Luc, our grand master of ceremonies and event planner, billed the Labo event as the “small festival,” and now it was time to sail to Ambrym Island for the big festival. The big festival is called “Back to My Roots,” and it is done annually near the village of Olal. Visitors are welcome (we pay), but it happens regardless — to keep the traditions alive, and as a forum for chiefs to earn their way into higher degrees of chiefdom.
Getting there was no small task. We had to beat into a very stiff wind and choppy seas the first day. Put our repaired shroud to the test. We all anchored at the Maskalyne Islands, about half way there, with the pleasant prospect of the next day’s sail being downwind.
A canoe paddled by shortly after we anchored, and we had a chat. It was a bigger canoe than I had seen before, and the first I had seen that carried a sail. The gentleman had his garden nearby, but he lived on an island a couple miles upwind. Easy getting to the garden; hard work getting home. He mentioned that he had also caught some small fish for his dinner. Given how empty our cupboards were, I asked if he had caught enough to sell some to us. He stared at me and said, “You are serious!?”
Yes, we live on a boat and have sailed nearly half way around the world, but we don’t know how to feed ourselves. We catch pelagic fish occasionally at sea, but no little reef fish. Nor do we want to try, because only the locals know which reef fish are safe to eat. It varies from one reef to the next, and eating the wrong one will make you very sick. He sold us the only two fish he had, and turned around to paddle back to the reef to catch more for himself.
Next day we had some nice sailing half way to our destination. Then the wind and current came up against us, and it was slow going. Everyone else seemed to start motoring, but we kept sailing and were feeling a little superior about it. That is, until Tahawus set all four of their upwind sails, and proceeded to rocket past us, both pointing closer to the wind and sailing faster. Okay, they are a 54 foot monohull that would be expected to outpace a 42 foot catamaran upwind, but it put us back in our place. In fact, they sailed by to leeward, tacked in front of us and crossed our bow — in effect sailing a circle around us — and then proceeded to furl their sails and motor (faster still) to the anchorage. We continued to sail a while longer, but finally started our motors, and arrived in the back of the fleet just before dark.
In the morning we all meet ashore and set out for the festival, about two miles away, with a guide. Lots of people and some little shops along the way. Everyone smiles and says hello. If you look directly at the children and say hello, you get rewarded with a beautiful smile and a wave. We leave the road and follow our guide half a mile through the bush. We are told to wait in a clearing near two carved drums; Luc says we are close to the ceremonial grounds.
It’s a long wait and we don’t know what we are waiting for, but it’s not like something else is pressing — we just hang out for a while. Then we are told we will have a traditional welcome, and six volunteers are needed. Having no idea what I am volunteering for, I join five others. Ahead nearly-naked men and women appear. The six women have flower leis, and the six representatives of the group are welcomed with them. Not a bad volunteer job, though I was surprised and disappointed later when I realized the flowers were synthetic!
Our group is told to follow the men, one of whom begins beating a drum, and we are led into a clearing that is obviously the ceremonial grounds. Many large carved drums on the periphery; some improvised benches for us; some locals on their own mats.
The men dance. The women dance. Crafts are sold. We are taken to the “yacht club” (a bar/restaurant with no link to sailing other than yachties sometimes go there) for lunch. Back to the grounds, where the men dance, the women dance, and at the end there is a “public dance” where many of us join in.
After the walk “home” it feels like a long day, but it’s not over, because it is Janet’s birthday. Janet is on Chapter Two, and she has become the “mother” of the fleet. Her husband has arranged (with help from Luc) for a traditional pig roast feast in the home of Chief Johnson of the local village, and the entire fleet is invited! This was a fabulous meal. And followed by a movie — a DVD about Vanuatu, played on the battery powered (solar charged) TV. It didn’t make it through the whole movie (we also were using lights and had recorded music earlier), but it didn’t matter. We got to see the bit where Chief Johnson was in it! To cap it off there was the orange glow of the volcano, visible from the boat in the night sky.
In the morning it is back to the festival. More people; more local food vendors; more dancing, plus demonstrations of flute playing and sand drawing. But the part that stood out was Chief Sekor going for higher rank. I expect this is all worked out prior to the festival, but it becomes part of the ceremonial event. During a portion of the dancing he, and also two lesser chiefs going for advancement, climb atop a bamboo structure in the middle of the area, where they wildly dance and shout, and the other dancers have the opportunity to hurl coconuts at them! Not many were thrown, and I got the impression the throwers were being careful to miss, but nevertheless I find this an interesting ritual that might have some useful applicability with our western leaders.
Having survived the trial by coconuts, Chief Sekor next gives gifts to the village and various families. There is a huge pig, which he is expected to publicly kill by the traditional method of bonking it on the head. There is a pile of yams. And there is cash. A man loudly announces each cash gift — how much is presented to whom. Hmm, what if our leaders earned the right to lead by gifting, and all transactions were made public…?
By the walk home I was feeling pretty “festivaled out.” But not so much that I didn’t walk back again in the evening to the Yacht Club to drink kava and have another island feast. Chief Sekor had looked pretty ferocious in his traditional role, but in a T-shirt and baseball cap he seemed to be just another guy at the bar drinking kava. While there I also met Tammy (sp?), a young lady with a very impressive resume of travel and adventure. Tammy, send me an email!
Luc assured us that the grand finale was coming the next morning, with the Rom Dance. I couldn’t get a satisfying explanation of what the Rom were, other than scary-but-good spirits, and “We do this because our ancestors did this.” We were warned not to get too close — anyone touching the Rom costume would be heavily fined (and I imagine that the traditional penalty was probably harsher). In any case, the photos tell the story. Lots of video for someday; just imagine jungle drumming in the meantime…
The event ended with another public dance, a little thank you speech by Chief Sekor (acknowledging Luc for returning after several years and bringing so many others with him), a thank you and presentation of a PBO plaque by Luc, and then the now-very-familiar walk back home.