As we weaved our way through Richard and Tom’s 20 Questions, we naturally arrived at the religion questions: What religions do you have in the US? What religion are you? Silence befalls the boatful of Godfreys until I pipe up and say: “I grew up Catholic” and leave it at that.
They nod. “Cath-O-Lique?” They repeat, then seem to accept that option. They look at Andrew.
Andrew remains silent hoping to avoid the question, but they wait. They outlast Andrew's rather lengthy tolerance for awkward silence. “Nothing really.” Andrew admits. “My parents didn’t go to church, so I didn’t go to church.”
“Now we are in for it,” I think.
Tom and Richard look at each other, and raise their eyebrows. “Well, tomorrow you are coming to church.” Tom tells us. “We worship on Sundays.”
Andrew: “Oh, we were planning on sailing on tomorrow to Luganville.”
Tom: “Ok, you can come to church in the morning, we will have lunch afterward, and then we will take you back to the boat. You can’t go to sea without thanking the Lord for his protection!" Ludicrous.
"Do you have a bible on board?” Tom asks.
Andrew looks at me to take the helm. I tell them we do have a bible aboard. (Thank you, Tyler and Julie Andrews.)
“Okay, bring it to shore in the morning. You are coming to church.” Church is clearly non-negotiable; Andrew resigns to his fate.
With that settled, we head over to the kava bar to drink kava. We meet several Village Elders from whom Andrew gathers fishing tips. The young fellas sit across the way, playing with their cell phones. There is no internet, but they all have plenty of music, photos, and games to create a centerpiece of conversation.
After Kava, we return to Tom’s house where we tuck ourselves under the corrugated metal roof of the “dining room.” A flower arrangement of yellow, red and orange hibiscus, pink bougainvillea adorn the table. Plates of food are set out, ready to be served. Our hosts invite us to sit on a wooden bench if we like, but they sit on the floor atop grass woven mats. We sit with them. We share the meal with Tom and his wife Kreta, Richard, Tom's sister, Tom and Kreta's daughter Esther (Age 13), their niece Evalyn (Age 11), and their baby granddaughter Biji (Age 1). The room glows with one small bulb above us, powered by a solar panel. We eat oysters pried from the reef and freshly smoked over a wood fire, beef broth and ramen noodles, rice and manyok root (like a potato, but with a more rich flavor) wrapped inside “island cabbage”. Andrew and I brought a salad of garbanzo beans, green olives, and basil to share. We open a pack of oreos for desert. We sit and chat about their lives in the village, our lives on the boat, our lives in America. They ask about our jobs. They are fascinated by my business, and the fact that as a woman I am carrying on as such. I explain to them that I don’t put people in jail, but instead help business owners to resolve disputes. They ask about our families. It’s mostly like any other dinner party I have ever attended.
Around eight o’clock, we say our thanks and bow out to head to bed. Cruiser’s Midnight is approaching, after all. Tom walks us to where Grin is tied up and says: “Okay, return here tomorrow morning at 10:00 a.m. We will go to church, and then I will give you a tour of the village. We shake his hand, and then we wade with Grin through the mud until we find a deep spot. We fall immediately into bed on Sonrisa; that was a big day! But, I cannot sleep. My mind is a buzz with thoughts and surprises. This place, these people; they are beautiful and different than anything I have ever witnessed. They are magic. You feel it in their presence.
The next morning, we head to shore promptly at ten. Tom is there waiting for us. “Okay, new plan.” He says. “We will go to church at 2:00. Instead, we can show you sand painting this morning, is that okay?” I’m not sure what changed, but we are game.
We wait at Tom’s house for a bit until the village messenger stops by, riding a rusty red bicycle. The boy of about ten speaks to Tom in their village language. I can’t understand what they are saying, but I can read the emotion in it.
“————-, ——-, ——-, ———. ………………” The boy explains.
“……………………….?” Tom asks.
The bike messenger shrugs, leans the bike over so he can stand on one barefoot. He looks at the dirt. Tom turns to us with an uneasy smile. “We are speaking in our village language.” Then returns to his conversation with the boy.
“ ——— ———- ——- —-.” Tom commands.
Tom turns to us. “We are looking for Ahtist, the sand painter. Why don’t we go on the village tour while we wait?” We smile and say that would be fantastic. We would like to see the village anyway.
Tom leads us through a village laid out into little plots of land. Old giant clam shells, bamboo, or other landscape plants serve as property lines. The village roads are only footpaths. We stop here and there, Tom speaks to his neighbors in their village language. He is met with shaking heads and a shrug. Then, the neighbors turn to shake Andrew’s hand and introduce themselves in perfect English.
Beautiful Ni Vanuatu peek out of their houses, everyone stealing a glance at us as we are the odd creatures in their midst. “Andrew!” They call out, and wave. Clearly, word has gotten around town about who we are. Kids sneak out of their houses and follow us down the footpath, only to duck back into yard landscaping when we turn to say “hi”. I chase them down and ask for a photo, so they group up and smile. I turn the camera around to show them their picture and they devolve into another laughing fit.
Tom takes us past a pile of woven thatch, ready to be shipped to Port Vila and provided for roofing material - 100 Vatu each, or roughly $1.00US. We ask if there is someone specific in the village who weaves the roof and wall material, but he explains everyone knows how to do it. How long do these houses last? Anywhere from 7-10 years unless they get blown away by a big cyclone. 7-10 years! “Sure,” he says in all seriousness, “If you stay with us for a month, we can teach to weave your own hut.”
He shows us a canoe, in progress, made from a carved out breadfruit tree trunk. These also last about 8-10 years, but the effort to build them seems substantial. They must scrape the meat from the center of the trunk using an adze - a flat bladed tool, much like an axe, but without the sideways handle.
A group of men sit in the shade on canoes long ago built and pulled up on the beach. They crack freshly roasted peanuts and nibble away. “Has anyone seen Ahtist?” Tom asks, again in the village tongue, but I know that’s what he is saying. Head shake all around.
One of the canoe men is Chimmy, a Village Elder we shared Kava with the night before. “Andrew, I heard you are sailing from here to Luganville?” Andrew says we are. “Can I join you for the sail? I need to get to Luganville to see my sister.”
OOoooh! I think. Should we? Andrew laughs nervously. It’s an overnight sail. What if something happens? What if we sink and kill this Vanuatu Village Elder? What if he falls overboard? We don’t have an extra tether for him. I voice this concern at the same time Andrew says he’ll have to consult me and get back to him. The man laughs at me. “I’m an champion swimmer!” he says, throwing his arms into the air. “I’ll be fine!” And this is probably a true fact. These people can free dive 100 Feet+ underwater and hold their breath for five minutes. They can walk along a slightly tilted palm tree like they are walking down Las Vegas Boulevard. They can jump off a 15 meter platform, hit the ground, and come up smiling. They are far more physically competent than I can ever hope to be, and yet - taking them sailing overnight is a huge responsibility. I think back on Epi-Island-Jim’s wide eyes looking at me as Sonrisa heeled over.
“Have you ever sailed on a sailboat before?” I ask. He explains that he rides on boats all the time. I’m sure that is also true. Big copra barges, little sailing canoes, pangas. None of them quite the same as a night sail on a sailboat in open ocean. I’m sure he would be fine, but still. I can tell Andrew is also nervous about the idea, so I take up my role as the mean wife. “I don’t know, what if something happens? I don’t want to be responsible for sinking Chimmy the Village Elder!”
He laughs. “Okay, don’t worry. It’s okay.” He shakes Andrew’s hand and laughs. I feel guilty as we carry on our tour.
We pass the town “performance stage” for dancing, speaking events, and other community get togethers.
We pass a sign designating the Taboo area of reef. For three years, there is to be no fishing, diving, snorkeling, playing or otherwise touching this particular area of reef. It is a conservation effort to help the reef recover. Tom explains they rotate the areas of “taboo reef” every three years to keep the reef healthy.
“How long have you been doing this?” I ask. But he looks as if he doesn’t understand.
“Always? It is our custom to have taboo areas of reef. Whenever the reef fish start to become smaller and smaller, we know it is time to place the taboo on that reef and let the big fish return.” Tom explains this as if this is the most simple concept and he is shocked that we don’t already know.
We do know this, but in the majority of the world overfishing is a huge problem. Rotating fishing grounds? Rotating field crops? These are advanced sustainability measures used by “organic” producers. How many countries prefer to supplement land with chemical fertilizers to keep things going longer than they naturally could, develop fish farms, and otherwise overtax our natural resources? I give them huge credit for knowing and respecting this in their custom.
We meet the woman responsible for raising (and fattening) the village's ceremonial pig.
We stop by the charging hut where the village generator is kept to charge laptops and cell phones. 100 Vatu per hour of charging time.
Finally, we arrive at a group of little huts with three teenage boys loitering in the yard. A mother emerges from one of the huts with a little bowl of peanuts and a three year old. She gives the baby the peanuts, and the baby wanders off to sit in the dirt and peel them. Tom speaks to the woman. She returns into the hut, brings out a bag of peanuts for Tom. Tom speaks to the boys.
“….. ………. …. ..” Tom says in village tongue.
The boys shake their heads, tilt one shoulder lower toward the ground, scuff a bare foot against the dirt, and smirk just a little.
“… …….. …. ….. .” Tom.
The boy straightens up as if drawn to attention, but still shrugs. The boy looks toward another hut, where now the mother is standing outside the door way.
Soon, a young man emerges rubbing his hands over his head, leaning slightly forward, looking at the ground and literally dragging his feet. He walks over to us, sheepish, and shakes Andrew’s hand.
“Are you Ahtist?” I ask offering my hand. He shakes it and nods, but doesn’t say anything. Tom says nothing but offers Ahtist a handful of peanuts and starts walking back toward the beach. Ahtist! We found him!