Only a few months ago I visited the outer islands of Vanuatu, just destroyed by one of the fiercest Pacific super cyclones ever recorded.
News photos of the damage, so far, are from Port Vila, an island capital where most tourists begin their visits unless they arrive by sailboat. Port Vila felt like the Caribbean port in the 1960's. Like most remote places these days, technologies allow development to skip decades. Port Vila still bears traces of colonial palm oil plantations, but a cruise ship pier invites industrial-strength tourism. As our taxi passed by -- en route to a sailboat to the outer islands -- a pop-up crafts market stood in a parking lot to greet passengers, mostly from Australia and New Zealand.
The outer islands of Vanuatu have a different feel. Although only separated by twenty or thirty miles, these are very remote places. The coral reefs are spectacular, nourished by cold water circulating from immense, volcanic depths scarcely a stone's throw from shore. Islanders still fish from dugout canoes, shaped by hand, with outriggers to balance.
To the extent it exists, Western culture (t-shirts sporting Nike logos) feels recently grafted to tribal customs based in superstition and violence.
It is an uneasy mix. The people are warm and friendly -- English is widely spoken -- and local agriculture is mostly sufficient for daily life. Still, the islanders reminded me of indigenous populations where the imposition of western economic life (whether mineral extraction, commercial fishing, or tourism) has resolved, in best case scenarios, grudgingly.
That uneasy balance between spiritual life, material possessions, and poverty was shattered by the cyclone. Islands are only accessible by sailboat, inter-island ferry, or small plane to grass and dirt runways. It is a sign how remote these islands are, that days after the storm there are still no first hand reports of damage. All communication was lost to small villages like the one below.
In one village, I asked a leader how he liked the cell phone dangling from a holster on his hip. He shrugged and said, not so much. There were only four or five people with cellphones and he tired of speaking to the same people. (Why were cell phones there? Probably for western or Chinese geologists scouring the region.) The cell phone towers were the first, to go, in the storm.
On this island, the church and school were the only buildings with a chance of passing through the storm. I asked one village leader why he preferred thatched roofs to corrugated metal. He said that in big storms, corrugated roofs are too dangerous. If the 180 MPH did not scrape this entire village down to cement pads, it would be a miracle.