Port Resolution is a rolly anchorage, but we were so tired by the time we returned from Mount Yasur we fell into our bunk and Sonrisa rocked us to sleep like babies. We slept a full, lovely ten hours. As soon as my eyes popped open, though, I ran over to my computer like a child running down the stairs to see if Santa brought anything. Did I get any good pictures last night? Andrew nestles up next to me and looks over my shoulder. We flip through the volcano pictures, the excitement from the experience still bubbling over.
With that project finished, we take our mugs of coffee to the “back patio” and enjoy the scenery. Steam vents hiss clouds of water from the lush cliffside, and the bay is lined with jet black beaches. Sonrisa has transported us back in time. We watch locals fish from canoes made of hollowed out, wooden logs. They stand on the narrow bow, either tossing nets forward and pulling them back in or “trolling” by slowly paddling along and pulling their net from behind. On shore, a man has climbed a tree and is shouting to tell the fishermen where the fish are moving.
Not long thereafter, Grin takes us ashore to make friends. We have an appointment with Willy the school teacher to return his cell phone. Imagine our surprise when he paddled up to Sonrisa’s hull in a wooden canoe and asked if we could charge his phone overnight. We were happy to help.
Willy gives us a tour of the school, complete with a school bell fashioned from the shell of a WWII bomb.
He introduces us to his class of third graders. The first thing we notice is a room full of absolutely beautiful Ni Vanuatu’s smiles.
We learn lessons in Bislama - which is like English, but not quite. Can you read these instructions?
We walk through the village and admire the bamboo thatched homes. This is not a tourist attraction; these people live and work here, it is their home. Villagers wave to us, and show us the way to the beach. We stop to chat while some weave their intricate mats.
We head back to the “yacht club,”
There, we learn that tonight traditional dancing will be going on in celebration of a successful yam harvest and in sacrifice to next year’s harvest. The young boys have been circumcised, and after a week or two of seclusion their families are hosting the event. The dancing starts at 7 p.m., and it shall continue until 7 a.m. the next morning.
When we ask if we can attend, Willy says we would be welcome, but we should start walking soon. “How long is the hike?” We ask.
Willy thinks for a minute. “For me, two hours. For you, probably four or five.” At least he is honest.
Willy brainstorms a better way, and leads us to Warry. We never got the full story, but Warry is somehow associated with the “yacht club” and owns a truck used for giving sailors tours of the island. He is happy to take us to see the dancing. When we suggest we head over around 6 p.m., he shakes his head. “No, it would be much better if you wake up at 1 a.m.” We will drive through the jungle in the middle of the night until we reach the point that the road is too bad, then we will walk the rest of the way. That way, we can watch the last part of the dancing and get good pictures after sunrise.
A drive/hike through the jungle in the middle of the night with a man I do not know, to see traditional sacrifice dance for good yam harvest amongst former cannibals….
What could go wrong?
We head back to the boat to try to get some sleep between 7 p.m. and 1 a.m.
In the black of night, Niels, Margret, Andrew and I make our way from our boats to shore. It is completely quiet, not even the chickens are awake. The glow of our flashlight is white against the black-green of the jungle, an orange glow from Mount Yasur rises above the bay’s outline. Before long, we are clattering against each other on a jungle road lit only by our headlights. Once we reach the spot that can’t be traversed by vehicle, and we all climb out. Warry puts me in charge of caring for the truck key. We walk. The road is so chewed up and muddy I am half walking, half skiing down the slope.
An hour later, we can hear singing and thumping. It sounds a little like drumbeats, but flatter. A little like clapping, but deeper. My heart beats with adrenaline; my life is so strange right now. Soon, we descend a winding path and the singing gets louder until “woop woop wooopah!” marks the end of the song. The crowd cheers, then falls silent.
We emerge from the jungle into a clearing lit by one lightbulb strung across the center on a thick rope. Huts built of bamboo poles and woven thatch line the square, front doors all turned inward. Jungle plants smolder on small fires, presumably to keep away mosquitos. The area smells of earth pounded flat, smoke, kava, and the dancer’s sweat.
They huddle in a group, conversing quietly for a moment and then they begin the next song. The men are in the center. The sound I thought might be drums is not. The men begin stomping one foot at a time. “STOMP, STOMP, STOMP” and they sing low in their village language.
At first, the women stand back, waiting. Their faces are painted, and their high cheekbones shimmer under the single bulb. Their grass skirts sway with colorful designs. Some hold bamboo sticks with leaves that glow golden under the light. As the men’s song gains intensity, the women step forward and begin to hoist their leafy pole into the sky along with the stomping beat. They start to jump. This is not a small jump, but a full two footed vertical leap into the air, back to the ground, landing with an assertive thump.
One of the elder women stands off to the side and begins to sing. The sound is not soft, it is not a melody. From the back of her throat, the woman’s voice has the sharp edge of magic.
As the intensity builds, so does the heaviness of the stomping and the jumping. The entire crowd lofts into the sky simultaneously, and entire crowd lands all at once. Sitting off to the side, I feel the ground shake and shudder with the force of their feet. Some of the women begin running in a circle, the men run, too. The energy builds and builds and builds. Now there is clapping and stomping, jumping, and singing. WHOOP WHOOP WHOOPAHHHHHH!!!!
During the space between songs, spectators smoke and talk, sometimes they let out a hoot or a cheer. Sometimes they yell something that sounds like “AWAKE!”
We strike up a conversation with Sam, an elder who is spectating tonight. He explains as we watch. The dancing started thousands of years ago. The legend has it that two men from two different villages were meeting to go fishing one day. A devil waylaid one man, impersonating the other. They lunch together, and soon the man realizes he is not with his friend, but instead lunching with a devil. The devil invites the man to the devil’s lair where a group of devils are readying to dance. Before they reach the lair, the devil explained to the man how to dance to avoid being realized a man amongst devils. Now, the villagers get together and teach each other the dances the devil taught them. The quiet conversation between dances is the process of one man explaining to the group how to do the next dance.
“People try to say that the dancing is not important; that it will not help nor hinder next year’s yam harvest.” Sam tells us, “But, they are wrong. It is important. It is important to our village.”
Watching them, I understand what he means. When you and your neighbor dance through the night together, each of you grow responsible to the other. If your neighbor will dance all night for you, your children, the village, you know your neighbor will work to harvest yams as well. The yam harvest will be better than if the village did not dance. It is magic, but the magic of human connection.
“These dances used to be larger.” Sam tells us. “Everyone across the island from all the different villages would come to dance for each boy's ceremony. But now, the churches do not like the dancing, so not as many people come.” He pauses. “It’s like when Moses returns from the mountain with his tablets and the ten commandments to find his people dancing. That is what the church thinks we are doing. So, some people have stopped coming. We need to keep our custom. They are what make us Ni Vanuatu.” (Ni Vanuatu means “the people of Vanuatu”)
“What are the spectators yelling out?” I ask him.
“Oh, the are trying not to fall asleep. So, they yell to stay awake.”
Song after song, the dancers’ energy does not flag. The roosters begin to crow between songs, and we know it isn’t long until the sun comes up. When the light breaks beneath the clouds with a blue glow, the stomping, singing, clapping becomes more voracious until all of a sudden, the dancers disburse.
Next, each chief stands and speaks. To Andrew and I, they seem angry. Their facial expressions and body language conveys to us the tone of “reprimand.” We ask Sam what they are saying and he explains that each chief is expressing his gratitude to the dancers for coming out and dancing in honor of their ceremony. The body language that seems like anger to us is conveying sincerity, deep meaning.
Soon, men from each of the three separate villages begin carrying food into two piles. Earth cooked taro, leg of a pig, kava root, sugar cane are all piled up in the center by the dance floor. Sam explains that the parents for the boys who are circumcised save up and pay the dancers with food. It is very expensive, so the parents with boys of the same age join efforts and several circumcisions are celebrated at once. The, is split up amongst the dancers. A bundle of pork, taro, sugar cane and kava are laid at our feet. Sam explains the dancers are giving us food as well, to thank us for coming. Doesn’t that beat all?
From reading, we learned that gift giving is a complex process here in Vanuatu. Gifts are given to raise status, honor marriages, sacrifice for harvests, and the like. You can’t simply turn up and give any one individual a gift. As tourists, if we want to give a gift, we must be careful to speak with the chief first, get permission to give the gift, and/or give gifts that benefit the village as a whole. It is so complex, I cannot begin to understand it or explain it. All I know is that the food we were given was not given lightly. How do you thank someone for a gift like that?
After the food is divided, three more dances are performed. They ask if we want to dance with them. Of course we do! Off we go. I try to match my jumping cadence to the women I am amongst. My new friend, Kanna, takes my hand and motions the jumping rhythm. Pretty soon, we are all in time. My legs are ON FIRE. Calves, quads, feet, halfway through the first song all of my muscles are screaming at me.
HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP…..oh god, how long is this song?
HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP. I fear I’m not going to make it. I look at Kanna happily hopping along, twelve hours of this!
HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP…HOP…HOP…I am trying really hard to keep the rhythm, but it is fast, and they are jumping high, and my muscles are declining to participate.
The first song ends. We cheer. We wait, then the next song starts. It sounds remarkably like the first song. Maybe this is just a short encore?
HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP….
We shift to a different pattern with our feet, one foot forward, one foot back. This helps adjust to some different muscles for a minute, but then those muscles are tired, too.
HOP HOP HOP HOP HOP….
I need to do more leg exercises on passage.
The last two hops feel like I’m trying to launch an elephant over my shoulder. People seem to disburse for a moment, and I think it’s all over. I thank Kanna and head back to my spot by Sam. But then, another song starts. I lay low, though, I suppose I could use more hopping.
Once everyone is finished with the last song, the women change out of their grass skirts and roll them methodically into a tight roll - safe for next time. They gather up blankets, baskets, bags, and their payment in food. Then, they start their respective hikes. Some live close by, but others came from villages “across the way”. Barefooted, loaded with goods, they climb the same trail we climb, with fresh legs and their perfect Ni Vanuatu smiles. We say goodbye to Sam and his family, then start our climb, too.
Two gentlemen do a goofy dance when I point the camera lens their way. Nope, not tired yet!