From Emae, we carried on north to the next island, Epi. Lamen Bay on Epi is known as the bay where the Dugongs hang out. We sail in, set our anchor and head in to say hello to the chief. As we roll ashore in Grin, we are welcomed by a beautiful woman named Doris and her tiny baby Irene. She says the village is open to explore, feel free to walk along the roads. So, we do.
It’s 4:30 p.m. School is out, work is finished for the day, and everyone is out and about. Teenage boys are playing soccer on the beach, teenage girls are walking along the street with their mothers and grandmothers. Women gather at the village water well, pulling buckets out for the evening. Little kids play hide and seek together in the palm trees and grass that line the beach or make “mud pie” with sand and ocean in a pot. One boy plays for hours, rolling a stick tied to a broken stroller wheel in the sand. Men stand at the end of their “driveway,” and greet us. Tony takes us for a tour of the airport (an open grass strip cleared of palm trees) and a wharf, crushed by Cyclone Pam. Everyone is out and about, playing, interacting, or working with each other.
Half the beach is black volcanic sand, the other half is perfectly white. Flowers fall and glow in the falling sun. An older man of about 60 pulls his log canoe out into the bay, installs palm fronds and sails away to his home on Lamen Island a short jaunt away.
We meet Isaan who invites us to his home the next morning to trade whatever we would like for coconuts, manyok, yams, and papayas. Among some old clothes, sugar, and cookies, Andrew brings playing cards from the Mandalay Bay to give to Isaan’s kids. Isaan gives us a freshly baked loaf of bread, perfectly crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. The best bread I have ever had for peanut butter and vanilla honey toast.
We meet new sailor friends who join us in the anchorage: Murray, Carol Ann, their son Sam and his girlfriend Emma just in for a visit. We snorkel, hoping to find dugongs. We don’t, but instead, a little bit of travel magic sends us dolphins to swim with instead. This will have to do.
Finding no Dugongs and trying to keep a bit of a schedule, we up anchor and follow Jams to a calm and beautiful anchorage on the most southern tip of Malakula. This is where the magic rocks can be found.
We reach the anchorage just as the sun is going down, so we make a fish curry, Andrew makes his new specialty Naan Bread, and we crack a bottle of wine. After dinner, we take the beanbags forward on Sonrisa’s bow. The stars are out in full force and across the way, we can see Ambrym Island’s two volcanos glowing red with each explosion. In Vanuatu, people who live near volcanos are associated with strong magic. Maybe the magic will rub off on us? We watch the volcano show until we fall asleep in our bean bags.
The next morning, we watch a number of sailing canoes commute to...work? They slide across the anchorage then disappear inside the mangroves.
Then, we head to shore to hunt for magic rocks. It doesn’t take much of a hunt. Quartz is strewn all over the beach, leaving us only with the decision of which magic rocks are the most magical. We find the“mother” of the magic rocks, a streak of quartz squeezed inside the volcanic cliffside.
Soon, we have gathered four bulging pocketfuls of options. “I don’t think Sonrisa will like it if you bring all those rocks back…” Grin warns us as we empty our pockets onto his bench. I'm sure he’s right, so we pare them down to just the most magical looking rocks - though our magic expertise seems quite low.
As I climb aboard Sonrisa, I promise her I will wrap them all individually so they can't clap together while we are at sea.
That afternoon, a wooden canoe sidles up next to Sonrisa’s hull. A bundle of coconuts and a banana tree land on the deck. Some negotiating begins and Andrew is soon trading a gallon of gas and offering to fill their teapot with water in exchange. He hands the teapot to me, and I begin filling it. Standing above my head, looking down through the kitchen hatch is a man named Richard. “Very nice boat!” He says to me from above the hatch. “Hello! You have a very nice boat!” I say thank you and hand the teapot up to him.
I peek up over the companion way and see a canoe full of five men over Sonrisa’s side rail. They smile at me and continue speaking with Andrew. Richard and Tom describe their idyllic bay just a few miles away as a calm anchorage where we can swim with dugongs, see giant claims, eat traditional food, watch sand painting, and spend time in a village. “Yeah, “Andrew says, “let me talk to my wife and see what we want to do next.” Suddenly, the canoe breaks out in whispering then they mouth one word up Richard: kava. “Oh yes!” He says, “and we can drink Kava! Do you want to come drink kava with us?” The boat full of men’s eyes sparkle and look hopefully up at Andrew.
“Heh heh,” Andrew chuckles. “I don’t know, kava makes me too sleepy! Your kava is very strong.” The boat fills with happy smiles and nods. “Yes, yes. Vanuatu kava is very strong,” say a boatful of men.
They depart, hopeful that we will find our way over to their bay the next morning. As we watch the volcano that night, I wonder aloud if it sounds a little too good to be true. It seems like a lot of things to orchestrate in the small weekend we had to spend in this area.
But, the next morning we headed off. We motored the handful of miles to a nearby island, and began the approach through a tight reef passage. Richard and Tom floated at the entrance, ready to guide us to the best anchoring spot. A dugong turned a flip inside the bay while the anchor was falling. Maybe it isn’t too good to be true?
As soon as we are anchored, Tom and Richard explain the plan: first, we are going to go to see the giant clams, then we will have lunch aboard Sonrisa (all of us, Richard specifies), then we will have a rest, then we will go swim with dugongs, then we can have kava, then we will have dinner with Tom’s wife. They hop into Grin, Tom takes the helm at Kitty. “I will drive.” He says.
OK! We load up the snorkel gear, and take our respective spots in Grin. Tom puts Kitty only halfway into gear and she screams in protest - gears missing links, clanging and clattering in a most unfortunate manner. He gets things readjusted and we putter off. But soon, we are just barely hovering over a foot of water, Kitty dragging her propeller in the mud, Grin rubbing his belly in the grass.
“We have to go while the tide is high.” They explain. This is high tide? We are in trouble. YAndrew is cringing each time Kitty hits bottom. Tom and Richard tip Kitty upward to keep her propeller as shallow as possible, but then her cooling water intake pump is only partially submerged. She growls and coughs.
Richard and Tom ask 100 questions as we motor along: When did we buy Sonrisa? How much did she cost? How much does Grin cost? How much did Kitty cost? How much did we pay for vegetables at the market in Port Vila? Do we like Kava? What did Andrew do for a living at home? When Andrew tells them he is an engineer and I am a lawyer, their eyes get wide. They ask me if I put people in jail.
Several miles around the back side of the island over barely perceptible water depth, we reach the clam preserve. Tom and Richard escort us onto the tiny man-made island and instruct us not to stick our fingers in the clams lest the clams bite them off. The clams are brilliantly colored and have unusual patterns like we haven’t seen before.
Afterward, we pry Grin along through the shallow water, back to Sonrisa. Richard and Tom belly up to Sonrisa’s kitchen table and remark: “The ladies do all the cooking in our village. Are you going to cook, Leslie?” I said that I would, but I also told them that Andrew is a good cook and he cooks sometimes, too. They had no response to that. Richard stretches out on the salon bench, hands behind his head, head propped on my decorative couch pillow. I put plates of pasta with cream of mushroom sauce and hamburger before the group, and they insist on a prayer. We fold our hands and bow our heads in turn. “Thank you for your protection, Lord, Amen.” Tom says, then they applaud.
“Hm! Clapping at the end of a prayer, that’s a new one to us!” Andrew exclaims.
Everyone enthusiastically cleared their plates, and this is a relief to me as I wasn’t sure if their fresh root vegetable and fruit palate would approved of my processed noodles, soup, and hamburger option.
Tom instructs us that from 1:30 p.m. until 2:00, we should rest. But, by the time they paddle off, it’s already time to go in. We let them get a head start, then follow a few minutes later.
Over at the village, we are taken to a fiberglass panga with a 15 Horsepower Engine and given - whatdoyouknow - lifejackets! “Safety first!” I say to Tom, and he laughs. But once we reach the bay about five miles across the way, he says: “Okay, you can take the lifejackets off now.” What? I thought these life jackets were to prevent the dugongs from dragging me below the water in a death-hug. Nope, apparently, the lifejackets were to keep us warm on the drive out!
The Ni Vanuatu stand aboard the fiberglass panga trying to spot dugongs. Andrew and I don our goggles and flippers. Soon, they are waving their arms with excitement and pointing: “Dugong! Dugong! Over there!” I squint, but under the overcast sky I can’t see anything. I slip into the water and start swimming in the direction they are pointing. Enormous grey fish begin circling beneath me. One to my right, one to my left, one behind me, two in front. One over there, one one that way. Whoa. Are they preparing for an Oreo sandwich hug? “We’ll be the cookie, you can be the cream.”
They have chubby cheeks and whiskers like an English bulldog. They look at us out of the side of their eye, a little suspicious. We begin swimming with them, diving down and trying to get close enough for a good look. They don’t seem to be afraid of us, but they also don’t want to let us get too close. Every time Andrew swims down toward one, the Dugong slides away an equal distance. “Hold still, I just want a good Facebook picture!” I tell them.
“Are they still following us, Gordie?”
“Yep, still following.”
I lost track of time, but probably an hour later we swim back toward the boat. “Gee,” Richard says. “Usually people get in, see a dugongs and get back out again. You are happy, right?”
We assure Richard that swimming for an hour with ten dugongs made us quite happy, and he smiles. “Very good! We are very happy!” He says.