Growing up, I had always heard that Vanuatu was a resort paradise reserved for the ridiculously rich. I was sure that there had to be more to Vanuatu. Since no one I knew had ever been there and I was in the area, it was my duty to pop over and discover the real Vanuatu. I’ve got to say that what I found was pretty amazing.
A 1.5 hour flight on a small plane had taken me from the French territory of New Caledonia to one of the youngest independent nations in Melanesia; Vanuatu. The difference between the two places was immediately visible upon landing in Vanuatu’s capital, Port Vila. The airport in the New Caledonian capital of Noumea was a modern, multi-level building, whereas Port Vila’s was more like a shack.
That wasn’t particularly a bad thing. There was a very homely feel to it. A short walk on the tarmac brought me to the terminal building. Inside, I was instantly drawn to two signs. One claiming that Vanuatu was ‘the planet’s happiest country’ and one about the country hosting the Pacific Mini Games several weeks beforehand. I was very intrigued by the first sign. My first contact with a Vanuatuan, or ni-Vanuatu in the local pidgin language Bislama, seemed to confirm the first sign’s claim.
Discover the Real Vanuatu – Smiles at Immigration
At the immigration desk I was greeted by a very friendly officer in traditional clothing giving me a very toothy smile. I couldn’t help but smile back as I handed him my passport. His next words surprised me, “Welcome to Vanuatu, we’re happy to have you here!”. I had to have a quick look around me to check that I was in fact at the immigration desk and hadn’t taken a wrong turn somewhere. Have you ever had such an enthusiastic welcome from immigration before?
The small airport basically just consisted of a strangely named one-stop-shop kind of store.
A police post adorned with a picture promoting the Pacific Mini Games.
Then my stop, the tourist information desk. I stopped to find out some bus information. I was confused when the woman said there was no bus and I would have to get a taxi if I hadn’t already booked a transfer. She then tried to convince me that I needed to take a taxi. I let her know that I wanted to take the public bus. She then pointed to the road beyond the car park outside. She indicated that I should wait there for a bus with ‘B’ on it. “Make sure it has a ‘B’ on it!”, she reiterated as I walked away.
Smiles on the Side of the Road
A quick walk across the car park brought me to the road but I could see nothing that resembled a bus stop. I did see a helicopter next to what looked like a garden shed, a contradiction that seemed to describe Vanuatu perfectly so far; expensive stuff near sheds. With no indication of where I should be, I just stood on the side of the road. I figured I’d be able to flag down the bus as it drove past.
Within Minutes, people had started gathering around me. Of course, they weren’t gathering around me, they were waiting as I was in fact at the bus stop. I checked with one of the locals that was now standing near me and he asked where I was going. When I said I was going to Pango, just south of Port Vila, he advised that the bus could take me close. He then gave me a big smile.
As I waited, he decided to give me a bit of a history lesson about Vanuatu. I was already aware that the country has only been known as Vanuatu since it gained independence in 1980. My new friend Itu wanted to make sure that I knew it. “We used to be French. We used to be British. We called it New Hebrides”. I presumed that he was referring to the 74 years of joint French and British rule. He continued, “Now we are ni-Vanuatu!”.
He went on to explain that the word Vanuatu came from the joining of ‘Vanua’, meaning land and ‘tu’ meaning stand. For the ni-Vanuatu, it is a strong word that indicates they are independent on their land.
Discover the Real Vanuatu – The Bad Side of Tourism
When the bus arrived, Itu spoke to the driver and indicated that I should hop on. I paid the 150VUV/AU$1.90 to the driver and sat down. It wasn’t long before another local, Isa wanted to chat with me. She was relieved when she found out that I wasn’t staying at a resort. Although she admitted that they do bring money into the country, Isa believed that the resorts were taking advantage of the locals. “Nearly everyone I know works in tourism jobs, but the resorts are bad. Their money goes back to their big foreign company, not to our country”, she informed me.
As we got closer to Port Vila, which is only about 6 kilometres from the airport, the roads were falling into disrepair. Almost as if someone was trying to illustrate Isa’s point, we hit a pothole in the road while she was comparing the Port Vila’s pretty resorts to its less than well-maintained roads. “If the resorts are so good, why are our roads breaking? Why we have no power?”. I was not that surprised to learn that so many ni-Vanuatu were living below the poverty line. A lot of families still choose to live off the land, grow their own tropical fruits and catch their own fish. They’ll normally cook their food on hot stones or boil it.
Getting a Feel For Island Life
As you’d expect from a South Pacific Island, there is a lot of greenery and water everywhere. In fact, at one point in our drive, we were 300 metres from both the west and east coasts of the island.
I walked along a very simple looking side street, barely wide enough for one car. This road was actually a lot better than some in the area. Can you guess why?
I was near the southern tip of the island, so there were quite a few resorts in the area. Like this one.
At that point I was hungry and there were no other food options. So I popped in to see what this resort had on offer. I was pleasantly surprised by the reasonable prices. I was able to get a full breakfast for around AU$10 and the service was amazing.
Discover the Real Vanuatu – Unexpected Interactions
As I continued along the road towards the corner where I could catch the bus to the airport, a child walking from the other direction approached me. He tried to talk to me in his language, which could’ve been any one of the hundred spoken in the area. Obviously, I didn’t understand, so the child took the Cricket bat he was holding and raised it above his head with a big smile on his face. Like he was making some kind of offering. I think this was his way of saying, “Let’s play!”
Rare moments like these are what make travelling so worth it! How awesome is it that this child just came up to me, with no concern about who I was. Or no thought of how I was different. He didn’t see a foreigner, just that I was a potential Cricket buddy. If only more adults in the world acted like this. I was so pleasantly surprised by this young boys actions that I just had to play some Cricket with him!
Discover the Real Vanuatu – Local Insights
Not long after that an older man came along and said something to the child. That made the boy grab my hand and take me over to the man. The man introduced himself as Jim. I’m not sure if that was his real name or just a name he thought would be easier for me to say. Jim asked if I had some time. I did, so we chatted for a bit. He was happy that I was interested in finding out about life in Vanuatu. He showed me an interesting article in the local newspaper that he was carrying.
Jim also expressed some worries that many foreigners, mainly Chinese, are buying Vanuatu citizenship. With an investment of $150,000 they can get a passport. This is actually a major revenue maker for the country. Unlike most of the money from tourism, this money stays in the country. Jim lamented that although he doesn’t like it, it may be a necessary evil. He then changed the tone of the conversation with his rendition of the ni-Vanuatu national anthem, “Yumi Yumi Yumi”.
When I first had the thought that I wanted to discover the real Vanuatu, these kinds of random interactions with locals were exactly what I had in mind. In the end, I think I got much more of an insight into local life than I ever thought I would. As for the poster that I saw on the way in claiming that Vanuatu was the planet’s happiest country. I think I would have to agree. Despite all their troubles, ni-Vanuatu are happy with their simple lives always have a smile ready for you.
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