Paradise lost and found

SIMON ESKOW
Last updated 05:00 10/12/2012
Paradise Lost and Found
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It's not easy when you live in the North Island, but detest the beach. The sand is irritating, the water is cold and sometimes you have to see people in bathing gear who really ought to have thought twice.

So why did I go to Vanuatu with my wife? Look at the brochures: crystal blue waters, clear skies and white sand beaches. Can you imagine anything more horrid?

The reason was I needed a destination on short notice. I had planned to attend a conference in Kunming, China. My wife and I were going to extend my business trip to leisure over an extra five days. Apparently, the Chinese government wasn’t enthusiastic about my media credentials, to say nothing of my charming behaviour at the consulate. The trip fell through. We needed a close and affordable place to use our holiday time. But why not Samoa, or Dargaville?

Because Mt Yasur is in Vanuatu. I saw it on TV. It’s a volcano that’s been continuously erupting for 800 years. It's one of the most accessible in the world. Not only can you be impressed by nature, but there’s the potential thrill of being killed by a rock the size of a refrigerator. I needed to go. Badly.

To get to Tanna, where Yasur thrums, you must enter Vanuatu via one of two international airports. We took Air Vanuatu, which can be a challenge, as we later discovered when our return flight was delayed for a day. Seems our plane got dinged at Brisbane and they had to tow it to the panelbeaters for an estimate.

Inbound, it wasn't the flight, but what I saw after landing that troubled me. Port Vila was very dirty. And it was cloudy and cold. Had I landed in Dargaville, after all?

Admittedly, my first impressions had much to do with juvenile expectations. I'd taken for granted I'd be landing in Fantasy Island. But Port Vila wasn’t even the island from Lost. Reality splashed cold water on my daydream. Vanuatu’s biggest settlement is exactly what you'd expect from a town of 35,000, predicated on the tourist trade to feed a malnourished economy. The air was imbued with the texture of pulverised cement. The smell of burning wood permeated, rising over what looked, from the remove of a hotel balcony, to be a shanty town. We’ d read about Vanuatu's friendliness. But it was difficult to respond to the amity of strangers without being self-conscious. I couldn't shake from mind the contrast between the lives being lived around us and our own relative wealth. We had no good reason to be there, except as tourists, which made every greeting feel transactionactional and sullied.

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Rubbish filled the streets. I’d meant to ask someone how they felt about this. But the question seemed too rude. I thought it would sound like cultural smugness, even in a place that can be quite matter of fact about everything. Near Port Vila there is an outdoor museum called the Secret Garden, featuring exhibits about myth, culture and village life. The plaques are all written in the same dispassionate voice. They hold up Vanuatu’s cannibalism, its exploitation at the hands of England and France, its dealings with missionaries, all with a notable lack of hand-wringing over political correctness. Although, considering the frought history of European contact with the ni-Vans (the nation's indigenous people), you have to wonder how Westerners can be so appalled a few of them had to be eaten.

I began to notice a similar kind of sanguinity among people I met.

Drivers in remote areas stop to pick up those walking along the road, not because it's nice, but because a stranger wants to get back to his village after a long work day and you have a truck. The people walking would have gone the entire way, but now they’re doing it faster. It is what it is.

People will give you a thumb up as a ‘yes’, or simply to acknowledge mutual understanding; a warm gesture, in either case. But they may be too agreeable, from a Westerner’s standpoint. What we thought was going to be a four hour tramp through the bush to a remote village — as per the ‘thumb up’ we received from our tourist activity coordinator — turned out to be an hour’s drive to a waterfall. No worries.

When we realised our mistake, we told our guides we'd walk back, at the hottest time of day and without much shade. We received enthusiastic thumbs up from our waterfall tour guides. Only mad dogs and Englishmen, I guess.

When we arrived at the airport for our return trip to find our flight had been delayed 24 hours, a ni-Van explained to us, with no hint of exasperation, "there is no plane", as if he were a maitre d' saying there'd be a 30 minute wait for a table at a fashionable restaurant. It is what it is.

Light mixes with dark. Women are not given a vaunted status. You see all kinds of people — tourists, expats, ni-Vans — in bars where you drink Kava. But not ni-Van women. Kava is a male beverage, connected to male rituals — a beverage derived from the root of a plant related to the pepper, which numbs your lips, imbues you with euphoria and tastes like an old shoe. Perhaps the ni-Van women are on to something.

Old mixes with new. A John Frum cargo cult and mobile phones, abandoned and extant coconut plantations and wild coconut groves, providing the ni-Vans with so much raw material they use to the fullest; innovation, poverty, history and tradition blend, but to what degree?

On Tanna, we hired a driver named Anderson to take us from the Rocky Ridge Bungalows where we stayed, to the volcano on the other side. Except for a kilometre stretch still under construction, the roads were entirely unpaved and thanks to a day of continuing rain, treacherous.

As we passed through the small, muddying town of Lekamel, Anderson took on board his brother in law and two younger guys who rode on the flatbed, in case the truck got stuck in a flood and had to be pushed. Anderson told me people still worship the god that was said to inhabit Yasur — a word for a god in one dialect — and as we approached the volcano we could understand why.

It rises on a wide, black ash plain of its own making. Its explosions are not just a show of light and smoke, but felt physically. At the rim, just above where you can post your last will and testament from the Yasur mailbox, you feel its kinetic power in your solar plexus. I stayed on the rim long after everyone in my party had returned to the truck to get dry and warm.

On the way home I told Anderson I was so scared, I didn’t get one decent picture because my hands shook so much. It occurred to us that the first ni-Van to venture up there had to be extremely courageous and plain out of his gourd.

Our host at Rocky Ridge, Tom Naieu, agreed. But he laughed at the idea that anyone still worshipped the god of the volcano. Nobody does that anymore. There’s a nice Presbyterian church in the centre of Tom’s village, right across the road from his bungalows.

Pretty soon, they are going to extend the nascent electrical grid there, so no more relying on four hours of electricity a day from the Niaeus' generator. If you want to make reservation there, you contact the Naieus' son, Trevor, who is studying law back at Port Vila.

You can also stay closer to the volcano, where there’s no electricity, where the magmatic boulders sometimes shoot past your head, where a kilometre away, a candle flickers every time Yasur goes boom

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