Tanna

Now this is a whole other ballgame. There are no cruise ships, at least just yet, here in Port Resolution at the eastern tip of the island of Tanna, thus named by famed Captain Cook after his very own ship. Today this small protected inlet would not be suitable for the valiant and certainly resolute explorer with a uniform depth of three to four meters. Apparently the land has uplifted sometimes during the global upheaval shortly before the middle of the last century in an upheaval of the volcanic kind. World famous Mount Yasur must have been involved in it with its fuming rumblings and fiery Stromboli type explosions that nowadays awe tourists from all over the world. Its towering ash and vapor cloud overlooks our anchorage, during the day like a giant wind direction indicator wiggling its way up into the stratosphere, and at night with a pink-orange glow on its underbelly that comes and goes to the rhythm of the eruptions in the caldera below.
Not having the fat cows of their southern neighbors to milk, the inhabitants of Tanna do their best to suckle from the smaller and skinnier ones. The steady stream of yachties passing through their lovely bay has given them a set of persistent tools of trade they are not shy to use and abuse. The day we arrived it was a lazy Sunday afternoon, at least once we were safely in the harbor after a rather turbulent passage up from Aneityum with Aluna riding white-capped seas churned up by full-blown 25 knot plus trades out of only a slither south of east. We had barely put our anchor down, when a fellow approached paddling his nice little one-man outrigger canoe made from a single breadfruit log. He extracted two mobile phones from a plastic bag in his water-soaked bilges and asked us if we would be so kind to charge them. As much as we have observed so far, this is an experience shared by every arriving boat in the bay. We have later learned that when they go to charge their phones at the computer lab of the small local school, they have to pay a small fee for it. They are of course very much aware, that on their second attempt most of their asking will be in vain.

But coming back to the outrigger canoes, they are beautiful little crafts and are the main means of local transport on the water. Every morning except Sundays a fleet of them starts skimming the rippled waters of the bay, paying out nets and following instructions by a couple of guys shouting down from the twenty meters high cliffs where the dusty remains of the Port Resolution Yacht Club dwells on memories of better times long gone by. During the course of the day their watery bilges fill with bundles of tasty mackerels, which around noon are dispatched with four wheeled pickup trucks to the market in Lenakel on the other side of the island. The afternoon catch is then distributed on the beach and feeds the local bellies.

The Lenakel market we had the pleasure to visit a couple days after our arrival. Transportation had to be arranged the previous day and we were cited to be ready at the Yacht Club at six thirty in the morning. Coming ashore the following day we were kindly informed that the truck would leave at seven thirty instead because the driver needed to finish watching the soccer match. We were lead to the community hall where a sizable group of early risers were watching Spain vs. Croatia of the Euro Cup blaring with French commentary from a small TV set up on a raised stage. Lucky enough our liaison was able to drag the driver out of there during half time break and we got going at eight. The trip started out on a grassy two-wheel track through dense jungle with interspersed banana and pawpaw gardens. Every now and then the “road” would transform into a riverbed like gulley where our driver shifted into four-wheel mode to negotiate bumpy hops from one big round boulder to the other.

After a little over a half hour drive we arrived at a large clearing and were told that this was the entrance to the volcano’s visiting area. We drove along an interspersed concrete brick wall under construction behind which a grass field extended with erect figures sculpted in black lava rock up the gentle slope of the now visible majestic cone under the telltale cloud top. On the opposite side of the road bungalows awaited eager tourists to rest their bones and for the more demanding tastes there were two colorful tree lodges lodged atop majestic Banyan trees. 

A mile or two later the vegetation abruptly disappeared around us and we were catapulted out onto a dark grey moonscape, the volcano’s ash plane to the West and Northwest of the cinder cone. The “road” now consisted of a multitude of tire track marks running parallel, sometimes as wide as a Los Angeles six lane freeway. Black lava boulders of different sizes sat strewn across the plane and to our right the gaze was able to scale the smooth sides of the volcano decorated at its top with dark streaks, remnants of ejecta sliding down from the crater’s rim. A small river had to be forded once we had made our way along the volcano’s base and little by little the vegetation reclaimed the landscape as we started to ascend the high mountainous interior of Tanna Island. Climbing up a winding road up Snake Mountain we were treated with a splendid vista up the northern half of the island with a distinct white line of ocean surf delineating its eastern shore.

Unsurprisingly Lenakel on the West coast, the island’s administrative center and main port, turned out to be a noisy little town full of shops selling wares of all kinds. On the market square in the shade of a gigantic tree ladies in colorful dresses were selling the goods of their gardens. Fruits from mandarins to pineapples and many kinds of bananas were presented alongside a wide range of tubers like taro, yam, cassava and kumara. We stocked up with what we could fit in our rucksacks and bags, knowing well that what we were not able to purchase here we would have to extract with tenacious trading from our local friends back around the rolly bay of Port Resolution.

Over the next couple days we delved into the social dynamics of our hosts. In conversations ashore and aboard we learned about vicious feuding between the handful of villages, power struggles around the few steady sources of income, ideological divisions between those who favor tradition and those who promote development and finally got wind of the outrageous plan to start building a thousand meter long airstrip within a couple months’ time, that will allow the landing of international flights on this side of the island to funnel even more tourists up the slopes of the rumbling mountain. Visions of bright white resorts along the still pristine banks of the bay started to cloud my eyes whenever I looked around the anchorage but apparently the resistance to this outrageous assault in the communities here is feeble and in a state of utter disarray. The Chinese had won the construction bid, presumably to be paid by their own government’s large chunks of aid money, and were already busy clearing the road we had used to cross the island, where I had seen heavy construction equipment driven by slit eyed characters and a fat supervisor sitting on an even fatter tricycle wearing the telltale hat of Chinese rice farmers while his ill-humored and yellow cheeked face was shouting orders to his dark colored subjugates, who in turn were wielding shovels and picks in their hand.
As it turned out the world famous volcano, the gloomy glow we admire at night above our temporary resting place, will have to do without our visit. We had been warned beforehand about Vanuatu’s outrageous prices for visiting its famous landmarks, but the 7’000 vatus (about US$75) entry fee to Mount Yasur, which is per person, plus another 2’500 for transportation up to the entrance makes this adventure inaccessible to our tightly stringed purse and seems to us just a little bit over the top! We are getting conflicting information whenever we ask where exactly this money would go, but none of it sounds anything even remotely close to fair trade standards. There seems to be no stopping once the lust for money has gotten hold of a man’s heart and mind. And as much as the heavy milking of the tourism industry by poorer nations is an understandable temptation, there can be no good future coming out of such blatant abuse. The Ni Vanuatu, who at every turn pride themselves to be a very friendly people, might have a bit of work laid out before them to bring their self-image in accord with their actual deeds. That is of course easier said than done and anyway, with our own societies in absolute disarray, who are we to judge?

As a replacement for the costly adventure of visiting the fiery volcanic spectacle it was suggested to us to go and visit a ‘kustom’ village about a two hour walk down the road. Bislama, the national language of Vanuatu is a pidgin English, which uses English words on the grammatical structure of an indigenous language. Here a traditional village is meant that still cultivates its folkloric customs. It was a rainy day, but our friends from SV Capastro had to sail on the next day and were eager to get some sort of adventures under their belts. Anyway, who cares, in the tropics rain is quite an agreeable affair. Your clothes dry quickly between downpours.

Peaking around us from under our rain coats we were soon treading along the same dirt road that had brought us to the other side of the island, but this time on foot. It took a good eye and a bit of inquiry with the locals to glimpse the turn off from the main road that lead up the mountain, then through a palisade like gate over a three foot deep ditch up to a hilltop, where a manicured village sat in the dampness. Chief Jack soon appeared in a red T-shirt out of one of the bamboo plaited and palm leave thatched huts and with a bright smile welcomed us to his village named Taupau. A price of 1’000 Vatus per head was agreed upon and we were lead into a hut and told to wait until his people were ready in full ‘kustom’ costumes. A good half an hour later he reappeared in grass skirt with a penis mock up sticking up frolicking in front of his belly button. He told us to follow his bare buttocks down to a round flattened area flanked by three majestic Banyan trees. One of them had a tunnel cut through the bundle of trunks through which soon a group of chanting dancers appeared, the whole scene fit for any grand royal opera house!

The group of nine dancers, two bare breasted ladies, three straw penis clad men and four children with hints of obliged demeanor, performed four numbers for us consisting of chants supported by stern hand clapping and vigorously stomping feet. Chief Jack gave us his well-worn explanations about their content, the first being a general welcome for us visitors, the second an emulation of jumps to avoid falling boulders of lava expulsed from the volcano, the third an abstruse story of jealousy in a banana garden and finally the last one a hearty and thankful farewell for us travelers who “had come from such great a distance to visit us!”

Here under the cathedral like banyan trees the brutal exchange of paper currency seemed softened, akin to a fair exchange of goods with a defined price in any other trading post around the world. Of course our charming host was unable to refrain from a persistent instruction for us to “tell all our friends to bring some little Vatus to Chief Jack and his people.” I guess here the healthy South American expression of “El que no llora no mama!”* comes to shine its light of popular wisdom onto a lad grabbing by the hand the opportunity when it happens to present itself before his needy eyes. 
* This translates into something like: “He who doesn’t cry does not get to suckle the titty!”

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