Friday, December 07, 2007

Why I'm interested in Vanuatu

Here's my explanation for my fascination with Vanuatu: Vanuatu is part of a region of the South Pacific known as Melanesia. Melanesia, going roughly from Papua New Guinea in the west to Fiji in the east is populated by descendants of one of the waves of migration from Africa, people who came to the islands roughly forty thousand years ago. As such, Melanesian culture is one of the oldest and possibly purist in the world, more so the culture on the smaller islands where there's been more isolation. It's true that a culture can't stay static for forty thousand years, no doubt there's been evolution and change, but they carry with them the sort of primal traditions of mankind as few other peoples do. The inhabitants of Melanesia are the cousins of the Australian aborigines, who came to Australia during the same early migration. Polynesians came much later to these islands. The only peoples who are more ancient are the Andaman islanders.

The Andaman islanders in the Indian Ocean, east of central India, are officially referred to as an uncontacted people. This is because they basically kill anyone from the outside who tries to land there and interact with them. One of the islands was taken by force, and now there's a road there, but the others remain remote. Nothing is known about these islanders' belief systems or language besides what can be intuited from the contacts on the other island. The only information about them is gotten from anthropologists who set up covert observation stations with strong telephoto lenses on their video cameras. They fire arrows at helicopters that fly overhead as well. Because of all of this, and because the Andaman islanders clearly want to be left alone, they aren't a good candidate for interaction with.

You can actually go to Vanuatu. I was thinking about Papua New Guinea, but from what I read PNG society (as they abbreviate it) has decayed to a great degree thanks to the wonders of industrialization and modernity, leading to a surge in crime and violence in the capitol city of Port Moresby unlike anything that I've ever heard of. In the Highlands, where tribes live closer to their original state, warfare between tribes that used to be isolated from each other has escalated out of control, with grenade launchers and AK-47s taking the place of spears, as Michael Moran noted in his book "Beyond the Coral Sea", about his experience in the islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea, which I'm reading right now.

Vanuatu, and the Solomon Islands to the west, are more peaceful, possibly because of the lack of ethnic warfare due to less more of a monoculture. Papua New Guinea, as a sort of Ur-state of the first people to come out of Africa, has three hundred bona fide separate languages and peoples attached to them.

They, the Melanesians of today, are the descendants of cannibals, although cannibalism is only practiced in small parts of the New Guinean Highlands today. This adds to the attraction instead of detracting from it. It means that they are genuine, not stereotypical "noble savages". They represent nature unveiled as it really is. An industrial group I like did a song called "Nature Unveiled" and it consists of minutes of harsh atonal noise. The real history of people living close to nature, close to the original state that we came out of, is a history with blood and violence as well as niceness, of archaic mysteries that praise both the dark aspects and the light. Melanesian people are famous for their easy going attitude if you're identified as a friend, but as Michael Moran reports as well sometimes people who aren't totally at ease with you will give you a smile that's halfway between friendliness and sinister plotting. This is the reality of life, and I'm a big proponent of reconciling the two sort of opposing features: hate and love.

The spirit world, as it existed before Christianity, as it existed even before Rome, is still present with them and their beliefs and practices, particularly in certain islands in Vanuatu, hearken back to practices only hinted at in some places and recorded in monuments whose meaning people have long forgotten.

I want to go their someday, the only problem besides the large amount of money that it would take and the aspect of having to find money after I get back along with what I'd do with my apartment and things in the....maybe several weeks, that I'd be there, is how to experience it without the resort hotel experience. Port Vila, the main town in the Vanuatu island chain, has been developed to the hilt for wealthy travelers that want to see the South Pacific sunsets and scenery but who don't want to get too close to the natives of the South Pacific themselves, especially since the natives are black. Carefully packaged interactions with the people who live there aren't what I'm after. I want to approach the people living there as more of a normal person than as a big European Sahib, living in luxury in their hotels.

The magic and mystery is there.

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