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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Vanuatu: Island Time in Safe Touristy Town

Dave, the Solomon guy next to me on the Air Pacific flight to Port Vila, capital of Vanuatu, raved non-stop about Vanuatu.  “It’s safe, clean and pretty. I love Vanuatu and spent one year living there,” he said.   Having spent the last week or so in PNG and the Solomons, Port Vila looked like paradise on Earth indeed.  The streets were cleaner than the rubbish dumb that were many parts of Port Moresby and Honiara. Tourist souvenir shops and fancy restaurants and cafes were everywhere in Port Vila.  In the picturesque island and cove-flanked harbor of Port Vila, yachts and pleasure craft hinted at the popularity of Vanuatu as a tourist destination.  The people seemed cheerful and polite, and most people in Port Vila seemed to speak English.  Street lights did exist and it was quite safe to walk around in day and at night. Tourism posters proclaim this country with 200,000 inhabitants the “Happiest Country in the World!”


At its birth as an independent country in 1980, this chain of volcanic islands with 120 languages did not look quite as promising.  With French support, separatist groups have appeared in the north and PNG troops had to be brought in to crush the rebellion, which was an attempt to extend the life of a bizarre joint colonial rule of both Britain and France, known as the “Anglo-French Condominium of New Hebrides”. 


Since then, Vanuatu has not looked back.  Tourism has boomed, and so has offshore financial services (though the latter of Vanuatu has a rather dodgy global reputation as a money laundering centre).  Port Vila, from the cheerful tropical décor at the airport to the many resorts that lined the coastline of Efate island (on which Port Vila was located), seemed entirely geared for tourism.’

Vanuatuan foreign policy, given the legacy of 1980, has retained an anti-colonialistic streak. The newspaper headlines a few days ago had a report on a senior minister’s various calls and statements, which criticized France for being the last colonial master in the Pacific (for its control over New Caledonia, Wallis & Futuna and French Polynesia), French dispute with Vanuatu over the uninhabited (but potentially minerally-rich) Matthew and Hunter islands, and for self-determination in Indonesia’s West Papua.


I headed for Hibiscus Motel upon arrival.  Run by a Hong Kong born couple who have lived in Vanuatu since the 1970s, the motel has a nice garden with tropical blooms and free WIFI – perfect for the independent tourist.  And it lied on the main road from the airport to downtown, and was merely 5 minutes from the waterfront at the heart of Port Vila.  Everything could have been great if not for the intense humidity of Port Vila, that turned my t-shirt entirely wet by the time I settled in my room. And the fact that somehow my ATM card could not work during my stay in Vanuatu (- one of the banks confirmed that their electronic verification link was down).


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Anthropologically, Vanuatu is one of the most fascinating places on Earth.  Pentecost Island in the north is famous for its land diving in April-June, during which local tribesmen tie their feet to vine ropes and jump off 35 meter tall platforms.  The ropes were given just enough length such that the men would just be able to touch his head gently with the ground without any injury, in an act of sacrifice and homage to the gods, so that the yam harvest would be good for the next year. 


Tanna in the deep south of Vanuatu is famous for the John Frum Cargo Cult – local tribesmen were so impressed with the plentiful supply of food and equipment that American soldiers brought to Vanuatu during WWII that many believe that a mysterious black American soldier named John Frum would return to Tanna one day with wealth and material for all those who worships him.  Hence you have villages in Tanna that fly the US flag at the foothills of the island’s live volcano, Yasur, and whose inhabitants hold pseudo-military march-past with wooden mock rifles and sing US army songs in what they see as religious rituals to honour John Frum, their deity.


Right in the middle of the country is Malekula, whose fiercely independent Big Namba and Small Namba tribes still live according to their ancient kustom rules, and whose men went about their lives with no clothing except for the namba, which is a leaf that is tied around one’s penis (leaving the testicles dangling freely).  Yes, the Big Namba wears a large namba and the Small Namba sports a small one.  Both tribes were cannibals till recent times and do not take it kindly to strangers who stray into their territory.


Across the country are numerous beach resort islands and volcanoes with spectacular views.  I would have loved to spend some time in Vanuatu, visiting some of these, and to see the various unusual tribes and their practices.  But I have limited time on this trip, and all trips out of Port Vila, given the small population size and remoteness of the islands, are ridiculously expensive by any standard.  A day trip to Pentecost, Tanna or Malekula would have cost at least US$400. 


I thought hard about whether to go to Pentecost but was apprehensive to read that there is a growing authenticity issue with land-diving – dive towers are now built in places where there weren’t any land diving in the past, and in areas closer to the airport so that tourists can be brought to the ritual sites easier and faster. And they say you need to pay $100 more for photography and more for videography.  That’s paying too much to see almost nude locals doing bungee jumping.  The same also goes for Tanna, and tour operators now get the locals to do “kustom dances” that include both traditional animist elements as well as those of the John Frum cargo cult, since tourists ask about them.  Besides, I have seen enough volcanoes in many parts of the world to spend almost US$500 to see one here, although the local tour operators all say this one is special, or that it is the world’s most accessible live volcano.

I had thought it would be very easy to visit Chief Roi Mata’s Domain, the sole UNESCO World Heritage Site of Vanuatu.  This was not so.  The local community-ran site only permits guided tours with minimum size of 4, to visit the burial ground and spiritual site of the powerful 16th century Chief Roi Mata, who was buried together with 300 of his household and followers.


In the end, I decided that I would just spend my entire stay in Port Vila, visiting local markets and chatting to the friendly hawkers in their flowery dresses that resemble sleeping gowns with a tropical flavor.


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French rule (or semi-rule, given its cohabitation with the UK) in Vanuatu has left a pleasant legacy – nice cafes and restaurants with a French flavor and style are found all over tiny Port Vila.  French colonial spread had even brought a spattering of Vietnamese and Chinese culture to the country’s gourmet scene.  Tourism has brought Japanese and Thai food to Port Vila too.  I had Thai for dinner in a succession of two evenings.


Vanuatu TV, too, is a rojak of cultural offerings. The World Cup aside, daily programmes seemed to be a mix of Bislama (the Vanuatu pidgin, which has some similarity with the PNG pidgin and Solomon pijin) news bulletins, Hollywood films, English documentaries, and French soap operas and game shows.


Vanuatu’s retail scene, like that of the other three Pacific states I have visited so far, is run by ethnic Chinese.  “The locals are too relaxed and are not that good at business,” a Chinese I met said. “They take a long while to do anything and call it Island Time.  This is the lifestyle here.”


But the Chinese community in these places are a changing one.  For instance, I was told that up till 10 years ago, there were only around 200 Chinese in Port Vila, and there were almost entirely immigrants from Hong Kong in the 1960s and 1970s, when the city was living in borrowed time and those who could leave tried to get foreign passports.  (The HK of today is China’s flourishing world city and few would think of emigrating to developing countries in the Pacific.)  In Vanuatu, they interacted and intermarried within their tiny community, and send their children to Australia to study.  Many of the children of these immigrants eventually graduated and found jobs in Australia.  Hence, the “old HK Chinese” community is a declining one. 


However, in the last decade, there has been an influx of Mainland Chinese from the rural parts of Guangdong and Guangxi Provinces, pushing the Chinese community to 500 of today.  To these mainly lowly educated former farm workers of southern China, running one’s business in the booming economy of Vanuatu is more attractive than either working in a farm in China, or one of the huge impersonal factory towns in the Pearl River Delta.


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I googled Vanuatu’s claim of being the world’s happiest country.  That was awarded by a New Economies Foundation in 2006 and is, according to Wikipedia, "designed to challenge well-established indices of countries’ development”  Contrary to many news reports, this is not an index of happiness as the term is commonly understood, but a measure of human well-bring and the kind of impact an economy imposes on the natural environment.  A highly urbanized and high GDP society that uses industrially manufactured products is very likely to result in a low ranking in the index. 


Conversely, a mostly poor rural agricultural society is likely to have a net positive impact on environment as such a society cannot afford modern industrial products, and is likely to consume only locally grown agricultural products is more likely to be ranked high in the index.  By its very nature, the index contains many subjective elements and is highly volatile from year to year.  Vanuatu was ranked first in 2006, the inaugural year of the index, but no longer appears in the index in 2009.  Singapore was ranked 131 in 2006 but became 49th in 2009.  USA was 150th in 2006 but became 114th in 2009.  Vanuatu’s tourism authorities is still using its 2006 ranking in its posters and publicity materiality today.  In any case, the index has more to do with environment than the psychological state of happiness.


Whatever it is, Vanuatu does appear to be a country that has been progressing well, not only in tourism but also in promoting its key agricultural sectors (beef, coffee, spices).  Though Port Vila does seem prosperous, there is much to do.  Few roads on other islands are sealed and in fact even many of those on the key island of Efate, where Port Vila is located, are not paved as well.  The country seemed to have escaped much of the political instability and environmental degradation in the form of logging and mining, which have plagued many of its Pacific neighbours.  I wish this country well, and hope to return some day to visit the outer islands.


Tomorrow, I will be in France…or rather, the French overseas territory of New Caledonia.  

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