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Forgotten Vanuatu

This New Nation of Sublime Islands, the Former New Hebrides, Resembles Pacific Outposts Like Hawaii, Fiji and Tahiti Before Developers Discovered Them

April 25, 1999|ALEXANDER FRATER | Alexander Frater is the author of "Chasing the Monsoon" (Henry Holt & Co.) and is working on a book about Vanuatu

I returned a few months ago to my birthplace, a 44-acre island in the South Seas, to find it had become a luxury resort. "Iririki, Island of Elegance," as the brochures describe it, is a five-minute boat ride from Efate island and Port-Vila, capital of the Vanuatu island group, regarded when I was a kid as the most deadbeat possession in Britain's colonial portfolio.

I remembered Iririki as a shadowy, hat-shaped place containing a small hospital and just two houses, each situated high on the crown. We lived in one; the other, a palatial residence with park-like grounds and a flagpole flying a bedspread-sized Union Jack, belonged to the British resident commissioner. Now, 72 neat bungalows were strung across the tiny island's northern end. I booked into one overlooking the palm-fringed, handkerchief-sized beach where I had learned to swim.

The spot where our yams once grew had sprouted Michener's, a top-rated restaurant anointed by the prodigious novelist himself. He set "Tales of the South Pacific" in wartime Vanuatu, and the book inspired Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1949 musical and the inevitable movie. Everyone can hum the songs yet few know a damn thing about their muse. Even as other island groups prospered, the locus of all that late 20th century South Seas mythology (the idyllic world of Bali Ha'i hosted nuclear testing ranges) remained in a time warp, isolated and forgotten.

Vanuatu resembles Oahu, Bora-Bora and Fiji in the days before developers awoke to their possibilities. Waiting in Iririki's poolside coffee shop for an old family friend, I wondered how many guests here realized this obscure little republic once occupied the comic hinterland between high farce and satire.

A collection of 80 earthquake-rattled islands, Vanuatu lies in the southwest Pacific, 1,200 miles east of Australia and 500 miles west of Fiji. Named the New Hebrides by Captain Cook, they became in the early 1900s an Anglo-French condominium, a territorial compromise in which two great powers split by a millennium of enmity attempted to share. It never worked. The Brits complained about the duplicity of the French, who bemoaned the sneaky maneuverings of the Brits.

Their mutual determination to yield on nothing led to the duplication of everything: two flags, two anthems, two languages, two currencies, two courts, two jails (the French served better food), two hospitals and two political ideologies. It was a diplomatic joke, an investor's nightmare. Then, in 1980, under growing United Nations pressure, both countries agreed to get out. The new republic of Vanuatu eagerly hoisted its jungle-hued flag.

The new nation suffered a calamitous infancy. Following the scent of independence, a gang of Americans bent on creating a tax-free nirvana persuaded the largest island, Santo (officially called Esp 3/8ritu Santo), to secede. Vanuatu's legitimate government won the ensuing little Coconut War, and the nation, scarred but united, is making slow progress.

My connection to Vanuatu spans four generations, starting with my Scottish grandfather. A charismatic Presbyterian missionary with the voice and air of a Victorian actor/manager, he settled in 1900 on Paama, a mountainous, thickly wooded island measuring 6 miles by 3. He built 21 churches there, and then, for the ash-gray people who dwelt among the blast clouds and lava flows of a nearby volcanic island, he put up three more. For 39 years he tirelessly preached in all of them.

My father, born in Glasgow and raised on Paama, administered the old British hospital on Iririki. My son John, who also studied medicine, worked at the hospital at Vila Air Base, which handled U.S. soldiers wounded during World War II in the Solomons before becoming the chronically underfunded successor to his grandfather's famously well-run establishment.

And I, a London-based journalist, had indulged in a late love affair with some of the most sublime islands in the South Seas. Hoping to get reacquainted with the home I had left at age 7, I invited my oldest family friend, Dr. Makau Kalsakau, to show me around. "Let us climb the hill," he said.

Thick undergrowth walled off all the old paths. We waded in, and after a dozen paces had come up to a half acre so familiar I felt I was breaking into my childhood. Through knee-high grass, past a massive banyan that had gained half a century's girth and height, Makau guided me through the phantom rooms of our house. The great hurricane of 1948 may have leveled the bamboo and thatch several years after our departure, but the garden had spurted into a tangled boisterousness that would have delighted my mother.

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