Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Weight Loss Plan 2006: Food in Vanuatu

Stranded in Lambubu for a week, our rations were running disturbingly low.

Despite constant re-assurances from our group leaders that we would get off the island somehow (one of those "somehows" at one point was to take a cargo ship* back to Port Vila, however, this hardly fell into the category of calming "reassurances," especially after my vomit-tastic trip to the Malekula). Each day when we packed to leave, thinking it was our last day, we'd later discover that we were staying for just one more day.

By the last day, all we had left to eat were yams.

Now, before you go saying, "Oh, I love yams! They're so good with marshmellows and brown sugar!" let me clarify. Yams are not sweet potatoes. Yams are yams. There are many variations of yams: round yams (featured in the above photo, taken at the Port Vila market), there are purple yams and. . .

. . .there are long yams. In nature, yams are similar to potatoes. They are a root vegetable, and the long yams grow in groups of 5, taking up to five years to grow to maturity. They taste similar to potatoes, but when you cut them apart you'll soon discovered that your hands are covered with a slimy mucous-like substance that causes your skin to itch non-stop, and when grated look almost like pancake batter.

On our last night in Lambubu, the task of cooking had fallen on Jo and me, which led us to believe that Liesa, who had devised the cooking and cleaning schedule, had officially gone crazy with jungle fever. Jo and I are not cooks, to say the least, and with nothing but yams left, there was only one solution:

The 1st Annual YCI Lambubu Yam Festival!

After nearly six weeks in Vanuatu, we discovered that the national food, which is featured on nearly all currency and eaten daily with feverish joy, can be prepared an infinite a number of ways. You can make chicken or banana lap-lap. You can make yam slices, with coconut milk on top. You can make fried lap-lap. You can make yam mash. You can make yam cakes. . .Really, the list is endless.

I'm not going to lie. After crouching beside the fire for an hour and a half straight, frying lap-lap for my international family of 11, and singeing all the hair off my legs in the process, I felt a surge of pride. On my last night there, I felt like a true ni-Van woman.

However, now that I'm home, I have to confess something:

I don't like yams.

In fact, I hate yams.

A lot.

Jo, Naomi (host mommi blong Nicole), and Tara on Children's Day. The large dish in front of them is chicken lap-lap. It is prepared by grating yams, adding coconut milk, putting hot coals in the middle, and wrapping the mixture in banana leaves before leaving it in the fire to cook. Lap-lap can also be prepared with other things in the middle, including island cabbage, which is a leafy green vegetable similar to spinach, instead it grows on bushes high above the ground. In the lower right-hand corner you'll also see grapefruit, which is actually sweet in Vanuatu, rather than sour.

The picnic spread on Children's Day. The rest of our host mothers (who all live in Laravet, a village that is an hour walk from Lambubu) weren't able to make it, so in the typical altruisitc ni-Van fashion, Naomi invited us to join them.

Yams weren't my only problem with food in Vanuatu. First, we experienced multiple difficulties in cooking. We prepared our meals in the dark with only little kerosene laterns as our light source.
And then, there was the can opener. By the time we left, I had developed the ability to mix cement with a shovel with ease (okay, well, maybe not with ease, with "lots of grunting and sweating" would probably be a more accurate description of what really happened on the construction site) but I still couldn't figure out how to use the can opener!

Meat was also a problem, for a couple of reason. First, I developed an iron deficiency and my arms became covered with superficial bruises. Second, vegetarianism is completely unheard of in Vanuatu. I avoided question and confusing by explaining to my host family that, "Mi no kai-kae mit, from hem makem mi sik tumas." [I don't eat meat because it makes me sick.] However, Rose, Morsen, Samuel, and Iven still thought it was very peculiar that Jo, Liesa and I were vegetarians.

One day, Iven was given a chicken as gratitude for coaching the local soccer team, which he allowed me to name Ingrid.

"You're not going to eat it, are you?" I asked him, not wanting to witness the hen's death.

"No, I'm not," he assured Jo and I, and we set about making a house for Ingrid.

"House blong Ingrid. No Kai-kai plis!" [Ingrid's House. Please don't eat.]

One hour later, Ingrid went missing. I was the only one home at the time, and I admit the situation looked suspicious. The chicken went missing the moment that the vegetarian was left alone?
Just for the record though, I had nothing to do with it!

There was also the problem of my missing coconuts. Sick with a sinus infection, I eyed the coconuts my mom had brought for me earlier in the week, anticipating drinking them to ease my aching throat.

"I'll just lay down for a nap first," I thought, "and afterwards I'll wake up to my delicious coconut treat!"

Of course, when I woke up an hour later, the coconuts were gone. Distraught and sick, I told black Joanna** later that night how upset I was that my coconuts had been stolen.

The next day, my mother surprised me by walking the hour from Laravet laden with coconuts for me.
"I heard what happened," she told me in Bislama, "so early this morning daddi blong yu climbed up the tree to get coconuts for yu." And then, Kathy reached into her basket to pull out a bamboo straw she had cut just for me!

I was the happiest girl in the world!

But there was only one problem left- ensuring that my coconuts wouldn't be eaten again. Devising a clever plan, I wrote a simple but effect note.

"Supposem you kai-kae coconuts blong Jessica, mi run afta yu wetem wan bigfella bushknife!"
[If you eat Jessica's coconut, I will run after you with a big machete!]

However, all the food wasn't bad (although I have developped quite the aversion to rice). Fresh fruit was sweet and amazing.

Most of the food was bland and repetitive, but there is a certain delicious quality to simple food. Featured here you can see bananas with coconut milk, rice, more bananas, and sliced yam with coconut milk.

Our going-away dinner at my host-mom's house.

Samuel's Birthday

And while I make life seem rough, we did have cake.

In fact, we had lots of cake. Meriam, Tara's 6-year-old host sister, baked this for us on her birthday. How cute is that? (Things that are not cute: the fact that a certain member of our group just may have eaten icing off the ground. Not that it was me, or anything. . .I would never do something like that!)

And the truth is, when worst came to worst, we always devised brilliant treats for ourselves- for example, Dave and I made breakfast crackers and peanut butter bought from the Co-Op, with salted popcorn.

Food: My Top 5 Tips for YCI Vanuatu Challengers

1. Bring spices. Trust me. Also, sweet chili sauce and soya sauce taste amazing mixed together. (In fact, sweet chili sauce makes everything taste better.)

2. If you are vegetarian, bring iron tablets, and consider buying your own supply of peanut butter before you leave Port Vila. Also, if you are vegetarian, use the "meat makes me sick" excuse. Don't try to explain why you are vegetarian for political or ethical reasons. Repeat after me: "Sorry, mi no kai-kae mit from hem makem me sik tumas." This phrase will save your life.

3. Consider in investing in a can opener, and bring matches.

4. Nicole was our favourite person on the trip, because she would randomly pull treats like individually packaged Nutella out of her backpack whenever we were feeling frustrated and tired. Your rations will be boring, and you might not have a store in your community, so consider bringing a little something extra for those moments you or your group members might really need it.

5. Try everything! At home, I don't care for bananas, grapefruit, or pineapple, but in Vanuatu I thrived off them. (It's amazing what the lack of pesticides do for food.) Don't be scared to try new things.
On a final note, check out Jo's blog. Her writing is funny and enjoyable, and right now she is excerpting short quotes from her journal about our time in Vanuatu. So if you're dying to read about constipation, illness, and all the other frustrations and joys of working in a developing country, check it out.
*When our group returned to Port Vila, and got off the bus, the Ambrym group hugged us saying,
"Wow, you don't smell as putrid as we did when we got off the boat. You actually don't smell bad at all." Needless to say, they weren't impressed to discover that we had the luxury of taking a 75 minute plane ride back to Port Vila. We did have to share our small plane with live fish, but I don't think any of us could complain.

**Vanuatu isn't very politically correct, and that's okay. There was black Joanna and white Joanna. It's pretty straight-forward and sensible way of differentiating when you think about it.


  1. Wow, that's crazy that you lived there! Nice blog

  2. Hi Jess,
    i read this and its very interesting. Im just commenting so you know, I dont really have any umm relateble yam stories or anything. One time when I was a teenager my mom made fried balogna for supper for a whole week every night. I stopped eating it after day two I think. I made up an exuse too.

  3. Maybe Monique can come with some new ideas for yams. or Maybe you two could start a new trend?

  4. Oh I love yams. Actually I only ever use yams now. Lets do something yam like this weekend Jess.

  5. Jess! The travel blog is amazing!! It is so inspiring and now that Im becoming a world traveler, like yourself, I want to do something like YCI in the future. . . but I have to go to New York first.


  6. You look happier holding that coconut then I've ever seen anyone over fruit. I'd hate to be the poor sucker getting caught stealing those from you. By far my favourite blog picture.

    I am jealous in every way of your trip, puke and all. It makes me feel like anywhere I've been is just a waste of time. Inspiring.

    - anonylex

  7. Either (a) the girl holding the yams and pinapples is really really small or (b) the produce there is gargantuan! That's the biggest pineapple I've ever seen!

    I'm still waiting to hear about the native critters you encountered on your way (although Ingrid does fit into this category in a tragic yet humerous way).


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