We never quite understood whether it was a miracle or mere mercy with outsiders.
What is certain is that despite the Overbooking Early risers who had graduated, they put us on the plane full of native passengers and their crates, chickens and who knows what else.
The stewardess still uncoiled the safety instructions in the fun dialect bislama and we were already soaring into the skies of the South Pacific. A blanket of deep dark clouds obstructed our view over Efate and the surrounding archipelago, returned to spaces by sunny intervals.
Below, well-designed reefs are unveiled and a sea of green that covered the mountains and coastlines, right down to the sands that were sometimes white and sometimes black.
We flew over Nguna, Emae and Epi. With Paama behind, we catch sight of Ambrym and the lush landscape gives way to the lava desolation generated by two active volcanoes, the Benbow and the Marum. Then the plane changes course and descends to Luganville, the second and last village in Vanuatu that anyone would dare to call a city.
The Mistaken Discovery of Pedro Fernandes de Queirós
Pedro Fernandes de Queirós, the navigator from Évora who discovered those places to the West, had a lot more work traveling to the same destination. He landed there with ambitions to develop it in the name of God and for the enjoyment of the third Philippine king (second Philip of Portugal).
He thought it was the great elusive continent of the south and called the archipelago Austrialis del Espiritu Santo. Inspired by a strong religious fervor, he further proposed the founding of a colony in that land which he was certain “to be more delicious, healthier and more fertile than any that could be found”. He decided to name her Nova Jerusalem.
When Nostalgia Defeated Romanticism
But the natives disapproved of his intentions and frequently attacked the settlers. Also part of the crew disagreed with his romantic judgment. At a weaker moment in the captain's health, opponents forced a return to Mexico.
Queirós traveled from the Americas back to Spain where he lived for some time in poverty. For 7 years, he sent memorials to the king (at least 65 are believed to be) begging him to authorize a third expedition.
But, to their chagrin, the Royal Council replied that the works in the Pacific weakened the Motherland and that they could not pay for them. In addition, it banned the publication of the navigator's findings so that no other nation would benefit from them. Queirós died, frustrated off the coast of what is now Panama, on his way to the kingdom of New Spain.
The island that he discovered and on which we were about to land adopted the name of Espiritu Santo. It didn't take long to notice some of the attributes that enchanted the navigator, as well as other doubtful relationships with his colonial projects.
Landing in the Divine Land of Espiritu Santo
Pekoa airport is small, but a delay by the personnel in charge of unloading luggage forces us to wait in the arrivals hall. We took the opportunity to examine some images on the laptops and, when we noticed her, we had a group of curious people on our backs.
One is black (Melanesian) but surprisingly golden. It triggers in us a certain admiration and a lively conversation about the African origin or Lapita of the Ni-Vanuatu people and about why so many Ni-Vanuatu have golden hair.
One of the natives, who speaks English well, leaves us stunned with his explanation: “Well, you know the history of the lost tribes of Israel, do not know? Around here, many people believe that the Ni-Vanuatu are descendants of one of them. "
The theory does not seem to answer the capillary conundrum nor has it been supported by historical or scientific evidence, but it was very fashionable during the XNUMXth century and provides a cloth for sleeves. Only the arrival of the almost forgotten suitcases interrupts the debate.
We settled in Luganville, the unpretentious capital of the island and, as the day was still beginning, we went out to explore its few streets.
The Inevitable Chinese Presence and Prolific Sales ni-Vanuatu
A significant part of the ground floor buildings on Boulevard Higginson (the main avenue) were occupied by Chinese emigrants, owners and owners of shops that sell a bit of everything at prices inflated by insularity and the Sino-genetic of work and profit.
The establishments are dark, crowded and even dusty. They employ two or three native helpers who help owners solve unexpected problems and get away with both tribal dialects and the national language, a tight Creole that mixes French and Melanesian terms with basic English.
The local market is much more airy. It houses dozens of women in loose, colorful dresses who sell goods – vegetables, fruits and animal products – that the tribal lands produce and, in which the Chinese, do not compete.
Some leave their adjoining stalls and join a spontaneous crowd of spectators watching a movie on TV from a crowded DVD rental house.
Next door, in Unity Park, the Unity Association of Santo promotes a street sale that reverts to the homonymous religious nucleus. Other women in dresses, aprons and caps sell slices of cake, pies, pastries, baked taro and fried fish in the shade of centuries-old trees with long multi-branched trunks.
"Taste my pie, madam and sir”, offers us one with extreme delicacy and sets the tone that the others had been waiting for to impose their specialties. We ended up tasting a little of everything and left some vatus in return they fully satisfy them.
A short distance away, three or four kids try their luck at a different business, sheltered from the heat under a red parasol.
"Top Up Here"and "top up with me”, the messages on their mini-stand and on the t-shirts leave little doubt: they are representatives of the newcomer Digicel and recharge the credit of the few mobile phones already operational on the island.
From time to time, they also sell one or another phone but in a territory that lives happily in pure self-sufficiency kastom (traditional), only the wealthiest give in to whim.
Holy Spirit as God made her
Just a long walk beyond the Tabwemsana or Kotamtam Mountains – the highest on the island – and we may come across tribes that do not come to civilization and may never have seen a white, such as some more elusive Lysepsep who, favored by their pygmy stature (adults measure just three feet) are limited to watching outsiders from safe hiding places.
But it is not necessary to go that far to admire other unusual facets of Espiritu Santo.
Harry, a driver from the neighbor Pentecost island that we hired apologizes for the state of the red dirt road that runs along the east coast of the island, between large coconut groves, leafy gardens and dense jungle. There is nothing to apologize for.
Three bumpy hours later with stops for bathing in several idyllic brackish lagoons, the path winds through strange forests of morning glory and descends into an azure blue sea.
Even before we reach it, we are stopped by a gate controlled by an elder.
Champagne Beach's Eden Tropic-Bathroom
Harry asks us for the toll: “Very good friends. We arrived at the famous Champagne Beach.
This is owner. We have to pay him 1000 vatus”. The beach is deserted and, we doubt the owner is aware of it, but it is one of the most beautiful we had seen so far.
In Espiritu Santo, as in Vanuatu in general (the name of the nation means Our Land) what counts most is what is left to the tribe's descendants and they often meet to veto real estate deals that certain foreign investors try to do with the government.
Harry tells us that Australian and New Zealand cruise companies often offer thousands of dollars to get to the beach, build infrastructure there and disembark tourists. Until today, always in vain.
Champagne Beach and the natives' attachment to the soil in which they were born are just examples of all the reasons why we find ourselves venerating Espiritu Santo and praising the passion of its discoverer Pedro Fernandes de Queiros for your island.