This week we virtually visited one of the happiest places in the world: Vanuatu.
An island country in the South Pacific Ocean, Vanuatu means “the Eternal Land” in Bislama and is one of the most remote countries in the world, yet remains connected through trade and tourism.
Tradition coexists with modernity in an engaging and inspiring way here, and the island attracts “ethnographic tourists” and serious academicians, as much as travelers in search of breathtaking landscapes. In fact, there are over 2000 ethnographies and 1200 bio-science projects connected to Vanuatu on Jstor alone, and it is often said that only the menu has changed in this island nation.
Vanuatu also has several indigenous systems that have contributed to anthropology, including a revolutionary piggy-banking system, calculation of a person’s wealth based on how much they “give away”, and the use of “livatu”, or “tusk-money” (equal to the value of a boar’s tusk) for financial exchanges.
After virtually visiting two other islands in the Pacific — Tuvalu and Samoa, we were curious to further explore Vanuatu. In the process, we found ourselves posting a postcard in the ocean, staring at lava, visiting age-old cannibal sites, and picking up traditional musical instruments. Here’s how we spent 36 hours in Vanuatu in pursuit of happiness.
36 Hours in Vanuatu
9.00 AM: Underwater Post Office
Ever heard of an underwater post office?!
Located under Mele Bay in the Hideaway Island Marine Sanctuary, Vanuatu has an official Post Office underwater. It is 10 feet underwater and visitors can dive or snorkel their way to it to post waterproof postcards!
The idea was devised by a local postmaster and resort owner in 2003 and has since inspired similar underwater postboxes/offices in other parts of the world: including Susami, Japan, Risor, Norway, and Pulau Layang-Layang, Malaysia.
Vanuatu also has several other spectacular diving/snorkeling spots with a plethora of underwater creatures. If you’re lucky, you might spot the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles that are a sight to behold.
11.00 AM: Horse Riding through Mangroves
Espiritu Santo is the largest island of Vanuatu and was named by Pedro De Quiros in the 17th century when he thought he had discovered the great southern land of Australia. The pristine beauty of the island is best experienced on a horse-back. The horse trails run through freshwater creeks and mangroves and provide a great opportunity to embrace the cowboy spirit in you.
1.00 PM: Lunch
The produce market of Port Vila is worth a visit, especially to taste local snacks, fruits, and mingle with the locals. The adventurous foodies can try ‘nautou’ (ground pigeon) and ‘rousette’ (fruit bat), while others can devour fresh raspberries and dried fish.
2.00 PM: Cannibal Site
The adventures don’t end in Vanuatu. Nestled amidst coconut palms and cacao trees exists a cannibal oven of yesteryears. It was once a religious ground of the Amelbati tribe where ceremonies would take place, chiefs were buried, and cannibalism was practiced.
The ground is called ‘nasara’ and formed the epicenter of the Amelbati tribe that is a subset of the Small Nambas clan. A “namba” is a woven penis sheath traditionally worn by adult males and the size of the leaf used in the sheaths differentiates the Big Nambas from the Small Nambas.
The ‘nasara’ has four rooms: a performance space for ceremonies, a courtroom where judgments over captives were made, a kitchen where human flesh was cooked, and a cemetery for the chiefs. The site has been abandoned since the tribe migrated to other islands.
The last reported incident of cannibalism was in 1969, and the process of cooking human flesh is described by a Vanuatu local as follows:
4.00 PM: Swim Beneath Waterfalls
The Mele Cascades waterfall is a 15-minute ride from Port Vila and contains 35-meter high waterfalls and translucent, natural plunge pools that are a pleasure to swim in. There are also plenty of ridges around and a slipper pathway cordoned by a rope leads one to the main waterfall.
6.00 PM: Lava or Pele’s Hair?
The Ambrym Island in Malampa has two lesser-known volcanoes: Maroum and Benbo.
Maroum’s fine-strand eruptions are often described as “Pele’s hair” as they occasionally form “glass hairballs”, and its lava lake is the size of four football fields. It is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and also a site for animal sacrifices.
The Benbo volcano also stands closeby and can only be entered via a rope to see the lava.
8.00 PM: Kava Time
Bring in the evening with a shrub-based intoxicating drink called Kava. Locals typically chug the liquid from a half-coconut shell, and it is known to trigger tingling sensations and help you relax.
This mild, psychoactive drink is a nightly ritual at Vanuatu and is popular across the Pacific islands. While Kava has several varieties based on the compounds used, Vanuatu is known to have the most potent ones and is sure to give you bouts of euphoria.
Grab dinner from one of the food stalls at the Luganville market.
9.00 AM: A Different Kind of Festival
The Naghol (or N’gol) land diving festival in Vanuatu is an annual event that is regarded by some as the birthplace of modern-day bungee jumping. The practice stems from folklore, wherein a woman climbs up a palm tree while running away from her husband (according to one version of the tale she had cheated on him while another version states that he was abusive and hence she was escaping). She ties the roots around her ankles, and just as her husband makes it to the top, she takes the plunge and he follows. She survives, but he dies.
The locals have since continued the tradition of land diving, although they also associate it with the beginning of the yam harvest season (the better the jump, the better the yams will be).
The festival takes place every weekend between April and June, irrespective of tourists’ presence. The participants jump from a 30-meter high platform, although there are intermediary levels in the lead up to it. Members of the tribes sing, dance, and cheer on the participants as they compete with each other.
11.00 AM: Million Dollar Wreck
The Million Dollar Point at Espirito Santo Island in Vanuatu dates back to World War II when the U.S. Military abandoned the island after occupying it as a base after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Just to spite the British and French colonizers, it is said that they dumped millions of dollars worth of goods in the ocean.
If you dive or snorkel your way underwater, you’re likely to come across military tanks, guns, and jeeps. Unfortunately, this odd political spite and dumping of material in the ocean led to gross contamination of water with fuel, rubber, metal, and other waste, although it has now become a tourist attraction.
1.00 PM: Lunch at Mama’s Market
Lap Lap is the national dish of Vanuatu and the best place to try it is Mama’s market. It consists of cooked yam accompanied by coconut and meat.
The market also sells handicrafts such as carvings and sarongs and is a good place to pick up souvenirs.
2.00 PM: Museum & Cultural Centre
The National Museum of Vanuatu in Port Vila exhibits traditional artifacts, musical instruments, prehistoric fossils, and miniature models of canoes. It offers an excellent opportunity to learn more about the history and culture of Vanuatu, with some of the exhibits dating back to over 3000 years.
4.30 PM: Volcano, Miracle Man & Cargo Cults
Mt. Yasur is a volcano in Tanna Island that has been erupting for over 800 years. Apparently, it was the glow of the volcano that attracted Captain James Cook on the first European journey to the island in 1774.
Unlike other active volcanoes, Mt. Yasur is accessible by foot and is considered to be sacred by the locals who subscribe to the John Frum Cargo Cult.
For the uninitiated, John Frum was an American World War II serviceman who attained cult status in Vanuatu. Cargo Cults are a belief system in underdeveloped societies where modern goods, cargo, or people from the first world (technologically-advanced) countries are revered as spiritual gifts/figures. Locals believe that John Frum lives inside the volcano and is waiting to be reborn.
Similarly, another tribe on the island worships Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh.
7.00 PM: Fire Show
Finally, catch a fire show by the artists at Wan Smolbag Theatre as they play with fire sticks, fire hula-hoops, and fire skipping ropes.
Based on our 36-hour virtual tour of Vanuatu, it is evident that this remote island country is rich in natural landscapes as well as culture. When we tried to dig deeper into what makes this country one of the happiest places in the world, we found a few common themes in the observations of travelers and locals: the people of Vanuatu smile a lot; they love nature and take care of it; they are a family-oriented and tight-knit community in spite of their diversity (they speak over 113 languages across 83 islands). Further, all citizens own land and hence have food to eat at the very least.
Unfortunately, Vanuatu is also the world’s most at-risk country for natural hazards, grappling with the impact of rising sea levels due to global warming. It survived a massive cyclone in 2015 which caused extensive damage, but the community showed great resilience and rebuilt fast, choosing to move on with optimism and strength, and reaffirming their commitment to the environment as well as their tradition and people.
How to get there
There are numerous flights flying to Vanuatu from Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne. It is a 4-hour plane ride from the east coast of Australia, and Port Vila is the entry point for international visitors.
Metered taxis are the best mode of transport in Vanuatu and are easily available. Public buses are also available but maybe a bit unreliable.
When to visit
April to October is the best time to visit Vanuatu as the weather is warm and dry.
International visitors require a valid visa to visit Vanuatu unless they have a passport from one of the visa-exempt countries. More information can be found here.
Vanuatu has three official languages: English, French, and Bislama.
The official currency of Vanuatu is the Vatu.
If you enjoyed reading this post, you might also like our virtual travels to Tuvalu, Liechtenstein, Turkmenistan, Vatican City, Tywyn, Riga, Khovd, Wulingyuan, Samoa, Madagascar, Beppu, Bishkek, Antequera, and Niger.
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