Port Vila and Uliveo
09 October 2009 | Espirito Santo
We left Tanna in the afternoon for an overnight sail, deciding to bee-line it up to Port Vila in hopes of catching up with Tin Soldier before they continued north. As it happened they were intending to leave Vila the day we arrived but when they heard we were on the way they turned back and waited one more day before departing for points north. It was great seeing them again and catching up.
Port Vila (on the island of Efate) is safely tucked deep inside Mele Bay and is a pretty town with gorgeous views of the harbor and nearby Iririki Island. So much of Vanuatu is still quite primitive- many villages still have no electricity- so Port Vila is a welcome oasis with all a modern town has to offer: restaurants, groceries, cold drinks and wi-fi!
With the help of Tin Soldier and also Geoff and Sally from Grace we were quickly oriented to the bustling town (where the best grocery store is and who has the best French fries). We immediately liked the feel of this town. It's very clean and the people are helpful and friendly and nearly everything is within walking distance.
Although we were really enjoying Port Vila we only stayed a few days because we wanted to meet up with Tin Soldier in time for a cultural festival happening on Uliveo, one of the Maskelyn islands at the southern tip of Malekula. The cultural festival would offer numerous "kastom" (the Bislama word for "custom") dances from many of the diverse Vanuatu cultures, along with hunting and weaving demonstrations. Once again we planned to cover the distance in one overnight sail, rather than two days of sailing, so we left he harbor around 4:00 pm and had an easy downwind sail in light winds with a nearly-full moon overhead.
Arriving the following morning we dropped the anchor and just relaxed aboard for the rest of the day. We knew it was the first day of the 3-day cultural festival, but we also knew that the entry fee was rather steep: 700 vatu, the equivalent of $70USD per person for the three days. We planned to attend only one day of festivities (honestly, how many tribal dances does one need to see?) thereby paying what we hoped would be a heavily discounted admission.
The next day we hurried in to shore tied up the dinghy to the "Jubilee Wharf"- which sounds so much more grand than the long pile of rocks and coral with a bit of cement smeared across of the top. We hurried because Glen from Tin Soldier had alerted us via radio that the "Big Nambas" were due to perform momentarily. (Two of Malekula's main cultural groups are the "Big Nambas" and the "Small Nambas". A "namba" is what the men traditionally wear, it's a penis sheath made from plant fibers. The "Big" and "Small" refer to the amount of plant material covering (or not) their privates and not to the respective size of...well.. I think I've said enough.)
So we got to shore, paid the still steep entrance fee and proceeded to the exhibition grounds. We were told upon entering that there were several English-speaking translators who would be circulating throughout the festival giving us the name of each dance as it was performed, along with the meaning of each. Well that'll be helpful.
It was scorchingly hot and more than a little muggy but we were there to see a show, er, kastom dance. So we waited... and waited... and waited. And lost about half our body weight in fluids as we sat there sweating. Finally they came out and, I am sorry to say, we were less than dazzled. It was interesting for a few minutes but maybe we were just too hot, or maybe I was just expecting too much. But when they dragged the squealing little baby pig across the field by his hind leg and our translator informed us that the pig was now going to be sacrificed we decided we'd had enough. The festival was breaking for lunch anyway so we headed back to Meridian for peanut butter and jelly. (I know, I know we're so not adventurous!)
After lunch, the weather had cooled significantly and the girls and I were feeling a bit refreshed so we decided to give it another go on shore. As we arrived the weaving demonstration was beginning: about 20 ni-Vanuatu women (ni-Vanuatu is what the locals are called) were gathered in a circle demonstrating various weaving projects with coconut fronds and pandanus leaves. They were making everything from baskets to purses, book covers, even toys such as a pinwheels and balls. Maddie and I both tried our hands at the weaving (with limited success) and one lady wove a little bird on a reed and gave it to the girls. We had a good time with that and then the girls raced off when they heard the hunting demonstration was starting. Unfortunately that failed to materialize but a short while later another kastom dance demonstration began and this one was pretty impressive. There were about 30 guys in elaborate dress: painted bodies with grass skirts, tall wooden painted masks and headdresses. Several of them were drumming on hollowed and carved tree trunks whilst the others chanted and stomped to the beat. Around their ankles they'd tied some kind of seed pods that rattled in time with their steps. Maddie and Sophie and I looked at each other as we were moving with the rhythm and agreed that this was more like it!
We saw several more dances that day, one of the translators would dutifully stop by before each one to let us know what the name of it was and what its meaning was, or what it was meant to celebrate. For instance one dance celebrates a chief's re-naming as he moves up a level in stature (you've got to kill a pig for that). Another celebrates the males' circumcision. Happy times. There was another dance which our translator solemnly informed us was "confidential". We were not allowed to know the name, nor the meaning of the dance, but we could take pictures. Hmmmm... well needless to say we had all sorts of ideas running around in our heads after that little tidbit. Not the least of which had to do with these people's not-so-distant history of cannibalism.
But, eating habits aside, we truly enjoyed the festival and were glad we'd gone back. It's not very often that we get the opportunity (and even less often that we take it, let's be honest here) to get up close and personal with local people engaging in traditional activities and we actually had a good time.
Next up, Espirito Santo...