Sunday, July 23, 2006

Circumcision Ceremony

We were not sure what to expect when the invitation to attend a circumcision ceremony was extended to us on our arrival in Tanna. From talking to locals over the next few days we gathered that the custom is for all boys in the village to be circumcised, following which they spend two months in the bush away from the village looked after by their grandfather. If they approach the village during this time to collect food, their approach is announced by loud horns to warn all women to remain indoors. Their eventual return to the village as "men" is celebrated with the circumcision ceremony. Of the many ceremonies that the Ni-Vanuatu celebrate (for example. first shave, first menstruation, marriage etc) the circumcision ceremony is possibly the most significant and extravagant.

It is customary that the boy's family provides food and drink for the whole village and neighbouring villages - in practice this means that the preparation may start years in advance with the purchase of pigs and livestock that will be reared and eventually offered to the guests. Another reason it takes so long to prepare for is the amount of kava that is needed. Kava is a drink made from the kava root (not to be confused with Spanish sparkling wine!), common in this part of the Pacific. It is prepared by mashing, grating or chewing from the root of the kava plant. In Tanna the drink is only taken by the men in their "namakal" (club house) and prepared the traditional way by children who chew the root and spit out the juice. Apparently saliva releases more of the active chemicals so kava produced by chewing is more potent. Kava is drunk by passing a bowl around a circle in a ritual which takes some hours. At a ceremony like this, a lot of kava is needed as the men will spend several hours drinking kava after the ceremony.

We were seated in a cleared area in the bush, close to boy's village. The village is about a 10 minute walk from the beach and consists of approx. 10 traditional wooded houses. Since it is at a height, there is a good view of the anchorage. There is no road access.

The ceremony began when boys' mother's family had gathered from neighboring villages. The boys' close family dress in festive gear - the closer the relation, the more festive their clothes. Men and in particular women wear elaborate face paints. The women dress in grass skirts and colourful cloths draped over their shoulders. Traditionally, flower garlands and woven grass are used as decoration - these days plastic flower garlands and Christmas tinsel are added for effect.

At the start of the ceremony, piles of presents were formed on the ground - one for each boy. The presents included reams of cloth, hand-woven baskets and mats, heaps of taro, cassava, yams, sugar cane, kava root and laplap (a traditional dish made of ground manioc and a choice of stuffing such as meat, fish or vegetables, which is wrapped in pandanus leaves and slowly cooked in an underground oven). We also noticed four pigs, a goat and a cow which were tied up and left by the clearing.

The ceremony began with the slaughter of the animals. The pigs were brought into the square one by one, carried upside-down on a pole threaded though the legs and killed with a club. Then the goat was brought in and its throat was cut with knife. The cow and one of the pigs were to be killed later (so Conor's visions of the climax of "Apocalypse Now" were not to be). They would first be brought to the village of the mother of the boys and then slaughtered as it would be too difficult to carry a dead animal across the island.

There followed a procession of all men as the boys returned to the village. To mark the passage of boyhood to manhood, the boys were escorted by the village's men amidst crying from the women who have now 'lost' the boys to adulthood and the company of men. The boys were walked around the group to be greeted by the guests before being seated in the place of honour, surrounded by their parents. Afterwards the procession, the gifts were shared out and the ground cleared for dancing.

The dancing is fantastic - joyful and energetic. The men form a tight inner circle, sing and stamp their feet. The women form an outer circle, jump up and down and answers the men's chanting in their song. There are no instruments, but the stamping of feet gives a rhythmic, thumping beat. Once the dancing was over, the villagers retreated - men to the namakal for kava, women to the communal charcoal cooking pit. At that point, we left having paid our respects, expressed our thanks and presented our gifts to the boys and their families.

The whole experience was amazing. We feel privileged to have been invited to the event as guest of the chief. It gave us a rare insight into traditional culture and demonstrated how important the traditional customs are to the people of Tanna.

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Saturday, July 15, 2006

Lenakel, by truck.

Port Resolution is not an official port of entry and so we had to get a lift across the island to Lenakel, Tanna's main town, to clear-in with Customs and Immigration. We were warned that the journey was "physical" - which it turned out to be: a bone-jarring one and a half hours on a bench in the back of an open 4WD truck. The road from Port Resolution is an unsealed dirt track that is cratered with potholes. It runs through the thick bush and then breaks out into the open as it crosses the lunar landscape of the valley below the volcano. There the surface turns to a featureless fine black sand and it is almost impossible to get any sense of scale or perspective of the volcano as all we could see was sand dunes, volcano and sky. The trip took on a Paris-Dakar rally flavour as the driver stepped on the pedal and we sped across the dunes. Coming back that afternoon, the heat in this black, shadeless place was unbelievable - not somewhere you'd want a breakdown!

Once past the volcano, we were back to 20km/hr soon enough, climbing on the dirt track to the islands highest peak. From that height we had a fantastic view across the island from East to West Coast. Although there are many small villages dotted across the island, most are built in the traditional way and so inconspicuous. At a first glance, the island looks like an uninhabited mountainous jungle.

Once over the hill, the road then dropped down into Lenakel. Lenakel is a small town that spreads along the coast with mainly brick/cement buildings and unpaved roads. Customs and Immigration are located at one end of the town in a smart compound that includes the open courthouse, the prison and other government departments. The formalities were very straightforward - although Conor remembers reading an account in one of Eric Hiscock's books where he describes having checking in with both with French and British customs and immigration as the island was bizarrely ruled by both colonial powers with fully duplicated administrations.

The highlight of our day trip was the market in Lenakel which takes place twice a week under an enormous Banyan tree - maybe 3m-4m in diameter with a sinuous trunk, a huge canopy with aerial roots winding back to the ground, they are a really spectacular tree. These trees seem to play an important role in the village life, as we noticed many marketplaces and villages are based around them on our drive across the island. We were impressed by the variety and quantity of vegetables and fruit on offer at Lenakel's market. Although the boat is still full of food, we bought mandarins, cabbage, carrots, pineapple, aubergines and also some woven bags. There was also taro, yam, casava, sugar cane, kava root and many other less familiar produce on show, along with meat (live chickens for "home kill"!), fish and eggs.

We have been struck by the quiet, almost hesitant courtesy of the local people. Even in the bank, where we stood in line for close to an hour to change money, people queued patiently and in companionable silence. Where ever we have been, people speak softly and have kind gentle manners, as if cautious not to disturb each other.

Before returning to Port Resolution, Henrietta bought the local newspaper which is published in English and Bislama. It's headline on Thursday 13 July read: "Its official, Vanuatu is worlds happiest place". The survey is undertaken by the Friends of the Earth is based on life satisfaction, life expectancy and ecological footprint. Apparently Vanuatu scored highly as people seem content, live in villages with a strong sense of community and have a life expectancy of 69. Environmentally, they mostly grow their own food and have a large rain forests and very little logging, a large coast line and many nature and marine reserves. Whatever the reasons put forward by the survey, it is hard to argue with the conclusion - the people of Vanuatu do seem to be happy with their lot.

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Friday, July 14, 2006

Tanna Vanuatu

Our first landfall was Port Resolution in Tanna/Vanuatu, which turned out to be a beautiful crescent-shaped bay fringed by palm trees, with both white coral and black sandy beaches and an impressive view of the volcano, Mount Yasur.

We went ashore and were quickly directed to Ronnie, the chief of the village, and his son Stanley, who is semi-officially responsible for any yachts that arrive in the bay. The village is very simple. It is organised around a square, with small, single room huts raised off the ground and made from woven palm fronds and wood. There are no sealed roads or concrete. It is kept very clean and is pretty with many plants and flowers. Pigs and chickens are definitely free-range.

Language was not a problem as they all speak either French or English, in addition to the local dialect. This is a legacy of Vanuatu's colonial history as a shared colony with both French and English administrators and even now there are both French and English missionaries in the village. It did cause us some confusion as within the same family some spoke only English and others only French - depending on which school they attended. In addition, Vanuatu also has a pidgin language called Bislama which is the language they mostly use between tribes, as there are many dialects of Vanuatan - none of which seem to be written languages. Bislama is formed from French and English words and goes back to the earliest contact with European traders and whalers. The language has official status - on the bank notes is written "Reserve Bank blong Vanuatu" - "blong" being a corruption of "belong" and used to mean "from" or "of". This multi-lingualism is reflected in the the daily newspaper which included articles in English, French and Bislama.

That afternoon we were invited to a meal in an adjacent village by the chief, Eric. This village was much smaller than the first one - barely more than a homestead for two families with several small structures for each family and one communal, open hut where we ate. Eric's family had prepared a roast pig, manioc, yams, sliced taro in coconut cream with corned beef, fresh pineapple and juice from green coconuts and and breadfruit chunks in coconut cream. The people are amazingly welcoming, are easy and interesting to talk to and have a very quiet, courteous manner. Eric also invited us to join in a circumcision ceremony on Saturday for three local boys. The boys are returning to the village after having sent a month in the bush and the feast is planned for their return.

On our way from the meal, we stopped to explore some hot springs on the beach. The blow holes are continuously active and at times quite ferocious, spitting out hot water and steam. Back on board, we saw a humpback whale breaching athletically - and repeatedly - at the entrance of the bay which continued to dive and blow air whilst we attempted to photograph what is surely one of the energetic displays by any animal. What a place to arrive!

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Passage from Opua

Having left the boatyard in Whangarei, we sailed along the coast to Opua in the Bay of Islands with stops in Tutukaka and Bland Bay. Our first off shore passage was to be from Opua to the island of Tanna in southern Vanuatu. Vanuatu - formerly the New Hebrides - is small island group that is known for very traditional ("kastom") ways of life and for "cargo-cult" beliefs in some villages. Our destination was Port Resolution, one of the harbours Cpt Cook visited on his Pacific voyages and home to an active volcanos - Mt Yasur.

Anchored in Opua, we waited for the right weather conditions and when on Tuesday night we heard rain and wind from a passing front and woke to find that the winds had backed from northerly to westerly. Once the front had passed and with a high pressure system over eastern Australia and a favourable 3 day forecast, predicting SW winds in the 20-25kt range, it was a good time to go.

With a windy start on Wednesday 4rh July it took us both a few days to find our sea legs. The winds rose steadily for the first days, so by Day 2 the wind was at 25kts with lumpy seas and gusts and frequent squalls of 35kts. Despite the strong winds, we were able to hold our course of about 330T as the wind was mainly on the beam. Day 3 saw the wind ease giving us a brief respite before a front on Day 4 brought winds over 30kts with intense gusts to 40kts. This reinforced our impression that the best "forecast" for these waters is the image of the current situation put out over weather-fax every 6 hours, as the longer range forecasts by the NZ met office don't show fronts. For the final four days, we had pleasant sailing conditions - the wind eased and came round to the south/south-east. On Days 5/6 the twin-jibs came out and our heavy oil-skins came off as we got into warmer weather and enjoyed gentle trade winds. On Day 7 we altered course to ensure a downwind arrival in day light, which is exactly what we got as we sailed around the point, furled the sails and started the engine as we passed the reef on Wednesday morning at 8:00am local time. Anchored in a tranquil bay below the volcano we settled back with a sense of achievement, having completed a respectable passage of 1023 miles in 8 days after 15 months ashore for both Pamina and ourselves.

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