a week before … he offered to take us and a few others up the 40km coast for a very reasonable rate.

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OK, maybe the back of a pickup isn't the safest place to be bombing down a highway but the warm wind in the face sure feels good!

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The east side of Santo is all about coconuts and sand.  Coconut plantations line both sides of the road most of the way, and as we drove up around 4PM we passed countless folks with machetes in hand strolling back home after a day’s work on the plantation.  Coconut harvesting goes in 3 month intervals. Because the objective in this case is just the copra (“meat”) and not the juice or jelly, you harvest what has fallen onto the ground (they’re brown by now).  They are husked open on a metal stake (pretty tough job … I did a few in Fiji), then the nut is cracked open and the meat is grated out of the shell into a pulp.  That is also a pretty physical task.  The pulp is then placed on a mesh grate above a huge contained wood fire in what they call a “hot air dryer” to be dried into a product that is put in large bags and sent to Luganville port for export.  There were countless plantations along the route and dozens of these hot air dryers.

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you can see the fire chamber in the round metal tube. The coconut pulp goes above.

Coconut plantations make up most of the paid work along this east side.  The other source of cash is low intensity tourism – a few small resorts are scattered around on stunning beaches.  We went to the north end of the road to a town known as Port Olry.  George had mentioned that this was a French-influenced town, so that had some appeal to us.  We found a very modest bungalow right on the beach and loved the open air feel of the place.

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Like the other places we stayed in Vanuatu, we had room for 3 on beds, so the kids alternated on a thermarest on the floor. Our shower consisted of a garden hose hanging from a post.

Two very lazy days were spent swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, canoeing, blogging, reading, and playing cards.  Villagers here also all had gardens back in the jungle, because there was virtually no food for sale in the town.

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The view from the little restaurant where we played cards
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Kaia and I took a traditional canoe out for a paddle. In the Bislama language, the outrigger is referred to as "pikinini blong bot" - the boat's child. 🙂
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these canoes are "dugouts" from one log, and most beach front local houses had one on the beach.
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We took turns kayaking out to the closest island which had been set aside as a nature preserve to protect the large population of "flying foxes" (essentially very large bats).
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There were many trees full of the flying foxes like this and they were very active flapping their wings as they hung upside down.
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our beach front

We hired a local women to do our laundry … and what laundry it was, after 5 days of trekking through mud.  By the time she was finished, it seemed like every tree branch and line on the beach had our stuff strung up.
We made our way back towards Luganville the next day and on a whim stopped off at Lonnoc beach.  Didn’t seem like much going on till we spotted some local kids jumping in from a rope swing on a huge tree at the end of the beach.  Pretty soon we were all swingin’ and jumpin’ into the lovely turquoise water.

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While scarfing down some sweet potato fries at the little restaurant on the beach we learned that the restaurant and little cabins were part of the island’s tourism/hospitality training institute – it was the practicum component.   We felt bad for the waitress there who would have to spend Christmas working to keep the operation going.  But she was well trained …she would not complain!
From there we made our way to the Ri Ri blue hole.  Both Efate and Santo islands have these blue holes where the limestone surface rock has been dissolved by upwelling groundwater to form these deep inland pools .  The colour is exquisite.  There were three blue holes to choose from … you probably won’t be surprised to know that we chose the one that had a rope swing!

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so well named!
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Yvonne getting ready ...
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away Kaia goes ...
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such gorgeous water for Jake to drop into!

The water was clear and cool … so refreshing after coming from the ocean on a very hot day.

We arrived back in Luganville in time for dinner.  Our favorite place to eat was at the local market.  Some of the women had cooking stalls beside the main market area and we could fill ourselves on omelettes, chicken and fish for very reasonable rates while chatting with the cook.  This market, like many others we’d seen, was so full of produce and so vibrant.  But we did notice that the women looked tired, and you sometimes had to work to catch their attention to pay for something.  We then learned that these women are from villages around the island and they travel to Luganville with their garden produce to sell.  They literally sleep beside their produce at night, day after day until the produce is mostly sold, then return to their villages.

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a small part of the Luganville market. The Port Villa market was many times larger still.
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Kaia and Jake had never seen peanuts fresh from the ground. Here they're sold raw in the shells ... we all prefer them roasted.
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This is taro that we'd eaten so much of on the trek. The edible tubers are about the size of a large tomato
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I think you can see a woman sleeping under the table
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Squirming land crabs (about 6" across) were tied in bunches of 6. Apparently they're really yummy ...

Post dinner had us packing up once again .. this time to get ready for our flight to the island of Epi the next day.  Jake will tell you about that!

Cam

Trek to Marakai

Today is Cam’s birthday and we are spending a quiet, rainy day near Punakaiki on the south island of New Zealand.  We are ‘wwoofing’ here for a few days on a beautiful property overlooking the ocean, hosted by a lovely woman named Carolyn.  We’ve had some great experiences here in NZ, but are still trying to process and write about Vanuatu.

Our trek in and out of Marakai and the day we spent with the people there will not soon be forgotten.  Of the experiences I have had in my life, this is among those that leave the strongest impressions.  Trying to put it into words is daunting!  
It all started with the recommendation of our friends George and Erica who did this trek with their 2 daughters about a year and a half ago.  They wanted to see and experience a custom village where people are still living a traditional lifestyle and thriving without western influences.  In fact, in this particular case, the villagers have very consciously rejected the ‘trappings’ of western society.  George gave us the contact information for a woman named Mayumi in Luganville who operates a travel agency called “Wrecks to Rainforest” and organized his family’s trek.  So Cam emailed Mayumi from Fiji to let her know that we were interested in doing this 5-day, 4-night hike into the wild interior of Santo Island.  Mayumi responded that it was certainly possible to do, but not always easy to get hold of her regular guide, Riki, who lives in a remote community.  We had not even considered this complication, but, of course, Riki lives in a village with no electricity, so when his cell phone battery dies, it doesn’t get recharged until he comes into town.  Mayumi said that she usually hears from him every few weeks, but sometimes months can pass without any contact.  The Marakai trek is not one of the more popular excursions and only gets booked about once a month.  We had a good laugh with her as she compared us (planning everything very last-minute) with George, who had contacted her almost a year in advance!  Luckily for us, Mayumi is well-connected in the area and knew other options for guide and porters.  It sounds strange to have to hire porters to carry our stuff.  We, who are accustomed to backpacking in Canada, carrying all our food, tenting and cooking equipment for multiple days.  Here we were, going out for 4 nights, only having to carry a few clothes, sleeping mats, and our lunches (since 2 meals per day would be provided by our hosts).  We didn’t even need to bring a tent.  Anyway, suffice it to say that there is NO WAY we could have done this trek without the porters!!  Our guide (Thomas) and the 2 porters (Anatol and Anagle) were from a community called Namourou, in south Santo.  It is a community serviced by a French school, so besides their native language and Bislama, they all spoke quite good French.  This was fantastic for us as it allowed us to communicate directly with them.  Mayumi, who knows how to organize successful trips, also sent along one of her employees, Esther, who speaks Bislama and English.  Esther is a niVan from Banks Island in the north who is studying tourism at university and has been working for Mayumi at Wrecks to Rainforest.  She was an excellent cultural interpreter to have along, and this would be her second visit to Marakai.  The trek would involve a 6-hour hike in to the village of Fortunel where we would stay the night, then a shorter hike (2 hours) to the village of Marakai where we planned to stay for 2 nights.  Then we’d hike out towards the south, again staying at a village along the way.
Our trip started with a 2-hour drive along rough roads to a ‘village’ called Sele (I did not actually see more than a few huts there).  Along the way, we saw abandoned and half-buried American quonset huts from WW2.

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the road to Sele, where we started the hike
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The rusty quonset huts are re-emerging, 70 years after being buried.
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Here's one that someone was using for shelter.
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Anatol, Thomas, Esther, and Anagle in the back of the pick-up truck.

We started the hike at about 11am, and the walking was quite easy at first (especially since we were only carrying small daypacks!)  However, after about an hour, Thomas (our guide) seemed a bit perplexed as the trail was not as he remembered.  He asked a local woman who explained that, due to some conflict between families, a certain trail was no longer being used and we would have to return to Sele to take an alternate route.  A bit disappointing for sure, but we were still fresh enough to “take it as it comes”.  We took a break for some lunch and fresh coconuts, thanks to our porters who could easily climb up the palm trees with their machetes!

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Thomas is scooping out the coconut jelly after the water has been drunk.
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Typical home, with clothes drying and taro and cassava garden.

We retraced our steps and started off along the correct path.  Guide and porters were barefoot, and had made the comment “les souliers sont pour les Blancs”.  We were all wearing our hiking shoes and strapped to the packs were our rubber boots (the ones we’ve been carting around for 4 months and only used in Costa Rica!)  I explained to the porters that we were only bringing the boots as a gift for our hosts in the first village.  But after hearing that footwear is only for whites, I questioned our choice of gift.  However, Anagle assured me that they would be appreciated.  Mayumi had arranged and sent along the proper gifts and payment for our accommodation, so the boots were going to be an extra.  I was glad that the porters wouldn’t have to carry them the whole time, and I’m sure they were too!

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Lush green vegetation along the trail.

The trail was a dirt track that took us up and down slopes.  Some parts were quite muddy and slick, and there were a few creeks to cross along the way.  We stopped for swim breaks, coconut breaks, and water breaks.

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sweet nectar of the gods
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one of the rivers we had to cross
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Anagle's bush water bottle: a bamboo tube with grass stuffed in the end to stop the water from spilling out.
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Esther, Anagle and Anatol on the trail
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"swinging on a vine" break
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we swam in this creek before the final push up to Furtunel

As we were suiting up again after the swim, Thomas suggested that I get the headlamps out.  And I thought we were just minutes away!  We started the longest uphill section of the whole hike, and I was already feeling like I had done a 7.5hr stair workout.  In a sauna!  It was practically dark by the time we made it to Fortunel, Riki’s village, where we would stay the night.  Riki’s brother had passed us on the trail near the creek and had gone ahead with the message that visitors were coming (otherwise, because of dead cellphone batteries, our arrival was unannounced). 
Entering Riki’s house was a moment of culture shock.  We were exhausted and hungry.  The house was dark, smoky, and full of people (he and his wife have 7 children).  We sat on the floor and were served taro (like a dry potato) and susu (a slimy green vegetable).  Riki’s wife told us (through Esther’s interpretation) that her sons had gone to the garden that morning to dig up taro root, with the premonition that guests would be coming. 

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helping Riki's wife peel taro
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taro and susu
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susu cooking over the fire in the house
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oh yeah, they also had a few cats
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Kaia and Jake sleeping under a mosquito net at Riki's
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morning light coming in, but without windows, the house is always quite dark

Breakfast was similar to the previous night’s dinner.  Riki’s family was really lovely and it was amazing to be so welcomed and looked after on such short notice.  We heard that one of the reasons Riki hadn’t been in contact with Mayumi recently was because he had been dealing with his father’s disappearance.  Chief Lisa, who I believe had been the head of the village for several decades, had gone missing about 2 weeks prior.  Apparently, he had stayed home while the rest of the villagers had gone to a meeting in Sele (walking to Sele is not a big deal for them — they can easily go both directions in a day!)  Upon their return, one of the chief’s sons had gone to check on him and he was fine.  Later, they heard him talking to someone, but since no one was in the house with him, they assumed that he was talking to the spirits.  The next morning, they found his front door closed but the back door standing open and he was gone.  However, there were no footprints leaving the house.  A search party set out to look for him but could find no trace.  They continued looking for about 10 days.  It is believed that the old chief entered the spirit world and has been turned into a stone.  A woman from a neighbouring village was going to come to help the family discover which stone he has become.
We packed our bags and presented Riki with the gifts.  They seemed genuinely pleased with the boots!  I hope they can be useful. The previous night, Riki had shown me a bad cut he had on his foot and I had given him some antibiotic cream and a bandaid.  But I doubt he will start wearing the boots regularly as bare feet are generally more practical!

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Kaia presented the envelope and boots to Riki.
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rubber boots and malmals (loin cloths) -- a great look!
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eating breakfast outside Riki's house

Riki’s house has a corrugated tin roof.  We wondered how the pieces had been transported, and the answer was: 2 at a time, on Riki’s back!  My “7.5 hr stair workout” from the previous day was seeming kind of lame.  I honestly don’t know how he managed to get those huge pieces of tin up and down all those muddy slopes!
We got a nice tour of Fortunel, including the school (grades 1-4, built by a Korean group and staffed by some locals and a Solomon Islander).

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Kaia and Jake inside one of the classrooms. Of course, we were there during their summer break, so no students or teachers!
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the grade 4 final exam for math was still on the board
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Riki is building a separate sleeping house for his 12-year-old son.
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Riki and his youngest son.
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Cam and Riki
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Saying goodbye to Riki's family (baby #8 is on the way). Cam has adopted the local clothing.

Well fed and rested, and minus 4 pairs of boots, we continued on our way to Marakai. 

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A walking stick was a useful tool. This beautiful flower has a surprisingly strong stem.

George had said to us before we started, “You’ll be heading into the stone age,” and I really felt that he was right when we ran into a family on the path who were walking home from their garden (I presume).  She was wearing a leaf skirt, carrying a baby in a sling and a load of taro in a basket hanging from a tumpline.  He wore a loin cloth, was also carrying a load: 2 baskets hanging from a bamboo stick.  Their little boy was curious about us and kept sneaking backward glances as we approached.  Thomas and the porters speak the local dialect and taught us how to greet people.  The greeting changes for morning, afternoon and night.
When we arrived at the entrance gate to Marakai, Thomas went in first to let them know we had arrived.  Most of the villagers, including the chief, were out tending their gardens.  However, we were invited to come in and were able to rest at their guest house.  
Marakai is an amazing place that I am still trying to figure out (but never will!)  It is known as a “kastom village” dedicated to preserving the traditional, village-centered lifestyle of the ni-Vanuatu people.  It was established in its present location in 1980 by a group of people (the Nagriamel movement, lead by Jimmy Stevens) who were opposed to the creation of an independent Vanuatu as it is known today.  They wanted the island of Espiritu Santo to be its own independent country rather than part of Vanuatu which is comprised of 83 different islands (with more than 100 distinct languages!!)  They moved further into the bush precisely because they wanted to be far away from western influence.  Even though they did not achieve the political independence they wanted (and their leader was jailed) they have achieved a very real independence by living in a traditional and totally self-sufficient way. 
They have a cashless society.  They wear simple clothing that is made from local plants, eat only what they grow themselves and harvest from the forest and river, build their homes from local materials, and use medicinal plants.  Their children do not attend school, but follow their parents and learn the skills needed for survival in their environment.  There are very few manufactured items in the village, but the men do have machetes, and there are several solar lights that charge during the day and are used in the houses after dark.  Esther noted a few changes since her last visit 6 months ago:  there were now some plastic buckets for collecting water, a few cloth diapers hanging on a line, as well as a clock!  The clock was a gift from a French woman who has been spending one month a year, living traditionally in Marakai.  We read with interest her entries in the guest book.  

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a typical house in Marakai -- notice the smoke coming through the thatched roof
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Irene, the matriarch of the community. She has been there since it was established and was the wife of the former chief.
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We played "duck, duck, goose" with these kids (actually "toa, toa, fabune" which means "chicken, chicken, green pigeon")
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This boy's coconut stilts were the only toy I saw in Marakai.

One thing we couldn’t quite figure out was why the people of Marakai accept, and even seem to like having tourists come and visit them.  What is in it for them?  If they are trying to avoid western influence, why accommodate westerners in their village?  The answer we got was that they are confident and proud of their lifestyle and are quite happy to share it with people who are interested.
The guest house where we stayed was really nice.  It was clearly built with westerners in mind as it had a large raised sleeping platform as well as a couple of smaller platforms, a round table and 4 stools, benches along the wall, and a window at each end (none of these things are found in any of the other houses).
Soon after arriving, we were offered a beautiful plate of ripe bananas and a thermos of hot water for tea (oh, a thermos — another manufactured item!)

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inside the guest house
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Nakriamel Muvman Roial Flag. An interesting vestige from the Jimmy Stevens days. Apparently the 15 stars represent his 15 wives (although Wikipedia says he had 23.)
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The black and white clasped hands were a common theme.
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The large sleeping platform, with our air mattresses. The woven walls let some light through.

When the villagers returned from their gardens, they welcomed us with a song.  Irene made a nice meal which was brought to us on wooden plates.

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Being welcomed in the community.
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Taro and island cabbage cooked in coconut milk.

That evening, we participated in a kava ceremony and presented some gifts for the village. 

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The chief of Marakai has a very welcoming smile. Although we didn't have a common language, we felt very comfortable with him.
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We each had a bowl of kava, except Jake who wasn't feeling well by that point.

The kava drinking continued for those who wanted, and Cam had quite a few bowls.  Apparently he became fluent in French (or so he says) and had a great time chatting with Anatol and Anagle, the porters.

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morning shower -- Marakai style
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Breakfast was similar to dinner, but I was impressed with how many different ways Irene could cook and present taro and island cabbage!

We went down to the river with Liston who was going to collect prawns.  On the way, he caught a fairly large lizard which he immobilized (but didn’t kill) by scraping its neck.  I realized later that it was still breathing.  When lizard meat did not appear on our dinner plates, Cam said, “Maybe they noticed the look on your face.”  Yes, I am a bit of a wimp that way!  But I have the utmost respect for this young man, Liston.  He is so in touch with his environment and skilled when it comes to survival in the Vanuatu bush.  He’s probably the closest thing to “sustainability” that I will encounter on this trip.

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Liston used a diving mask to find the freshwater prawns.

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Liston and (I think) his baby.
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Liston preparing kava root.
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Liston lighting a small fire between sleeping mats.

But there is one thing that Liston cannot do, and that is speak Bislama, the official language of Vanuatu.  Only the older generation in Marakai speak it, and they have obviously chosen not to teach it to their children.  I really struggled with that one, knowing full well that I am coming at the issue with a MASSIVE cultural bias.  Being a big proponent of bilingualism in Canada, I have always felt that it is important to learn your own language, but by all means to learn other languages too!  Of course the people of Marakai have everything they need right there in their village and they can communicate perfectly with the people in neighbouring villages, but I just wondered… what if a mining company comes into the area some day and wants to extract minerals?  Wouldn’t it be helpful for the locals to be able to plead their case directly?  What if any of these children might someday want to travel to other parts of Vanuatu?  But maybe learning Bislama is just part of the slippery slope of cultural erosion and it’s actually more valuable to have a group of people who are totally self-sufficient, living off the land, with no plans to adopt western practices.  I don’t know.  It doesn’t seem to have worked for the tribes living in the Amazon, though, as their land is being harvested for wood, minerals and oil.  However, I’m sure the people in Marakai would question my parenting choices too.  They might say, “What? Your kids have reached puberty and they don’t even know how to forage food for themselves?  Why would any parent teach their child to be so completely dependent on others?”
Visiting Marakai really blew my mind.
Kaia and I tried out the local fashion and walked around in leaf skirts for most of the day.  I realized that no clothes = no laundry.  Imagine that!  Cam had adopted the local “malmal” (loin cloth) since we were at Riki’s.  The first one he got was made of cloth, but in Marakai, even cotton cloth is too western!  They gave him one made from the inner bark of a tree.  It was a bit stiff at first, but after he swam in it, he said it softened up quite nicely!
With Irene, we visited one of the vegetable gardens and also saw an artificial pond that the villagers have stocked with fish.

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Cam helped pound the kava root. But he shouldn't have pounded it back!

Cam took part in another evening of kava drinking and socializing in the men’s nakamal (meeting house).  This time it had the undesirable effect of making him nauseous and unable to sleep.  I guess all the warnings about the kava being different in Vanuatu than Fiji were true.  Too bad he didn’t heed them.  So our walk out the next day started off with one very hurting guy!  The village sang a farewell song (actually with English lyrics, composed by Jimmy Stevens!) and we thanked them for the amazing hospitality.

Luckily, after a couple of hours, Cam’s stomach started to feel better and he was able to enjoy the walk.  But I hadn’t been too worried because I had total confidence that had he been too sick to continue, our guide and porters would have simply built a small shelter for us to stay in.  Honestly, there is nothing they can’t do with those machetes!  The trail was quite muddy as it rained on and off, and there were some very steep sections, both up and down.  We stayed the night in the nakamal of another village, Tsarangatui.  Our soaking wet clothes didn’t really dry, but we knew we were only a couple of hours from the end point of the trek.  Once again, the local fashion would have been more practical!

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in front of the chief's house in Tsarangatui
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Our sleeping arrangement. We had been warned that there would be no privacy on this trek.
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Swim break in the river on our hike out.
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The porters were quick to lend a hand whenever it was needed.
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Nice and flat! Walking through a coconut plantation.
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On our way through Namourou, we came across some women weaving pandanus mats. Looks complicated!

During our trek, there were four languages being spoken among the 8 of us.  With Esther, we spoke English; with Thomas and the porters we spoke French, but Esther and they communicated in Bislama.  And the three of them (Thomas, Anatol and Anagle) used their traditional dialect.  It worked beautifully.

From Namourou, John, the same driver who had taken us to the start of the trek, drove us back to Luganville.  He has been able to buy a pickup truck because he works seasonally in the fruit orchards in New Zealand.     

Life in Marakai reminded me of the Himba vallages we visited in Namibia; traditional and village-centered.  The openness and generosity of the people reminded me of the homestay we did on the island of Amantani in Lake Titicaca.  But in Marakai, I sensed a sereneness and a level of contentedness among the people that was unique. 

Yvonne

Million Dollar Dive

Vanuatu, called the New Hebrides at the time, was very important for the Allies during World War II.  As the Japanese slowly worked their way down through Pacific islands, the New Hebrides had some of the closest American airstrips to the area of combat, so they could launch their attacks on places such as Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.  Many military and construction machines were brought in to the bases, but after the war finished, they didn’t know what to do with all the extra stuff.  The Americans offered the equipment to the colonisers of the islands, England and France, but got no reply.  So, they dumped it all in the water!  The place they dumped it is now called Million Dollar Point (should be called Million Dollars Wasted point), not far out at all from Luganville, Vanuatu’s 2nd largest city, located on the island of Santo.

As Kaia explained in her Millenium cave blog, the trek we had scheduled was postponed 2 days.  We spent the first of those days at Millenium cave.  For the day after that, my mom and I felt we were ready for another SCUBA dive.  By far, the most popular dive in Luganville , and perhaps all of Vanuatu is the wreck of the SS President Coolidge.  It was a luxury-liner turned into a troop carrier that hit “friendly” mines on it’s way into Luganville harbour.  Knowing it was going to sink, the captain ran it aground and everyone got out safely.  However, it quickly started to slide into the ocean where it still rests.

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crew abandoning the SS Coolidge after it was run aground

Considered the best wreck dive in the world, it’s a must-do for divers visiting the area.  However, the wreck starts at 23 metres depth, and neither of us is certified to go that deep, so we decided to pass on that one. 

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other divers on the SS Coolidge

We decided to do a dive at Million Dollar Point because it was shallow enough for us to dive amongst the wreckage, and my dad and Kaia could see it while snorkeling too.

We started in the morning by going to the dive shop to get our equipment and meet our divemaster, Steve.  We then drove to the point, got suited up, and got a briefing on the dive plan.  To get started, we did our first ever shore entrance, where you walk in from the beach instead of going in from a boat.  It’s really hard to walk with all that equipment.  Now I think I know how a giant tortoise feels!  We put our regulators into our mouths and down we went.  Blub, blub, blub…

As soon as we were underwater, we could see the scuttled equipment.  There were a lot of old, rusty and algae-covered jeeps, forklifts and bulldozers, all of which seemed to be upside down for some reason, so we were seeing a lot of tires!  It was a mix of a wreck dive and a reef dive because now, there’s coral growing on the wreckage, and the two together make a very safe place for pretty fish.  I identified a lot of them, some of which are in the movie “Finding Nemo”.  There were angelfish, butterfly fish, a batfish, parrotfish, triggerfish, moorish idols (Gill), damselfish (Deb), and of course, clownfish.  They swim around their anemone just like Marlin and Nemo do (now we go out… and back in).  We also saw sea cucumbers, starfish, and even a sea turtle!  My dad was using the GoPro, so we only have pictures of what they saw while snorkeling.

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Here’s a little video clip of some of the wreck: http://youtu.be/9IC4nx9O3_U

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It's incedible how it's still almost completely intact!
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When we started this trip in Costa Rica, Kaia was afraid of swimming with fish. Here she is swimming down into a school of about 1000 decent size fish to show that she's no longer afraid.

Here’s a short YouTube clip of her “I’m not afraid” dive.  http://youtu.be/dVKay9udFDU

Here’s a little clip of a school of fish that moved all together, like in the Finding Nemo film: fish: http://youtu.be/REhvQWGP_g4

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Nemo in his anomone.

Here’s a cute YouTube of Nemo hiding: http://youtu.be/dmytfwMzo6k

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Kaia playing peek-a-boo with Nemo and his friends.

Kaia and Nemo:  http://youtu.be/G04RDxZBXdM

One of my favourite parts about the dive was this forklift that you can sit in and pretend to drive.  There’s still a bit of a seat and the steering wheel is still completely intact!  BTW: the rest of the pictures are deep down (we didn’t have the camera) so are from the internet.

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The rubber tires don't seem to have deteriorated much in the 70 years they've been underwater.
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This old tank now has soft coral growing on it.
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Look at the huge Crown of Thorns starfish at the bottom of the picture.

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This boat was full of swimming fish.

After about 45 minutes underwater, we came back up and walked out along the beach.  We had a lot to tell my dad and Kaia and they had a lot to tell us.  Million Dollar Point is really cool and interesting in so many different ways, and it reminded me how much of the world’s history, life and wonder is hidden beneath the waves.

Jake

La tournee de la Caverne du Millenaire

L’ile la plus grande de Vanuatu s’appelle Espiritu Santo. C’est au nord de l’ile Efate ou se situe Port Vila (le capital). Cependant, les niVans (personnes locales) ne l’appelle jamais “Espiritu Santo”, seulement “Santo”. Luganville, la plus grande ville de Santo est le “deuxième capital” du pays. Le vol d’Efate a Santo n’a pris qu’une heure.

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Je sais, je ne suis pas une très bonne artiste, mais Santo est encerclée en mauve.

Notre raison primaire pour visiter Santo était pour faire une randonnée de cinq jours dans les montagnes, suggéré par nos bons amis a Peterborough, George, Erica, Kaia et Anna. Mais, a cause de quelques complications pour trouver un guide et des porteurs, la randonnée a été différée quelques journées. Alors on avait quelques jours libres pour explorer la région de Luganville.
Luganville est une ville d’a peu près 13 000 habitants. Ce n’est rien de trop spéciale, mais c’est propre et il y a un grand parc. Notre premier soir, on a soupé au marché local. On est resté chez Unity Park Motel, une place très simple mais nette et confortable.
Dans le motel, il y avait des affiches pour les différentes tours dans la région. Une qui a attirée notre attention était le Millenium Cave Tour.

Dans l’année 1975, dans un village proche de Luganville…
Un homme du village de Vunaspef a amené quelques enfants pour voir une caverne une heure de marche d’où ils vivaient. L’accès était très difficile, puisqu’il n’y avait pas de sentier et la pente était raide. Mais, les enfants ont beaucoup aimé la caverne! Quand qu’ils sont rentrés au village, ils ont parlé avec leurs parents a propos de leur journée formidable. Bientôt, tout le village était très excité!

Dans l’année 1977…
La compagnie allemande German Geographic est venue pour filmer un documentaire au sujet des cavernes. Quelques touristes ont commencé a venir, mais l’accès était encore très difficile.

Dans l’année 2000…
Le village de Vunaspef a reçu une subvention de AusAid (aide Australien) pour développer la caverne pour le tourisme. La caverne est nommé d’après cette année. La tournée de la Caverne du Millénaire est née!

De 2000 au présent…
La tournée utilise les commentaires des gens pour s’améliorer. Ils ont eu plusieurs commentaires sur des sites en-lignes de conseils de voyage comme trip advisor. Au début, c’était un mélange de commentaires bonnes et mauvaises. Mais, ils ont regardé au sites et se sont améliorés, par exemple: J’ai aimé la tournée, mais j’avais très faim quand on avait finit, et il n’y avait rien a manger.” Maintenant, il y a un plat de nourriture a la fin.
Ils ont maintenant 5 étoiles sur trip advisor, ce qui est FANTASTIQUE! Ils reçoivent seulement des commentaires positives, et la raison est claire pour moi, après avoir fait la tournée moi-meme. 

Dans l’année 2014…
La famille Douglas visite les Cavernes du Millénaire!!

La journée a commencé au bureau de Millenium Cave Tours, très proche de notre motel. Il y avait beaucoup de prix de trip advisor sur le mur, tous avec 5 étoiles!

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Horrible!? Peut-être cette personne n'aimait pas l'aventure!

Après payer, on est monté dans un camion avec le restant du groupe de 15 personnes. La tour commence à Vunaspef, un village d’une heure de conduite de Luganville. C’est sur une route de gravier, et on a passé par quelques villages avant d’y arriver.

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Santo était une très grande base militaire américaine pendant la 2eme Guerre Mondiale. Ceci était une piste d'atterrissage pour la base, ensuite l'aéroport internationale pendant 30 ans, et maintenant une partie du chemin de Luganville à Vunaspef!

À Vunaspef, nous sommes allés dans le Nakamal (salle communautaire) du village. Un de nos guides nous a donné une explication très détaillée de comment la journée allait se dérouler. C’est une tournée “4 en 1”, c’est à dire la randonnée, ensuite “caving”, “canyoning”, et finalement nager/flotter dans une rivière!

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une chose qu'ils ont probablement appris de TripAdvisor est que c'est important que les touristes savent ce qu'ils vont faire, alors ils nous expliquent avant la tour.

Partie 1 (randonnée) a prit une heure. C’était dans la jungle, et c’était très pittoresque!

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Avant de commencer la descente vers les cavernes, on a prit une pause pour faire une rituelle. Avant d’entrer dans la grotte pour la première fois, quelqu’un doit peinturer ta face avec une pigmentation naturelle qui vient de la foret locale.
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Les différentes motifs représentent les différentes partis de la caverne: la rivière, les roches, les chutes et chauves-souris.

Après que tout le monde a eu sa face peinturé, on est descendu vers la caverne. La pente était très raide, mais ce n'était pas trop difficile.

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La caverne était très amusant et intéressant. Les guides nous ont averti d’essayer de ne pas toucher les murs de la grotte, parce que les crottes de chauves-souris sont très toxiques. Tout le monde avait une lampe de poche, un gilet de sauvetage, et il y avait un guide pour chaque deux ou trois personnes.

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L'entrée de la caverne
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Il fallait grimper par dessus plusieurs grandes rochers!
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C'était très sombre!
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L'eau montait jusqu'à mes hanches à certaines places

Après sortir de la caverne, on a mangé notre dîner. Mon père a acheté des samosas à Luganville, alors notre dîner était délicieux!
Les enfants du village de Vunaspef ont ensuite apparus et ont commencés a sauter d’une roche, l’autre bord du ruisseau. Je pensait que ça avait l’air amusant alors je les ai joigne. Ensuite, tout le groupe sautait aussi!

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Mon père saute dans cette photo

La prochaine partie était le “canyoning”, c’est a dire descendre une gorge avec plein de rochers. C’est un mélange de grimper, flotter, marcher et sauter. Il y avait des fils de métal pour nous aider à croiser des ruisseaux et grimper/descendre des roches. 

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Le “canyoning” a prit à peu près 30 minutes. La dernière partie du tour était flotter/nager dans une rivière dans la gorge. Ceci était la partie préféré de nous quatre! C’était relaxant et amusant en même temps.

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Une autre place amusante pour sauter dans la rivière!

Après flotter pour 45 minutes, il fallait remonter jusqu’à Vunaspef, ce qui a prit 20 minutes. Cette partie, la pente était extrêmement raide! C’était une échelle qui montait… montait… mon père pouvait pas prendre de photos.
Nous sommes retournés à Vunaspef, et il y avait des collations dans le Nakamal. Noix de coco, pamplemousse, lime, orange… mmm!!
Vunaspef est très propre et bien rangée. Millenium Cave Tours est 100% la propriété du village. Les guides viennent tous de Vunaspef  et ils sont bien payés. L’argent paye pour deux écoles (une a Vunaspef, une dans une autre village) et les salaires des professeurs.

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L'intérieur d'une des écoles.

La tournée de la Caverne de Millénaire est impeccable. C’est amusant, les guides sont très bons, c’est scénique, et ça aide une communauté. Si tu te trouves à Luganville, ne manquez pas le Millenium Cave Tour. Une bonne introduction à l’ile de Santo!
Kaia     

Vanuatu – why are they so happy?

An earlier draft of this entry was posted by accident.  If you received that one, please disregard and read this one. 
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If you know only one thing about the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu, it might be that this nation of 83 small islands ranked #1 in the world in the New Economics Foundation’s (NEF) “Happy Planet Index”.  No,  not Norway, Sweden, Canada or New Zealand.  That an almost unknown little country that ranks very far down the UN’s  Human Development Index (in 2012 ranked 124 out of 187) could end up as “The Happiest Place on Earth” was cause for great curiosity on our part. 

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This mural greets you walk off the tarmac into the arrivals area of the Port Villa (capital city) airport.

This stat did not go unnoticed by our Peterborough friend George Fogarasi who searched high and low for a place on earth that was more or less untouched by western influences of economics and consumerism.  He wanted to explore such a place with his family and the summer before last they ventured to Vanuatu for 5 weeks.  They came home and RAVED about their experience.  They visited remote communities that did not use cash, grew all their own food, made their houses out of local materials, had a very strong sense of who they were and where they’d come from, and were genuinely friendly and open with visitors.  After we’d decided in our planning stage to visit Rhonda & Henry in Fiji, we looked at the map and noted that Vanuatu was the nearest neighbour.  With the Fogarasi stories & our desire to visit people who were living sustainably, Vanuatu seemed like a “no brainer” on our itinerary. 
Vanuatu has been settled by Melanesians for more than 3000 years.  They came from Indonesia, through Papua New Guinea then the Solomon Islands before arriving in Vanuatu using dugout canoes with outriggers.  Polynesians arrived about 1000 years ago from the northeast.  The indigenous population are known as “niVans”

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The 1st european encounter was a Portuguese explorer (sailing for Spain) who was looking for the “great southern continent”.  When he sailed into Big Bay of the largest island he thought he had found his objective so named the islands “Terra Australis del Espiritu Santo”.  That island is known as Espiritu Santo to this day.
French and English explorers visited the islands (known to them as the “New Hebrides”) starting in the late 1700s and colonial interest took hold in the 1820s with the sandalwood trade (for incense).  The slow growing sandalwood was running out (1870s) just as the British were ramping up their sugar cane production in neighboring Fiji, Australia and New Zealand.  They needed cheap labour so started the dark chapter in history known as “blackbirding” whereby they would trick, cajole and otherwise all but force niVans onto ships to be dropped off as indentured servants on sugar plantations.  In fact, Henry’s property on Tavewa Island of Fiji was such a sugar plantation before his great grandfather purchased the land for coconut plantation.  Henry regularly finds pottery from these niVans on the island.  The niVans could leave after 3 years but were often dropped back in Vanuatu on the wrong islands.  This practice finally was shut down in the early 1900s because of pressure from missionaries.

Missionaries have had a profound impact on the islands.  It was not easy going for them at first, because the practice of cannibalism was alive and well, and when niVans grew suspicious of them, they would often kill and eat them.  I read somewhere that the final act of recorded cannibalism was in 1970.  That aside, niVans are for the most part very strong Christians, with some traditional beliefs mixed in.  Our personal experience reinforced this fact.  Some of our guides and taxi drivers were deeply religious and asked us about our own beliefs.

The English and French colonial influences competed and coexisted through the 18 and 1900s and ultimately ended up in a joint administration known as the “condominium”.  There were two different rules, courts, police and education systems, so critics referred to the government instead as “pandemonium”.   There was a period of time when the English drove on the left side of the road while the French drove on the right.  When I asked a local how this possibly could have happened, they explained that for the most part the two groups lived separately geographically so as long as you didn’t venture too far, it was OK.  Most of the niVans we met spoke some English, but we found many little pockets where schools were in French.

The New Hebrides came into international importance during the Pacific campaign of WWII.  The US figured that Japan would want these strategic Pacific islands so moved very quickly and decisively to build their military presence.  I believe the niVan population on Espiritu Santo (“Santo”) at the time was about 5000.  The US base there grew quickly to a population of over 50000 and by the end of the war more than 500000 soldiers had passed through the many facilities on the island.  The US built more than a dozen airstrips and we found the remnants of several of these as we moved around the island.  Dozens of plane wrecks have been found where pilots ran out of fuel, got lost, or ran into bad weather.  This base was central to the US Solomon Islands Guadalcanal campaign.

When Vanuatu gained independence in 1980 (a long and fascinating course of events) the country had to decide on an official language.  Because of the competition between English and French interests, those two languages were ruled out. So too were the more than 100 local languages, for the same reason.  Instead, they adopted a pidgin English (with some mixed in French) known as Bislama (pronounce Bishlama) that bares a remarkable similarity to the pidgin English “Krio” spoken in my beloved Sierra Leone.  This was strategic regionally because the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea and indigenous New Caledonians also speak pidgen Englishes.  Peterborough friend George found some peace corps Bislama language resources to use before they arrived and got to a level of basic communication.  He came home so enthusiastic about the language that we did some prep ourselves.  We had so much fun with Bislama that we’ll devote a separate blog entry to that.

The 83 islands are aligned north to south and many of them host active volcanoes.  We tried to get to several of these islands to climb a volcano but were unable because all the flights had been booked out by niVans returning from the capital city to their home islands/villages for Christmas.  So the islands are spectacular visually, with dramatic mountains, extremely lush forests and spectacular palm lined white sand beaches.

So, back to the million dollar question:  Why are niVans the happiest people on earth?  There are a few ways to answer this.
First, the ranking of countries depends entirely on the criteria used to measure the nebulous concept of happiness.  In this case, the survey looked at three things: life satisfaction, life expectancy and ecological footprint.  The NEF chose these indicators because they measure “the ecological efficiency of delivering human well-being within the constraints of equitable and responsible resource consumption“.  Vanuatu has been actively working with the UN and other countries to come up with alternate indices for measuring wellbeing.  The following quote comes from a meeting of niVans, other Melanesian countries, Aussies and Kiwis who were wrestling with this question;

The almost universal use of GDP-based indicators to measure progress has helped justify policies based on rapid material progress at the expense of more holistic criterion. Because it is a crude measure of only the cash value of activities or production, GDP is heavily biased towards increased production and consumption regardless of the necessity or desirability of such outputs. Policies developed with regard only to increasing per-capita GDP can have negative, and potentially disastrous, impacts on other factors contributing to life quality.

It should be noted that none of the major industrialized countries ranked near the top.  Of course, much can be argued about the choice of indices and how they were applied.  The inclusion of ecological footprint as a central component of wellbeing is novel.  And for us, refreshing.  But our family’s experience was overwhelmingly supportive of this idea of happy niVans.  A conversation with our driver to and from our trek into Marakai village on Santo captured what we feel is a central part of their contentedness.  Many niVans work in the New Zealand vineyards and orchards seasonally, for 3 to 6 months/year.  They are valued for their fast and dependable work.  When I asked John if he would like to ultimately immigrate to New Zealand, he responded very quickly and unequivocally.  “No.  In New Zealand, you have to work every day, and you need money to live.  Here in Vanuatu, if you’re hungry, you just walk to your garden and get some food”.  This idea was echoed in so many other conversations we had.  I read of another conversation with a niVan who had just returned from England with a university degree.  When asked what he wanted to do with his life, he raised the fishing rod in his hand.
Every niVan I met had a garden.  Many had canoes and fishing gear.  They spent lots of time working in their garden that was often some distance from their home.  The climate supports growing year round, and the soils are fertile.  Rob on Epi Island told me “put a post in the ground and it will start to grow” 🙂 Even the poorest niVans have food to eat.  And they are very quick to share their harvest with you, with pride.
Homes outside the capital city are modest and about 95% of the ones we saw away from the major centers were made entirely from local forest products (log frame, thatch roof, woven bamboo walls).  Floors are dirt and woven grass mats are used for eating and sleeping on.  If you need a home … walk into the woods and get your materials.  We heard from others and corroborated ourselves that there is virtually no home or wealth envy among niVans.  No keeping up with the Joneses … mostly because there are very few niVan Joneses to keep up with.  Friend George explained to me that this is partly explained by their cultural practice of wealth sharing.  Prestige is bestowed upon those who give gifts of food (or whatever), much as was the case with N.A. First Nations potlatches.  Such gifts would more or less oblige the receiver to return the favour when conditions are right.  George refers to it as “Melanesian Socialism”.
NiVans are very much tied to their land.  For obvious reasons of food and home self sufficiency.  But their culture also sees land as not something to be owned (expanding white/colonial land acquisition in the 1970s was a major trigger of the independence movement) but instead something to be shared by the present generation and protected for future generations.  They have strong connections to past generations through the passing down of access to land.
We also observed very strong connections to extended family and larger community.  It was not really clear where the nuclear family ended and the extended family began.  Community gatherings were common, and our Christmas lunch was a perfect example – all food prepared and shared by the community.
Despite the unrelenting expansion of western influences (including the huge impact of missionaries), many niVan communities have maintained a remarkable amount of their traditional culture.  Many villages appear to the eye to have had no contact with the west. Many others however have schools, some concrete structures and most niVans now wear western clothes.
So … self sufficiency for food and shelter, secure and sustained access to fertile land, strong connection to culture, family and community and an absence of material envy and it seems like you have some pretty important components of happiness!  Despite these favourable conditions, most folks in western countries would not rush to sell all their possessions and move to Vanuatu (though we met quite a few who did).  But perhaps the more important point (and maybe a bit obvious … sorry …) is that these folks are content but have only a tiny fraction of the ecological footprint that western societies do.  Locally produced organic foods, every home is an “eco” home (lighting is almost always tiny scale solar), many villages consume almost no packaging and produce virtually no waste and carbon footprints for most folks are tiny.  The larger cities have larger individual footprints. 
This was the backdrop for the 18 days we spent in Vanuatu. We had so much to ponder as our adventures played out.
We spent only a day and a half on the island we flew into (Efate) and stayed in the capital city Port Vila.  Our highlight of the city tour was a trip to the VIBRANT food market.  If the profusion of food at this market is any indication of how well niVans eat … then what I said above must be true!  We took some great market photos on Kaia’s phone … that I left behind on Epi island last week during a quick exit to the tiny airport there for our flight back to Port Vila … so sadly can’t share those.  But today we finally have arrangements in place to have the phone mailed general delivery to us in Christchurch from where we will depart New Zealand January 23rd.
The highlight of our time on Efate had to be our visit to the Mele Cascades (waterfalls) and Mele beach.  After a short taxi ride to the trail head, and payment of an entrance fee, you hike about 20-30 minutes to the base of the falls.  We were the first ones there so had the entire falls and forest to ourselves for about 45 minutes.  You could swim behind the falls into a little cave, could swim in the many little pools, but best of all you could jump off the ledge of some pools into the clear waters of the next pool down.

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approaching the falls

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You swim under the wall of water below to get into this little cave.

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GoPro selfie!

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And yes, Yvonne and I had just as much fun as the kids jumping into the pools!
After about 2 hrs at the falls we hiked back to the trailhead and walked about 30 minutes to the beach.  The playful fun continued when we found some large inflatable toys set up in front of one restaurant.  Pretty smart business … because there were lots of kids playing on these, and lots of people eating in the restaurant.

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This was the time that Jake didn't push Kaia down the slide.

We enjoyed a bit of beach-side lunch ourselves then headed back to town to change, pack up and head to the airport for our flight to Santo island.

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This the larger of Air Vanuatu's "island hopper" planes
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We really liked the Air Vanuatu plane painting .. showing lush forests and volcanoes.

Cam

We wishem yufala wan gudfala Meri Krismiss

Yes, we wish you all a Merry Christmas from Vanuatu.  The blog title is Bislama, which is a pidgin English.  Yufela – you fellas … gudfela  good people.
Update Dec. 26th: We tried to post this yesterday on Christmas day but we’ve had virtually no internet access.  We just arrived back to the capital city and we’re back online.
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We are on the Vanuatu Island of Epi and we are having a WONDERFUL Christmas day!  FYI, we are 16 hrs ahead of you time-zone wise.  We’re going to bed Christmas day while you’re just waking up Christmas morning.
For the past 4 days we have been staying in Lamen Bay – a really warm, welcoming, laid back village of about 400 people. There is one little guest house in town run by a family (dad Tasso runs the show) who really took us in and made us part of the community.  We originally had planned to travel to the south end of the island on the 24th, but the one guest house there is not really near the local community, and we heard that Lamen Bay was having a carol singing night at the church and a big community lunch, so it was an easy decision to push our trip across the island back a day to spend Christmas with the village.
Christmas Eve, after a big fish, yam, cassava & rice dinner we went to the church where the entire community (including those from the other 2 Christian churches) had gathered.  Tasso sat us in the front row, and we were welcomed in the opening remarks.  Tasso said that they had never had tourists stay in Lamen Bay for Christmas before.

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The candles were in bamboo shells, for a lovely effect.

 

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Most of the carol tunes were easily recognized Christmas carols, but all but one were sung in Bislama, which unless spoken slowly is pretty hard to follow.

 

After many carols, skits, a few poems and a short story, it was time to light our candles (everyone had brought one).  The gathering looked so fantastic.

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That’s Tasso our host on Kaia’s right

 

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The choir and the rest of the community then sang “O Holy Night”, and when they got to the “fall on your knees” part I thought the roof of the church would lift off. I just about fell on my knees, and have goosebumps now just thinking about it.

 

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People were invited to exchange candles and greetings with at least 5 other people; that’s what Kaia is doing here.

 

That was then followed by the most energetic round of “We wish you a Merry Christmas” I’ve ever heard, then we recessed out of the church with our candles into the star filled night singing “This little light of mine …” with a little twist “let it shine over Lamen Bay”.  A 15 minute walk brought us back to the guesthouse where we had a little starlit swim before bed.
We awoke to find that Father Christmas had indeed passed through Epi Island (Kaia and Jake’s ecuadorian hats were full of candy and banana chips!) then were greeted by Jake’s gift of “smalads” for all of us.  Jake will explain more about these in a subsequent Fiji blog entry, but simply they are dishes of things to be smelled – not tasted.

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a smalad with a card and Lamen Bay shell garnish

 

We then headed to the ocean to wish the resident sea turtles a Merry Christmas.  The water was crystal clear, and we’d see 3 or 4 at a time, and a couple of the more relaxed turtles let us dive down to touch their shells (we had never tried to do this before).

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Jake is giving the turtle a little Christmas scratch behind the neck.

 

Tasso and wife Legon had prepared a big breakfast for our family and theirs, and had decorated the dining room with balloons.  Kaia says they really know how to do breakfast in Lamen Bay because we had pineapple, pancakes, lemon meringue pie, cake and cookies!  She says she’s going to learn how to make lemon meringue pie for next year’s Christmas breakfast.
Following our family tradition from home, we did our gift opening after breakfast.

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No Christmas tree, but we had a lovely shady tree to open gifts under.

 

Gifts began with a surprise presentation by Kaia and Jake of a song they wrote and sang for us.  For each verse they held up some accompanying artwork (included below).

They typed in their song earlier today …

Swim The Falls (sung to the tune of “Deck The Halls”)
By Kaia and Jake Douglas

(Costa Rica)
Ride the zipline ’till you vanish, ooh-ooh-ooh ah-ah, ooh-ooh ah-ah
Swim and surf a learn some Spanish, ooh-ooh ah-ah…
In the current, learn to dive, ooh-ooh ah-ah…
Turtles by the ocean side, ooh-ooh ah-ah…

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(Galapagos Islands)
Boobies dive into the water, a-a-a-a-a-a-a lava
Feral goats, they have to slaughter a-a-a… lava
Victor walked barefoot on rocks called a-a-a… lava
Penguins, sea lions, and hawks and a-a-a… lava

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(South America)
In the land of llamas humming, humm humm humm…
Little cute guitars, they’re strumming, humm…
Inca ruins, long bus rides, humm…
Potatoes on the mountainsides, humm…

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(South Pacific)
Swim at falls and caves and beaches, ba-na-na-na-na, na-na, na-na
Check your boots for worms and leeches, bananana…
Gorge yourself on mango, lime and bananana…
We have had an awesome time, ba-na-na-na-na, ba-na-na-na-na, ba-na-na-na-na, na-na, na, naaaaaa!

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We loved it.
Gifts were very modest this year, of course.  Jake, Kaia and Yvonne were given new Vanuatu shirts while I was given a new DVD that describes the story of a tribe on one of the Vanuatu southern islands (Tanna) that is trying to hold onto its cashless, clotheless, traditions in the face of growing pressures to modernize.  Kaia had sweet treats for Yvonne, me and Jake.  The to/from card that Jake made for me was priceless.  A week earlier we had trekked into a VERY traditional village on Santo island, where 99% of their needs are met by the surrounding forest, gardens and streams.  Including men’s loin cloth “malmals” which are made from the inner bark of a tree.  I went “native” and dressed only in a malmal for 2 days.  So here’s the card.

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Lamen Bay celebrates Christmas day with a huge community lunch feast.  Men prepare stew and rice while the women make pudding and vegetables.  All are welcome at no cost, and that included us!  The whole community eats on mats on the ground.

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They had an MC and sound system set up, and at the end, we were asked by our host if we’d be willing to say a few words. We took turns at the mic, describing our impressions of the village and their Christmas and their warm treatment of visitors.

 

We said our goodbyes around 3PM and drove the 25km (1.5 hrs) to the south end of the island.  We split the cost of the trip with some folks from Lamen island who were driving down to purchase a cow to eat the following day.  They call the 26th “family day” … which speaks volumes about their priorities.  We told them about our “boxing day”, and they looked a little bewildered.  On the drive south we passed many beautiful little villages, all celebrating Christmas with games (lots of tug-o-war) and communal meals.

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we caught up with Father Christmas in a little village along the way! K&J in their new Christmas shirts.

 

We arrived at the Epi Island Guesthouse in Valesdir around 5PM – we’re camping on their beach.  Lovely sunset. (followed by a surprise downpour …. sure wish we had put the tent fly on before that 😦  ).

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Here we are about 10 minutes ago under their beach shelter, eating our fire-cooked spaghetti Christmas dinner. It might not be turkey, but the moon is shining and the surf is loud. We’ll take it!

 

We send our best thoughts to all our family, friends, and anyone else who has stumbled onto our blog.  We hope you feel some of the warmth and good will that we do right now.

Cam, Yvonne, Kaia and Jake

ps.  we fly on a little 10 seater plane back to capital city Port Vila tomorrow PM, then onto Auckland New Zealand on the 27th.

pps. here is a travel-inspired twist on a carol for you …

12 Days of Christmas in The Douglas Family
By Kaia Douglas

On the 12th day of Christmas, my travels gave to me,
12 llamas humming
11 sea lions playing
10 dollar hostels
9 juicy mangoes
8 countries so far
7 hour bus rides
6 fishies swimming
5 golden WiFi passwords!
4 heavy backpacks
3 beds to sleep on
2 much kava
Visit 1year1family1world (.com)!

Merry Christmas from Vanuatu!