Ambrym Island (Vanuatu)

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.

Our supplier of fish for dinner, poling his canoe back toward his home. He has a sail also for the downwind run from his village to his garden and fishing grounds. Long paddle home though.
Our supplier of fish for dinner, poling his canoe back toward his home. He has a sail also for the downwind run from his village to his garden and fishing grounds. Long paddle home though.
Bob again swims ashore and finds a ride back by canoe.
Bob again swims ashore and finds a ride back by canoe.
Tahawus sailing past us
Tahawus sailing past us
Approaching our Ambrym anchorage
Approaching our Ambrym anchorage
Next morning the sun shines on our little fleet.
Next morning the sun shines on our little fleet.
Two miles up the road...
Two miles up the road…
Approaching the festival / ceremonial / sacred grounds
Approaching the festival / ceremonial / sacred grounds
We're told to wait in the bush; then here comes the traditional welcome.
We’re told to wait in the bush; then here comes the traditional welcome.
The spectacular welcome lost just a touch of luster when I discovered that the lei was synthetic!
The spectacular welcome lost just a touch of luster when I discovered that the lei was synthetic!
Follow us, they say...
Follow us, they say…
This must be the place!
This must be the place!
The men dance
The men dance
The women dance
The women dance
Back to My Roots
Back to My Roots
Back to My Roots
Back to My Roots
Sand drawing
Sand drawing
Sand drawing
Sand drawing
Back to My Roots
Back to My Roots
Flute demo
Flute demo
Back to My Roots
Back to My Roots
Along the road home
Along the road home
Along the way home
Along the way home
Back we go
Back we go
Day 2 - now we know the way
Day 2 – now we know the way
To the ceremonial grounds
To the ceremonial grounds
Back to My Roots
The women dance again
The men dance again
The men dance again
We were told that the man on the left is 95 years old!
We were told that the man on the left is 95 years old!
Back to My Roots
Back to My Roots
This is a photo of a boy with a coconut...look carefully.
This is a photo of a boy with a coconut…look carefully.
I love this guy...
I love this guy…
Chief Sekor (near the left, with two boar tusks to show his rank) presents gifts as part of his going for the next higher level of chief, includes cash publicly announced to various families, in addition to the more traditional (big!) pig and yams
Chief Sekor (near the left, with two boar tusks to show his rank) presents gifts as part of his going for the next higher level of chief, includes cash publicly announced to various families, in addition to the more traditional (big!) pig and yams
Traditional method of killing the pig
Traditional method of killing the pig
More drumming...
More drumming…
More dancing...
More dancing…
The public dance rounds out Day 2
The public dance rounds out Day 2
Day 3 begins with a sense of anticipation...waiting for the Rom dancers
Day 3 begins with a sense of anticipation…waiting for the Rom dancers
The Rom dancers appear and the drumming begins
The Rom dancers appear and the drumming begins
Chief Sekor leads the action; take a close look at what is in his belt! (You never know when you might get that important call...)
Chief Sekor leads the action; take a close look at what is in his waist band! (You never know when you might get that important call…)
Rom dance
Rom dance
Rom dance
Rom dance
Rom dance
Rom dance
Bob and me with Chief Sekor and the Rom
Bob and me with Chief Sekor and the Rom

5 thoughts on “Ambrym Island (Vanuatu)”

  1. Zeke, that is a great looking beard and mustache. You should have gone native and dressed as Chief Sekor. But that outfit itches. Still Jealous.

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  2. As I read your blog all I can think of is the old Adventures in Paradise TV show. (From Wikipedia) Adventures in Paradise is an American television series created by James Michener which ran on ABC from 1959 until 1962, starring Gardner McKay as Adam Troy, the captain of the schooner Tiki III, which sailed the South Pacific looking for passengers and adventure. USA Network aired reruns of this series between 1984 and 1988. The plots deal with the romantic and detective stories of Korean War veteran Troy. The supporting cast, varying from season to season, features George Tobias, Guy Stockwell, and Linda Lawson.

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  3. Have to say that the men’s ritual clothing is among the oddest (and least comfortable) I’ve ever seen — and over the years I’ve looked at a lot of photos.

    Meanwhile… at some point I will be very interested in hearing more about how your feelings/ideas/concepts have changed over these many months as you have visited one island after another. Each one obviously leaves an impression and each one has its own story, but after seeing so many now, especially witnessing numerous ‘festivals’ and presentations for yachties, I can imagine your perceptions now are, to some degree, more nuanced than when you began. In what ways? Or are these thoughts are still forming? I know you and Hallie have sailed extensively before so it is not all new to you, but I don’t think you spent as much time before visiting the smaller islands in Pacific.

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    1. It’s all new. These places were just names on a map. Actually I’d never heard of many of them at all. I was prepared for a sailing trip, not for a cultural tour of Oceana. I don’t know what to think of it all — I’m just trying to take it all in!

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  4. Zeke, these photos are incredible!!!!! And i’ll bet it’s challenging to take in! Such amazing traditions. One thing I noticed is the ages of the men and women who are dancing and that I don’t see teens or even what looks like young adults. Do they stay or leave? It’s become common for young adults to leave behind the traditions… maybe go to bigger islands or all the way to Oz – what do you see? You really have found such a remote part of the Earth and people who live so far from how we do – I think it’s incredible today that they exist and found ’em!! Keep ’em coming… I’m totally fascinated by your journey. ox V

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