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currently in France
currently in France
A few days in Vanuatu, time to get a feel of the country.
We arrive at Port Vila with warm tropical rain falling. Impassive faces stare at us, yet if you express just the hint of a smile, the faces light up and hands rise to greet us. This is because here, whether or not you know each other, you say hello. If you do not know each other now, you will surely meet later: it’s a small island. Journeys come to mind through European towns where you don’t exchange a look, a word or a gesture with the people you pass. That would be unthinkable and impossible here. At Santo and Nugna, the children who see us wave to us and burst out laughing. Is it the whiteness of our skin, our photographic equipment or our clothes that amuse them? Probably a mixture of all three.
Vanuatu is also above all about nature. The multitude of flowers, fruit trees and plants in the landscape envelop the visitor. Also, while you don’t see any beggars in the streets it is certainly not due to the high standard of living, since the minimum wage is around €200. It is just that nature provides food to those who seek it. Furthermore, the family has a very important place in society. Philippe who came to Vanuatu from France a year and half ago with the international business volunteer scheme (Volontariat International en Entreprises) tells us in a trip through the forest “I am taking back this plant for my brother”. We look at each other, rather taken aback: “Is your brother here?” “Yes, my common law brother, I’ve been adopted by his family here.”
The history of Vanuatu is paved with arrivals and departures: that of the first Melanesians arriving in canoe to people the islands a few millennia ago, the discovery of this corner of paradise by Europeans in the 17th century and the abduction of populations for slavery by the blackbirders at the end of the 19th century. After that were the battles for influence between France and the UK, which were ended in 1906 by sharing the territory of the New Hebrides – a unique case in history where these best of enemies shared a colony – followed by independence in 1980. Vanuatu’s current economy is based mainly on agriculture, financial services (a tax haven necessity) and tourism. The country receives a lot of international development aid.
Something that has pride of place in the life of the Ni-Vanuatu (inhabitants of Vanuatu) is the nakamal. After the working day is over, we meet under the huts as the sun is setting to drink kava. Extracted from the roots of the plant of the same name, this traditional plant has calming properties. You stand aside to drink it in one go and then spit. It must be said it is absolutely awful so you might as well swallow it as quickly as possible. Then you sit together, eat a piece of watermelon and remove the aftertaste of earth and roots. The first few times you do not feel the effects of kava too much. You have to know how to listen to it, they tell you. And then it comes, strangely zen-like, mind-altering. The spirit is alive but the body relaxed. A soft cloud of cotton. Traditionally reserved for chiefs, kava was used before ceremonies or important meetings to soothe the spirit. You can quite understand why.
Here you take your time – it’s an easygoing pace. Expats talk to you about it with a smile: “Vanuatu time”. Not being in a hurry or getting too worked up about the concept of time. Francois told us that on a site where he was worried about the times, he was told “You have the watch, but we have the time.” It’s an atmosphere all of its own. In Luganville, the French woman who had taken over the Nemo hotel mentions mischievously about the calm of the place “this place is not called the Pacific for nothing.” The most popular type of music is reggae and the national idol is Bob Marley.
Bislama is spoken everywhere in Vanuatu and is a form of pidgin English which is lively, lilting and – at the end of the day – fairly accessible. All expats we met here speak it fluently. Seeing it written you’d think it was the work of a French person who spoke English like a Spanish cow. For example, “slow down” is written “Slo Doan”! While there are only three official languages (Bislama, English and French), three are more than 113 dialects in all of Vanuatu. It has the greatest linguistic density in the world.
Thus each island has its own dialects and ambiance. There is Malikolo, with its omnipresent nature, roads full of potholes, coconut tree groves as far as the eye can see and huge cacao plantations. Everything is rudimentary but never threatening. At Espiritu Santo, a disarming calm reigns over the island. The landscape bears the mark of people and their cultures but in peaceful harmony. It is a far cry from World War Two when the island was a US base and several hundreds of thousands of Americans stayed here. A vestige of this time is the President Coolidge, an ocean liner that sank with all its cargo. The underwater exploration of this wreck attracts divers from all over the world. “And Tanna? Are you going to Tanna?” This island has a permanently erupting active volcano that they say is an amazing spectacle. We content ourselves with imagining it, awaiting an opportunity to return.
Each island is a world in itself and so two weeks is unfortunately too short to appreciate the depth of this country. A little recommended reading to extend this note: Raga, by J.M.G. Le Clezio. You can find the entire soul of Vanuatu and the density of its mysteries in this book. If you can’t actually travel there, it is a beautiful literary journey.
The Energy Tellers.