After the big Back to My Roots festival, we had an afternoon of rest, and got underway just before dark to sail back to Santo. This time the destination was Oyster Island Resort, which cannot be entered at night. So our plan was to sail as slowly as we could, to cover the 70 miles and arrive after sun-up. This worked out fine. The resort is beautiful and offers good food and laundry services and showers and live music and garbage removal and wifi. All appreciated.
But I found I couldn’t upload photos via the wifi, so Bob and I decided to head into town. We were told it was a 20 minute drive. After a short walk to the main road we put out our thumbs, and the first vehicle to approach was a flatbed truck with half a dozen young men on the back yelling to the driver, “Stop! Stop! Pick them up!” The back of the truck was loaded with huge bags of copra, plus there was about half a butchered calf and a couple of plucked birds, and feathers blowing about. Plus some coconuts, which they proceeded to open for us with their machetes as we bounced down the road. It was a wild and fun ride, and more than 20 minutes because the truck could barely make it up the hills.
Our mission was safely completed, the blog updated. Next day we were scheduled to do a tour, but I am coming down with a cold — I slept all day. I’m glad I did. My first day of solid rest in a long time, and the others came back raving about the beautiful tour, but completely exhausted. I’m not looking forward to dealing with a cold on our passage to Australia, but oh well…
We depart tomorrow. This afternoon Luc gives us our sailing instructions and then we have a farewell dinner. In the morning Luc takes the skippers to clear out with the authorities, and takes the crews to a market for provisions. Expected passage time is about 7 days. Much anticipation about Australia…a major milestone…hauling the boat for new paint…lots of repairs…Hallie coming…Jesse coming…going exploring in the Northern Territories…Bill leaving…Bob leaving…Tim returning…sailing with Jesse…Great Barrier Reef…Torres Strait…and then…but no, I can’t think ahead to Indonesia just yet… Still a lot to be done just to get underway by tomorrow.
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.
Next morning brought the arrival of Chapter Two, Blue Wind and Maggie. Six BPO boats together — almost the entire fleet! Luc had arranged for a “festival” at the nearby village of Labo. The activities began with traditional dancing, as done in this area only. It had none of the masculine warrior spirit of the Marquesas or the sensuality of Tahiti or the grace of Tuvalu. In fact, its most distinguishing characteristic seemed to be that it was…different! Five ornately dressed/decorated men with…well, see the photos…snaking their way up from the beach, around the drummers in a field, and back from whence they came. They then did two more dances, where the only difference appeared to be the things that they carried. It did not make me want to get up and move my body, but it certainly was unique.
On to the fire-making demonstration. I had never actually seen someone start a fire without a match/lighter/spark. They did it by rubbing a hardwood stick against the inner wood of a coconut log. Something to file away for when I wash up empty-handed on an empty island. Or become a contestant on a TV “reality” show…
Next the feast. Almost all starch — taro, yams, sweet potato, mantioch, cassava — I don’t know all the variations, but there were all these and more. Some octopus, I think. No meat, and to my surprise no fish (even though we see lots of fishing going on around us). After we finished eating they showed us how some of the food was prepared. Much of it is rolled in leaves and stuffed into a length of green bamboo. The bamboo is then placed in the fire until it is charred, and then the food inside is done.
On to the tour of the village. About 150 people live there. I was once again impressed with the beauty and the cleanliness. It had falas/huts at the places with the best views, that were communal resting places. There were several water faucets, piped from a big tank up the hill. Some houses had water carried by bamboo sluices, directly from a stream. There were a few solar panels, but not many. I was told that everyone eats together in the dining hall, at least one meal per day, and sometimes three. The kids all look healthy and happy.
We followed a path up a hill, and then down to the local swimming hole. A stone dam had been built below a small waterfall to make a pool. Bob and I jumped in, along with several others.
There was a demonstration of pottery making. It seems that making pots had become a lost art, and one man was re-introducing the craft. And there was a group of women making “water music.” This is a challenge to describe. They use their hands in the water to make sounds like drumming, and by different motions they can make different sounds. It’s fun to watch and the sound is amazing. I have video, but the sound picked up by the video just isn’t the same as what you hear…
For all this we paid about $30 each, lunch included. A great value, as the village clearly spent days preparing for our visit. I have mixed feelings about the prepared presentation of the culture. It’s not that it isn’t real — it is. But it seems like it is taking the culture out of its natural context. I suppose it is like a “living museum.” Of course we would never have the opportunity to see and learn so much in one day, if it were not prepared/presented for us. And it is great that our money goes directly to the village, with no “agent” taking a cut. But I’m very glad that I got to see the village of Tisvel the other day, just as a friendly visit and not as a customer!