Lunch for a Maternal-Child Health team returning from a hike to a remote village: white and pink pared kumala root, fish (on knife blade), fresh-water mollusks (by knife handle), and "Island Cabbage" leaves; all on a large laplap leaf. The food was placed in lengths of bamboo and placed on a small fire to steam. Photo ©H. Morgan, 1987.
"Food That Gives Power", one of Vanuatu's three food groups. Clockwise from left: white rice, bread, taro, Fiji taro, kumala, yam, corn, margarine, vegetable oil, coconut, eating banana, cooking bananas, breadfruit. Detail of Vanuatu Health Department - UNICEF nutrition poster.
Rural ni-Vanuatu basically exist on root crops such as kumala, yam, and taro or on cooking bananas. These carbohydrate sources are either boiled, or they are grated and mixed with coconut milk. Beef, fish, or other meat is added (we have seen clams-in-shell, coiled eels, and whole fruit bat), and it is all wrapped in large leaves and cooked on hot stones to make Vanuatu's national dish, laplap. This, by the way, was the lot of several ill-fated missionaries, not the big iron pot of cartoons. Laplap can be an acquired taste, but no visit to rural Vanuatu is complete without trying at least one variant. The tuluk sold at markets (fist-sized, wrapped in a leaf) is a "fast food" variety of laplap; my kids always liked pork tuluk.
"Food That Blocks and Destroys Sickness". Most of these are familiar to Westerners. Leaves at left are island cabbage, "scaly" fruit at four o'clock is a custard fruit, left of it is half a papaya with seeds. Detail of Vanuatu Health Department - UNICEF nutrition poster.
A wide variety of fruit is available in the wet season (November - April) and some western vegetables are grown in the dry season (the rest of the year). You should be able to buy this type of food in villages, but don't forget that there is no system to market food, so don't be surprised if nobody has brought home extra food to be sold on the day that you need it. Also, we sometimes found it difficult to get tree fruit because the local kids often knock it all down before it ripens and take a bite of each fruit. White rice and tinned fish, considered to be prestigious convenience foods in rural Vanuatu, are sometimes available at the small village stores (which are often empty of merchandise).
"Food That Builds Bodies". Clockwise from left: tinned corned beef (a product of Vanuatu), tinned fish, small mollusks, eggs, peanuts, dried peas and beans, beef, instant powdered whole milk, land crab, fish, coconut crab (endangered species), chicken. Detail of Vanuatu Health Department - UNICEF nutrition poster.
The most common every-day protein foods are small mollusks or fish from the reefs that make up the seashore of most of Vanuatu. See this section's main page for why beef and pork is not eaten very often, even though there are lots of cattle and pigs around; see "ciguatera" in the Health section to learn why I don't recommend eating reef fish. Chickens are occasionally eaten, but not usually the eggs, although I was once served a meal of megapode eggs.
Be aware that shops in rural Vanuatu are closed from Saturday noon to Monday morning, and stock up accordingly. Alcoholic beverages are not sold in stores anywhere during the same time, although bars and restaurants continue to sell alcoholic drinks.
In general, Vanuatu is a pretty safe place. Unlike other parts of Melanesia, there is no strict "pay-back" system, in which even someone who has inadvertently injured an islander must be injured or killed in turn by a family member of the person harmed. We always felt quite safe in Vanuatu, although we took a few precautions such as locking our door at night and keeping a couple of yappy dogs when we lived in Port Vila. Ni-Vanuatu, especially out-of-town, are quite friendly to foreigners and often want to chat about your part of the world or your impressions of Vanuatu. There has been, however, some increase in crime in Port Vila and Luganville, but certainly nothing to compare with parts of large North American cities.
Sexual signals and customs differ widely between cultures, and misunderstandings, with attendant dire consequences, are too readily possible. Sexual harassment and assault, from annoying "peeping" to attempted rape, was a real concern to most of the Western women we knew in rural Vanuatu. This concern was often rooted in actual experience. In Vanuatu, women may be considered sexually available merely by the circumstance of being alone, and rape of ni-Vanuatu women is not uncommon. Ni-Vanuatu women avoid going anywhere alone, and I advise female travelers to do the same. This includes going out at night to the toilet, something ni-Vanuatu women never do. At times foreign women who are alone or with their children, for example at home or at a beach, have a man come along and make a sexual invitation or just start masturbating. We had a couple of female friends living on outer islands who, in bed with their husbands, woke up in the middle of the night to find a ni-Vanuatu man on top of them. It is believed in Vanuatu that there is a magic spell that allows a man to have sex with a woman without her husband awakening and without her remembering the experience the next day. Nighttime "peeping" through windows or woven bamboo walls is very common, sometimes accompanied with sexual invitations or threats to lone women inside. We once met a distressed female tourist who had that day wisely declined a man's invitation to come into the bush behind a beach to "take my picture" and who had returned to her car later to find it broken into, perhaps as "revenge". All of these problems are compounded by the impression given by ni-Vanuatus' most common source of information about the West: movie videos, which show our society as being very promiscuous. To summarize regarding sexual harassment or assault of women: with a male companion or, usually, with a group of females in the day, no problem. Alone, problems are likely.
My wife had only one "peeper" incident in nearly six years, but she never went around alone, we always covered our windows at night, and we always locked our door at night. We knew a Western couple who mistakenly thought that their house was privately situated because it was surrounded by bush; quite the opposite of the true situation in Vanuatu, where the bush provides cover for trespassers. After a short period of believing that their activities were private, they had constant and permanent problems with men looking through their windows after dark (sometimes while masturbating), even during their family dinners.
Modest female dress is also the rule in rural Vanuatu, as a measure of respect for local custom if for no other reason. Ni-Vanuatu women swim in the ocean wearing their island dresses (loose, flowing dress with lots of lace and ribbons that were introduced by the missionaries). I can think of only a few beaches in Vanuatu where it would be appropriate for a woman to wear a bathing suit, and almost all of them are very near Port Vila or Luganville. Remember that no matter how deserted a place seems to you, there are very likely at least one pair of curious eyes peering out from the surrounding bush. A Westerner who had lived in a village once told me that she and her husband were embarrassed to learn that what they had considered for several months to be their private beach had been under close observation during many of their sessions there.
Here is the good news: there are very few dangerous land animals in Vanuatu, aside from domestic animals such as dogs and bulls. There is no rabies in Vanuatu. There are only two species of land snake, and both are nonvenomous. There are large poisonous centipedes, although I never saw one, and the odd non-venomous scorpion (I saw one, once). There is an obnoxious plant, though, the nangalat plant, which is usually, but not always, found near water and has large leaves with stinging hairs on their undersides which break off under your skin and hurt for weeks until the skin is replaced by its normal regrowth. Get your guide to point it out, and keep alert. I have had a few run-ins with this one, and it is a royal pain. I have also been bitten by the odd stinging ant and stung by hornets.
They do eat the occasional person in Vanuatu. Ni-Vanuatu won't even wade at black sand beaches. I never got a satisfactory reason, perhaps indicative of a custom explanation that they didn't want to share. I usually got a vague reply that sharks are hard to see against the black sand or that sharks are attracted to black sand.
Sharks hold a special place in Vanuatu custom. People from a village near Lakatoro would not eat shark, because they believed that their clan was descended from one. (Other villages wouldn't eat things like female pigs - male was OK - for the same reason.) Ni-Vanuatu in general ascribe almost all shark attacks to men who change form into a shark and attack an enemy to exact revenge for some wrongdoing. I once went through all of Malekula's recent shark attacks with some of my ni-Vanuatu coworkers, and they had a custom explanation for each one. I tried to trip them up on a newly-arrived Swiss tourist who was killed less than an hour after he arrived, my theory being that he hadn't been there long enough to make any enemies. I was told that he had run into the water at the exact time and place that the intended victim was supposed to have, and was killed by mistake. They did admit that they didn't know why the American child of a yachting couple had been taken at Port Sandwich Bay. I guess you can gather that the occasional tourist is killed by sharks. For what it's worth, I just didn't worry much about it, figuring that I had more chance being killed by a car when walking down the sidewalk in Canada. Many other expatriates were much more cautious about where they swam on Malekula than I was. You pays your money and you takes your chances. (Obviously, I value swimming and snorkeling more than eating reef fish or avoiding anti-malarial drugs.) Paama Island had a bad reputation for shark attacks, but I never heard of an incident on Efate Island. The trouble with asking locally is that they always tell you there is no danger because they figure that whitemen are less affected by sorcery than ni-Vanuatu.
In the ocean are sea snakes which are venomous but not aggressive, stone fish which are incredibly well camouflaged and will give you a bad sting, their cousins the lionfish which are easy to see and also give a bad sting, cone shells which can give a very bad sting, sea urchins with sharp spines, and coral which is very sharp (I have the scars on my hands to prove it). Wear shoes on the reef, be very careful what you touch on the reef, don't pick up large live cone shells, and wear cloth gloves while snorkeling or diving.
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©Stan Combs, 1996.