On Malekula, one of Vanuatu’s outer islands, Ruby’s perspective of the world was challenged by a local chief. This experience altered how she sees her nearby home in Australia…

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‘One day, a white man came here and asked me if he could buy my land for 2 million dollars,’ says the Chief, a human skull cradled in his hands as he speaks. The island he lives on, Malekula, is one of the last and most well-known places that practiced cannibalism.

‘2 million!’ he scoffs.

‘I said no. Of course I said no! But the next day, he comes with 2 million in a suitcase. I saw it. A whole suitcase. All that paper! He just opens it right in front of me like this!’ he says, opening his hands like a crocodile. 

I look at him, eyes wide. This man is the chief of a village of 20 residents on Malekula’s coastline, one of Vanuatu’s outer islands. They have their own language and their own traditions, all of which are stitched into the very land we are standing on. And yet, money speaks. Money yells. Money demands. 

I ask him what he said to the man.

‘I said no, of course! He was a bit surprised. He said he has a bungalow somewhere north, and I could have that too. What would I do with that? I told him I don’t want his money. This isn’t land to be sold!’ He spreads his arms out, in the direction of the black-sand beach behind him. 

‘I never saw him again,’ he smiles, proudly. 

The Bustle of the Western World

Amid the sweeping ash plains, remote waterfalls and towering volcanoes, Vanuatu taught me a lot about money. It’s only now, back in the comfort of my home, that I can reflect on the extent of this lesson. 

We idolise money in Australia. Especially in Sydney, which is so focused on targets and growth and progress. We must always be moving FORWARD. You’re too SLOW, move out of my WAY. On we go. Up and up and up. Why? Because status. Because money. Have you heard about the house prices? They’re outrageous. But honey, we MUST brunch on Sunday. The green smoothies are to DIE for. You worked 70 hours this week? You’re so busy! WOW. But you’re on good money, right? Hard to say no to THAT!

You don’t always realise it, but it’s exhausting. Your dentist is telling you you’re grinding in your sleep and it’s becoming a problem. Your alarm goes off in the morning and all you can think about is how much you want to fall asleep again. Your Hinge profile says that slow walkers are your biggest pet peeve. Capitalism is shouting ‘It’s all about the personal brand, you need to start selling yourself!’ 

So much motion.

A World Away

Let’s transport ourselves to somewhere else, instead. Instead of waking to the familiar white-painted ceiling, cushioned by your favourite pillows and blankets, you wake on the floor of a bamboo cross-thatched bungalow in a village on the outer islands of Vanuatu, where residents live entirely off the land and rely on just a slither of solar and a hint of reception under a banyan  tree. Your phone is dead. You didn’t pack your computer. You’re just here. Far from home and off the grid. Truly.

There’s a lady in the kitchen. She’s cooking up doughnuts for breakfast and hitting the tops of coconuts off with a machete. The kids are already out fishing and playing in the ocean, or chasing a pig around the village. The kava bar sits empty. A few hours ago it was bustling with locals drinking from coconut shells and eating ‘washemout’ (fruits and yam to literally wash the taste of kava from your mouth).

A couple of months ago, this is exactly where I found myself. 17 days wandering the outer islands of Vanuatu: Malekula, Gaua, Maewo, Ambrym.

On day 10, I peeled myself out of my sheets, turned my sticky body over to the friends I was travelling with and said, ‘Everything at home seems a bit pointless when you’re here, huh?’

Slowly, the to do list and the bills and the uni grades were fading away. Slowly were the emails, the savings account and the latest technology becoming increasingly redundant. Vapid, almost. Why do I care so much? Why do I stress so much? Why do I feel like I’m always in a state of flux?  

Back on Home Turf

A week later I was back on Aussie turf, and the chaos did matter. Of course it did. But it had lost its weight. It wasn’t as burdensome. 

And maybe that’s why we travel, or head out into nature for a while. To get that reminder. To experience that feeling you had the first time you saw a photo of the earth in relation to the rest of the universe.

We lay the concrete and print the papers that determine our fate, but if you strip it all back, none of it’s necessary for our survival. This reminder was the greatest gift that Vanuatu’s outer islands could give me.


Keen to have your own perspective changed?
Maybe its time to plan an adventure to Vanuatu’s outer islands?

Photography by Ben Savage and Ain Raddik