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Date: 08 Oct 2012 23:19:07
Title: Tanna - Yakel; visiting the locals

Lat 17:44.29S
Lon 168:18.58E

On Friday we were going to cross the island again to visit some other villages, but Ewan had a migraine (must have been the stress of proposing?!) so we had a lazy day on the boat - welcomed by all after a couple of big days.In the evening, one of the villages across the bay had invited everyone in the anchorage to a local dinner on the beach and we went along. They were raising money for their school, and for a small fee they provided us with a small feast of local food, including a pig cooked in a ground oven. This is a speciality in this part of the world and we've been wanting to try it for a while. It actually didn't taste especially good - I must have been spoilt by the ribs at Hurricane's!!

Eawn was feeling much better on Saturday but our poor organisation meant we had to get up at 5.30am to try and organise a truck to take us across the island to some villages we wanted to visit. We walked into the village at Port Resolution, where of course everyone was still asleep. The truck always leaves at 6am but apparently on weekends, after a Friday night kava session, they don't get up before 7am! We sheepishly hung around until someone emerged sleepily from their house and went off to wake Stanley who in turn went off to wake the driver. Eventually (2 hours later) we had 8 yachties, 1 driver and 3 locals in the truck and we set off across the island again, in search of the 'custom' villages of Yakel and Yanalao.

Driving across the ash plain - Mt Yasur in the background

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Mt Yasur erupting

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Along the road we saw hundreds of people leaving a circumcision ceremony, many had painted faces or feathers in their hair

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Most people in Vanuatu, although having very little, dress in western clothes and their culture is gradually being worn away via the presence of mobile phones and tv. In a couple of villages on Tanna though, the people have chosen to reject modernisation and the influence of the developed world, and continue to live as their ancestors did. A friend of the future Briggs', made a documentary here a couple of years ago, and spent a lot of time in these two villages, getting to know the locals. He recommended that we should visit, and mention his name as they would remember him and give us special treatment! We arrived at Yakel and pulled up into a large open space beneath two massive banyan trees - the 'nakamal' where kava drinking, meetings and all ceremonial duties are carried out. We were told that Ewan and the other men should go and introduce themselves and ask to meet the chief to ask permission to visit the village. The women had to stay in the truck. Of course, no one spoke English, and the guy we were looking for was apparently down the road in the next village. The chief said we should go and find Jimmy Joseph 'JJ' and then come back. Only one of the locals we were with had been to Yakel before, and no-one really knew where we were going but after a few wrong turns down different dirt tracks, Stanley eventually found the right man. He was wearing only a namba (penis sheath!) made of dried grass, and some dried root looking things draped around his head and chest. He spoke perfect English and was incredibly welcoming and friendly. He was busy rehearsing for the Toka dance, the most important festival on Tanna, occurring once a year, that was taking place this week, but he dropped everything and took us up to Yakel and gave us a personal tour around the village.

Jimmy Joseph wearing his namba and grass skirt

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The houses were spread around the nakamal in several small groups. Again they were made of nothing but bamboo poles and woven leaves. The men were all dressed like JJ, and the women wore only a grass skirt. It was really interesting learning how simply yet happily they live, and everyone was very friendly. The kids followed us around and smiled for photos, some more shy than others. We learnt about the crops they grow and their day to day life. We saw handicrafts that the women had made and then met the head honcho's of the village and the neighbouring villages that were gathered together. Each couple had to present themselves to the chiefs, and state who they were and why they had wanted to visit the village and the purpose for our visit. JJ translated and then the head chief gave us all some more words of thanks and welcome.

Traditional house, complete with pig

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Girls in their grass skirts

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Women in the nakamal

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While the women were banished back to the nakamal, Ewan and Archie took kava with chiefs, which is much more potent than the stuff they drink in Fiji. Tanna kava is apparently the most potent of the lot! It is made by chewing the root and then spitting the contents into a vessel which is then mixed with water and given to the drinker in a half coconut shell. The preparation had already been done on our arrival, so Ewan and Archie gulped it down - Archie suffered a bit of a gag reflex and only just managed to keep it down - he doesn't like sharing the same cup of water with me, let alone drinking a sticky liquid that was produced in someone else's mouth!! After they finished they had to face the mountain and make a verbalised wish. After the kava ceremony, they put on a dance for us which was awesome to see. Lots of chanting, stomping of feet in the dust and demonstrating their toil in the fields. It was then time to go, we shook hands with all of them and got back in the truck. We're so glad we visited and saw this side of Vanuatan life. A trip to Tanna would have been incomplete without understanding their ancient kastoms and beliefs. Thanks to Tom for the contact of Jimmy Joseph!

Jem and Ewan meet the tribe!

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The village men of Yakel perform for us

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Back in the truck we dropped JJ back at his neighbouring village, where he invited the men to watch the rehearsal of the Toka dance - the most important dance of the upcoming Toka festival. It was a great opportunity for them so they accepted, while us girls were again left in the truck far enough up the track so that we couldn't see what was going on! 2 hours later (!!) they emerged to some rather hot and bothered wives and girlfriends. It had apparently taken 1.5 hrs to gather everyone before they had started practising! From what I can gather there was some conch shell blowing, more singing, stamping and dancing but having not seen it I can't really comment any more on that! Some nice boys brought us some fresh coconut to drink while we were waiting, and some other younger boys came over and showed off their bow and arrow skills to keep us amused!

Toka rehearsals

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In the truck on the way home

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We left the village and started the long drive back to Port Resolution, unfortunately made even longer by the fact that the driver was a bit too eager to get home and after zooming along the dirt roads, we ended up with a flat tire just before the ash plain. I don't think the wheels had ever been changed on the truck - the nuts on the wheel were so tight, no one could make them budge. Eventually brute force snapped one of the bolts off completely, and then another, and then we decided that we just weren't going to get the wheel off, so we drove very slowly and carefully back along the dirt roads and across the ash plain in the dark. Somehow we made it - Archie and I were in the cab with the driver (and the token chicken!), and he appeared to be trying to psych himself up over the bad bits - "just take it slowly"! Finally we made it back to the dinghy and back to the yacht for a quick dinner and long awaited bed after our adventurous day.

We are now approaching the capital, Port Villa, having sailed overnight on a rather slow and rolly passage from Tanna. We stopped briefly at a small island called Aniwa for a snorkel and some lunch and a walk around the lagoon there which was pretty. We have to finish our check in formalities here and are looking forward to getting some laundry done, getting rid of rubbish that we've had on board since we left Fiji, and a good meal in a restaurant. Apparently the steak here is so good that 85% of it is exported to Japan!




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