Kastom experiences in Vanuatu


Monday 1 June 2015

So after having done our small bit helping in the aftermath of Cyclone Pam, Adina headed north and slowly but surely sailed out of the area impacted by the cyclone. The green lush islands we knew so well returned, people came out with fruit and vegetables to trade. Vanuatu has to be the most fertile country we’ve visited. Whilst many may lead a life of self-subsistence, if there is a term such as ‘affluent self-subsistence’ the Ni-Vanuatu are right up there. And of course it works well for us; we trade rice, flour and sugar and get freshly picked fruit and vegetables in return. You name it – tomatoes, a wide variety of potatoes, spring onions, beans, capsicums, limes, even basil – it’s better than shopping at our local Waitrose back home!

One of our first stops was in the Maskelyn Islands mentioned in revered awe in social circles in Port Vila, partly due to the islands’ beauty and partly as currents are strong and access requires careful navigation. We’d forgotten the days of narrow, shallow passes but here we were again, Susie up our coral spotting ladder, Tom calling out the depths. “4 metres, 3 metres, 2, 1.5, 1…” I tend to go quiet shallower than that so as not to frighten Susie as she calls directions “Port a bit, yes that’s good, hold there. What’s the depth?”

We were the first yacht to visit this year and dugouts were alongside even before we had the chance to drop the anchor. Everywhere we went locals were curious to hear news of Cyclone Pam and how islands had been impacted. They only have radio for news and were keen to hear first-hand accounts of the devastation caused and how people were coping. So we did our best to bring them up-to-speed and showed what photographs we had.

One man introduced himself as the Secretary of Tourism for the Maskelyn Islands. Brilliant, he surely could keep us occupied. “So what can we do here?” “What do you want to do?” “Well, what is there to see? Then we can make a plan.” “Yes, we have some things. What do you like to do?” Did he not say he was the Secretary of… never mind.

Another man enquired if we’d like an octopus. We hadn’t seen that one coming but one of our favourite dishes is a Spanish tapas called Pulpo a la Galega – thin slices of boiled potato topped with sliced octopus and generous helpings of virgin olive oil and sweet paprika. When sailing around Spain there had been many a time we were in markets and had seen octopus, but the whole thing with head, skin and many tentacles had proved to be too daunting. The time had arrived. “Yes please, but will you clean it?” “No problem” “And please not too big, just enough for the two of us”. He duly returned three hours later with an enormous smile on his face. “Susie, he’s got a big one.” “Hello, how are you?” “I’m good thank you” “Did you get the octopus?” “Yes, I have a BIG one”. Thank goodness for freezers.

Our next stop was the island of Ambryn famous for its kastom (custom) dance, the Rhom dance, and its live volcano, Mount Marum. One of the downsides to Vanuatu is that you pay for everything; some try to explain it away by saying people own the land, the reef, the sea etc. and so are entitled to it. As a visiting yacht we always try to make sure we contribute something to each village we visit be it a payment for a tour, a meal, gifts, etc. But it becomes a bit wearing when someone comes up to the boat and says it’s 2000 vatu (£12) to be guided around the village. We soon learnt to say not to worry we’ll walk around ourselves and frequently enough they realise the folly of it all and show us around anyway. What we like to support is activities where the money is shared by the community. So a hike up to the volcano was definitely in order with payment for a guide and an entrance fee that went to the village community committee.

The trip to the volcano summit involves an hour’s drive followed by a five to six hour return hike and many had told us it was tough. The road was blocked due to Cyclone Pam damage so now we could count on eight to nine hours of hiking. And it was tough, climbing up small muddy paths in thick green forest laden with slippery brown tree roots twisting everywhere. Finally we entered a wide flat grey ash plain but the relief was short-lived as a sharp ascent to the top meant tussling with loose black volcanic gravel as you tried to dig your boots in to avoid slipping. But it was worth it. On top, edging ever so slowly closer to the edge, straining your neck to peer down into the heart of the volcano – a large bubbling gaseous caldron of hot molten orange lava emitting steam into the air. We could only wander at it and think how people happily live on this island, an island that is truly alive. Well, every now and then it erupts and villages have been uprooted and relocated. That’s Vanuatu, a lush and fertile country with amazingly happy people who have to tolerate volcanoes, earthquakes and cyclones in this little corner of paradise.

The volcano was actually sitting on a high alert warning but only because the cyclone had destroyed the monitoring system and no-one knew the true status. Back down we came and our guide amused us as he cut two sticks with his bush knife. As soon as he spotted a fruit bat hanging upside down in a tree he would hurl the first stick like a boomerang, startling the bat that would fly up. Little did the rudely awakened fruit bat realise this would be followed by another stick being thrown to end its days and put it in the cooking pot. We were shattered so our guide shimmed up a coconut tree – we have come to love the fresh sweet cool juice of a coconut which we gratefully drank as we admired yet another talent of the Ni-Vanuatu.

During our four months on land in Port Vila we had become good friends with Dee and Nigel whose house we had looked after whilst they were on holiday. We had never thought anyone would want to join us on Adina sailing through Vanuatu but Dee and Nigel have a real zest for life and it came up in conversation and soon enough they were joining us for a week.

Rhom dancing traditionally takes place in August but we’d met one of the Ambryn chiefs in Port Vila and for a reasonable price it was organised that his village would put on a show for the four of us. Each island in Vanuatu has its own kastom dancing and Rhom dancing is widely regarded as the most revered. Some of the dancers wear large colourful masks adorned with chicken feathers, and long dried leaf skirts so they cannot be seen underneath the costume. The know-how to the preparation of the masks is zealously guarded and the rights to make and use a mask design can only be acquired from fellow tribesmen by paying with a great deal of money and pigs.

You always wonder what you will get as a paying tourist but here it was all taken very seriously. We were not to touch any of the costumes and a line was drawn in the sand that we were not to cross, but we were welcome to take photographs. There were about 30 locals joining us to watch, seemingly enjoying it as much as we were. And it was the real thing. The kastom chief with his magnificent curled pig tusks (a sign of wealth/honour) led the dancing as the men stomped the bare Vanuatu earth with their feet, some beating instruments made from bamboo whilst others chanted and sang. We watched in complete awe and loved every minute of it.

No time to dilly-dally, April and May are the months for land-diving on the island of Pentecost so we weighed anchor and set off. We’ve had a mixed bag of sailing in Vanuatu – when the trade winds blow it’s a sleigh of a ride and wind against tide can generate some sloppy seas with waves lurching us all over the place. With our guests on board we were fortunate to have prefect conditions as Nigel took to the helm and expertly guided Adina to Pentecost.

Land-diving is what gave rise to what the modern world knows as bungee jumping and involves building a tower from natural materials and men leaping off it with nothing more than yam vines tied to their ankles, secured to the tower to break their fall. It first rose to prominence when Queen Elizabeth visited in 1972 – an auspicious occasion given it was the last time someone died when diving. Was Prince Philip behind it, we shall never know…

But first, the evening before the diving, a visit to the local nakamal. A nakamal is the equivalent of the village town hall and in Vanuatu they are built using local materials of timber and leaves from natangura, a type of palm. Here various activities can take place but from 4pm onwards it gives way to kava drinking. Kava is an institution in Vanuatu, taken seriously and drunk daily. It comes from a pepper tree root, ground or pulped and mixed with water. Westerners have mixed views from passionately in favour to avoiding it at all costs. It is a mild intoxicant, too much of it can cause health issues and indeed it’s even banned in some countries. But in Vanuatu it’s a daily ritual. Needing to absorb the culture, you even come to tolerate the taste of mud water and pepper and start making comparative notes of how strong or smooth the different islands make it. Wine connoisseurs never knew they had it so good. It’s foul stuff! Traditionally a male preserve on some islands, some women drink a little of it but we always got the impression that most women were happy to see their men disappear to the nakamal for a few hours each day. In our Pentecost nakamal the kava was pulped and drunk fresh – and tasted strong! We enjoyed watching it being made and even Dee and Susie got the pleasure of squashing their faces up as they partook in a smol smol shell (a little coconut cup) and politely said thank you. Nigel had two full shells, he’s just a few small steps away from being converted.

Next morning we rose excited to see the land-diving. While the jumpers readied themselves, we sat on the beach with the chief and queried him to its origin “We don’t know when it started, we just do it for fun.” Couldn’t argue with that, many unsound individuals do bungee jumping for fun. Again it had cost a good deal of money (£72 a head) and as it’s only fun, it’s only done if tourists turn up. But it’s serious business, in fact that serious some locals near to the airport in the north had constructed their own tower to attract the tourists and our friends had recently put a swift end to it with a few bush knifes. Do not mess with kastom.

You get five to six jumpers each time, each going one higher than the last; the first and lowest jumper we saw was a boy a mere twelve years old. I was trying hard to work out his thoughts as he stood there preparing to jump but his face gave a mixture of “when will this be done so I can play with my mates on the beach – there’s a tourist dinghy down there” to “I’m putting on a nonchalant face as, despite being scared, I know Margaret is watching and I want her to think of me as brave.” Off he leapt, his head touching down on the patch of dark brown soil, he smiled, looked a little relieved and headed off to dance with Margaret.

Beside the tower the villagers sang and performed dances wearing traditional outfits and were thoroughly enjoying themselves, egging the jumpers on. Traditional attire for the ladies is grass skirts and sometimes grass tops. For the men it entails wearing the famous nambas. If you are under the age of eighteen please stop reading now. A nambas is a sheath made of dried palm leaf that covers the penis, nothing more, and is tied up to some vine around the waist – I wish I could elaborate more and provide insight and knowledge but I really wasn’t drawn into staring too closely. Some tribes are known as smol nambas and some tribes are known as big nambas. We shall stop right there for fear of comments being written on this blog, it’s a family show. My family is related to the big nambas tribe.

The jumpers were now young men and some put on a great show, clapping and chanting, geeing themselves up. I still couldn’t decide if this was to impress us or Gwyneth, Elizabeth or Susan (locals have English names) or a way of getting over something that is utterly terrifying – you were the one that chose and prepared your own vine and so effectively chose your own destiny. But it was quite some show as the jumpers leapt off the tower spreading their arms wide, momentarily suspended spread-eagled in the air, before the vine whips back and they descend to earth to land on a dug up patch of soft dark soil on a slope which their head finally touches to hopefully live to enjoy another shell of kava.

One more pit stop in a lovely bay called Loltong with a picturesque village where we enjoyed a final local meal shore and Nigel and Dee left us to head north. The trip was over too quickly and we had so enjoyed their company. Nigel’s a bit of a champion fisherman and gave us many tips; in no time we were landing tuna and mahihi so we are most grateful to him for his help.

Our last stop in civilisation for a while was the town of Luganville, where we stock-piled the freezer with beef – Vanuatu produces some of the best meat known to mankind. Also time to stretch the legs, we booked in for the Millennium Cave tour, adventure guaranteed. A day after some heavy rain we found ourselves in a dark cave, waist deep, powerful water rushing through and we were wondering if this was perhaps not the brightest thing we’d signed up for. But it was wonderful, adrenalin-pumping fun, as we ended up crossing a raging river, pulling ourselves along ropes the guides put out before finally leaping into the river and being swept slowly down while we admired the stunning surrounds. This is where Vanuatu delivers, real adventure. If this was Thailand or New Zealand there would be towns loaded with tourists and backpackers, but here nothing more than a local village, four tourists, two local guides and breath-taking scenery.

With the trade winds growing more boisterous, we headed off to the final groups of islands known as the Banks and the Torres. Certainly the most remote islands in Vanuatu, they were beautiful. But all too often we were watching the weather forecast and trying to find safe anchorages. Vanuatu lacks truly sheltered bays and most nights we tried to sleep as the boat rolled away resulting in us slowly but surely getting bigger and bigger baggy eyes. A stop at a volcanic island that had a one kilometre entrance blown out to the sea was a highlight as we could sail in and anchor inside the volcano. Here we enjoyed completing a project helping a primary school in Scotland who raised some money to help children in Vanuatu, but that’s for the next blog.

Finally we found a lovely sheltered bay in the Torres. Alas, without a village we feared we would not see the Ni-Vanuatu people who we had so grown to love. One morning we noticed three separate banana boats high-tailing off to another island in the distance. Each one stopped by on their return to have a good old chat, which just made our trip complete. We love the pidgin English language of Bislama and it often amused us as we always tried our little bit. Our favourite expression was for a dead person – I kid you not, ‘hem fresh no more’.

Our time in Vanuatu was at an end. It had made a huge impact on us, we are so glad we chose to stay on a tropical island for the cyclone season even if one of the worst cyclones in history ravaged the southern islands and turned life upside down for a while. But it showed the true colours of the country as everyone piled in and helped (government excluded). Of course, there is no such thing as paradise, the roads are horrendous, the drivers worse and the place relies too much on donor aid, but the good far outweighs all of that. The Ni-Vanuatu are just the nicest people – where else in the world do you see people walking down the streets swinging bush knifes that are nothing more than tools. The times we gave people lifts and they would all pile in the back of the truck delighted and whooping. We’ve never heard so much free and wild laugh-out-loud laughter. And all the fabulous expats we met living the dream on a tropical island. There was never a dull moment, people were kind, generous, friendly, so much fun and so welcoming. This is a country that puts people first, children live healthy lives and swim and play like children should. We loved it, we loved it a lot.

To all the people (and dogs and cats too) that looked after us – thank you so much, we will never forget you. Heidee, Henrietta, Carolyn and James, Ingrid and Gary, Dee and Nigel, Nene, Noel, Ziggy, Felix, Anne and Robin, Amanda and the walkers, Lulu and Tim, Mr Red (RIP thump, thump, thump), Angela, Tom, Annie and Brian, John and Sandy, Frederick and Victoria, Jane and many others.

**Pictures to follow when we get internet access one day, week, month…

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