Thursday, August 25, 2011

Santo Espirito and Vanuatu food and modern culture

Little fish

Big fish! 8'2" sailfish

Vanuatu locals

Little local yacht

The 'Wong Size Store'

Mmmm... meat And beef

Making a traditional mat from palm leaves

Traditional dance at Randy cultural village

Sand drawing

Traditional cooking- taro in a bamboo tube- tasty!


Rotting seawalls and quonset huts from WWII dot the Luganville landscape

Luganville River, former hideout for navy boats

Luganville kids

The big scary huntsmen spider that took up residence in the vberth

Million Dollar Point, where the US army dropped tons of equipment into the water before they left at the end of WWII

Jumping into a blue hole in limestone-based Santo

A traditional Vanuatu village

Copra smoking house

An inspired coconut crab trap

Every thatch house needs... a thatch car port!

North Santo beach
7 hr trip to Santo, SE wind cloudy mod swell good time made.  Went between two points, one with a large fishing vessel shipwrecked on it.  Arrrive at Palicula bay, excited for bar, hot showers, laundry 1st time in more than a month.. And it’s not there.  The reputed marina does not exist any more.  See 3 wrecks in bay, more underwater probably. Woulda been nice to kayak, but cloudy can’t find passage through reef,  bouys gone, no one there.  All the other boats go down to oyster bay etc.  Leave, go 2 hrs down to Santo, wind is 20 knots f E, so we’re worried about anchoring there, but Segund channel is flat, a lil breezy but good holding.  Anchor 30’ sand off white beach, lots boats around, some moorings.  Few gusts here.  Stalled front is making things grey and windy, but cool.  Wondering how we will find the famous wreck dives under the surface of Segund Channel.
Go in to Luganville quick to get groc before dark.  Beachfront resort very helpful, Chinese groc and lots small shops along long central street, lots taxis some minibuses.  Market with just peanuts, yams, taro, cassava, bananas, nuts, pawpaws, giant cucumbers, pumpkins, watermelons.  Pretty good selection at stores, but its not Vila.  Lots of older white guys around.
Jackster shows up and we have dinner with Jackie and David, and also Larry and Robin off power boat.  Baird smart lil boy.  Nice conv, anchors (Cpt has 45lb CQR, they had trouble with stainless CQR and now use delta, destinations, ant, picton castle, 180th parallel on charts).  Fish curry good.
No internet worth speaking of in Vanuatu.

Randy Cultural Village, Luganville, and Vanuatu food and culture
The more ostentatious displays of vanuatu traditional culture seems to be confined mostly to the privacy of homes and inaccessible interior villages, or to shows put on for tourists.  Everyone we see seems to be wearing western-style shorts/skirt and tshirts or mother hubbard dresses, and talking on cell phones.  Traditional agriculture is alive and well, although most people seem to liberally supplement the old staples of cassava, taro, sweet potatoes, bananas, pawpaw, mangoes, etc with canned meats and processed snacks.  Corned beef and fish canned in PNG or Australia seems to have largely replaced the healthy fresh fish which is readily available caught in the sea next to most villages.  The preference for canned food is quite puzzling.  As a young person trying to get ahead on a lower-middle-class income in America, I could never afford the variety and quantity of fresh fruits, vegetables, and seafood that I would have liked.  Grains, rice, canned vegetables, and peanut butter were my staples.  I suppose this is part of the reason why obesity has become a disease of the poor of this generation.  Here in Vanuatu I am very happy to be able to buy two week’s worth of produce for two (e.g. lettuce, cabbage, island lettuce, carrots, radishes, onions, potatoes, garlic, eggplant, tomatoes, cucumber, papaya, coconut, mandarins, and bananas) for US$10-15. Seafood (dorado, tuna, mahi-mahi, lobster, etc) come free via a trolling line or a snorkeling expedition.  Of course this low price is partly a reflection of the rich soil and the fact that an hour’s worth of labor does not earn as much in Vanuatu as it does in the US.  But there is still a healthy ratio between ‘good food’ prices and ‘bad food prices’.  Our much smaller two-week snack supply of snacks (canned peanuts, cookies, chocolate, crackers, cheese, pate or salami), instant noodles) comes to $20-25.
Vanuatu culture does live on in still-relevant legends, taboos, kava drinking, 700+ mutually unintelligible languages, village lifestyle, house construction… it definitely is there.  It’s just not the plethora of in-your-face, exotic differences like the ones that greeted Cook in Tahiti, for example. We went to two Penama day celebrations in Pentacost, hoping for some crazy all-night kava drinking and dances.  In Pentacost we met an exceedingly friendly local fellow named Thomas.  He invited us to join him for kava on the beach, and later to his large terraced water-taro fields to fish for prawn.  When he mentioned there was a Penama day celebration down the coast that involved dancing, we were very excited.  Everyone loaded into our dingy and off we went.  The celebration was in a small village in South Pentacost.  We threaded our way in through the reef, rowing the last bit with our flip-flops when the water became too shallow for the outboard.  A large group of children met us on shore with ‘hellos’ and happily filled the dingy with sandy footprints the moment we were out of sight.  (Later in the day the tide came high up on the beach while we were kava-drunk, and someone pulled the boat up for us.  I have a mental image of a hoard of barefoot Lilliputian figures tugging at the heavy dingy.)  We spent all day with a rather placid crowd watching soccer and volleyball matches between local villages.  The playing field was surrounded by ad hoc food and kava booths and a stage with really loud recorded music.  We wandered around the field and found that Kava Booth #7 was occupied by a couple of Kansas missionaries who had spent the last two years attempting to translate the Bible into a few local languages.  Points for helping to preserve some languages, I guess.  The project seemed to be going a little slow for them, but then I didn’t get the impression they were playing with a full deck.  Kava Booth #7 and its free pidgin hymn printouts was the only kava booth not getting any business.  As the day passed we inevitably came together with the other white person present in the crowd of 300 or so.  This was a 27 year-old Peace Corp girl with a Masters in public health.  She was serving a two-year commitment in a village in the hills.  She talked a bit about her education efforts on the topics of obesity-related diseases and STDs.  She didn’t have the resources to do much more than give occasional educational talks, which must have been a bit frustrating for a young professional.  In the evening there was some kava drinking and a health talk, then everyone drifted home a couple hours after dark.  The fare sold at the booths was all uniquely Vanuatu- kava and lap lap.  Laplap, the national dish is shredded, baked cassava, sometimes accompanied by meat or fish.  To me, eating lap lap was comparable to shredding wet carboard and baking it into a cake.  My partner got more enjoyment out of it.  Vanuatu kava is great.  In Fiji, we experimented with various brewing times and techniques in an attempt to produce some kava that had any effect other than numbing our mouths.  We were unsuccessful.  Therefore when we were offered kava at the Penama day festivities, we blithely knocked back several half-coconut bowls each.  Shortly afterwards we both experienced a pleasant feeling like a relaxed alcoholic buzz, then felt tired and sick to our stomachs.  I was delighted, though a little disappointed at missing out on the final element of the full kava experience- temporarily losing the ability to walk.  I proceeded to remove my female self from the forbidden bounds of the kava bar.  I sat down next to a group of women and gave them a giddy grin.  They responded by making their disgust very clear to their taboo-breaking interloper (women aren’t supposed to drink kava in the more traditional areas).  Though no dancing materialized, I had received my dose of genuine culture.
I still yearned for a little color and action, so we ended up at another Penama day celebration in the island’s administrative center, Loltong.  At dusk we wandered up to the beer/kava bar, me again hoping for some wild dancing, perhaps in traditional woven skirts with little bells on the ankles as LP suggested?  Well, it was all tshirt and shorts and mother hubbards, but boy, there sure was dancing.  It took the form of moderate swaying to a live-band reggae beat.  Kids, grandmas, and the oldest guy in the village gyrated in a little cluster in front of the band.  At 8 o’clock it started to rain as we retreated to the boat and had an early night.  At 3am I awoke, restless, and stepped outside.  The sounds of music and dancing drifted out across the bay, through the pouring rain.
Well, I could definitely respect a culture where grandma goes out dancing from 6pm to 6am.  But I still hadn’t seen any unique local moves.  So finally, in Luganville, with the end of the Vanuatu experience looming near, I gave in.  Off we went to the “Randy Cultural Village”.
It was US$15 for a 10km taxi ride, and $15 each for the show- the cheapest around.  Unfortunately, when we got there, the guy who runs the village said it was Sunday, so they wouldn’t be dancing.  Curses!  He was a nice guy though, and it wasn’t a bad show.  If you were just in Vanuatu for a week or two, staying in cities and resorts, it would be worthwhile for a taste of Vanuatu traditional culture.  He and his family showed us some sand-drawing, mat weaving, magic, fire walking, kava preparation, and lap lap preparation with traditional tools- a bamboo knife, pandanus stem shredder, and a steam-pot made of a section of bamboo filled with saltwater.  Here, they wrapped the shredded cassava in leaves of island cabbage, and with the saltwater seasoning it was actually real tasty.  The mats were woven from pandanus leaves that had been cut into thin strips with a bamboo knife, singed, soaked in saltwater for one day, and dried in the sun for three days to bleach them.  Then they were drawn over the edge of a bamboo knife (like curling ribbon) to soften them, and woven together.  Some mats were died with red patterns with a cooked mix of breadfruit and the pith of a certain vine.  Apparently saltwater was used as a fixative.  Randy and his family wore traditional dress.  For the males this was two folded mats- front and rear- hung from a fiber belt around the waist, and fiber bands around the biceps with green leaves tucked into them.  The women wore skirt-like mats and a cumbersome-looking mat top.  Randy’s family seemed very happy and had a nice dynamic with each other.  Interestingly, Randy addressed his young son in Pidgin and English rather than a local language.  Enroute home, our taxi driver pointed out the Vanuatu Mobile Forces training center (Vanuatu has no army, only an extra-police force for emergencies) and a settlement of Banks Islanders.  The Banks people have taken refuge here for about 20 years while a volcano has made their home untenable.  They play unique water music for cruise-ship passengers.  We passed the commercial wharf, where LCUs and fishing boats on- and off-loaded at a relaxed tropical pace amongst fuel tanks, cargo containers, and WWII era Quonset huts.
I noticed that outside the city, the landscape very quickly returned to jungle with patches of local gardens.

We spend several days stocking up on Luganville.

Our next anchorage is Oyster Bay- a beautiful sheltered area with great coral and multiple little anchorage to tuck into.  And the guesthouse has showers!!!

After this we anchor in Hog Harbor for several days.  I read about predicting weather by barometer:
Fall after calm and warm day :     rain and squalls
Fall with a northerly wind     strong winds and rain
Small fall with east wind        strong winds
Steady                same wx continuing   
Gradual rise            Settled wx
Rapid rise            Unsettled wx with possible squalls
Rise with south wind        Becoming fine
Closer to tropics, the smaller the barometric change needed to produce weather.

Port Orly
Alternately called Port Olry and Port Lory by various people.   Cloudy first few days, but then sun came out and it was one of most beaut places in Van.  Lots of shallow sandy corally blue water.  Lots wildlife- saw 3 turtles all together snorkeling, one reticent dugong, lots other turtle sightings about every time we kayaked.  Coral OK near islands, out by lil archipelago island was gorgeous,  Three rays- med steel blue, large dark, and small blue ray.  People a lil surly, but also met some nice ones occasionally.


  1. Hello, this is Russ Rowlett, webmaster of the Lighthouse Directory (, hosted at the University of North Carolina. You have a very rare photo of the Million Dollar Point lighthouse, and I hope you will allow me to use it on the Directory's Vanuatu page ( The Directory is an educational project, university-based and completely non-commercial, and it features hundred of photos for which people around the world have given their permission. I included a link to the photo. Please take a look (second photo on the page); I hope you will think this is a fair use.

  2. You are welcome to use my Million Dollar Point pic, Russ!