Buckets of culture

Tue 2 Sep 2008 21:49
Port Vila (still)
Fairly strong trade winds, right on the nose, have kept us in Vila longer than we had intended, but with a decent forecast from Bruce our plan is to check out of Vanuatu today and head off tomorrow for the Loyalty Islands in New Caledonia. So out with the French dictionary! The experience of Southern Princess who encountered awful conditions on their sail to New Caledonia last week made us very glad we and our friends Don and Anne on the American yacht, Harmonie, delayed our departure. So instead of sailing South to the island of Tanna, we flew down to see the famous volcano and experience some of the local culture. Stupidly, I neglected to consult the Lonely Planet, and booked a trip through the closest travel agent.Big mistake! I should have realised all was not well when I was handed plane tickets with the names of another couple on them and told not to worry about it.That summed up the tone of the whole trip. When we arrived at Tanna we rattled across incredibly rutted 'roads' for a couple of hours, with a pile of Ni Vans (the local people) in the tray of the ute. After crossing a huge ash desert, we arrived at our bungalow--a tiny grass hut with no door, no electricity, no sheets, and the most uncomfortable bed I have ever slept on. No problem if we had known, but we were paying serious money for this. What was worse was that it was my birthday and we had neglected to bring even a beer or a bottle of water with us. Luckily a very nice couple from Christchurch were on the trip and we were able to laugh at the Fawlty Towers of Tanna.
The volcano itself was in fine form, shooting up great boulders of moulten rock and rumbling in a very scary way. We were told that it was much more active than usual which was borne out when all the vulcanologists ran for their hard hats. We'd gone up at dusk, as the volcano looks most spectacular at night. Of course no torches were providedby our hosts, so the trip back down the steep side of the boulder-strewn volcano in the dark was quite a challenge. Those on official tours were provided with yellow vests, which made an awful lot of sense. Vanuatu not being a nanny state, there no barriers of any sort. We were told though never to turn our backs and run from the exploding rocks, as the previous week a French tourist had been badly injured as she ran and tripped over a boulder.
After a very basic meal there was nothing to do but retire at 8.30 with a flickering candle to our salubrious accommodation. Negotiating a trip to the bathroom in the dark was a real challenge--no basin, no mirror, non-flushing loo. We emerged next morning feeling as though we had a massive hangover after an almost sleepless night punctuated by the thunder-like claps from the volcano, the rustling of rats and the coughing of the villagers sleeping  nearby. We were supposed to see kastom dancing in another village, but this was cancelled due to the recent death of the chief. Instead we trekked up a steep path to view the corpse lying in state on a platform, surrounded by grieving elders. On the way up the track, we were surprised by heavily camouflaged spear-carrying young men leaping out at us from behind trees. The idea was that we were missionaries being challenged on their way through the jungle. After visiting the site where cannibal ceremonies took place--a wonderful view of the volcano-- we did feel for the missionaries.  Next day a circumcision ceremony was planned for the 7-year boys--performed with a piece of bamboo. Everwhere we went even the youngest boys played homemade ukelele-like instruments. the young men were never seen without a mobile phone. It was very amusing to see Digicel mobile phone signs on grass huts. The men were all heavily involved in the election campaign. We do hope  that the government minister who has recently written off 5 cars and beaten up his wife does not get reelected!
We jolted our way on the long journey back to the airport, this time the resort owner riding in state in the front seat of the ute, with the guests stuck in the tray at the back--a fitting finish to the trip. Of course we had a wonderful view of the villages and the local people who live a subsistence existence. They all seem to be fit and healthy, and the only difference from their lives a hundred years ago is the wearing of western clothes. The children are a delight, but you wouldn't want to be a woman in this society.
We were very lucky to be able to an example of women's customs when we went to see a group  from the island of Gaua in the remote north of Vanuatu play their Water Music, an amazing performance where about eight women use the hands and arms in the sea (a swimming pool at the EU Residence in this case) to produce extraordinary sounds. The closest I could think of was Rolfe Harris' wobble board. The group, who had never even been to Port Vila before, had just returned from a trip to Spain where they had performed at a wealthy family's celebaration. As young people would say.'How cool was that!' 
In contrast to all this, we drove to other side of the island yesterday (a holiday for the election) to have lunch at one of the loveliest little resorts we have ever seen.
Of all the Pacific countries we've been to, Vanuatu is the most interesting and varied. We hope to return next winter.