Close to Paradise

Voted one of the happiest places on Earth, the isolation of Vanuatu’s tiny islands from the rest of the world — along with their pristine, resource-abundant natural environments — have led to the emergence of a unique culture and lifestyle.

When my wife and I spent four months living among local communities on remote islands in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu, I was reminded of how exhilarating it is to explore “uncharted” territory.

Officially known as the Republic of Vanuatu, there more than 120 tribal languages and a total of 82 islands — though only 65 are inhabited — that make up this tiny volcanic archipelago. The people who live here — the Ni-Vanuatu or Ni-Vans, as they call themselves — are some of the most charismatic, friendly, and likeable on the planet.

Although the prehistory of this remarkable island group is largely unknown, archeological evidence supports the theory that people speaking Austronesian languages first arrived around 4,000 years ago.

Vanuatu’s first recorded contact with Europeans was in 1606, when a Spanish expedition arrived and named the largest island Espiritu Santo. Over the next couple of centuries the islands were infrequently visited by questing, sea-faring explorers and traders — at least until 1774 when Captain Cook landed and named the islands the New Hebrides.

Then before long Catholic and Protestant missionaries arrived to convert the islanders  to Christianity and western ways, followed by settlers who established cotton plantations, grew coffee, bananas, and cacao, and most successfully, coconuts. The name New Hebrides would last until Vanuatu’s independence from French-British rule in 1980, which came about during the brief Coconut War.

Today, although many of the islanders live in poverty by western standards, and there are limited employment opportunities, Vanuatu has more than once been voted one of the happiest places on Earth.

Perhaps this is because Vanuatu offers something that few places still possess these days — a life lived amidst untouched, pristine, and absolutely stunning nature.

For the people born here, the land is so much more than just land. They believe that the spirits of their ancestors came from the land — from the thick forest, from the mountain rivers, from the creeks, and from some of the most fertile soil on the planet.

This fertile land means that even without money the Ni-Vans can still live happily. At least while they stay close to home — in the huts that they build near to their plentiful forest gardens and the sea in which they know every fishing spot — things like food and shelter are free for them.

In the outside world everything has a price tag and because of foreign investment and influence, these things are pretty much out of reach for a regular citizen of Vanuatu.

We spent nearly a month on Rah and Mota Lava — two small, remote islands that belong to the Banks Islands group of Vanuatu. They are pretty much in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by endless stretches of the Pacific ocean.

If you’re looking for a place to completely escape the busy, modern world and you like the sea, then this is the place to come. And quite naturally, as with everywhere else in Vanuatu, the people living on these islands are absolutely wonderful.

The isolation of these islands from the rest of the world — along with their pristine, resource-abundant natural environments — have led to the emergence of a unique culture and lifestyle.

The islanders rely primarily on subsistence living. Gardens, forests and the sea are the main sources of food. In order to eat, everyone has to be a skillful gardener, hunter or fisherman, and the skills are picked up from a young age — the children always watching and helping their parents.

Fish and seafood make up a vast part of the diet for the islanders living in Vanuatu’s coastal areas. Free-diving and spearfishing are some of the most important ways of making a livelihood in these areas.

Below you see two of our local friends, Silas and Young, hunting for lobster. Visiting familiar spots where they are likely to find the crustaceans, the easiest time to catch them is when the lobster are feeding during an approximately half an hour period every evening.

While on the subject of edible crustaceans, another commonly hunted species is the legendary coconut crab. Near extinction in most of the world, the coconut crab is abundant on Rah and Mota Lava, and throughout the surrounding Torba province.

As you can see below they grow pretty big, and I also discovered that it is the largest living arthropod on the planet. Those claws mean business too, but Joseph is very experienced at catching and handling these creatures. Here some village youngsters watch him as he separates the coconut crab from his bait — the coconut.

In addition to plying the oceans for sea creatures, the men of Vanuatu are generally pretty amazing tree-climbers and are often to be found scaling banyan trees in the forest, hunting for flying foxes — a delicacy in many parts of Vanuatu — and birds with a slingshot. By the time Ni-Van boys are teenagers they are strong enough to climb some crazy big trees. David is one such teenager.

One of the great things about being in Vanuatu was the rhythm of life and the rhythm at which I was photographing. Every day, I would only aim to make a few photos, and to spend time with only one or two people.

This meant I got to make more meaningful relationships, even friendships, with those that I was photographing and those who become involved in one way or another. Bob, the guy in the shot below, was one of those friends. While we were in Vanuatu, I decided to volunteer my photographic services to some local folks interested in developing tourism in their regions, and Bob at least matched my enthusiasm to make photos with his enthusiasm to take part in them.

Get on top of a dangerous, narrow rock? No problem! Go spear fishing? Easy! Climb up a banyan tree? How high? That was Bob’s approach.

The dude climbs trees better than a monkey, runs like a leopard, swims like a fish, and he is built like a freakin’ Greek statue. Below you see Bob climbing a Banyan tree while we were re-enacting a hunting scene.

Not something you’re likely to see in many parts of the world, the men and boys of Rah Lava also fish with a bow and arrow in the crystal clear waters around the island — as they have done for countless generations.

When the tide is low, the clear water around the reef allows them to see beneath the surface. During festival time they will shoot the fish with the same bow and arrow they use to hunt the bats and birds in the forests.

Below you see Bob walking through the shallow waters of the reef at low tide. The little dude is his son — Jeff. He seemed like such a quiet boy when I first met him. Boy, was I wrong. Jeff was quiet in the sense that he didn’t talk much, but the kid was a bundle of energy. Five years old and he already climbs coconut trees just like his dad, runs around like crazy, and spits small berries from bamboo tubes at passing birds and bats.

There are deeper parts around the reef and in those places the men dive with the good old “lastic” as they call it — essentially a rubber and wood underwater speargun. I went down a couple of meters to follow Bob, as he looked in some underwater crevices, where the fish might be hiding.

Vanuatu is also one of the greatest agricultural societies on the planet, every family has a garden and every village family lives from one.

The gardens are usually located somewhere in the bush and almost daily a family member will venture out there in order to tend to the crops or to bring some produce back home.

With this lifestyle, the islanders on Vanuatu have one of the longest life expectancies on the planet — another factor that contributed to their claim as one of the happiest nations on Earth. Below you see a young Ni-Van girl, Saron, returning from her family’s garden with the village dog.

Besides the remarkably unspoiled environment, there is of course the incredible Ni-Vanuatu culture. And although kastom — their word for culture and tradition — is undeniably disappearing, it hasn’t disappeared yet, at least not everywhere.

One aspect of the culture that won’t disappear any time soon is the tradition of kava drinking. This muddy-tasting drink has been an integral part of the culture throughout much of the archipelago for centuries.

Back in the day, when the people lived their lives according to kastom traditions and imported religions had not yet reached the islands, kava was used for ceremonial gatherings and was only drunk within circles of privileged elders. Even today, kastom technically forbids women to take the drink, but it isn’t uncommon to find women holding “secret” kava drinking gatherings.

Prepared in various ways on different islands, on Rah the favorite method is to grind the kava root with coral. However it is prepared, kava definitely has sedative properties. Rather than turn to violence, a person who is “drunk” on kava is far more likely to lie under the starry sky and think of how wonderful life is, then, keep pondering on whether anything is really worth the whole of next day.

One could even argue that their taste for kava has saved the Ni-Vans from a culture of frequent alcohol-induced violence, which seems to be prevalent amongst so many from their neighbour Papua New Guinea. Here most Ni-Vans can’t afford alcohol, and as a result, it is rare outside of the nation’s couple of larger settlements.

Despite its remoteness and tiny size, Rah Island is also famed all over Vanuatu for its exuberant snake dance, inspired by the black and white sea-snakes that reside under large rocks off the island’s shore. The performers travel as far as Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, to demonstrate the dance at various cultural festivals.

Traditionally performed at weddings and special occasions, these days the snake dance has become a more regular performance for tourists too. Usually I think stuff like this is lame, but I’ve reconsidered that approach in Vanuatu, and started to think more about how the right kind of tourism can contribute positively to the whole community.

Below you see some of the dancers having their bodies and faces painted for the snake dance. I’m not actually sure if anyone who is not part of the dance group had been behind the scenes before (though I know people have since) because back in the day, for anyone else to see the dance preparations and the behind-the-scenes artistry was strictly taboo.

The paint used for the snake dance, as well as the materials for the costumes, were the performers’ secrets — and anyone who discovered these secrets could well have been killed, such was the ‘kastom’ law.

As I mentioned before, while on the islands of Rah and Mota Lava, I volunteered my time to help out a group of locals and friends who were keen to learn more about developing tourism in their communities.

One man in particular — Luke Dini, or Father Luke as he introduced himself — was able to see the big picture, which might at first seem unusual for a man in his late seventies from a remote, forgotten island in the Pacific. A retired pastor, I later discovered that Father Luke had also been a politician and secretary to the President of Vanuatu before he and his wife chose to return home to a simpler life on Rah.

Father Luke has a vision, and he feels that the presence of tourists on Rah could contribute to the entire community. Starting right from the canoe taxi across the lagoon from “mainland” Mota Lava — which every visitor must take to reach the accommodation, the only “hotel” on Rah, which he built — to the local fishermen and lobster and coconut crab catchers who would sell their catch to the improvised restaurant that serves the visitors, to the traditional dance performers who would share a unique part of the Ni-Vanuatu culture. The image above shows the view you wake up to while staying at Father Luke’s “bamboo hut hotel”.

Father Luke believes that everyone in the community can benefit from tourism, and that everyone interested will have a chance to earn a small income — something that can go a long way on an island like Rah.

Many young, ambitious Ni-Vans leave remote places like Rah in search of jobs in the capital Port Vila, on the more developed island of Efate, and in the town of Luganville on the island of Santo. Most often they come back disillusioned and disappointed by their experiences in the world outside. The money they can earn on the more developed islands is small in comparison to the sky-high expenses of living away from the island.

Perhaps local tourism could help keep young Ni-Vans closer to home, or eager to return, following further education, to be a part of a more vibrant, thriving local community again.

And it certainly seems that the images I spent time shooting with the locals from Rah island back in 2010 — you can see Bob again in the image below — have attracted at least a few other seekers of paradise and exotic cultures. Most notably, Rah has since been put into the spotlight by controversial photographer Jimmy Nelson, and was even visited by a CNN film crew who were shooting a series called The Wonder List.

While there are still places where you can experience such an incredible culture, in at least some shape or form, I believe you HAVE to go.

And with recent tourism triggering a rebirth of ancient traditions, it appears that in some strange way foreign interest in the culture of Vanuatu’s islands has actually made a lot of Ni-Vans realize just how precious their culture is — both to them, and to future generations. Vanuatu is perhaps the only country I’ve visited where, as a result of foreign influence, some traditions are being reborn rather than dying out.

One of the more fascinating cases involves Franklin — a master wood carver living on Mota Lava. Franklin didn’t listen to his father when he tried to teach him the craft.

During the years after his father passed away, the occasional foreign visitor would remark on how amazing his father’s wooden sculptures and carvings were. Eventually, Franklin came to understand the value of what he had always taken for granted, but by then it was of course too late to learn his father’s craft.

Then one day, through a bizarre twist of fate, Franklin discovered that his father’s carvings were in fact so good that a museum in Britain had quite a few of them on display. He reached out to the museum and a catalog of the works was sent halfway around the world to his tiny island. Franklin then ordered some basic tools from Australia and started to learn the craft from the catalog photos of his father’s carved wooden statues.

Today, Franklin runs workshops for the youth of Rah and Mota Lava. He says they are both enthusiastic to learn, and also eager to be a part of preventing this traditional Ni-Van craft from dying out, as it almost did.

As a child of modernity and someone who checks their Facebook feed at least once a day, I have to say that I was surprised I “lasted” for almost an entire month on Rah Island. All we had was only occasional solar-powered electricity and certainly no Internet.

As clichéd as this may sound, it was while living on the island of Rah that I realised just how few materials things we need to be happy.

When pristine forests and oceans lie at your doorstep and when we can sit by the light of a full moon, huddled around a fire on the beach, and talk long into the night with wonderful, kind, thoughtful people — what more do we really need?

Perhaps the most encouraging thing for me was watching kids from Father Luke’s family. Dimitry, Shichin and Baisu — who you see in this order in the photos above — had all tasted life in the modern world, since they had spent considerable time in Vanuatu’s capital Port Villa. And yet not once did I see them unhappy or hear them complaining of being bored. Instead, they played endlessly in the ocean, fished, organised picnics, and practiced performing the famous snake dance.

During our time on Rah, I found myself constantly thinking what a great place it would be to raise kids. Since then I’ve actually become a parent, and now I really do wonder — despite lacking many of the material things we value and take so much for granted in the western world — is Vanuatu perhaps the closest thing we have to paradise on Earth?

On March 13, 2015 the Vanuatu archipelago was devastated by Cyclone Pam, one of the strongest in the island’s history.

This story is dedicated to the people of Vanuatu — some of the warmest, kindest, and most resilient people on the planet.

Support the Red Cross Cyclone Pam (Vanuatu) Appeal 2015

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