Black sand, volcanos and magic
12 July 2013 | Ranon Bay Ambrym
We are now 30 or so miles north of Epi, anchored off a busy little village at the northern end of Ambrym, an island with black sand, two live volcanos and a reputation for magic and mystery. There is a big festival happening here in a few days which we thought we'd hang around for, so we have a couple of gentle days ahead of us exploring inland on foot, watching village life and keeping an eye on those two volcanos from a nice safe distance!
We had another lovely sail a few days ago from Lamen Bay to Ambrym in the company of Catnapp and spent a night together anchored off a very remote beach with a hot freshwater lagoon fed by a hot river... Hot is not exactly what we needed, but a mineral rich, freshwater wash was a real treat, and it was rather exotic and beautiful, tho a bit creepy too... We were glad we weren't the only boat there. It was the first time we have been somewhere where there are no people. The land behind the beach was very steep and heavily vegetated and we thought perhaps just too inhospitable for people to live there, but we have since learnt that there was a village which was completely destroyed by a volcanic eruption. Lots of people died and no one has ever gone back there to live. No wonder we thought it was a bit creepy.
We have now parted company for the time being with Catnapp, who have gone to another island to get on with their conservation work. Where we are now is only about six miles further up the coast, but has a completely different feel about it. A vibrant, friendly community, some nice walking tracks, and even the possibility of topping up my Digicel credit, which I have galloped through far too quickly.
There was a big village wedding yesterday which was fascinating... We arrived as it got to its closing stages during which the bride price is divided.. Not sure at all by or for whom, but there were huge piles of yams, manioc, bananas, dead pigs and cattle carcasses and what seemed almost like an auction which ended with everyone going home laden with different bits of animal and armfuls of produce. It was quite a sight. Some of the guests had come from Pentecost and they camped last night on the beach (with their piles of booty) just by where we are anchored and were collected this morning by a small island hopping ship. The thought of all that meat just sitting out in the open covered in flies all night, then in the heat all day is pretty unappealing - especially to a vegetarian!
We spent ages on the beach this morning. Just sitting watching the wedding guests leave and another inter island boat arrive laden with supplies..All sorts of packages manhandled up the beach including piping, hardboard and a huge water tank, and then an equal number of packages manhandled down the beach... Goodness knows what, but one thing that walked on was a huge pig! We talked to a lady who told us that a pig like that would be sold for 50,000 vatu.. About £350.. I felt quite relieved.. i've been worrying about how they manage the school fees!
Eventually the beach activity died down and we sauntered along the track leading out of the village along the waterfront, enjoying the picturesque palm and thatch buildings and the feel of life just quietly going on in a gentle and un-pressured way. We were vaguely heading in the direction of Fenla where the festival is, and soon we were escorted by a man who was on his way back there and would show us the way. Fenla we discover is a 'custom' village, where tradition is particularly important and it is Tabo (forbidden) for visitors to wander freely. So, after a steep climb up a path we would never have found without him, our escort delivered us safely into the hands of John, the village 'tour guide'. John gently explained that we couldn't go to the village without him by our side, and that we would need to give him 1000 vatu for his services. We readily agreed to this and it was worth every penny to hear all about the structure of village life, and to look round knowing that we were not intruding or unwelcome.
Fenla is a little way inland, hidden away in the bush on the top of a hill. About 100 people live there, in extended family groupings. The land is owned by them all and shared out between the families. When a son marries, he builds his home in the family compound. They have a custom chief, and nowadays a community chief. The latter is elected and is responsible for anything that central government might be involved with. We thought he sounded a bit like the village policeman. The custom chief is an inherited position, passed from father to son and his realm of influence is more concerned with maintaining the status quo (handy if you happen to be chief!) and apparently one of his main means of doing this is by magic. John told us how one family has lost all the menfolk of the senior generation. He didn't tell us what they had done to deserve this fate, but inferred that their demise was the doing of the chiefs magic. Clearly he is not someone to be messed with! Apparently we will be told more, and even given a demonstration when we go next week to the festival. We will most definitely be on our best behaviour!
Ambrym has a strong tradition of wood carving and we were shown elaborately carved masks and totems which I guess traditionally played a part in their custom rituals, but nowadays they would like to sell to the likes of us. They were beautifully carved, but not really our cup of tea, so it was slightly awkward. Fortunately they are quite big and we could plead the smallness of our boat. We did however agree to trade a small bamboo flute made by John's wife for a pair of flip flops. John's daughter got hit on the head by a coconut when she was 6 (I wonder if that was the chiefs doing too) and has lost the sight of an eye and an arm. It was sad. She is 14 now and he said she used to be beautiful, but now she isn't. We didn't agree, but we wondered what her future prospects were in her damaged state. We said we would include a t shirt for her in the bamboo flute trade.. I will find the best one I have.