If you have ever had the wistful dream of running off and living on a tropical island, then I invite you to read about our experience of doing just that. I am happy to report that is it everything we wished it would be, and maybe more… well, with only a few minor inconveniences…..
Late last year, my partner Garry, purchased a home on a South Pacific tropical island, making a life long dream come true. We were finally able to move in just 6 weeks ago, when we motored up from New Zealand aboard Garry’s boat, November Rain. Since then, we have been making the interesting adjustment to living in paradise.
The property is located on Aore Island, one of the 80 odd islands that makes up the independent nation of Vanuatu, formerly know as New Hebrides. (The chain of islands was named by Captain Cook, when he came upon it in 1774). Aore island is 58 km2 and is situated just across a channel from the Vanuatu’s largest island, Espiritu Santo, which is also home to the second largest town after Port Vila, Luganville.
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Vanuatu is very much geologically active, with at least two active volcanos that spew molten lava. Earthquakes here are a just another daily occurrence, with the resulting Tsunami watches. Cyclones are a real threat here every summer, with Pam causing major devastation only a couple of years ago. Recovery is slow. And mosquitos bites are just a fact of life. Do you like my new fragrance? It’s Eau ‘de DEET mixed with a floral topknot of jasmine.
Aore is a tropical paradise with booming echoes to world history that you can almost hear as you walk past old artillery ranges or find vintage bottles in the sand. Her story is draped beneath lush jungle foliage that has overgrown the old French and British colonial plantations of coffee and cocoa of the 1800’s. Later, the American Navy’s presence during WWII left their mark with a network of well-built roads, hospitals, air strips and scattered Quonset huts. During the 1940’s, over 40,000 U.S. Troops were stationed on the island of Espiritu Santos, making it the second largest Pacific supply base during WWII after Hawaii. Here on Aore island, U.S. Navy ships would pull alongside the wharf to refill their massive water tanks from fresh water springs, while the troops would bugger off to enjoy some R&R on the island. Today, i t seems no one can recall the source of those fresh water springs. Relics of the war still remain everywhere and provide popular tourist attractions today, including the sunken passenger liner, the U.S.S. Coolidge, and Millionaire’s Point where the U.S. government dumped thousands of war surplus supplies into the sea, rather than transport it home at the end of the war. Today, divers enjoy viewing vintage tanks, jeeps, and machinery along with thousands of bottles of dumped Coca-Cola.
Thanks to the American influence, cars drive on the right side of the road, which is the opposite from New Zealand and Australia and many other South Pacific nations. The three official languages of Vanuatu are English, French and Bislama, a sort of pidgin english that is a combination of english and french words arranged into very odd grammar structure. With over 80 islands in the country of Vanuatu, there are many local tribal dialects, in fact, more languages are spoken here than any other country in the world.
Today, Aore Island is a mixed collection of revitalized plantations that cultivate coffee, cocoa and coconut situated among abandoned, overgrown farms, still dropping fruit from long forgotten trees. Prime waterfront lots have been parceled out and sold off as retirement and vacation homes, mostly owned by Aussies and Kiwis. Many of these homes were built by their owners, using local materials, a lot of ingenuity and the help of their neighbors. Most of the materials have to be transported to the island by boat.
The ex-pat community on the island is extremely welcoming and it is easy to quickly become integrated into the various social activities of pot luck and progressive dinners. The Aore ex-pats putter around the island’s dirt roads on quad bikes and dune buggies, gossiping with their neighbors and lending expert hands to the seemingly endless building projects. (In the six weeks we have been here on Aore, we have added solar power and panels, built a floating jetty, a dock ramp, 2 sets of stairs, a smoke house, and poured concrete blocks for moorings.) Generally speaking, the first topic of conversation between neighbors about the state of one’s solar power situation, as we are all living off the grid.
There are a few native villages on Aore that are hidden throughout the jungles, where Ni-Vans live in traditional thatch huts and live off the land, mostly growing vegetables with slash and burn practices. In fact, the bulk of the island is thick, lush jungle. There are no natural predators or venomous snakes on the island, creating safe haven for a variety of bird species (and peace of mind when I go tramping). In fact, the only native mammals in Vanuatu other than whales and dolphins are bats and dugongs, (a water mamma also know as a sea cow, and is similar to the Florida Manatee). There are several species of bats, including the large white-faced fruit bat, known as the flying fox. Feral cattle, goats, chickens and pigs, descendants from long ago forgotten farms roam parts of the island, foraging into yards and gardens from time to time.
There are only a handful of commercial properties, one of which is the lovely Aore Island Resort, which welcomes both international travelers and expats, who socialize there for cocktails or dinner. There is also the beautiful Ratua resort on the other side of the island in which we sometimes anchor in front. There is another resort which I have heard of but yet to visit. A few of the expats maintain quaint B&B cottages on their property, which they rent occasionally to travelers.
Our tiny cottage on the island is built to western standards with real wood panel walls and a painted concrete floor. There is a modern kitchen, beautifully finished in rosewood cabinets, with living and sleeping spaces all under a 5 meter by 10 meter tin roof. The bathroom is located just outside the front door, and our dining space is on the front porch where we overlook the ocean. The property is large at 8/10 of an acre, with the house perched atop the steep hill, which banks down towards the waterfront and towards our very own jetty and dock. (The original American road from the war runs through our property, but is now buried under our front lawn).
The property is landscaped with red hibiscus hedges and old growth trees draped with parasitic ferns and wild orchids. Papaya, bananas, mangos and citrus trees drop fruit and shade while tropical flowers accent with red hues and plumeria blossoms with sweet scent. Swallows swoop knee-high over the lawn at dusk and dawn, snatching up insects, only to be replaced by bats after sunset. Tiny blue butterflies hover around flowers and iridescent doves coo-coo endlessly. Giant coconut crabs burrow craters into our lawn, creating ankle-snapping hazard closer to the beach.
Giant spiders, preying mantis, 4 inch long centipedes, mice and crabs all manage to gain entry into our home regularly, and we have devised a “critter catcher” system from plastic tubs for returning them safely to the great outdoors. Geckos are everywhere around the house and I find myself cleaning up lizard poo more often than I would like. Three times now, one has lost their sticky footing on the ceiling and plopped onto Garry’s dinner plate. I tell him not to worry, they won’t eat much.
We are on the leeward side of the island, so it’s is a safe refuge for our sport-fisher catamaran, November Rain, which is anchored just 25 meters from the shore’s edge in deep water. A solid wooden and concrete jetty extends from our 50 Meters of beachfront out over the clear water. The shore is composed mostly coarse sand, with thin bands of loose broken coral, which wash in and out with the daily tides. Trees hang far over the water’s edge, providing shade from the tropical sun and drop flowers and coconuts to float on the ocean currents.
The ocean water is crystal clear, providing good views from our kayaks of scattered coral heads and resident reef denizens; sea horses, blue starfish, eels, striped sea snakes, lion fish, sea urchins, and other colorful reef fish. We often see turtles popping their heads up to the surface briefly. A mask and a snorkel reveals even more, with orange clown fish cloaked in sea anemone curtains and stealthy octopi hiding in crevices. It is a beautiful underwater garden, literally right at our door step and we don’t even have to get wet to enjoy it.
At our back door step is the jungle, which belongs to Chief Takao and his tribe. It is from him, whom we pay our annual lease, for the land that our house is built upon. From the chief’s village, we employ a young Ni-Van man, Leon, 2 days a week as our gardener. Leon has been teaching Jonas, our crew-man, about traditional life in the bush. A quick foray out into the jungle and we soon have a basket full of coconuts, bananas, papaya, passion fruit and cocoa as well as ornamental cuttings for the garden. Better yet, Leon and Jonas have been out hunting for wild boar and cattle, and have stocked our freezer using only a machete and a pack of mongrel dogs. In exchange, we have invited Leon to come out fishing with us aboard November Rain.
Now the reality.. there are no services on Aore Island. No water, electricity, trash pickup, sewer, grocery stores, or cable TV. But these challenges are all proving to be easily manageable. Rain water is collected almost daily off the tin roof which is stored in a cistern, and solar power is supplemented by a diesel generator. When we first arrived to the island, we only had the generator for energy, and the solar project quickly became priority number one. Until we had solar, we could not even run a tap or flush a toilet without the generator running. The noisy generator required fuel, which meant boat trips to the mainland to lug the diesel home. Now that we have solar, life is much better, not to mention quieter. As there are no markets on Aore, so we must visit Luganville for all our shopping needs. Luganville is a dusty little town with just about 3 km of main street that parallels the neglected water front. There’s not much to speak about, a few shops, a tourist class hotel, a couple of kava bars, and a few tour operators. A few boats that ran aground during hurricane Pam are slowly rusting away, avoided by the ships that transport copra from the outer islands.
A cruise ship stops in about once a month and there is a lot of construction going on at the wharf to prepare the town for more tourism. Local efforts from the expat community have resulted in ground breaking for a world-class WWII Museum, set to open in 2017.
It’s only a short 10 minute boat ride across the channel, but we must first call Sandy, the town’s water taxi service, to pick us up. He arrives in his open air long-boat, anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour after we call, depending on how busy he is. Sandy is Ni-Van, is always smiling and is very helpful so we don’t mind waiting. We are on “island time”. He helps us with our purchases, even carrying lumber and bags of concrete into his boat. He refuses tips for the extra service, as tipping is not customary here in Vanuatu.
Speaking of shopping, there are other challenges here as well. Most shopping trips to Luganville will require a visit to at least 4 different markets, spread out over a mile or more, as each store is somewhat specialized. There is the local fresh produce market at the far end of town, where Ni-Vans sell whatever they grow that is in season. You may be lucky enough to find Bok Choi, spring onions, papaya, yams, kumaras, peanuts, oranges, kumquats, pineapple, bananas, napa cabbage, mandarins, limes, lemons, peppers and tomatoes all in one place on the same day, and the next day, it seems only papaya is available. (I haven’t figured it out yet why some days are a cornucopia and other days are like a drought). I have seen live coconut crabs and fruit bats (a local delicacy) here as well as tobacco, and ornamental garden plants. I keep a sharp eye out home-fried manioc chips, my new favorite snack food. Vegetables and fruit are very cheap, a coconut for 20 cents, banana bunch $1, pomelo 50 cents, bok choi, $1 There are no paper or plastic bags in the fresh market. Shoppers simply bring their own bags, or use the bio-degradable baskets that have been skillfully woven out of palm fronds to carry their yams home.
Across the street from the fresh market is the butchery. Here we can purchase top quality locally grown beef at ridiculously cheap prices. Scotch filets run about 1,280 Vatu/kilo or about $5.35 U.S/lb. Hamburger is $3.50 US/lb. The beef here is world-class, grown locally from a breed of cattle that seems to be from India.The next stop would be the LCM supermarket, where imported canned and frozen foods from Australia an NZ are stocked along with refrigerated carrots, iceberg lettuce, and apples. They also carry general items such as fabric, fishing gear, hardware and a few kitchen ware items. This upscale store is frequently by mainly by expats, as Ni-Vans can rarely afford such luxuries. If I am lucky, I will score fresh baguette bread, real butter and a flat of eggs here. If not, I will have to make another stop at Wong Sze’s, a Chinese owned grocery store which seems to use a different supplier. Wong Sze’s also has a butchery, where we can find quality meat, beef, pork and chicken.
Finally, there are a dozen or so small mom & pop groceries stores, mostly owned by Chinese immigrants, where you might stumble onto some French food imports, bakery bread, Chinese merchandise and other odd items. It becomes a veritable treasure hunt to find certain items and a network of gossip has evolved, aided by Facebook, to alert the ladies of Aore island as to where such treasures might be found. It is very common to only find 1/2 of the items on your grocery list, and often I have come home without even the basic staples such as milk, eggs, butter and bread, only coconuts and papayas in my basket. When you do find something exotic such as parmesan cheese, you tend to stock up. The next cargo ship may be a month or more away. (Many residents stock their luggage with their favorite biscuits and chocolate when they visit from Oz or NZ.)
With 4 or 5 shops to visit, and no car of our own, it can be tiring to lug grocery bags from store to store. Fortunately, the town of Luganville is overrun with micro-sized taxis, no bigger than clown cars. (In fact, there are 500 of these midget mobiles on the island. An importer made a special deal with a Chinese automaker and offered them to the public for 1/2 the money down, balance due was interest free for 1 year. He sold out all 500 vehicles quickly, most of them immediately going into owner-operated taxi service.) There are no meters in the cabs, but the prices are well established among the drivers and there doesn’t seem to be any under-handed practices yet developed, like long circuitous routes to hike up fares. For the price of 100 Vatu a stop (about $1 U.S), the driver will load the car and wait patiently with your purchases, while you continue shopping at different markets along your route. The final stop is to the small dingy wharf behind Santo Hardware, where Sandy and his long-boat will transport us back to home. Again, we wait anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour for his arrival, sometimes succumbing to the temptation of the warm bakery baguettes in our shopping bags. By the way, the entire town closes from 12:00 – 1:00, as all employees go home to have lunch with their families, Sandy included. Plan accordingly…
Garbage disposal is huge issue on the island. There is no recycling center on Aore, nor is there a garbage dump. After conversations with our neighbors, we are now composting organic materials, burning paper and cardboard, feeding fish with un-compostable foods (i.e. dairy, meats), recycling glass bottles into concrete mixing materials and saving tin cans for vegetable seedlings. Plastic turns out to be the real issue. I never realized how much plastic we were using until I had to try to dispose of it. Any rubbish that can’t be burned, composted or fed to the fish must be saved and transported to the main island of Santo, where we discretely dispose of it in a private dumpster.
I suppose you could say that we have become the poster child of what “green” means… we eat locally grown non GMO foods, reuse, reduce and recycle everything, monitor our power and gas consumption like misers, but more out of necessity that a sense of social ethics or ecology. I would have to add that the Ni-Vans have been doing this all along and with far less effort than us ex-pats. This is their normal and their every day paradise. It is we Expats that have to make the adjustment to paradise. I just hope we don’t ruin it for them by trying to turn Vanuatu into a mini version of Australia or New Zealand. Isn’t that why we left in the first place?