59. Smiles, sunshine, cannibalism, tradition, languages, rich culture, and the friendliest people.
As a student of linguistics I had heard a lot about Vanuatu. It's an island nation of 83 islands, with 65 of them being inhabited with about 280,000 people. The incredible thing though, is that Vanuatu has an estimated 135 living indigenous languages, which is the highest density of languages per capita in the world! Some languages have less than 100 speakers left. The national languages are Bislama (a creole), English, and French. My goal in Vanuatu was to connect with some villages and learn more about the language situation and attitudes toward their local tongues. I didn’t have any connections when I got there, but left being touch by everyone I met.
One thing I didn’t expect was the earthquakes. Vanuatu lies on the ring of fire in the Pacific, and my first morning there I was shaken awake by a 6.2 magnitude earthquake. It was the largest I’ve ever been in and it lasted quite long. Even the islanders were shocked by it. Basically every other day I would feel a small shake.
How to plan a trip in Vanuatu when there are so many languages to explore? I narrowed it down by choosing the island with the most abundant languages - Malekula - with 27 languages and it is also the second largest island. But first I stayed in the capital, Efate, for a week to try and pick up a little bit of Bislama, the most utilized language of the country. I heard that going into less touristy islands, like Malekula, would be difficult to navigate without a little knowledge of Bislama. But I have always thought that as a tourist, one should make an effort to pick up a bit of a language that locals speak, in any country one visits. During those first days, I met so many wonderful people from locals to ex-pats, all making their home in the capital city. Bislama is deceptively easy to pick up, and I was able to put together basic sentences after spending some time chatting with the housekeeper at the backpackers, one of the ladies at the sewing market, and taxi drivers. When I got to Malekula, knowing a bit of Bislama went a long way, many days there I didn’t see another tourist, and even though I was able to communicate with plenty of people in English, there still were plenty of times where I knew the little Bislama that came out of my mouth was appreciated.
Traveling through Vanuatu was something else. The infrastructure on Malekula is not favourable to the tourism industry, though currently the Chinese government is constructing roads throughout the island. It is probably the roughest roads I’ve experienced, pick-up trucks are a must, as people carriers and for the general transport of goods. From Monday to Friday transport comes and goes from the market square in Lakatoro, a fact I learned because I went out to Tenmaru on a Thursday and got stuck because of no weekend rides. Not only the roads, but travel between islands with Air Vanuatu was an event in itself. You never know if your flight will be taking off on the day that you booked or not, or the exact time. Often I received an email and had to call in to check the flight times, and usually they ended up being earlier and with additional stops. Their planes are small, holding about 15 people or so, and the turbulence can be scary. So my non-stop flights turned into a constant up and down rollercoaster.
Ni-vans are some of the friendliest people with the best smiles in the world. Most of the people I met still live off the land and will share whatever they have with you. Being stuck in Tenmaru was my initiation into village life. I learned more Bislama and ate lots of starches like the cooking banana (plantain), yams, and rice covered with fresh coconut milk. I learned that the first ride out of Tenmaru left a bit after the first rooster crows. I learned that on Vanuatu I am a white man. I learned that the palm tree really is the tree of life - and coconuts have multiple stages of use, like even after a bud starts to grow, and the palm leaves can be made into anything. I tasted a lot of different nuts and fruits that I never heard of before. I learned about the history of the country, about the colonization and it’s dual franchise system, and that it became independent in 1980. That teenage pregnancy is high, that money is mainly needed to send kids to school or for ceremonies like weddings. Many kids can start school but they don’t finish. School is controlled by religion, and you just go to the school that is closest to your village, which will determine if you learn to speak English (Seventh Day Adventist) or French (Catholic). When married women will go live with their husband’s in their village. And a village consists of usually just one immediate family. In Tenmaru I stayed with a family that spoke Big-Nambas.
The second village I was able to connect with was in Losinwei, they spoke Larevat or Middle-Nambas. After spending so much time in villages, not just in Vanuatu but also Indonesia, I didn’t care about modesty as much anymore and I was able o just drop trou and pee anywhere. A snake in the toilet.
Patience. As a Westerner in Vanuatu it is a must! Island time is definitely a thing there, which is another reason why tourism in the country to still in its infancy. I waited and waited so many times for people. But in the end you get use to it. No one is in a rush and neither should you be. My experience there will I’m sure be unique for the time, because the island you see is changing, the lifestyle is changing, the mentality is changing. For the better or worse, I am not one to judge, it just is.
Day 1 & 2: Port Vila. Land in Port Vila the capital Vanuatu and main town of Efate. Arranged a pick up with my accommodation because I arrived at 1am, also it is a small island just off of the main island so there is a boat to catch to get to the accommodation. Stayed at Hideaway Island Resort in their dorms, best price for quality because no one else was staying in the female dorms at the time so I had the room and the bathroom all to myself. It included a delicious breakfast buffet. Great private location and beautiful protected reef area.
Day 3-6: Port Vila. Moved to town, and stayed at Travellers Budget Motel, owned by a super nice Australian man and run by very nice staff. It was a great base camp for me to do a little more research about where I would head next and learn a little Bislama before heading into the field to meet some communities.
Day 7: Took a Air Vanuatu flight to Lakatoro on Malekula island. Met a new friend on the flight who would reappear during my time on the island later and also offered me a ride to my accomodation, Lakatoro Palm Lodge. From here, it was a 15 minute walk to town center where the market, local museum, post office, police office, and Malampa tourist office way located.
Day 8-11: Arranged to get a truck ride to the west side, Tenmaru. Instead of being able to stay at the Big Nambas Bungalow or —— I instead was offered to stay in Jimmysan’s village. Was stuck in the village, but was a great time!
Day 12 & 13: Took one of the first pick ups heading to town after the first rooster crowed, so that was like 4am. This time had to sit in the truck bed for the 4+ hour ride. Arranged to head to Dram Dram Bungalow with the owner, Sethla, who was in town. Patience. Though close to town, the road is pretty beat up and it took almost 45 minutes to get to Losinwei. But it was well worth it, a beautiful spot on a crescent black sand beach. Experience drinking kava with the guys at a kava bar.
Day 14 & 15: I called up my friend I met on the Air Vanuatu flight over and asked if I could stay at her village. In the afternoon headed back to Lakatoro, and at the market met up my friend Daliani, then we took a fibreglass boat to Uripiv. Here I got to eat ——
Day 16: Headed back to Lakatoro a day earlier than my flight just in case the schedule changed. Stayed at Sunrise Bungalows - the worst ever!
Day 17-19: Flew to Port Vila, stayed at Travellers Budget Motel again. Had a day to go back to Hideaway Island Resort to visit friends. And head to the National Archives to do a little research. Eat the best chinese noodle twice. Got some chocolate.