We head over to the beach where Tom sweeps all debris away from an area of sand and negotiates with Ahtist regarding the number of paintings he is going to do. He remains reticent and shy. When we tell him he can do whatever number he pleases, he gives us a half smile but continues looking at the ground.
A crowd begins to form. Ahtist squats down to the ground and traces a grid of lines in the sand. Then, he looks once up at me. My camera is poised, ready to go. Ahtist begins. Slowly, he traces a looping pattern in the sand, atop the grid. Loop, loop, curve, loop, loop, curve, loop, loop…one finger, dragging through the sand, never lifting from the ground. The crowd holds their breath, looking over Ahtist, maybe keeping a careful eye on his finger. “If he lifts his finger even once, he has failed.” Tom explains, “The sand drawing symbols are writings that preserve legends in our custom, forever. Ahtist must end the drawing at the exact same point he began.” As Ahtist’s finger meets the point he originally started from, he stands up and backs away. An exquisitely complex infinity symbol.
The crowd claps and murmurs amongst themselves. “WOW!” I say, overzealous with enthusiasm as I tend to be, “That’s amazing! It’s a turtle! AMAZING!”
“Yes. Yes! It’s a turtle,” The crowd responds in rounds.
Ahtist bends down again, traces his grid and starts a second drawing. Loop, loop, loop, swoop, loop. Now, the two boys who were at Ahtist’s house wander into the group. Loop, loop, loop. Ahtist’s finger never leaves the sand. He finishes and steps away. A fruit bat!
Now, everyone is excited. “What’s next Ahtist? What’s next?”
“How about the symbol for moon?” Tom says. Ahtist still says nothing. Just bends down and starts his next painting.
I move around, trying to get all the best angles for photos. Behind me, Ahtist’s teenage buddies are cajoling him and laughing, pretending to take pictures with their cell phones, mocking him (and me). He looks up at them and gives a half smile, maybe an eyeroll, but remains silent. And he draws.
The inside of a seed pod.
Ahtist is 17 years old. He is the only sand painter that lives in this village. When he was young, he was selected to learn the secret art of sand painting. It takes years to master. Sand painters learn the village’s sacred symbols and the stories that are built into the symbols. Every symbol contains a mythology, a story the Ni Vanuatu are trying to preserve. A master sand painter doesn’t just draw the symbol, but also times the retelling of the related legend (in their village language of course) to follow his finger as he draws the symbol. The artists learn the legendary symbols, but can also draw original works of their own. They perform the artistry in honor of various village ceremonies. Like the parents who save to pay the dancers to dance on Tanna, families who require a ceremony for a rite of passage like marriage must save up valuable items to pay Ahtist for his work. The stories, the technique, and the power that comes along with the drawings are passed down to the one chosen to be the village’s sand drawer. There are not many in Vanuatu because it is a high honor and special craft to be appointed. Now, the sand painters meet in one place and compete against each other.
“Two years ago, at the last competition, Ahtist was judged to be the second best painter in all of Vanuatu!” Tom says proudly. Sand painting is unique to Vanuatu, so really, Ahtist is second best in all the world.
When Ahtist has completed his drawings, Tom leans into Andrew and whispers, “Would you mind giving him 1000 Vatu to thank him for coming out?” 1000 Vatu is $10.00US. Andrew says of course, but asks Tom “Would it be okay if I gave him 2000 Vatu ($20US)? I think his work was worth $20.” Tom says of course, and when Andrew hands Ahtist the equivalent of $20.00 Ahtist’s eyes alight with a spark of thanks. He looks over at his buddies, who have now put away their phones and are no longer poking fun, and pockets the cash. I suspect it is saved for the Kava bar later that week. (Kava bars are closed on Sunday, of course.)
“Ok!” Tom says, “Time for lunch!” We return to Tom’s house to sit down with his family for a traditional meal of Laplap (taro, breadfruit or yam beaten into a dough like consistency, then boiled with fresh coconut milk in a wood fire), yam, manyok, tuna fish, and papaya.
When we are finished, Tom suggests that I have my hair is braided so I can look snazzy for church. My stylist (whose name was very difficult to say, and so now I cannot remember) parts my fuzzy mess into six sections and gets to work. She tightens, pulls and tugs until she gets every last baby fuzz woven into a braid. I yoga-fire breathe to contain my desire to whine about it. I don’t want to ruin my chances of a stylish church-do because I’m too weak of countenance to withstand the pain. Beauty is pain, people.
“Your face looks different!” Kreta marvels. Yes, that is because she pulled my hair so tight that this hairstyle is also serving as a facelift.
I do look quite snazzy. "It's BEaauuuuuuutiful!" I chime, when she is finished and shows me a mirror. Little Biji throws her hands in the air: "BEaauuuutiful!" She mimics. I laugh, and do it again. "BEaaaauuuuutiful!" I say. "BEaaaaaauuuuuutiful!" Says Biji. Oh man, could she be more cute. I smile, she smiles. I scowl, she scowls. I puff my cheeks, she puffs her cheeks. "BEaaauuuutifullllllll!" Everyone repeats to Biji's great joy.
Tom shuffles Andrew and I off to the boat to get ready for church. Tom has been concerned about my wardrobe for a few hours, suggesting that I wear one of Kreta’s dresses and offering to let me keep it as a souvenir. I tried to gauge Kreta’s desire to give away one of her dresses, but she’s a lockbox: only smiling and laughing. Does she want to trade me for one of my dresses? I never really do figure this out. I tell Tom not to worry, I have a dress that should be appropriate for church. He sends us on our way.
About a half hour later, we return all dolled up and carrying our ship’s bible in hand. I wear a blue dress with flowers, sleeves to my elbows and skirt below my knees. Tom seems satisfied with it, but it is definitely not bright enough to fit into the local color scheme. Andrew wears his Fiji Bulla shirt, shorts and flip flops. When Tom sees the Bulla shirt, he beams a big smile. “That is a nice shirt, Andrew!” He says, shaking Andrew’s hand. We find this a common reaction amongst the congregation.
Tom admires the bible, its pages pristine and unwrinkled - dare I say a bit too much like new? Tom and Kreta confer in their village language, something seems to be putting them off just a little bit. Tom leads us to church and indicates Kreta will be along later.
As we pass through the open door, a woman repeatedly smacks an old SCUBA tank with a hammer. “CLANG CLANG CLANG CLANG” It’s the church bell! We reach the pews and Tom indicates we should sit down next to him.
Every. Single. Eye. Turns. To. Look.
At first, I think it’s just our exotic - not from around these parts - presence, but the staring continues. People try to turn away and go back to their business, but before long their eyes are drawn right back. It isn’t a hostile look, just an irresistible tendency to watch something that isn’t in its rightful place. I analyze my surroundings.
A piece of notebook paper is taped to the wall explaining:
“If your wife is upset, it means she cares. If your wife is sad, it means you have disappointed her somehow. If your wife is quiet, it means she is giving up. And if your wife is none of these things, it means you have lost a good woman.”
Uh-huh…I look around. The church is now filling. Women dressed in traditional Vanuatu dress - long dresses with ruffles, bright Vanuatu pattern and tropical colors in every hue: canary yellow, hibiscus red, jungle green, bright ocean turquoise, bejeweled purple. They are a tapestry of women sewn together on the left side of the room. In front of me, a group of young boys, teenagers, men. I suddenly understand the staring. I elbow Andrew. “Andrew!” I whisper-hiss. “I don’t think I’m in the right place!”
“What?” He asks, and looks around. I point at all the women on the left side of the room. Andrew shakes his head, “No, you’re fine. Tom told you to sit here.” I’m sure I’m fine, but as I sit longer and longer, the staring does not stop. I am like one left ruby slipper among a pile of right footed soccer cleats. I just don’t fit, and it looks strange. I can’t take it any more. I am relieved to see Kreta slip through the back door and take a seat next to the woman who braided my hair. There is a gap between them, just big enough for me.
“I’m going to sit with Kreta!” I tell Andrew and dart across the aisle way, huddling down in the hopes that I will blend in and remain unnoticed. Not likely. I wiggle my bottom into my rightful place on the left side of the room. All the adult eyes turn to the front, leaving only the wide brown eyes of curious children aimed at my direction.
Kreta smiles, “You wanted to sit by me?”
“Yes! All the ladies are on this side; all the men are over there! I think I’m supposed to sit over here.”
“Yes, that is true,” She says, “but Andrew doesn’t have a bible in English. He won’t be able to follow along in Bislama.” Ahhhh! Now I know what the consternation was back at their house. They were trying to figure out how to deal with the women here/men there/Andrew no bible conundrum.
“Huh,” I say, “I think he will probably be okay.”
“Yes,” She says, “He can probably kind of read the Bislama.” Which is almost true, if we squint.
Singing begins, and everyone settles down. The lady who braided my hair pops open the Bislama hymn book and holds it between she and I, sharing so I can sing, too. She has a nice voice, like everyone in the South Pacific, and the room bursts out harmonies soprano, alto, tenor and base. I do my best - both with the tune and the words. It seems satisfactory. The minister specifically welcomes Andrew and I to the congregation and expresses his happiness at our attendance. Tom nods at Andrew as if to say, “Now, there. This is how it should be.”
We move through two readings, Exodus 12:9-12 and 2 Corinthians 7:2-13. Kreta watches over me, concerned that I may not know how to find my place but satisfied to find that I do. We read along with the minister. Once the readings are finished, there is a fiery sermon spoken in Bislama. We cannot understand most of it, but “REPENTANCE!” and “GIVE TO THE CHURCH!” seem to be the same in English and Bislama. At the end of the sermon, it was time for everyone to tithe. I expected baskets to be passed around, but that is not how it is done here. Before I know it, a tide of brightly colored ladies rush out of their seats and race to front and center of the church. Men file out of their spaces too, and everyone crams around one basket on a little pedestal to toss their envelops of money or cash into the pot. Just as quickly as we reach the pot, everyone runs back to their seats. I’ve never seen little old ladies run in church, but there they were.
We finish the service with another prayer and a hymn. Then, before I know it, the wave of tropical rainbow ladies rush out the door and flood the common area outside the church. I try to hang back, but both Kreta and my stylist tighten the space between them to catch me up in their current. “Women must leave the church first.” They explain. No one wants to be stuck in there waiting for the clueless, wandering sailor lady to leave. So, I follow, only finding Andrew once we have started our march down the footpaths and back to Tom and Kreta’s house.
We took a tour of the church earlier in the day, empty and waiting for its congregation. With as bright and colorful as the ladies all were, I deeply regret feeling too awkward to take photos during church. With everyone staring I couldn’t hardly pop out my camera and click away. So, these photos are the best I can do.
After church, we bid everyone goodbye until 5:30 p.m. when they were going to paddle out on their canoe to come to dinner aboard Sonrisa. Tom, Kreta, Richard, Ester and Evalyn.
As Kitty motors us across the bay, Andrew says “I should have told them I’m Presbyterian.”