Feature

Treasure Islands

Small pleasures and large truths in the South Pacific.

by
• 4,550 words

“Where is your boat?”

“What do you mean? I am sitting in my boat right now.”

“That is not a boat, that is a kenu [canoe] . . . where is your yacht?”

“I don’t have a yacht.”

“Oh. So sorry. Is your yacht draon [drowned]?”

“No. My yacht didn’t sink. This is my only boat. It is called a kayak.”

“Oh . . . You come from wea [where]?”

“Port-Vila.”

“Oh. Tumas. Longaway from Port-Vila in too-small boat. You going wea?”

“Santo.”

With slight variations, this conversation was repeated at nearly every encounter my wife, Nina, and I had with local islanders during our sea kayak expedition around the small Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. A kayak is more than a means of conveyance; it is a statement that vulnerability is embraced, motors not needed, speed and comfort inconsequential, possessions few; and it always provokes curiosity. Indeed, during my thirty years and 10,000 kilometres of sea kayaking, from Melanesia to Greenland, people have marvelled at my mode of transport, questioned my sanity, invited me into their homes, and fed me warm reindeer brains, Pop-Tarts, papaya, or whatever else was available or deemed a delicacy. I’ve done well by my sea kayak, but this time around Vanuatu would reveal a treasure chest of surprises.

Vanuatu consists of eighty-three volcanic islands that rise out of blue tropical seas. On my first visit, in 1994, while teaching school on the island of Nguna, I told the class that geological forces beneath the ocean floor would continue to raise the islands for millions of years. Then the islands would cool and contract until they sank beneath the waves. Another teacher didn’t comprehend the time span involved, but assumed I was a white shaman, putting a hex on their island, to make it draon and swim with the sharks. The news spread. I left town in a hurry.

Some 50,000 years ago, Stone Age people in Southeast Asia began building boats and going to sea. Over the millennia, these brave mariners explored a third of our watery planet — south to Australia, east to Hawaii, and, according to some anthropologists, north to Alaska. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Lapita people settled in Vanuatu more than 3,000 years ago. These migrants were ancestors of the more modern Melanesians, a black-skinned people who now live in the western South Pacific.

Ever since the days of Ferdinand Magellan, sailors have depended on trade winds to propel them gently and reliably across tropical oceans. So when Nina and I launched our kayaks from the modern city of Port-Vila, we expected a southeastern zephyr to waft us along. Instead, sharp gusts fired out of the north, building an ugly chop and a relentless headwind. After crossing Mele Bay, we looked for a campsite, but a falling tide created ominous surf that pounded against the coral reefs. We found an opening and turned north into calm waters. A short distance from the city, we landed at a seaside restaurant. The proprietor helped pull our boats to shore, and I asked if we could camp on his lawn, provided we bought dinner at his establishment.

“Why not?” he answered.

As Nina and I set up our tent, a shiny black Buick limousine with a red G1 licence plate drove in, followed by an entourage of late-model, lesser vehicles. A heavyset man who looked as if he had been strong in his youth but had become flabby with age stepped out of the Buick and approached me.

“Who are you? How did you get here?”

“My name is Jon Turk. My wife, Nina, and I came here by kayak.”

The man extended his hand: “Hello, my name is Ham. I am the prime minister of Vanuatu.”

The restaurant owner neglected to mention that we had stumbled into a vip party honouring Ham Lini’s son, who was leaving the next day to start a four-year scholarship at a prestigious engineering institute in China. (Later, I read in the local newspaper, the Vanuatu Independent, that the scholarship coincided suspiciously with the granting of a permit for a controversial Chinese fish processing plant in Mele Bay.) Never having spoken with a prime minister before, I was somewhat at a loss for words, but managed to ask him about his son and the gathering that was soon to erupt around us. He suggested we drink some kava before the rest of the guests arrived.

Kava is a brown, pasty liquid that tastes like grated, juiced raw potatoes with an alkaloid bitterness. It’s a mild drug that provides a high reminiscent of an alcohol-marijuana mix. The restaurant owner brought out a large plastic bucket of kava and two coconut shell cups. After our first shell, the prime minister told me he’d grown up in a village on Pentecost Island, 200 kilometres north of here. As a young man, he’d entered the construction business, done well, become involved in politics, and, presto, been elected to national office. He then suggested we chug a second shell.

As the drug raced to our brains, we found chairs and sat quietly by the sea, watching the evening fall as surf pounded the beach. It occurred to me that I was a journalist and this was a rare opportunity; that I should slip away, grab my tape recorder, and conduct an interview. But the chair felt comfortable, and I didn’t think my now-good-buddy Ham wanted to be interviewed. Instead, I mentally paddled my kayak into the breakers, muscles straining, and foam bubbling up into my sinuses.

Ham must have been lost in a similar reverie. “You know,” I remember him saying, “it’s not so much fun being prime minister. Kayaking is fun. You are having fun. You are travelling like our ancestors did. When I was a boy, I had a dugout canoe, and I would go to the reef to fish. We didn’t have many things, but we always had food. In Vanuatu, every man owns four metal tools: a machete, an axe, a spade, and a curved knife for removing coconut meat from its shell. Some have fish hooks, maybe a speargun. That is all. Everything else comes from the forest or the sea. We use our tools to clear the forest and plant our gardens. We build our houses out of sticks and leaves, without nails. Women own pots, but often they bake food in banana leaves, over hot stones.

“Before I had a construction company, before I became prime minister, we were very poor. But I could do whatever I wanted to do, whenever I wanted. If I wanted to work in my garden, I worked. If I felt lazy, I would sit under a tree and talk to my friends. If I wanted to go fishing, I went fishing. Now that I am prime minister, life is not so much fun. I have a list of things to do every day, and I must do them exactly in a specific order.”

He paused for a while.

“You will be paddling to the islands. People are kind. They will give you food and water — whatever you need. Look at their life and think about what I have said.

“An orderly raced up and handed Ham a cellphone. Several cars drove in and guests spilled out. We never spoke again.

Over the next few days, Nina and I paddled across confusing waves off Devil’s Point and northward along the west coast of Efate Island. We were running low on food, so we made camp, and Nina rested while I followed a narrow path through the jungle toward the village of Siviri.

After a few hundred metres, I passed a banyan tree. Having grown up in northern forests, when I think of large trees the spire-like spruce of British Columbia or the giant sequoia of Northern California usually come to mind. But if large conifers are akin to minarets, a banyan is more like a warrior city state. It competes with its neighbours not by reaching for the sun, but by spreading out, murdering, and acquiring territory. First it dispatches horizontal branches from its central trunk. When the branches become too heavy to support their own weight, they move downward and eventually grow roots to buttress the tree. On their journey from the heights to the dirt, the incipient roots coil around and choke hapless, lesser trees, smothering them before stealing their territory, sunlight, water, and nutrients. When all is accomplished, the twisted and gnarled roots recall serpents or octopi guarding the castle walls.

On my earlier visit to Vanuatu, a man named Wigley took me to a large banyan tree on a more northerly island. He picked up two sticks and beat a rhythm on the soil, which seemed oddly hollow, and then smiled, his white teeth and clear eyes glowing against his black skin and the darkness of the forest. “This tree has power, mana,” he told me. “Can you feel it? Can you hear it talking beneath my drumsticks?” I nodded. “Before the missionaries, people came to this tree for ceremonies,” he said. He drummed on, staring at the earth. “Once, a long time ago, the men from this island paddled out to Pinalum Point, and they killed a man. They brought him back to this tree, built a big fire, and heated stones. Then they cut the man up and baked him in banana leaves on the hot stones.”

Wigley continued his drumbeat with one stick; with the other, he pointed to a large pile of stones, now overgrown by jungle vegetation. “A spark from the fire collected the dead man’s spirit and rose high above the banyan tree,” he said. “But our chief knew that this spark carried the man’s soul, so he used his magic to cause the spark to fly in a large circle. The spark curved around and approached this man’s village from the south, while our island lies to the northwest. So the people of the dead man’s village thought the murderers came from Uri Island. They launched their canoes and killed a man from Uri Island in revenge, and ate him. Then they were satisfied. Our people were happy, because our black magic was stronger than that of the dead man and we tricked our enemies.”

When white explorers and missionaries first encountered these violent, superstitious societies, some were killed and eaten. Others bribed their way into people’s hearts with machetes, beads, cooking pots, and other white man’s commodities, locally called “cargo.” Eventually, the vast majority of the locals converted to Christianity, and inter-tribal warfare ended. Today the country is one of the most peaceful places on earth.

Lost in my memories, I walked past the banyan tree and followed the trail to a clearing of grass and thatched huts. The local merchant was quietly chatting with friends in the shade. He led me to his store, which was indistinguishable from all the other small huts that blended in with the forest. Several onlookers followed. We stepped out of the bright tropical sunshine into a windowless room that smelled of trodden dirt and mouldy grass. Light filtered unevenly through gaps in the thatch. The merchant positioned himself importantly behind a counter made of driftwood.

The official languages of Vanuatu are English, French, and Bislama, an English-based creole, but he spoke a mixture of Bislama and English.

“So, what you wantem buy?”

“What do you have?”

“Most things in store go away.”

My eyes slowly adjusted to the dimness, and I searched the shelves: one rusted can of Spam, two dusty packets of ramen noodles, a large jar of red-hot Chinese jawbreakers.

“Well, you don’t seem to have much. I guess I don’t want to buy anything.”

“Then why you kam to store in fastaem [first time]?”

“My wife and I are hungry. I thought if you had some food I would buy something to eat,” I said.

“Oh. You hangri? Meybe you tell me that in fastaem. If you hangri, why you kam to store?”

One of the onlookers, James, a huge man with a warm smile, a broad face, and one missing tooth, told me he would give me some food, so I followed him to his house. The prime minister had said people were poor, but poverty is one of those words, like big or far, that has no meaning until it’s quantified.

James’s house, like the store, was framed with sticks tied together with shredded vines, with one kind of thatch for the walls and another for the roof. It had a clean, bright coral sand floor. There were no beds, just thin woven mats, no more comfortable for sleeping than a banana leaf. A stone hearth occupied one corner. It had no chimney, and the thatch above the fireplace was soot black. I imagined this spare house would become unpleasantly smoky when someone was cooking. A kerosene hurricane lamp provided the only light during the twelve-hour tropical nights. There was no dresser or closet.

When I packed for this six-week expedition, I sorted through a mountain of gear and clothing, and took only the barest essentials; still, I had more possessions in my kayak than James had in his house. He opened a small cupboard made of whitened, weathered boards and nailed to the wall. It revealed two blackened pots, a few dishes, a dozen tomatoes, and four papayas. He gave me six tomatoes and two papayas — half his food — and remarked simply, “Food in store nogud anyway.”

Perhaps due to global climate change or just some local weather anomaly, the trade winds were weak this year. Nina and I paddled north through headwinds and tropical deluges, and then tried to make a long open ocean crossing from Efate to the Shepherd Islands. But the swells were large and complex, the winds gusty and fickle, so we turned back. Discouraged, we returned to Port-Vila, and booked passage on a local freighter to the northern part of the Vanuatu chain, where the sea was more sheltered.

The LC Brisk was headed to Ambrym Island, which wasn’t exactly where we wanted to go but close enough. Then, after we bought our tickets, the captain decided he would pick up some passengers from Epi, our preferred destination. We lucked out; there seemed a pattern to such serendipity here, among the people of Vanuatu.

The boat carried construction materials for a new school, and about a hundred people. Half of us sat on rough wooden benches, while the rest found space on the deck or on top of cargo. We got under way shortly after dark, motored out of the harbour, and tossed on rough seas. There was a small bathroom in the stern, with a toilet that didn’t flush. A brownish goo oozed through the joints between the bathroom walls and the deck. Blissfully, fresh sea water sloshed back and forth beneath our feet as the boat rolled. A few people were seasick. The back of my bench only reached kidney height, and I tried to squirm around to sleep. Beside us, four strong, rough-looking young men nested on a pile of rope that rose, like an island, above the wetness below. Three had brought pillows, as if anticipating a quiet night’s rest. They stretched out, like shingles on a cupola, but when the ship hit a particularly large wave one of them pitched into another. His friend grabbed a pillow and whacked the man who had crashed into him. A third man woke, laughed, and whacked his innocent neighbour. Soon all four were romping around on their rope island, engaged in a raucous pillow fight, giggling like schoolchildren at their first pyjama party.

Nina and I left the LC Brisk at daybreak and paddled for five days, following coastlines but for two passages over the swells of this misbehaving ocean. After one arduous crossing, we landed on a beach where men were loading copra into an aluminum skiff, which transported it to a freighter anchored in the bay. Copra is dried coconut meat and the main export of these island villages. To prepare it, men collect coconuts, crack them open, and remove the meat with curved knives. Then they cut firewood, haul the wood out of the forest by hand, build a fire, and dry the meat. It takes a few days to fill a seventy-kilogram jute bag, which sells for about $15. Ultimately, copra is processed for its oil, used in cosmetics and soaps, among other products.

We pulled our boats above the high tide line onto a flat, grassy beach. The village of Palime lay on a hillside above us. We relaxed, stretched our tired muscles, and watched the men work. Then Nina looked at me with a pale, pained expression. “I feel nauseated,” she said.

Moments later, she was lying on the ground, violently ill. The sky darkened, and a heavy tropical rain drenched everything and everybody. I set up the tent, and Nina crawled in, her body convulsing into a tight fetal position. Finally, she fell asleep.

After loading the last of the copra, most of the men returned to the village, but five stayed and started a fire in the now-empty storage shed. One grilled a mangy-looking pig stomach on a green stick. Afternoon slowly turned to evening. A flock of half-naked kids collected on the beach and, aided by an older man with buckteeth and the countenance of a village idiot, built a dam in the sand to restrain the rising tide. Waves rolled in and eroded the base of the dam. The village idiot, wearing black and white striped underwear, pranced in the waves, kicking the water, screaming screams of joy with the kids as the tide destroyed the dam.

One of the men strolled away, and returned with a stringed instrument made from a wooden burl still attached to a thick branch, which served as the neck. He had carved a sound box out of the back of the burl, and affixed four pieces of fishing line to rotating pegs. The strings were identical but tuned to different tensions, and each had its own voice. He sang and played sweetly while we ate pig stomach and watched the sun slowly sink, red and flattened, toward the western ocean. Wind whispered through the palms, and surf churned the black sand and pink coral on the beach. The rain stopped.

Suddenly, we heard the sound of a small motorcycle engine. A man on a 125cc Yamaha gunned his machine across the grass, standing on the foot pegs, jumping up and down and making it bounce. The musician put down his instrument: “Here kam doctor blong yumi [Here comes our doctor]” — “He kam to fixum wife blong you.” Someone had told the doctor about Nina.

The six of us walked toward the tent. The motorcycle headed straight for me, full throttle. I tried not to flinch. At the last moment, the brakes screeched, and the machine slid sideways in the mud. A tall, gangly man with a cracked helmet, fancy led headlamp, and stethoscope jumped off theatrically. He had a friendly, almost goofy animation about him.

His English was good. “Hello, I am Abel,” he said, “like Abel from the Bible. I am manager of the nursing station. I came to make your wife better.” He strode purposefully toward the tent and pulled back the rain fly. Nina woke and lifted her head weakly. He peered in, much of his bravado gone. Nina groaned. The doctor jumped backward as if bitten by a snake.

We stood in the twilight, awkwardly. Abel asked about our journey, then walked over to inspect our kayaks. He ran his hands across the smooth plastic and looked inside the cockpit. Rainwater had collected in Nina’s seat, and Abel smiled. “Ah, there is water in her seat. That is why she is sick. She has been sitting in cold water.” No doubt his diagnosis was flawed — rainwater could not pool inside her kayak while she was paddling — but nonetheless, carefully and doctorlike, he sponged the seat dry. When he finished, he announced, “Your wife will be better in the morning.” He paused and shrugged. “Ninety-five percent chance your wife will be better in the morning.”

The next morning, Nina was still sick. Abel was on a kava bender, and the nursing station was closed. We’d have to make do without medical attention.

Early that afternoon, Pastor Moses invited us to stay at his house until Nina was well. The pastor — a short, dark-skinned man with close-cropped, receding hair and a thin, greying beard and moustache — lacked the articulated musculature of most Vanuatu men. He and his wife, Estella, lived in a concrete house with a tin roof and store-bought doors, which they sealed with a padlock when they were away. They had lots of cargo inside: futons to sleep on, an electric clock (that would tell time if there was electricity to activate it), books, statues of Jesus hanging from the cross. But while their neighbours ate a varied diet of root crops, island cabbage, fruit, and fish, Moses and Estella had no garden and ate white rice, ramen noodles, and crackers from the store.

I was reminded that since the onset of agriculture 13,000 years ago, the vast majority of us have eaten a diet less varied and nutritious than that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, and recalled the storekeeper’s comment: “If you hangri, why you kam to store?” Like the prime minister, Moses and Estella had stepped out of the island economy; unlike him, they hadn’t stepped far enough to drive a black Buick, and they seemed poor and unhealthy.

The next day, Abel sobered up and fed Nina an eclectic assortment of pills. She got sicker. I’d been waxing romantic about the glory of Vanuatu-style poverty, but was now comforted by the credit card in my pocket. If Nina got much worse, I’d charter a float plane and fly her to the closest hospital, wherever that might be.

On a national level, Vanuatu is a parliamentary democracy, but in Palime, as elsewhere, local affairs are managed by hereditary chiefs, who rule for life. I asked the chief what his primary functions were, and he answered simply, “I seek peace and harmony for the people of this village.”

In North America, we live in cities, towns, suburbia, or the country. There are few villages. (Forty years ago, idealistic hippies tried to recreate this ancient concept with communes, but nearly all of them failed.) In contrast, Palime consists of a small collection of thatched houses, a large wood-frame, gleaming-white Episcopal church, a thatched men’s meeting place (called a nakamal), an open-air kava bar, and a store that was considerably better stocked than the one in Siviri but still had little to offer. The village is linked to the outside world by the sea; a rough track through the jungle to a dirt-strip airport at Craig Cove, about fifteen kilometres away; and a community telephone housed in a small, thatch-covered booth. A dilapidated Toyota pickup truck known locally as “the transport” services a dozen villages in the region, but day to day everybody walks. Yards open to neighbours’ yards, and women gossip while cooking or washing. Men process copra collectively , squatting on the grass, chit-chatting, and cracking coconut shells. They also tend vegetable gardens hacked out of the jungle, and scour the reefs in flimsy dugout canoes, searching for fish.

Every task is done with a certain inefficiency — I could gather more firewood in an hour with my chainsaw and pickup truck than a Vanuatu man with an axe and a wheelbarrow can in a day — and yet, paradoxically, the villagers in Vanuatu have more free time than North Americans. We’re driven to purchase more cargo, not to create more free time.

From Palime, kids walk a kilometre to school in a neighbouring village but otherwise run loose everywhere. Still, there is orderliness and pride. Paths and trails are meticulously raked and lined with brilliant red hibiscus flowers, and while crime besets the capital city of Port-Vila there is little evidence of it here or in other villages. To be sure, there is little worth stealing, but there is also a conspicuous and collective appreciation for scarce resources. Perhaps most important, people grow up together and are often related. In Palime, there is no “other” to wage crime against, and few of the markers — age, socio-economic position, status, and so on — around which North American society is organized and breaks down. Here, criminal behaviour is punished by ostracism, which in tight communities is more of a deterrent than incarceration; and, one senses, aberrant acts are considered a collective responsibility.

After three days, Nina and I deduced that she had developed a reaction to the malaria prophylactics she was taking, and Abel’s pills simply added to the invasive cocktail of powerful pharmaceuticals swirling around in her bloodstream. She went off all medication and felt better immediately.

She ate a little rice and had enough strength to walk down to the beach. Even though it was supposed to be the dry season, it was pouring again. Across Vanuatu, the unseasonable downpours had caused crop failure and disrupted the spring planting. The effects of global climate change, I thought, are borne disproportionately by the poor.

Near the beach, men had hacked a soccer field out of a more or less flat space in the jungle. A game was in progress. The youngest girls and boys were eight or nine years old; other players were in their twenties; others older still. There were no coaches, no scoreboard, no soccer moms standing around waiting to chauffeur their children back home when the big clock rang “time’s up.” Young men played aggressively when facing other young men, then slowed down and became gentle when a youngster bravely charged. There were no white lines. Clearly the jungle was out of bounds, but no one argued when the ball brushed along the edge of a bush and someone kept it in play.

Rainwater was collecting in a depression near where we were standing, and one of the girls fell in the mud. Her friend laughed. The two abandoned the game, fetched water from the ocean, and spilled it onto the field to make more mud. The soccer match continued unabated; the girls slithered around in their mud puddle, coating their entire bodies. When the ball moved to our end of the field, the defencemen slid, too.

An athletic twenty-year-old took control of the ball and charged in our direction, adeptly dodging a covey of younger kids. Then, instead of barrelling toward an almost certain goal, he kicked the ball aside and slid purposefully into the mud. Watching him and the girls frolic about, I was reminded of the four men having their pillow fight, and of Prime Minister Ham and his altered existence, his memories of a better life. As we paddled away from Palime the next day, I wondered how long it would be until this village island paradise would also become a memory, would also be ravaged by the twists of time and outside currents.

Jon Turk (jonturk.net) has published several books including Cold Oceans and The Raven's Gift.