A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: sue deegan

Why I went to Vanatu

sunny 28 °C

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One wet, boring Sunday afternoon, when I was about 10 years old, as I was idly flicking through a Sunday newspaper colour supplement, I came across two photos that soon made me perk up. The first was of an elderly black couple dressed in old fashioned clothes that reminded me of slaves from the Deep South or some Caribbean Island in the last century. The man had his arms round his wife and a bible in his hand. The caption told me it was The Reverend John ….. (I’ve forgotten his surname) and his wife Mary. I remembered the first names as they were so surprisingly English. That certainly appealed to my liking of the unusual. However it was the second photo that really made me take notice as it was another elderly couple; this time the woman was just wearing a grass skirt and the man, nothing but a penis gourd. But it was what they were holding that made me so amazed – a photograph of Prince Phillip! The article told me that these people worshiped him as a “Cargo Cult” god and were from Tanna Island in the New Hebrides. Cargo cults can emerge in isolated island societies after an encounter with people from a technologically advanced society, where magical thinking and the desire to have this wealth or “cargo” becomes a religion or cult . These seem especially common in the Pacific.

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Strangely enough, for a 10 year old, I already knew about these islands. My big brother had a book, which he didn’t read much but had “Susan cannot read this” written in large letters on the inside page. Of course I read it whenever he wasn’t there. The book told of strange world customs and had a page about the land diving (original bungee jumping) on Pentecost Island in the New Hebrides. The highlight of this book, for me, was an illustration of a man jumping head first off a rickety bamboo platform with nothing to break his fall but a vine, complete with leaves round his ankle!

That clinched it for me! Someday, I knew, I must visit this place. I kept this article for some years, but then lost it in one of the numerous moves I made, but it always remained in the back of my mind. It came to the fore, briefly, when I saw a TV documentary about this same tribe, some of whom came to England and visited Prince Phillip. Several years later as I was planning my first trip south of the Equator, there was no doubt in my mind I had to go and go to the New Hebrides, now called Vanuatu.

I was planning to go there some time in May 2015, however in March there was some terrible news that brought Vanuatu more into world awareness. Cyclone Pam, one of the worst disasters to hit the Pacific area, it devastated the Island group and Tanna was one of the worst affected. Images came in of buildings being destroyed and as the islands are spread out with little infrastructure, if any, there was little known of the extent of the damage, especially in the more islands. I kept up with the news as best as I could, which wasn’t much really and by the time I was able to go in late May, the word was that things were improving and Vanuatu would benefit by having visitors to help with the economy. So that the trip was still on.

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Posted by sue deegan 03:59 Archived in Vanuatu Tagged islands villages tribes port_vila vanuatu south_pacific efate kastom kastom_villages Comments (0)

Port Vila 1

Markets and languages

sunny 27 °C

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My travelling companion was my son, who I'd gone to visit in Australia. As the plane flew over the island of Efate, our first stop of call, it was easy to see the effects of the cyclone. The islands are all densely forested and though the majority of the trees were still there, it looked as if a demented, giant gardener had been let loose with an enormous strimmer. Arriving from that direction, you don't see much of the town and so it felt like we were are in the middle of a jungle, not the capital city of a large group of islands.

I find that the arrival area of an airport is often much more low-key than the departure, and this is certainly the case with Port Vila, where the arrival hall gave the impression of a largish shed compared to the glamour of Australian airports. We were quickly stamped through and told where we could get a bus to the town. In common with many countries, Port Vila has a wonderful minibus system; you get on one of the numerous vans, pay the set fee and get dropped off where, or close to where, you need to go. If more people get on than there are seats, everybody good-naturedly squishes up a bit. No matter that we didn't have a road name for where we were staying - the dread-locked driver knew where it was. Some "comfortably built" ladies got on and as the radio played some reggae we set off - I briefly wondered if I'd gone to the right island and had been transported to Jamaica. Later I realised that the constantly visible national colours: red, black, green and gold also encouraged that impression.

After briefly settling into the “motel”, which, strangely enough bore no relationship to the photos we’d seen online, I was itching to have a look around we headed downtown on another of the numerous minivans.

When you have such high expectations of a place, you have to be very careful not to be disappointed; I’d prepared myself that things could be very different from how I’d imagined them to be. Anyway this wasn’t evenTanna Island and I didn’t have any great hopes for Port Vila, even expecting it to be quite dull. But the moment I set foot in the town, I was in love. There were women wearing the same Island dresses I’d seen in that first photo and everything seemed very low key and relaxed.

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A few days before I’d been in a hot, humid Indonesian city with motorbike screeching in my ears and people trying to sell me things on every corner, so the balmy warmth and lack of people hassling me was wonderful. I was used to the scruffiness and broken pavements from other countries and so hardly noticed them, but at the same time it seemed totally different from anywhere I'd been before.

As you can imagine from the name, Port Vila is on the seafront, in fact it's the most important harbour in Vanuatu. Every Friday a cruise ship comes in and boosts the income of craft sellers and there seems to be quite a large, wealthy yachting community harboured there.

There are two important things you should know about Vanuatu to give you an understanding of its people. The first is its languages:

Before I’d got to Vanuatu, I knew a little about its languages. There are 65 inhabited islands with 115 different languages spread across them. Tanna Island alone has 4 different languages apart from the national languages: English, French and the main one,Bislama . One of the reasons for this is the remoteness, not just of the islands from each other, but also between the villages on them. There are no roads at all on some islands and people get around by boats and other islands the roads are difficult to travel on. Each part of the islands is owned by one tribe or other and one village may speak a different language from another just a few miles away. A lot of the tribes don’t even speak Bislama.

When the English and French came along and used people from different parts of Vanuatu to work for them in them, there was a need for a common language, and so the Pidgin/Creole language of Bislama was born.

What I wasn’t prepared for, was how adorable I’d find the language. Not only is it close enough to English to be able to work out - eventually - but it sounds exactly how you think it should! The word “blong” is used very frequently. It means “from” and any words associated with it. For example the meaning of “Sue blong England” is pretty obvious and “our” is “blong yumi” (pronounced youme). “Bigfella” means big, but the phrase for flippers, as in diving, was my favourite: “leg blong duck-duck”. In fact I’m still smiling at it as I’m typing this several weeks later!! The word for “children” is “pickninies” which the people don’t see as having any racist connotations. The expression for anything good is namber wan. I also had a great time using the phrase “Thank you Tomas” at every opportunity, which means “Thank you too much”.

So, you can imagine that trying to read all the signs was a great, absorbing activity! I even bought a little book with a traditional story translated into English; unfortunately this now seems to have gone to the great backpack in the sky along with all the other things I’ve lost on my travels!

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The minibus dropped us at the “City Centre” where we had a look around. There were other foreigners there. It seemed they were a mixture of yacht people; expats who worked/retired there; NGO workers helping to rebuild after the cyclone; a Lithuanian couple travelling around the islands (more about these later) - and us.

I tried to gauge the size of the city, but there didn’t seem a lot to it. There were a few small supermarkets and a lot of general stores, a western clothes shop and an inside market area with women sewing island dresses. Later, as I flew over the town, I could see it was a bit bigger than it appeared.

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In the centre there is a new purpose-built food market. It was selling a rather reduced selection of stuff. The cyclone had pulled up the above ground plants and fruits and they were just beginning to grow back again – relatively quickly thanks to the climate and the volcanic nature of the islands. There was a better selection of root vegetable and also some “kastom” medicine. However, coconut and coffee will take several years to grow back to their original abundance. A lot of the produce grown in Vanuatu is organic. At the back were some food stalls. People were waiting outside for transport laden down with large bags of rice and other staples. One of the first things I’d noticed after arriving were the posters for the “Namber Wan Rice – blong yumi” and the advertising slogan seemed to be working, even though the rice came from China!

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I wandered about the market taking photos, tentatively at first, but nearly everyone seemed to be very happy to be photographed. I noticed someone wearing a t-shirt with Survivor Cyclone Pam written on it and I found that not only were people happy to talk about their experiences, but they seemed to need to do so, maybe as a healing process. Every conversation ended with the reassurance that they were still smiling and that the process of rebuilding was well under way, island time. Ni-Vanuatus, the name for people from Vanuatu, pride themselves on being the happiest nation in the world, but the aftermath of Pam was stretching this to it’s limits, but they were coping amazingly well.

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Island life does seem to have a different rhythm to it, well islands in the sun anyway. People were walking in a different way – sort of sloping and unhurried, flip-flops dragging on the ground, but you knew that they were capable of covering several miles without appearing to make much effort! Later, after being on Tanna Island, I’d look back on Port Vila as super urban, but for now, I delighted in its laid-back atmosphere.

Now and again we were offered taxis, but were never pushed when we said no. We went to the craft market where Island ladies tried to sell over-priced souvenirs. I’d read that you didn’t need to bargain here and that everyone charged the right price – I took that with a pinch of salt after the silly prices came rapidly down after I walked away! I was told that they were waiting for Friday, when the cruise ship came in and they sold most of their stuff. There were signs of damage still around the place apparently a lot of it was still there because of the insurers’ universal reluctance to pay out!

So many people were happy to talk and I heard a lot of people’s stories; the lady who’d been to Australia and thought it was ok for a holiday but too much hard work to live in; those who’d been frightened as their houses were blowing apart in the cyclone; people from other remote islands who were worried about their families.

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But there was one unfortunate fact about Vanuatu that stopped all my daydreams about spending a lot more time there – the cost of living. After Indonesia, it was incredibly expensive, probably on a par with Australia. This may have been compounded by the cyclone damage, but, like many other Pacific Islands, it had already been an expensive place to visit.

Posted by sue deegan 07:05 Archived in Vanuatu Tagged islands villages tribes port_vila vanuatu south_pacific efate kastom kastom_villages Comments (0)

Port Vila 2

Kava

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Maybe you’ve forgotten that I said that there were two important things to know about Vanuatu. So, though not necessarily in this order, the second one is Kava; a mildly narcotic root grown in many pacific islands. It’s been used in ceremonies for centuries and so is not just a bit of a buzz but is deeply entrenched in Vanuatu’s identity. Traditionally it is only the men who drink the Kava and sometimes only the chiefs in times of trouble or if there was a problem to be sorted out. The effects are meant to be physically relaxing, whilst producing mental clarity, making it useful when important decisions needed to be made.

The root is very hard and needs to be broken down before being mixed with water. In the villages, this is usually done by young boys or girls chewing the Kava and then spitting the softened roots onto leaves, which are then wrung out. The resulting liquid watered down and drunk. The Kava of Vanuatu is said to be the strongest and that of Tanna Island the strongest of all.

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However, in towns such as Port Vila, it was produced by grinding it up and adding it to water. Women were allowed to drink it and did so in the Kava bars you could easily find at night by walking up a back street till you saw the dim light outside them. In the nature of research and this story, I nobly went to find out what it was like.

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We caught a minivan back from the city centre and the driver and passengers were very happy to discuss which was the best one and dropped us off just up the hill from where we were staying. There were a few small buildings huddled together and the dim lights in one showed us where to go. Outside was a table with people eating and some food for sale – it was too dark to see what it was, but probably chicken. I’d been told that it was better to have Kava on an empty stomach and eat afterwards, but we didn’t try any.

We walked in and ordered some kava, which came in two sizes in a coconut shell and took it out to the back. This was a small open area with some seating, silent except for the sound of men hawking; I never found out why they do this, except that men love to hawk on the slightest pretext. The silence is one of respect for the ceremonial role that kava plays in these islands.

My son had tried Kava before, but of a weaker, Fijian type and I’m always cautious when trying something obscure for the first time, so I persuaded him to share a first small shell to see what it was like. It tastes quite bad and so you have to down it in one, there’s probably some “kastom” reason for this too, but the taste did it for me! After that you are left with a numb mouth and throat and an intense desire for a cigarette. I waited for my body to relax but although I felt great and my mind was clear, there was no great soporific effect; time for another bigger shell, then. Now my mouth was numb it was easier to drink it. I’m not sure how many I had, but I noticed the kava lady looking at me with new respect when I went back for more. I felt quite good but had no trouble walking around. The quietness and the dark imbued the kava bar with a feeling of slight seediness and although everyone was very friendly, I was glad I hadn’t gone there by myself.

We walked the short distance back and I looked forward to the promised relaxed night’s sleep that kava is meant to induce. No such luck! Apparently I’m one of a very small percentage for whom it has the opposite effect and I spent quite a long time happily reading, into the small, quiet hours, which were disturbed only by a minor earthquake, which made my bed wobble in a most disconcerting manner.

After my kava and earthquake induced lack of sleep, I was glad to have an afternoon flight to Tana Island.

At the, even smaller, domestic part of the airport, we met the couple from Latvia again, and not only were they going to Tanna, they were also staying in the same place for the first night. The large camera fixed around her neck was a slight clue to her profession. I wondered if it had to be surgically removed every evening, or if she slept with it on; but with good reason, as she was writing a commissioned book about Vanuatu and couldn’t miss a shot. She showed us hundreds of photos of the islands they had already travelled around and I was especially interested in the ones of Pentecost Island, where the land-diving takes place for 2 months of the year when the vines are at their most elastic. Her photos were quite similar to the book illustrations that had inspired me as a child and their stories and photos of remote villages and jungle treks were fascinating. They were both tall and well-proportioned, sported nifty looking pirate headscarves, singlets and jungle trousers and had similar pleasant blond looks; no wonder that they would later be christened “The Twins” by our future hostess.

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Posted by sue deegan 07:30 Archived in Vanuatu Tagged islands villages tribes port_vila vanuatu south_pacific efate kastom kastom_villages Comments (0)

Tanna Island 1

Trip to Mt Yassur

sunny 27 °C

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The small plane took us over a beautiful blue ocean and small green islands, whose beauty was only marred by the obvious signs of destruction and as we landed at Tanna, I could see that the damage was considerably worse there.

It didn’t take long to find our backpacks in amongst the bags and UNICEF boxes and to get through the tiny airport and out into the green surroundings of grass, palm trees and a distant hillside. There waiting for us was Lizzie, our beautiful hostess and several members of her family. We all, eventually, piled into the waiting four wheel drive and headed off for our new temporary home. Right from the start, their sense humour was obvious and we joked about everything, including my being related to the Queen of England, though I think the driver optimistically believed it for a short time, thinking of the probable financial benefits of a royal lady in his car. I was sorry to disillusion him.

The dusty unmade road was the main road from the airport to the “city” and seemed to go on for hours, passing some small villages and a lot of jungly woodland. Eventually we turned down a small track that didn’t seem possible to drive down and we arrived at a clearing, containing a few thatched buildings and a path that led down to the sea. Later, walking down the track I realised that it was actually quite short and that it had all seemed so far as the car had to drive so slowly. “You’ll have all your meals here and we’ll arrange all your outings” our hostess was used to tourists that liked everything laid on for them and said this to reassure us, but later my son and I admitted that our hearts had sunk at that remark, feeling a bit trapped in this apparently isolated place.

Once we had organised ourselves in our thatched bungalow, we walked down to the beach in time to see the sunset. It was very beautiful, although obviously recovering from the cyclone. There were several people on the beach, fishing out by the reef and walking along, making me realise that it wasn’t so remote after all. Everyone was very friendly and the group of boys fishing explained that the wheeled sticks they were pushing along the beach were for rolling up the nets.

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We arranged to go to see the volcano the next day, sharing the trip with the Twins, who were going that direction anyway, and engaged in some stiff negotiation. Mt Yasur is one the world’s most accessible live volcanoes, it’s 1,184 ft above sea level and has been continuously active for the last 800 years. Its best to go to the volcano in the late afternoon and to stay there while it gets dark and so we all set off at what seemed to be a ridiculously early time for such a short distance. The whole Island is only 25 miles/40km long and 12 miles/19km wide and it was only on the other side of the island! Our first stop was to buy some postcards at the post office in the “city” - more about that later, and then to drop the Twins’ stuff off at their next nights accommodation near to the volcano. There is a post box on the path to the volcano and postcards that get posted there get a special frank. I sent two off, and several months later they arrived!

As we drove to the volcano, it became quickly apparent why the trip had cost so much and took so long: apart from the odd very short stretch of tarmac road in very surprising places, the road was quite easily the worst I’d ever seen, the 4WD lurched up and down. Potholes were the easy bit, but it was the massive banks and falls in the road that made it such a slow and tortuous journey. We carried on for about 2 hours like this, the driver cursing the road with every manoeuvre. Before we left I’d wondered about coming as I had a terrible stomach ache, but after half an hour of churning around, it miraculously disappeared. Eventually we came to the other side of the Island and could see the smoking mountain in the background.The drive actually became easier as we left the road and crossed a lava mud landscape and a river. The man washing his car in the river was the owner of the Twins’ new tree top accommodation and he directed us to it. However all the tortuous driving and the photo stops essential with two photographers in the car, meant that time was getting on and so we carried on to Mt Yasur.

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After driving incredibly close to the volcano, you just need to walk uphill a bit, post your cards at the postbox and walk up some steps. From this vantage you can actually see the frequent eruptions but after a bit of exploring, we realised that there was a path going right up to what seems to be on the edge of the crater. It’s mainly black volcanic sand and as the path wends its way upwards it often disappears a bit.

Although I’m a fairly “comfortably built” lady myself, I like a bit of uphill walking the trouble comes when I’m going downhill, especially if it’s slippy and slidy. Having known this would be the case, I prepared myself carefully by bringing a walking stick and had scoured Port Vila for a torch for coming down in the dark. Of course, these remained in my room and I so I did my usual: walk uphill and try to forget about the descent. I walked up the sometimes disappearing sandy path and sat down to watch the show. Although it felt like one slip and you’d be in one of the three active craters, there was wasn’t too much heat coming from it. As it got dark the display got more and more impressive until it was completely breathtaking. Eventually it was time to attempt the slidy descent, but luckily I had a sure-footed son with a steady arm and a torch on his phone and so it was relatively easy.

Posted by sue deegan 00:10 Archived in Vanuatu Tagged islands villages tribes port_vila vanuatu south_pacific efate kastom kastom_villages Comments (0)

Tanna Island 2

Lenakel aka Blackmanstown

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I soon realised that my original impression of being in the middle of nowhere on a dusty track was pretty inaccurate. We were on one of the best roads between the airport and not only was the “city, which was in walking distance it was also served by erratic minivan buses. The this town has a population of about 11,000 and is called Lenakel, or Blackman’s town for its policy of only allowing locals to set up in business there. There were several tiny hamlets on the way and a couple of schools. Most of the school buildings had been damaged in the cyclone and UNICEF had supplied them all with marquees, books and backpacks. A teacher we talked to one the way told us that, although school was reasonably optional for small children, the aid had made a positive impact by normalising life for the children after the trauma.

Before going to the Prince Phillip worshipping village of Yaohnanen, which I privately named Phil Vill, I wanted to get more of an idea of more of the Island, so we made a few trips around. We went to Lenarkel a few times. The first part was the business centre with a post office, bank, Air Vanuatu office, a paplik fon and an internet vilej, all very low key. A generator stood outside bank, just incase. An ATM suddenly appeared one day, but unfortunately it was for local use only. No matter how frugal we tried to be with our money, it was disappearing fast!

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A short walk along a dusty and pot-holed road takes you to the main street, where there were a few shops, another closed internet place and the market place. This was, of course a much more low-key affair than the one in Port Vila and consisted of a small covered area and a group of people selling things under a large tree. Nearly everything being sold were vegetables, luckily the fertile Tanna soil meant that these were starting to grow again after the devastation. Not everything would grow back so quickly though, coconuts can take up to 10 years and the coffee for the local coffee factory, five. There was also a small Kava market down the road. A strangely modern-looking petrol pump was housed in a large metal shed propped open by a stick and there was also a small local garage. Apparently there is a biggish hotel with wifi there that NGO’s stay at and has internet, but I didn’t see it.

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After the market, I was delighted to find that not only was there a Kava bar, but women were allowed to drink there too. This was surprising as I had been told that it was taboo for women on Tanna. But, it seems times are changing. My previous experience told me that I should not drink Kava after the afternoon, but I was interested to try the supposedly strongest Kava in the world. It was also the only place that sold food, and the woman selling the scrawny but tasty chicken stew seemed surprised but delighted that a westerner would want to eat it.

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During the day this one seemed to have a different feel and was as empty as a country English local during a week day. So, feeling like an old soak, I went to the just opening counter and ordered a large shell. The tradition here seemed to be to down it in one, leaving a tiny portion for the gods/ancestors, which you then throw on the ground. I then sat down to smoke the obligatory cigarette which they sell separately for that purpose, and started to chat to a local man, who taught at a school in Port Vila and had come back for a visit. He seemed amused by my Kava drinking and insisted on buying me another and one for himself. After that it seemed churlish not to return the favour and I’m sure I saw him wink at the man selling it to make them really big ones.

At this point, I really have to say that normally I’m a complete lightweight; I have a very low tolerance for alcohol and go for months without drinking it. I just seem to have an unusual reaction to Kava.

So, at this point, people are already surprised to find foreigner in their bar, especially a woman who drinks a lot in the day with no seeming effect, loves their local food and so what better time for my son to do the Elastic Band Trick! This even freaks me out a bit, even though I know how he does it as it appears that he passes one elastic band through the other and he is very, very good at it! A few people gathered around to watch and were suitably amazed, but one man came along who completely panicked, screamed and ran away to a safe distance. We did manage to coax him back and reassure him it was just a trick, eventually.

Tanna, in common with most of the other islands of Vanuatu has a very strong belief in magic. There seems to be a divide between the Christians, of several denominations, and the Kastom people. Many people told us that the chiefs of the island had got together and reassured the people that they could protect them from the impending cyclone and some believed them and others stuck to their christianity. However, neither seemed to have much of an effect and one of our lovely hosts told us about how they spent two days holding on to the roofs of their houses while the cyclone raged around them. Despite the damage, the death toll was relatively low and five people died, that was obviously five too many.

Lenakel has a pier for the ship from Port Vila to dock at and although a lot of people fly, the boat arrives every few days or whenever the sea allows it to. A lot of heavy items can only be brought by boat and when its due there is great excitement as everyone waits for the sea let the boat come close enough. This might take from an hour to a day!

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Unfortunately you can’t hire bikes on the island but have too bring them from Port Villa and local transport seems to stop once you get to the airport. We decided to go a to place past there that had the reputation for the best snorkelling, we got as far as the airport, but after waiting some time, we realised that we’d have to hitch a lift. It’s not really hitching as it involves paying a reasonable amounts of money for fuel costs! We arrived at a surprisingly swanky complex run by an Australian, who kindly let us use the amenities. There was a jetty you could jump off and climb back up and I stupidly took the cowards way down, which I paid for by cutting my knee; I would come to regret that later on. Luckily the workers’ pick-up was just about to go and we hitched a (free) ride back on that.

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Posted by sue deegan 01:19 Archived in Vanuatu Tagged islands villages tribes port_vila vanuatu south_pacific efate kastom kastom_villages Comments (0)

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