[110919, 2325 UTC, Losalava, Gaua, Vanuatu,14º13' S / 167º 34' E]
Vanuatu is the land of many cultures. Not only are there over 100 distinct languages but there are as many unique rituals and dances. Black magic is widely practiced and seemingly everyone, churchgoing or not, believes in its power. Nelson, a village chief on Maewo showed us his son's photo and explained to us how a rival of this 30 year-old handsome, educated school-teacher "ate" his son's shadow and caused him to fall fatally ill. He tragically died en route to Port Vila on a medivac plane. This curse evoked a response from his son's mates and killings continued, much like historic clan battles, though without the human flesh as the main course for the celebratory supper. The nearby island of Ambrym is the hotbed of black magic, though there you must invoke vatu (cash) to get the magician to demonstrate his powers.
We were fortunate to visit a traditional festival in SW Bay on Malakula Island. The villages of Labo and Lembinwen and its clans (or nakamals) of small nambas planned and executed a full schedule of events over three days. Anchored off Labo village snuggled amongst coral, we had a front row view of the tiny immaculate village that seemed to cling to the lush jungle mountainside. From the boat we could hear strange sounds echoing from the vegetation onshore, perhaps the plaintive cries of birds emanating from the treetops.
We arrived on the first morning at "Fire Beach" where there is a cleared, groomed area with seating and a small floral garden surrounding an arrangement of wooden tamtams, a slit gong type of drum (see a photo on our website) that originated on nearby Ambrym Island. There was a hut with a water lily bath fed by a gurgling fresh mountain spring, a hut for food serving and one for preparation (over wood fires). We stepped on the beach and were beckoned by a pair of ladies in billowing floral ni-Van dresses who were nudging tiny girls forward to put leis of flowers around our necks as we stepped through a floral arbor. Each group (or yacht in our case) was introduced to their personal village guide who shadowed us for the day answering our every question or need. Our first question for Nelson was the origin of the strange sounds coming from the jungle.
"Spirits," he said
"Seriously?" we asked as we raised our eyebrows.
"Yes, the spirits are disturbed because the traditions we will be showing you are sacred and should be kept secret."
"What will happen if the spirits are upset?"
He just shrugged his shoulders and flashed an enigmatic smile.
After coffee and various sweet cakes we watched and waited, anticipating the first kastom dance which was an enactment of a myth involving a wicked witch who hoarded the precious yam from a clan of five brothers. After each of the first four brothers failed to get the yam from the witch, the fifth brother, using cunning, finally succeeds and the all-important yam is saved for the clan for all time (again, see the photos on our website). From the nearby jungle five men emerged dressed only in materials gathered from secret places in their clan's gardens, and of colors and patterns unique to and protected by them, and sat down in the tamtam garden and began to play. From the jungle above and down the beach, cries and chanting began and soon the dancers emerged carrying and wearing brightly decorated icons symbolic of the myth. The dancers executed intricate formations and footsteps, all the while singing or chanting in the language of their ancestors (and of their village) and no one looked up or at each other, but no one faltered.
A lunch of village food - laplap (root crops mixed with onions and coconut cream wrapped in island cabbage leaves), cassava, yams (of course), taro, spring onions & pork on bamboo skewers, chicken, kumala, nuts, etc. - was washed down with sweet juices. Everyone went back for seconds and the pretty, shy village women behind the table, smiled widely. Stuffed from lunch, our guides (including an articulate, enthusiastic Peace Corps volunteer, Yegor), took us up through the tiered village. After passing a demonstration of copra preparation and drying, our first stop was the breezy Presbyterian church where munchkins in their finest clothes sang for us. Continuing on up the hill to the community center, we visited village women weaving mats and bags of pandanus. Hanging baskets/bags are an art form in Vanuatu but serve a very important role in the modest homes. These are the "cabinets and drawers" where everything from foodstuffs to clothing are hung from the roof in an attempt to prevent vermin from accessing them...mice, ants, rats, spiders. Pandanus mats are for sitting during food preparation or sewing, or sleeping.
Continuing our wandering up the winding trails that connect the homes, all the while peppering our guides with questions, we stopped frequently to examine plants such as kava, bananas, island cabbage and even cocoa which has become an important cash crop for many ni-Van villages. The fruit of the cocoa is yellow, oblong-shaped and has seeds coated in a creamy white vegetative matter which has a sweet and very unusual taste. Vanuatu's villages seem like immense botanical gardens of edible and flowering plants, though this one also sported stunning ocean views. An important chief had recently died and we met the chief's relatives who were adorned with streaks of ashes on their face, arms and chest signifying their grief. Yegor said they would mourn for 100 days. On the far end of the village in a shady glen, we found a small round open-air hut decorated with flowers and we all snuggled in to be served fresh coconut juice by young men skillfully wielding sharp bush knives.
After a brief respite on the boat, we went ashore just as the sun was setting to watch the processing of fresh kava roots by pounding, mixing with fresh spring water, and filtering. This yielded a potent kava that everyone had to try, much to the amusement of our hosts and the other yachties. What does kava taste like? Kinda like what it is: muddy, peppery, root-soaked water. Some of our more daring friends imbibed significant quantities but since our tongues and lips felt numb with only one large bowl, we thought it prudent to stop then.
The second day involved two other dances; the first was meant to enact the transfiguration of small namba warriors into fish that swim incognito to the enemy's nakamal before emerging as warriors to do battle. The second was a dance in praise of the water yam. We also were shown methods of cooking in bamboo tubes and on open flame, how a fire is started without matches (the young man demonstrating was able to start a fire in less than a minute; Philip tried this but soon realized it was a lot harder than it looked), how sacred symbols are "painted" in sand, and also a gleeful small namba game that got everyone laughing. Wrapping up the day, were warm speeches and then we all - villagers and yachties alike - got up and danced a merry dance to the beat of the tamtams.
Early the next morning just as the sun peeked over the mountains to the east, we up-anchored and traveled to the south end of the bay to anchor off the village of Lembinwen. The site of the festival this third day was just inside the Tisri lagoon. Trying to reach the festivities inside the lagoon turned out to be a trial - our little outboard engine was stopped dead by the rushing current of the outgoing tide and we had to walk the dinghy through the most rapid torrents. On shore, a banner welcomed us to the SW Bay/Lembinwen Yacht Club and Lagoon tours, more fresh coconut juice was consumed, and we listened to spiritual songs accompanied by Buster Gilbert (the chief's brother) playing the guitar.
Simon was our host for the lagoon tour and he was well-spoken and quite interesting, telling us about the history of the small nambas as we gathered around in our dinghies and looked into the jungle filled, or so he said, with gardens located at the site of the original nakamals. The "nakamal" by this definition was where the members of a clan lived under a chief and in isolation from their neighbors. Today these lands, owned as they are by "kastom", are where a clan grows their crops and many are quite a distance from the village. The term nakamal has also been used as a description of the clan itself, such that when Philip and Chief Esrom exchanged gifts and Philip was invited to join Esrom's nakamal and become his "hala" or brother.
Today, nakamal is more widely applied to the hut where clan members gather. In Port Resolution on Tanna Island, a nakamal was tabu for a woman to enter - or even see - when men were ritualistically drinking kava (and likely engaged in solving the problems of the world). In Maewo, the nakamal was a large hut where all the women of the clan cook over a communal fire in a pit oven of stones (called a fafatiki in the language of Asanvari), while men sat along the edges drinking kava. When the missionaries moved everyone to villages (to attend church and to try to eliminate warfare and cannibalism), the various clans began to live together, though each nakamal has retained its kastom chief. This discussion explained (to us anyway) why when you visit a village here in Vanuatu and ask to see the chief, you get a lot of confusing information. There seem to be all sorts of chiefs - paramount chiefs, kastom chiefs and clan chiefs - and there seems to be a lot of time spent in meetings. Simon maintained that cannibalism was still practiced until quite recently: the early 1960s, and told us that the skulls and bones of victims can still be found in the jungle hills.
The rest of the morning of this third day involved demonstrations of village practices, a little black magic, a swimming competition by young men (first prize a pig, second prize a rooster, third prize a pandanus mat) and the first dance by women we'd seen. The most impressive demonstration was the handsome old man who stood in the shallows with a hand-carved bow and arrow while another man sprinkled coconut shreds in the water. A small school of fish was lured in and zap! that keen-eyed man hit a 6" fish (that we could hardly see in the rushing water) dead center from 10' away!
Women dancing in Vanuatu is somewhat rare and in Malakula it is performed by women of standing in the village. The ceremonial dance we were shown was undertaken to celebrate the ascension of a woman to a higher grade in the village - called nimangki. The four women wore traditional costumes and danced to the beat of a bamboo slit gong. Two of the women, friend Moti and elder Leahsam, wore woven skirts of banana leaves while the other two women wore long flowing skirts of grass or pandanus. The women wore little else other than necklaces of flowers and vines; though the young woman who was ascending in rank wore a pandanus crown with three nubbins which signified the three pigs who were sacrificed to earn this rite.
Lunch in the hexagonal "yacht club" rounded out this day and we returned to the boat with a feeling of elation of having experienced so much in just a few short days.
From SW Bay, we traveled north, stopping briefly overnight at Malua Bay before pushing onto Luganville, on Espiritu Santo Island, Vanuatu's second largest town and a major center of activity during WWII. Luganville offers little unless you are a diver wishing to dive the well preserved President Coolidge sunk after hitting a friendly mine. Relics of the war abound in the form of quonset huts, ancient trucks and jeeps, military airplane wrecks sitting in the clear blue Vanuatu water and the US airfield where the jungle has rapidly reclaimed the old tarmac. Brett and Sue of Tenacious met a quartet of US army guys whose job was to search the jungles for downed US military aircraft and to sift the soil around the wrecks in an effort to locate any human remains. It seems strange (and somehow heartening) that the US is still trying to find answers of the men lost 70 years ago in war.
We anchored in Luganville's bouncy lee shore anchorage and went ashore to reprovision as best we could; not finding some "essentials" (butter and garlic) in the 30-40 Chinese-runs stores sprinkled along Luganville's one main street. We weren't disappointed in the public market, though, which was filled with fresh, colorful local fruits and veggies.
We are now wending our way north. After a few more stops, we'll point Carina's bow to the Marshall Islands, 1,200 miles distant, where we hope to meet an ocean shipment of batteries that we ordered to replace our failing ones. More later.
Your friends of the yacht Carina,
Philip, Leslie and fat cat, Jake