A Chiefly Visit

November 17, 2016

The lukewarm waters had managed to cool off our worn bodies just a little bit and now under the still scorching afternoon sun we are paddling over the barely submerged reef towards a bright yellow beach at the southwestern extremity of the island. As we approach the sand at the water’s edge a group of children comes hollering from underneath the shady trees behind the beach. They help us carry Alunita up above the line of debris marking the limit of the waters at high tide. After a short mutual introduction, answering their standard ‘Wats yah neim?’ and in turn asking for theirs, we are taken by the hands and lead inshore.

There in the shade a bare hundred meters in from the beach sits Lapita Tikopia eagerly awaiting our visit. She looks sad covered with a green tarp but from a quick glance along the waterline her hulls appear sound. We continue in the shade of the trees towards a settlement where low set houses thatched with sugar palm leaves are framed by washed cloth hanged on lines strung between bamboo poles and cooking stations where shiny pots and pans await their next use. A little black and grey striped piglet crosses our path and hurries away to the great amusement of the young friends holding our hands.

The chief’s house only distinguishes itself from its neighbors by a slightly bigger size. A two-foot-high entrance opens on one corner and a plaited mat is rolled out from it like an inviting tongue. One of our guides crouches down to have a peek inside and announces that unfortunately the chief is not at home. A voice emanating from the house next doors proclaims something in a shrill native tongue, and we are informed that the chief has in fact gone to the gardens. Resigned that we might have to come back the following day we return to the beach with our local guides.

There a fiberglass skiff had just pulled in and we recognized Danny, the chief’s younger brother, who had come out to greet us as we had dropped our anchor. We help him drag the skiff up the short slope of the beach and after a short chitchat we are delighted to hear that the chief is now awaiting us.

Staring once again at the entrance to the chief’s house down at our feet, I hear a full-chested voice coming from inside, pronouncing my name and inviting me to come in. ‘But through the other door!’, it continues. I look to the right along the house but cannot distinguish any other opening. My questioning look is answered by the kids with gestures towards that same entrance at my feet. Down on my knees I go and crawl in through the entrance. An imposing figure sits there cross-legged in the shady twilight. A friendly grin decorates the round face of the chief and he extends his hand towards me in greeting. ‘Please, sit down over here!’, I’m told.

We had brought a small collection of little gifts for the chief, as we were told is customary. I extract from my backpack the water tap I had managed to obtain from the Office of Natural Disasters in Late, to hopefully put the water tank donated by them to the island a couple months earlier in working conditions.  A throttle cable for his outboard motor follows, about the need of which I was informed back in Luganville by the skipper of the German backpacker expedition boat ‘Infinity’. I had talked to Ariki Tafua a couple times previously by phone and during one of these conversations he had dropped the innocent sounding sentence: ‘Don’t forget to bring the batteries for the crayfish!’ It took me a while to figure out that this was not a surrealist joke about nature’s apparently infinite supply of energy, but a petition to bring AA alkaline batteries for his diving torches. Hinting at the modest material wealth pertaining to our personalities I next hand the chief two four packs of such batteries and finally, as something ‘purely practical’, a small envelope with a couple fish hooks.

The chief does not pretend to show any specific appreciation, but quietly deposits the gifts behind him on the matted floor. He is sitting in front of a queen size mattress under a mosquito net hanging from the rafters. These rafters are sizeable beams of timber suspended on six massive poles dug into the ground. ‘Our houses have to hold up to cyclones pretty much every year.’, comments the chief having followed my gaze, ‘This pole there in the back is the oldest. It is over one hundred and fifty years old. My grandfather installed it there.’ The pole he gestures to is painted black and sports strings of tiny squares carved into its sides. Beatriz asks if it is all right to go and have a look at it. ‘Yes, but don’t pass through here’, the chief replies and sends her through the back of the house, quite obviously to make sure that she does not pass to close to the chiefly bed.

Two drinking coconuts are brought in, cut open on one side with a thumb sized opening that has a bright white rim with the nut’s delicious flesh. Coconut water is the elixir of life, if there ever was one, and its freshness pouring down my throat alleviates a good part of the oppressive heat. Ariki Tafua announces that the day after tomorrow there will be a celebration in honor of Saint Michael, where the whole island population will congregate in the church right where Aluna is anchored. Not only will this be our first opportunity to observe the Tikopian ‘custom’ dances, but the other three chiefs will be in attendance and before heading home to their villages on the east side of the island will meet right here at Ariki Tafua’s ‘fare’. This will provide the perfect opportunity to inform them of the planed work on Lapita Tikopia and hopefully get them to support the project by sending some of their best people to come and help.

Towards the end of the meeting the chief’s jovial air comes to an abrupt end. In a rather serious voice he says: ‘You have to observe the ‘custom’ while you’re here on the island. In the chief’s presence you have to always crawl on your knees. And that door you came in, that is the chief’s door. Only for the chief!’ My quick apologies are well received. ‘It’s all right, you didn’t know!’, he smiles again, ‘But it is my responsibility to tell you. You are my guests! So it is important, especially when the other chiefs are here, that you respect our ‘customs’!’ As we had just been instructed, we crawl backwards out of the entrance, the correct one this time, the one for the common folks. It would have been to my left, had I looked there before entering.

Heading Into The Wind

November 10, 2016

It is September 23 and a gentle wind is allowing us to set our course to East Northeast. A little triangular speck of dark blue has appeared on the horizon to the East, a bit like a solitary sharp tooth sticking out from underneath a string of convection clouds. Tikopia is now just under 40 miles away. Still it would be three more days until we will finally reach its shores after ghosting across glassy seas with little to no wind and under the scorching sun of the Southern lower latitudes.

We had started our journey three days earlier, leaving Graciosa Bay in the calm lee of Santa Cruz Island, as Nendo Island is still called by most locals. The weather forecast had promised gentle weather for pretty much the entire week to come. I was hoping this would take most of the strain out of this tedious upwind journey for 200 miles to the east, straight into the face of the normally ferocious trade winds. What I had failed to realize is that with the flailing of the trade winds and the enormous heat generated by the sun, which had just crossed the equator and was now bearing down on us on its way south, would create all kinds of local wind phenomenon. Giant squalls distorted the feeble winds around them in all many different ways, creating a aeolian labyrinth through which we were now trying to navigate Aluna amongst dark bottomed clouds with streaks of rain pouring out from underneath.


On board with us was Luke, according to his own words the ‘author of the corresponding gospel’, who had been to Lata in his function as chairman of the Tikopian church to attend the consecration of the new bishop of Temotu Province. Once that pompous event had passed, he found himself stranded there with no means to get back home until mid-October, when the monthly cargo ship would make the long journey we were about to undertake. He was a lively chap with a special wit, that we took to study carefully to provide us with insights into the refined psychology of our soon to be hosts.

The Tikopia are a tiny minority of Polynesian stock in a nation of almost exclusively Micronesian decent. They are respected for their tall bodies, their ebullient hair and their smart and efficient ways, but also despised for precisely the same reasons by the Micronesians, who tend to be shorter, have curly hair and are generally quite a bit slower to react. This wit was to be with us throughout the trip, with Luke frolicking with all kinds of predictions, about the weather to come, the ways of the currents and the habits of the creatures in the sea, and even the features of his island home as we were approaching it, with most of them demonstrating a similar degree of veracity as his introductory statement about his supposed literary contribution to the New Testament of the Christian faith. The side of our boat next to his favorite place to sit and contemplate the seascape is now splattered with rust red stains. The beetle nut chewers are not known to be very careful when choosing sites for expulsing the bright red spit accumulating in their hamster like cheeks. Our friend Luke was no exception and obviously did not care much to investigate the effect of the wind before getting rid of the excess beetle nut juice in his oral cavity. The lime induced acid in that liquid had eaten into the weathered top side paint beyond the possibility to be wiped away without literally grating away the paint itself.

Every day the winds dropped in strength and one morning we awoke to see the island of Vanikoro closer than the night before, where we had passed it and left it aft of our beams. The feeble winds allowed us to advance a bare knot and a half at an angle of 55˚ to the wind. Checking our movements on the GPS it became clear that we were not only heading directly into the wind, but on top of it fighting a considerable current, pushing our course on the port tack away from our destination, while on the opposite tack we were barely able to hold our position. Luckily it turned out that the current’s strength waxed and waned with the tides, which on this latitude are becoming defined more and more by the sun, especially around full moon, with the waters being pulled during the day in one direction and during the night in the other.

The situation improved a bit later in the day, but progress was still painfully slow, to the great despair of our friendly passenger, to whom the concept of having to tack into the wind had been stowed away in the dusty realm of distant memories, the millennia of the most amazing seafaring culture this planet has ever seen pulverized by barely a century of sedentary neglect.

A delightful interruption to the monotony of calms came on Sunday, which seems to be the fishermen’s day of blessings. Luke’s eyes were good a scanning the seas and he had spotted a floating object ahead of our course, coming closer rapidly. It took a tacking maneuver to reach it and investigate. It turned out to be a strange cylindrical plastic object of maybe four meters in length, which like any other good sized floating debris, had been claimed by the seabirds as a perch to rest and roost. That is in fact how Luke had become aware of it in the first place. ‘I’m always looking at the frigate birds’, he commented, ‘there’s always a log or something close by where they are.’ While not as dramatic as the overturned canoe with a dehydrated castaway on it, as it appeared in a wild divination of its original shape, just as our ship was approaching the flotsam, the little bell on our trolling line rang with as snap. At the end of it a beautiful dorado came reluctantly aboard and provided fresh food for a good two days.


Returning to our little tooth of hope on the horizon to the east, its appearance has been made possible by an afternoon of usable winds approaching a good ten knots. They last into the better part of the night, but once again by midnight my slumber becomes intermittent as it has been throughout the journey. I have to get up and fiddle with the sails every hour or so, and progress comes to us once again at the pace of a slug. Glassy seas with only slight ripples continue for more endless days, but we are sure to harvest every crumb of kinetic energy out of the thin air. The tooth slowly transforms into a small pyramid at the falling of night and the following morning it has grown a flat annex on its southern side.


On Tuesday, October 27 around two thirty in the afternoon our anchor drops into the turquoise sand along a wall of jungle green. A couple of canoes approach, once again with crafty outriggers stabilizing their motion. Friends of our passenger they are and have come to welcome us. They come aboard for a quick chat and then take Luke with his few belongings ashore. It is scorching hot; the thermometer reads a hallucinating forty degrees. An hour later we float in the lukewarm water, trying to hang our feet and hands down into the little cooler wet a meter or so down. We’re trying to freshen up for our first important task on this renowned island: Report our arrival to Ariki Tafua, chief of the western side of Tikopia. This visit promises to be a rather formal affair!


Back To Civilization, Almost…

November 2, 2016

The return journey was supposed to be much easier and faster. It still took us three days to accomplish. The cyclone season is approaching and the trade winds have lost a lot of their strength. We left on a Friday night after having been sent off by our Tikopian friends with a good smear of turmeric on the bare parts of our bodies that continues to stain our clothing in bright yellow and will do so for a good time to come.


Until Saturday afternoon Aluna was happily riding a gentle Northeasterly and Vanikoro Island had appeared to our South and was making its way slowly past our beams. By Sunday morning the winds had almost disappeared. Big dark grey squalls were forming all around us and they did bring intermittent winds and torrential rain showers. The going was slow and constant attention was needed to trim and adjust the sails. We crept along, helped a little by the ocean current, and Utupua Island with its rounded peaks dove in and out of the curtains of rain, slowly inching its way to our aft. By Sunday evening a faint outline of Nendo Island showed before the orange of dawn started to suck away the daylight. For a change the winds had veered to the South, light but quite useable throughout the night with only a few intrusions to my slumbering to get up groggily and fiddle with the sails.


Monday morning saw us rounding the island’s northeastern tip. The weather still was squally with gray blobs of condensation draping over the green mountain crests. Aluna’s big main sail changed sides every now and then in response to the fickle winds around us. By sundown we dropped our anchor once again at the tranquil spot at the bottom of Graciosa Bay. Time to have a short rest and focus on the future!


A series of posts about our very special times with the Tikopia and their singular island society will now follow before revealing our plans for the next couple months to come.

High Quality Coconut Oil Form Low Tech Production

September 28, 2016

One of OceansWatch’s sustainability projects consists in teaching women a simple, almost fool proof method for producing high grade virgin coconut oil, which is then brought back to New Zealand on the organizations sailboats once a year. To produce the oil to the picky standards of a first world government in a very simple and utterly rural setting took a couple years of work to streamline. 

We had the chance to assist at one of the workshops given to a group of women in Pala Village. The gist of the program is precisely that: to give women, who strangely enough are most always underserved when it comes to economic power, a chance to make a little bit of cash on their own. Here in the Solomon Islands land ownership for example is a purely masculine affair. At the government table of the timber right hearing we attended a couple weeks back there was one women sitting amongst a good dozen of men, and all she was allowed to do was say a short prayer at the end. 


It all starts with a pile of coconuts, I our case a good one hundred seventy strong, peeled of their outer fibrous skin and now as the first business of the day cleaned down to bare wood with all kinds of scrapers, from kitchen knives to shards of broken beer bottles. It’s a community affair, so the going is loud and happy, the fond laughter that’s heard in any village here throughout the day accompanies the task to sweeten its boring routine. 

Next comes the splitting station, where sharp bush knives are wielded with precision. The nut sits innocently in a bare hand. It has to be smacked laterally just the right way to make it spring open. Its refreshing water squirts out into a basin to be used for pig feed later on. The halves of the nuts are piled up in a container upside down, to prevent the ever present flies from setting their filthy feet onto the freshly exposed bright white meat. 

Once the first container is full it wanders to the third and probably the most laborious station. Here the coconut halves are held with both hands and scrubbed against a metal grater attached to a small stool. The meat is ground up into a pile of thin strips and the now empty shells discarded. 

About two thirds full the plastic tub must be before it continues its journey to the next station where a mixture of ambient temperature and boiling water is added to the gratings. Coconut oil changes its aggregate state from gel to liquid at around 28˚ Celsius. The idea therefore is to keep the temperature of the mix slightly above that but not too much, as the a much higher temperature would start to quickly degrade the quality of the final product. The slushy mixture is then worked with a pestle for a good fifteen minutes to extract as much oil as possible from the ground up fibers. 

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From there a strainer picks up the fibers out of the white liquid, which then are put into a press to squeeze out every bit of liquid and leave behind dry fiber, which also will be transformed into pig meat. This is usually the final stage of the first day of work. The liquid is now an emulsion of water and oil and will need to sit overnight to let gravity do its work of separating the two materials. The following morning the oil will be decanted and bottled according to its degree of purity. The containers then are stood out into the sunlight for a couple days to purify the oil and extract more and more of the water, which at that stage still causes some murkiness. 

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If you are interested in this process of providing underserved women with a means to create economic sustainability, visit OceansWatch’s website for more information and the possibility to contribute to this well intended and passionately executed program with your generous donation. 

The Search for the Lapita Canoes

September 22, 2016

It had been impossible to get a good idea of the present conditions of the two Lapita canoes the Wharrams had donated to the islands of Anuta and Tikopia back in 2009 before arriving here in Lata, Temotu Province. The modern day communications we are so used to when we contact friends by shooting emails back and forth through all kind of messaging applications do not work here in these remote specks of land. The people here are just now beginning to get overrun by the technology craze of western consumer society.

But since we have arrived here three weeks ago the situation has clarified amazingly fast. We had a chance to meet with two ‘captains’ of Lapita Tikopia, who were in Lata for a training event. From the couple of conversations with them it appears that the canoe has suffered its abandonment due to damages suffered during a trip in 2014, where one of the mast feet cracked, a problem they have been unable to resolve, making the vessel unfit for use. As it happens in the tropical climate, deterioration has been rapid since then, with the platform timbers and two if its five beams rotted away. The large hatches of the hulls have also started to leak, which lets rain water into the interior and that can rapidly lead to rot. Within a couple of days’ time we will start to undertake the arduous upwind journey to the little island of Tikopia to finally have a first hand look at the situation.

Lapita Anuta on the other hand quite obviously has found abler and more dedicated seamen to look after and make good use of her. They have received last year’s donation of repair materials brought up by OceansWatch and she is now making regular trips from Anuta to Lata and back, bringing teachers here for trainings and important meetings, for which the vessel receives monetary remuneration. It appears that she has managed to enter the difficult dimension of economic self-sufficiency!

Last Sunday people from all over the Temotu Province’s many islands had come to Lata to witness the consecration of a new bishop for the Anglican Church. While the celebration was rather heavy on religious pomp it also included some demonstrations of traditional ‘kustom’ dancing and for us the opportunity to chat with some other folks from Tikopia, who confirmed the urgent need for attention of the canoe.

A possible answer as to why the Anutans had managed to develop the purpose of their donation received and make it fully their own, while the Tikopians had failed, came from a very unlikely source. During the food feast that had followed the hollowly holly celebration of a shift in the power hierarchy within the Melanesian branch of the Anglican Church, we were invited to sit down on the grass still wet from the last one of the many rainstorms that had tried their best to mar the festivity since the early morn. A long line of leaves sat spread out before us with boiled breadfruit, kumaras, yams and fish and meats packed in bundled up leaves. Soon everybody started digging in with their bare fingers and shoving good-sized morsels of yummies into their tummies. It all tasted delicious in spite of having sat in the rain out on the field since the morning and the enjoyment was endless up until that crucial moment when a corn sized splinter of pig bone happened to become involved in a violent encounter with my upper left premolar. The poor accessory to my usually quite sturdy digestive tract split right down the middle with a frightening sound that reverberated throughout the many cavities of my skull. A tactile investigation of the unfortunate occurrence produced two fragments of bony white matter laid out on my index finger between dark green flecks of island cabbage cooked comfortably in coconut milk. A further visual inspection revealed miniscule muscle fibers still firmly attached to one and with simple logical deduction I came to the finite conclusion that this therefore was not a part of my premolar that had decided to wander off duty, but in fact the culprit of the masticatory accident, while the one to its left with its shiny, polished surface definitely was.

On Monday morning I therefore found myself waiting on the well-worn wooden benches of the provincial hospital’s waiting room, keeping my gaze firmly on the indigo blue door with the white lettering indicating that behind it a dentist was exercising his hopefully well-developed art. In spite of my dedication a local gentleman managed to jump the line and enter the door before my most important self while having clearly arrived while I had been sitting there for a good while already. I could only convince myself of the imagined fact that his suffering must have been a good bit more eminent than mine, which in fact did not include any pain but only a slight discomfort.

Once past that minor hiccup I found myself comfortably situated on the reclining chair with a very patient lady dentist listening to my detailed explanation of the incident at the root of the reason for my visit. As is usual in such circumstances a good deal of circumferential conversation took place before, during and after my speech was impaired by the very professionally implemented repair procedure of my unfortunate premolar. Once it had progressed from the standard ‘where are you from’ to ‘what are you doing here’, it turned out that my very able female practitioner was well aware of the Lapita canoes and demonstrated ample knowledge of the intrinsic details of the particular island mentalities and customs. ‘The Anutans are a very brave people’, she mused all of a sudden. When asked, what would make her say such a thing, she elaborated: ‘They brave the sea like few others do nowadays.’ I felt an instant trust to impose on her my most burning question: ‘And why do you think the Tikopians have not been able to accomplish the same? Why have they not taken possession of their canoe?’ There was only a very short delay in her answer, which then emerged loud and clear: ‘The Tikopians have fear! They are afraid, I believe.’

I have grave suspicion that the dentist’s analysis might behold a giant grain of truth and have since that revealing conversation begun to construct possible strategies in my ever restless mind, designing ways to tackle that outbreak of yet another local variety of the disease of civilization, where once valiant warriors have succumbed to the emptiness of modernity, where fear has infected the mind and disrupted the naturel trust to a point where congruent action has been interrupted. It makes this upcoming journey all the more interesting and important as we might chance upon the discovery of crucial information on our expedition towards uncovering the root causes of mankind’s present and gravely acute illness of systemic destruction.

You might not hear from us now for a good month and a half, as Tikopia has only very reluctantly opened itself up to the outside world. There seems to be mobile phone coverage on the island as I have had several conversations with Ariki Tafua, the chief of the village where the canoe is located and where we will be staying. But my guess is that there will be no data streams to connect to the internet. I hope you will joyfully make this excursion with us into times only a very short number of years past, where information had to be collected by physically moving the containers of our mind to actual places rooted in reality.

At Loggerheads with the Loggers

September 16, 2016

The Timber Rights Hearing was supposed to start a ten in the morning on Thursday, September 1 in the little village of Pala. It was now past 11:30 and we were waiting. We were waiting comfortably, very aware of the lazy flux of island time, under an ample shelter of corrugated iron roofing on a minimal timber frame. Around noon the government officials of the Temotu Provincial Government started to trickle in and sat their heavy weights down at the row of tables that had been set up for them. There were rumors that each one of them had been generously compensated with 6’000 Solomon Dollars (about US$770) by the logging company for their tremendous effort to be present at this public hearing. This by local standards is a good chunk of money.
The affected landowners from around the proposed logging area and their entourages, who surely must have paid for their transportation out of their own shallow pockets, had slowly materialized. Most of them sat down a careful distance away from the shelter alongside the houses of the village scattered around it. 

At a certain time in history, in the year 1595 to be precise, this same village at the bottom of Graciosa Bay on the island of Nendo, Temotu Province, Solomon Islands, had been the scene of the second attempt by Spanish explorer Alvaro de Mendaña to establish a settlement in the newly discovered specs of land in the South Seas with the declared purpose to subjugate its inhabitants under the global reaches and aspirations of the Spanish crown. The experiment in colonization didn’t go down too well. Its life was terribly brief and it all ended in abysmal disaster, ripe with miscalculated murder, treacherous and petty thievery, deadly fevers of malaria and finally once proud ships miserably and helplessly sinking somewhere in an unrecorded emptiness. 

These days the village of Pala is once again torn apart by a new wave of invasive colonization. Malaysian logging companies have established fake companies in the Solomon Islands with fancy sounding names like: ‘Green Tree Company’, through which they try to negotiate lopsided contracts with local landowners to extract valuable timber for the hungry world market paying fat kickbacks to anybody willing to help them advance their greedy and destructive cause. 

Within the Solomon Island constitution there is a solid and almost progressive sounding legal framework in place, which on paper protects the locals from such abuse. But the real dealings are done behind gated fences and the good-sized kickbacks that find their clever ways into the local government officials’ pockets are creating tempting incentives to work around such legislation. While most landowners are clearly aware of the catastrophic damage logging operations would inflict on their still mostly virgin lands, there are a couple of bad eggs in town, who would like to get their hands on that quick and dirty cash. They are not the most amicable characters around, and we have been threatened one evening while walking the short stretch of dirt road from the village to the beach where we leave our canoe. A round face guy with a dark green T-shirt and a black Bolshevik cap had pulled up beside us in a white pickup truck and gave us a warning: ‘Hurry back to your boat now and go back to New Zealand. You are making the people here think the wrong thing!’ He was on his way to the ‘bottle shop’ down that same road to satisfy his tropical thirst for a couple beers. 

That same guy was sitting on a white plastic chair once the hearing had gotten under way, taking notes on a brown clip board. Behind him sat a decrepit looking Asian guy in impeccably white sneakers. He got up every twenty minutes to smoke a cigarette, which made him cough and clear his throat from the thick phlegm of conscience. As if that wasn’t enough for any gentle soul to feel intimidated, the police presence was heavy with mean faced agents in light blue uniforms standing stiffly all around the perimeter of the village square and throughout the procedure they would be staring sternly at anybody who mustered the courage to stand up and take a stance. 

We had waited until 12:30 for things to get started, when finally the last group of land owners had overcome the challenges of island transportation and settled down amongst the now probably a good two hundred strong crowd. It all sounded quite official with the hearing’s designated chairman, the deputy secretary of the Temotu Provincial Government, following to the letter the procedure prescribed by the legislation. Apparently many of the landowners had been coerced to sign a letter of consent, many without knowing the content and others even saw their names signed with other peoples’ signatures. Some of them now mustered enough courage to voice their concern about the environmental consequences and insisted in withdrawing their consent. Only a small group of speakers, which were quite clearly associated with our round faced friend, voted for a continuation of the negotiations with the logging companies. 

The hearing dragged on for over two and a half hours and was for us yet another crash course in Solomon Pidgin English. Using our acquired basics from Vanuatu’s Bislama, which is very similar in structure, we were able to follow the outlines of most of what was said, eloquently and passionately that is, by a people who seem to have been just very recently given the opportunity to express themselves freely in public. 

Once the procedural hearing had come to its long awaited conclusion, local food was served and the gathering relaxed. The village of Pala quite obviously had put a great deal of effort in the logistics of the meeting. Unfortunately we cannot yet be sure that the clearly manifested opposition to any form of logging at this hearing will carry its weight into the murky realm of reality. Any acknowledging of such at its closing was carefully avoided, we spectators cannot even be sure that everything was duly recorded. No protocol was published and rumors soon started to float about, that the loggers had received the go ahead to start their ugly business in certain areas. Since we have taken a seat in the same boat as our local friends, we are in a state of limbo and wait-and-see, contemplating the possibility of future actions should things turn nasty. If there is any hope at all of progress for the human race, it most certainly must consist in that the simple folks who tend the lands manage to free themselves from the shackles of ignorance, make their voices heard loud and clear and ready themselves to resist peacefully but with bitter determination any form of commercial exploitation of their ancestral lands. 

Five Degrees of Separation

September 4, 2016

The winds promised to be gentle on the morning of August 24 and we hoisted Aluna’s big number one mains sail before weighing anchor in tranquil Suranda Bay on the Southeast coast of Espiritu Santo at about 15.5˚ southern latitude. We had checked out of Vanuatu the day before, which once again turned out to be a horrendously costly affair. It could have been even worse had we not caught the ever cash-hungry government officials of the Ports and Harbor Office trying to charge us double for our first month in the country. That little incident, which took a good half hour of persistent explaining to get corrected, was nothing but the culmination of a considerable affront consisting in having to pay over NZ$500 in government fees for our stay of close to three months in Vanuatu. While the tiny island nations of the South Pacific certainly have every right to milk the cows of tourism, when considering the fact that a great portion of public moneys in Vanuatu suffer from systemic misuse and abuse, which we have now supported with our sizeable ‘development donation’, it does seem justified to recommend against visiting this land of friendly people for budget conscious people with socio-economic sensibilities.

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Leaving Suranda Bay astern

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Crawling up Espiritu Santo’s east coast

The benevolent promise of the weather gods on the other hand was kept for the best part of the roughly 300 miles passage north to the easternmost Solomon Islands. Just barely enough wind to keep Aluna moving had us slowly creep up along Epiritu Santo’s east coast throughout the day, and the sun prepared to set over the solid mountain ranges on the far side of the Great Bay just as we left Cape Quiros astern. Darkness fell and we continued to putter along until shortly before midnight the waxing moon rose on our starboard beam to drape a shy silver hue across the seascape. The morning dawn revealed the first one of the Bank Islands a good distance to the East, its mountains being high enough to steal most of the already fickle wind. For a good couple of hours the going was very slow until finally the winds started to gain a bit of strength again. The same ritual was repeated with the two other main islands of the banks group during the day, while by late afternoon on the opposite side the much lower and smaller Torres Islands crawled aft on the horizon under a soon setting sun. Occasional rain squalls kept us on our toes once again in darkness. The moon made its appearance a bit skinnier and almost one hour later at half an hour past midnight.

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Cape Cumberland far in the background

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Convective energy

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The last of the Banks Island

With that we had left Vanuatu behind us and the next morning our first sighting of a reluctant member of the Solomon Islands emerged from the dark purple of dusk straight ahead. I had drawn our course towards Vanikoro Island as prudence dictates to the careful mariner to always stay a good bit to windward of an imaginary rhumb line connecting the departure point to that of the destination. The wide island came closer and closer very slowly, straining the sailor’s patience, but as once again a full day had passed through our lightheaded consciousness, its southern shore was close enough to distinguish tiny human settlements in a verdant drape over the island’s rounded hills. Also clearly visible was a ochre brown scar in that lush green along the coastline that could only have come from a clearly careless logging operation, an issue spread out in our minds as part of our commitment with OceansWatch, which is on a mission to assist the local population of the Temotu Province to resist such blatant abuse of their lands.

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Is there something at the end of the line?

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You better believe it!

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Now comes the nasty part…

The ocean was a good bit more forgiving and gifted a good size tuna at the end of our line. We fried a junk of it for diner and cooked the rest and bottled it for later use. Fresh food from the ocean, it does not get any better than this!

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Vanikoro far

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Vanikoro close

Once again, and we should have known better this time, Aluna got caught in the lee of the island. Amazingly from one moment to the next the comfortable wind of around 15 knots vanished and only very reluctantly came back during the following hour with little huffs and puffs. By that time I had adjusted Aluna’s course to the Northwest, now heading definitely towards our destination around and up from the Southwest corner of Nendo, the main island of the Santa Cruz Islands. Before that during yet another night with even less of moonshine we would pass by Utupua, which already peaked above the horizon ahead as a handful of separate and dark purple bumps as our earth’s life bearing star was again getting ready to set.

surandatolata - 10The lazy patience of the weather gods did run out however early next morning. It had just crossed my mind while waking from my passage slumber mode with the first light that this might be our first multi-day passage for a good while that had been accomplished with the big main sail up all the way. Right then I noticed a dark line of clouds growing overhead, approaching wicked fast from above the now visible outlines of our destination island of Nende. Within ten minutes the winds picked up considerably to the point of the two of us scrambling out of the cockpit to brail and strike the big main sail and on a heaving boat surrounded by now foaming crests we hoisted our very trustworthy main sail number two. Another ten minutes later rain was lashing the cockpit cover over our bent down heads, and with eerie fascination we peeked out through the little portholes to see how the sea around us had become angry. Under a leaden dark grey sky white fuming crests danced across almost black waters. Curtains of rain temporarily hid the nearing land behind them and again and again poured their drenching load over Aluna’s decks. Our diligently acquired easting was all of a sudden paying off big time. The whipping winds had gone clearly to the north of east and we were barely able to keep their fury aft of our beams. It is always astonishing how fast the sea builds when whipped up by ferocious winds. Soon enough Aluna was accelerating while surfing the newly churned up waves, sporting fancy peaks of thirteen and fourteen knots on the GPS. The good side of all this was that the southwest point of Nendo Island was approaching at breakneck speed.

Once around it and heading north up the coast towards the western entrance to Graciosa Bay we relaxed a bit in the calm of the lee. During that peaceful half an hour the skies broke open and an enormous mass of dark cloud passed slowly on to the west. It was a squall of monstrous proportions that left behind a good bit more of furious winds, which we had to brave once more. They came straight at us once past a stretch of reef, where the coast bends eastwards again. Gentlemen don’t go to windward, it is said, so we stripped away our tuxedos and with stern faces began a taking exercise into the foaming crests, inching our way closer and closer to the entrance a mile and a half away, where a labyrinth of treacherous reefs was awaiting us.

As we approached it our little outboard motor had to be called in for help. It managed to barely push Aluna against the gale force winds. Only by zigzagging and motor tacking were we able to advance in the right direction. One of my eyes glimpsed down at the little screen of our navigation iPad just behind the motor controls, where a graphic depiction of the coral maze helped making correct decisions as to where to lead the vessels course. Just under a mile of reefs took us close to an hour to negotiate but finally and with considerable relief we found the exit through a narrow channel between boiling green and turquoise waters, and we had entered Graciosa Bay.

We still had to cross this two-mile-wide bay before finding protected waters at its eastern banks. Exhausted we dropped anchor in a little bay with a very picturesque shoreline. Unfortunately the anchor dragged while angry bullets of wind found their way through the bracing row of coconut palms, and it had to be pulled up again and reset closer to shore. Gingerly checking position I found that this time it had found solid hold somewhere ten meters down in the translucent waters. Being Saturday afternoon there was not much more to do than strike the sails and hoist our shade cover to protect us from the brazing sun, while our southern latitude had melted away to 10.5˚.

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surandatolata - 14Officialdom was on hold over the weekend and check-in would not be possible before Monday morning, so we were confined to our vessel flying the yellow quarantine flag, and forced to take a good and long rest, which neither of us minded at all.

Espiritu Santo

August 23, 2016

This largest of Vanuatu’s 81 islands received its name from Spanish explorer Quiró, who named it such at the relief of finally having discovered the Australian continent. That’s at least what every tourist guide regurgitates as the official version of history. As a seafarer the story does not make much sense. You do not have to travel very far up or down the coast to realize that this is a rather meager continent, but man’s brain is always eager to see what it longs to see!

In contrast to the other islands a spirit of desolation reigns here. Just yesterday we travelled on the only asphalted stretch of road from our tranquil anchorage at Suranda Bay up the east coast to Port Olry right at the tip of the island’s thumb, if with a bit of fantasy one sees Espiritu Santo’s outlines on a map as a gloved hand about to pinch the Torres Islands spread out to the north. Coconut plantations of an astronomical scale line its entire fifty some kilometers. They seem to linger in various states of abandonment, some with still smoldering furnaces where the copra is dried over wood fires, surrounded by shabby shacks with rusty corrugated iron walls, to stretches where quite obviously no human hand has wrought the orderly rows from the verdant power of native vegetation, and where from most of the palm trees only a somber stalk remained aimlessly trying to scratch the sky for mercy. Prices of copra on the world market have long sunk way beyond the point where one could edge a half way decent living from such venture, but man sticks to the old even when it only provides him with misery and pain.

At the prettier spots along the coast the remnants of a once spectacular beauty are now harvested with a string of fancy resorts, who cater to an eclectic assortment of backpacker tourists, who are diligently entertained with rustic furniture in thatched huts and cold local beer at exorbitant prices. The atmosphere is friendly, the service, while not exactly agile, is well intended. But the capitalist mentality, if I may call it such, has a dominant foothold on the land and its people. This much is very painfully clear after our now almost three months stay here in this island nation: The Ni-Vanuatu do have a special flair for money. They see no shame in asking for fees to ‘visit’ even the most desolate place crudely prepared for showing off some little thing that remotely looks like something traditional, and even the hitchhiker clinging on to the rusty railing of a pickup truck bed is expected to pay his fare to ride into town. That inborn love for the cash must have something to do with the fact that the Vanuatu currency, the Vatu, is amazingly strong when measured to international standards. This is a bit of a mystery to me as my understanding of economics is rudimentary at best, but I suspect there must be a good bit of dirty business at its root, with offshore banking just the tip of the iceberg. The prices for goods and services here are on par with New Zealand, some things actually being more expensive here in comparison. The sad truth in all this being that the global monetary system with each and every one of us as its willing slaves favors the greedy, rewards the ruthless and serves the exploiters.

The main town of Luganville, or Santo, as it is called locally, is a non-descript stretch of road along the northern shores of the Second Channel, lined with businesses of all sorts with the hustle of commerce stirring up an angry dust and people rushing from place to place no longer with gardens on their minds, but their hands cramped close to keep their purse strings tight. The market square being a kind exception to the rule, where once again colorfully dressed ladies of all sizes squat behind heavy wooden tables laced with grapefruits, pawpaws, bananas, cabbage, beans, cucumbers, yams, kumaras and much more of the tropical bounty. Even a dead fruit bat can be had for the humble sum of 400 Vatus. Its vendor stretched out its lifeless wings for us to take a picture, sensing very well our exotic ethical concerns.

The time has now come to leave this prosperous nation and continue our track north towards the Temoto province of the Solomon Islands, one of the poorest on earth. We are approaching the area of our present mission to track the state of the two Wharram sailing canoes on Anuta and Tikopia. While we have received good news from the Anutans, who seem to make good news of the gift bestowed upon them by sailing back and forth between their home island and the province capital Lata on Lendo Island, the same sadly does not seem to be the case for their Tikopian brothers. Lapita Tikopia apparently lays abandoned somewhere under the sun and our only reliable information comes from Westerners having visited the island. According to them the hulls are still in decent shape while the beams seem weathered and the lashings and probably most of the rigging has been pilfered for ‘other’ purposes. Klaus Hympendahl, together with the Wharrams the driving force behind the Lapita Expedition and friendly liaison between the West and the Tikopian chiefs, had before his sudden and surprising passing managed to arrange that the canoe be brought to Vanikoro, where a community of Tikopians promised to make better use of it. Unfortunately there is no evidence to anything having happened in that direction either. Our task therefore becomes one of assessing the will amongst those once proud island people, a feat that has been done before mostly with disastrous consequences. We promise to do our best to nudge this well-intended white man’s gift into a more fruitful and sensible direction.

Decent internet access being confined to the two main islands here in Vanuatu, while being marginal in all the other islands, we expect this to deteriorate further as we move from a relatively wealthy nation to one of the poorest on the planet. So please be patient and forgiving if the reporting becomes a bit sparser and poorly illustrated with fancy pictures. I’m convinced that your well nurtured imagination will be readily able to compensate for that lack of visual entertainment and your ever inquisitive minds will generate their own optical emotions into what you will be extract from my upcoming verbal barrages.

Tomorrow Aluna will be setting sails again on a northerly course and after a hopefully benign journey of about 300 sea miles we plan to anchor in the beautifully named Graciosa Bay, have a friendly chat with a gang of government officials in the township of Lata, and then get to work on our gracefully intriguing project.


August 18, 2016

From the little we have seen there are some very smart people living on the island of Malakula. The highlight of our visit has been the second day of the Port Sandwich Art Festival. I’m not usually a big fan of these organized events, they mostly only present a watered down version of whatever they pretend to demonstrate and very rarely are ‘worth their money’. Well, here we happened to chance upon a delightful exception. The inhabitants of the small village of Penap proved to be quite skillful at presenting their rapidly dwindling culture to a small handful of yachties, who had arrived at the tranquil bay of Port Sandwich for that specific purpose. The admittance fee to the two-day festival, like just about everything else in Vanuatu, was rather steep and we decided to skip the first day and attend only the second. We had at that time heard the enthused comments of our friends on their return in the evening of the first day.

The excellent organization of the festival’s producers included transportation from the little hamlet of Port Sandwich, where Aluna and most the other boats laid at anchor, to the village of Penap, which is situated on the outside of the Lamap peninsula, in view of the smoke spewing island of Ambryn and conveniently protected behind a vast reef running up and down the coast. That reef was laying bare and ochre brown abandoned by the salty sea at low tide as we arrived midmorning on August 6, sitting knees under chin in the bed of a white pickup truck. It had pulled into a clearing amongst a group of those majestic looking banyan trees adjacent to a village of huts with palm leaf thatched roofs and plaited bamboo walls. There what must have been a good portion of the village population was assembled to welcome us into their midst and after a brief overview of the program expecting us in the course of the day we were lead over a short path to a circular arena in midst of a garden of banana and pawpaw trees.

The first ‘number’ on the program was the women’s dance. They soon appeared from behind an entrance screened by woven palm leaves. Dressed in pandanus skirts their worn bodies started stomping the ground in circle formation while a diffuse moaning slowly turned into a retained chanting. A slight drizzle floating down from the heavy grey clouds overhead polished their dark brown skin to a charming shine. The younger girls had their breasts prudently covered and looked uncomfortable with all that public attention boring through them, while two babies sat frolicking on the ample mats in the center staring at the whole world at once and chewing on a short stick of sugar cane. Round and round the procession went, then all down on their knees and slapping the wet earth with their hands and passing green oranges from one to the other. The last dance was a hunting ritual, with a bird being chased across the circle with an imaginary bow and arrow. Then the multigenerational cast retired in impeccable formation behind the green plaited curtain, but reappeared kindly for the customary photo-op for the picture hungry toursist, just like gang of seasoned actors would do after premiering their latest comedy on New York’s Broadway.

2016-08-06 P.Sandwich Festival (18)We were now lead back to the village square where the remainder of the women demonstrated all kinds of domestic skills of old, from the preparation of the traditional laplap, which includes grating green bananas on a spiny stalk and wrapping the mash into a carefully folded banana leaf, to palm frond weaving of all kinds of handy things like roofing panels, various forms of carrying baskets, hats and a row of smaller trinkets to adorn that lovely dark curly hair of Melanesian stock.

All this curious watching made us tremendously hungry and at lunch time a buffet of delicacies had been arranged under a tin roofed shelter. We were all given a plate fabricated from a couple layers of banana leaves topped by one of a dark purple vine, which made the whole contraption absolutely water- or sauce-proof. Once again the organizers proved to be thoughtful enough to lace the culinary feast exclusively with local goodies, not like in some places where we’ve been served Asian rice with Australian corned beef at such supposedly traditional events. We all loaded up our leafy plates with morsels of laplap, kumara, yam, boiled island cabbage, tomato and cucumber salad and then gorged on the freshly cut fruits for desert.

In the afternoon it was the men’s turn to show off their dances, which they did with much pride, their bodies painted with streaks of light-colored clay and clad solely with the famed namba, which consists of a penis sheath tied around their waist with a string. Buttocks and lose testicles bounced up and down to the rhythm of their deep-chested growls, while in their midst the young chief worked the slit drum, that stood two men high and was crowned with two sculpted faces, all the while the village eldest, from what I had heard eighty years strong, kept a menacing gaze on the spectacle while gingerly leaning on a walking stick with his back weighted down by a great amount of time. The rhythmic stomping of the muscular bodies made the ground shake during the peaks of their cathartic choreography and the audience of cultured white folks hid politely behind their many sophisticated machines of mechanized memory, standing in a half circle around the dust raising spectacle, while themselves being watched by an additional circle of women and children, who seemed just as eager their guests from the other side of the world to get a good eyeful of the action while allowed to do so. We were informed that at all other times of the year these rituals happen carefully and purposefully hidden far away from their passionate gaze.

2016-08-05 P.Sandwich Festival (64)Back in the village the mood lightened with the end of the festivities in sight. A string band strummed contagious rhythms built on a box base line, an instrument, which must require a good deal of practice to master adequately. One foot stands firm on a two feet high plywood cube, from the top center of which a string is strung to the top end of a stick, the bottom end of which sits in a notch at the edge of said cube. The player pushes the stick forward with his left hand to raise the pitch and relaxes it backwards to lower it, while the left thumb plucks away on it to create the pulsating beat. All kinds of guitars join in the acoustic party, a smaller, solid bodied and ukulele like string instrument weaves in a slightly tighter rhythm while nasal tenor voices overlay the whole experience with man’s eternal stories of longing love, tempered lust and gently deferred despair.

I heard explaining that this kind of music had emerged from raunchy Bluegrass music implanted a good while ago by American troops stationed here during the fierce battles of the Western Pacific towards the devastating finale of World War II. It seemed to be an exclusively male affair, but soon enough the local women folks in their colorful dresses decided it was time to loosen up and started a gentle swirling dance, which in turn proved contagious enough for the better halves of the wind-worn yachtsmen to join in with joy. All throughout the day there had been plenty of intermingling across the racial divide, which makes me think there must be a sound solution to the mad crime of social injustice that plagues the many corners of the world dominated by Eurocentric thinking. Cultural information streamed back and forth between the care takers and the annihilators. Nature must have smiled slightly for a little while, relaxed a wee bit and lowered its wounded guard just enough for the windows of change to swing open and let a stiff breeze of awesome possibilities blow through the human mind.

2016-08-06 P.Sandwich Festival (28)A long and loving goodbye rounded up the soothing experience, our ladies received a colorful addition to their maritime wardrobe. Many speeches assured us that the dynamics of the festival, which apparently emerged half a decade ago from the mindful presence of a American Peace Corps volunteer, will continue to expand the conscious of humanity, with the hosts of next year’s edition receiving the flaming torch wrapped in a bundle of rose red flowers, promising to make every effort to improve upon the existing tradition. There was talk of reclaiming an overgrown area further down the peninsula, where a sacred place once stood before the arrival of white bearded men in blood stained missionary robes, and demonstrate the spiritual dimension of the circumcision of an adolescent male, ritual of utmost significance in all the Vanuatu tribal culture.

An eerie calm reigned in the back of the pickup truck that brought us back to our floating homes just as darkness settled down from the high crowns of the coconut palms. Most certainly it was not just borne of a long day’s tiredness. It seemed as if each one of us was obliged to look inward and witness the emptiness left by our own cultural origins. Our addiction to material things and accumulated virtual riches has deprived us of much of life’s real and raspy meaning, so much so that we have to wander endlessly around the globe in search of hand- and footholds with sufficient solidity to allow temporary mending of our broken selves.


August 11, 2016

There are these places on our lovely planet Earth that just have a weird feel to it, and you can never quite put your finger on what exactly it is. We had cut up our passage up north from Efate to Epi Island into two segments, biting into the wind for the first day and then spending the night anchored on the lee side of Emae Island, a small speck of land with three rounded mountains on it neatly arranged in a line from northeast to southwest. In the vast field of coral where the anchorage was indicated on the charts we only found one narrow strip of light blue sand to put our anchor in. The manoeuvre had to be done with military grade precision, and we did sleep lightly during the night. But still it was way better than bouncing up and down all night long out on the dark and moonless sea. The next day was a brisk downwind sail up along the west coast of Epi, which showed itself full of fantastic rock formations tempered by a very verdant cover of luxurious vegetation. Lamen Island sits just off the northwest tip of the island and shelters a wide bay to the east on the main island that sports the very same name. A sizeable village lies behind the dark grey sand beach with a red painted market hall, a good sized secondary school surrounded by boarding houses and an grassy airstrip from where a worn wind sock was lazily dangling in the tempered trade winds that tumbled down in harmless williwaws from Epi Island’s mountainous interior.

It was a Friday night when we arrived in Lamen Bay and we were told that in the main village of Covo Beach, a couple of bays further to the South, the festivities for the 36th anniversary of Vanuatu’s independence would come to an end tomorrow with a grand closing celebration. The place was clearly too far to paddle to with our canoe and with our painfully gained knowledge of the amazing prices for transportation in the local flatbed trucks we decided to brave the rising mid-morning heat and started out on foot on the dusty two-wheel track. It soon started climbing a rather steep hillside before dwindling back down on the other side. We walked past a nicely manicured village along the bay that followed and walked up two more similar elevations before arriving at the location, where a small stage had been set up to one side of a football field. From there a persistent MC kept trying to enthuse the loosely spread out crowd to congregate. Alas his worthy efforts where mostly in vain, as the locals continued to sit in their clan like clusters here and there around the market square, in the shade of some giant mango trees, where they kept laughing and giggling unabated. We sat down on one side of the market square and dusted off our shoes as best as possible. Two ladies soon entered the covered area and performed a short dance with swinging hips sinuous shoulder moves, apparently with the intention of definitely setting the festivities in motion.

Unlike with other places we have visited there was no friendly invitation to sit and join in, quite to the contrary there was an impression of being sized up by slightly clenched eyes and getting coldly mustered from afar. Right after the initial dancing the honorary guests where invited up to the little stage, introduced with names and their public functions and a group of important looking ladies decorated them with colorful leis made of local flowers. Those honorable men then started an impressive series of political speeches, which unfolded just as it would have at any other place on the planet. Stale ideology squeezed out of clenched teeth, pretty promises were made that will never be kept and a heroic sounding history hurried alongside to cover up the miserable facts of the poor listeners factual existence. I rarely get bored, because boredom only happens to the one who doesn’t see, but in spite of my efforts to listen to the nuances of Bislama and to spot the precise mechanism of indoctrination, my backside soon started itching and we got up to go for a stroll towards the beach. A group of musicians sat in the shade further away from the blaring loudspeakers. They were waiting just as we were for their turn to show off artistic skills later in the patriotic program. Then a group of somber looking youngsters didn’t reply to our repeated greetings at all. In the back of a large concrete building some ladies were hanging up laundry and their happy chatting gained the acoustic upper hand to the slimy speeches that were now dragging their sticky feet far in the distance.

We decided against waiting for the announced string band competition and passed by a food stall on the far end of the football field to purchase refreshments in form of two nicely peeled drinking nuts. A deep fried local donut called ‘kapo’ was tasted alongside. Good for the taste buds it was, but not exactly healthy nutrition. We then set out to walk back towards our home in Lamen Bay in the now scorching midday sun and along the dusty road we met a trickle of additional visitors to the festival who had their timing better arranged than ours.

A couple days later we made the acquaintance of Chief Timothy and his wife, a very friendly couple in charge of Lamen Bay village. They had seen a good bit of the modern world, enough at least to feel soundly rooted in their island homes and gardens. They informed us of a peculiar group of ladies from the Solomon Islands, members of what they described as a marching choir, who had followed the invitation of a local minister to participate in a fundraising event to take place the following day. The chiefly couple had intentions to travel to the neighboring village on the island’s east coast with their children, and we were invited to tag along. Since the Solomon Islands are lying on the planned course of our travels, we were happy to jump on the opportunity of getting a first glimpse at their culture.

On Tuesday afternoon we therefore paddled ashore to our rendezvous with Chief Timothy’s family. A good long bit of island time passed on into eternity until transportation could finally be organized, which left me with lingering doubts about the chiefly authority wielded by our hosts. Once that organizational hiccup had been overcome we hopped onto the back of a growling pickup truck and soon started climbing another rather steep hill. From its top through the billowing clouds of dust raised by the speeding vehicle a splendid view unfolded with white surf crashing shoreward along Epi’s east coast, and in the distance the rugged hills of Paama Island and the even more mysterious 1’400 meters high volcanic cone of Lepovi. The latter sat there majestically shrouded with a sturdy collar of puffy cumulus clouds.

A hair rising decent later we arrived at the village where the festivities were supposed to unfold. We were led to an improvised enclosure, surrounded with a fence of dried palm leaves and bamboo sticks. A small payment was required to enter and we settled down on the lawn amongst our dark faced friends and the ever present pack of bone dry dogs, which received considerable mistreatment by a deranged looking fellow in a rumpled military uniform. This sad character had nothing better to do than sneak up to them and kick them cruelly with his heavy black boots. Part of his sinister motivation must have stemmed from his success in garnering the admiration of the present lady folks, who to my amazement cheered him up with their supportive exclamations. It always sends shivers down my spine to see these manifestations of adoration for the spectacle of violence, so very much engrained in the fabric of the human mind.

Maneuvering past the distraction of this rudely intruding reality a group of local youth stood in the center of the arena nicely divided into rows of separate genders. The boys in jeans and the girls in black knee-long skirts soon started to bounce about to the menacing rhythms of techno sounds overlaid with robotic intonations of a clever rendition of purely Presbyterian doctrine. The boys were moving with considerable enthusiasm, while the girls seemed quite obviously subdued, executing the same routines with only a fraction of the kinetic energy of their testosterone driven peers. In between the performances accounts were given as to the present state of the events fundraising, the climbing numbers promptly being applauded with somber reverence.

After a good while of more and more of the same the main number of the evening was finally approaching. From behind the audience out of a grass house a single column of ladies emerged, all dressed in impeccable white robes bordered delicately with fine red accent lines. They wore speckless white shoes and matching white socks and had their hair tied up in very compact buns. They marched gracefully into the center of the arena, where the one single column split up into four parallel ones, all while marching in perfect synchronization. Once arrived at the center a first hymn was chanted, accompanied now not only by the steadily stomping feet, but also by rhythmic tapping of a stick against a wooden block each of the ladies held in their hands. At the end of that stick a pompom like whip of colored strings protruded, which danced frivolously in the wind to the monotone pulsations of the song. The marching never stopped and the columns turned in different directions, which resulted in elaborate maneuvers, the choir constantly changing its formation, sometimes in the shape of a square, then transforming into a circle, before becoming a moving rectangle. At the end of each number the marching stopped and the choir received a short applause, but almost immediately continued to intone another song. The performance went on for a considerable amount of time, sadly without much variety in the presentation. About half way through it all the director, a stern, straight backed lady with an imposing forehead, grabbed the microphone and provided an explanation for what the different colors of the whips were meant to symbolize. The red color of the Lord Jesus’ blood was duly mentioned as was the white purity of the believer who has accepted Him in his heart. The green belonged to a more universal grammar and simply stood for hope, while the yellow had again a liturgical connotation, as it stands for the gold bestowed on him who has received the gospel (sic!).

epi - 1The quite obviously good hearted lady soldiers made their way through more and more numbers and I started to suspect that they were repeating the same song over and over. Before I was able to definitely ascertain my suspicion the darkness of dusk began to approach and the final number won the hearty applause of relief. With that the marching choir maneuvered its way out of the public eye. The time had come to start the return journey with our hosts. This again included copious amounts of dust ending up in our lungs along the way. It turned out that this transport once again, in agreement with Vanuatu ‘kustom’ I must suppose, ended up costing a small fortune of money. One is never quite sure, if one is being ripped off or if things really can be that expensive around here.

To sum it up, the strange island of Epi had provided us with two rampant manifestations of indoctrination, the first of the political kind, the second of the so called spiritual realm. Those two must work together, quite clearly with many other poorly hidden strings that behind the scenes of daily living pull the human being through a slump of reactionary sadness, where social injustice and exploitation are allowed to freely flourish and corruption continues to solidify the status quo. Could it be then that most of our misery, economical and emotional, is actually self-inflicted? Is it possible that the key to solving the riddle of human slavery, which continues to thrive unabated into the very heart of modernity, instead of having to do with a dark and somber ‘system’ that clips the innocent wings of our freedom, consists in breaking the chains of my very own attachment to things like comfort and security?