Friday, August 30, 2019

Epi Island (Vanuatu) - Dugongs and a Circumcision Ceremony

[Kyle]We would have had an easy overnight sail from Efate to Epi, but the current was doing all kinds of weird things between the islands. We had downwind sailing and waves from all directions at once. The waves slowed us down, threw us around, made lots of crashing noises and generally kept either one of us from getting any sleep on our off-watches. Things didn’t calm down until we were ten miles from anchoring at Lamen Bay in the northwest corner. By then, we were wound up about the arrival and neither of us could get in a last minute nap.

Two other boats were anchored there, spaced well apart. We kept with the theme and anchored a respectful distance away from either. We did all of the usual stuff and then I finally admitted that I needed to get a few hours of sleep. Maryanne was still awake, so she decided to go for an exploratory snorkel while I slept.

Maryanne's first Dugong sighting!

I awoke when I heard her climbing back aboard. She reported seeing lots of big sea turtles and had even found a dugong. They are rumored to live in Lamen Bay, but it has also been said that the chances of actually seeing one there is pretty low. We were hoping, but not expecting to see one, so it was nice that she spotted it mere hours after our arrival. She said it overtook her at quite a good clip and startled her. Then it made a couple of passes by her and went on its way.

Afterward, we went ashore and met a woman named Benny (short for Bennington). She has the demeanor of a kindly Grandmother and serves meals at a restaurant that is a postcard of tropical bliss. We booked ourselves in for a buffet lunch the next day.

Ashore at Lamen Bay and the beautiful village of Vaemali

During the course of the day, the rally fleet caught up with us and we were soon cheek by jowl. Locals told us the record for boats in the anchorage had previously been nine. Now there were thirteen. After it got dark, we thought things would settle, but then we heard a low rumble. I popped outside to find a big ship bearing down on us.

Actually, it was small as ships go, but it still loomed over us. It came close enough that we could have whacked it with a boat hook if we were so inclined. It did an s-turn and dropped anchor right about where ours was. Good, I thought. That will hold ours down. Then every available boat in the village started shuttling back and forth with passengers and cargo. They did this for three hours and then the ship left the way it came in. We slept better after that. Then another one arrived at five-thirty and repeated the same procedure.

We watched that for a bit, marveling at the industry of everybody involved and then we went ashore for our lunch at Benny’s. Joining us was a family of four off of a Canadian boat. Benny served up a big meal of salad, sweet potatoes, cassava pancakes and lots of fried chicken, all covered in fresh squeezed lemon and coconut cream, which we helped her to make, Huck-Finn-painting-the-fence-style. We all had our go grating coconuts, but Benny was still three times faster at it than any of us.

We had a walk around the village and met Inspector Andrew. He was leading four other officers on a two-week bout of law enforcement. Mostly, he was doing firearms inspections, checking for rules violations like leaving loaded rifles unattended and unlocked. He also said they had raided a marijuana plantation and confiscated sixty plants. He was pretty open about the next one being tomorrow morning at nine a.m. We imagine that there are a few guys spending the afternoon on a quickie harvest.

After their long work day, some of his men were pounding kava for the evening. He invited us to come back later for some if we liked. He also pointed us in the direction of Cliff’s kava bar and recommended it as the best. He said we could even bring a jug and get takeout kava. Yummy!

We had no jug, but after wandering the village for the afternoon, one of our new friends, Bruce, showed us the way to Cliff’s. Cliff made a big batch and then announced the kava was ready. Maryanne didn’t even try any, so I had two shells for myself and bought one for Bruce for showing us the way. Cliff’s is a little confusing. Both the owner and his son are named Cliff, as well as one of the regulars. They all had this habit of changing places when you weren’t looking, at least until they had had enough kava. I was constantly saying, “Thanks, Cliff” and having a different guy answer me.

Kyle really seems to enjoy every opportunity to try Kava

Bruce then asked us how long we were going to stay. When we told him a day or two, he asked us to stay a couple of days longer. There was to be a circumcision ceremony for three of the boys in the village and we were invited. Bruce was an uncle of one of the boys and he would be being whipped during the ceremony. He said it proudly, like he was looking forward to it.

”Uh, we’ll see, but we probably won’t make it.”

In almost all of our subsequent encounters with the people of the village, they invited us to the ceremony and insisted that we simply can’t miss it. We had a lot more conversations about circumcision than I thought I would ever have in my whole life.

In the end, Inspector Andrew convinced us to stay. The Circumcision Ceremony is a BIG DEAL in Vanuatu society, on par with weddings and funerals. If we came, we would get to see the real deal in a real village and not some lame simulacrum put on for tourists. People were coming in from all of the nearby islands. We simply couldn’t miss it. Fine, we’ll stay.

After we got back to Begonia, another freighter came in. This was one of those beach landers with the big drop-down ramp at the front. As it approached us, the ramp started lowering in preparation for running onto the beach. Behind it, standing in front of the usual freight was a cow. I couldn’t help but giggle. Now I have seen a Sea Cow in Lamen Bay!

Kyle has a go at grating coconut, while the locals let us watch and learn as they open nuts, weave a new roof, and pound kava

We spent the next couple of days snorkeling in the morning and going ashore in the afternoon. I never saw an actual dugong, but it was nice to cool off. Johno from the catamaran Going Troppo and I went to Cliff’s for Johno’s first Vanuatu kava, plus some takeout for home. The next day, Duplicat arrived and I brought some for Rick to try. Along the way, we kept being invited to the big ceremony. Everybody was clearly excited about it.

Snorkelling, no more dugongs, but plenty of turtles
Probably Green Turtles

It turns out the Circumcision Ceremony we were going to see was not the actual circumcision itself. That’s a relief. That is done these days mostly as a medical procedure at the hospital. The thing we were seeing was the Coming Out Ceremony. After the actual procedure, the boy is given two weeks to heal. During this time, he is sequestered away from everyone and put under the care of his Uncle. At this ceremony, the boy, now considered a man, (ages vary, but generally they are 11-13 years old) is presented back to his parents and his village.

The ceremony starts in the darkness of morning, when the fathers are ceremonially given lashes by the uncles. Then they leave their compound and come out to meet their sisters. These are not only their actual sisters, but essentially all of the women in the village who are closely related by blood. This is so he knows to not date or marry his “sister”. Mountains of gifts are passed back and forth between the families of boy and those of his new sisters. More mountains are passed between parents and uncles. Essentially, all of the food in one village is exchanged for all of the food in another.

Butchering the Cows in preparation for the feast

The sisters prepare to swap gifts

Uncles present the boys in public for the first time since the circumcision

No peeking as gifts are exchanged (the boy tosses it in the general direction and hopes for no accidents)

The uncles run the gauntlet of the whipping lane

And the boys are now men...

Then comes the whipping. For this, the uncles have to run a gauntlet through a bunch of specially selected men with sticks, who whip them as they go through. I was never really clear on the reason for this, but it seems to be some kind of payback for the whipping the fathers received earlier. Even Andrew, who had been explaining the ceremony to us with running commentary, wasn’t sure. They didn’t do that part in his village. He said the whipping is specific to this part of Epi.

It didn’t look TOO bad. The whole run took less than five seconds, during which each man might receive three or four good whacks. I saw some wincing at the finish, but afterwards, the men were smiling and proudly showing off their welts.

Maryanne: The whole specticle of the ceremony was fascinating, if somewhat confusing, to watch, and locals and family members were all happy to share and explain what was going on. We didn't stay for the feast (more of a family thing), and after the early morning ceremony we returned to Begonia to move on to our next anchorage.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Efate Island (Vanuatu)

[Kyle]We had an easy sail from Erromango to Efate. Light tailwinds let us fly the spinnaker until we got close to Port Vila. Then I switched to jib and then to bare poles to slow down for a daylight arrival.

An overnight sail between islands

We had been hoping to pick up a mooring ball, but had been beaten there by all of the rally boats, so they were all occupied. Vila Harbor is really deep, with mostly 30-meter depths over a bottom that is littered with anchor-eating wrecks, storm debris and coral bommies. Our only option that wasn’t way out of town was to anchor along a very narrow strip of sand at the entrance. All of the other mooring ball orphans had the same idea and we all ended up packed way too close together in the available space. We spent all of the rest of the day keeping a wary eye in all of the boats right next to us.

The lovely family aboard 'Gone Troppo'
Helped us get to the appropriate officialdom offices
(We were so headed in the wrong direction)

{Maryanne: Port Vila is the national capital with a population of around 45,000. It is home to Parliament and generally more western conveniences, but also the national museum and plenty of local craft markets. While we were there we also needed to submit a sealed envelope to customs and collect a new one - we assume this is our cruising permit but were never quite clear.}

By morning, we decided we probably wouldn’t hit anyone and went ashore for a day of errands. We landed near one of the city’s big markets. They are helpfully named Namba Wan, Nambatu and Namba Tree in the Bislama language (Number 1, 2 and 3).

We found a table in the kitchen area of Namba Wan, where different vendors cook for a table or two of customers each. We squeezed in at a picnic table with a few businessmen eating their lunch and ordered one for ourselves. The prices are fixed for a standard meal with a choice of meat. Everybody else at the table had fish, but we opted for chicken. When the guy learned we were off a boat, he smiled and said he figured we were probably sick of fish by now. Something like that.

Our meal was basic; meat, salad and lots of rice, but it came on magic plates. Every time we looked like we were running low, the cook gave us more. Eventually, out of guilt about his spindly little chickens, he added in big chunks of beautifully marinated beef. We should have known. Vanuatu is famous for its free-range beef. It was marvelous and just melted in our mouths.

We introduced ourselves to the other guys at the table. The one we were sitting next to turned out to be the Minister of the Department of Tourism. Ha! He also helpfully pointed out which of the multicolored condiments was the REALLY hot sauce. When the cook saw me go for that, he produced a big jar of pickled hot peppers for me to spoon on top of my meal. I was a happy man!

Port Vila waterfront parks (with artwork)

We wandered the waterfront for a bit. Port Vila has some beautiful parks and lots of great public art. Everyone we met was nice, although not quite as gregarious as remote villagers. You can’t say “hi” to everybody in a city.

At the Market, there was also an unexpected performance by a group from the Solomon Islands

From what I had read, I had expected Port Vila to be upscale and even a little snooty. Instead, it was friendly and laid back. It’s not super scenic, but it’s got everything close to hand and it’s filled with smiling Ni-Vanuatu, who are rapidly becoming my favorite people.

We had a tip about some great views from the resorts on the far side of the ridge from the harbor. They all sit on the shores of a fresh water lake bounding the other side of Vila. The views were okay. I think the harbor side is prettier. It was really apples vs. oranges.

Ambling around Port Vila

Along the way, we stumbled on our first nakamal. Nakamals are technically meeting houses for the chiefly clans, where kava is ritually consumed. In Vanuatu, the name has now migrated to also mean any kava bar.

Kyle was keen to sample the kava at the Nakamals

Kava is different in Vanuatu than in Fiji. Firstly, it’s a LOT stronger. Mostly, that’s because they use as little water as possible in the preparation. The rest is probably because the strain of plant is more potent. Because the stuff is not watered down, it is also commensurately less palatable. Think espresso vs. weak coffee.

Thus, the process for consuming kava is different in Vanuatu. Although it is consumed ritually in groups on occasion, most kava is taken individually here. Since even locals gack at the taste, the procedure is to buy it by the shell, then drink it immediately by a tap, where the extra water can be used to swish out the flavor (and rinse the shell). Because kava is expensive and valuable, it is dispensed from locked cages. This makes the business end of a kava bar look like an off-track betting office is sharing the premises with a dental practice. Once all of the spitting and “get this off of my tongue!” faces are over, it comes time to go to the biggest part of the nakamal, quiet seating areas in the shade, where one can just chill while the effect kicks in. Then kava becomes communal again as people just hang out and talk under trees or at tables.

Vanuatu kava is definitely more revolting than Fiji kava. It is also definitely stronger. After only one shell, plus the part of Maryanne’s that she couldn’t finish (i.e. 1.95 shells), I was feeling relaxed and thinking warm thoughts about my beautiful travel companion. Despite the taste, I like kava. It fills me with a brotherly affection (she is my brother…), doesn’t make me woozy once it’s down, doesn’t give me heartburn and doesn’t give me a hangover. That said, kava is not a sipping beverage. Nobody is EVER going to have a nice glass of kava with a meal.

The next day, we met up with Rick and Amanda from Duplicat and took a walk to the National Museum before heading to a local microbrewery for a tasty lunch.

A trip to the Vanuatu National museum includes a demonstration of traditional sand drawing

We then boarded Muse for an overnight trip to Mele Beach for a fire dancing show. We have seen a bit of fire dancing now and we like it. Mostly we were there to spend time with the Muse family. We would likely be parting ways for at least a few weeks and didn’t want to pass up any time with them.

The show was A-MAZ-ING! Most fire dancing is basically just baton twirling with flaming batons. That’s cool, but these guys took it to a whole new level. It was like Cirque de Soleil with fire. There was the usual twirling, plus lots of acrobatics as well. They did one slow dance where they waved torches as long as palm trees overhead and then swooped them down low over the audience, bathing us all in orange light. It brought tears to my eyes (It was the smoke!). They also had this amazing trick where they would spin a flaming mace so fast that it would send a solid wheel of sparks into the whole sky behind the stage. We equivocated when Phil first offered to bring us along, but we are SO glad we decided to shuffle things around so we could go. We all had a great time.

After sunset we were wowed by the Mele Beach Bar fire show (with the wonderful folks from Muse)

In the morning, Muse brought us back home. They had a few last-minute errands and then they were heading to New Caledonia in the morning. They spent the night tied up to the fuel dock at Yachting World. We ran a couple of errands, but mostly stayed aboard. Our little patch was even more crowded and we wanted to be around in case someone came too close. We hadn’t slept well in the unfamiliar bed on Muse, so we went to bed earlier than normal.

As I was falling asleep, I could hear the music from the fire show going over and over in my head. What a nice memory. Then I realized I was hearing music with a similar tempo coming from outside. I popped out into the cockpit to look for the source and saw THE SAME fire dancing troupe doing the slightly abridged show at the resort across from the city. It was too far away and at a bad angle to see from where we were, but the beach they were using as a stage was right next to where Muse had been at their mooring before leaving for Mele. Oh, If only we had all known we'd have taken our dinghy over and enjoyed it all over again! Phil said he saw it too and had the same thought.