Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Port Resolution, Tanna, Vanuatu, August 10, 2009

This is an amazing place. Definitely National Geographic quality. Someday we will find an internet connection that can handle photos.

Port Resolution is a beautiful harbour on the east side of Tanna Island in Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides). One side of the harbor has hot springs from Mt Yasur volcano, about 8 miles away. When the wind blows from the north – which is not frequent, but happened twice in our eight days here - the boat gets covered with ash.

There is a village ashore. It is very traditional. People living in huts, dirt underfoot, arranged marriages, fishing from homemade outrigger canoes. There is a big primary school run by the Seventh Day Adventists. Everyone under 45 speaks either English or French fluently, learned in school. The older people speak one of Tanna’s 29 languages and usually Bislama, a pidgin English that is the common tongue in much of Melanesia.

There is no electricity in the village, but flashlights are common and some young people have cell phones. Batteries and charging facilities are scarce and there is an endless stream of requests to trade either for fresh vegetables or fish. There is a pickup truck in the village that takes us where we want to go – slowly and packed like sardines, bump, bump, bump on rutty dirt roads over mountains and streambeds and very funky bridges.

A highlight of Port Resolution is the trip up to the rim of the volcano at night. The volcano rumbles then explodes into fireworks. It was a rather calm night - no "firebombs' landing anywhere near us. Lonely Planet warns readers to get their affairs in order before going up to the volcano because tourists have died up there.

The highlight of our stay was a circumcision ceremony in a remote village. The actual operation took place about a month ago, with a sharpened bamboo stick, on 3 brothers approximately aged 5 – 10. The boys then went into hiding in the bush where they learn about being men from a grandfather who watches them. The two hour ceremony marked their return to their mother and village and qualifies them for the job of chewing kava root so their toothless elders can enjoy it in liquid form (spittle dissolved in water).

The father of the boys went to work in the big city of Port Vila to pay for this affair, on the scale of a bar mitzvah or a wedding back home. The five yachties who attended paid a per person fee which would go a small ways to help defray the costs.

5 pigs, 2 cows and one goat were ritually slaughtered in front of our eyes in the village ceremonial square (nakamal). A huge pile of food, mats and fabric was assembled on top of an underground cooking fire. The boys marched into the village square followed by the men of the village, dressed in colorful skirts, leis, feather headdresses, with faces painted yellow and red. The females were decked out even more elaborately, with a mix of the traditional (tie dyed skirts made from wild hibiscus stems) and the manufactured (tinsel Christmas garlands).

There were dances. Then food (chunks of beef and taro pudding cooked in banana leaves) was served to everyone (turned out the pudding was made with raw pigs blood, no wonder it tasted strange). Leftovers went to the dogs and piglets. Then long speeches by the male elders. Then the women and children left. Then the men sat around waiting for kava to be prepared (women are not supposed to be anywhere around the consumption of kava, it used to be punishable by death, now just steep fines.)

Tom spent the night in the village to experience the kava (reputed to be the strongest in Vanuatu which is reputed to be the strongest in Melanesia),watch the dancing and practice his training as an anthropologist. Here’s his account:

“I spent the afternoon hanging out, talking to people, visiting the village area, and resting up for the big night of singing and dancing. The atmosphere was one of quiet anticipation of the excitement to come. But it started to rain and rain hard just before dark. Things took a despairing turn and by about 8 pm most people had wandered off back to the village to shelter. I shivered under a borrowed blanket in one of the huts in the nakamal until about 10 pm when a man I had talked to showed up and brought me back to his house where his wife set up a bed for me.

I slept a little as the wind blew through the woven mats that make the walls and the rain pounded on the tin roof. A baby would occasionally whimper. There was only the light of flashlights and those were used very sparingly. About 3 am I awoke to singing in the distance. The rain and wind had stopped and I was cozy on a soft bed under the blanket. But then I thought, "What am I here for--to sleep or to witness Kastom dance and see what very few are willing or able to?"

So up I got and my host, Joe, and I trekked back up the hill where the little generator was going to provide a little light and a group of costumed men and women were dancing and singing in the center of the grounds. The dancing and accompanying songs, without instruments--only clapping and foot stomping-- went on until about 730 am. The food was brought, divided and eaten, and there were more speeches by various elders. My guide Stanley tried in vain to obtain a ride for us back to Port Resolution. He, his wife and young daughter needed to get back as well but he said that it would be too slow to go together so Stanley and I set off alone for the four-hour walk up over the hill along the rain-slickened rutted road. But it's these times that are most valuable. I had Stanley's undivided attention and asked him question after question.”

The next days at Port Resolution were jam-packed with interchanges with the villagers. Tom’s foray into village life earned him respect, warmth and entree. We left port with buckets of fresh vegetables, free range eggs, lobster, costume and craft pieces, a standing invitation to return for more special experiences, a kava hangover (Tom), and tears in our eyes (Ellen). In addition we loaded the boat with a bundle of taro to deliver to a village benefactor and a 23 year old villager who was headed to NZ for seasonal work in the apple orchards.

Denerau, Fiji Islands, July 28, 2009

In April, we seriously questioned coming to Fiji. The military head of the country postponed elections until 2014. The country’s Supreme Court was dismissed after ruling the military coup was unconstitutional. The authority to license lawyers was taken from the bar association and handed to the government so it could put an end to effective representation of political dissidents, according to NZ newspapers.
Fiji has been in an ongoing state of political stress for over 25 years. The underlying issue is race. The first thing we were told in Fiji, from the health inspector who came aboard wearing a mask and gloves to protect against H1N1 virus, was “There are two races in Fiji – Fijians and Indians. He,” pointing to her colleague,“ is Indian. I am Fijian.” The population is split about 50 -50.
Employment seems to follow that pattern. Government offices and businesses, small and large, have both Indians and Fijians working side by side. We asked, it is a government mandate? The response, was no, it is good business. From what we could tell, housing is somewhat segregated (there are Indian villages where they fly red prayer flags). There did not appear to be any intermarriage.
Indo-Fijians started coming here around 1870 to work in the sugar cane fields as indentured servants. Though they are restricted from owning land, the Indo-Fijians are successful farmers, business people and professionals. For years, pro-Fijian governments have made life difficult for Indians, and many have left the country. Currently the government, which controls much of the land in trust for ethnic Fijians, is not renewing ten year leases to Indian farmers.
We asked lots of people their views on the situation. The most passionate response was from a thirty something part Chinese man who worked as a head chef in a fancy resort. “The last coup was the best thing that ever happened in this country. That’s when we could start walking around our neighborhood and feel safe. Before we were victimized by gangs and the police did nothing. Elections are the worst thing in Fiji – they do nothing but stir racial animosity. We are not ready for democracy. My generation doesn’t care about politics, we just want to make our house payments and raise our families.”
We heard a few dissents in Suva. “You can’t say anything for fear of being put in prison,” said one Indian cabdriver. The newspapers are silent except for the occasional press release from the government.
A distinguished Fijian who had served in a previous government and at UN Headquarters said, “It will have to run its course. The people will not be happy when unemployment rises when the rest of the world stops visiting and giving aid due to Fiji’s non-compliance with aid conditions. The truth, I believe, is a country like Fiji is prone to government by coups and countercoups.” A career US Embassy employee indicated that many diplomatic experts shared this theory and noted (as we did) that outside of Suva, no one seemed to care.
Tourism – the number one driver of the economy - dropped 40% in the two months following the clampdown. That was not the intention of the government, which devalued the Fijian dollar 20% to attract visitors. We could not spend more than $2.25 for a metered cab ride to anywhere in the sprawling city of Suva. Four cucumbers or 10 baby eggplants for 50 cents. $15 tops for a nice piece of clothing or pair of shoes. Resort visitors – including a pair of very devout Orthodox Jewish newlyweds from Brooklyn - crowed about their great tour packages.
So, if you don’t mind a long plane trip, we would tell you – after seven weeks there - that Fiji is THE place to come for a vacation in the South Pacific. It’s cheap. It’s very beautiful. There’s plenty of cultural interest. The weather – especially on the west side – is lovely (read, sunny and not beastly hot). No mosquitos, no “Bali belly” (down under for “la turista”), excellent transportation and communication systems, a resort to suit every budget and interest, and the friendliest, most helpful people we’ve encountered.
(PS – It’s been a long time away from the internet, so excuse the late posting.)