Vanu Where? Vanu Wow! Vanuatu. [The Hidden Gem of the South Pacific]
Updated: May 9
Vanuatu is the hidden gem of the South Pacific. Only it’s not so hidden, as it simply has not yet really made it onto the mainstream tourist radar. Two years ago I had never even heard of the country!
Almost everywhere we’ve been in Vanuatu has wowed us with its natural beauty.
Vanuatu has some of the most sought-after dive spots in the world. Arguably the most famous is the USS President Coolidge, over 600 ft long she was sunk by a friendly mine while entering the channel off Espirtu Santo.
The Coolidge is HUGE and deep which make for some awesome scooter freediving!
Even more impressive than the Coolidge is the “caretaker” of the Coolidge Allan Power. He has over 15,000 dives ON THE COOLIDGE! That’s over a year of bottom time on that one wreck alone.
Aside from the Coolidge we had some incredible reef dives in off of Malekula island. We dove with Eagle Rays, a Hammerhead Shark, Giant Dogtooth Tuna and turtles! The life on the reef here blew Fiji diving out of the water.
In many of the local dialects, Vanuatu means Our Land Forever, a reference to the independence of the country from French and British Colonial rule.
The beauty of nature here is only surpassed by the warmth and kindness of the beautiful people who live here. It’s no surprise Vanuatu was voted to have the fourth happiest people in the world.
Most of the country lives a very basic subsistence-based agricultural existence and their lives revolve around their land. Up until very recently they still practiced cannibalism and some of the village people still pass the customs that surrounded cannibalism. Cannibalism tourism is an up and coming thing in this country.
In some of the villages we visited we saw a few houses with solar panels and inverters to supply power after dark. However, most houses still rely on candles after the sun goes down.
House, as we understand the word in the western sense is perhaps not the best term for what these people construct to live, eat, sleep and entertain in. They predominately use materials they can gather from the immediate surrounding area to build their homes.
The floors are dirt, the walls are made of a mixture of smashed up coral and a little bit of concrete, the frame of the roof is made of breadfruit trees (as are their hollowed out canoes), and the roof itself is stitched... yes, stitched together palm leaves.
They have little to no access to purchase any type of consumer good. There is no walking to the corner store to buy a bar of soap, a can of food or a roll of toilet paper. The Ni-Vanu people use a special leaf to wipe themselves after using the “toilet”. (A big hole dug in the ground)
Most of the contact the island villages have with outsiders comes through visiting yachts. Thus, in some cases, the people of these communities have begun to expect visiting yachts to provide them with various consumer goods, or even to pay a fee in order to visit the village.
So far this seems to be the exception to the rule and most villages welcome you into their homes with open arms. When we visit these villages one of the things I enjoy most is spending some of my time helping the villagers fix a broken motor, a leaky boat or taking some guys spearfishing in the dinghy.
While the majority of Ni-Vanu live a rural agricultural existence, there are two main centers in the country that have their own unique Vanuatan way of doing things. We were surprised to find the shops in Luganville closed during the day on Saturday, only to open for a couple hours in the early evening for people to buy food for dinner.
The market in Luganville and Port Vila are a sight to see in themselves. They are both open 24/7 and the ladies who sell the fresh produce come to town from many of the surrounding villages. They will sleep on the floor of the market until their produce is sold.
Vanuatu has a different colonial history than most other South Pacific countries. Known as the New Hebrides prior to independence it was a bizarre British and French experiment to Co-Colonize. As the British and French could not agree on anything the country ended up with two systems for everything. Two separate legal systems, prison systems, education systems, and even two separate road systems!
Talk about confusing! No wonder the Ni-Vanu had had enough by 1980 when they declared independence and tossed the colonials out.
While the effects of the American activity in Vanuatu during the second world war are quite readily visible throughout the country, the effects of the colonial era in Vanuatu are not as physically apparent. They run deeper, below the surface.
Kevin was born in Vanuatu to a French mother and Australian father, but he was kicked out of the country after the coconut wars and declaration of Vanuatan independence in 1980. He had to move to Australia. At his core he is Ni-Vanu and wanted to come back. It took him several years, but eventually he returned to his family’s land on Espirtu Santo near Luganvialle. Here he runs one of the most unique and interesting spare parts/engineering stores I’ve ever seen.
The only white “Ni-Vanu” (what the locals call themselves) I met, Kevin is a boisterous character. I went to his shop for a couple of parts and had such a good time I had to take Sayo and the kids to meet him. He seems to really enjoy himself, cursing away and throwing things at his customers. Despite outward appearances, he has a big heart and is very well known and loved in the community.
Another impressive Luganville character is Allan Power. He came to Luganville in the 1960’s and has lived there ever since. Allan seems quiet these days, but still sharp as a tack. He still drives the bus almost every day from his shop to the shore entry for the dive on the Coolidge. His shop is in his home which is like a small museum in itself, full of WWII relics, books and restored artifacts.
A short sail away from Luganville on the island of Tangua we met Wesley, a young 21-year-old guy full of life and eager to show us around his home and island.
I met Wesley outside the computer store in Luganville where I was waiting to see if they could fix our Bullet M2 Wi-fi extender. They could not fix the extender, but Wesley gave me his number and invited us to sail to his island for a visit.
Wesley grew up on Tangua and, like most Ni-Vanu, he lives a very simple subsistence agricultural existence. We arrive at his home via a well-trodden dirt path among dozens of low hanging thatched roofs and coral-concrete walls.
Wesley leads us past a number of small structures that he refers to as the kitchen, the tool-shed and his bedroom. We stop underneath a massive mango tree with mangos strewn all over the ground. Underneath the mango tree Wesley has laid out a table, with a tablecloth and a feast of tropical fruits.
There is pineapple, mango, papaya, coconut and more. I hear Wesley say something quietly that I can’t quite understand. He says it again, “We live like rural here”. It’s almost like he’s apologizing. Apologizing for the way he lives.
Outwardly Wesley is the opposite of Kevin. He is soft-spoken, almost overly polite, and I get the sense he takes great care to not offend people. Yet inwardly they both have the big heart I have come to find in almost all the Ni-Vanu we met.
Most personal interactions in Vanuatu stand in marked contrast to the fast-paced life of the modern western world.
These people want to take the time to get to know us and they want to share their culture, their way of life with us and help us in whatever way they can.
As a result I sometimes catch myself thinking, why are they doing this? I think they want me to give them some money. Why are they being so nice? What are they trying to get from me? Are they just doing this because I’m white?
Then I realize that voice in my head is simply my own conditioning. It’s a voice I’ve heard many times before. It’s my own insecurities speaking.
I check-in with mysef and remember why I’m here, what I love about visiting these villages, and I tell Wesley.
You have a beautiful home and a beautiful way of life. What can I do to help you?
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