The main purpose of our trip to Vanuatu and Fiji was to relax and enjoy the paradise of their south Pacific islands, but of course, we were also eager to learn about the culture and people of these two distinct island nations.
In both countries, most people speak the local language of their village, which is often entirely different from the language spoken in neighboring villages. Vanuatu, in particular, has the highest density in the world of languages per capita: 113 indigenous languages actively spoken by about 243,000 people, or roughly one language for every 2000 people.
In addition to local village languages, both countries have a unifying language. In Vanuatu, this language is called Bislama, a type of pidgin English that is fun to attempt to speak and understand. The waiters at our hotel thought it was quite amusing whenever we ordered a local “popo salat” (papaya salad) or “scallop shel oli rusum” (grilled sea scallops) for dinner. This is the same language that we were exposed to during our trip to Papua New Guinea, and we heard that it’s also spoken in the Solomon Islands. In Fiji, the unifying language is Fijian, which is a Malayo-Polynesian language (in the same family as Malaysian and Hawaiian languages).
In Vanuatu, English and French are also official languages, and are taught in school. Everyone we encountered spoke at least one of those fluently. In Fiji, English and Fiji Hindi are also official languages. We found that English is widely spoken by all. Fiji Hindi is spoken by the many Fijian citizens who are descendants of Indian contract laborers brought to Fiji during British colonial times, in the 19th century. These comprise about 38% of the Fijian population.
Although the native population of both countries is Melanesian, the cultures feel very different. While Vanuatu’s population is still primarily of Melanesian descent, Fiji is a melting pot of Melanesian, Polynesian, and Indian cultures.
Local foods in both countries include cassava, taro, yams, plantain, and lots of fish and seafood. Coconut and coconut milk are widely used, and wrapping ingredients in banana leaf to preserve their moisture during cooking is common. Fruits are abundant, especially papaya and mango. We truly enjoyed our taste of island food and culture!
Our hotel and private beach in Vanuatu.
Hanging in there…
The first of many romantic dinners…
The resort where we stayed in Vanuatu was beautiful, but it didn’t take long for us to start wondering about the culture and people of Vanuatu. So we decided to venture beyond the resort and have a look at a nearby village. As we walked along, we encountered friendly people who pointed us in the right direction. We were especially pleased to encounter Edna and her uncle Tosong, who chatted with us for a while and then invited us to walk with them through the village. We gladly accepted, and they pointed out the local school, church, bar, market, and houses. But the highlight was when Edna offered to show us around her house.
Tosong and Edna happily showed us around their village.
Edna showed us her kitchen, an open-air structure of wood poles and a corrugated metal roof. She has a table and chairs, a wood-fired brick stove with a large cast iron pot, and a pit in the ground that’s used to cook banana-leaf-wrapped food with hot rocks. She was too modest to mention it, but we were impressed by her collection of tropical potted plants of impossible shapes and colors, all lovingly cared for. She then showed us her house, and a separate house for her adult daughter’s family, both made of corrugated sheet metal. Nestled between the structures was a half-completed brick house that she and her husband have been working on for years. Whenever they’re able to save up some money, they buy more bricks and concrete, and with the help of friends, add another layer to it. Edna said that building the brick house gives them a purpose to work hard and save their money.
At one point, Bea asked Edna about the traditional type of dress that we saw many women in Vanuatu wearing. Edna pulled a dress from her house and encouraged Bea to try it on. When she saw how well it fit, Edna insisted that Bea should keep it. Though we appreciated Edna’s generosity, Bea politely declined, as it simply didn’t seem appropriate to accept the gift. Edna then went on to say that next time we come to Vanuatu, we should come and stay with her. We didn’t know what to say. This was just one more example of a pattern we’ve seen in our travels: some people have so little and yet they find so much to give!
Kids at the local school.
Our villa for a week in Fiji.
Every day we had dinner in a different spot on the waterfront.
Climbing in paradise.
Relaxing before dinner on the jetty.
We kayaked to this secluded beach.
The nearby reef provided fantastic snorkeling.
Spirobranchus giganteus (Christmas tree worms) on a coral head.
One of the highlights of our stay in Fiji was the opportunity to snorkel with mantas. Just a short boat ride from our hotel, we spotted five or six mantas skimming along near the surface, and we even saw one breach — jumping completely out of the water and diving back in. We grabbed our snorkels, masks, and fins, and eagerly jumped in to swim with them. Most of the mantas kept their distance from us, but one got so close to us that it sent shivers up our spines!
Mantas are large, impressive sea creatures. Closely related to sharks and rays, they can grow to 23 feet (7 m) across! Even though the ones we saw had wingspans of 6 to 8 feet (2 to 2.5 m), they still looked huge as they swam toward us with their mouths wide open.
Unlike their predatory cousins, mantas are serene and gentle animals, so we never felt unsafe. They feed by straining zooplankton (microscopic sea organisms) from the water as they swim. In fact, they never stop swimming, since they must keep water flowing through their gills in order to breathe.
We marveled at their graceful motion, as they steadily flapped their wing-like fins and “flew” by us underwater. We were drifting fast in a strong current, with choppy waves on the surface, making it impossible to get any photos, and also challenging to swim back to the boat. The tough swim was worth it, as we were able to join the mantas and see these amazing creatures in their natural habitat several more times.
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