Living in the present, with the rusting memories of World War II.
(I’m pleased to present the photos of Tom Ediger here; I think these portraits are some of his finest work. I hope you enjoy them.)
Greetings from Vanuatu, a string of exquisite tropical islands in the far southwest Pacific. You may not recognize the name; the isles were originally dubbed the New Hebrides by James Cook, who fancied a resemblance to those Scottish isles (clearly he’d been at sea too long.) The name stuck until 1980 when Vanuatu declared independence.
Our travels today brought us to Luganville, a small town on the island of Espiritu Santo. Villages like Luganville enjoyed a fairly traditional existence until they were thrust onto the world stage with the Battle of the Pacific from 1942-45. Sitting outside the zone of combat, Vanuatu’s islands were a strategic spot for the Americans to base their operations, and in a very short time Luganville was transformed into a bustling temporary home to about 50,000 military personnel.
Remains of the base are everywhere. We left the ship early in the morning in an attempt to escape the heat, and passed crumbling cement piers and military quonset huts. The sheer volume of infrastructure that the US and its allies were able to construct in a very short time is impressive, but when all was said and done, they made no effort to dismantle and remove it. The Yanks apparently offered their gear to the joint English-French government of the day, but when negotiations went nowhere, they simply dumped it all into the pristine Pacific and went home. It remains, slowly returning to nature, as a sober reminder of a tumultuous time.
We walked the long main street toward Unity Park with its beautifully decomposing steel sea wall. The trees were alive with birdsong; the birding here is exceptional. Rainbow lories screeched from tree to tree above us, and we were treated to our second view of collared kingfishers. Tiny white-eyes bounced through the giant tropical trees, and elegant wood swallows and monarchs (a bird, not a butterfly) hawked for flies overhead. Alas, we’re learning that the native birds in this part of the world are decidedly camera-shy; after a few attempts we contented ourselves with simply enjoying the sight of them.
At the end of the quiet park, we came upon a beehive of activity at the local market. It was just setting up for the day, and the merchants (mostly women) had beautiful baskets full of root vegetables, banana-like fruits, and an assortment of other produce that was largely foreign to our eyes. These baskets are woven from a single palm frond split down the central petiole (leaf stem). They’re ingenious. I asked the women if there’s a particular artisan they go to for their baskets, but they said everyone knows how to make them, and when one wears out you simply cut a new palm frond and whip one together.
The ni-Vans are soft-spoken and friendly. Vanuatu is home to about 120 indigenous languages, and most young people go to school in either English or French. To communicate with each other, the people use a kind of lingua franca called Bislama, which in modern times has evolved into a very simple form of English interspersed with words from other languages. It’s a beautifully descriptive tongue; my friend Tony photographed a sign instructing visitors to ring a gong to request a river ferry: “Sipose yu wantem ferry, yu kilem gong.”
We spent time photographing the women in the marketplace, and they were a lot of fun. I have written in other articles about taking street photographs surreptitiously, but here we found it more appropriate to ask permission. The locals were at ease saying either yes or no; sometimes the very act of asking upsets people. Here in the market our requests were often met with fits of laughter, but when sitting for the actual photo, most of the people took a serious pose; portraiture is still a formal undertaking in this part of the world.
We had intended to spend the afternoon snorkelling among the historical refuse of Million Dollar Point, where the Americans abandoned much of their equipment. I had heard of coral-encrusted coke bottles bouncing along the bottom, still full of the Real Thing. But having been out from 7:30 until almost noon, we were cooked. Our shirts soaked with perspiration and our faces stinging with sunburn, we retired to the air-conditioned confines of the ship, another adventure concluded in the South Pacific.