*I have made a lot of edits and additions to this post, and as a consequence, it is all over the place. Rather than re-write, please accept my apologies for the flow of it, and I trust you still get the information I am hoping to convey.
**Either before or after reading this, please read a recent post from Chris Kresser titled “Beyond Paleo” as I think it compliments this post nicely.
I returned a couple of days ago from a week long mid-winter ‘quake-break’ to the Pacific island group that makes up the small nation of Vanuatu. It was quite literally a quake break as within 24 hours of landing in the Vanuatu capital of Port Villa, we received word that Christchurch had been hit yet again by two large aftershocks within an hour of each other, causing more damage to homes, businesses, and roads.
People often make the comment that you are lucky to not be there when these shocks occur, but for reasons that I probably cannot explain succinctly enough for this post, I prefer to be here for the shocks and it is much harder being away. We didn’t completely miss out however, as we did spend a couple of hours on the rim of an erupting volcano, having this rumble like an earthquake under your feet (photos to come), and there were two minor shakes that we felt in Port Vila.
|Driving over the ash plain toward the top of Mt Yasur volcano on Tanna Is. We park about 100m from the top on the other side from this photo (I’m in the back of a truck filled with Australian’s at this point).|
|Standing about 40-50m from the crater rim watching eruptions occur from 4 vents in the volcano.|
|Molten rock starting to be thrown out – some rocks travel at around 400mph.|
|From a higher and closer point to the crater rim, I got the money shot – a huge eruption (combined with a huge adrenalin rush).|
This was my first trip to any of the Pacific islands, and I guess, if I am honest, that I was under the illusion that the main cities would be ‘reasonably modern’ (maybe similar to a small rural New Zealand town), perhaps being duped, to some extent, by the picture postcards that make up resort advertising. There is absolutely no mistaking that Vanuatu is a very poor third world country. Port Vila is very tired looking town, with potholed streets, and almost distressingly when I first arrived, covered in large amounts of litter. One person described the place as a 30 year step back in time, and they were pretty close to the mark.
However, in stark contrast to the run down nature of the city, there were billboards all over the place where the two cell phone networks that operated there battled it out. These were bright colourful advertisements, enticing the young ni-Van’s (people of Vanuatu), to buy Blackberry phones and start up Twitter and Facebook accounts. It just didn’t feel right, and felt even more wrong as my week there went on.
|Iririki Resort in the middle of Port Vila harbour (I didn’t stay there!)|
|Port Vila – looks can be deceiving. Large building is a casino. Lots of luxury yachts harboured in a third-world town.|
|Sunset over Port Vila|
In another contrast with the more run down nature of Port Vila, the ni-Van people themselves are absolutely stunning. I’ll do my best to describe them, but keep in mind I am no Weston Price…
The ni-Van are a very attractive people. They are tall, or at least they appear tall. They walk tall, with pride, and with brilliant posture. They have long slender limbs and relatively slight bodies (although some of the guys were solidly built). They both looked strong and were strong when you saw them in action. They also generally had perfectly straight white teeth – astounding for a third-world country with no dental plan!
Both men and women were much more uniform in height than you would see in New Zealand. The women were all really quite stunning. They all had great skin – very clear and I didn’t see one woman wearing makeup (not that the climate or wages would likely allow).
Most of the children we saw are pretty chilled, didn’t cry a lot, or were overly rowdy. The played, physically, a lot, were quite independent, weren’t mollycoddled, and seemed to have a very inquisitive nature.
|Shock horror – kids playing by a river by themselves!!|
Because a picture paints a thousand words, I think this picture offers a fairly typical example of what most of the men looked like…
|Joseph – a typical example of ni-Van men.|
|A young ni-Van male on Tanna island out for a paddle. I asked if he had been out fishing – no he hadn’t, was out playing!|
|ni-Van women from an outlying village.|
We were lucky enough to visit a school sports day on the small island of Pele, and the photo from there provides a good insight into what most of the children looked like…
|Sports day on Pele island – not a fat kid in sight.|
Many of the older women, who had likely given birth to 5-6 children, carried a bit more body fat than the younger women. But neither age nor body composition seem to slow them down or limit their function. One guide told me that many of the elder men use walking sticks, but still get around very well.
On the topic of physical activity, we saw lots of moving slowly (most people walk everywhere, especially in the villages), lots of lift heavy things (especially among the women who are often carrying food and children – the women would be far stronger than your average New Zealand woman), and a bit of move fast every now and then. They all work hard, spending the morning getting everything done that needed doing – tendng gardens, maintaining huts, servicing their roads, sweeping the villages, fishing from rocks, child minding whilst the children played (the women would let young children of 3-5 years roam and play on rocks, in the water, etc, and watch from a distance). The men were both excellent divers and excellent climbers. The women also climbed the coconut trees very well apparently, and were very handy with a machete and a coconut!
|The climbing of coconut trees is aided by steps – but each step has a very large spacing, being about one leg length between steps.|
|Children playing in a village.|
They had lots of leisure time (far more than many in more developed countries), which was used to play, socialise, and sleep. There was always generally a midday siester for a couple of hours. Some of the younger males did come across as being somewhat bored (from what we could tell driving through villages on Efate. But I didn’t get this same impression on the island of Tanna.
Most people tended to walk around in bare feet, and when not doing this, generally wore some type of jandle or sandle. We saw one young guy running – bare foot over VERY hot tarmac, with ease. Others would walk over volcanic rock and coral reef in bare feet with perfect balance and without batting an eyelid. I spent my entire week in my VibramFive Finger Sprints (worthy of a separate post and review) which attracted no end of comments from the tourists and a few laughs from the locals.
|Looking at a freshwater well used for washing. Drinking water was collected from the rain.|
The ni-Van, according to the Lonely Planet guide, have a reputation for being amongst the happiest people on Earth. I saw little evidence to contradict this – they lived up to this reputation very well. Typically, everyone would smile at you, say hello, and generally have a happy and relaxed demeanour. Despite the number of young men walking around with machetes in their hands, I felt safer walking around (often in the pitch dark due to lack of street lights) these people in Port Vila than I typically do walking around some of the streets in Christchurch currently.
It became apparent to me very early after our arrival there, that I was witnessing as close to a paleo-living and eating country as I could likely get, in the Pacific at least, with the ni-Van seemingly being very close to the much discussed Kitavan’s (as an example of a high-carb ‘paleo-eating’ people). Unsurprising when you think about it given the proximity of Vanuatu to the Kitavan’s. As a consequence, I was really very keen to learn as much as I could about their diet and health as I could, whilst being on holiday, whilst not being a pain in the arse to the people there, and whilst only having a small handful of opportunities to discuss these things with people living in truly traditional settings. I ended up getting some real gems of information.
|Warriors performing a welcoming ceremony to their village.|
If anyone has read ‘The Perfect Health Diet’, you will be familiar with the Pacific Island Diet (p169). Here, Paul & Shou-Ching Jaminet discuss a diet rich in safe starches, such as sweet potato, taro, and rice, fruits and berries, sea vegetables, ocean fish, coconut oil and milk, and meat & eggs. They also discuss the Kitavan island diet specifically, consisting of yams, sweet potato, taro, tapioca, and cassava, fruits such as banana, papaya, pineapple, mango, guava, pamplemousse, and watermelon, fish, coconuts, and vegetables. This is essentially the same as what is eaten by the ni-Van on Vanautu, with a few minor differences.
Eighty percent of the population of Vanuatu live outside of the main city, Port Vila, with almost all of these living the traditional village life with very few ‘mod-cons’ (a village may have up to 500 people living in it at its largest). The diet that these people live (very well) on consists of starchy root vegetables such as taro, kumala (sweet potato), and manioc (tapioca), green vegetables such as cabbage and bok choy, fruits such as bananas, pawpaw, mango, pineapple, cucumbers, lots and all parts of coconut (nut, water, milk), and meats such as chicken & beef (mostly), fish, and pork for feasting. A typical day is similar to this (from a sample of 3 separate villages on two different islands);
Breakfast – Tea & starchy vegetables (slow cooked in coconut milk)
Lunch (if eaten) – Meat/Chicken/Fish with starchy vegetables. If a main lunch meal isn’t eaten, then fruit and/or coconut is eaten throughout the day. Another alternative (described as the island equivalent of 2-minute noodles), is quick-cook cabbage with coconut milk.
Dinner – Meat/Chicken/Fish with green and/or starchy vegetables
|Traditional meal of root vegetables and coconut milk being cooked (~45 minutes) on a ground oven.|
For an island nation, fish isn’t eaten as much as one might think. Whether this has always been the case or relatively recent, I am unsure. Some fishing is done in parts on most days (such as Tanna Island, where we witnessed the teenage boys spending most of the day on the reef fishing), but in other parts, they only tend to fish a couple of days per week. This is possibly due to the availability of chicken and beef, which is available in abundance throughout most of the islands. Pig is held with the highest of regards and is generally only eaten during feasts (such as weddings and village gatherings – which tend to happen at the end of every lunar cycle).
Pig forms the main currency in the villages. The actual monetary currency in Vanuatu is the vatu, where 100 vatu = roughly $1NZD in terms of buying power. The average wage in the city is 100-200 vatu per hour. A cup of coffee is 350 vatu. A meal in the market is 400 vatu. The same meal in a restaurant is 2000-4000 vatu. A pig is worth 45000 vatu. Very interestingly, when I was talking with the guide about how disputes and crime are dealt with in the villages, the chief would bring the two parties together and negotiate an outcome where there are no winners or losers. If, however, a crime is particularly serious and a punishment has to be handed down by the chief, one of the worst that can be handed down is to have to kill the pig in front of the village. Also of interest, I asked what the most revered part of the pig was – the pork belly!
Laplap is the country’s national dish, made by pounding taro or yam roots into a paste. The mixture is placed on taro or spinach leaves and soaked in grated coconut mixed with water [coconut milk]. Pieces of pork, beef, chicken, or fish are added, the mixture is tied up in leaves from the laplap plant [baking leaves], and cooked in an underground oven. Other island dishes include tuluk, a pork-filled package prepared and cooked in the same way as laplap, and nalot, a vegetable dish made from boiled or roasted taro, banana or breadfruit mixed with coconut milk.
The above is from one of the tourist information brochures I collected. As you can see, coconut milk is used in just about every dish. I was repeatedly told that if you wanted to be strong and healthy, you ate coconut and coconut milk. Even the chickens and pigs are fed the coconut meat from the juvenile coconuts! One of the guides attributed the strength-giving properties of coconut to the protein it contains. I think this is a mistake made in a country that has no concept of nutrition or nutritionism. It is the fat in the coconut milk that gives them the health benefits.
|Chickens, and rubbish, are everywhere.|
On the topic of nutrition and nutritionism, it was often quite a source of humor telling the villagers what job I do. I couldn’t say I was a nutritionist – they just simply didn’t know what one is (which is a good thing, me thinks). I explained my job as being someone who shows others how to eat healthy food. They thought it was hilarious that I needed to do such a thing. But when I explained that most people don’t eat as well as what they do in the village and that they eat a lot of junk food like they would find in Port Vila, they got it. They were often pleasantly surprised that I eat the way they do to try and be as healthy as they are.
Some days little to no meat is eaten at all… but coconut milk is always eaten, every day, and several times per day. They have no concept of carbs, proteins, and fats – they just eat food, and very much the same food day in, day out. Some variety does come with the few foods that are seasonal (coconut, banana, and pawpaw are their year-round staples). They also do not separate root vegetables from leafy greens – they just eat vegetables, fruits, or nuts. If there is a food shortage due to cyclone damage to the plants, they rely on breadfruit as their survival food. It apparently lasts for months – they soak it in the sea for 3 days and then dry them in the sun. This is eaten until the crops are regrown. Being islands built on volcanic and coral reefs, there are little to no seaweeds being washed up and we saw no evidence of any sea vegetables being used in the diet. Iodised salt is everywhere, so I suspect there may be issues with iodine deficiency on the island.
Any excess food produced is sold in either roadside markets (predominantly to tourists as each village is generally self-sufficient), or in the main market in Port Vila. Here you can buy all manner of fresh produce or eat a cooked meal very cheaply (about a tenth of what you might pay in a restaurant for a meal equally as tasty). A lot of tourists do not eat here due to fears of food poisoning. We ate there on several occasions and had no problems at all. Women will generally run the stalls at this market. They turn up on Monday morning with all their produce and stay there (sleeping under the tables), until they have sold everything, have made enough money to return home, or until the market closes at lunch time on Saturday. It might be late on a Saturday before a truck comes to pick them up and take them back to the village.
|Market in Port Vila – everything can be purchased here.|
|Laplap leaves for baking.|
|Large bunches of coconut for $1.50. Baskets filled with manioc. Bananas and pamplemousse (large grapefruit).|
|Firewood sold at the market.|
The benefits derived from their traditional diet seem as much about what they don’t eat as well as what they do. This is where the absence of neolithic agents of disease (NAD’s) come in. There is little to no wheat flour consumed. Some villages occasionally have French bread in the morning, but this isn’t common, especially off the main island. When we stayed on Tanna Island (where the volcano that we visited is), we were served a fairly traditional main meal, but plenty of breads, jams, cakes, scones, etc, at the other meals. I ended up apologising to our hostess for sending these foods back (when the Australian’s we were with didn’t eat them for us), explaining that we just don’t eat these things and that we try to eat a ni-Van-type diet when back in New Zealand. She told me that they consider those foods to be junk food and they do not eat them themselves, but felt that these are foods the tourists want. On the main island of Efate, in the Port Vila supermarkets, we couldn’t even find wheat flour. On another island (Pele), bread is used to feed the fish!
No vegetable oil is used – at all – in any of the traditional meals. They are just not exposed to it. I saw canola in the supermarket, but saw no evidence of it being used in the market food stalls. I’m picking it is used within the restaurants and by the local Asian community.
There’s no legumes, no soy, no dairy (outside of the resorts and in the resorts, it is all long-life milk).
They have a fruit-rich diet, so there is fructose in moderate amounts there. But it isn’t consumed against a backdrop of the other NAD’s. There is, however, a slow creep of sugar coming into their community. Soft drinks, fruit juices, and ice blocks, were being consumed, particularly in Port Vila and some of the villages close to there. Whilst there didn’t appear to be a large obesity problem there, diabetes is apparently on the increase. Though it would seem that this is still mainly within older adults and potentially goes hand in hand with an increasing alcohol-abuse problem (though again, I would suggest New Zealand is far worse in this regard).
Health in the traditional village seemed to be pretty good. The guides told us that sickness was rare prior to the arrival of missionaries who brought with them viral outbreaks of respiratory illness, sexually transmitted diseases, etc. Traditional medicines are derived from the jungle they live in. For example, Kava was often given to those who felt ill (described as tasting like hell and feeling like paradise). I thought that this might have been a masking effect due to its sedative effect, which may be true. But on tasting kava in one village, it is actually a bitter herb which I think is likely to help with any digestive upsets. Unfortunately, with many young people heading out of the villages, much of the knowledge around traditional medicines seems to be lost. There are several Western medicine aid stations around the islands. These are staffed by ‘baby doctors’ as they are called, and other health educators, including (much to my disgust), dieticians.
Village elders are noting a creeping Western influence coming in to the country, to the detriment of their health. Diabetes, stroke, and heart disease are the main chronic diseases they are dealing with. When I asked one of the guides what the main driver of these were, he replied – sugar. He also went on to say that it was typical for islander’s to live to somewhere between 90-110 (he claimed his grandfather lived to 111y) prior to Western influence, provided everyone lived within the village life. He said that the village offered good food, family, tribe, religion, no stress, and happiness, and all of this contributed to health (he didn’t need to mention exercise – there is no concept of exercise – you are just physically active with everything you do).
He also acknowledged that stress is playing a major role in the decline of the population’s health, with much of this stress coming from the desire to have things that they have never really needed and still don’t need. If one village gets a solar panel, it places stress on a neighbouring village to get one. There is the stress of having cell phones. I heard of one outer island being full of people coveting DVD players. They want Western clothes… Western soaps… soft drinks…. beer. And of course there are places to get all of these things creeping into Port Vila (largely run by the Chinese and Koreans).
The people in and around Port Vila seem to want what they perceive as being Western signs of affluence and this is causing a slow break down in the family & tribal structure. There is a drift away from family and village life toward life in the city. There is the desire to own a car, computer, phone, etc… all things that are generally out of reach for most even if they are working. One of the guides we had told us that in the city, if you worked, you didn’t eat vegetables, you ate rice as it was a sign you were doing well. He seemed a bit surprised when I suggested it should be the other way around and that rice is not ‘rich-man’s food’. I guess it could be worse as rice is a safe starch, but I seriously doubt that rice comes even remotely close to having the same nutrient profile as their usual starchy vegetables [dry growing varieties of rice are even starting to be grown on the main island].
Education isn’t free in many parts (after 6th grade), and many families desire to send their children on to further schooling. There are some scholarships on offer from the New Zealand and Australian governments, but not nearly enough. Some villages may only be able to send 6-7 children to school, so must hold meetings to decide which children get to go. We saw many cases of people leaving their family and villages on separate islands in order to work in and around Port Vila just so as to be able to send their children to school. These men often seemed very unhappy and didn’t like being on the main island… they had moved away from family and friends just to fund a Western education that, in my opinion, didn’t really offer them any more benefits or skills from what they would get growing up in and living in the village.
Travel between islands is very expensive for them, making it very hard for them to get home if they did move away. Children sent to boarding school often only went home once per year. Many of the men, once finding out we were from New Zealand often mentioned that they had been, or knew someone who had been, to New Zealand for apple picking. This allowed them to earn good money and the NZ government made things like solar panels for power cheaply available for them. However, being such a long way from home, it also sounded like many of the young men who come to NZ end up drinking their money away, and we heard of cases of men returning home with no money and losing their wives, land, and status in their village because they didn’t bring anything back.
Even within village life, there is a drive toward Western affluence. Normally, a family would live and sleep in the thatched huts and cook in the corrugated iron sheds (with these being too hot to sleep in and the thatched huts too dangerous to have open fires in). However, corrugated iron and concrete buildings are seen as a sign of wealth, so more and more are taking to sleeping in these and cooking in the thatched huts, sometimes leading to the thatched huts catching on fire.
|This is what they aspire to!|
The combination of living away from home (and the unhappiness of doing so), living close to the city with cheap and easy access to alcohol, and the creep of Western foods high in sugar, seem to be a time bomb to me. This is more apparent on the main island than what we saw on Tanna island.
|The coastline of Tanna Island where I spent a night.|
|Road and small village in the mountains of Tanna.|
Overall I am left with the impression of Vanuatu being a third world country that is actually richer than many first-world countries and has so much that we can learn from them. Yet they aspire to be like us… and have what we have. Yet somehow, I don’t think they can have all of our supposed good things without having all the negative things that go with it, and I don’t think anyone should be encouraging them to aspire toward that. The ni-Van are a generally happy, healthy nation living very close to the paleo lifestyle that many of us are trying to recreate in our modern, barstardised fashion.
I learned a lot about what is and isn’t paleo, first-hand, and will likely make a few subtle changes to my own lifestyle. And I will also view those who drift further away from this lifestyle even more cynically.
|Outrigger paddling on Tanna.|
|Mele Cascades – simply stunning with such warm water.|
|Some monkey trying to climb a bamboo tree.|
I’ll finish up with a couple of final comments about the general trip… Within the first day or so of being there, I was asked what part of Australia I was from – by an Australia! They didn’t believe I was a Kiwi, even though I was wearing a shirt with a map of NZ on it. Australians make up the largest group of tourists to Vanuatu, so I quickly got used to being asked what part of Australia I was from and surprising people I was from New Zealand. Aussies and Kiwis are mates, and always will be, but I must say, most of the one’s we saw in Vanuatu were really condescending to the locals, talking down to them, referring to them as ‘the natives’, and not really engaging with them.
American’s from the southern states are unneccesarily loud. I’m sorry if this is a generalisation, but I’ve seen nothing to contradict this. I don’t know if this is true of them when they are back home, or what the general thoughts of this are from those living in other states, but I just don’t see any need for it. If you are having a conversation with someone sitting right next to you, it doesn’t need to be at a volume that all others in a 25m radius can hear.
Best clothing in a tropical environment (hot and humid) – Icebreaker merino wool (150g weight). It breathes very well and doesn’t get smelly, and you can rinse in the sink, dry overnight, and are good to go again the next day.
Shoes – I only took my pair of VFF Sprints, which performed superbly on lava rocks, coral, in the sea, in a river, on hot tarmac, in sand, and up a volcano. They did very well given how worn they are. Time for new ones… the old one’s have earned their retirement.