BACK IN TIME TO TANNA

 

Going to Port Resolution, on the island of Tanna, in Vanuatu, was like traveling back in time.

Paul has been reading recently about Scottish history, and life in the 18th century Highlands and lowlands. Most people were sustenance farmers. They were clannish, lived in earthen huts, and clung to traditions that were centuries old. Everyone shared the same ethnicity. The way of life in some areas had changed little since medieval times. It was a patriarchical society and women were not permitted to partake of certain customs. Marriages were arranged between clan families to strengthen bonds. Food was simple, and the potato made up 80% of one’s diet.

Reading this history, it felt hard to imagine what this kind of life might have been like. Port Resolution left nothing to the imagination. We’ll try to paint the picture.

Most families live in one-room huts made of bamboo or bunyan poles and thatched coconut palms, with dirt floors. There is no water in the huts, but, through an improvement paid for by Japanese aid, an aqueduct brings water from the hills to three spigots spread around the village. For no apparent reason that we could be made to understand, one of the fellows who owns land through which the water flows sometimes decides to block it off. When that happens, the villagers use of three wells that access deep aquifers, one of which is brackish at high tide.


A local shower.

A dozen or so men fish together each morning, and what they catch their families eat that night. With it they eat vegetables grown in their own gardens, mostly cassava but also yams, bok choy, and cabbage, with the odd carrot or spring onion thrown in. This is dinner every night. During the day, they eat papaya, banana, and coconuts, grown on the trees that ring the village. There are some pigs and chickens, many of which wander around the village, but they are eaten only during ceremonies and other special occasions. Rice, flour, and soap are scant, as they can be purchased only in Lenakel, a two-hour truck ride on a terrible road through the mountains.

When night falls, at about 6:30 p.m., the village goes black dark. After a while, your eyes adjust, and you can make out small fires in some of the huts, a group chatting in the dark, or someone crossing the grass field that the village encircles. To see at night, they sometimes carry rolled up palm leaves, lit and left smoldering, that let off a very faint orange glow.

It is, in some ways, like summer camp. And we have taken to calling it “Camp Vanuatu,” though the inhabitants stay year round.

On some days, after the sun sets, men gather in small groups by modest fires to drink kava. It is custom (or, “kastom”) for the village to be quiet after “kava time,” and the men speak in hushed tones as they drink. Paul was invited by the men to drink kava. Sima, as a female, was not.

We became good friends with Seth, the star of the village soccer team. He is married to Jacobeth. When they married, Seth’s sister, if she had been single, would have gone to live with Jacobeth’s family, to make up for the loss of a helping hand. But since Seth’s sister is already married, they will send their daughter Sylvie, once she is old enough to live with Jacobeth’s mother. This is kastom.


Preparing Dinner. The men went out in groups each morning to fish in groups. They’d cast their nets, and one or two would jump in the water, flailing about to drive the fish into the nets.

One day, Seth’s mother stepped on a nail, and it pierced into her foot. We just happened to have a first aid kit with us, and we offered to clean it out. Paul couldn’t remove what he thought was some black, hardened dirt from inside the puncture, as much as he scrubbed. It turned out that the black was charred skin, as she had already cauterized it, burning her flesh to disinfect and seal the wound.

Seth often speaks about his older brother Ben, who is a teacher in Lenakel, Tanna’s main town, on par with a very small village in rural America. Seth is working toward becoming a teacher himself, so that he can earn more money than he gets as a substitute, which is a mere $25 every two weeks. His younger brother, Eben, is doing work on our boat, and we pay him a “fat” salary of $10 a day. We understood that to pay more would cause problems. We finally met Ben, whom we anticipated would be the ambitious go-getter of the family. He is no such thing. He told us that he didn’t like the stress of working every day or of having a boss. He wants to come back to the village, and its easier way of life. He doesn’t want a big salary, just a garden, and a peaceful way of life of the village.

We met Stanley, who has told us about local history, getting wild-eyed and excited about stories he recounted as matter of fact, but which have little connection to reality. For example, he told us that men from Tanna helped American soldiers expel the Japanese from Port Vila during World War II. (The Japanese were never in Port Vila, or anywhere else in Vanuatu for that matter.). Stanley explained how the Tannese men had used magic to summon fierce storms, causing lightning to strike Japanese radar installations. As a result, the Japanese couldn’t see the approaching U.S. fleet, and Vanuatu was easily taken.

Stanley told us about his religion, the “Cargo Cult,” which is widely practiced on Tanna. In sum, practitioners believe if they go back to their traditional ways, and build airfields and docks to allow easy access, John Frum, whom they imagine is probably an American (because Americans are so wealthy), will arrive with untold amounts of goods and wealth; that is, with “cargo.” Adherents don’t have to work very hard, but do play music for hours on the beach, to entice John Frum to come. No kidding.

Stanley told us that John Frum had recently sent a message, “saying that The Man was in England,” and that they should go and see him. So money was collected, and several villagers went to England. They walked to the Palace, where they were met by the Queen. The Queen told them that The Man was not there. So now they are coming back to the village.

The Christians who try to convert the Cargo Cultists tell them that they are waiting in vain, as their Man has not shown up despite seventy some years having passed since the initial promise. The Cargo Cultists response is that Christians have been waiting for two thousand years, yet they seem to be quite patient.

Stanley really believes these things, as do many others. (Go search “Cargo Cult” or “John Frum” on the Internet.)

But why not believe? Who or what is going to contradict Stanley? You see, there is very little influence from the outside world here. There are no TVs or radios, and the newspaper usually doesn’t make it from Lenakel. Education is extremely rudimentary.

In an eighth grade class that we visited, the students couldn’t find their own country on a global map, let alone the United States or Turkey. We explained to them that we were circumnavigating, using a map of the world to show our route. They didn’t understand the concept of a round globe being projected onto a flat map. We tracked our voyage to the end of the map, and asked what would happen if we continued on. “You’d come to another planet?”

So who can challenge Stanley’s stories where there are no readily available connections outside of the village.

Coming from the outside, we are oddities ourselves, and one understands, just a little, how Captain Cook may have felt when he spent time at this very anchorage. As the first white person the islanders had ever seen, he and his men were thought to be ghosts of the villager’s ancestors who had come to visit from the afterworld. Even though tourists come through, and there are volunteers from the Peace Corps and a myriad of churches, kids still flock to us. We went to Lenakel one day, standing up in the back of a pickup truck. Children yelled to us as we drove, sometimes running to the road to wave or grab our hands as the truck crawled along the sometimes barely passable road.


As we passed a score of young boys playing soccer in a field thirty yards off the road, they abandoned their game and ran screaming, mouths agape, at the truck.

Vanuatu is the first Melanesian island we have visited, and the contrast with the race that peoples the islands of Polynesia is attention-grabbing, even after you’ve read the guidebooks prepping you for this difference. The Polynesians are tan skinned, and descend from seafarers who originated in Mongolia, in modern-day China. The name “Melanesia” means “black islands,” but it is the people who are black. They originated in Africa, and did not travel the great distances that the Polynesians did, settling in places like Australia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and here, in Vanuatu. We had read all about these migrations, and about who ended up where, and when they came, but the sudden and dramatic change in skin color was striking, and drove home the anthropology lesson in a way that the books could not.

Time is a fluid concept in the village. No one wears watches. When we first arrived, Paul was invited to play soccer the next day at Noon. When he arrived at that time, there was nothing on the field but chickens. Some of the villagers told Paul that play would be later, and so Paul waited. At 2:30, one of the players arrived, and explained that there would be no play today because “the boys had to go to Lenakel. But we will play tomorrow at half one. Please, please come then.” The next day, Paul showed up at 1:30. Play started at 4. This happened again and again.


Boys at play. The fellow with the whistle at his mouth is the referee.

When they eventually do take place, the soccer games are lovely. The play is skilled, but remarkably friendly and low-key. When a player misses an easy opportunity, or makes a bad pass, others on the pitch giggle and laugh, sometimes rolling around on the ground when doing so.

Religious services, on the other hand, do seem to start on time. For such a tiny collection of huts, there are a bewildering number of choices. Services for the Presbyterians (maybe we really are in 18th century Scotland!) started at 10, as announced by a bell. The Seventh-Day Adventists had their services on Saturday night, announced by a different bell. The Cargo Cultists started their celebration each Friday at 6:00 p.m. (and played music on the beach until sunrise the following day!), and called their followers to prayer or practice by whacking two sticks together. In case these aren’t options enough, a new settlement has sprung up on the other side of the bay, established by a local man who had predicted accurately that a river would overflow, thereby demonstrating that he was a prophet, and that families should follow him. Some have.


Sima atop Mt. Yasur.

Over this all broods an active volcano, blowing black smoke by daylight and glowing orange by night. We traveled up the top of the mountain to peer into the crater, and it was awesome. During the night, the volcano’s orange glow can be seen from the safety of our boat. When we’re downwind of the mountain, a black granular dirt spreads a thin cloak over the deck.

The people are more than just “friendly,” a word that connotes merely cheerful waves of hello and welcoming greetings; they are also genuinely warm.

We invited Seth, Jacobeth, their daughter, and their niece, to dinner on Leander, and it was a remarkable experience for us and, they told us, for them. They came laden with coconuts, eggplants, bananas, and other produce from their garden. The children (ages four and seven) played around like it was Disneyland, blinking at computer screens and counting lamps out loud (they had never seen so much artificial light). Concerned about what their digestive systems would like, Sima served a simple but wonderful fare of salad and risotto, followed by short-lived peanut butter cookies.

They had us over for dinner the next night, and pulled out all the stops. Jacobeth had prepared pumpkin, taro, cassava with a coconut milk sauce, other local vegetables called “snake beans” and “schu schu,” grilled fish, chicken, pork, rice, and bananas. Lemonade was served to wash it all down. The dinner was served on bendy “plates” made from fresh, green palm leaves, decorated on the sides with bougainvilleas, a local flower. The meat represented a financial sacrifice on their part. They ate with their hands, and we were given the only two forks available.


Seth, Nasam, and Eben became such good friends.

When we finally had to depart the village, and sail away, Seth and Jacobeth showered us with gifts, including traditional feathers from a headdress, a woven basket, and more fruits and vegetables. It was sad to leave. We had as much affection for them as they seemed to have for us.

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