Tuesday, May 13, 2008

May 12, 2008 - Anelghowhat Village, Aneityum/Anatom Island, Vanuatu

We have been having such an amazing experience since we arrived on Anatom last Wednesday morning. Our arrival coincided with the this village's celebration of Labor Day. When we finally made it ashore around 1pm, after spending the morning putting the boat away, there was a fierce volleyball competition underway on the lawn in front of the church. Sten, Joe and Lew from Serannity played for a while with some of the local guys between tournament matches. Ann and I sat down to watch. Within a few minutes, Reny, a local lady of my age, came and sat down beside me. We talked for a bit while watching the match.

Reny's youngest son sat on her lap, nursing. Her second youngest was running around us and her first born, a 12 year old girl, was hanging out nearby. Her two older sons were sequestered at the nakamal (local men's clubhouse) recovering from the circumcision ceremony they underwent the day before. Her husband, and most of the men, were also at the nakamal, drinking kava.

The hills above the village are covered with pine forest, planted in conjunction with New Zealand Forestries. But the pine is prone to brush fires (there was one during our stay here), the rainy weather makes the ground too soft for the tractor to pull the logs out, and there are regularly shortages of fuel. So, a few months ago the village brought a horse down from Port Vila (the capital of Vanuatu). The horse doesn't get stuck in the mud, and doesn't require any fuel. This is a big improvement.

Firewalking pit shaded by an ancient, gnarled Banyan tree

There is no set schedule for the island freighter to come here with supplies. The freighter only comes when there is enough timber to make a run profitable. But the men would rather drink kava than cut down trees. So they don't cut much timber until their wives run out of cooking oil and rice. Then they get to work. When the men have cut and milled enough timber to sell, they call the freighter on the village's one phone. A few weeks later, the freighter arrives with more cooking oil, rice, shoes, batteries, kerosene, noodles - everything these people use that they can't grow or make themselves.

This is easily the least developed place we have been in the Pacific. Unlike French Polynesia, where the houses are made out of subsidized concrete blocks and tin roofing material, the houses here are primarily made out of traditional materials - woven walls and thatched roofs. Everything here is made by hand. The other day while walking around the village, we came across a man making concrete blocks by hand. After mixing the sand, water and cement, he filled a form with the mixture, packed it down, then carried it into a building to dry. We figure it takes him 2 to 3 minutes per block. At a couple hundred blocks per structure, that is a slow way to build a house. No wonder most houses here are made of thatch.

Like building a house from handmade concrete blocks, getting a buzz here is also a labor intensive process. The local intoxicant is kava, a muddy drink produced from the roots of Piper methysticum, a pepper plant. Kava is drunk throughout the South Pacific, and as far north as Hawaii. But most modern islanders grind the stuff. Not in Vanuatu. Here they make kava the traditional way.

First, the roots are dug up. Then the husk of a coconut is used to remove the dirt and excess bark from the roots. Then (and this is where it gets a bit gnarly) the roots are chewed, and chewed, and chewed. Then the masticated lump is spit out into a bowl or onto a banana leaf. Once the pile of saliva saturated kava is big enough, a bucket of water and cup is brought over. A lump of chewed kava is put in a piece of cloth, such as an old t-shirt, and squeezed into a coconut shell, while water is slowly poured through it. Even with several people working together to clean the roots and chew the kava, it can take an hour or more just to get the kava ready for the squeezing process. This is not a quick or easy way to get lit.

Kava drinking used to be an exclusively male activity. On our first afternoon here, I asked Reny whether she drank kava. "Yes, I chew kava for my husband one or two times a week." "Do you drink it too?" "Yes." "How much?" "One big bowl," she said with a smile. Then she asked if I would like to try kava. Always up for trying the local grog, I said yes. I was also delighted, as being invited to a kava ceremony is tantamount to being officially welcomed to the village. We made plans to have a kava ceremony the next night. Thursday was going to be a big day for everyone, as a cruise ship was expected, and nobody wanted to be hung over from kava.

The day after our arrival, an Australian cruise ship anchored outside the pass and ferried its passengers to "Mystery Island," a small, sandy island in the harbor. On cruise ship days the ladies from the village go over to Mystery Island to set up their stalls in the marketplace. They sell the usual trinkets to the tourists - leis, woven can coozies, woven bags, postcards, key chains, and dishtowels. I wish I had a picture of the expression on the face of the cruise ship passenger who watched Reny and I exchanging hugs, a bag of limes and a few DVD's (a few of the more prosperous families have solar panels that they use to charge batteries to power a few small LED lights and their DVD players). Several of the men from the village had captured lobsters on the reef the night before and were doing a brisk business of cooking them for the Aussies, in exchange for 20 - 40 Australian dollars, depending on the size of the lobster. Our first morning here a local man named Wesley paddled out to Serannity in a dug out canoe with some lobsters. They traded him a t-shirt for them. Khulula traded a t-shirt, a pair of flip-flops and a hat for seven lobsters. The yachties are clearly getting a better price than the folks on the cruise ship.

The local string band performing on cruise ship day.
Yes, he is using a flipflop as a percussion instrument.

Reny's house, shaded by a moonflower tree

After the Aussies were ferried back to their ship, Sten, I and the crew of Khulula headed ashore to join Reny for the kava ceremony. She took us back to her home, two thatched buildings surrounded by gardens and a packed dirt yard. We sat in the yard on low stools and woven mats. Sten, Ryan, Bryson and Hugh cleaned the roots with coconut husk while Reny set to chewing them.

Ryan and Sten cleaning roots while Reny chews

Reny chewing while her son, Jefferson, shines some light on the situation

As the mounds of chewed kava piled up in the plate, we started to feel bad about how hard Reny was working. I also had the fleeting thought that if I chewed some of the kava, then I could pretend that the portion I drank contained my saliva, rather than anyone else's spit. Thea, Jess and I gave chewing the roots a try, but our lips and tongues quickly became numb and our jaws stiff.
Once the lumps of chewed kava were ready, Reny's nephew helped her strain it through a t-shirt into coconut shells. As she presented us each with a shell of kava, Reny wished us a good night in her local language - a phrase that sounded a lot like "chew-char-ab-nee." After feeling the effects of the kava, I understood how suitable a blessing "good night" was. I felt nothing initially, but the next morning, as I fought what felt like an Ambien hangover, it seemed like I'd just gotten off of a long-haul flight. Sten had a completely different reaction. My typically taciturn husband turned into a philosopher, as he ruminated about the economic and social effects of introducing a steadier power supply to a place like this.

Drinking kava with James

Reny - feeling good

Towards the end of the kava ceremony on Thursday night, Reny's husband appeared in time to have a cup of kava with me and Sten. James invited us all to come back on Sunday night for a feast and a "real kava ceremony." On Sunday afternoon we all met James and Reny on the beach. Before heading back to their place, James offered to take the boys to the nakamal to meet his sons who were there recovering from their recent circumcisions. Thea and Jess went with the guys for the walk to the nakamal, although they weren't permitted to go in, as the nakamal is exclusively male territory. Along the way they visited a small compound where James's family lives, saw giant bats (called flying foxes) and checked out blowholes, surge channels and tunnels carved in the edge of the reef.

An outrigger hull, dug out of the trunk of a kauri tree

While everyone else went on James's tour, I went back with Reny to her house, as I was looking forward to getting a chance to have some quiet conversation with her while we finished making dinner. Reny's cook house, which is separate from the sleeping house, is a rudimentary affair. To the left of the entrance is an open fire. There is no chimney, so the air circulates in the house and eventually finds its way out the doorway or the window on the opposite wall. There is no light, save the glow of the fire, daylight or moonlight filtering through the doorway and the window, and a pinprick of light cast by a single LED at night. At the far end of the room, a table sits under the window, with benches on either side. When the rain is very heavy, the family will eat indoors, otherwise they eat in the covered area between the two buildings. A platform long enough to lay down upon runs the length of the wall opposite the fire.

While Reny fried slices of taro (a starchy veg that is a staple of the diets of Pacific Islanders, which, after a good long boil, still has the consistency of uncooked potato), I set about cleaning the kava roots. Reny explained that James's sister's son had brought the kava from another village for us because it was particularly potent. Serving us Paama kava, seemed to me a bit like serving a cult cabernet to a child, but it made them proud to be able to give their guests the best they could. Once James returned with everyone else, their nephews took the roots I'd been cleaning and started chewing the kava for us. Compared to the other night's communal affair when we all pitched in to make the kava, this was a more formal event, and James was running the show. He decided the order in which we would drink, and honored Ryan by choosing to drink with him.

Reny, her sons Jefferson and Jameson, Thea, Jess and I, cleaning kava roots

Bryson and Sten knocking back the kava as James looks on

Hugh, aka Reef Walker, my kava drinking buddy

The Paama kava was more potent than the kava we had on Thursday night. After the first sip, my lips and tongue began to tingle. Then a feeling of euphoria descended over me. Sten had an even stronger reaction, as he felt his legs begin to give way, and quickly found himself a seat. I began to think that there might have been some truth to Reny's earlier promise that we would all wind up sleeping in her kitchen.

An island feast of taro cooked in coconut milk, braised chicken,
fried taro chips and boiled chunks of purple swamp taro

After drinking the kava, we gathered in a space between the two buildings to exchange gifts and enjoy a meal together. It felt awkward accepting presents from people who had so little; but, we would have insulted them if we did not accept their gifts. Sten and I gave them a few staples, a t-shirt, hat, and some batteries for their flashlights. Khulula gave them a bag of canned goods and spices and some cigarettes. We risked making them feel indebted to us by giving them so much, but it was hard to hold back after being so welcomed into their home and family and seeing how little they had and how bare and dusty the shelves were at the local store.

Jefferson showed us the remains of the missionaries' printing press

Village kids with blond hair - a whaler's legacy?

In between kava ceremonies we found some time to walk around the village and play on the reef. Sten, Ryan and Hugh got in some surfing, while Thea, Jess and I did a bit of snorkeling. There is a wreck of a Japanese fishing boat, circa 1960, that is in about 1 meter of water, at high tide. At low tide, there is barely enough water on top of the reef to stay afloat. While checking out the boat, I dropped the tips of my flippers down, so they were resting on the reef, to hold me in place in the current. I noticed a sudden movement, and realized that the patch of coral that I'd disturbed was actually a stone fish, which according to Coral Reef Fishes, by Lieske and Myers, is the "World's most venomous fish . . . has caused human fatalities." Um, good thing I didn't step on him. This guy was so well camouflaged that I struggled to find him again when I brought Sten, Jess and Thea back to see him.

Click on the picture to blow it up - to find the fish look for his red eye

In addition to poisonous fish, the reef is also home to many turtles, which the locals hunt. We've never seen turtles move so fast! At the first sound of an outboard, they take off like a dart. Phoenix arrived from New Caledonia on Sunday evening. On Monday, while Sten and the boys were having a decent session out at the reef break, I took Patty and Giff out to check out the wreck and the turtles. The current was ripping across the top of the reef, so Patty, Giff and I hopped out of the dinghy and drifted silently over the coral heads. We got just close enough to spot the turtles before they hightailed it away from us. I tried to get some pictures, but they were much faster than me. All I wound up with were shots of blurry turtle butts off in the distance.

These bright blue starfish were everywhere

On cruise ship day, thelocals were telling the cruise ship passengers that they would see bronze whalers on the snorkel tour. I asked the customs guy if there were sharks in the harbor and he just laughed and shook his head. The locals were also advertising dive trips to a burial cave 10 meters deep, but nobody could point us towards its location.

Usually we avoid ports when cruise ships are in; however, this time we were delighted. Currently (although this is about to change), Anatom is not an official port of entry. So when a cruise ship is due, Customs and Quarantine officers fly in to clear the passengers. We took advantage of their being here to do our Quarantine clearance. Unfortunately for us, the Customs officer didn't have the right paperwork for yachts. Quarantine charged 3,000 vatu (the local currency) or $40 Australian. He didn't accept NZD, and we didn't have any vatu or Australian. So we had to wait until Friday, when the bank opened, to get some vatu (the bank is also open on Tuesdays).

Quarantine told Serannity, who arrived on Tuesday, that they needed to leave by Friday to go to Tanna and finish the clearance process. When I cleared us on Wednesday (a romantic, candle-lit process on this island with limited electricity), Quarantine didn't give me a deadline. The Quarantine officer told me (with a straight face and the Customs guy standing right next to him), "Quarantine is the most important. Now that you've cleared with me, you can take your time doing the rest." Customs said that we should go when the weather is good. I jokingly told him that it didn't look like it was going to be any good to leave for several days. He just nodded.

Joseph coming out to see Phoenix via outrigger canoe

We also brought our passports to a local guy named Joseph, who lives in a house just to the east of the Presbyterian church, so that he could write down our information. This isn't a clearance of any kind; it's just that the community would like to know who is hanging out in their harbor. I'm not certain whether Joseph will continue to have this responsibility in the future. Later this week the Prime Minister is arriving on the twice weekly flight (Monday and Thursday) from Port Vila to declare Anelghowhat as an official port of entry. Nobody I spoke with was certain when his declaration would take effect or what the clearance procedures would be.

While anchored off of Anelghowhat we had several fun nights on board Mata'irea, Khulula and Phoenix. Our first night in the anchorage, Serannity came over. We celebrated our safe arrival back in the tropics by sharing some of the local lobster, which is the best warm water lobster Sten and I have ever had, and frying everything we could get our hands on. The drink of the evening was a tropical champagne cocktail, made with passionfruit pulp and Hardy's sparkling wine (an effervescent substance, that bears a closer relationship to sparkling grape juice than wine). We all got a little ridiculous. A few nights later, Khulula came over and we finished off the big mahi we caught on passage by making a mess of ceviche with the limes Reny gave me. Khulula brought over some nice cheese and crackers and over some ice-less vodka tonics we all got to know each other a bit. It has been fun having Khulula around. They are the first boat we've spent time with on this trip with a crew of our own age.

One of these friendly guys nearly became our new ship's cat


jroberts said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jroberts said...

RE: "blond kids....a whaler's legacy?"

Not true. Natural blond (and red) hair is not exclusive to people of European descent. It can occur in peoples with NO European blood whatsoever. Just wanted to clear that up ;)

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