Tag Archives: Vanuatu

Southwest Bay, Malakula (Vanuatu)

Leaving Tisvel we beat into the wind (with triple reefed mainsail, since we still don’t have the materials to fix our broken shroud), to Southwest Bay. Tahawus and Drina were there ahead of us. Just the three of us in a huge protected anchorage. Doina had already met with the Chiefs ashore, and arranged for a guided tour of the tidal lagoon by the village. Bob and I joined the tour.

Taking two dinghies to the beach, we met Principal Chief James. Each tribe, which I believe equates to an extended family, has a chief. A Principal Chief is elected for a four year term to oversee the entire village. Or in this case it is a collection of four neighboring villages. To visit the lagoon (or to snorkel at the reef) you must get permission from the chief. But you wouldn’t want to do it without a guide anyway, because what’s cool is not the lagoon itself, but the culture of the people living around it. We negotiated a fee for our two guides for the two dinghies. James came with us. The second guide was Chief Esrom, who many years ago became Luc’s blood brother.

Up the little tidal river we went, James sitting in the bow and pointing which way to go to avoid the shallows, and telling us about the villages and the customs. Past a field with a small heard of goats. Past a large canoe heavily loaded with firewood, paddled by two women. Past men working on building a guest house atop the steep bank, who hooted and shouted at us in fun, but I never saw them in the dense growth. Past endless mangroves at the water’s edge, with paths cut through every so often just wide enough for a canoe (with its outrigger) to get to the muddy shore, so a family can tend their garden there.

We stopped for a short walk through the bush to a watering hole, where James demonstrated that you could drip the sap of a certain vine into the water, and it would “clean the water.” That is, whatever stuff was floating on the surface would move away from the sap, leaving a clear surface for drinking. As we walked out, James told us about a custom, that if you kill someone in the bush (not clear to us if this referred to slaying an enemy or other forms of manslaughter), you place a certain leaf on your head when you are returning to the village. This announces that you have killed someone, and you are expected to go to the chief to tell the story. Dan volunteered to wear such a leaf into the village — James assured us he would explain that this was merely a demonstration.

The village was up a well made set of steps to a plain above the water. We met the local chief (later we learned that he was James’ father), and after explaining the leaf on Dan’s head we were properly welcomed. That is, the children gave us each a flower, and we each received a young coconut with a reed-like straw to drink the juice.

We walked through the little village and into the bush, to see a canoe being built. Before the first missionaries in 1895, canoes (and drums) were hollowed out by burning the inside wood. That approach gave way to the adze. Now more often than not the tool of choice is the chain saw — even for the inside. But our canoe builder was using an axe to strip the bark of the “blue water tree” log. The name does not refer to the distance the canoe will travel. Rather, it is what happens when you put the bark of the tree in the water. If you wait a few minutes, the water begins to turn blue. They demonstrated this for us. The blue water tree is the best wood for canoes – they will last 15 to 20 years. Canoes are also built from the “white wood tree,” but these they say last maybe 3 years. It takes a month for a man to build a canoe. Many men are capable of making a canoe, but (this said with a knowing look) only a few can make a special canoe.

Walking through the bush we saw several flying foxes. Also known as fruit bats, these are ungainly looking bats that belong in a Tolkien story, that don’t look like they should really be able to fly. A young man had a slingshot, and attempted to bring one down (which we were assured he would eat), but with no luck.

Chief James is the Principal Chief for a dozen tribes. People come to him for conflict resolution. Many disputes have to do with land rights. When this happens he has to review the history of the families involved, sometimes back many generations, to make his ruling. Asked if people always listened to him, he said, “Yes, they have to listen to me. If they didn’t I would refer them to the police!” There are higher level Chiefs, though — for the whole island of Malakula, for example — so I don’t know how the appeals process really works.

The land is owned by the villagers, which is not always the case in other South Pacific countries. Women can own land, but only if a family has no boys. Women move to the villages of their husbands. I imagine that this is a difficult transition, because the neighboring village is likely to speak a different language. There are over 200 local languages within Vanuatu! The village on the east side of this bay speaks a different language than the village on the west side.

Principal Chief James, and Doina
Principal Chief James, and Doina
Two dinghies go exploring in the lagoon.
Two dinghies go exploring in the lagoon.
Every 100 yards or so is a little clearing in the mangroves, often just big enough to fit a canoe (with outrigger). These have been cut so that village residents can access their “garden” in the bush.
We stop at one...
We stop at one…
...where Chief Joseph demonstrates the leaf-message that he has killed someone in the bush.
…where Chief Joseph demonstrates the leaf-message that he has killed someone in the bush.
Luc’s “brother” Chief Esrom looks on
Back to the dinghies
Back to the dinghies
To the village on the lagoon...
To the village on the lagoon…
...where we are adorably welcomed with flowers
…where we are adorably welcomed with flowers
...and coconuts
…and coconuts
We walk through the village and on into the bush, where we see fruit bats -- one in photo.
We walk through the village and on into the bush, where we see fruit bats — one in photo.
...to where this man is starting to build a canoe
…to where this man is starting to build a canoe
He gives Mirko a chip from the blue water tree.
He gives Mirko a chip from the blue water tree.
Saying goodbyes back at the village
Saying goodbyes back at the village
Corporate globalization reaches all the way to Vanuatu.
Corporate globalization reaches all the way to Vanuatu.
On our way out we inspect a finished canoe with new appreciation.
On our way out we inspect a finished canoe with new appreciation.
And we confirm that the blue water tree really does begin to turn water blue.
And we confirm that the blue water tree really does begin to turn water blue.

Malua Bay and Tisvel, Malakula Island (Vanuatu)

From the island of Santo, our next destination was Southwest Bay on Malakula Island. That’s too far for a daysail, so we broke it up into three days. The first night we (and Drina) anchored in Malua Bay. It was late afternoon by the time we anchored, and Bill and I stayed on the boat, but Bob swam ashore. He learned that there is a Seventh Day Adventist school there, and met many students. He got a lift back to the boat with one of them, named Ruben, in his dugout canoe. We invited Ruben aboard, and he was very interested in the boat. Bob named each sail and many other components, and Ruben repeated each word. But when we invited him to come inside he declined. Not sure if that was a cultural thing about entering someone else’s dwelling.

In the morning another canoe came for a visit, paddled by a woman named Stephanie. She brought fruit, but she asked if we could give her rope. This is a common request, allegedly “for my cow,” though I think it is a very tradable commodity, and I have my doubts that Stephanie has a cow. We told her that we need all our ropes. She then said that she lives in the bush with her children ages 6 and 7, and it is cold (which indeed it was last night), and do we have a blanket we can give her. No…but…I said I would find something warm for her.

Rummaging below, what I found was my wool fisherman sweater, that I have owned for decades, but hardly ever worn. It may be TOO warm for this latitude, but it felt right to pass it on to Stephanie, and I did. We came away with a couple pamplemousse, a coconut, a photo, and a pleasant feeling of passing something along…releasing some positive energy.

We stopped at another bay that is not mentioned in our cruising guides, by the village of Tisvel. Bob and I went ashore, and were warmly welcomed. A woman named Kathy offered to show us the village, and Joseph (who turned out to be the village chief) and David came with us. Tisvel has 132 inhabitants, including the children…only one church (Presbyterian)…pretty little houses…one little store with mostly bare shelves…lots of papaya and mangoes and bananas and pamplemousse and of course coconuts, and other fruits that I didn’t recognize…cacao (we got to taste the bright white not-yet-ready beans)…running water at 4 community spigots piped from a big tank in the bush…fat chickens…scrawny dogs…a few pigs…bamboo harvested from the bush for building thatched roofs and woven siding… The place seemed very clean and nicely laid out, and our hosts seemed to be proud of it.

Unsure about photo etiquette, I asked if I could take pictures of the village — yes, of course — and then if I could take pictures of the people. That got some giggles and posing. Luckily Bob was using his iPad for pictures, because they wanted to see themselves in the photos. His iPad trumped my camera hands down for that.

We asked about Cyclone Pam, and learned that the damage was to their crops. Nevertheless, Kathy insisted on giving us a large papaya, and she laughed, “No!” When I offered to pay her for it. But we asked Chief Joseph if we could give a gift of a soccer ball for the kids to use. He and two other men wanted to see the boat, so the five of us paddled out in our dinghy to get the ball, and to show them our home. No reluctance on their part to come inside — they wanted to see everything!

I found it interesting that they assumed initially that we were from Australia. They had no idea where the United States or Canada are. They recognized the names of Tuvalu and Wallis, but they didn’t seem to recognize Tonga. They had traveled to other islands in Vanuatu (principally to the cities of Luganville and Vila), but not beyond Vanuatu.

They asked repeatedly if we had wives, and where were they. And how long we had been on the boat. I told one of the men that my wife would be coming to Australia — that I was looking forward to seeing her in three weeks. He gave me a look that said, “I bet you are; long time to be without your woman!”

Later in the afternoon Bob swam ashore again, and learned more. He met another Chief, who said that they rarely see white people. Bob said: but there had been another yacht in the bay the previous night. Yes, but they did not come ashore! Indeed our presence was special, because a couple of the lads then invited Bob to have kava. Kava is usually a social/ceremonial drink, but they said they couldn’t drink any because they were about to play soccer. The just hung out while Bob drank! They assured him he would still be able to swim back to the boat, which he did with no problem. He was quite gregarious at dinner, and then proceeded to fall asleep in the middle of trying to send email over the radio.

It’s a quiet night now in the bay. There are a few lights on shore — some huts have solar cells for a light and a DVD player, and there are a few people on the beach with flashlights. I can smell the smoke from fires ashore. I wish I could live in this village for a month, to learn what it is really like. Everything seems very communal…shared…easygoing. Everyone seems happy. Is there no sense of scarcity, like we-who-have-everything are so familiar with? Or is there another layer beneath the surface, that we can’t see as we sail on by?

Anchoring in Malua Bay off of the school (big roof) where Bob met many of the kids.
Anchoring in Malua Bay off of the school (big roof) where Bob met many of the kids.
Bob hitches a ride (?) with Ruben. Drina in background.
Bob hitches a ride (?) with Ruben. Drina in background.
Stephanie brings fruit
Stephanie brings fruit
Stephanie
Stephanie
"Landing craft" delivers supplies to Tisvel.
“Landing craft” delivers supplies to Tisvel.
Tisvel Village, in the shadows. On the beach there is cacao and bamboo slats drying.
Tisvel Village, in the shadows. On the beach there is cacao and bamboo slats drying.
Kathy and Chief Joseph
Kathy and Chief Joseph
And Joseph's wife (didn't learn her name)
And Joseph’s wife (didn’t learn her name). Woven siding material is bamboo.
Tisvel
Tisvel
Knocking down a fruit that we didn't recognize.
Knocking down a fruit that we didn’t recognize.
It remains a mystery to me. Whatever it is, it isn't ripe.
It remains a mystery to me. Whatever it is, it isn’t ripe.
Making roof thatch
Making roof thatch
Photos on Bob's iPad are a hit. The white thing in the boy's hand is a cacao pod.
Photos on Bob’s iPad are a hit. The white thing in the boy’s hand is a cacao pod.
If only it could also print...
If only it could also print…
Tisvel
Tisvel. Note the ‘fruitful’ papaya tree.
Tisvel
Tisvel