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.

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