Vanuatu's Santo Island
Part Two of a Three-Part Series Focusing on the South Pacific
Still recovering from my recent trip to the South Pacific, I decided a mid-afternoon walk outside the newsroom was in order. An order of tonkotsu ramen and a side of gyoza I figured wouldn't hurt either.
Junior reporter Junko had other ideas.
At the elevator with my right arm successfully in my coat sleeve and my other in the process thereof she asked, "Who then is going to cover the diet meeting?" she demanded. "A vote of no confidence might be called at any time and Prime Minister Mori thrown out on his ear." I pressed the down button and checked to see that my pack of smokes was secure in my pocket.
"Wouldn't you rather hear about my trip to Vanuatu's Santo Island? I'll start it off with my visit to a casino the night before."
The elevator doors opened.
"I don't need to hear any of your gambling tales," she lectured.
"Ok, but I'm headed to the ramen joint on the corner right now."
The elevator doors closed after she got in.
The little white ball bounced with the spinning of the wheel. My vices were perfectly balanced on that night; a smoke in my left, a whiskey in my right and a game in front of me. Gambling joints aren't rare in Vanuatu. But the Palms Casino is the only one that offers blackjack and roulette in addition to the standard slot fare found at the average parlors around Port Vila.
"Eleven, black," barked the dealer.
"I think about the only cold things on this tropical island are the roulette wheels," I mumbled. I finished my drink and scanned the room. By the shrinking size of his chips and the annoying cackles from the Australian tourists on either side of him, I could see that my driver wasn't doing much better at the blackjack table nearby. Rather than join him, I concluded that the offerings over at the bar seemed a little more inviting.
"Do you have Winfield, reds?" a lady seated on a stool asked the bartender as I approached.
"I am sorry Madame, only green."
I pulled out my red pack and shook one loose and extended it to her before she could make another request. Smokers don't like to settle for less than their brand of choice. I should know.
"Thank you," she said. She was a middle-aged local, a Ni-Vanuatu.
"Can you get me a Tusker beer my good man?" I asked the bartender.
"That's a nice choice," she said. I pulled a grit out for myself and stuck it in the corner of my mouth. The bartender uncapped me one of Vanuatu's best and poured it into a glass.
She pointed at the bottle and said, "The pig tusk shown on the label there is a symbol of Vanuatu."
I positioned my lighter. "Yeah? Why's that?" I inquired just before lighting it.
"Well it is part of our tradition that dates back many years. On many islands of Vanuatu, pigs and kava are like forms of currency. In an island village, the chief has the highest rank. In order to become a chief though, he must kill many pigs, especially pigs with large tusks. Such pigs are very expensive because they are so precious. If a government minister returns to his home island for a visit, he is given a pig to kill. This sort of killing is a sign of peace," she said.
"I see." I took a swallow. "Ah, but that there's my kind of peace." I wiped my mouth with my shirtsleeve. "Well if pigs and kava are practically as good as cash, can you buy just about anything with them?"
"Sure, anything. Perhaps most interesting though is that they are used to pay for brides between the villages. This does not happen as often as it used to, things are changing a bit."
"Well I am going to Santo tomorrow with my driver over there," I said as I pointed over at the blackjack table. "Should I bring pigs, kava, or both?"
"Just bring enough regular cash to try the coconut crabs at the Santo Chinese Restaurant in Luganville. You'll be glad you did."
I stubbed out my smoke. My driver was still going after it. I figured that I had better pull him off that table before he stops scratching the felt with the cards and starts gouging some drunken tourist eyes with his fingers.
Once the strategic location of the massing of U.S. forces for attacks on the Japanese at Guadalcanal over a half-century ago, Vanuatu's Santo Island is now the home to 128,000 heads of cattle for export to Japan and a sagging copra (dried coconut meat) industry. When the U.S. pulled out of the capital city of Luganville after the war though, they weren't all that tidy about it. But first things first...
After the fish soup, a large plate stacked with coconut crabs was served, their red (blue before cooking) shells glistening from the garlic butter. The lady was right, the Santo Chinese Restaurant is the place.
I positioned my crab shell tool. "Yesterday a lady at the casino was telling me that pig's tusks are a revered symbol in Vanuatu," I said. "Why not these here crabs also?" I cracked open one of the red claws. The pink flesh inside was soft, yet firm.
"I think because the wild pigs symbolize strength. The crabs are just good eating. Did she also tell you that the Vanuatu flag features, in addition to the pig tusks, all the other important symbols of Vanuatu?"
"No. Like what?" I took one more crab claw. The garlic butter made it difficult to hold while cracking with the tool.
"Well, for example, the colors. The green represents the islands, the red represents the spilled blood of our liberation from the frogs in 1980, and the yellow is for peace. "
He took a crab off the plate and crushed it with his tool like a master.
"Also on the flag is the namele leaf," he continued. "This sort of looks like a palm frond but it has a very strong meaning depending on placement and orientation. For example, if we don't want someone to pick coconuts from a certain tree, we place two large leafs, crossed in the shape of an X, at its base. Today the symbol still has meaning, but we don't do this sort of thing so much anymore."
"What is commonly done today?"
"We post a sign with the words, 'Don't pick any goddamned coconuts.'"
With our bellies nice and full of crab, curry beef, and lemon chicken, we stepped outside into the restaurant parking lot. The sky was full of dark clouds. I lit up a smoke.
My driver then proceeded to give me a tour of Luganville. He showed me where John F. Kennedy docked his boat, the blue natural pool in which Marilyn Monroe swam, the beach on which the remnants of a U.S. Navy plane now rest, and the spot where the captain of the S.S. Coolidge went down with his ship after striking a floating mine. The Coolidge was a luxury liner being used in the war for troop transport. Today it is one of the world's great dive spots.
Later we drove up to one of the hills where we found one of the four old U.S. military airports on Santo - St. Louis. It had been raining off and on all day, sometimes quite heavily.
"Look down there," he said and pointed from our position to an area near the entrance of Luganville's bay. "That's Million Dollar Point. The water burial location of huge quantities of dumped U.S. military equipment, including tanks, jeeps, and bulldozers. Some rusted pieces of debris wash right up on the shore to this day."
We got back in the car and he started the engine. "Let's see what the Pratt & Whitneys on the wings of this B-24 have got," he suggested.
"Uh... Right," I said.
After checking our cowl flaps, oil gages, and fuel mixture, he started checking off the crew.
"Check," he answered to himself.
"Tail gunner!" he screamed.
I assumed that to be me. "Uh...Sir..."
"What's wrong with you! You sorry ass son of a bitch! You think we've got all day!"
"Sir, this Liberator does not have guns or bombs, it has been converted for cargo transport only!" It was all I could come up with at the time.
Unflustered, he started us down the broken and wet asphalt. By this time it was raining again. We picked up speed, seemingly ignoring the huge water-filled potholes. Trees flew past us on both sides.
I turned and screamed across the cabin, "So where are we headed?"
"Tarawa atoll in Kiribati. There's plenty more WWII relics there."
I pushed aside the empty ramen bowls on the table, climbed atop, extended my arms outward, and started making propeller noises with my mouth. Just then the chef came out from behind the counter.
"What do you think you are doing?" he asked.
"Flying to Kiribati. Get us another round of gyoza, will ya?"
Coming next week: A Trip to Kiribati