Cruisin’ Part Two: Vanuatu


Vanuatu was an experience unto itself in our South Pacific adventure.

Partner-in-Crime, having developed a bit of an obsession with Vanuatu ever since we learned about the island of Tanna and its Cargo Cult and active volcano from seeing Mike Daisey’s The Last Cargo Cult, could not wait to get his feet on the soil of this otherworldly country. Much to P-i-C’s dismay, we did not get to go to Tanna, and the ship actually passed it late at night, well past when we could even catch a glimpse. Still, we got plenty of wild, weird, and beautiful from our two stops in Vanuatu.

In case you don’t know as much about Vanuatu as I do, given my marriage to one of the foremost experts on the island nation, here are a few fun facts:

  • Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides) is a chain of 83 islands. (We saw just two of them).
  • There are 110 languages spoken throughout Vanuatu. The three official languages are English, French, and Bislama, a sort of Pidgin English.
  • From 1906 – 1980, Vanuatu was ruled jointly by the British and the French. (Go ahead and take a minute to work through how insane that must have been. They don’t even drive on the same side of the road!).
  • The last recorded act of cannibalism in Vanuatu took place in 1969.

Our first Vanuatu stop was Mystery Island, a deserted island that purportedly remains uninhabited because the Ni-Vanuatu (locals) believe it is haunted. Residents from nearby islands come over to sell everything from sarongs to massages on the days when the cruise ships arrive.

Our day on Mystery Island was a dream. We snorkeled, had massages ($15 for 30 minutes), ate freshly caught and steamed lobster, and generally pretended to be castaways a la Gilligan’s Island (if there had been about 2,000 other people from the boat on the same island).

Lobster hut. We got two of these babies.
Beautiful coral made for great snorkeling on Mystery Island.
Ni-Vanuatu child.
Massage parlor.
At the little market.
Vila, from a lookout point.
The next day, we docked in Port Vila, the largest city in Vanuatu. As we got off the ship, long lines of taxi drivers were aggressively drumming up business. From the top of the hill, they screamed at us, “Hey, lady in the red shirt, you need a taxi?” and approached insistently as we entered the little market stalls. We finally settled on a driver to take us into town and, lo and behold, he was from Tanna (we found that a lot of the locals here and in Fiji take flights from their islands over to wherever the cruise ship lands).  P-i-C had a great time quizzing our driver on his life in Tanna and the John Frum Society cargo cult (very much alive and well, apparently). The most interesting thing I learned from him was that there are both French and English speaking schools, and locals may choose where to send their children. He had sent some of his children to English schools and some to French schools so that they could teach each other the language they didn’t get in school.


After loading up on our allowance of duty free, we set off exploring. First, we hit the local vegetable market, as we did in every city we went to. That was our favorite place to see bustling local culture. In addition to the usual coconuts, sugar cane, and so forth, the Vila market also featured rows of women selling the local cuisine, laplap -some variation of banana, yam/potato, meat, soaked in coconut milk, and served on a banana leaf. (Laplap became even more interesting when P-i-C discovered that, during the cannibal days, in a ceremony, the meat part might have been some unfortunate folks).
After the market, we wandered up the hill to the Vanuatu National Museum. Upon paying our entry, we stepped inside and felt quite certain we’d been duped when we saw how small the museum was. But, like everything in Vanuatu, the real value came from the people. We asked for a tour, and were personally guided for the next hour or so by the most delightful host, a Pentecost (one of the other islands) man named Edgar. First, Edgar showed us the local tradition of sand drawing, which was traditionally used to communicate between people who did not share the same language. Whether or not it the whole thing was a bit sentimentalized for tourists, I can’t say, because I was simply hypnotized by his drawing, storytelling, and accompanying songs.


He then took us around the displays and explained everything from the Asiatic origins of the language to the (rather grotesque) burial traditions to the “bungee jumping” ritual unique to his island of Pentecost. P-i-C, understandably, asked a lot of questions about cannibalism (everyone in Vanuatu seemed perfectly happy to talk about that part of their history), and when Edgar expounded on the number of Western missionaries who had become dinner, P-i-C joked that they must have been pretty tasty.
“Salty,” Edgar replied.


Once we were suitably immersed in Vanuatu history and customs, we went across the street to try to get a look at the Parliament. We wandered right in and around the building before we finally found a handful of staffers hanging out on the patio. They told us that the actual Parliament hall was closed, but that we could see the library and pointed us down a hallway. The tiny library was locked, so we went back down the hall, and asked the first person we saw, a man who turned out to be an MP. He said he’d be happy to show us into the library, and did we come from the cruise ship, and were we enjoying Vanuatu? We got derailed when a gaggle of other men appeared and our host said, “come! Meet the other MPs!” And, so, we were introduced around to the other MPs, including the head of one of the parties, a gigantic and striking man who small talked us with a practiced Bill Clinton-esque charm. We did get into the library, and were once again left to wander the Parliament building on our own. I declared that I had to use the facilities before we left. Well, I had to pass up the first toilet we saw …
… because, as you can clearly see, it had no water.
I found another option and did, you know, my business. only to find that it also “no gat wota.” I rushed us out of the Parliament in a haste before anyone working there could discover how I had thanked their hospitality.

Having paid our respects, we went back into town to meet up with a local tour guide we’d commissioned to drive us around for the rest of the day. His name was Mark (I presume in much the same way as the guy in India who helped me fix my computer was named “Steve.”) and he was also from Pentecost. He sat in the backseat of the van and tour-guided us, while we were driven by a silent chauffeur and his inexplicably present friend in the passenger seat, who I can only assume was just along for the ride.


Mark could not have been sweeter or more tolerant of our constant barrage of questions. We were enthralled with the cultural differences in Vanuatu and were determined to milk as much info out of this poor guy as we could.


He took us through a village on the outskirts of town. Land is given to the people by the government, so they never have to worry about having a home or enough food. The village was a collection of primarily tin or concrete huts where people grew their food on their land and pigs and chickens wandered freely. He explained to us the importance of pigs in the culture. In order to prove manhood, one must kill a certain number of pigs (and they have to be pigs with curled tusks). Later, when we asked him if he was married, he said that he had children with a woman he lived with on Pentecost, but that his parents had not gotten enough pigs for his marriage price yet (here the husband’s family pays the dowry, not the wife), so they hadn’t had the marriage ceremony.


We then went up to the cultural village where we joined in on a tour that some other cruise ship folks were taking. The tour guide was a lovely local woman from Vila, and the cruise ship people were a maddeningly embarrassing lot of rednecks who rudely refused to drink the pineapple cordial offered, (“excuse me, where does your water come from.” “Ugh, I’m not drinking that.” I wanted to kick them and suggest that if they saw Vanuatu water bottled in the grocery store at home, they’d probably pay a lot of money for it). The tour itself was fine, and I did take up the offer to hold both a snake and an iguana, but we were more than pleased to be rid of the bogans when they got back on their cushy bus and we returned to our clunky van with Mark and our mystery drivers.


He took us to the memorial for Father Walter Lini, the forefather of Vanuatua independence and first Prime Minister after the Condiminium (French/English) government was expelled. P-i-C and I were reverent at the site, and asked if it was alright to take a photo or two, not wanting to be culturally insensitive. (Apparently we had nothing to worry about because, as we got back in the van, P-i-C asked Mark what he could do with his empty soda can, and Mark took it and tossed it on the memorial, casually saying, “Somebody will be around to clean this later!”).


The recurring theme of the conversation that day was kava, Mark’s very favorite subject. Kava is a drink derived from a local plant, said to have mildly sedative and calming qualities, and is a huge part of both Vanuatu and Fijian cultures. At one point, Mark even stopped the van, sure that we would want to take a photo of the kava tree in someone’s yard. On a rampage about how much better Vanuatu kava is from Fiji kava (“Fiji kava is like water! How could you even feel anything from Fiji kava?!?”), Mark suddenly asked if we’d yet tried kava. When we said we had not, he got the brightest look in his eyes and asked if we wanted to.


Go with three guys in an old van to drink a possibly poisonous drink, hereby declared to be at least exponentially more potent than what we’d find in Fiji?
“Yes!” I declared, without a moment of hesitation.


Mark pointed Silent Driver to a location that they both seemed to know well – a hut next door to the tribal counsel (where, Mark explained, a chief decides all of the local disputes). Apparently, they were preparing the next batch when we arrived because Mark told us to wait. He said that everyone who was anyone drank kava here – the President, the MPs, he pointed out the Governor General’s car (“he’s my uncle”). After meeting the MPs at Parliament, I had no doubt that this was probably where a lot of the real government work was done, over a few servings of kava.
Mark then invited us over to the side of the hut so that we could see the kava being prepared.
I still drank it.

Finally, the kava was served up, and Mark brought us small bowls for us and himself. It was thick, green – basically mud water. P-i-C, wisely thinking that maybe one of us should stay clear-headed on an island in the middle of the Pacific ruled by tribal customs, demurred. I, on the other had, took Mark’s instructions to, basically, chug it.


It was, predictably, the most disgusting thing I have ever let pass my lips. As you might expect, if it looks like mud water and smells like mud water, it probably tastes like mud water. My lips and tongue immediately went numb, which I was expecting. We got back in the van to return to the cruise ship, and within 5 minutes, I felt exactly as if I’d had about 2 glasses of wine. “Fun!” I thought. “Kava!”


In the 10 minutes it took to get back to the ship, my Vanuatu kava had fully sunk in. I went from feeling 2 glasses of wine to about 2 bottles. Head fuzzy, room spinning, and full-on nausea. I feigned soberness as we hugged Mark goodbye, and stumbled myself up the ramp back onto the ship. The rest of the night was a loss, as I went through about 24-hours worth of drunkenness and hangover experience in 4 hours. That little bowl of kava was like the worst keg party my 20s ever saw me inflict upon myself.


Vanuatu kava, indeed.


I nicknamed Vanuatu the Wild West of the South Pacific, and in a haze of kava, cults, and cannibalism that we would never forget, we left Vanuatu behind.
Even the coconuts are a little different in Vanuatu.
Vanuatu village.
Watch yourself, Facebook!
Edgar, showing some Western influenced instruments.
Making friends all over the South Pacific.

10 thoughts on “Cruisin’ Part Two: Vanuatu

  1. lilDdownunder

    Loved this recap! Was dying when you captioned the picture of the kava making as “I still drank it” ahahaha
    I had Fijian kava…muddy water describes the taste well.

  2. Explanations

    Is it bad that I kind of want to try kava now? I mean, doesn’t sound like a fun drink really, but… makes for a funny story at least!

    Also loving the signs in Bislama (assume that’s what they are?)

  3. mental mosaic

    What a fabulous post! I must confess to sharing P-i-C’s fascination with Cargo Cults. Great photos, too, love the Facebook billboard, you and the iguana and, well, all of it! Oh – and that is some intricate sand painting. Think I’ll pass on the kava, though. Sounds rather nasty.

    Thanks again for joining in on the Traveler’s Show & Tell over at my blog. Always fun to see what you add to the mix. 🙂


  4. C. In Oz

    Explanations – I can’t in any good conscience recommend anyone try the kava! Proceed at your own risk. 😉 And, yes, the signs were Bislama.

    Tui – Thanks for having me again – I always love to see your collections!
    The Cargo Cults are fascinating, yes? We are so tempted to go back to Tanna in February for John Frum Day – now that would be a wild time!

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