Vanuatu festivities (with photos)

JJMoon Diary
Barry and Margaret Wilmshurst
Wed 20 Aug 2008 06:43
The events at Lamen Bay, Epi were very well done.  By 0930 eight local young men were constructing running sails from palm fronds on the beach.  At 1000 they were sent off in their canoes by a blast on a conch shell to race to Lamen Island two miles away where they landed, lowered sail and paddled back.  Each ran through a triumphal floral arch on the beach to yachtie and local applause and in due course all were presented with prizes by the chief amid further acclamation.  A good fish lunch was served from 1130 and those who wanted exercise were taken on walks through the village.  Alternatively we could try our hands in a dug-out canoe.  Mags and a friend went round in circles but at least they stayed afloat, unlike one poor chap.  An excellent supper, including beer and red wine, completed the day.  We paid for the meals but the prices were reasonable.  Our old friend the yellow sea-plane from Port Vila turned up and was the centre of attraction.  The pilot was still pumping out his floats but, to be fair, it is a very fine plane apparently in competent hands.  School was let out for the morning and Mags spent a most enjoyable and interesting hour chatting to the teacher of the reception class.
Starting line.
The starting line.
The whole day was carried through with some aplomb.  The prizes were donated by a New Zealand yacht that is a frequent visitor to Vanuatu waters.  The crews from twenty-three boats certainly enjoyed themselves and there was every indication that the locals did too.  This was the second year that the event had been staged and there was talk of even bigger and better next year.
The chief of the village presenting prizes
The chief of the village giving a speech prior to presenting the prizes.
The festival at South-West Bay, Malakula which started four days later was a good deal more ambitious.  Three villages round the bay had been encouraged to hold events on consecutive days.  These are "custom" villages, a frequently used term in these parts, which I take to be shorthand for "traditional customs and all that appertains to them".  The people are nearly self-sufficient, living easily off the abundance of the fruits of land and sea and with plenty of clean water.  As well as growing vegetables in a very fertile soil they keep pigs, cattle, goats and chickens.  Most transport is by dug-out outrigger canoes but the modern world is making inroads.  There are schools (not everybody can afford the fees for secondary education), a telephone, a communal television and a supply ship that calls once or twice a month serviced by one or two larger boats with outboard motors.
On the first day the village wished to open its new "yacht club" and offered entertainment in exchange for a good turn-out.  In this context "yacht club" means a larger than average hut dedicated to the welcome of visiting yachties.  The new premises are approached a few hundred metres up a small fast flowing river and a walk to the edge of the village.  Musicians were tuneful and energetic, there was serious ceremonial (in the American manner) in the raising of a new hand-made club flag, ribbon cutting and speeches, including one by chief Tom.  He expressed the hope that greater tourist activity would encourage more young people to remain in the village instead of sloping off to Port Vila.  On entering the club premises yachties presented gifts for the villagers and ensigns and flags to be hung in the club.  There were demonstrations of canoe building, mat weaving, local cooking techniques, the many and varied uses of the coconut and sand drawing.  This latter exhibition was by a native of the neighbouring island of Ambrym and was said to have mystical connotations but I was not terribly impressed, finding it rather limited and a bit sad.  Lunch was provided free of charge and later in the afternoon we climbed the hill behind the village to a small plateau to be entertained by the musicians and by a group of ladies performing a custom dance.  Again, Mags in particular was made rather uncomfortable by this.  Before returning to our boats there was a guided tour of the lagoon up the river to view the wild life.  However, the Americans in their big dinghies and large outboards careered off at great speed churning up the placid waters and any bird or animal with any sense kept his head down.
Raising the flag
Raising the flag at the new yacht club.
A conflagration of dinghies
A trip round the lagoon when there was some "showing off"! 
The story behind the next day's activities was a bit different.  Last year a small cruise ship arranged to call regularly at a village about a mile and a half away from the first and six young men received some training from the tourism authority.  The grounds were prepared, seating arranged and custom dances rehearsed.  It went well on the occasions the ship called but this year the company changed its itinerary and the villagers were left with new-found skills but no-one to practice on.  We did our best to make up the deficiency.  There were thirty-five boats in the bay and we paid 3000 vatus, about £16, per head.  There were more demonstrations, two custom dances from different tribes, lunch and an extensive guided tour of the village and its environs.  Each group of ten visitors was allocated a local guide.  Ours was Ricci, one of the lads who had been given some training last year.  One could not speak too highly of his courtesy, general helpfulness and solicitude for an old white codger with a bit of a hip problem.  He is proud of his village and his way of life, scornful of those who think they need mobile phones and spoke well about life in the village and the way it was organised.  He was rather less coherent when asked about the aims and aspirations of the villagers in regard to tourism and visiting yachts.
Our guide Ricci tells us about the village
Our guide Ricci and Barry with Jackie and Brian from Songster.  Now who's instructing whom?
On the third day another village - said to be French speaking but as far as we could tell only the chief speaks French - offered guided snorkeling over its impressive reef, a light lunch and tours of the village.  Some were a bit played out by this time but Mags was one who enjoyed some good snorkeling.  As before the villagers welcomed their visitors with great courtesy.  This time they tucked a flower behind an ear of each visitor and offered a coconut drink with a straw made from a local plant - much appreciated by those of us who are not adept at pouring milk from a small hole in the shell straight into the mouth.
There was a general feeling that we had all enjoyed ourselves greatly over the three days and learnt a few things, but what did it all mean?  On a personal level we were enriched by the brief insights into a culture so different from our own.  But what was to be gained by the villagers?  They seemed to think their day had been a success but the little "yacht club" is off the beaten track and not very easy to locate.  We were told that usually a few boats a month visit the bay.  Perhaps the word will get round and numbers will increase but will this benefit anybody?  One can readily see that with good advice, time and investment the remoter parts of Vanuatu could become most attractive tourist destinations but would anybody be better off? 
Surely their way of life in the custom villages is doomed - we get the impression there are changes every year.  At least some of the young people who have received a good secondary education will want opportunities for creative work.  If they go on to university there will be few jobs for them in Vanuatu; very few in the villages.  But in some ways it seems a pity.  The people are apparently happy, healthy and well fed. 
Following several chats with local people Mags felt that there were things she could learn from the village way of life.  In particular she finds the relaxed style of living with strong social groups and self entertainment very appealing.   The people have time to "stand and stare" - and they live in some wonderfully beautiful places. 
When thirty to forty boats have been together for three or four days people always seem to start to get a bit excitable.  We were glad to move on to somewhere quieter.  We spent one night in the Maskelynes off the south-east corner of Malakula Island, together with a dozen others who were going on to the custom festival on Ambrym.  Ambrym is one of two islands with an active volcano and the local people are clearly still very influenced by its apparent power over their lives.  The annual festival and its Rom dances are famous.  A second night was spent, alone, in Waterfall Bay on Pentecost, an attractive anchorage but exposed in strong winds and now we have been lying for a couple of days at Asanvari at the south of Maewo.  Here, chief Nelson has built a very fine "yacht club" opened in 2002 but unfortunately we arrived at an inopportune time.  The Island Cruising Association rally, which left Opua just before us, was here for a week recently and a great time was had by all.  This is now the club with no beer.  Nor with anything else except chief Nelson's excellent company for a chat.  Oh, and a copious waterfall just behind the beach where we took our washing to be rinsed.  The supply ship's engine has broken down and the ship hasn't called for two months. 
Rining the washing at the waterfall.
Mags rinsing the washing at the waterfall laundry!
It has been raining hard off and on for two days and we are running out of supplies ourselves.  We plan to sail to Luganville tomorrow with a commission to look out for any boat heading for Asanvari with space available in a large freezer.  The chief wants 20 kilos of chicken wings.