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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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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

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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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10 Legendary (and Probably Made-Up) Islands
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Often, islands come to represent places of extremes: they serve as utopias, purgatories, or ultimate dream vacation destinations. When it comes to mythological islands, utopias are especially popular. The Greeks had their Fortunate Islands, or Islands of the Blessed, where the luckiest mortals whiled away their time drinking and sporting. The Irish had a similar concept with their Mag Mell, or Plain of Honey, described as an island paradise where deities frolicked and only the most daring mortals occasionally visited. 

But mythology isn't the only engine creating islands that don't actually exist—some of these legendary land masses popped up on maps after miscalculations by early explorers who interpreted icebergs, fog banks, and mirages as real islands. Some of these cartographic “mistakes” may have been intentional—certain islands depicted on medieval maps might have been invented so they could be named after the patrons who funded the explorations. Even explorer Robert E. Peary wasn't immune: Some say he invented "Crocker Land," a supposedly massive island in the Arctic, to secure funding from San Francisco financier George Crocker. Crocker Land didn’t exist, although that didn’t prevent major American organizations (including the American Museum of Natural History) from sponsoring a four-year expedition to find it.

Much like the fictional Crocker Island, here are 10 more imaginary isles, all of which have a place in world history, literature, or mythology—despite not having a place on the map.

1. Isle of Demons 

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Supposedly located off the coast of Newfoundland, this landmass (sometimes depicted as two islands) appeared on 16th century and early 17th century maps, and was named for the mysterious cries and groans mariners reported hearing through the mist.

The island was given a somewhat more solid identity after 1542, when nobleman and adventurer Jean-François Roberval was instructed by the King of France to found settlements along the North Atlantic coast. He brought his niece, Marguerite de La Rocque de Roberval, along for the voyage, but she began a passionate affair with one of Roberval's officers. Annoyed, Roberval put his niece (and maybe the officer—accounts differ), as well as her nurse, ashore on an otherwise unspecified "Isle of Demons" in the St. Lawrence River. Marguerite gave birth on the island, but the child died, as did Marguerite’s lover and nurse. However, the plucky Marguerite survived alone for several years, using her firearms against the wild beasts. After being rescued by Basque fishermen and returning to France, she reported that she had been beset "by beasts or other shapes abominably and unutterably hideous, the brood of hell, howling in baffled fury."  

Marguerite’s story appears in several historical accounts, including versions by Franciscan friar André Thevet and the Queen of Navarre. Still, the location of the “Isle of Demons” on which she landed has never been found for certain. Maritime historian and veteran Atlantic sailor Donald Johnson thinks he has identified it as Fichot Island, close to the Strait of Belle Isle at the northern tip of Newfoundland. Johnson notes that Fichot Island lies on Roberval's course, and is home to a breeding colony of gannets—a type of seabird whose guttural cries, heard only while breeding, may have been taken for the sounds of demons.

2. Antillia 


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Also known as the Isle of Seven Cities, Antillia was a 15th century cartographic phenomenon said to lie far west of Spain and Portugal. Stories about its existence are connected to an Iberian legend in which seven Visigothic bishops and their parishioners fled Muslim conquerors in the eighth century, sailing west and eventually discovering an island where they founded seven settlements.  The bishops burned their ships, so they could never return to their former homeland. 

According to some versions of the legend, many people have visited Antillia but no one has ever left; in other versions of the tale, sailors can see the island from a distance, but the land always vanishes once they approach. Spain and Portugal even once squabbled over the island, despite its non-existence, perhaps because its beaches were said to be strewn with precious metals. By the late 15th century, once the North Atlantic was better mapped, references to Antillia disappeared—although it did lend its name to the Spanish Antilles.

3. Atlantis 

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First mentioned by Plato, Atlantis was supposedly a large island that lay "to the west of the Pillars of Hercules" in the Atlantic Ocean. It was said to be a peaceful but powerful kingdom lost beneath the waves after a violent earthquake was released by the gods as punishment for waging war against Athens. There have been many attempts at identifying the island, although it may have been entirely a creation of Plato’s imagination; some archeologists associate it with the Minoan island of Santorini, north of Crete, whose center collapsed after a volcanic eruption and earthquake around 1500 BC. 

4. Aeaea 

In Greek mythology, Aeaea is the floating home of Circe, the goddess of magic. Circe is said to have spent her time on the island, gifted to her by her father, the Sun, waiting for mortal sailors to land so she could seduce them. (Afterwards, the story goes, she would turn them into pigs.) Some classical scholars have identified Aeaea as the Cape Circeium peninsula on the western coast of Italy, which may have been an island in the days of Homer, or may have looked like one because of the marshes surrounding its base.  

5. Hy-Brasil 

Also known as Country o'Breasal, Brazil Rock, Hy na-Beatha (Isle of Life), Tir fo-Thuin (Land Under the Wave), and by many other names, Brasil (Gaelic for "Isle of the Blessed") is one of the many mythical islands of Irish folklore, but one that nevertheless made several appearances on real maps.   

Like the Mediterranean's Atlantis, Brasil was said to be a place of perfect contentment and immortality. It was also the domain of Breasal, the High King of the World, who held court there every seven years. Breasal had the ability to make the island rise or sink as he pleased, and normally only let the island be visible when his court was in full swing.  

According to legend, Brasil lay "where the sun touched the horizon, or immediately on its other side—usually close enough to see but too far to visit." It first appeared on a map made in 1325 by Genoese cartographer Daloroto, who depicted it as a large area to the southwest of Ireland. (Later maps placed it farther west.) Its shape was usually drawn as a near-perfect circle, bifurcated by a river. Numerous explorers searched for the island, and some, including Italian navigator John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), even claimed to have found it. 

Today, scholars think Brasil may have been a reference to Baffin Island, or to now-sunken lands visible only when sea levels were lower during the last Ice Age, or else an optical illusion produced by layers of hot and cold air refracting light rays.  

6. Baralku 

Among the indigenous Australians of the Yolngu culture, Baralku (or Bralgu) is the island of the dead. The island holds a central place in the Yolngu cosmology—it's where the creator-spirit Barnumbirr is said to live before rising into the sky as the planet Venus each morning. Baralku is also the spot where the three siblings who created the landscape of Australia, the Djanggawul, originated. The island supposedly lies to the east of Arnhem Land in Northern Australia, and the Yolngu believe their souls return there after death.

7. Saint Brendan's Isle  

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This piece of land was said to have been discovered by Irish abbot and traveler Saint Brendan and his followers in 512, and to be located in the North Atlantic, somewhere west of Northern Africa. Brendan became famous after the publication of the Latin Navigation of St Brendan, an 8th/9th century text that described his voyage in search of the wonderful "Land of Promise" in the Atlantic Ocean. The book was a medieval best-seller, and gave the saint his nickname, "Brendan the Navigator." The island was said to be thickly wooded, filled with rich fruit and flowers. Tales of St. Brendan's Isle inspired Christopher Columbus, among others, and had an important influence on medieval cartography. Sightings were reported as late as the 18th century.

8. Avalon 

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First mentioned in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century Historia regum Britanniae, Avalon is the place where the legendary King Arthur's sword is forged, and where he is sent to recover after being wounded in battle. The island was said to be the domain of Arthur's half-sister, sorceress Morgan le Fay, as well as her eight sisters. Starting in the 12th century, Avalon was identified with Glastonbury in Somerset, in connection with Celtic legends about a paradisiacal “island of glass.” Twelfth century monks at Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have discovered Arthur’s bones—although later historians believe their “discovery” was a publicity stunt to raise money for Abbey repairs. 

9. Island of Flame 

In ancient Egyptian mythology, the Island of Flame (also known as the Island of Peace) was the magical birthplace of the gods and part of the kingdom of Osiris. It was said to have emerged out of primeval waters and to lay far to the East, beyond the boundaries of the world of the living. Associated with the rising sun, it was a place of everlasting light.  

10. Thule

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For the Greeks and Romans, Thule existed at the northernmost limit of their known world. It first appears in a lost work by the Greek explorer Pytheas, who supposedly found it in the 4th century BC. Polybius says that "Pytheas ... has led many people into error by saying that he traversed the whole of Britain on foot … and telling us also about Thule, those regions in which there was no longer any proper land nor sea nor air, but a sort of mixture of all three of the consistency of a jelly-fish in which one can neither walk nor sail, holding everything together, so to speak." Later scholars have interpreted Thule as the Orkneys, Shetlands, Iceland, or possibly Norway, while the Nazis believed Thule was the ancient homeland of the Aryan race.  

Bonus: People Used to Think California was an Island  

Between the 16th and the 18th centuries, many Europeans believed that California was an island. Like other islands on this list, the place was reported as being a kind of paradise. In fact, the name "California" first appears in a romantic novel penned by Spanish author Garci Ordóñez de Montalvo, who described it as an island filled with gold and precious gems, populated by a race of Amazons who rode griffins.  

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Five Years via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
The Town Built On Asbestos (Population: 3)
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Five Years via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Welcome to Wittenoom, Australia, where the weather is beautiful, the scenery is unparalleled, and toxic substances seep from the earth.

Located in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, Wittenoom was once one of the top blue asbestos mining locations in the world, causing families to flock to the area for jobs. Also known as crocidolite asbestos, blue asbestos was a valuable commodity used for fire protection in ceiling tiles, insulation, electrical work, battery casings, and more. But it was also an incredibly dangerous one—all types of asbestos can cause fatal illnesses, but because crocidolite fibers are as thin as a strand of hair, they’re easily inhaled and may be responsible for more deaths than any other type of asbestos. In Wittenoom—where workers once held asbestos-shoveling contests, and families thought it safe to let their kids play in the stuff—thousands of former residents have died from asbestos-related causes.

The mining industry in Wittenoom was halted in 1966, not necessarily for health reasons, but for economic ones—the company which owned the mines was $2.5 million in debt. Health concerns weren’t really addressed until the late ‘70s, when the government started taking steps to shut the town down completely. Buildings were demolished, the airport was closed, and residents were urged to leave. By 1992, less than 50 citizens remained, and by 2007, it was down to eight. Today, just three brave souls still call Wittenoom home.

Why would three people stay in a town that’s still riddled with cancer-causing materials, a town with no electricity or water, one that has literally been erased from maps by the government because of the danger it poses? They all have different reasons.

Peter Heyward, a resident for more than two decades, stays for the nature and the “silent stillness” of the surroundings. “The hills, the plains, the openness, the quiet. I love the country," he told Australia's The Age in 2007. Since so many buildings were razed, he now has a perfect view of Hamersley Mountain Range.

Mario Hartmann stays put largely because he was unimpressed with the amount of money the government offered to buy him out—$40,000 plus $10,000 in moving costs: “What can you buy with $40,000? They'll have to offer $400,000, what it takes to buy a house somewhere else.”

This year, Lorraine Thomas, a 30-plus year veteran of Wittenoom, told WA Today she refuses to let the potential presence of asbestos scare her away. "It's only the dust that's dangerous," she said, a threat she believes has dissipated after the mines' closures. An official report begs to differ, calling the risk to tourists (of which there are still up to 40 a day) and residents alike "extreme."

Neither Thomas nor her fellow residents have any illnesses relating to the asbestos that still looms large in the area.

For a closer look at the ghost town's holdouts—filmed when there were still eight people residing there—the short documentary Wittenoom is worth a watch:

Wittenoom from Caro Macdonald on Vimeo.

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