Fri 21 Jun 2013 06:19
We walked up hill to Ikunala Village with Chief Yappa, a venerable old man with a salt-n-pepper beard and wild hair, who visited Prince Phillip in London 20 years ago to tell the Prince he was the living embodiment of some souls from Tanna who left the island after the second world war (not quite sure how HRH responded, but I doubt he was moved as he hasn't had much to do with the island or Chief Yappa since). I had no idea what was to come.
The road started out on concrete, then went to dirt, and then as it wound into the mountains we walked on through forest and tracks until we reached this Kastom (custom) village about a 2 hour walk out of Lenakel town. The last approach was along a vertigous spine between two rain-forest valleys hanging with mist. Without pictures it is hard to describe this village of 100 people perched up on a mountainside, other than to refer to National Geographic. The ground is black packed mud from volcanic ash and the huts, which only last 2-3 years, are made from sticks and woven walls. Each Tanna village has a Nakamal, normally under the boughs of a huge sacred banyan tree, where the men gather each afternoon after the days work is done to drink kava the local substitute for beer and just like the local pub the men discuss village events and issues, only with rather more impact afterwards. Done in the traditional 'Kustom' way it's a important daily ritual.
At every market you can find kava roots, which look like any old plant root, bound up in bundles for sale.
We arrived in the village and Cosmo and I were taken to a small hut in the Nakamal, where a few of the village men were squatting round a few smoking sticks - the girls had been taken off to another part of the village. One of the men was cleaning up kava roots by scraping them with a machete, then cutting them up. The next bit I missed, but around us all the young boys of 10 years or so had their mouths crammed with something that they were chewing and that was followed by a lot of spitting, I rather hoped they wouldn't ask Cosmo to try as it looked horrid. The whole scene was peaceful and we were pretty much ignored and were just offered a knob of wood to use as a stool to sit on - no ceremony here.
A little while later Chief Yappa said that I was going to drink Kava with him - well, having been invited to walk up the hill and to visit his very traditional village for fear of being rude I felt bound to accept. I was able to take a few photos of the men in traditional undress with just willy shaped protuberances made of rushes to hide their dignity (I promise to post some photos when we get real internet). No makeup and no bones through noses, but pretty much out-there, and in such a natural environment.
Back to the hut where a coconut fibre mat was passed around with about 10 lumps of - oh my god - masticated kava root on it, and I realised what I was into. The kids had been chewing the root to soften it, and now it was about to be made into a drink, and I was going to have to drink it! The mat was removed to another hut where it was prepared, I saw an old oil bottle being used to bring some water of unknown origin to mix it with as the root was squeezed through the mat. Then, suddenly, I was ushered outside with the chief where we were each presented with half a coconut full of what looked like cold dirty tea. I watched him down his coconut and steeled myself, and tried not to think how it had been made and the half-coconut full of germs I had in front of me. Well it was like drinking muddy water, rather gritty and fairly tasteless - I drank half the coconut and with a suppressed shudder gave the rest to the chief who finished it off for me. My lips went a bit numb, an
d I had a slight light headiness like after a couple of gin and tonics. .
Thank goodness that was all, as we had to walk all the way back down the very steep hill in the pitch dark with rain and mud above our ankles, or glistening smooth making for a very lethal slide. It took about two hours going down and we decided that this rated as one of our top 3 extreme/crazy walks since we have been away. Everyone slipped over, Cosmo and chief's son actively finding the slippiest slopes, needless to say we were all filthy. This is a daily event for the chief and his family they don't have a torch and given they must be well into there sixties and still managed to carrying their baby sleeping grandson in sling over there shoulders these people are awesome. Our 12 year old translator has to do the journey there and back each day for school.
It is now 3 days later and I am still miraculously alive and well. Not sure I'll rush to repeat the experience, but wouldn't have missed it for anything.