** WARNING TO SENSITIVE READERS ***
This posts includes photographs of ceremonial dress, which includes females wearing only grass skirts and males wearing only penis sheathes.
Is a moped technically a motorcycle?
After dancing all night on Tanna, we returned to Sonrisa, ate breakfast and then headed back out to sea for a 24 hour passage to Port Vila. We don’t have time to lallygag because we have limited time to see one of the must-see experiences in Vanuatu - Land Diving.
Land Diving is also a celebration/sacrifice in honor of a good yam harvest. While the villagers of Tanna dance, villagers on an island called Pentacost dive from platforms built of bamboo posts and vines. This celebration/sacrifice inspired our modern (and much safer) equivalent: bungee jumping. Land Diving only happens from April to sometime in June while the vines are wet enough to be springy. We arrived on Tanna in the second week of June, so if we want to see the Land Diving, we have to get a move on.
In fact, instead of trying to sail all the way North to Pentecost in time, we planned to sail to Port Vila then fly to Pentacost for a quick day trip. As it turned out, the plane flight is a part of the adventure, too. (Sorry, Mom.)
7 a.m. on Saturday morning, we loaded into Grin, picked up Brian from Prince Diamond, then motored ashore. A war era Land Rover modified to include a grass thatched roof picks us up at the yacht club. We join one other sailor, a tourist from San Francisco, and the tour company owner’s son visiting on a holiday from studies in Australia. When we arrive at the airport, they weigh us and our luggage to determine seat assignments. They do not check IDs, there are no metal detectors. We follow our pilot onto the tarmac, and I see the plane we are about to climb into.
It’s not that I set out to defy my mother. It’s just that sometimes, transportation options are limited.
Don’t worry, mom! This plane is used for all sorts of things here in the island. Tourism, medical evacuations, search and rescue, coffin transport….
“Two engines for added safety!”
We all nestle into our fuzzy seats, and pull the lap belts around us. The pilot runs through how best to open the door in an emergency, but instruction isn’t really necessary. The door is held closed by two sliders, the kind you might find on a bathroom door. He shrugs as if to say, if you need to use this slider in an emergency, we are probably all toast anyway. He steps on the wing, and climbs through a tiny door in the cockpit.
“Rugh, Rughhh, Ruuugghhhh, Rugh” the first engine struggles to turn over, then starts. The second engine sounds the same. Diesel engines always need a good lug to turn over, right? And diesel engines are so reliable. I hope these engines are “Yanmar the Magnificent II and III”, respectively.
I survey the dials, levers and “roll wheel” through my long lens of my camera. Everything looks to be rather well used? Old. And how about those fuel gauges. Should the port side be topped up you think?
We taxi down the runway, and I can feel every single bump in the road. As we gather speed, I suddenly want off this plane immediately. My mother’s voice is ringing in my ears: “I told you NO SMALL AIRPLANES, EVER” I will feel so guilty if I die in a small airplane. As the plane leaves the ground, I almost can’t watch. We are being tossed on air currents right and left, right and left. I suppose the pilot is used to these roiling wind gusts, right? They say sailboats are like airplanes, maybe airplanes are also like sailboats. Waves are just a part of the game, right?
I can’t believe I forgot my joo-joo medal back on Sonrisa.
It’s a beautiful day to fly along, it’s sunny and we watch the volcano islands slide by. We were going to fly over an active volcano, but it was blanketed in a cloud. It’s a nice view anyway.
Up front, I watch the pilot chatting away to the passenger. “EYES ON THE ROAD, BUDDY!”
When we reach the airstrip on Pentacost, we don’t just fall out of the sky but seem to accelerate toward the ground. Every passenger’s iPhone pops out and fills the aisle way in an attempt to film our landing. I have never seen the runway from the front of an airplane before.
We disembark at a small “airport” where the locals greet us and give us a flower necklace like the ones they gave us on Tanna before we climbed the volcano. Our “please don’t kill the tourist” necklaces. While pleased to have my necklace for my return trip, I feel like they should have given us our safety blessing before we took off from Port Vila.
“So, what year is that airplane?” Andrew asks the pilot.
“You don’t want to know.” The pilot says. Oh god.
“Yeah, I figured that, but really, I do want to know!” Andrew says.
“It’s a 1979 Piper Cheifton. But of course the engines have been replaced since then.”
Well, Mom, that should put your mind at ease. “Just a few years older than Sonrisa, really,” I think, “a reliable old girl.”
Now, we load into the back of a truck and jostle down a road next to shore, across a river, and through a beautiful green plantation unit we see the diving tower stretching skyward.
Holy moly, they are mostly naked. I feel like I stepped into a National Geographic documentary.
A wave of tourists flock up the hill. The guide tells us we should feel free to go up to the top or to the other side, anywhere we like except for under the tower. Somehow, I end up at the front of the tourist wave and Andrew keeps pushing me higher and higher on the hill telling me the people behind us are waiting for me to move. There doesn’t seem like anywhere to go but up and before I know it, I am standing on a flat dirt area next to a group of women and little girls wearing no shirts.
“Bonjour! Parlez vous Français?” One woman asks me. I tell her I speak a little French. She explains to me that the young boys who just healed from their circumcisions will be jumping for their first time today. I ask her if she has a son who is jumping, and she says no. She and her daughters are there to sing for the men who are jumping. I feel much less awkward talking to a shirtless woman than I expected to feel. She is not embarrassed about it, and so, then neither was I. But then, a group of older men wearing nothing but woven penis sheathes gather on the other side of me and start singing. I realize I am on the performance platform, wave good bye and scuttle down the hill. I duck my head, hoping the other tourists will not catch me in their photos as they point their cameras skyward.
The diving begins with a small boy. The men on top of the hill are singing a song and stepping side to side. Someone is whistling a high pitch whistle that starts high, dips low, returns high and ends abruptly, over and over again to a three count. Others from around the group chant WHUP WHUP…WHUP WHUP…WHUP WHUP. In short, abrupt bursts. At the base of the tower, a man with a long bamboo pole churns the dirt on a downward slope to create a “soft” landing. Unlike bungee jumping, these people actually hit the ground. An older man wraps the vines around the boy’s small ankles. It takes several minutes to get the vines tied just right.
Then, the boy steps out onto the lowest platform, about three meters up in the air. He lifts one foot and swings it around to untangle the vine and keep it from catching on various protrusions on the tower. There is technique to this. His calm face turns downward to the ground, the crowd of villagers and a throng of tourists looking up at him. Without ceremony, he clasps his hands in front of his face, elbows bent, leans forward and pushes off with his legs. Gravity does the rest.
The vines do their job well enough. They catch and stop his forward movement, then pull him backward to land on the churned dirt. Time for the second boy. Having watched his cousins, brothers, uncles do this every year, several times a year, he is ready. He steps out on the lower platform, raises his small fists in the air. He opens his fists and waves his arms in an upward movement as if to say “let’s raise the roof, people!” He elicits some cheers from the crowd below, then leans expressionless, face first into the abyss.
He, too, reaches the ground safely.
We learn that each diver chooses a reason to dive: a plentiful yam harvest, luck with fishing, a season free of cyclones, fertility. The singers at the top of the hill change their song based on the specific request being made. Everyone in the village comes out to celebrate and watch.
Now, the men of the village climb the tower. Each one, jumping from a higher and higher point, their faces never belying any fear or concern. One tourist comments on the lack of fear in their face and the guide explains they must not show fear. “Diving is a demonstration of faith in God.”
We learn that no one has died completing a tower jump since the 1970s. In that year, they jumped later into June then they otherwise would have because the Queen of England was visiting and they wanted to jump for her. The vines had dried out too much and they did not do their job for one unfortunate jumper. We had several late cyclones this year, so this weekend is still okay, I hope?
There is both technique and technology to the jump. The tower is held up with a series of “guy wires” made from vines. At each jumping level, there is a platform that is lowered down for the jumper to stand on. The platform is held at its 90 degree angle by two vines. As the jumper dives off, men standing on the tower cut the vines that hold the platform at 90 degrees allowing it to fall flush with the side of the tower, and out of the way of the jumper’s restraining vines. The jumping vines are strategically attached to the tower and tested to make sure their size and strength match the jumper's weight. The humidity in the vines holding the tower up, the poles in the tower, and the vines that catch the jumper at just the right spot are all a factor in the jumper’s success. When it works right, the vines catch the jumper out and away from the incline of the hill, then spring back and pull him toward the soft dirt.
During one of the jumps, the platform didn’t drop perfectly, the retention vine caught on something and snapped. Instead of being halted forward and pulled back onto the soft incline, the jumper was twisted in mid air and landed quite awkwardly. The crowd gasped, but his friends grabbed his hand, hoisted him up and he smiled as if to say “I’m all good!”
WHY? Why do they do this!? I have so many mixed feelings watching this go on. Should I be watching? What if someone gets hurt? But, they aren’t doing this for me. They are doing this for their own rituals, and I am welcomed to attend. This is just another form of human ritualistic social custom. In America, we have football. On Pentacost, they have land diving.
But how did this start? I ask the guide and he explains that no one really knows. It started hundreds, maybe one thousand years ago. One legend is that a husband and wife in the village got into a fight one evening. He was threatening her, so she ran away and climbed to the top of a coconut tree. He followed her, but she had a plan. She had tied vines to her feet, so that when she jumped to escape him, she wouldn’t fall to her death. She jumped, and then he jumped to follow her. The vines caught her safely, and she hung upside down, face covered by her grass skirt. He, on the other hand, jumped to his death. The woman then saw her love’s body on the ground and felt remorse. Luckily, she was a powerful sorceress. So, she untied her vines, climbed down and brought her husband back to life. They had an excellent yam harvest that year, and so it began.
But now, women do not jump; only men. In fact, women cannot even touch the tower or the vines. Andrew asked the guide if he could touch the vine. The guide explained he could, but I could not. Andrew asked the jumpers for permission, too, and he claims they said yes. But, as I turned and took a picture of Andrew holding the vine, I noticed seven concerned faces turned our way. Maybe they were worried I was going to get uppity and touch the vine too? Or maybe once again, their expressions do not coincide with our understanding of facial emotions.
Just like at the end of the Tanna dancing ceremony, the chief came out to thank everyone in the village and the tourists for coming to watch.
Then, the final jumper climbed to the top of the tower. The guide confirmed the top platform is at 15 meters (45 feet). If you have ever jumped off the top diving tower at a swimming pool, that will put this in perspective. The Pentecost diving tower is another third bit taller than the diving tower at a swimming pool. And these guys are not jumping into water! It makes my toes tingle just thinking about climbing out on that platform, let alone jumping off.
The final jumper had a lot more ceremony to offer the crowd, throwing a colorful frond into the sky. Then, with the singers singing his song of sacrifice, the whistling hitting a fever pitch, the WHUP WHUP — WHUP HUP — WHUP WHUP just so, he flies into the sky. THUMP. He hits the ground hard; that one is bound to yield a good harvest.
Slowly, we all filter away, hop back in the trucks. The villagers watch us go with their somber faces expressing “sincerity and meaning, gratitude” as Sam explained back on Tanna.
We enjoy lunch on the beach.
Then, we climb back in our 1979 Chiefton Piper. Does anyone else want to sit in front on the way back? Yes, yes I do. If I’m going to die in a tiny airplane, I may as well do so sitting in the front seat.
EYES ON THE ROAD, BUDDY!
P.S. I don’t think it occurred to my mother that I would climb on a little sailboat and sail across oceans, otherwise, I think sailboats would have also made her list.