This Interview with an Expat entry features a really far-flung and remote place in Oceania that is home to diverse customs and a very unique religious movement. I recently had the opportunity to interview Katy McGarr, who spent time living in Vanuatu as Peace Corp Volunteer, about her experience living in this tropical paradise. Vanuatu is an island nation made up of several different islands in the South Pacific. Even though it is not easy to get to, if you're able to find your way there one day, I think it will definitely be a memorable and incredible visit.
1. Could you please tell me how you came to know about Vanuatu? Did you know anything about the country before?
I had never heard about Vanuatu until I joined the Peace Corps in 2006. At the time, the Peace Corps allowed people to choose a region to volunteer in, and then they assigned people to a specific country. I chose the South Pacific with the hopes of going to Samoa. However, I was sent to Vanuatu, and I am so glad I was!
2. Because Vanuatu is in the South Pacific, it seems to be a relatively unknown place because of its remote location. In your opinion, what are some of the must-see places and attractions in Vanuatu?
Vanuatu is one of those rare gems that hasn’t been ruined by the tourism industry yet. Because it is made up of over 80 islands, I've divided the must-see places into longer and shorter visits.
Short visits will usually take place in the capital city, Port Vila. This is where most cruise ships dock, so there are lots of stores and restaurants that cater to tourists. Make sure you visit the National Museum. It is a pretty well-curated collection, and make sure you see a sand drawing demonstration.
Another great place to visit in Port Vila is the Mamas’ Market. You’ll get to see lots of different kinds of local produce sold in simple hand-woven baskets. I suggest buying pineapples, green peanuts, and bananas. Also, look for women selling lap lap or tuluk. Lap lap is the national dish of Vanuatu. It is made of manioc (yuka/cassava), plantain, or yam baked in leaves. It sometimes has a piece of meat baked on top of it, too. Tuluk is like a lap lap tamale. It has lap lap instead of corn meal and meat inside. Lap lap itself is a bit rubbery and a bit of an acquired taste. However, you should definitely taste it.
Near the Mamas’ Market is a handicraft market. This is a great place to buy souvenirs. Look for the hand-woven mats and baskets, hand-carved tam tams (traditional drums that are similar to totem poles), and jewelry. There are also lots of nicely carved coconut shell earrings that make good gifts.
Near the handicraft market but moving away from the ocean, there is a row of small Chinese shops. Ask around for the fabric shops. These shops will sell the fabric used to make the colorful ni-Vanuatu women’s aelan dresses. This fabric is always bright with unique patterns. It makes for great table clothes, curtains, or gifts for people who are interested in crafts.
There are also lots of resorts around Vila that are good to visit. Iririki, Hideway, and Le Lagon are all popular ones. The resorts can get a bit expensive, but they’re good places to go swimming and snorkeling. Another place to go to is Mele Cascades, which is where you can buy boat tours.
Longer Visit (By Island)
If you have the time, longer visits will allow you to visit some of the other islands, and this will let you experience some different cultures and customs.
During World War II, many US troops were stationed on Santo. Many of Santo’s roads and bridges (still in use today) were built by US troops. At the end of WWII, the US government had lots of surplus supplies and equipment on Santo. The US tried to sell everything to the French who were co-governors of Vanuatu. However, the French declined the offer because they believed the Americans would just leave everything behind, and they would get it for free. Instead, the Americans decided to sink everything instead of letting the French have it for free. Today, you can go snorkeling/diving at Million Dollar Point to see all the dumped items.
For people who enjoy wreck diving, it is possible to explore the SS President Coolidge. This was a passenger cruise ship that was converted into a military ship during WWII. It sank off the coast of Santo and has lots of interesting remains to see.
Luganville, the capital of Santo, also has a nice Mamas’ Market. Things will be a bit cheaper and fresher here than in Port Vila. Also, there are a row of stalls on one side of the market where women rent these stalls and serve hot plate lunches. They are usually a vegetable and meat stir fry served on rice with ‘juice’ (a Koolaid-like drink). These plate lunches are cheap and delicious.
Tanna is another popular tourist destination. It has the world’s most accessible active volcano, Mt. Yasur. You can climb to the top of the volcano and sit near the rim to watch the lava bubble. It is said that Mt. Yasur likes alcohol, so make sure you take a bottle of something to the top. Share a drink with Yasur and then enjoy the rest by yourself or with good company.
Tanna is also a great place to see traditional dances. If you can, try to catch the Toka ceremony. However, there’s rarely much advance warning for the Toka ceremony, so just ask your host/guide to see a traditional dance.
If you like coffee, Tanna also has a coffee plantation and factory. Make sure you stop there to pick up some beans.
Wherever you go on Tanna, make sure you take a flashlight. The soil is black, and it is very difficult to see at night.
The most famous thing about Pentecost Island is the land diving. Land diving is a traditional ceremony undertaken by locals to ensure a good harvest. Young men build a large jumping tower and go to the bush to cut their own vines. They tie these vines around their ankles and dive from the tower. For the dive to be successful, the jumper’s hair must brush the ground. It is essentially bungee jumping using vines. It is dangerous though, and a few young men die every year. If you want to see land diving, you must check the time of year carefully. I’d also recommend using a guide or tour for this visit.
Ambrym is another great island that is famous for its black magic. I went to see a magic festival that was phenomenal. Some of the magic I could figure out, but some of it I still have no idea how they did. They also demonstrated sand drawing (a ni-Vanuatu system of writing that relies on elaborate drawings instead of words).
This is a very rarely visited island. It is perfect for people who enjoy hiking and botany. The island is home to the giant kauri trees, and there are also lots of wild orchids here. If you visit Aneityum, make sure you take LOTS of food with you. Because it is so remote, there is very little food there. Take at least twice as much as you think you’ll need.
The main thing to keep in mind when visiting the outer islands is that it takes time, and comfort will not be a priority. The planes used to get to the more remote islands are small (10 seaters), and you will be flying with a variety of produce and livestock (I once flew with a pig who got airsick), but don’t let these things deter you. All of the outer islands are totally worth it. Pack lightly and be prepared for unexpected.
3. Are there any places you can recommend that are maybe off the beaten path or not commonly visited that are unique to Vanuatu?
Definitely go to Pentecost to see the land diving. However, Vanuatu’s outer islands are really tourist free for the most part. Pretty much anywhere you go on an outer island is going to be off the beaten path. Talk to the locals as much as possible and ask them what you should see. South Santo has lots of friendly little villages. Namoru village has amazingly kind people. There’s also a gorgeous waterfall near Ipayato village, but you’ll have to get a local to guide you.
4. What kind of weather can a traveler expect in the different seasons? In addition, what kind of physical or cultural activities can people do in Vanuatu.
Christmas is the hottest time of year in Vanuatu, and May is the rainy season. I’d recommend fast drying fabrics no matter what time of year you go. You also take your shoes off whenever you go inside a ni-Vanuatu home, so I’d also recommend a sturdy pair of sandals like Tevas or Chacos.
Vanuatu is great for physical activities. You can swim, snorkel, and dive to your heart’s content. There are also lots of great places to go hiking through the jungle and caves.
For cultural activities, make sure you see land diving, sand drawing, and traditional dances. I’d also try to see as many different types traditional clothes as possible. Also, try to listen to a string band. String band music is incredibly unique. Most string bands also have several homemade instruments, so they’re very interesting to watch as well as listen to.
If you're into linguistics, Vanuatu has hundreds of languages, so try to pick up a few words from every village you visit. Of course, you can also try your hand at learning the pidgin language, Bislama.
5. What are some traditional Vanuatuan dishes or drinks that a first-time visitor must try?
You must absolutely try kava. Kava is a hugely important drink in ni-Vanuatu culture. It used to be drunk only by chiefs. However, now it is common for most men to drink it. In the bigger cities, women drink it too, but village women don’t usually drink it. If they do, they drink separated from the men. Kava is made from the kava root, which is either ground and milked or made traditionally. The traditional method is chewing the root, spitting it out, and then milking. It's not very hygienic, but it's authentic. Kava looks like dirty ditch water and has a bitter, peppery taste, but it has gotten popular enough so that Kava bars are even starting to appear in the United States.
Kava is served at nakamals. Ask around and people can point one out to you. There is a certain kava etiquette in nakamals. Kava is served in coconut shells. You take your shell, walk a bit away from all the other people, drink your shell in one big gulp/chug, and then spit (you have to spit to get the taste out). You then walk back to your group and sit down. Nakamals have a pretty quiet, subdued atmosphere. Loud noises can spoil people’s high, so it is important to keep your voice down. Some nakamals also serve beer and snacks. Chasing kava with a beer is called kale kale. I’d also recommend trying the local beer, Tusker. Kava is an appetite suppressant, so the snacks are really just to get the kava taste out of your mouth.
As for food, try tuluk first. If you like that, move on to lap lap. Try any and all of the fruit. It’s all delicious and fresh. For vegetables, aelan cabbage is a bit like spinach, but be careful about vegetables. Some of them require special preparation, so just ask a local mama, and she can help you. My other favorite Vanuatu vegetables are white yams, chouchoutte, and the giant cucumbers.
6. Some people may or may not have heard of the “John Frum Cargo Cult?” What is that exactly, and how did that develop?
The John Frum Cargo Cult is mainly based on Tanna, and it is a religious movement that worships a deity named John Frum. The cult started after WWII. Many people believe that John Frum was probably a US serviceman who encountered the villagers during the War. Members of the John Frum cult believe that John Frum will come back soon and bring them lots of riches. Again, this was probably because the original John Frum gave the villagers he encountered supplies when he arrived on the island.
7. For people who maybe are thinking of moving to Vanuatu in the future and becoming expats there, what advice would you give in order to have a relatively stress-free move?
I would advise anyone planning to move to Vanuatu to visit first. Vanuatu is pretty remote, and it is an island. Those two things mean that expat luxuries get expensive very quickly. However, if you don’t mind eating local food, your costs will be significantly lower. However, if you like to eat things like cheese and chocolate, you will want to make sure that you have lots of starting capital. I’d also advise future expats to think carefully about their work. I wouldn’t recommend moving to Vanuatu unless you can work remotely. There are very few jobs for expats in Vanuatu. In addition, if you have children, you’ll also have to think about how you’ll educate your children. Most expats I knew homeschooled their kids.
Another thing to keep in mind is that foreigners can’t purchase land in Vanuatu. They can only lease it for 100 years. That means you can get a short lease to see how well you like it, but it also means you can’t build your dream mansion and bequeath it to your descendants.
Also, Vanuatu is a tropical country. It’s hard on electronics and books. There are also giant poisonous centipedes that you have to kill with boiling water, and it’s easy to get roaches, rats, and ants. There is malaria and TB present, and the medical facilities are not typically up to western standards. Even though Vanuatu is the closest I’ve ever come to paradise, it’s not risk free. I would move back in a heartbeat, but I don’t think people should move there blindly.
8. What surprised you the most about Vanuatu when you lived there?
I was surprised by how utterly gorgeous it is and how few tourists there are. Vanuatu will eventually become a giant tourist spot, so people should visit now before it gets too crowded. I was also surprised by how genuinely warm and kind the people are. I can literally count on one hand the number of bad experiences I had.
9. How difficult would it be for a traveler to get around the islands?
Travel is difficult. You’ll be in tiny planes landing on grass runways. You’ll visit villages while riding with 15 other people in the bed of a pickup, and you’ll walk long distances through the bush. Transportation is difficult, so it is not a place for anyone with limited mobility. Even in Port Vila, the roads and sidewalks are not well-maintained. I know lots of people who twisted their ankles stepping in pot holes or tripping over tree roots.
10. It seems that each island that makes up Vanuatu has something different. What are some unique aspects of the islands, and which one would you recommend making a base on (if possible)?
Each and every island is truly unique, and even different villages have different customs, traditional clothes, and languages. Santo, the largest island, has large chunks that have still not been explored, so you have the opportunity to be a true adventurer in every sense of the word.
For island hopping, I would make Port Vila or Luganville your base. Those cities have the most frequent flights. Port Vila has a higher cost of living and more tourists, so I’d personally choose Luganville. The other great thing about Luganville is that is has more of a small town feel. In Port Vila, you will be just another visitor. It will be easier to make friends and form relationships with locals in Luganville.
About Katy McGarr
In 2006, Katy's desire for an adventure led her to the Peace Corps and Vanuatu. One adventure led to several more, and she now lives in Iraqi Kurdistan with her Syrian husband and two fat cats.