Thursday, August 31, 2006

Earth Shaking Tanna

Current Location: Port Vila, Vanuatu
Current Position: 17 44.72 S 168 18.67 E
Next Destination: Ambrym or Malekula, Vanuatu

Since our last BLOG we made yet another attempt to sail Billabong down to Tanna in hopes of attending the Nekowiar festival. This time we tried for a "calm", willing to motor the whole way if need be. But winds & swell were higher than expected and we once again had to turn back. Luckily Island Sonata, with two engines, was able to continue to motor-sail and made it to Tanna. With the Nekowiar date still iffy we decided to just go for it, and booked flights for the 18th, planning to stay aboard IS and potentially sail back with them after the festival.

We lucked out, as the festival finally did start, on Monday the 21st ... and what a time it was. The chant-like singing, foot pounding dancing, and continuous hand clapping shook the earth below us. It was a three day festival, filled with more energy then we could've every imagined.

After the festival we sailed (on IS) around to Port Resolution, where we hiked up to the rim of Mt Yasur, Tanna's very active volcano. Again we found ourselves standing on shaking ground as one eruption after another left is in utter awe. It was a life threatening experience as a flying lava rock shot out of the volcano, landing barely 17 feet from where we stood (or ran in some cases)! We are still high from the adrenaline rush.

Both the Nekowiar and Mt Yasur were too amazing to describe shortly (here in this BLOG), therefore we our planning a full web update soon with pics and all ( -- so check there in about a week or so (our apologies in advance if it takes us longer).

We are now back in Port Vila (having sailed back with IS). After the weekend we plan to sail to one or more of the islands just North of Efate.
Continue reading "Earth Shaking Tanna"...

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Aniwa & Erromango

Aniwa & Erromango (8/27 - 8/30)

We had a fast sail (still aboard Island Sonata) from Port Resolution to Aniwa.  In the guides Aniwa is only listed as a day anchorage, but with the winds predicted to lighten and from a direction that left the anchorage well protected, we decided to stay there overnight.  It was a tight squeeze, and John had to get in the water to find a good spot to drop the anchor.  Just shortly after anchoring, a number of men appeared on the beach, calling and waving to us.  John and Chris took the dinghy in to see them.  Apparently they wanted money for us to anchor.  Now here is where things get difficult and confusing for us.  According to the government, as posted in the custom offices, locals should not receive (or ask for) any money from yachts for anchoring.  But there is government law and then there is Kustom (or local) law.  And according to these men, we needed to pay 1,000 vatu per person, per night, plus 1,000 for the boat.  That would be about $50 US per night, just to anchor!  John told them that when he checked in with customs in Luganville, he had been told not to pay any anchoring fees, but still the men said it was required.  John and Chris didn't have any money on them, so the spokesman said he would return tomorrow to collect the fees.  We had arrived in Aniwa around 4pm and had planned on leaving the following morning.  We weren't going ashore or even snorkeling. With that and with the conflicting rules of the government, we decided to go ahead and leave early in the morning without paying, trying to avoid any conflicts or potential scams.

We left around 5 a.m., heading to Dillian's Bay on the west side of Erromango.  We had planned for a long day sail, but with higher winds, we seemed to fly along, and arrived by one in the afternoon!  We were also pleased to catch a Mahi Mahi along the way.

A local, David, stopped by in is canoe to welcome us and invite us ashore.  The following day we went in to say hello and David, after introducing us to his son and showing us their plant nursery,  offered to give us a tour.  We were specifically looking for a rock that supposedly had the outline of a killed missionary, John Williams, etched into it.  Williams, along with his companion, was killed and eaten in 1839.  David said he knew were it was.  After a beautiful walk through the village, down to the river, across the river, and half-way up a small rocky hill, we came upon the memorial plaque set into a stone, dedicated to Williams.  We explained to David that, while the walk was great, this was not the stone we were looking for ... we were looking for the one with the etching of Williams.  Ah, yes, no problem, he told us.  So we returned to the village, walking along the river and meeting the locals on the way.  We all piled into the dinghy, then crossed the opening of the river, and walked a short distance up the other side, into a cemetery.  Here was the gravestone for Williams.  We tried again to explain what we were looking for, but with no luck ... and honestly we were only interested because Lonely Planet pointed it out.  It had been a beautiful day and a terrific tour, so we left it at that and returned to the boat.  Later, just before sunset, David came out to say goodbye (we had told him we were leaving the next morning), bringing us fruits from his garden.  We again thanked him for his friendliness and hospitality, giving him a few parting gifts as well.

It was a full day sail back to Port Vila ... 4 a.m. to 4 p.m.  We were happy to be back, and anxious to see how Billabong had fared over the last twelve days without us.  All was well, and everything just as we'd left it.  That night the four of us went out for hamburgers and fries, celebrating our great time in Tanna, and the fact that we could all live together for nearly two weeks (on a boat no-less) and still come away friends!!!
Continue reading "Aniwa & Erromango"...

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Port Resolution & Mt. Yasur

Tanna, Vanuatu
August 24 - 29, 2006

We sailed around from the Evergreen mooring balls to Port Resolution on a beautifully clear day.  We were against the wind and the seas were a bit uncomfortable, but Port Resolution was a must, as it provided easy access to Tanna's active volcano, Mt Yasur.  It didn't take long before we spotted plumes of smoke emerging from the volcano's crater.  It was easy to spot the big blows from the huge amounts of smoke that drifted upwards.  We had heard that many people hear the rumblings and/or see the glow from Mt Yasur even in Port Resolution, but that first night we didn't see or hear anything.

We decided to hike from Port Resolution to Mt Yasur and arranged for a truck ride back.  We had heard that the trucks tended to get up there a bit late and we wanted plenty of time to explore and take photos (optimally you want to arrive during late afternoon and stay until after dark so that you witness the volcano in both the day and night).  Plus it just feels more 'proper' to hike up a volcano than to be driven!  We were told it would take us about 2-1/2 to 3 hours, and that most of the walk was pretty easy, with just the last 20 minutes or so being difficult.  If one drives (four wheel drive being necessary), you can get right up to the base of the volcano, which then leaves you with an easy 5-10 minute walk up to the rim.  The walk was mostly uneventful, although attractive, as we eased our way along a dirt road surrounded by lush green flora.  Along the way we stopped near Shark's Bay to view a bungalow being built high up in a Banyan tree.  About half way to the volcano we heard our first rumble; it was a low deep growl that raised goose bumps of excitement on my skin ... I couldn't wait to see what came with that rumble!  While I was excited at the chance to see an active volcano, I have to admit I was preparing myself to be disappointed.  We had heard SO many glowing reports about the volcano, I figured there was no way it could live up to my extra high expectations.  And while we had read about the dangers (including the three deaths to date), both in the guidebooks and on a few signs prior to entering the volcano's territory, I truly was thinking Just how dangerous could it be if  thousands of tourist visit it each year?  How naive I was on both accounts, our adventure on top of Mt Yasur turned out to be an adrenaline junkies dream; both life threatening and gripping.  In addition, its power and brilliant light show easily exceeded my expectations.

By the time we entered the road that led up to Mt Yasur, its grumbling had turned to roaring and provided consistent background noise.  Our anticipation was ever increasing.  After already walking a good 2-1/2 hours the steep and rocky incline up proved difficult and took us about 45 minutes.  Every time the road turned I would anxiously peer around hopeful that at any minute Mt Yasur would come into view.  At last a barren ash covered field spotted with old lava rocks lay before me.  And now we could easily see the plumes of smoke that accompanied each roar.  Steam escaped from a number of vents and we could feel the warmth through the red and grey ashy dirt.

Just before heading up to the rim, we stopped at the "Volcano Post".  The world's only post station on an active volcano!  Okay, a bit cheesy in the tourist department, but how could we resist mailing a few post cards (unfortunately we had forgotten our address book when we flew out to Tanna, so our mailing list was a bit short).  We didn't stay long, as we could now see the lava debris shooting skywards from within the volcano's crater, and like kids in a toy store, we had to see it NOW!  I almost felt as though if we didn't get up there right away, then at that very moment Mt Yasur would go dormant and we would miss our one and only chance!

None of us were prepared for just how loud and heart-stopping the BANG of the eruptions would be; every time at least one, if not all, of us jumped.  We rushed up to the edge of the volcano and peered down into a huge crater, where existed yet another crater, where all the action was occurring.  At first we joked about not being close enough, but it didn't take long before we realized that we were plenty close after all.  We were so amazed and stunned not only by the noise, but also the huge amount of debris that was flying out of the inner crater's mouth that we hadn't even managed to get out our camera gear.  Chris & John (boys being boys) were harassing each other about their skittish jumps each time the volcano went off.  KABAM!!! And Chris jumped back has John laughed and just as John was antagonizing him KABANG, another huge blast sent John jumping back and Chris laughing.  The four of us stood looking into the crater, still goggling over the smoke, lava rock, and noise that emerged from the volcano when grrrRRRRR KaaAAABAAAM.  And with that huge blast it went something like this among the four of us:

Wow look at that!    
That one's huge ... oh my.    
Oh my GOD it's coming this way.    

The four of us split into a mad frenzied confusion.  Okay some kept their heads;  John stood still and looked up tracking the huge lava ball that was now heading right for us.  Chris moved, but still looked upwards, ensuring he was moving away from the potential landing spot of the magma rock.

MJ and I were a little less successful with our survival instincts.  MJ went into such a panic that both laughing and running she peed her pants.  Afterwards she couldn't remember if she had looked up or not.  I, in one of my less intelligent moments, just plain out ran ... laughing, screaming, and shouting Where do I go? Where do I go? over and over.  I didn't run very far, because in my panicked state I seemed to only be able to go left and right, as if dodging bullets.  With each frantic turn came the only thought able to cross my silly mind Where do I go? (to which no one ever did answer!!!)

KAPLOP! The large piece of magma thundered to the ground ... having traveled just over our heads, and landing less than 15 feet from where we had all been standing barely moments before!  Full of adrenaline and still just a bit overwhelmed with a range of emotions from shock and panic to giddiness, we all turned to stare at this foreign object that had just hurled itself towards us.  It was as if we were looking at an alien; staring wide-eyed and not daring to approach.  Of course the cameras came out immediately, it was a must that we get pictures of "our lava rock", but it still took a minute or two for the shock to subside enough for any of us to actually go near the rock.  Once we had gained our wits we continued to laugh in amazement (and a bit of relief), and as the initial shock waned, Chris and John got to poking and playing with the over-heated piece of magma.  Flames immediately emerged when Chris pushed a stick into the soft brightly glowing rock.  He created a 'coconut face' by poking three holes into the lava rock, all of which fire spewed out of.

We had arrived on the rim alone, but now a few tourist were showing up, and we excitedly told them our story and showed them "our" lava rock.  We also decided that perhaps we weren't standing in the best spot and moved a bit over on the rim, to what we hoped was a safer location.  Both MJ and I were also lectured on the appropriate lava avoidance procedure (basically look up and wait to see where the debris is going to fall before moving --- do not just run blindly!).  I guess it wasn't one of those facts of life we needed to learn growing up!  Still, with each ear-splitting eruption it took huge amounts of will power to not turn and run.  More than once I felt my head attempt to recede much like a turtle's into his shell, and after the 'our lava rock experience' my knees continued to tremor, right up until we were sitting back in the car park.  I was scared, enthralled, overjoyed, and overwhelmed.  I couldn't stop laughing, smiling, or shaking!  It is no wonder that volcanoes are held as magical, spiritual places among natives.  It is yet another example of just how powerful nature is and how much respect mother earth deserves.

As the sun set the show only became more spectacular.  With the fading light, the magma that shot from within the crater now glowed a glorious red.  It was the most brilliant fireworks display I've ever seen.  Although Lonely Planet mentioned three erupting sections within the volcanic crater, we could only distinguish between two of them.  One seemed to growl and moan before ejecting a small amount of magma with an earth shattering bang that sent everyone shrinking back from the rim ... it made up in noise what it lacked in display.  The other ejected tremendous amounts of glowing magma high into the air, with a large amount landing on the inside of the outer crater (just below the rim where we stood).  Both let forth huge amounts of smoke; sometimes brown and dense, other times light and grayish, and often accompanied by an intense sulphurous odor.

While I could've stood in awe and watched the show all night, it was also a bit stressful ... I was never relaxed, my heart rate was up, and with each loud explosion I'm sure I gained a few new white hairs.  More often than not the BAMs and BANGs of the eruptions would shake the ground beneath us, reminding us of just how much force was used in expelling the large amounts of magma from within.

Periodically Chris went to check on "our" lava rock, reporting back over and over that yes, it was indeed still wicked hot!  Heat be damned, he and John still managed to break off a chunk ... now there's a souvenir!

Finally, around 6:30pm we made our way down to the car park.  Our ride was late so we sat in the back of another truck waiting, and watching the glow and intermittent explosions from above.  We finally were calm enough to eat a snack (how silly to think we'd be able to 'picnic' up on the rim!).  We still talked continuously about our experience and the amazing power of the volcano, chatting away as if we hadn't all been up there together!  Just as we were getting ready to leave a huge earth shattering burst sent a brilliant display of red magma into the air, catapulting a gigantic piece way beyond the rim, where we could easily see its glow even from the car park!

Earlier we had learned that the current activity level of the volcano was classified as a "2".  During levels 1 and 2 tourist are allowed up to the rim.  At level 3 you are only allowed up to the car park (at the base of the volcano), and at levels 4 & 5 you are not allowed up the road at all.  As we drove away, viewing the pulsing red piece of magma we all laughed at the idea of visiting an active volcano (at any level) in the States ... as if!  Here there were no rules, no security or guides directing you, no rails to retain you, you are truly at your own risk!  Between safety paranoia and law suits, such an attraction would never be 'allowed' in America.

Much like the hike up, the truck ride was an adventure in its own.  First our ride never showed, but luckily another truck had a bit of room to spare.  The truck struggled down, dropping into huge crater-like potholes on the tight, narrow dirt path (road is really too strong of a word for what we traveled over).  Once on the slightly larger road, our speed increased throwing back huge puffs of dust and bouncing us all over the wooden benches of the open pickup.  Once again we were covered in dirt and dust and exhausted from an extremely great time!  After a cold beer at the Port Resolution Yacht Club (to toast our survival of flying lava), we took the dinghy back to Island Sonata, this night we could clearly see a splendid red glow emerging from just over the trees.

Back on Island Sonata the adrenaline still coursed through us and we endlessly chattered away as we reviewed our photographs and video.  It was easy to laugh and joke since "our" lava rock missed us all, but it was daunting to think of just how dangerous it was up there!  And we had to laugh at the group we rode back with, as they all wore hard hats, as if that would help at all if hit by flying lava.  If the force of the flying rock alone didn't kill you, it would only be a matter of seconds before the extreme heat vaporized both the hard hat and ... well no need to get gross, you get the point.

As I attempted to drift off to sleep that night I was continuously awakened by the sound (in my dream) of Mt Yasur erupting, and my brain telling me to look up look up, don't close your eyes or it'll land on you!  I would open my eyes to discover all was safe as I was in bed and sleeping was okay, but no matter how much I tried to relax into sleep, it took hours to finally let go.  Still the next morning I would've gone back in a heart beat if we'd had the time!
Continue reading "Port Resolution & Mt. Yasur"...

Friday, August 25, 2006

Vanuatu Volcano Video

We almost got hit by a lava ball!  Mt Yasur active volcano tour (where a huge lava ball landed just feet away from us!) Mt Yasur is located on Tanna Island in Vanuatu

You Tube Video

Continue reading "Vanuatu Volcano Video"...

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Evergreen, Middle Bush & The Nekowiar Festival

Tanna, Vanuatu
August 18 - 23, 2006

We came very close to giving up on Tanna's Nekowiar festival.  First we couldn't nail down the date, as it is typically not announced until just a few days prior.  We spent quite a few hours scouring the town of Port Vila, checking in with the National Tourism Office and two tourist centers.  It seemed that every time we checked, the date had been changed; first the 12th or 15th, then the 18th or 19th, than not until the 20th or 23rd. UGH ... it was a planning nightmare.  The ever changing date wouldn't have been so bad if we didn't need a good weather window to get down to Tanna, after all if our boat was there we could just hang around until it started.  But a good weather window was our second problem, as the strong trade winds continued to blow; directly from the direction we needed to sail!

We did attempt twice to sail Billabong there, the first time the winds started to clock around faster than we expected and we were worried we'd be caught half-way there with 25 knots on the nose.  The second time we had succumbed to motoring the whole way if need be, but the wind and swell were both higher than predicted and we couldn't motor/sail fast enough to reach Tanna before the weather window 'closed'.  Our friends, MJ & John aboard Island Sonata were able to motor-sail during the second attempt, largely due to their two engines (sometimes catamarans have their advantages!).  Once in Tanna, they attempted to get first hand scoop in hopes that we could still join them.  Around the 14th, with the date still in flux and flights filling up fast, we just picked a date we hoped would be close enough based on all the information we had.  At this point I was beginning to wonder if this festival could truly be worth all this trouble.

On Friday the 18th we flew from Port Vila, Efate to Lenakel, Tanna.  It was the one of the smallest planes I've ever been in and, as with the other small islands we've visited, we found the casual atmosphere of the airport entertaining.  There are times when I wonder just what the heck am I doing traveling via sailboat;  the air-ride to Tanna took less than 45 minutes, via Billabong it would've been more than 24 hours!  As we made the rocky approach to the airport we spotted Island Sonata moored just outside Evergreen Bungalows with MJ and John goofily waving from their hard top.  That evening we had dinner at the Bungalows, followed by an attempt to see visit the Jon Frum Village for their Friday night singing and dancing ... unfortunately the 'band leader' was absent so, as we later termed it, "there'd be no Fruming tonight!" The Jon Frum Movement is a home-grown religion formed of a resistance to the rigid rules of the [Presbyterian] Church.  It is a hybrid of Christianity and traditional beliefs, with cargo (wealth) being a secondary belief/goal.  They believe a mysterious man called Jon Frum who, it is claimed, was the brother of the god of Mt Tukosmera, and is from the USA, will someday return, bringing with him endless wealth to his followers.  The 'rumors' begun back in 1936, when it was said that Jon Frum had come from the sea and announced himself to some kava drinkers, telling them there would be an abundance of wealth and no more epidemics.  Our favorite quote is from the Lonely Planet guidebook:  When asked when Jon Frum will come, one 'Frum'er' replied, "How long have Christians waited?  Nearly 2000 years, yet we've waited only 65!"  We had thought it would be fun to visit a Frum village with Island Sonata, because Chris was dying to say, "This is John, from .... " ha ha!

The date of the festival had finally been firmed up, and our timing was perfect, the festival would start on Monday the 21st, concluding on the 23rd.  While the date was solid the rest of the details were flaky at best, we continued to get different stories on what to expect and when various dances would take place.  The Nekowiar is sometimes more commonly referred to as the Toka, but really the Toka dance is just one dance of many that takes place during the three day festival.  The festival only occurs every three to four years, with the last Nekowiar occurring in 2003.  Originally this event celebrated the end of tribal wars, but nowadays it is a symbol of alliance and friendship between neighboring villages.  Multiple villages attend, each trying to outdo each other with the quantity and quality of gifts, make-up and decorations, and the skill of their dancing.  It is also a way of deepening the gene pool, as the ceremony often results in marriages between different clans.  The festival is known for its rowdy and sexual nature.  Beginning the second night with the women's dance and continuing until the next morning, anything goes, as the Ni-Vans believe that their sins will be washed away with the pig's blood the following day.  What we heard was that a man could have sex with any women "captured", and who was willing (including in some cases married women)! The preparation for the  Nekowiar can take up to a year; gathering pigs, yams and kava as well as practicing the various dances.  This year the festival was being held in Middle Bush, a secluded high up village, a bumpy 30 minute truck ride from Lenakel.

We arranged transportation and entrance through Sam at Evergreen Bungalows.  Sam and his wife, Marian, were instrumental in helping us understand the festival and arranging our attendance.  We set out early Monday morning, and were accompanied by Sam's father, Chief Tom.  Chief Tom was a great guide as he seemed to know just about everyone at the festival.  The truck ride was jolting, but the lush, dense green surroundings that increased as we traveled higher and the sharp cliff drop-off were breathtaking.  We arrived to women's chant-like singing, thunderous clapping, and earth shaking foot stomping.  We could easily hear the festival before we could see it.  At the "entrance" five men in traditional ni-Van clothing (penis sheaths, aka nambas, such as pictured right) greeted us.  Things were a bit confusing at first as the men led us to a pig pen for viewing.  We were told we could buy one if we wanted (not to keep, but rather it would than be given back to the village/festival).  When we opted against pig purchasing the men seemed rather disappointed until Chief Tom talked to yet another Ni-Van, showing him our receipts for paid entrance via Evergreen.  What we later learned was the typical entrance fee is a pig, as most of the villagers have little use for paper money.  We were relieved when the men seemed satisfied, as we were well outnumbered and the ni-Vans in their traditional gear were a bit intimidating!

The energy that surged from the dancers on the dirt field was amazing.  Had we not stayed for the entire festival I would've never guessed that it could actually be increased.  The Napen-Napen, the women's' dance which represents their various trials and turmoil, was already going in full force.  Eight large groups of women consisting of all ages, stomped, sang, clapped, and skipped with such force that the earth and air vibrated around us.  They were clad in traditional grass skirts, some with added color of reds, yellows, blues, and greens.  Their faces were painted in the same bright colors, in what is sometimes known as 'beauty magic', and their heads were donned with feathers and colorful wreaths.  The groups were further identified as Pagans and Christians.  The so-called Pagans were more traditionally dressed in that many were topless or wearing woven bra-like tops, while the Christians wore flowered sarong-like tops that provided complete coverage.  Some of the women in the 'Pagan' groups had tied woven pandanus leaves around their breasts in a belt like fashion.  This was puzzling until we noticed that those without the 'belt' (or a bra) were practically injuring themselves from the extreme bouncing that occurred ... their breasts slapped down with such force that we could hear the 'clapping' even up in the platform!

 People crowded around the dances, watching and in some cases teasing.  Apparently it is customary for the men to taunt and mimic the women, trying to throw them off ... however it is extremely tabu to touch a women or her grass skirt, and 'security' men walked around with long sticks 'guarding' the women and ushering the crowds.  Two platforms had also been built, which allowed for a good view over the majority of the field, where I truly got a sense of just how energetic and big the festival was.  Their swishing skirts stirred up endless amounts of dust that at first seemed to add to the atmosphere, but later became overwhelming.

What we learned that first day was that the 'real' festival did not begin until the following evening.  The Napen-Napen would once again begin Tuesday evening and continue through the night until the Toka dance started at dawn on Wednesday morning.  The Monday Napen-Napen, and the morning/afternoon dances on Tuesday where more like a rehearsal ... but one would never know as they walked amongst the dancers, feeling their vitality.  While we knew we'd see some of the dances again, seeing them now (and those on Tuesday) was a great opportunity,  as the crowds and hormones would only increase beginning Tuesday night, making it nearly impossible to easily (and safely) walk about.

The women danced for nearly seven hours straight, and never did they seem to slack off.  Around noon we retreated to a covered area and joined the locals eating lunch.  We were the center of attention as children and adults stared and smiled at us.  We were given peanuts and bananas and in turn handed out pretzels which usually got a good look over before popped into the children's mouth.  By the time our ride came to pick us up, we were covered in dust and our heads were still pounding to the Napen-Napen rhythm.

Back on Island Sonata we cleaned up and prepared for the next two days of festivities.  As a huge portion of the Nekowiar occurs from late evening, throughout the night, and into dawn, we had decided to camp up in Middle Bush ... we didn't want to miss a thing!  It would make for interesting camping, as Chris and I were not able to bring our tent due to the flight weight restrictions, and IS only owned a three man tent!!!

We departed early again, to allow us ample time to setup before any dancing started.  Evergreen had arranged a place for us to set up, and in typical islander fashion one of the villagers (Esmil) took us under his wing, both guiding us and watching out for our tent.  About 15 children gathered to watch us erect the tent.  Chris brought out huge smiles when he started juggling rocks.  Instantly we knew we'd made the right decision by camping, because now we were much more "one of them" and welcomed with open arms.  Esmil walked us around the village and various camp sites, where we saw the gigantic mounds of green kava ready to be given as well as the huge pigs awaiting their unfortunate future.  Women sat around making huge piles of lap-lap, the local ni-Van dish consisting of mashed yam, coconut and sometimes a bit of meat wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in the earth.  We also got to see some of the boys preparing for the upcoming Nao dance (pronounced 'now'), as they sat patiently while their mothers applied paint to their faces and adjusted their head feathers.

 The Nao dance (again a type of rehearsal for what would come), was brilliant.  The Nao is performed by the men and boys of the hosting village.  Dressed in nambas or grass skirts, and carrying bamboo sticks tied together for their noise-making effects, this custom dance made me feel as though I had truly traveled back in time.  It was at this point that I knew, without a doubt, the Nekowiar was worth all the frustration it took to get there.  A few groups of women stood jumping and waving the traditional ceremony leaves as the men sang and danced.  I felt lucky to be watching something so native, traditional and raw.

 After the Nao, Esmil escorted us down the road a few kilometers to where two Toka performances would take place (again rehearsals for the next morning).  The dancing was a bit delayed as some of the men were away at a circumcision ceremony, but it gave us an opportunity to sit among the Toka men as they prepared their make-up and outfits for the dance.  With brightly colored faces, sarongs, and tinsel-type decorations, the men and children were a stunning sight.  While we waited, Chris again entertained some children with his juggling, and we got them playing a rock game we had learned in Fiji.  The kids laughed and elbowed each other as Chris clumsily juggled three rocks.  Chris would hold out the rocks and say "now you" as the kids stepped back and giggled.  A few did make an attempt, but after bursting into laughter at their failure, would quickly thrust the rocks back at Chris.  We never would've guessed that the simple act of juggling would turn out to be a great ice-breaker and provide such fun interaction!

 Finally the dancing began, with more foot pounding and singing.  In the Toka the men & boys carry hook-like sticks, with white painted tips meant to represent the pigs tusks (which is a sign of chiefdom and wealth).  In this dance, as with the Nao, different trials and tributes are acted/danced out by individuals, while the group continues to pound, hop and sing.  We couldn't following the meaning of most of them, until the second Toka dance, when Marian (from Evergreen) explained their meanings; they included everything from war and gardening, to breast feeding and kava drinking.  Many of the individual dances drew huge cries of laughter and shouting from the crowd.  The dance was powerful and again filled with an abundance of energy.  The men were foot-stomping so hard that small divots quickly turned to holes!  It was easy to imagine how scary it must've been during times of war ... 50 chanting, face painted, foot stomping men easily sounded like thousands.  Again women jumped about on the sidelines, completing the picture.  There was so much in these dances to not understand, but still they were brilliant to watch.  After each 'enactment' some type of gift of treat would be thrown out and some of the crowd, especially the children, would quickly scramble after the candy or other treat.  By shear luck a piece of cloth was thrown nearby, and we managed to snag it; a great souvenir of the Nekowiar.

We walked back to camp in the waning light of sunset, excited for what would come.  This was the big night, when the crowd and dancers would supposedly get 'crazy' and when sins would begin.  More than once we had heard that during the Napen-Napen the men would try to circle and separate a woman and then begin throwing her in the air, during which time she would be groped and fondled.  We had even heard that tourist women should be careful as they were fair game as well!  We had been warned to stay well back and it was suggested watching from the platforms would be best ... safer than trying to walk about within the crowds.  After dinner we staked out a good viewing spot on one of the platforms and waited for the action, as with the rest of the Nekowiar, the starting time was a bit vague.

Around 6:30pm a group of men came up the road into the dancing field.  They were carrying sticks with pieces of fruit and leaves tied at the tops.  Most of the men were dressed in 'western' clothing; t-shirts  and shorts, but other men and women still wore their traditional clothing, giving a weird sense of past and present colliding.  The men walked around the field in a large group, singing and then bursting into a skip-like run as the chanting increased into fevered yelling.  When they would pass just under our platform we could feel the structure shake and the temperature easily increased fifteen degrees from the group's body heat.  They would look up and thrust their sticks upwards as they chant-sang something that sounded a bit like "Reese's Pieces" to us.  They were 'paving the way' for the women to dance.  This went on for two hours, and in truth got a little tiring.  Additional groups of men continued to join the first group, until the field was so full that we wondered how the women would fit.  We joked that for men waiting to 'get it on' with the women they were sure taking their sweet time; after all the sooner the Napen-Napen began, the sooner the sinning could get started!

Just after 8pm one of the women's groups came out and began their dance.  Within the hour the remaining groups also came out, and now the field was jammed full, filled with electric energy and life.  Between the men & women dancing and those watching, well over 3,000 people now participated in the festival!  While the dances were the same as we'd seen on Monday, the increased crowd of men that surrounded the women, and the nighttime atmosphere gave an entirely different ambience then the previous day.  The men continued to also chant and run around in what appeared as a mad frenzy, weaving through the dancing groups.  What was amazing was that as chaotic as it seemed there was an unspoken order.  The men never trampled into the women, nor did anyone getting bumped or pushed along ever get angry, they just went happily along with the flow.  While we hadn't yet seen any women circled or thrown up, we did notice that when a women of a certain age entered or left the field one of the 'guards' escorted her across.  Again, it was a weird sensation to look into the crowd, some wearing westernized clothing, while others completely in traditional gear.  I think the funniest sight was of a man walking past wearing a fleece sweatshirt and a penis sheath! And to think that many of those in the traditional garb weren't just 'dressing up' for the festival, as nambas and bare breasts are still quite common in  Kastom (custom) villages.

We stayed until about 11:30pm, at which time the brisk night began to wear on us, and the warmth of our sleeping bags was desired. We carefully made our way back to the tent, which just happened to be positioned shortly down the road, right in line with where many of the men and women ran down in their manic dancing ... periodically a group would come hurtling down the path, right past our tent. The ground would shake and the noise level would increase ten-fold!  The tent was a tight squeeze and beyond loud, so sleeping wasn't expected, but the warmth was appreciated.  It felt good to be laying in such a remote village with the intense pounding and singing, realizing I was experiencing a quite real part of Vanuatu!

Around 2am, John, a bit too tall to be stuffed into the tent with three others, got up for a walk around. When he returned he reported that it was still going full force (which we could tell purely by the noise level) and that he hadn't seen any women totally circled or thrown into the air (I was still hoping to catch sight of that one).  We did manage to snooze a little, with chanting flowing through our dreams.    Many carried a torch, and the images silhouetted across the tent were eerie.  At one point I saw a man, with a low hanging grass penis covering carrying a hook-shaped Toka stick projected on the tent ... it was an image, that had I been in a different time, would have been quite frightening!

Just before 4am I began to hear a distant blow of a conch shell.  We had been told that the conch shell horn would mark the beginning of the Toka.  It seemed too early and the sound was still quite a ways down the road, so I didn't yet wake anyone.  Right around 4:20 I was getting anxious, the conch shell blow seemed to be getting louder.  Afraid of missing something, I woke Chris and asked him if he'd get up with me (I didn't want to risk venturing out alone).  Just as we were getting ready, the conch shell blew again ... right outside our tent, waking John & MJ as well.  Oh no, the Toka is going to start!  We all quickly donned our jackets and shoes and rushed out of the tent.

It was amazing to see that the dancing and crowds had not waned a bit.  Now however the women's groups were not as separated, and women and men ran back and forth together, skipping, pounding and chant-singing.  I never truly believed they would dance with such force trough the ENTIRE night, but sure enough they had!  As for the 'sinning', we never did see a women trapped or thrown!

 The Toka men were gathered just outside the arena, awaiting their entrance.  With so many watching and participating, finding a good viewing spot was nearly impossible; I ended up balancing part way up a tree (anything for a good photo, right?).  The conch blew again and the dancing men and women moved to the sidelines as the first Toka group entered, carrying the "kerriya" pole; a sacred pole covered in various colored hawk and chicken feathers.  The Toka dance was once again outstanding, and more moving as the light of dawn approached.

The first Toka was followed by the second Toka group, which was then followed by the Nasal dance.  A men's dance, using sticks which they tap together creating a fantastic beat, especially when accompanied by the never ending foot stomping.

The next men's dance was the Kososiwa, where men carried sword shaped pieces of wood.  The fourth men's dance was the Nao, performed by the hosting village (a repeat of what we had seen on Tuesday).  Each dance included enactments of the ni-Van's life, and the throwing of treats and gifts into the crowd.  At the beginning of each dance the men emerged carrying one or more Nalo poles (the sacred pole covered in feathers).  The pole would be dug into the ground and later carried out at the end of the dance.  As with the previous days, the women stood in groups on the side lines, dancing and jumping in the men's rhythm.  We were especially entertained by the children.  Impressed that the traditional dances were being passed along, and at such a young age.  These little boys were beyond cute in their nambas, jumping around and staring into our cameras.  We also couldn't help but notice just how fit the men were ... after all they were practically naked!  With these earth-shaking dances any ounce of fat would've easily jiggled, but there was none.  It really emphasized the physical nature of village life.  Unfortunately being fit wasn't enough to prevent a few stomping injuries; we saw more than one man wobble to the back of the field, having pounded so hard he'd hurt himself!

Every time a particular group completed their set of dances, the majority of the entire audience, which included the men and women from the previous night, and with each progressing group the members of the previous performance, would "go crazy" (as one native put it to me).  They would skip-run back and forth across the field, clapping and thrusting their sticks, props, or instruments into the air, chant-singing at the top of their lungs.  Lizzie, from Evergreen, got both MJ and I to "go crazy" with the crowd.  As I skipped back in forth with the massive group of people, it was impossible to not smile and laugh; the energy was intoxicating.  The dust stirred up both in the dancing and these 'crazy' times was suffocating, and the men (and women) were covered with a deep layer of dirt.  Many times we saw men (and the women earlier) gagging and spitting as they inhaled massive amounts of dust ... but it didn't seem to slow them down much!  At this point we were quite sure that our own lungs were coated with a thick layer of brown!

Around noon, the main dancing ended and people retreated to their camps to eat and prepare their gifts.  We too found an out of way place (with no dust) to relax and eat.  A little after one we returned to sit along the field and watch in mystery as piles of lap-lap were produced.  One pile ended up just in front of where we sat and a nearby man said to me, "Please, you can now remove your lap-lap".   My lap-lap??? I thought he was joking.  After much talking, and translating with the help of a women sitting next me we learned that this lap-lap was indeed being given to us, as they were feeding all who attended the festival.  I tried to explain it was way more than we could ever eat (especially since I wasn't that fond of it), but he said it didn't matter, we must take it anyway.  We ate a few bites and managed to find others to give the remaining huge mound to (such as the National Geographic and Discovery Channel camera crews that were there filming).  We just hoped this didn't mean they'd be giving us a pig too!!!

Now that the dancing was over, it was nice to sit back and relax ... watching the locals as they too relaxed, and the children as they took up their native games.  Chris happened upon one group of kids who were capturing moths, attaching bits of string or pandanus leaves to them and then walking ('er flying) them around like pets!  Chris even joined in on the fun, helping the kids tie moth-holding knots!!

As we waited for the gift giving ceremony to begin, it dawned on me that I was surrounded by nearly naked people, and no longer thought it odd!  We had seen more than one women carrying a child, who happily suckled away at its mother's bare breast, while she idly went about her business.  I imagined what the first "civilized" people who arrived to Vanuatu must have thought (assuming they weren't killed and eaten before forming that thought).  I think of myself as pretty liberal person, and still I couldn't help but stare when we had first arrived.  Imagine the shock of a person from a supremely religious background used to ultra-conservative dress!!!

 At two, the gift offerings began.  Each village entered, singing and dancing and carrying huge mounds of green kava and gigantic pigs upon their shoulders.  These gifts were off-loaded to the ground, where the merciless clubbing of the pigs took place.  It only took a few to know I didn't need to see another pig-killing for quite some time!  After about ten pigs (each village continued to emerge with more and more kava and pigs), our ride back had arrived -- and we figured we'd seen enough.  In total we had been told they would kill 100 pigs this festival!  Women continued to dance, skip and sing about the field, often times skipping right over a pool of blood without a second glance.  It was just another reminder of how different my background was from the ni-Van culture (I could barely look at the poor dead pig, let alone dance near it!).

We returned to pack up our tent, again watched closely by smiling children.  We said our goodbyes and crammed into the truck that would return us to Evergreen.  I'm not sure I have ever been that dirty in my life!  I couldn't believe what we had just witnessed and was ecstatic that we had lucked out being in Vanuatu during the right year!  Chris had done a great job of 'collecting' festival souvenirs; coming away with a variety of props and dancing gear used during the various performances (including Nao and Toka sticks)!  I am so very glad that we didn't miss this once in a lifetime opportunity!
Continue reading "Evergreen, Middle Bush & The Nekowiar Festival"...

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Nekowiar Festival Video Part 2

The climax of the three day event including the Toka and a HUGE pig killing ceremony.

Journal and Photos here

Youtube video

Continue reading "Nekowiar Festival Video Part 2 "...

Monday, August 21, 2006

Nekowiar Festival Video Part 1

3000 villagers from Tanna, Vanuatu get together once every four years and dance for three days/nights straight. The energy they put into this festival was unbelievable; the ground literally shook. We even camped in the village so we didn't miss anything!!

Journal and Photos here

Youtube video

Continue reading "Nekowiar Festival Video Part 1"...

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Port Vila, Efate

8/2 - 8/17
Port Vila, Vanuatu

It is always exciting to enter a new country.  New sights, new smells, new customs and fresh faces.
There isn't a country yet that I haven't loved, but some cities seem to linger in my mind longer then others; Port Vila is one of those.  There is a certain energy to Port Vila that is hard to describe.  Vila is big enough to host a variety of stores, but not so big that you feel overwhelmed.  The people are quiet, but always friendly.  The shops, from groceries to hardware to souvenirs, are well stocked, and there is never any pressure to buy; looking is completely acceptable.  There is great food and fast internet, and while Port Vila is not cheap, it is reasonable priced.  I can really only think of two down sides to Port Vila; 1) it rains just about every day, and 2) the huge cruise ship stops there.  Okay, so I being a bit snobby that I, a white tourist, do not like be crowded by other white tourists, but really, the town becomes unbearably crowded, and the prices in the souvenir market go up whenever the ship arrives ... so surely you understand!

We spent our first two weeks in Vila exploring the shops, enjoying mounds of fresh food (and great steaks), and trying to find a weather window to get down to Tanna.  We visited the local museum which, although small, was excellent.  We especially enjoyed the guide who spent a good half hour with us, demonstrating sand drawings and describing their meanings.  Sand drawings are used to recount legends, songs and ceremonies, as well as leaving a simply message.  They are continuous, elaborate designs, and can vary from island to island.  The final drawing he showed us was an intricately drawn angel fish.  This is the drawing that they must learn, perfectly, before dying.  Once they die they travel up to the mountain on the southern tip of Pentecost where a pool of water containing an angel fish is waiting for them.  They must create this sand drawing for him, and if they do it correctly, then it is known their heart and life was pure, but if they do it incorrectly, then it is known that they are not pure, and the angel fish will eat their entrails!!!

With all the cruisers in Vila, it was also a great chance to make some new friends, and we enjoyed many sundowners.  Between the rainy days, and meeting Roxanne, who has to kids on board, we also caught up on some of our game playing!  One night we even gave Tom & Lynn (Roxanne) a 'night off', hosting their two kids for pizzas and games aboard Billabong.

During those two weeks we tried twice to get down to Tanna, both times turning back.  Our attempts, although unsuccessful, were not an entire waste; we managed to snag a 5.1 foot Wahoo during one outing.  Finally, we opted to fly out to Tanna, as they say, "Nothing goes to weather like a 747"!

Continue reading "Port Vila, Efate"...

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Fish & Festivals

Current Location: Port Vila, Vanuatu
Current Position: 17°44.72' S 168°18.67' E
Next Destination: Undecided, Vanuatu

I can honestly say there are very few larger “cities” across the Pacific that I’ve liked as much as Port Vila. Dodging the rushing traffic, which cares not about pedestrians, can increase your heart rate, but it’s a hazard we are willing to put up with in exchange for all Vila has to offer. At first it may seem as though the locals aren’t as friendly as the Fijians, but it only takes a few “Halo’s” (hello) to realize that they are extremely friendly, just a bit more reserved and mellow. I love shopping here because there is no pressure at all; they give you a warm Halo, huge smile and then let you be. They are also very willing to talk about their culture and the significance/meaning of various carvings/art works. I never feel guilty not buying, they seem happy enough just that you are admiring and complementing the work. Of course not even here a week and we’ve already accumulated a number of souvenirs!

We have spent a good amount of time trying to track down the date of Tanna’s Nekowiar. A three-day festival filled with nearly non-stop traditional dances. Its purpose is to renew alliances between neighboring villages; done so with gift giving and arranged marriages (apparently during these three days sex between willing non-married individuals is accepted and encouraged). The problem (for tourist) is that they typically do not announce the date of the festival until just 2-4 days beforehand. Not good for people trying to find a weather window! Originally we heard it was scheduled to begin the 9th or 10th, but just yesterday were updated that it is now not until either the 15th or 19th! Tanna is only about 130nm S-SE from here, however it is directly into the trade-winds, which have been blowing over 20kts since we arrived. On Sunday we (along with Island Sonata) made an attempt to sail there, hoping to catch some SW winds on the backside of a low that was passing through. Unfortunately, the low and a trough passed more quickly then predicted and the winds were already starting to clock more South. About one hour out of the bay of Vila we were debating turning back when Chris (with my help of course!) caught a huge Wahoo (5.1 feet to be exact!). So big we had no choice but to just drag him directly into the cockpit, throwing him, along with lots of blood and gooey skin remains, onto the cockpit floor – which he filled! We were thrilled, what a catch! But how the heck we were going to clean this monstrosity? Finally we all (Billabong & Island Sonata) agreed that the weather and swell sucked, so we’d turn back. Once safely back on our calm mooring ball, John (IS) and Chris attacked the giant Wahoo. We ended up with over 15 Ziploc’s bursting with fish. Some of it we were able to squeeze into Island Sonata’s small freezer, some we gave away to neighboring boats, and the rest we have been gorging ourselves on ever since (fish steaks, fish burgers, fish tacos, miso fish, fish cakes, kokoda, and more). I suggested we could probably do fish omelets, but Chris said three times a day might be just too much even for him!

Since Sunday we’ve been exploring the many stores and stalls of Vila, and hoping for sunshine. It has been 100% overcast with lots of rain and drizzle. When we aren’t shopping or eating we’ve been reading and card playing. We are still hoping to make it to Tanna for the festival, but if it begins to look impossible (due to weather or not confirming a date) we might opt to head North instead to Ambrym for their Arts Festival.

The only downside we are discovering about Vanuatu is that it appears the entire island chain has discovered tourism, and perhaps taken it a bit overboard. Apparently EVERYTHING in Vanuatu costs money. Hiking, waterfalls, snorkeling, village tours, dancing; all available for a cost. I’m fully supportive of the natives/country making money off of visitors and willing to pay for a number of activities. Want to see some dancing, sure I’ll pay for that (it is after all a performance of sorts). Tour guides for longer hikes, you betcha! But to pay to “tour” (which in this case is equivalent of walking around) a village and/or to join the children in ‘traditional’ games … this just seems a bit off. I want to join the children in games for bonding, learning and friendship. As with Naviqiri village in Fiji, I would hope that the kids would enjoy our company as much as we would enjoy there’s … and if they didn’t I would hope they would just choose to not hang out with us. The same with hanging or walking around the village, I don’t want a ‘tour’, I want to exchange stories and skills and maybe just bond a wee-bit. Wouldn’t it be just as odd if we charged locals to visit us aboard Billabong? Island Sonata told us that in one village they even wanted money for them to go to the “craft store” to view various artifacts (which were for sale and IS might have purchased)!!! Well, I suppose it is how it is, but I fear some of the villages getting a bit carried away with the charging, especially those on outer islands that receive the majority of tourists via yachts, will find less and less yachts arriving as word gets around … completely killing off a pretty good money source. Anyway, Vanuatu still feels like a great place, full of tradition and culture, and we are sure we’ll enjoy our time here … even if is costs us a few 1000 Vatu !!!

Continue reading "Fish & Festivals"...

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

A Wet Ride to Port Vila

Current Location: Port Vila, Vanuatu
Current Position: 17°44.72' S 168°18.67' E
Next Destination: Undecided, Vanuatu

When we arrived in Savusavu after our hellacious trip from the Marshall's I thoroughly washed our foul weather gear for long-term storage (cause of course we wouldn't be needing them again, right?). I couldn't believe that barely an hour out of the gate from Fiji (heading to Port Vila, Vanuatu) we were digging out the wet weather gear and settling in for a cold, wet ride. We started the trip extremely fast with 30-35 knots of wind just aft of the beam. Billabong was screaming along, averaging 7 - 7.5 knots (although we can't imagine it is correct, our GPS once reported a max speed of 17.4!). The seas were the biggest we've seen yet, around 12-15 feet, and they were bashing against Billabong hard, sending huge amounts of spray into the cockpit. It was unbelievably wet, rocky and really cold … but hey we were going fast. At our current rate we thought our four day passage would easily be shortened to three.

The first 48 hours or so we flew along under Jib alone, covering 164 nm in our first 24 hour period (Billabong's usual average is around 135nm). Then we had an period of calmer winds and predictions of less to come; it didn't look like we'd make it in before nightfall on the third day, so we'd have to slow down and aim for a morning arrival. We reefed in the jib and waited for the lighter winds … and waited. It seemed they never truly lightened up (after our first day the winds stayed right around 25 kts), but by now we were too far behind, so we just had to continue to try to slow down. Eventually we had up so little sail that I joked to Chris the only way we could get up less was to switch out the sail for some of my granny-style undies! I don't mind going slow, but with so little sail up and the still large seas it was one hell of a rolly ride and very frustrating to be bounced side to side and dropped as though riding a roller-coaster. Even with the rolly conditions Chris managed to bring in a perfect sized Mahi-mahi, although cleaning and cooking it served to be more of a challenge with the boat rocking all over the place! On the morning of our arrival, with land in sight, Chris unleashed the full Jib and it was a terrific ride in.

Another set of cruisers had briefly described Port Vila to us as "a bigger version of Savusavu" … that would be the understatement of the century. Port Vila is huge (okay, maybe not compared to LA or Boston, but still it is really quite large). It is bustling with a sense of energy. Full of shops, cafes, and markets. Traffic screams through the streets and locals & tourists wander along the sidewalks. It feels crowded, alive almost, but not in an overwhelming sense. On our arrival we met with Island Sonata and Freebird (both of whom we hadn't seen since our Majuro departure) and strolled through town before having a delightful lunch at an open-air cafĂ©. By now we'd heard of the awesome supermarket, so of course we had to pay a visit there … truly it is the largest, cleanest, most excitingly stocked grocery store we've seen in the South Pacific (not counting New Zealand of course). In our opinion it even beats the extra large store in Tahiti (it's not as large, but the variety and brands include both French and AU/NZ selections, whereas in Tahiti it was all French … in addition the pricing is a wee bit better here)! We drooled over the fresh variety of meats and got giddy over the blue cheese. We've found cruiser's heaven! That evening we again ventured out with IS and FB, this time hitting an excellent Chinese Restaurant, where we feasted until I thought I'd have to purge in order to continue to breath.

We woke this morning excited to explore all the shops and museums and begin the learning process of yet another culture and country. Chris energetically reads tidbits aloud from our Lonely Planet guide, and my mind races with anticipation of everything there is to see and do. We couldn't be more thrilled to be in Vanuatu!
Continue reading "A Wet Ride to Port Vila"...