Tuesday, September 25, 2007

gaua, chapterette the fourth: arts festival.

during the last week of my stay on gaua -- and this was completely unknown to me when i landed on the island, so another "coincidence" -- was gaua's yearly "arts festival," which is basically a big celebration of traditional culture. since independence in 1980, vanuatu has made a focused effort to hold on to its many traditional cultures; there are practically as many little cultural groups as there are languages.

festivals like this one are part of that. many of the kids get off school so they can come watch and learn, and it did seem that a huge chunk of the population of the island came from far and wide to see and participate in different aspects of the festival.

the delightful isolation of kaska bay, where i stayed, meant that it was rather far away from the festival. an hour walk each way, if you're walking at a good clip. collette, my hostess, has a truck and a boat, but of course neither of them were working. so: feet. but collette was one of the lead organizers of the festival, and on the first day i actually arrived with her and a former MP, a relative of hers. so tramping in with a couple of VIPs was one way to arrive at the festival in style.

for three days i got to see a lot of kastom (taken from "custom" and meaning traditional) dances and music, demonstrations of weaving and carving, and even a pig-killing ceremony. pigs are a hugely important part of kastom culture here, with the wealth of a man based on the number and quality of pigs he has. in order to rise in status, he has to kill a pig. pig-killing is different on every island, and gaua pig-killing is brutal, done by hitting the pig over the head with a special club. repeatedly. not for the squeamish. i forced myself to watch and i don't think i'll watch it again if given the opportunity.

there were also many speeches promoting "kastom economy." the government and the council of chiefs have declared 2007 the year for celebrating "kastom economy" in vanuatu. this means traditional ways of buying and selling, such as trading with pigs, mats, or shell money, rather than using cash. about 90% of ni-vanuatu (as natives here call themselves -- "ni-vans" for short) still live in these little rural villages and a lot of their economy is still kastom economy.

but that is in danger from the cash economy, largely because a lot of people are selling off the land that their families have farmed for hundreds of years, to get some quick cash. land is traditionally seen here as a treasure and a resource that you take care of and preserve for future generations. which makes vanuatu's a naturally environmentalist and conservationist society. but increasingly land is being seen as a commodity the way much of the rest of the world sees it, and that opens the land up to certain abuses. and a lot of people effectively sell their family's future without realizing it. one speechmaker summed it up with the phrase, "land is life, land is not money."

speeches were, happily, only a fragment of the festivities. the dances were fascinating, each one telling a story, with different sorts of costumes for each story. almost all of them were exclusively danced by men and boys. the dances looked exhausting, mostly including quite a lot of very energetic stomping that made the ground shake and sounded off the rattles that dancers wore around their ankles. even young boys joined in on some of the dances, with quite impressive skill and energy.

so loads of people watched the dances, and i lunched mostly on coconut and coconut products during the long days of the festival. i'm getting good at breaking and getting the meat out of a coconut, but had to buy a bigger knife in order to "stick hem" -- make an hole for drinking the juice. i have fallen in love with coconut jam, coconut cream, and various kinds of laplap... which is ground up mash from sweet potato, yam, manioc, or taro all steamed in coconut juice.

even better than coconuts was the water music, a way of using the sea itself as a percussive instrument, with rhythmic sloshing and slapping and clapping, mixed with singing. it's a lot harder than it looks, as i have already found out. i hope to post video of this on youtube once i have a fast enough connection back in the US.

only the women play water music on gaua. there are a few places in the south pacific where it's done, and i've heard water as percussion from elsewhere too. but there's nothing like the sound of a dozen women making calculated and varied rythmic phrases in the water in perfect unison.

one odd thing about the festival was the white people. somehow it attracted maybe 15 to 20 white people, mostly people on yacths who are sailing around the south pacific. after spending so much time with only ni-vans, it was very strange for me to see so many white people, most of whom actually spoke english. the yachtie (or "cruising") community is a special culture all unto itself, with a sort of language and kastom of its own. someone needs do an anthropological study of them.

that's all for gaua. i'll write more about subsequent adventures as i have time and internet access.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

gaua, chapterette the third: unparalleled peace and quiet. and church.

the trek (see last post) included an unfortunate incident involving a slippery rock, some branches, a borrowed pair of flip-flops, and a late-night potty trip into the bush, all ganging up on one poor helpless little toenail. the toenail, alas, was lost. gory details, i know! but it's already growing happily back.

the toenail incident, combined with boots i hadn't worn in a while, really did chew up my feet. as a result i was forced to kind of just stay at my bungalows for a few days after my return, not doing much walking, so that my feet could heal up without infection. plus i was knackered anyway. the heat and humidity can really wipe one out even without much exertion.

i used the days after my trek to write. i think i have come to a couple of breakthroughs as far as writing this book, at least in my head and in my notes. doing any formal writing here, though, is very hard, because i have a little tiny screen on my ancient handheld (running windows mobile 2000! awright!) to work with. the bungalow's generator, on which i relied to charge my handheld, only ran for an hour or two each day... when they had fuel. when they didn't, dinner was by flashlight and there were some very dark, moonless nights in there.

there is a beach very close to where i stayed on gaua that is just beautiful, and i was usually alone except for the occasional kid catching crab with a slingshot bow-and-arrow, or lady digging for clams. i went swimming with the little electric blue fish, or climbed on the rocks with the crabs.

the airport has the only working (well, sort of working) public telephone on the island. so on rosh hashana (erev rosh hashana in the US) i walked the half hour to the airport in the hot sun, to call and wish my parents l'shana tova. but the phone wasn't working. so i walked back.

moveline, who took care of me at the bungalows where i'm staying, was practically the only person i talked to for a few days. she cooked me scrumptious dishes, almost exclusively featuring freshly-caught fish and seafood from nearby kaska bay. starches were usually kumala (sweet potato) or yam (which is not a sweet potato; i have now finally learned the difference). also an abundance of pawpaw (papaya) and pamplimous (grapefruit), various coconut products, and juices. probably as healthy as i've ever eaten. and i have learned to like fish again! the sorry-looking (and tasting) river fish in belarus turned me off of fish for years. the robust and flavorful fish of the south pacific may have finally turned me back onto it.

in the dark, dark nights (moonless and generatorless) i went to bed very early, with mosquito netting secured around me, and a most intelligent but quite stinky mutt named poty (apparently intenionally reminiscent of "potty") curled up outside the bungalow to guard me. then i'd be up with the dawn to write and wander around for another day.

moveline was utterly wonderful to me, my mama on gaua. and then when i started to explain my spiritual beliefs and mentioned that i normally worship on saturday, she said "oh, i am SDA!" ... and i wound up falling in with the seventh-day adventist crowd.

so, church on saturday was a great highlight of my time on gaua. over and over again i got the precious vanuatu handshake and eye contact -- deliberate and slow with an honest, open face and genuine smile. i didn't understand much of the teaching at church, but the pastor referred to the Bible frequently so i took that for a good sign. people are very, very sincere about their chrisitan beliefs here. that doesn't stop them from believing in sorcerers and magic and the like. i did get a good feeling of honesty and purity in most everyone i met, on gaua at any rate.

after church i went to the airport to try another call to my family, and i eventually met with success this time. at the airport i met two peace corps volunteers, valerie and erin. when i told people i was american they all immediately assumed i was with the peace corps. vanuatu has about 80 peace corps, 3 of whom are on gaua.

vanuatu also has more lanuages per capita than any other country in the world: 113 or so known languages. seven of those on gaua alone. so valerie and erin, for instance, are picking up bits and pieces of two different local languages, though they live a couple of hours' walk apart. i learned many phrases in the language that's spoken at kaska bay, but those won't be much use to me anywhere else in vanuatu! most people do not speak english, either, but use bislama -- a sort of pidgin english that i'm finally beginning to pick up a bit -- to communicate with speakers of other languages.

one more chapterette to go.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

gaua, chapterette the second: trekking.

a few days after my arrival on gaua i went for two-day trek with an excellent trekking guide named george kite. the walk was up one mountain to the tall (120 meters, about 500 feet) siri falls, and on to a lake at the base of gaua's active volcano, mt. garet. unfortunately, i was quite ill on much of the trek... whether it was just that i wasn't properly used to the weather or the food yet, or that i actually had some kind of bug, i still don't really know.

the plan was to climb the volcano, too, but since i was unwell and since we had gotten a later start than intended due to a miscommunication, we did not make it to the lake in time to catch a canoe across to the volcano. so i had to be satisfied with climbing just one mountain instead of two. george had two of his kids with us, too, teaching them to be young guides themselves.

the bridge to the waterfall was out, making that a much longer walk than usual, and we had to climb over branches and vines to cross the rushing river on the way there. then up, up, constantly up. truth be told it was a rather miserable experience since i was feeling like i'd have to throw up every few minutes, but i held down my food and the waterfall was definitely worth it.

from there it was a less steep walk on to the lake, where we set up camp for the evening. my borrowed tent no longer had working poles, so george used stalks of bamboo as poles. he even built a shelter for the fire with bamboo tied with vines, and big laplap leaves as a roof. quite impressive.

my tent was quite leaky and i duct taped it as best i could but that didn't seal everything up for the very rainy night. it was wet and miserable, and once an item of clothing got wet it never got really dry. i was very glad when i finally made ti home not too sick and without any infected cuts. neosporin is a wonderful thing.

so is a moleskine notebook, by the way. say what you like about the trendiness of the brand, but my moleskine notebook survived a day in a pack with a wet tent and sleeping bag, with no ill effects.

see my flickr page for photos of the trek. chapterette the third is on its way.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

gaua, chapterette the first: arrival.

first off, be sure to check out my flickr page for photos of what i write about below.

future posts won't be so long, i promise!

vanuatu as a nation consists of 83 islands. gaua is very much off the beaten track for travellers and tourists, in probably the most oft-ignored province in vanuatu. for reasons mostly related to the book i'm writing, when i found out about gaua i had to go there. something a bit like a mystical imperative drew me to the island.

and gaua did not disappoint. it started with a string of wonderful "coincidences." the day i landed in port vila i went to the air vanuatu offices to see when was the earliest i could get to gaua. flights there are three times per week but you have to go through luganville on the island of espiritu santo, and flights to luganville are often booked up. but there was one seat on the flight the next day. i grabbed that, and when she asked me when i wanted to return, i sort of pulled the 21st out of a hat.

the next morning (the 5th, my second day in vanuatu) a taxi got me to the airport for 6am check-in. i was just under the 20kg weight limit for baggage.

after buying an L&P (lemon & peora, a wonderful new zealand soft drink that i have missed for four years) i sat down, and who should sit next to me in the lounge but the only other person going from vila to gaua today: david. david is a schoolteacher who speaks excellent english, and when he found out i was going to gaua he got all excited. we talked about the island a bit and he said he would help guide me through luganville and on to gaua.

this was the first of many times on this trip that i thought of what paolo coehlo writes in "the alchemist": that when a person is following their dream, the whole universe conspires to help them acheive it. i don't think the universe is conspiring so much as being orchestrated by God. but i can definitely feel it happening.

we were served salted banana chips on the flight to luganville. way better than pretzels or peanuts. i had a window seat and took photos and ogled. vila is on the island of efate, which is breathtaking from the air, and i shall have to explore it more later.

we landed and i got my bag, which i'd have to re-check for the gaua flight. i went to the little airport cafe and bought water and laplap, which is considered the national dish of vanuatu. it's a mixture of all sorts of good things wrapped in a leaf and soaked in coconut juice, then steamed. oh my goodness it was so good. a bit messy, but oh my, so good.

we boarded the a little twin otter plane (room for six passengers) to gaua. it was cloudy over gaua but i did get to see a spectacular waterfall, to which i hope to hike during my stay.

after about 45 minutes we landed on gaua's grass airstrip and i looked at a village full of people whom i don't know and who don't speak my language and had a "what on earth am i doing?" moment. i got my big bag out of the back of the plane and david introduced me to chief victor, who was by the plane getting cargo for his village. chief victor didn't have much english but i said "kaska bay guesthouse" a few times, which was the place that i decided on for tonight because the description of it sounded rather isolated and exotic. it's also far from the village where the airport is, so i was hoping to get a boat to take me there rather than walking.

when i mentioned kaska bay, i started hearing the name "collette." i figured out that collette's guesthouse (or "bungalows") _is_ the kaska bay guesthouse, which was perfect because that was where lavie (someone i found online, who lives on vanua lava, the next island to the north of gaua) had told me to stay. i was going to go to kaska bay first and then try to figure out where collette's was later on.

so victor told someone to find a guide to take me to collette's, and i sat in a pavilion thing with a bunch of women to await my guide. all the men sat in one building, and all the women and children in another. finally a teenager came to collect me and introduced himself as phillipe. we then started walking.

it was probably a 45 minute walk, and my bag was very heavy. i had the 15kg pack, and phillipe carried the 3kg backpack for me. it was a hot and sweaty walk. but on the way we chatted -- he has pretty decent english though my bislama is nonexistent. and he asked me if i knew anyone in vanuatu and i said "do you know lavie?" his face lit up and he said, "oh, lavie is staying with me now!" at first i thought i must have misunderstood but i hadn't; lavie and his partner elizabeth are in fact staying at collette's right now!

i was beyond thrilled that i was going to be able to pick their brains about things right off the bat. i thought i was just going to have to make do without any real orientation for the next couple of weeks, and when i landed in gaua i thought, wow, maybe i should have gone to sola first and at least met someone i sort of know before going off on my own like this. i was also not looking forward to lugging around the litre of rum, which i had bought for them, for several weeks. so this worked out ridiculously well. phillipe called me lucky.

we eventually arrived at the bungalows, where i was shown my room, which is quite nice. i settled in a bit and then moveline, who does the cooking, served me an incredible lunch of fish and kumala (sweet potato) fries and cucumber. very good and pretty representative of my diet for the next few weeks.

the place itself is wonderful, too. i used the squat pit toilet before i saw that there is actually a (seatless) porcelain toilet with a bucket flush and -- oh great joy beyond belief -- toilet paper! there is also running water (from a rainwater collection tank) and even a cold shower, but they give you a bucket of hot water if you ask.

the bungalows are situated on this gorgeous little cove with nice perches for writing or meditating, and a 5-minute walk away there is a beautiful beach. aqua waters, black volcanic rocks, crushed coral sand.

after arriving i spent a few days just learning from lavie and liz about life here. we went for swims and i gradually got used to the food. lots of fish and seafood. and i am even beginning to develop a taste for it. (wonders never cease!) particularly odd was enjoying crabs for an erev shabbat meal.

tune in tomorrow (maybe) for chapterette the second.

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