Vanuatu - Week 1
Cruising in Vanuatu
It's been a week since we arrived on Aneityum/Anatom in Vanuatu. What was originally intended as a short convenient stop over for clearing in before continuing to Tanna has turned into a very nice experience. It feels that we could easily spend another week in our anchorage at the village of Analgawat on the SW corner of the island. The volcano on Tanna beckons though and so we have moved to the north end of Aneityum today to get an early start for the 45nm to Port Resolution on Tanna tomorrow morning.
Our first impression of Vanuatu has been a very positive one, largely impacted by the local people we've had a chance to interact with. At first they seem considerably more reserved than in Fiji where everyone is greeted by a "Bula!" accompanied by a smile. Once we've had an opportunity to spend some time with some of our hosts here, we were impressed by their mixture of confidence and understated attitude, and their willingness to share and help.
Analgawat is an interesting setting. It's a good size village with a primary and two secondary schools (one English and one French - apparently a legacy of the joint colonial administration). But it is still remote, local commerce is based on bartering, and people live off the land and the sea which seem to provide plenty. They do however have about 20 cruise ships per year making a stop in their bay, including some big ones with 2000+ passengers. The setup they have for accommodating these masses is brilliant: Little Mystery Island that protects the bay from the south (a small strip of beach, coral and palm trees, no more that 80m across and maybe 500m long - just enough to fit a little grassy airstrip for small single/twin engine turbo props) serves as the "base" for the cruise ships. The local people have set up a "marketplace" there, with permanent stalls from which they can sell handcrafts as well as picknick tables and other amenities. They also run snorkeling and fishing tours from there.
When a cruise ship is scheduled to make a stop there, the local folks bring all their business across the bay to Mystery Island and set up shop there. It seems to work for everyone: It's a beautiful stop for the ship's passengers and it provides the main source of income for the villagers, yet it leaves the village itself untouched. The villagers seem to be relatively cash rich by local standards though you couldn't tell by walking through the village since there is nothing to buy for cash. It seems the biggest expense for most families are school fees which are substantial at the equivalent of almost EUR 500 per school year (primary school is free though). An interesting contrast to Fiji and Tonga where education is free.
Another aspect of local culture that we just got a glimpse of seems to be the concept of land ownership. When we arrived here we heard of another boat that had hiked up to a big waterfall on the island. Eager to exercise our legs again, we went to shore the next morning, asking for directions to the waterfall. That question was met with a great degree of hesitation, and we were told we couldn't go there by ourselves. We first suspected the intent being to charge some money for a local guide but quickly learned that this was not the point. The land on which the waterfall is located belongs to a family that wasn't present in the village and hence nobody could ask their permission to walk on the land (aside from the fact that we would have quickly lost our way as we learned two days later...). There seems to be no public land. Every square mile is divvied up between the families on the island and there seems to be a great degree of respect for this land and the spirits that inhabit it. In the typical local spirit of trying to help, Joseph - one of the villagers - volunteered to take us on a walk along a piece of land his family owned and the issue was resolved.
We did get to hike up to the waterfall two days later when arrangements had been made with the land-owning family (these did include a fee for accessing the land but the owner's nephew who guided us along the 6-hour hike more than earned it...). The crews of four boats - 8 adults and 8 kids - showed up at the agreed meeting point, expecting that we would make it up to the fall in little more than an hour. It took us about three hours on the way up, about half of which was through ankle deep clayish mud and over slippery rock. Always fun in a big group and with the beauty of meandering up a creek through tropical rainforest we had a great day.
The same boat crews plus two more got together again the next day to attend a little "show and feast" that one of the families in the village had prepared. It turned into one of these wonderfully magical evenings with singing, dancing, lots of laughter, delicious food and some local kava (the best and strongest in the Pacific we were assured). Again it was the spirit and attitude of that family that made a lasting impression and we could have kept on talking for many more hours.
Our final impression of Analgawat was that of the lady who owns and runs the local store that sells/trades staples like flour and sugar. We had gone there shortly after lunch on Friday, mostly out of curiosity and in the hope that we would be able to trade for some fresh fruits and vegetables along the way. We found that the store is closed on Friday afternoons. Just when we were starting to walk back to out dinghy, a neighbor stopped us and went to fetch the shopkeeper (who came from Western Samoa to Vanuatu - another story...). She readily shared some fruits and veggies her husband had brought from Tanna the day before and refused any payment when it became quickly apparent that our staple barter trade goodies (tea and sugar) where of no value to her. Luckily we could resolve our little dilemma by making a small donation to a medical center for which she was doing a fund raiser.
Off to Tanna tomorrow at sunrise...