[110619, 0234 UTC, Port Resolution, Tanna, Vanuatu, 19º32' S / 169º 30' E]
We arrived in Port Resolution on a Monday morning June 13, 2011 and were approached immediately by Stanley, the village representative (and brother of the chief) who arrived in a small dugout, out-rigger canoe. We soon learned that the village (and surrounding villages) were actively searching for the body of a 24 year old man who drowned while free diving on the reef the previous day. Village life seemed suspended as groups of people could be seen on every lookout or cliff-face watching as men in boats came and went on searches to the site.
On our first visit to the village, we were met by Joseph, an elder, who said he would take us to Stanley's home. As we walked up the rutted path from the beach landing, we came upon a open area under a spreading banyan tree - normally used for evening kava drinking rituals - to find most of the village men sitting in small groups; somber faces and knitted brows, they were clearly discussing the missing man. Walking through the village during this solemn time made us feel a bit uncomfortable, though we were later assured our presence was welcomed. Taking in the traditional style homes and relatively primitive living conditions, the ringing of Joseph's cell phone seemed like a bizarre and inappropriate interruption. Yes, cell phones are even starting to invade such isolated and seemingly primitive villages, though they do perform a vital safety function.
When we reached the cluster of homes where Joseph told us Stanley lived, a call for him came from the group of women sitting around cooking fires and Stanley soon appeared and joined us. Children stood back and with wide eyes studied us until Philip pulled out a bag of sweets. Even then, without their elder's encouragement, many children were afraid of us (Philip, actually). When we presented Stanley with a gift of tea and a tin of corned beef, he smiled and called over his head to Marissa (Mari) his sister, who soon appeared with a bag of vegetables to reciprocate.
After asking of permission to visit and take photos, we then asked of areas which may be "tabu". Oh yes, the northern point near the bay's entrance was off limits to visitor and villager alike. He explained that the people believe that the spirits of their dead occupy this particular part of the island. The other "tabu" concern was that no woman was allowed to observe village men when involved in a kava ceremony. Other than these two things, we were free to visit any part of the village and were soon on a tour conducted by Mari.
The residents of the village of Port Resolution, have the dark, almost charcoal-grey skin, flattened noses and kinky hair typical of Melanesian people. Some people have a reddish blond or even blond hair, probably attesting to some genetic influence of European visitors, missionaries or settlers; perhaps even from the crew of Resolution, Captain Cook's expedition that visited here in 1774. The people are relatively tall and appear to be well nourished and with good teeth. The men have well-developed musculature as a result of their active lives tending the gardens, fishing, hunting and building homes. The women are attractive when young but show the effects of hard lives and childbirth as they age. Most villagers speak some French, plus their local language and Bislama, with English being less commonly spoken. (The young chief, Johnson, speaks eight languages including five distinct languages of the fifteen spoken on Tanna.) Native beliefs are strongly held here which co-exist with Christianity (Methodist, Presbyterian and Seventh Day Adventist) and even the "John Frum Cargo Cult", though the latter is more prevalent in villages further up the coast.
Port Resolution village and gardens fill the entire point east of the bay and most of it appears like parkland, neat and trim, and the paths and common areas surrounding homes are raked free of debris and litter. It appears that virtually every inch of land not used for housing is being used to grow crops with an emphasis on low impact multi-species gardens. Most of the homes of the village are built of natural materials, though there is a smattering of structures of tin and concrete, such as the primary school. The typical home is built on a raised platform with walls of woven pandanus. Roofs are thatched grass and are steeply peaked and most have roofs which come down low to end a few feet above the ground. This gives the homes a bit of dwarfed look, though the design must be tremendously practical in taming the falling raindrops during heavy tropical downpours. Most family clusters of homes have fresh water on tap from faucets in several locations, which we were assured was piped from the mountains, pure and abundant.
On Mari's tour we visited the site where, in 2005, a sailboat ran up on the reef. All that remains is the remnants of the boat's mast, waves crashing all around it in the surf. "Where was the remainder of the sailboat?" we asked her. Mari swept her arm in an arc and said simply, "scattered". The villagers apparently saved the three people on board. She then took us to the overlook of the beach and reef and water beyond where the young man had drowned. She pointed to all the tracks in the sand and said the villagers gather each morning to scan the waters for the body.
All this time, the search for the young man, named Tom, continued from dawn 'til dusk, and though we weren't asked to help in searching we were asked for fuel for their outboard and we donated all that we could. It wasn't until the third day that the drowned man was discovered due to the generosity of Jean-Marie and Edouard, two men from the French yacht (ironically) named Sweet Life. These men volunteered to search with their SCUBA equipment and found the man, lying on his back between two underwater reefs in 24.4 meters of water, far too deep for the villagers to discover using snorkeling equipment.
We were washing clothes at the "yacht club" (and open air structure filled with flags, burgees and momentoes of visiting vessels) when word came that they were bringing the young man's body to shore. The man's female relatives were waiting on hillside and, some bending at the waist with their wrists crossed over their knees, commenced a loud keening and wailing as the boat bearing the body was brought to shore. A large contingent of grim-faced men raced down the hillside, some delivering pandanus mats and white shrouds in which to wrap the body. As the body was prepared for carrying up the hillside, the elders appeared to perform some sort of rite over the body at the landing beach. We, of course, felt extremely sorry for the villager's loss and also uncomfortable to be witnessing what should have been a private emotional display.
Two days after the drowned man's body was recovered, the village put on a memorial day for Tom that included an immense midday meal and a clan gathering on the grassy sloping village commons. School was recessed at noon, cooking fires blazed and soon dozens of large cast iron pots of food were assembled on coconut palm mats under a spreading cashew tree. Large basins of food such as rice were carefully covered with banana leaves and women continuously chased away village dogs who hovered around, heads hung low, looking to nip a little snack. Finer woven sitting mats of pandanus soon appeared as family groups began to gather. The men, including invited guests Jean-Marie and Edouard and Philip, gathered in a small covered nakamal for a meeting which, unfortunately for Philip, was conducted in the local language or French. Leslie was invited to sit amongst the elderly women who were tending babies while the younger women hustled about organizing and cooking. A few women introduced themselves but mostly Leslie was allowed to sit quietly and observe as the women composed the elaborate feast and prepared a small table for the guests of honor.
The small square table, situated at the front of the proceedings, was carefully prepared, covered with a cloth and then serving dishes were slid under a bright cloth covering. A smaller table nearby held plates, utensils, glasses and napkins. Cloth covered wooden benches soon appeared which meant at least Jean-Marie and Edouard would be eating European style and wouldn't have to sit on the ground, a position uncomfortable for western butts and spines.
When the meal was ready, the men were called from the nakamal by Johnson, the young chief. We, the cruisers, were asked to sit on benches alongside as Johnson made an emotional speech, then gorgeous baskets and a woven pandanus mat were presented to Jean-Marie and Edouard (along with a basket for Philip) and everyone clapped loudly. We were then re-arranged around the small table and an elaborate and varied dinner was presented: taro, cassava (prepared a number of ways), pin (a type of squash), chicken, fish, rice, "island" cabbage, cooked green pawpaw (papaya) and cooked bananas. Naomi, one of Johnson, Stanley and Marissa's sisters, stood by and described the various dishes, filling water glasses and speaking enthusiastically in either French or English or the local language to whichever person she was addressing. A French press of Tanna coffee and a plate of cookies appeared later.
After we had been served and had started eating, the men of the village were served from clusters of serving bowls set around the common area nearby the individual families's sitting mats. Women and children did not eat. It was only after the men were finished eating that children came to their mothers and were given plates of food which they ate with their hands as is the custom here. Johnson again returned to the "podium" and interpreted as the French men described the process of locating the body and its recovery as well as giving a graphic description of what the process would have been had the body not been recovered. The discussion continued to include diving safety, with active questioning back and forth (in French between Johnson and the visitors and in the local language to the villagers). In the end, the entire village came forward and each and everyone present shook all of our hands and thanked us sincerely for our part in helping them to find Tom.
We came away awed by the intelligence and strength exhibited by the population of this "kastom" or traditional village of self supporting people who have few possessions but a rich life. We are sincerely thankful for having witnessed how the community functions (and heals), though wish it hadn't centered around the tragic loss of such a young man.
Your friends of the yacht Carina,
Philip, Leslie and fat cat, Jake