Julian on a "boda" with soldier in Sudan. He seems relaxed.
Julian Jamison, who is a Senior Economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and Lecturer in the Harvard Economics Department, loves to travel–a function of his job and own personal passions. He often sends us short email dispatches and photos of him doing something out of the ordinary in RailRiders clothing –bungee jumping in Uganda is still our favorite, though this one here of him on a scooter sandwiched between a soldier and driver is a close second. We recently asked him what was his favorite truly off-the-grid, get-away place. He replied, “I like to travel. Indeed, I am typing this while on a plane from Brussels, Belgium to Kigali, Rwanda. I’ve been to over 60 countries, although the precise number depends on exactly how you define ‘been to’ (leave the airport? stay overnight?) and how you define ‘countries’ (Scotland? the Vatican? Hong Kong?). Not surprisingly, folks often ask me what my favorite place is, which is almost impossible to answer. However, I have an easy answer for the most unique and the most fascinating and the most picturesque and the most remote: Vanuatu. This archipelago of 80+ islands and around 200,000 people sits smack in the middle of the South Pacific, and indeed one of the prettiest islands (centered around an active volcano) was the inspiration for the musical of the same name. Another island was the origin of bungee jumping – still traditionally performed with vines!
What’s important about the history of Vanuatu is that there are hundreds of individual tribes, multiple ones sharing a single island, each with its own highly distinct language and culture. Two languages separated by 25 miles of rugged terrain here can be linguistically further apart than English and Russian. The closest thing to a common tongue is Bislama, which is a creole English that developed organically a century ago for trade between the islands and with Australia. For instance, in Bislama my height caused me to be referred to as the ‘long fella’ white man.
Many villages have adopted western-style dress, which often means incongruous excess t-shirts from the latest bombed pop tour or Vegas act, but some have maintained the traditional dress and behavior, known locally as “kastom” (i.e. custom). Adult males wear only a penis sheath and perhaps foot protection, so they carry a woven shoulder bag for small items. I would call it a man-purse, but the man in question is generally bare-chested, ripped, and never more than a few feet from his machete… so I think I’ll refrain.
“There’s a video about a 108-year-old Vanuata chief on YouTube — go here– that documents a truly remarkable individual from one of the kastom villages. To visit someplace like it, you will need to fly to Sydney; connect to the capital city of Port Vila; grab a small plane to the specific island, landing on a grass runway hacked out of the jungle. bump down a dirt road until that ends; take a fishing boat further down the coast; and then hike uphill for several miles. Once there, if you’re lucky, you can relax by downing some kava – the only legal narcotic in the world. The roots of this tuber-like plant are freshly dug and then pre-chewed by adolescent boys before being strained into coconut shells for drinking. I can personally guarantee that you will sleep well.
“I haven’t even mentioned the recurring stories of cannibalism, or the spiraling wild boar tusks that are worth more to them than medicine or money (what is there to buy?). All this and more may be lost and forever irretrievable, and the video alludes to the tradeoffs involved. The social scientist in me bemoans this looming loss but also appreciates the flipside of change and progress. Vanuatu is at the periphery of the world’s endemic malaria zone, so it is at the forefront of eradication efforts; I was there to study bednet usage and attitudes. One island is now completely malaria-free, which is a tremendous forward step. What are we willing to give up, or to ask others to give up, in order to achieve desired but conflicting outcomes? There are no easy answers, and relentless time rather than conscious human intentions may prove the deciding factor.”
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