A Paradoxical Paradise

By Ian Heydon

As with any place in the world, living in Vanuatu is a vastly different experience to visiting for a holiday.

Some people live in Port Vila because they were born in Port Vila and saw no good reason to move; other migrated here for a number of curious reasons, from places as varied as Paama Island or even Finland, and have been absorbed by the community; some entered the town in the dark and immediately disappeared; others arrived to escape the international police, or their wives, or the taxman and there are those too, who still do not know, and never will know, why they are here at all. And there are those who posted here, those who don’t want to be here but have nowhere else to go, those who have unpacked a change of name and those who slip away with a one-way ticket, leaving a mountain of debt.

There are Ni Vanuatu people from many different backgrounds and there are the expatriates… missionaries, mercenaries or misfits… and some, like myself, who came for two weeks holiday, which turned into a year’s adventure, which in turn washed into three. Just like others who got off the plane and forgot to get back on again.

Whatever the reason, if any, for being in this timeless, tropical beguiling island of a town with its myriad restaurants and bars, various religions, four major banks with legitimate functions and about eighty minor ones of dubious origin, several factories, businesses scratching day-to-day, uncountable potholes, a sparkling harbour and postcard lagoon, a visiting sea and a multitude of mixed tourists filling the main street with their sunburnt cleavage, bum-cracks and foreign currency, here we just are, and there is nowhere like it anywhere at all.

Stubble-faced Leo the Fish Pimp hatches another brilliant-never-to-reach-fruition plan of exporting live eels to Japan; a new resort emerges on the coastline to successfully employ locals and launder drug money; a former Prime Minister sits behind cold bars for fraud, while the incumbent (an honest man) juggles internal squabbles that can only become a ‘coup’ in an international headline beat up.

As in any heavily censored state, there’s black market pornography, drugs are forbidden while the opiate kava is almost compulsory, protected species may be somebody’s dinner and despite the petty crime, it’s a safe and friendly place. It’s a land of languages, with over 100 including French and English and a uniting tongue – the wan tok-tok (one talk) of Bislama.

Because of the humidity, intake of fluids is important, but that’s not why most expatriates drink. The local chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous fell by two-thirds last year, when two expats left the island. The drink driving laws lie deep in somebody’s filing cabinet gathering dust. Some French people enjoy a ménage a trois – or quarte… or cinq. And affairs that cause separation must be ostensibly amicable. There are only so many times you can cross the street in avoidance.

It’s a funny little community that weaves itself to hold the insecure together while being wary of every newcomer it embraces. It can be a town of frustration, desperation and anticipation but also a town of laughter, fun and freedom.

It’s a nice place to visit, but for those who live here, permanently or temporarily, the country becomes an internal tattoo – an indelible part of them, forever.

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