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!

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