Vanuatu is one of the four happiest nations on the planet, and financial wealth has nothing to do with it.
In 2006, this chain of more than 80 tropical islands in the Pacific Ocean made the headlines when it topped the Happy Planet Index. The most recent version of the index, published in 2016, placed Vanuatu fourth. Clearly this modest nation of 305,466 people understands happiness better than some of its significantly wealthier neighbours. What’s the secret?
When my husband and I first visited in 2007, we certainly found Vanuatu to be a happy, friendly and colourful place. The warm sun shone every day, the sea was turquoise and the palm trees swayed gently over the white coral sand. The narrow, unkept roads were hedged with hibiscus, draped in bright scarlet blossom. Cackling mynahs fluttered around from tree to tree. Women wore traditional ‘Mother Hubbard’ dresses in bright tropical prints, saving their ‘best’ ones for church.
The Ni-Vanuatu, as the people are known, were certainly not wealthy but they seemed to be more than content with what they had – and proud of it. They were self-effacing, modest, respectful, warm and smiling. Sometimes they would burst into musical peals of laughter that made us jump! They had a spirituality about them that was intriguing.
We stayed at a beach-side resort, called Breakas after the immense waves created by the coral reef in the bay. The area was popular with surfers as a result, although the conditions were only really suitable for advanced surfers rather than beginners.
Our accommodation was a traditional faré (pronounced fa-ray), a bungalow of simple construction using local materials. Every morning there would be a fresh scattering of pink flowers around the resort from the surrounding magnolia trees, which left a sweet scent in the air. The sandy paths were patterned with little holes made through the night by visiting crabs.
The resort’s owner, George, often came around to chat with guests during the day. He told us that the reason for the lightweight building methods was that every so often, a cyclone would destroy villages and cause huge damage to resorts like his. But they could be quickly rebuilt. Vanuatu’s climatic vulnerability had developed a strong resilience in its people.
I thought about this when Cyclone Pam devastated the islands in 2015, wondering how George and other local businesses were doing. Then in April 2020, the country was lashed once again, this time by Cyclone Harold, just as COVID-19 was spreading and becoming another major threat.
There are concerns that climate change will intensify the cyclone season as well as cause sea levels to rise. The United Nations has warned that climate change represents one of the greatest threats to sustainable development on Vanuatu, as with other Pacific Island nations. All of which makes the Ni-Vanuatu’s happiness levels even more remarkable.
Our holiday was based on the main island, Efate, where Vanuatu’s capital is also located. Port Vila has developed into a relatively modern city offering all the usual tourist services and facilities, including some international chain hotels and a casino.
Our resort was a short bus ride away, near the village of Pango. How we loved those buses! Owned by local families and registered for use as public transport, they could be identified by a red ‘B’ on their number plates. Taxis were similarly identified, with a ‘T’.
If we ever wanted to go to Port Vila, we just strolled down the road and watched for one of these registered minibuses to come along, and flagged it down. We rarely had to wait for more than a few minutes. For a low fixed price we could travel along with the locals and feel like we were part of the community. Taxis were available but were more expensive.
I remember on one occasion there was a mother and baby sitting in front of us. The child fixed its eyes on me for the whole journey, which was a little unnerving. Eventually the mother turned round and apologised, explaining that it was the first time her child had ever seen a white person!
Sometimes we would go walking in the other direction from our resort, away from Port Vila, to explore local villages and the beautiful coves and bays around the Pango peninsula. One walk that we particularly enjoyed was to the aptly-named Paradise Cove, where we enjoyed the dreamy views of Mele Bay and a delicious lunch. It was on our way here that we encountered the two delightful girls building their sand volcano on the beach – see featured picture at the top of this post.
There were plenty of organised tours on offer for going further afield. One day we enjoyed a relaxing trip on a lovely old ketch called the Coongoola, with a short stopover for lunch and snorkelling at an idyllic beach on Mele Island. I loved swimming in the warm, calm waters with little tropical fish all around me. There were angel fish, piper fish, sea slugs and turtles. At one point we were visited by dolphins!
Later in the day we visited a turtle sanctuary at Tranquility Island. It was fascinating to see the Hawksbill Turtle hatchlings at different stages of their growth and development. The sanctuary helps to ensure that this critically-endangered species does not become extinct.
One historic building we had heard about, and were keen to see, was the timber-built Court House in Port Vila, which dated from the colonial era. Unfortunately we were too late. After following directions on our map, we arrived at the site – only to be faced with a pile of burned-out rubble, patrolled by a young security guard. He told us that the fire had only recently happened, and that it was suspicious.
A year later, two criminals were jailed for 6 years for burning down the court house.
We have not yet visited the other islands of Vanuatu, but in future I would love to see Tanna. Paul Theroux writes about it in his work The happy islands of Oceania: paddling the Pacific, which inspired my own title for this post. He describes village life and customs that have remained unchanged for generations, known as the ‘Kastom’ or traditional Melanesian way of life. Paul’s fascinating account of his conversations with village chiefs describes Kastom myths, rituals, beliefs and symbolism.
Paul talks about the controversial subject of cannibalism, which allegedly cut short the lives of some visiting Christian missionaries in past times. He also discusses the fascinating concept of ‘cargo cult’ that exists in Vanuatu, whereby villagers form a cult of worship around someone who either brings, or promises to bring, great blessings or objects of desire to the islands.
One of these cults is the John Frum Movement. John Frum is said to be an American serviceman who encouraged villagers to reject the teachings of the missionaries and to stick to their own beliefs and practices, promising to reward them with gifts on his future visits. Another religious cult worships Prince Philip, who members believe to be a divine being whose soul will eventually return to the islands. The group observed a long period of mourning after the Prince’s death in April 2021.
I’d like to find out whether life on Tanna has changed much since Paul’s work was published in 1992. One sign that things might have moved on a little is that the Prince Philip Movement has its own Facebook page! The movement’s members have some interesting theories on world events.
Many resorts offer an ‘island night’ or similar Melanesian cultural experience. This involves local villagers in traditional dress performing their music and dance, often with audience participation. Local dishes and a taste of kava, the islands’ favourite tipple, are served. While these shows can be a little touristy, they are good fun.
Equally fascinating to me, however, were the more everyday aspects of island life. For example, Vanuatu has amazing linguistic diversity. Most people speak English or French and Bislama, which are the official languages. But there are also over 130 indigenous languages spoken! Bislama is a kind of pidgin which originated in the plantations of Fiji and Australia in the 1870s and 1880s, where many Ni-Vanuatu worked. They subsequently took the language back home with them.
From 1906 to 1980, Britain and France jointly managed the islands by means of a condominium government. The cultural influence of both nations remains. The islanders we met spoke Bislama and either English or French depending on whether they had been raised in an English-speaking or French-speaking village.
I particularly enjoyed the French influence on the cuisine of Vanuatu, given that French food is my favourite!
Food was generally excellent in the resorts and restaurants. Vanuatu’s rich volcanic soil means that there is plenty of fresh produce. families can grow their own food in their gardens, and food shortages are rare. The only food that can sometimes be difficult to source is eggs, we were told, largely because of the demand for them from the resorts, which places local supplies under pressure. Fish, vegetables and exotic fruits are readily available and local dishes often contain yams, cassava, sweet potato and coconut. Tanna beef is rightly prized and is very tasty.
Some gourmet artisan foods have also been developed, such as Tanna coffee (you can visit their roastery in Port Vila), Aelan Chocolate – their factory is also in Port Vila – and Tanna Farms organic coconut products. I’ve tried all these and they are fantastic.
There is no shortage of craft shops and galleries selling souvenirs and hand-made products to take home. One of the more interesting characters I met in Port Vila was the artist Nicolai Michoutouchkine, a local resident who, along with fellow artist Aloi Pilioko, set up a Foundation to support arts in the Pacific and lend items to galleries around the world. Born in France of Russian parents, he ended up in the Pacific Islands after being sent to New Caledonia on military service. Nicolai’s paintings were modernist in style and reminded me of the work of Picasso or Joan Miró. He also worked on design commissions for public works and for Air Vanuatu.
Nicolai and Aloi founded a Museum of Oceanic Art at their house to showcase their collection of Melanesian and Polynesian art and artefacts. The house was just down the road from Breakas and we tried to visit one day, but we couldn’t find the entrance to the museum and there didn’t seem to be anyone around!
We eventually caught up with Nicolai at his shop in Port Vila, where I went to buy a shirt bearing one of his hand-painted designs. He was charming, eccentric, and surprisingly outspoken on a raft of subjects. Of course he had been at the house, he said, we should have walked around the corner and banged on the door! We just hadn’t tried hard enough.
Sadly Nicolai passed away in 2010.
If you visit Vanuatu you will definitely need an insect repellent. In fact, if you have any kind of phobia about insects, it might not be the place for you, because it is absolutely teeming with them. The spiders are gigantic. They like to hang around on power lines, but they might also sneak into your bathroom at night. I didn’t really mind them as they kept themselves pretty much to themselves.
Most Vanuatu insects seemed to be large and either shiny black or vibrantly-coloured. There were beautiful butterflies, black ladybirds and lots of flies. One evening we visited a French restaurant and the white walls were covered in just about every kind of black beetle and large colourful winged creature you could imagine. You get kind of used to it after a while, but it’s a bit of a shock at first.
There are also lots of lizards and – I have to warn you – snakes. And bats at night.
Of most concern, however, is the ubiquitous mosquito. Vanuatu is a malaria zone, and although Port Vila and its surrounds aren’t thought to be too risky, malaria protection is essential for the outer islands like Tanna.
After consulting our doctor, we were advised not to take the risk even though we were staying in the capital, so we were prescribed malaria pills to take for 6 weeks before our trip. We also updated our vaccinations – hepatitis and tetanus. It’s wise to seek medical advice in plenty of time before departure, as some precautionary medications take time to become effective. Needless to say, you should take all the other usual precautions to avoid being bitten, including mosquito nets if you’re camping.
Some final thoughts on happiness
So what of those happy people of Vanuatu? They smiled a lot, they dressed in bright colours, they went to church (the many churches were always busy and we could hear the hymn-singing from our local one near Breakas), they had dogs (we could hear a lot those as well) and they took life at a slower pace. Slow enough to savour and enjoy it. Given the possibility of losing everything at any time and having to rebuild it, they also knew how to appreciate what they had.
At the time of our first visit, the wealthier nations of the world were largely turning their backs on the Pacific and focusing their priorities, and resources, elsewhere. The British had closed their High Commission in Port Vila. Only Australia seemed to have a significant ongoing presence and investment in the country, no doubt due to its proximity. Now, the political and economic scene has changed and everyone is suddenly interested in the Pacific region again. The British High Commission has reopened.
On 28 January 2020, the Vanuatu Post reported that the government had approved funding for a new court house complex, some 13 years after the fire. (The general election date was set for 19 March, but I’m sure there is no connection!) The projected budget was 1.2 billion vatu, with traditional donors Australia and New Zealand contributing 300 million vatu (about US$ 2.52 million) each.
All in all, things were looking good for the people of Vanuatu as they prepared to go to the polls. Then Cyclone Harold struck. I wouldn’t blame them if their happiness were dimmed a little. But a Vanuatu Times headline of 11 April proclaimed: “Vanuatu standing strong despite national and global crisis.”
As of March 2021, Vanuatu has only seen 3 cases of COVID-19. But the borders remain closed and this has affected tourism – a major source of revenue and employment – significantly. Ever positive, the islanders are determined to see it through, with the Tourism minister declaring the industry to be ‘down but not out’ and encouraging islanders to get out and about and visit their own back yard.
I suspect it will take more than 2 significant natural disasters in succession to dim their spirits.
If you’re interested in the Pacific Islands, you might also like my post about Rarotonga.
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