Vanuatu: officially the planet Earth’s most natural disaster-prone country.
Vanuatu: also, officially, the planet Earth’s happiest country.
Like myself, until just a couple of years ago, many people haven’t even heard of Vanuatu, let alone considered visiting. I first heard of the place on the news back in 2014 – a record-setting cyclone was in the process of devastating the country. From that moment on I wanted to visit.
Finally, in January this year, I made it to Vanuatu. It far surpassed any of my ideas and expectations.
What an incredible country.
Vanuatu is fascinating to me for a number of reasons: its political situation, its location in the middle of the Pacific, not to mention its ominous and archaic culture (more on that later). The people of Vanuatu have overtaken the Filipinos (sorry guys, I still adore you) in being the friendliest people I’ve met so far around the world, and suffice to say the relatively untouched group of islands is as close to an island paradise as any I’ve seen… It seems odd that a country who sees numerous and regular – not occasional, regular – typhoons, tsunamis and earthquakes would be voted the world’s happiest country, time and time again (Forbes).
It could be the typical “island time”, laid back style of living. It could be the utterly paradisiacal surroundings – aquamarine waters, lush forests and tropical sunsets. Or it could be that, to a nation who know how quickly mother nature could change everything, each day is simply a reason to celebrate being alive.
That’s what I like to think, anyway.
So, tell me about it:
The volcanic archipelago is comprised of just over 80 islands spanning 1,300 kilometres of the Pacific ocean, with each formation home to its own tribe. There are over 110 different languages – not dialects, languages – and often residents of different islands will be unable to understand one another, having to switch to a new and now widely spoken dialect known as “Bislama”.
The ni-Vanuatu culture is riddled with interesting rituals and traditions – the islands are each governed by a tribal system, where even today the elders meet early each evening to discuss the “town” goings-on. Vanuatu is the only country on Earth who practice “land diving” – in modern times, we could call it a bungee jump, only using tree vines instead of ropes. Men must land dive once they reach puberty, amongst other tribal initiation ceremonies – land diving onto hard ground, with only an inch or two as an error margin.
Delve into the country’s obscure history and you’ll find long lost tales of war, spiritualism and perhaps their most menacing tradition of all – cannibalism. It’s a taboo subject, a much-storied practise which naturally send a ripple of nervousness through us westerners – broach the subject with a ni-Vanuatu tribe member and all you’ll be met with is a cheeky smile, chuckle and a shake of the head. Sometimes, a wink.
Tell me that is not f a s c i n a t i n g.
In no way have I seen enough of Vanuatu, but everything I experienced there was beautiful – from the traditional ni-Vanuatu band playing a raucous welcome at the airport, to hiking to the rim of Mount Yasur and standing at the edge as the volcano erupted below me, to sending a postcard from the world’s one and only underwater post office (don’t ask, because we don’t know); Vanuatu showed and taught me things that I have yet to see in any of the 42 other countries I’ve been lucky enough to visit.
If it’s not on your list, it should be.