Tuesday, June 10, 2008

June 8, 2008 - Homo Bay, Pentecost Island, Vanuatu

Pentecost is the home of a tradition that has become one of Vanuatu's biggest spectacles. Every Saturday, for three months, the men of Homo Bay jump off of a hundred foot tall tower constructed out of branches and vines. These days, land diving is a commercial endeavor and the jumpers are paid to participate. But even so, it is still an act of faith to dive off of a tower with nothing to break your fall but the vines tied to your ankles and a loosened pile of dirt at the base of the tower. Before a man jumps, he raises his arms over his head and prays, then launches himself forward into nothing, vines trailing behind him. With a loud crack, the saplings supporting the platform he had been standing on snap, an a split second later, he hits the dirt. We all watch with baited breath to see if he will be okay. With the help of some elders, the jumper stands up, has the dirt scraped off of him with the back side of a machete, and turns to receive the audience's applause.
Cruise ship passengers gathered for the spectacleVines securing the tower to nearby trees
Chief Luke and his relatives preparing the ground for a soft impact -
note that they typically wear t-shirts, board shorts and Crocs

On Saturday, we saw nine people jump, each from a progressively higher platform on the tower. The first diver was a five year old boy who was thrown from the lowest platform by his father. He had a look of sheer terror on his face before being tossed from a height of 20 feet. When he was plucked out of the mud by his uncle, he looked shocked. The next jumper was the chief's six year old son, William. Earlier that morning, I'd listened to him beg his father to be allowed to jump this weekend. As the audience of a dozen yachties and 1500 cruise ship passengers was assembling below, he had climbed the tower, dressed in a t-shirt and shorts, to look down from the platform he would be jumping off of. He stayed up there for 20 minutes. Then he climbed back down to don his land diving costume, which consisted of a banana leaf wrapped around his willie and a string tied around his waist to hold it in place, his testicles swinging free in the breeze. This is the traditional custom costume of the men of the Small Namba tribes. Namba means number. It also means penis. It takes a self confident group of men to put up with being known as the small dicks. But in this application, namba refers to the covering of the penis. The Small Nambas have very little covering their members. The Big Nambas wear larger sheaths comprised of woven purple pandanus fibers. Several of the jumpers were dressed as Big Nambas. All the men working and dancing around the tower were also either dressed as Small Nambas or Big Nambas. We saw a lot of nambas on Saturday.

Chief Luke and his family, looking much more National Geographic
than normal, though the discarded pair of Crocs somewhat destroys the effect.

Namba by Versace

Just before William jumped, I called out his name. When he landed, he looked dazed. His father, Chief Luke, sent him over to see me. I shook his mud covered hand and told him how brave he was. Then the cruise ship passengers around me all shook his hand. He looked stunned. Gone was the bravado of the little boy who had assured his dad that he was ready to jump. Over the next few hours, as the older boys and the men jumped, I watched William become the little boy again as he danced with his cousins in the mud. Some day William may be the chief of this village. It is important for him to demonstrate his bravery. That's what land diving was once all about. In a land without predators, the Small Nambas and Big Nambas of Pentecost demonstrated their virility by throwing themselves off of a tower of twigs and vines.

These days, land diving is big business. The cruise ship pays Chief Luke's brother 1,000,000 vatu (about 11,000 USD) each time it brings passengers to see the land diving. Each person off of the yachts in the harbor paid 8,500 vatu (roughly 90 USD) to Chief Luke to see the jumps. In a community where there are very few opportunities to make money (harvesting and selling copra and kava are the only two other commercial activities), it is no wonder that there is some resentment brewing against the family that has the land diving market cornered.

While the boys and men were diving, Chief Luke and his family danced . . .

and danced . . .

and danced some more, churning the dirt beneath their feet into mud.

We found ourselves caught in the middle of the local political strife within moments of dropping our anchor in Homo Bay. As we were setting the anchor, two men and two boys ran across the beach to launch their outriggers and paddle out to us. The oldest man climbed onto our swim platform and invited himself and his family aboard. He introduced himself as "Chief." "Chief, what?" we asked. "Chief shm," he mumbled. "Chief Shane?" I asked. "No, Chief Sham." We were pretty sure that he wasn't the chief (we'd heard that Chief Willy had died and his successor was named Chief Luke) and a sham chief he turned out to be. After ensconcing himself in our cockpit, he took a good look around before introducing his entourage. When Sten introduced me as his wife, Chief Sham asked if we were married in the church. Leaving out the details that our wedding took place in an Episcopal chapel and that we'd written the non-denominational ceremony ourselves, I said "Yes, we were married by a Catholic monk." "But you have very good English!" Chief Sham exclaimed. In his experience Catholics are Spanish or French.

He asked us if we wanted him to catch some prawns for us (this is not very chiefly behavior). We explained that we still had a bit of fish left from a big fish we had given to the last village, so no thank you. We are very short on local currency, so mostly we trade with villagers. Sten brought our some D batteries to ask Chief Sham how much they were worth in local trading. Chief Sham grabbed the batteries and tried to keep them as a gift. It took some explaining before Sten managed to get them back. Then Chief Sham asked us if we were planning to go to the land diving. We couldn't tell if he was angling to be our guide to the land diving, but we didn't want to commit to anything. Phoenix had arrived the night before and we knew they had been in to make arrangements with the chief, so we hedged.

As we talked, Chief Sham kept offering to get us prawns for 1,500 vatu. We kept declining. Then he told us that it was custom for us to give him a present for anchoring in his harbor. "Landowner's rights," he said. We knew this was a crock, but we wanted to get Chief Sham and his relatives off of our boat, Sten went below to fetch a hat for him. Chief Sham got up to follow Sten down the companionway. I gestured for him to sit back down with a "he'll be right back." Sten returned with a navy blue CAT VIP hat with gold braid all over the brim. Chief Sham looked disappointed. "What else?" he asked. Sten started to balk, but I sent him down to get another hat. A hat is nothing to us, and if it makes Chief Sham happy, it is no skin off our noses. While Sten was below, Chief Sham asked for our leftover fish. This was getting a bit ridiculous.

As we were sitting in the cockpit, Phoenix stopped by in their dinghy. They had three local men with them. They introduced Kurt, Chief Luke's right hand man, and explained that Kurt was taking care of our arrangements. When they were heading off to the next boat, which had just arrived, Chief Sham and Kurt started yelling at each other. At this point, we really wanted Chief Sham and his relatives to leave, but it started raining, and they didn't want to head off in the rain. Sten started putting the sailcover back on while I stayed in the cockpit to make sure that our binoculars, dive light, headlamps or any of the other stuff sitting out in plain sight didn't walk away. Finally, the rain let up, and our guests left.

It was an unpleasant encounter, but all in all, we can't blame Chief Sham for trying to make a buck. Why should Chief Luke's family get all the wealth (land diving fees, t-shirts, hats, batteries, cigarettes, etc.) that yachties bring to the island? Chief Sham is just trying to get a bit of the action for himself and his family.

The pictures below are a series of shots of the highest and last jump of the day. The side view shots are ours. The fantastic front view shots were taken by Jim on Ruby Slippers.

(I have serious camera envy)

On a technical note - Our last night on Epi, our Spectra watermaker started making a terrible noise. We shut it down immediately. While Sten tore apart the settee to look at the pump, I dove overboard to make sure nothing was blocking the intake port. Over the past few days, while the level of water in our tank has slowly dropped, Sten has been trouble shooting the system. This morning, he and Giff spent a while brainstorming about both of our watermakers. Lucky for us, Phoenix has the exact same watermaker that we do. Even luckier, they happened to have a spare pump head, which they very generously offered to give to us. Best of all, that's what failed on our system (on an even more technical note, the pump failed after 507 hrs and it appears, after disassembling the pump, that the pump head drive magnet was no longer fixed to the pump shaft; basically, the motor was running but the drive magnet was just rotating on the shaft, without the pump actually turning). Sten swapped out our old pump head for Phoenix's and we're making water again. It is such a relief to have an unlimited supply of water again.

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