Posts Tagged ‘vanuatu’

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?


August 3, 2016

We finally found our maintenance bay. In the north of Efate is one of the most protected harbors in Vanuatu. Famous for its role as a staging point for the American fleet battling the Japanese during World War II it is today a calm backwater and Aluna has been laying at anchor in absolutely calm waters for almost a week now, lazily allowing a few alteration projects to slide off the to do list into the realm of reality. The watch bunk in the cockpit is seeing greater use lately as we are much more on the move as during our previous cruising life. Since in its original design it allows for one person to nap we have ended up taking turns between the two of us during passage making. By adding a 20cm extension in front of the bunk we have now a not quite queen size double bunk and can huddle up the two of us if the need arises. We will be testing out the practicality of this new arrangements tomorrow on our passage to Epi Island.
Parallel to this work on creature comfort a crucial advancement has taken shape towards Aluna’s ever present efforts to go greener and greener. Her port motor well has been serving the peaceful purpose of fresh water storage since the abandonment of our two cranky outboard second hand outboard motors and their replacement with a single but brand new 6hp motor back in American Samoa. Now in a process of multi-functionality it will share that space with a new electrification experiment. Already back in New Zealand two sizeable 6V lead acid batteries have managed to sneak in there after being rescued from the marina dump in Opua. Those have now received their very own battery compartment, as close as possible to the location where a 62lb electric trolling motor should soon find its home. I hope it will provide our vessel with minimal maneuverability in the zero pollution realm. As mentioned cautiously, this is an experiment, advancing slowly amongst many more urgent tasks, but you should hear more about its achievements as it receives greater attention in the near future. 
This being the tail end of our experience on Vanuatu’s main island Efate there’s much more to talk about than maintenance and repairs. Once we had made our way out of our peaceful hideaway on the South Coast we found ourselves anchored on a shallow sand patch sprinkled with amazingly virulent coral heads right off downtown of the capital city of Port Vila. It is a noisy corner and we got our share of marching along dusty roads, breathing in plenty of pollution from the frantic minibuses that clog them all day long, and even at night the pounding beats blaring out from tourist friendly restaurants across the harbor waters cut deeply into our sleep. But once you force yourself to overcome the shock about Vanuatu’s exorbitant prices of just about everything there is a practical side to all this. We are after all once again provisioned up for a good while to come. 

As for the experience of it, this town with its laid bare opulence is in sharp contrast to the humble life we have been witnessing in the outer islands. There is no doubt that Vanuatu’s society is a feudal one with very few living on the backs of many. While not easily visible corruption must be rampant to say the least from what one hears behind the curtains and reads beyond the surface. Public moneys are pocketed, tampered with, speculated with and generally used and abused in a whirlwind of back room deals that never see the light of day. Subsistence farming on fertile volcanic soil keeps the lower classes busty but well fed and quite apparently allows this creaming off to continue unabated without major drama. It seems that for the time being revolution has all but subsided and given way to dull resignation.

We did get an interesting insight into the dirty entrails of Vanuatu politics during our joyful visit to the charming folks at Wan Smol Bag Theater troupe. They reside in a sizeable cultural center just outside of Port Villa town and for a staggering 25 years this British couple have been producing cutting edge community theater right here in this cultural waste land. Their center sports a no nonsense reproductive health clinic for local youth and Peter, the director told me with considerable pride that they provide salaried employment for no less than 140 hungry mouths. 

This example of performing arts deeply engrained in the fabric of the community was for us all too good to be true and we sat through their full slate of cultural offerings during our week and a half stay in the capital. First off was a set of health education plays produced by their group of disabled actors. Between rolling laughter and well-versed songs we learned of the importance of washing our hands and keeping our toilets clean. These short half hour plays will tour the schools and community centers of the islands and I’m convinced they will breach the threshold of functional art and make a difference wherever they go. 

Two nights later we were back for more and saw a professionally produced feature film titled “Yumi Go Kale”. The story line was about a family man caught in the web of blatant corruption, where a new minister grudgingly kept a single one of his promises, but only to cover up his dismal splurges of substance abuse, rape and related forms of cultured violence. No happy end covered the trail of revelations, skillfully left in suspense the spectator got out of the projection venue with strings of thoughts planted in his brain that continued to unravel for days to come and cannot help but sharpen the perception of what he’ll find around him. 

As if that tumultuous revelation was not enough we thought it worth the effort to mobilize our small circle of cruising friends for the Saturday night presentation of Wan Smol Bag’s latest oeuvre of stage craft with the catchy title “Hotel Kalifonia”. We arrived with one small gang of eight and soon took our hard wooden seats up in the steep rafters of the semicircular seating arrangement. During the following two hours we endured a crash course in Bislama, the third of Vanuatu’s national language besides French and English. You might have already spotted its clever phonetic annotation of English terms, where California becomes Kalifonia, and One Small Bag transforms into Wan Smol Bag. A densely crafted comedy unraveled in a mock-up of a local restaurant, where an impromptu birthday celebration for the minister quickly turned into a tenacious struggle for power with shifting alliances, outrageous fits of jealousy, drunken bouts of geniuses, hilarious revelations of highly visible secrets and even some hints of truly visionary leadership. Once stripped of the powers of public office our ‘minister’ turned its attention to a gang of lowlifes for a new following and soon returned to challenge the status quo dressed clearly in a different uniform. Once again the treacherous happy ending of cheap comedy was narrowly but very cleverly avoided, which left our amused giggling with a dissonant ring, pointing a persistent finger on our own encrusted status quo, where much work is left to be accomplished in order to stay awake and responsive to the many social misfits in our own environment. In short: what an awesome delight to find such elaborately engaged art of the performing kind amongst the rubbles of colonial South Seas abandonment! 

Our stay in maintenance bay is now winding down with the epoxy cured and functionality added. It’s once again time to hoist the sails and weigh the anchor to continue our trek north. We’re now arriving at the bifurcation in Vanuatu’s Y-shaped cluster of islands, where the eastern branch runs up with another active volcano island named Ambryn, then the two thin strips of land, famed Pentecost and Maewo Islands, and ending up in the Bank Islands, while the western arm sports the fatter isles of Malekula and Espirtu Santo before tattering out in the Torres Islands. Plenty of things remain to be seen and explored!


July 14, 2016

Our visit to this fascinating island was cut short by a menacing weather forecast. We would have loved to stay a bit longer but Dillon’s Bay on its southwestern corner is a funnel wide open to the West. This provided us with spectacular sunsets and surprisingly calm waters protected from the mighty swells of the trade winds doing their furious dance just around the corner. At the end of an enjoyable downwind turn from Tanna we rounded the rugged limestone cliffs of Ontovin Point and sailed into completely flat waters propelled solely by gentle williwaws tumbling down from the green wooded mountain ranges. At the bottom of the bay the Williams River had carved out a narrow valley into the raised coral plateau and nowadays spills its fresh water into the salty sea flanked by two terribly unattractive grey shingle beaches. Behind the northern beach lies the township with the exotic sounding name of Unpongkor, where a good portion of the islands entire population of just over two thousand souls must be residing.

erromango - 1That number had been mentioned to us by Thomas, whom we met on our stroll along the verdant banks of the William’s River and into its winding valley, where cool waters licked dark round stones that most certainly must provide good housing opportunities for tasty crayfish. He was coming towards us from the other side of the river and was now balancing his bundle of freshly peeled sticks on his left shoulder, while his wife followed shortly behind with a good load of palm fronds on her head. Even the youngster in tow was loaded with materials for what Thomas described as the “new grass house” they were about to add to their property in town. “We’re better off here on Erromango”, he rambled on once he had forded the river on the row of boulders protruding from the flowing waters, referring to the considerably lower population of his island compared with its southern neighbor. Tanna is listed as one of the most heavily populated of all the Vanuatu islands. Its surface area might be a good third smaller, while its population is listed as just under 29’000 in the 2009 census. “Over there you can’t just go out into the bush and start your very own little garden,” he now elaborated on his reasoning, “every spot is already taken! Here there is still space. But if you go up north, it gets even worth.”

We continued chatting for a good quarter of an hour about this and that, returning again and again to man’s need for land to feed himself and his family. Rural Ni-Vanuatu work intensely in their gardens, as we had just seen along our way, where we had admired nicely manicured plantations of manioc, taro, yam, banana, papaya, sugar cane and even corn, lettuce and other veggies. Here and there a machete wielding youngster would look up shortly and wave a friendly hello before returning with vigor to his work. That ancient work that will fill his and his family’s bellies and with a good bit of luck also nurture their happiness for generations to come.

By the time our important conversation had exhausted common courtesy and Thomas was eager to continue his return to an expanding homestead, we realized that the sun must be setting soon and there was no sense in going on along the narrow footpath on the other side of the river. It would have lead us further into this land of subsistence farming up into a densely wooded interior. On our way back to our precariously floating home we stopped at the school grounds on the upper end of town and visited principal Bobby, who has a good two hundred students under his wings at the local secondary school. We proposed to him to do two performances of our little show with songs of the world. Half of that promise we would unfortunately not be able to keep, as that same evening when consulting the weather forecast a trough crossing the horn of Australia’s Northwest promised westerly winds coming towards us over the coming weekend. This meant that our tranquil anchorage could easily turn into a nasty roller coaster.

So we were able to do only a single performance the following day at the school and shortly thereafter the last light of the day saw us weighing anchor and depart for what was meant to be an overnight passage towards Efate, Vanuatu’s central island, where on just about the same area as Erromango a staggering 66’000 people live and love. A misjudged strategy trapped us in the fluky lee of the island, where we were bobbing up and down with sagging sails all night. It was not until the afternoon of the following day that finally the hazy outlines of our new destination materialized from behind a dark grey squall line. During that long and lonesome night I had also discovered that our navigation lights were out of commission. The thought of entering busy Port Vila Harbor at night in stealth mode did therefore not particularly appeal to me. A quick glance at the Navionics chart on our iPad revealed a tiny anchor symbol printed at the very bottom of a mile and a half deep bay along Efate’s southern coast. That bay seemed just barely reachable after sunset at our present speed.

erromango - 2Without further due we entered Teouma Bey just as an orange fiery globe was setting in the West. We dropped the hook in barely five meters of water, off a brown sand beach and night fell around us. Looking around in the twilight to confirm the holding of our newly set anchor I realized a couple of rocks sticking out of the water between us and beach I had not noticed previously. On a closer look there were plenty more, much closer by and soon I saw them all around us. And holy molly, those things were actually moving and coming straight towards us! I jumped back to the cockpit and grabbed the flashlight. A narrowly focused cone of bright light danced nervously on the dark waters and what just a second ago was menacing rocks revealed itself as bundles of floating green leaves with wilted white flowers dipping lazily in the wet. But it was not until the next morning the full script of this rather disconcerting spectacle unraveled.

There happens to be a river mouth at the end of the bay. When the rising tide makes its entry into the meandering flats of the outflowing river behind the dunes of sand, it washes out junks of a leafy vegetable growing along the banks and then flushes them out into the bay. The whole show happens in one brief moment and is over in a couple minutes. It just so happened that we had dropped our anchor at that precise moment in time and space.

There were times not so long ago when man would listen up whenever the gods were speaking and adjust his life accordingly! And we did sleep divinely and like a rock that night.

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