Published: September 22nd 2008September 11th 2008
Sweat poured off me and my head span from the previous night's excessive kava drinking as the ground shook to the stamp of four hundred feet. Two hundred naked bodies jostled on a large flat area of bare earth hacked into the mountainside and I, the only one wearing any clothes, danced with them. People shouted out words in a language incomprehensible to me, giving me a strong urge to shout out something, even if nonsense, just to join in and feel more a part of the unified animal that the two hundred dancing bodies had become.
Dance, to me, has always seemed to have some sort of deep primordial power. Every culture in the world loves to dance and probably always has; surely this is an indication that it satisfies some sort of basic animal instinct within all of us, a need to momentarily forget about everything else in your life and lose yourself in a crowd of bodies all moving in the same way.
For three hours I lost myself in this dance. The sheer raw power of it, so close to nature, without the distractions of sound systems and lighting, was formidable. It took place on the isle of Pentecost. Although one of the least developed islands in Vanuatu, it is also one of the most well-known: it is the birth place of bungee jumping. Once a year, come April, the men of South Pentecost build huge wooden towers, tie jungle vines around their ankles and leap from heights of up to 100 feet. They measure the lengths of the vines very precisely, because the belief is that in order to ensure a good yam harvest, the hair of the divers must brush the ground. Predictably this event, known as the Nagol, is not without its casualties, and during April of this year one man died and another was paralysed. For most of the year almost no Westerners come to Pentecost, but during the Nagol it fills up with people on package adventure tours, although most of them only watch the Nagol in the easily-accessible Christian villages of the South-West coast. Cruise ships also stop by and send their passengers ashore for a chance to watch this spectacular event.
My journey began from the village of Salap, one of the Christianised villages that form the vast majority on Pentecost. Settlements on Pentecost rarely have trucks, the roads are almost impassable and there are very few shops. Salap was no exception. The people there speak the same language as those of the few Custom villages in the interior and one community's abandonment of their traditional beliefs and the others' retention of them does not seem to have caused any strife. Salap and all the non-Christian communities refer to each other as family; in Vanuatu, your family includes everyone who speaks the same language as you. If someone travels to another community that speaks the same language as him, even if he has no direct family there he can be sure of being housed and fed.
I headed East from Salap with a young boy by the name of Betu carrying my bag. The path crossed endless riverbeds until it began to climb steeply upwards into the mountains, the ground muddy and the air suffocatingly humid from recent rains. Betu seemed like a friendly type and we soon got to talking. It transpired that in two days' time one of the villages on our route, Ratap, would be holding a dance and feast to celebrate the opening of a new Nakamal. Men from the village had spent a year carving a large flat area into the mountainside then two months building the actual Nakamal, the the party was expected to have lots of guests from all the villages in the area.
After an hour we deviated from the path to pass through Ratap and ask them about the dance. The path to the village led steeply downwards for a long way and I groaned as I thought about going back up again. Eventually we were approaching the boundary of the village. Some boys, wearing only Nambas (leaves wrapped round the genitals) were playing outside but on seeing us began emitting greats whoops and screams of laughter and ran off into the village. I grinned and thought to myself that this seemed like it would be a nice place to spend a couple of days. We entered the village and rested briefly, a small crowd of Nambas-clad men, women in grass skirts and some of each gender wearing Western clothes gathering around us, all laughing, smiling and wanting to shake my hand. I felt a great peaceful happiness, thinking that perhaps I had discovered another Marakai. The a middle-aged man standing further away beckoned me over.
After we had introduced ourselves he got down to business.
"So, you know we have a rule in this village. If you want to look at it with your eye you must pay us 1000 Vatu and if you want to take a photograph you must pay 10,000."
I was so stunned that I could barely speak. It was not the fact that he had asked for the ridiculous sum of US$100 for a photo, but the fact that he had asked for money at all. It went against everything I had learned about the ni-Vanuatu people who on my previous travels had never asked for payment for food, accommodation, guide or porter services let alone for looking at a village with my eye. Later, when thinking about it, I realised that it was not even unreasonable - I was arriving in their home unannounced and unknown and clearly I had a lot more money than them. Why not try to cash in on the tourist trade? Anywhere else it would have seemd absolutely normal but after 3 weeks in the jungles of Malekula and Santo it was not what I was used to and came as a real shock.
I stuttered something about being sorry and not having much money and said that I would leave and head on to Bunlap, the village at the end of the path on the East coast.
"But you must pay us 1000 Vatu because you have looked with your eye. The High Chief in Bunlap has decreed it and we are not allowed to disobey."
My mind raced and I began to be afraid of the determined look on his face. I genuinely did not have enough money for this sort of thing and there were no cash machines on this island or Ambrym which was to be my next stop. All I could think of was to repeat that I was sorry, I hadn't known and that I would leave immediately. Fortunately he turned out not to be as insistent as I had imagined and agreed to this although he warned me that Bunlap used the same arrangement.
I trudged uphill away from the village with Betu, a great sadness coming over me. I suddenly felt unwelcome on this island and began to regret coming. I kept telling myself that it was totally acceptable and did not show any bad character on the part of the villagers. The problem was that it was acceptable by Western standards, but not by those of the Custom I had found in Malekula or Santo where anyone caught demanding such things would have caused an outrage. Anyway, I could not judge the people by the standards of another place, particularly as the law had been made by a High Chief who was almost certainly taking all the money for himself (I later learned that he lived in an enormous house in Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu).
Whether a good thing or a bad thing, the reason for the area's money-mindedness seemed clear to me: the Nagol. This event had, for years, drawn crowds of camera-wielding tourists, their pockets full to the brim with cash due to the lack of ATMs on this or any of the neighbouring islands. Over time, the villagers must have learned that these strange foreignors were willing to pay almost any price to take a photo of a naked Pentecost man making a Nagol jump to show off to their friends back home. Perhaps it began with someone being given some food, an innocent gesture of thanks from an intrepid traveller. A few years later, perhaps, when money was of more use as there was by now a shop on the island selling canned food and the like, a tourist decided to give some money as a gesture of thanks. Years later, maybe, the first tour group decided to give US$10 to each person it saw make the jump. A small amount to them but a vast sum to the islanders. Soon the peole began to realise that the tourists had far more money than they did but, naturally, the laws of Custom forbade them from demanding a fee from the spectators of the Nagol. However, all it took was one particularly sly and greedy chief to change the laws.
In Bunlap I was invited to stay in the house of a man named Bong. I found the people to be extremely friendly but their demands for money remained as steadfast as those of the people of Ratap. Some of the kids even asked me for change to buy cigarettes from their shop with. Again it was simply shocking, because it was just so contrary to what I had experienced on the other islands. Combined with their outright refusal to allow me to photograph anything in the village without paying the fee, it made me feel like an outsider to be used and taken advantage of. This was something I never felt anywhere else in Vanuatu.
The Chief seemed blissfully unaware of the effect his demands for money had on me. He laughed a lot when he talked to me, slapped me on the back and acted as if we were having a jolly good time together, which of course I played along to. The bizarre thing was that in every matter other than money they seemed like really kind, hospitable people; I believe they were just unaware of the real value of money, the way it works and the effects that demanding it will have on someone. And who can blame them after so much exposure to money-loaded tour groups?
They fed me well, myself eating with Bong's family while the Chief ate in a separate house on his own, as is the custom in these parts. A large quantity of kava was prepared, which we drank late into the night. On several occasions one or other of them would say to me something along the lines of, "Isn't it great in Bunlap? You don't have to pay for food, or for kava or for anything! Not like in Salap!"
Who were they trying to convince? Me or themselves? When they talked in such a way I just nodded or expressed one-word agreement while looking at the ground.
Many of their other customs and beliefs remained strong. About their religion they were far more forthcoming than the people of Marakai. Their world was made up of spirits which needed to be feared, respected and appeased and which inhabited a remarkably small area. The trees on one side of the village were where Barkulkul, their god, lived with his two brothers. People often went there to pray or just to feel at one with him. On the other side of the village there was a wooded area into which no one was allowed to set foot; here lived Yas, the devil, and his brother. Both could eat anyone who strayed into their territory. When told about this I looked over to those trees being mentioned and felt a shiver run down my spine. I could not put my finger on what it was, but there was something truly uninviting and sinister about them.
The next day the Chief sneakily allowed me to take some photos of him, but only of him. The idea of me having a photo of him on my camera seemed extremely pleasing to him. When I showed him the photo he roared with laughter and shouted, "Lucky for you, eh? Lucky for you!"
I have to say I didn't feel that lucky and I'm sure the photo gave him more pleasure than it did me. I had the feeling that by saying, "lucky for you," he was trying to make me or himself feel as though he was doing me a favour. He allowed me a few moe photos later on during the day and again the same phrase was used.
Bong also decided to allow me to take a photo of him, his wife and child. He took me down to their house and I photographed them standing outside it. Afterwards he approached me and said, "I won't charge you for the photo, but can you give me 1000 vatu for sleeping in my house?"
I was saddened that he felt he had had to ask, and especially that he had asked for an amount that was somewhat unreasonable, but of course I agreed to his request.
The Chief and I walked back to Ratap that afternoon. Preparations were in progress for the next day's party. Two bulls had been slaughtered, and several men were engaged in the process of hacking up the carcasses, laying out body parts and cuts of meat on a carpet of giant leaves and distributing them equally among the villagers. Others were building giant stone fires inside the Nakamal to roast taro and yams. Many were busying themselves with producing enough kava to fill up three enormous barrels, an arduous process that took several hours.
I tried to negotiate a cheaper price to photograph the dance, offering 3000 vatu and saying that I just wanted to take a few photos as memories of my stay. My offer was met by outright refusal. However, the same people who refused my offer were extremely friendly in every other way, offering me food, kava and conversation in abundance. Late that night, after eight or nine coconut shells of kava, a group of us danced in the dark outside the Nakamal, preparing ourselves for the next day.
In the morning I walked to a waterfall with a large group of men to wash. Here, as elsewhere in the jungles of Vanuatu, people were absolutely unashamed of their nakedness, and my requests to shower last, after everyone else had finished and left, were met with strange looks.
The dance began soon afterwards. A group of about thirty of us huddled together; one man, bent double, shouted into the ground while everyone stamped one foot in time with one another. Then there was a shout of "Eh!" and everyone began stomping from one foot to the other, making the ground tremble and the air resound with a sound similar to that of a drum beat.
Gradually the crowd of dancers grew. Women appeared and began dancing around the edge of the main crowd, constantly circling us. Some people acquired props, strange staffs engraved with unintelligible markings or poles with ends carved into four hooks which they waved in the air in time with the beat of everyone's feet. I became utterly absorbed in the dance and forgot all my hard feelings at not being allowed a camera. Looking back on it I am even glad, as having my camera would have prevented me from taking part to such an extent.
After around an hour a cry suddenly went up: "Bunlap! Bunlap have arrived!"
And sure enough, a hundred more naked villagers poured into he clearing and joined in the dance, adding to the noise, the quaking ground and the surreality of dancing with two hundred naked people.
Afterwards many coconut shells of kava were lined up outside the Nakamal and prominent figures were called up and given drinks. When the name "Eddy" was first called out I assumed I had imagined it or there was another Eddy. But I turned round to see someone holding a coconut shell and waving me over. I went to him, took it and drank to the applause of the crowd. It dispelled the last of my hard feelings. I felt like a guest again, rather than a source of money. I had experienced something truly magical that day and I had experienced it as one of the villagers, rather than as a tourist eagerly snapping photos from behind his camera. I had been a participant rather than a spectator, and I felt grateful to everyone in the village for allowing me to take part.
Money had changed these people and this realisation had at first been a shock for me. But, when thinking about it, why shouldn't they be allowed to profit from the tourist industry? As long as my money went to them, and not to their rich chief in Port Vila, I was happy to have given it to them. Anywhere else in the world, if you go to see a tourist attraction, you will pay. If you turn up uninvited at someone's house, you will probably be asked to leave. The people of Pentecost had not asked me to leave, had taken me in, treated me very well and merely asked for some payment in return for their troubles. South Pentecost was like any other tourist attraction in the world - you get what you pay for. The problem was not with them, but with me: I was looking for something else, for people untouched by tourism, people like those of Marakai. I told myself to dispel the notion that I would ever find a place like that again. To hope for such a thing was only ever likely to end in disappointment.
Click here for advice on independent travel in Vanuatu
Click here for advice on independent travel on Pentecost