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Strange Geographies: Village Life in Vanuatu

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I've written a lot about strange places in the U.S. -- an airplane graveyard in the desert; a mock Iraqi village in the suburbs of San Diego; a town killed by a modern-day dustbowl two hours north of Los Angeles. But the strangest place I've ever been -- the strangest and most beautiful, I should say -- is a developing nation 1000km northeast of Australia, populated by the friendliest former cannibals you'll ever meet, called Vanuatu. I wrote about it a little bit back in April, right after I returned from two weeks in country, but I'd had such a whirlwind trip, and taken thousands of pictures I'd hardly even begun to cull, that I needed six months or so to process just how profoundly different life in Vanuatu is.

It's an archipelago comprised of 84 volcanic islands, each separated by many miles of shark-filled seas and unpredictable weather. Travel between islands is difficult and expensive, and as a result, to many of Vanuatu's 200,000 citizens "international travel" means going to a nearby island every few years to visit cousins. They've had some exposure to foreigners -- missionaries starting in the 19th century (some of whom were eaten); American soldiers during World War II, who established a base on the largest island to fend off the Japanese, stationed in the nearby Solomons; some British and French, who co-governed Vanuatu in a bizarre arrangement for many years; and tourists that come to a few of the islands nowadays (mostly from Australia, which is where they all assumed I was from). But even on the largest islands, which are mountainous and covered with tough-to-penetrate jungle, there are remote villages where locals have rarely, if ever, encountered outsiders. I didn't make it quite that far afield, but I did find myself in a few off-the-beaten villages that were definitely not on the tourist trail, and luckily, I brought my camera.

There's one main city in Vanutu, Port Vila, which is heavily westernized and caters to tourists who come in on cruise ships, and another large-ish town, Luganville, which is a few dusty streets of Chinese-owned shops, French restaurants and hotels catering mainly to scuba divers. Villages throughout the rest of the country rarely have electricity or running water, and though the people are very poor, they own their own land, and the rich soil and unspoiled seas make farming and fishing easy. Food that tourists consider delicacies, like coconut crab, mangoes, pineapple, and all manner of fish, are everyday dishes for the locals. A fisherman on Oyster Island at dusk:

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Families make money by selling what they grow in village gardens at roadside markets like this one:

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coconut boy

Cows are everywhere and beef is plentiful. The grass-fed, organic beef raised on Espiritu Santo is considered some of the finest in the world, and is exported to top-tier restaurants in Japan and Australia. What else would you expect from cows that get to hang out on the beach all day? I ran across these ladies while kayaking:

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Of course, when a cow is slaughtered, nothing goes to waste. Fresh oxtail, anyone?

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Pigs are a big deal on Vanuatu, as well. Pigs are a traditional form of monetary exchange, and the most valuable pigs are the ones with the longest tusks. PIgs whose tusks grow so long that they make a loop that pierces the bottom of the animal's jaw -- gruesome, I know -- are especially valuable. Some pig jaws on proud display in an Espiritu Santo meeting hut:
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Homes are made from branches and folded palm leaves, which are sturdy enough to keep out the most torrential rain, but tend to blow away during cyclones (which are frequent). Here's a detail of the underside of a hut roof:
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Here are a few views of typical Vanuatu villages, homes and a Catholic church, all woven from grass and leaves:

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Christianity came with missionaries in the 19th century, and while churches abound, many villages still practice customary religions and black magic. There are also a number of fascinating cults on Vanuatu -- especially on the volcanically active island of Tanna, where tourists come to ogle a lava-spitting mountain they call Old Man Yasur.
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You can climb up to the rim of Yasur, which puts on a humbling show after dark.

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I was disappointed that I wasn't able to visit either of Tanna's cult villages, the best known of which is the Jon Frum cargo cult. A white man known as Jon Frum (possibly "Jon from America") supposedly visited Tanna sometime before the second world war, predicting that white men would drop from the sky with food and all sorts of goods -- which is exactly what happened when the war began. When the Americans and their cargo left, the Jon Frum followers began praying to him, using faux American flags, red cross symbols, and military uniforms, hoping that more cargo from the sky would arrive. It hasn't come yet, but the Jon Frum cultists continue to worship. (Jesus died 2,000 years ago, they like to remind us, and Christians are still waiting around for him to come back.)

The American military left its mark on Vanuatu in other ways, too. Rusting quonset huts are everywhere on Espiritu Santo, and all the country's few paved roads were built by the American government. This wide, pothole-filled road, for instance, is the remnant of a WWII airstrip. Calling it "paved," however, is charitable -- It's in such bad shape that you have to drive in a zigzag pattern just to avoid the axle-breaking holes.
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The Americans also introduced a species of fast-growing vine to Espiritu Santo, in order to cover their installations and hide them from Japanese air surveillance. Those vines covered much of the island in short order:
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The locals I talked to weren't bitter about the American military presence in Vanutu, though. If anything, they seemed grateful: "You are our big strong brother!" one man said to me, flexing a muscle. "You saved us from the Japanese, then gave us our country back!" Which is true, I suppose -- whereas the French and British hung around and tried to run Vanuatu for more than a hundred years, the Americans came, established some bases, and left. Still, it was a novel experience, being thanked by someone abroad for something my country's military did.

Villagers are nothing if not resourceful. Just as they'll use American airstrips as roads, other goods have multiple uses, too. A baby named Florence enjoys an unusual tire swing:
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Once you get away from the beach, getting around the island can be a bit difficult -- rivers and tall, volcanic ridges are everywhere. But villagers, lacking concrete or asphalt, make do anyhow. This is a somewhat treacherous bamboo bridge across a river, on the other side of which is a steep ladder up a hill formed by branches.
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Later, a villager took me to an amazing, bat-filled cave (too dark to photograph) followed by a great deal of scrambling over boulders in a rushing river -- again aided by a number of seemingly death-defying hand-made bridges. (If you look closely, you'll notice that my guide is wearing a Dora the Explorer floatie around his neck.
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Finally, we floated down the river for a half-hour, nipped at by curious fish, walls of rock rising above us. Waterfalls and a riot of vegetation fell down from the cliffs above. It was, in a word, ridiculous, and the cheap waterproof camera I took this picture with does the scene no justice.

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Families and kids are everywhere on Vanuatu; the population is very young.
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Everywhere you go, kids follow, laughing and having fun.
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It was unsettling at first to realize that even the smallest kids carried machetes with them almost everywhere they went. I soon realized that they were invaluable -- the fast-growing jungle constantly needs cutting, and machetes can cut down coconuts and open them, and their blunt handles serve as hammers.

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These kids were showing me their pet eel, which they'd grown to an enormous size in a small, waterfall-fed freshwater pond in their village. They used to have two but the other one had been stolen; the remaining eel was guarded 24/7 by boys with slingshots (and machetes, naturally).
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waterfall girl

Blue kid

Kids in Vanuatu, you won't be surprised to learn, spend a lot of time in the water. Not only is the South Pacific warm year-round, but Vanuatu's islands are dotted with magical "blue holes" -- rain- and river-fed reservoirs of deep, cool, crystal blue water which provide drinking water to nearby villages and swimming holes for its young people.
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After a snorkel:
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After a scuba dive, I came up to find these boys playing on a rock jetty; they'd been following the divers' air bubbles. My lens was wet, and the result is sort of impressionistic, but totally captures the feeling of the place.
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We found this boy smiling at us from a hole in the jungle. A nearby adult explained that he'd just gone through his circumcision ritual, which meant he had to wear a namba (a huge penis-sheath), mud makeup, and hang out in holes for a week or so (this guy's English was about as good as our Bislama, so I'm not totally sure on the details).
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In short, Vanuatu is one strange and beautiful place, and it's people couldn't be friendlier. The South Pacific is a mind-bogglingly huge constellation of little island worlds, and though there are so many more to explore, I'm certain I'll be back to Vanuatu one day.

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Check out more Strange Geographies columns here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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iStock
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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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