White sand, sunshine and dancing
25 July 2013
Goodness I find myself hardly knowing where to begin. We have had such a busy and fascinating and lovely few days! We have just arrived at Luganville, which is a proper town and an almost unbelievable contrast to some of the places we have been. We set off from a small island called Ambae at 4.00 this morning by the light of a nearly full moon and were well on our way by the time the sun rose a couple of hours later. The flat calm of the early morning was very beautiful and peaceful.. We sat on the foredeck drinking coffee and chatting, letting Arabella (the autohelm) take us where we needed to go. Soon the wind picked up and we zoomed the 50 or so miles here under full sail, arriving several hours before we expected to. At long last the weather seems to have come good. It is sunny and warm and the trade winds are blowing a steady 15-20 knots from the south east, which suits us very well indeed! Life seems a little more like we were expecting the South Pacific to be!
We certainly continued the bad weather theme on Ambrym tho. Day after day it rained and rained which did get a little depressing, particularly in contrast with the much talked about heat wave in England! And the black sand really didn't help.... Its quite atmospheric in the sunshine, but give me white sand any day - especially as the sharks apparently prefer the black! And boats, high humidity and heavy rain are not a good mix, although we did realise we were in heaven compared with a young Aus Aid volunteer we met. She had just arrived on a year long contract and was living in an extremely basic hut with next to no facilities or any company, other than the resident rat and a large number of cockroaches! Quite lonely, given that it gets dark at 6.00, there is very little electricity and a young woman can't walk about at night on her own... Not that there was anywhere to go anyway. Missing our own young, we happily slotted into surrogate parent role, and invited her to stay on the boat for the night and enjoyed being able to offer her some home comforts. We even managed to find her a rat trap, and Simon got a lamp working for her on solar power. Her job is to help local people to develop tourism initiatives in the area. Quite a challenging and controversial role. There are lots of different factions in the village, some of whom might benefit, while others won't. It will be hard for her to find her way, particularly as a girl in a very male dominated society. We really admired her courage and enjoyed her company and wish her all the very best.
The Fenla festival was interesting. It's purpose is twofold.. It allows visitors to see some of the traditional dances and rituals which would otherwise be Taboo to outsiders, and it raises much needed cash for the village. I guess it also helps to ensure that the 'custom' traditions are kept alive. We came away with very mixed feelings... Especially a propos the role, or non-role of women. They were not even allowed to watch, let alone participate. They were, however, allowed to prepare and clear away the lunch.
After the circumcision dance, and the ritual pig killing, a particular highlight was the Rom dance, which is a local speciality... It was quite a spectacle, with elaborate masks and costumes and all sorts of rules about who is allowed to perform it and who is allowed to make and wear each mask. All very hierarchical, and performed with much pomp and ceremony for and by the chiefs and chiefs in waiting from Fenla and neighbouring villages. Apparently you have to be male (obviously) and to have killed a certain number of pigs to earn enough status to participate, and it was a great honour that we could even watch. We were warned not to go too close or we may be clubbed by the dancers, who each held a long 'hand extension' for just that purpose! The origin of the dance is particularly delightful: it celebrates the story of how a woman once made a very beautiful mask and wore it in order to gain the love of a man. The man however was jealous of her skill so he killed her and stole the mask, claiming the design as his own. Women were then banned by the men from making masks, or participating in the dance (I can imagine they might not have wanted to after that), or even watching it unless they were born in the village. An exception to this rule was made for us Vatu paying white visitors. There was sand drawing and some rather disappointing magic, and a tour of the village, but the whole event was neatly rounded off by a small earth tremor (seriously!), which gave the building we were sitting in a pretty good shake. Now that really is impressive isn't it!
We visitors were quite a small group and as I am sure you can imagine there was plenty of discussion about it all as we walked back down the hill at the end of the day. It's easy to go for the totally outraged response, especially as a woman, but one of the things we are realising is that there is layer upon layer of complexity, much of which is obscured from our view, and it is impossible and foolish to make hasty judgments. We have noticed, for example, how often the men we meet talk about and value the things that have helped to stop the violence and killing which used to happen between tribes....such as the chiefs from neighbouring villages dancing together, or traditional dispute resolving customs of giving and receiving, and of course the missionaries. Church and 'custom' seem to have an interesting relationship. Both hugely powerful and far more relevant in people's lives than central government. It's different in each community and quite bizarrely when we left Ambrym we found ourselves accidentally in the midst of an evangelical Christian secondary school, and with an altogether different set of challenges to our sensibilities!
The next island north of Ambrym is Pentecost and we shot across the narrow, rough strait between them in no time at all on a beautiful broad reach, then pootled up the coast close to the shore, so we could see it all clearly. The weather was perfect.. Sunny, warm and 15-20 knots of wind. Just to put icing on the cake we were accompanied for a short time by a humpback whale. Pentecost is long and thin, with high hills and tumbling rivers, and it is famous for land diving ...which I will tell you more about in a minute.
We decided to give the first bay we came to a miss as the sand was black and the cruising guide suggests its best not to swim there as the locals sometimes have a cattle carcass tied to a buoy in the middle of the bay to attract the sharks (which they hunt). Besides, the second bay sounded idyllic.. White sand (hurrah) and a huge waterfall a short walk from the beach. And idyllic it was... Azure water, white sand, palm fringed beach, a reef to snorkel on, a fresh water stream running down to the beach, friendly people, a stunning waterfall with an amazing jacuzzi-like bubble pool at its foot (which we could swim in) AND sunshine! And, as it turned out lots of other things too, but first the waterfall...
We knew we would have either to pay or trade to go to the waterfall, and as funds are getting low we went ashore with a bag of hopefully tempting goodies. The first man we met when we landed happened to be a member of the family with the waterfall rights. He seemed to like the idea of trading and happily took us along a beautifully planted path to the waterfall and waited while we had a swim and took pics etc. Gauging what and when to trade is a fine art which we are (hopefully) slowly getting better at. Too much rather than too little seems to be a good guiding principle as we have far more than they do and people are mostly very straight and will say when enough is enough. This trade involved a DVD, two 2nd hand shirts and some reading glasses and seemed to be satisfactory all round. Hands were shaken and goodbyes said and we went on our way, only to be recalled and presented with a beautifully woven basket made by the man's mother, which he insisted was a gift. It is lovely and we were very moved.
Feeling like we'd arrived in paradise we strolled back to the track running along behind the beach, and rather to our surprise came to the playing field of a big secondary school. There seemed to be quite a few people milling around and when we asked what was going on we were told that it was the school's 'Custom day' when the students, who come from all over Pentecost and the surrounding islands, celebrate and perform their custom dances and rituals. We were invited to stay and had the most wonderful time... So much more fun than the Fenla festival.... Fantastic dances and music and costumes, and young women and men dancing together in a spirit of delight and enjoyment. Some of the dances were clearly so familiar to parts of the audience that they simply had to join in.. So much so that you could no longer see the performers, but it didn't matter a bit, it was just such a lovely atmosphere and a riot of colour and sound. And a real insight into how important to people their customs are. The highlight was land diving.. A tradition of southern Pentecost. During the months of April and May the young men build a high structure out of wood and then dive from the top of it with fronds attached to their ankles to break their fall...it is bungee jumping with absolutely no health and safety. It is a almost like a form of sacrifice .. They jump to ensure the success of the Yam harvest. The fronds are chosen by the jumpers for strength, flexibility and appropriate length, and are tied to them by experienced elders. Before they jump the young men are encouraged to speak their innermost thoughts... knowing these may be their last words. It was the most extraordinary and nerve wracking thing to watch. The womenfolk sing and dance their support and encouragement, and the atmosphere was electric with excitement and danger and the courage of the young men. Having spoken their thoughts they launch themselves off with their arms braced to protect their faces. Thank goodness they all seemed to have judged their frond length and strength well and they just brushed the ground with their foreheads exactly as they were meant to do. Amazing.
It was a fantastic evening and we were so lucky that we stumbled into it. Eventually we wended our way back to the boat by the light of a huge moon. The sea was beautifully clear and calm, and there was a smell of woodsmoke from a fire on the beach. We sat on the foredeck for ages soaking it all in and really appreciating what a wonderful day we had just had.
At the Culture event we met several Australian and English volunteers who taught at the school and we were invited to go to the school Sunday service the next day... It was quite an event.. Lasted 2 1/2 hrs! Full of dance and song, and hallelujah and hell fire rhetoric. Loved the singing and the strong rhythms and the way everyone gets involved and claps and dances. We are not great church goers but the time flew by! Males and females sat on opposite sides of the church. I think I had a better time than Simon did as the girls were much more into the dancing and clapping than the boys.
The school is one of 24 secondary schools in Vanuatu. All the pupils board as they come from so far away and, as we have seen in the places we've been to, parents really struggle to find money for the fees. There must be such a huge juxtaposition between traditional life in the villages and the western style education they are receiving. And it is pretty evangelical. They have 6 hours of compulsory church on Sundays and 1/2hr in the morning and evening on weekdays. Another one of those complex issues. We spent quite a while after church chatting about it all with the volunteers. Came to no conclusions, but in the process we acquired two passengers for our onward trip up the coast to Loltong.
Having arranged to meet our passengers on the beach the next morning we said our goodbyes and went for a beautiful walk along the track behind the beach..which is in fact the island's only road. We chatted companionably as we walked with a couple of ladies and their children, who kindly showed us the best place to ford a river we came to which had become quite a raging torrent after all the rain of the past week or so. There are no bridges, so when it rains a lot the track simply becomes impassable until the river levels fall again. It was lovely tho.. Beautiful clear fresh water tumbling over worn rocks and down to the beach. We are saving our tank water for drinking, so we took all our washing ashore and spent part of the afternoon soaking and scrubbing and rinsing it in the river like a proper old pair of washerwomen. And what a treat to be able to wash my hair too!
As a courtesy we stopped on the way back from our walk to pay our respects to Silas, who has the custom rights for the beach and runs a small guesthouse. He showed us the best place to go snorkelling, then invited us to join him and his guests (who happened to be our passengers) for dinner. We had a lovely evening sitting in his makeshift dining area under the palm trees fringing the beach. Thoroughly enjoyed the company and it was fascinating to gain more insight into how society here functions. Silas used to be principal of the school and is now in the process of building a technical college. This seems like a very good idea. It is striking how lacking in technical skills people are. We keep coming across things which have been donated or built, which work for a while, then break down and are useless because local people have no idea how to maintain or fix them. A couple of days ago we spent a night off a village which used to have electricity via a hydro scheme someone had installed, but which now doesn't work.. It must be quite tough for people to get used to having the benefit of electricity, and save up to buy fridges etc, and then for it to stop working and never be fixed.
Our two passengers were a delight. A young couple living in London. She worked at the school in her gap year and now runs a small charity sending volunteer teachers there on year long placements. Bizarrely they are in the process of buying a flat very close to ours in Kennington! We had a beautiful sail up the coast to Loltong, and anchored in a gorgeous little bay protected by a coral reef with only a narrow pass through. This was our first really tricky anchorage but once we were in it was completely protected and very picturesque. The terrain was rocky and village rambled up and down and round the shoreline, with lots of shrubs and flowers and more ornate and sophisticated houses than we have seen before. We were met by Matthew, the son of the chief who ran the 'yacht club'. The village is the largest in the region and he proudly showed us their very substantial Nakermal, and explained the various ways that peace is maintained in the area. The Nakermal has an altar-like stone area, and if you are standing on the stones no one is allowed to harm you. A bit like 'home' in a game of tag! Predictably, it is normally only men that can stand on it. Women occasionally can, but only if they are in real danger of being killed. He also told us how disputes are settled. If you have wronged someone, or are wronged, you can either go to the 'white man's court' or you can settle your differences the custom way by the giving and receiving of woven mats. (These, and bags like the one I was given, are a Pentecost speciality) It was fascinating, especially as Zoe, our passenger, speaks and understands Bislama very well indeed so could translate in detail what he was telling us. We were once again struck by the importance given to the maintenance of peace, and also by how disempowered women are.
Zoe and Fabian stayed the night with us then left the following morning on a three day hike back to Waterfall bay. They did seem a little unclear of the route, or indeed whether there was a route, but I am sure they will somehow have got there!
We left too and crossed another rough little strait between Pentecost and Maewo, where we anchored in another bay with a waterfall. It was very pretty, and we were looking forward to another wonderful waterfall experience, but it had an uncomfortable feel, and we left as soon as we could the next day. It was an interesting encounter with the negative effects of tourism, and/or the power vacuum left when a chief dies. There has been a 'yacht club' there for some years, right in the midst of the village and run by Nelson the chief. He recently died and a distant relative has set up a western style bar (although minus any drinks!) in competition with the 'yacht ' club, now run by the chief's daughter. Inadvertently we took our dinghy to the landing stage of the new place, and it then became clear as we walked into the village that there was quite a lot of resentment and discord. Yachts are really their only visitors and there are really not enough of them to support one business, let alone two, and the new one has kind of bagged the most prominent spot by the waterfall. We were the only yacht there and we felt we'd accidentally put our foot in it by going to the new landing stage. It was awkward and difficult, and a shame, especially as by all accounts the number of visiting yachts is actually diminishing not increasing,
The island we are now on is called Espírito Santo and once we have re provisioned and topped up our phones we will carry on up its East coast. There are beautiful rivers with deep blue pools to swim in which sound quite magical. Our friends on Catnapp are about 40 miles up the coast and we plan to spend a few days with them. There are two events to celebrate. The 38th anniversary of Vanuatu's independence and Simon's 62nd birthday!