This largest of Vanuatu’s 81 islands received its name from Spanish explorer Quiró, who named it such at the relief of finally having discovered the Australian continent. That’s at least what every tourist guide regurgitates as the official version of history. As a seafarer the story does not make much sense. You do not have to travel very far up or down the coast to realize that this is a rather meager continent, but man’s brain is always eager to see what it longs to see!
In contrast to the other islands a spirit of desolation reigns here. Just yesterday we travelled on the only asphalted stretch of road from our tranquil anchorage at Suranda Bay up the east coast to Port Olry right at the tip of the island’s thumb, if with a bit of fantasy one sees Espiritu Santo’s outlines on a map as a gloved hand about to pinch the Torres Islands spread out to the north. Coconut plantations of an astronomical scale line its entire fifty some kilometers. They seem to linger in various states of abandonment, some with still smoldering furnaces where the copra is dried over wood fires, surrounded by shabby shacks with rusty corrugated iron walls, to stretches where quite obviously no human hand has wrought the orderly rows from the verdant power of native vegetation, and where from most of the palm trees only a somber stalk remained aimlessly trying to scratch the sky for mercy. Prices of copra on the world market have long sunk way beyond the point where one could edge a half way decent living from such venture, but man sticks to the old even when it only provides him with misery and pain.
At the prettier spots along the coast the remnants of a once spectacular beauty are now harvested with a string of fancy resorts, who cater to an eclectic assortment of backpacker tourists, who are diligently entertained with rustic furniture in thatched huts and cold local beer at exorbitant prices. The atmosphere is friendly, the service, while not exactly agile, is well intended. But the capitalist mentality, if I may call it such, has a dominant foothold on the land and its people. This much is very painfully clear after our now almost three months stay here in this island nation: The Ni-Vanuatu do have a special flair for money. They see no shame in asking for fees to ‘visit’ even the most desolate place crudely prepared for showing off some little thing that remotely looks like something traditional, and even the hitchhiker clinging on to the rusty railing of a pickup truck bed is expected to pay his fare to ride into town. That inborn love for the cash must have something to do with the fact that the Vanuatu currency, the Vatu, is amazingly strong when measured to international standards. This is a bit of a mystery to me as my understanding of economics is rudimentary at best, but I suspect there must be a good bit of dirty business at its root, with offshore banking just the tip of the iceberg. The prices for goods and services here are on par with New Zealand, some things actually being more expensive here in comparison. The sad truth in all this being that the global monetary system with each and every one of us as its willing slaves favors the greedy, rewards the ruthless and serves the exploiters.
The main town of Luganville, or Santo, as it is called locally, is a non-descript stretch of road along the northern shores of the Second Channel, lined with businesses of all sorts with the hustle of commerce stirring up an angry dust and people rushing from place to place no longer with gardens on their minds, but their hands cramped close to keep their purse strings tight. The market square being a kind exception to the rule, where once again colorfully dressed ladies of all sizes squat behind heavy wooden tables laced with grapefruits, pawpaws, bananas, cabbage, beans, cucumbers, yams, kumaras and much more of the tropical bounty. Even a dead fruit bat can be had for the humble sum of 400 Vatus. Its vendor stretched out its lifeless wings for us to take a picture, sensing very well our exotic ethical concerns.
The time has now come to leave this prosperous nation and continue our track north towards the Temoto province of the Solomon Islands, one of the poorest on earth. We are approaching the area of our present mission to track the state of the two Wharram sailing canoes on Anuta and Tikopia. While we have received good news from the Anutans, who seem to make good news of the gift bestowed upon them by sailing back and forth between their home island and the province capital Lata on Lendo Island, the same sadly does not seem to be the case for their Tikopian brothers. Lapita Tikopia apparently lays abandoned somewhere under the sun and our only reliable information comes from Westerners having visited the island. According to them the hulls are still in decent shape while the beams seem weathered and the lashings and probably most of the rigging has been pilfered for ‘other’ purposes. Klaus Hympendahl, together with the Wharrams the driving force behind the Lapita Expedition and friendly liaison between the West and the Tikopian chiefs, had before his sudden and surprising passing managed to arrange that the canoe be brought to Vanikoro, where a community of Tikopians promised to make better use of it. Unfortunately there is no evidence to anything having happened in that direction either. Our task therefore becomes one of assessing the will amongst those once proud island people, a feat that has been done before mostly with disastrous consequences. We promise to do our best to nudge this well-intended white man’s gift into a more fruitful and sensible direction.
Decent internet access being confined to the two main islands here in Vanuatu, while being marginal in all the other islands, we expect this to deteriorate further as we move from a relatively wealthy nation to one of the poorest on the planet. So please be patient and forgiving if the reporting becomes a bit sparser and poorly illustrated with fancy pictures. I’m convinced that your well nurtured imagination will be readily able to compensate for that lack of visual entertainment and your ever inquisitive minds will generate their own optical emotions into what you will be extract from my upcoming verbal barrages.
Tomorrow Aluna will be setting sails again on a northerly course and after a hopefully benign journey of about 300 sea miles we plan to anchor in the beautifully named Graciosa Bay, have a friendly chat with a gang of government officials in the township of Lata, and then get to work on our gracefully intriguing project.