"Arctracer" Letters

Ambrym Island to Maewo Island, Vanuatu, June 2002

We ended up anchoring off Ranon Village in Ambrym for a week and had many nice experiences. We socialized quite a bit with the three boats working for MARC - Medical Assistance to Remote Communities. One day we walked for about an hour uphill to the remote village of Fanla with 10 other people. We were served wild yam laplap, yams, two chickens, chicken broth, and coconut rice. All of this was placed on huge banana leaves on the mats that we sat on outside on the ground. Some of the teenagers had never eaten without a fork or spoon before so were inquiring about how to eat the rice without these familiar utensils. After the nice meal the four men in the group were given a small wooden carving, a tamtam, that Willie had carved. Willlie had received a ride with Richard and Liane on "Ranui" from Port Villa to Ranon and had invited everyone to the village. Two of the villagers played the local meter-long flutes for us. A Maori friend of "Ranui's" named Jason played a small seashell and sang a Maori thank you song, then we went to a village meeting place to listen to a string band and do some dancing. It was all great fun. We were given yams and grapefruit to take back to our boats. We saw no signs of Black Magic or sorcery while in Fanla, the village of the most powerful and feared chief in Vanuatu. As far as we know we didn't see this particular high-ranked chief either. We also found that things have changed since the early 1990's as the villagers were dressed in European clothes and not in their native ones.

Two other days we sailed south to the hot water pool that is heated by the volcanic activity on the island. Once we sailed with our boat and two local guys and the other time we went on the huge charter boat "Ranui" from New Zealand. Relaxing in the hot water was nice, but it was a little distressing to see the villagers that came on the boats finding megapode or 'incubator bird' eggs. This bird usually lives close to volcanic areas where the sand in which it lays its eggs is artificially heated by thermal energy. Megapodes grow to about 30-35 cm in length. The young hatch fully feathered and are able to run around immediately and fly within 24 hours. We didn't see any on Ambrym, but had seen one at the botanical gardens near Port Vila. We attempted to tell the villagers that they shouldn't take all the eggs, but the local attitude seems to be that if one person doesn't find them and take them, then his neighbor will. We hope the chiefs make the taking of eggs tabu at some point and let the birds survive. There aren't many of them around and since there is a lot of volcanic activity on Ambrym they still manage to survive there - even with many feral cats around.

We may see the crew of "Ranui" again if we go to New Zealand for the cyclone season, as they will be using their boat to charter in Auckland, taking people out to watch the America's Cup Races. I think we've been invited to join them on the bay without paying the normal $300 NZ per day for the experience. They borrowed our Iridium phone for three days to try to get theirs working. Also, we let them call their parents as their Iridium phone wasn't functioning and there was no phone at Ranon. They found out that their phone was the problem, and not the software, so are now in Luganville on Espirto Santo waiting for Fed Ex to deliver another phone from Hong Kong. The owners of "Ranui" are Richard and Liane and Richard needs his phone for calls and email. He is running the charter business for the America's Cup and is also a lawyer, so wants to keep in touch with clients while he is helping the MARC project. At the end of August they will be having 6 doctors staying on board while they help out here in Vanuatu. Liane will be cooking for them as well as for themselves and their two teenage sons.

Speaking of doctors, when we got to Ranon we needed out second hepatitis shot and met Doctor Jennifer Sandvig (age 33) from Salt Lake City who is also helping with the MARC project for a month. She gave us our shots on the beach and for the first time in years I didn't feel like fainting. Once the injections were done, she and another volunteer, Jamie Jordan from California and an undergraduate at Berkeley came to the boat for some banana bread. They had been staying in a local's house (bungalow) and eating laplap three times a day so were glad for something a little different to eat. When the boat "Rivendel II" arrived they were to stay on the boat instead of on land. However, when Rivendel arrived they had two non-functioning toilets, so we volunteered to have Jennifer and Jamie stay on our boat for a couple of nights until the toilets were functioning. During their stay I fixed dinner for them and for Hank and Neleka of Rivendel. They were so busy during the day that they REALLY appreciated not having to cook. I really don't know how they do all that they are doing.

We found the wood carvings in the northern part of Ambrym to be superb. We bought a carving called a "Maat" or "man" from a guy who came by in his outrigger, and a two-headed tamtam in the village. A local named Apia took us to meet Chief Bong and we found ourselves buying some things from him too. We got a pig's tusk, a meter-long flute that his wife had carved, and a musical instrument called a Lutato. The lutato resembles a bow as in a bow and arrow. It has a single string of native vine attached to it. The chief held one end in his mouth and used a piece of a coconut palm (small reed) to pluck the string while using the fingers on one hand to vary the notes he played. Quite an amazing instrument! He also played the flute very well, so we had to buy it. It was interesting the following evening when we were invited to the boat "Siome" to hear the chief play his flute and his lutato. He had made a new lutato since he had sold us his old one. It wasn't quite finished on the end, but that part was only decoration and had no need to be finished to be played. This particular concert was quite short as the wind was roaring and "Siome" dragged anchor, so had to reset their anchor with a boat full of guests. Alan and Marta have their daughter on board, a guy from the UK, a girl from Germany, and a nephew from North Carolina. Besides serving dinner to their crew, they also served dinner to us, the 6 people on "Ranui" and Chief Bong and his wife Elsie. Quite a crowd! I brought a lot of fried plantain and a cheese sauce for macaroni. Marta had macaroni, but no cheese, while I had cheese but no macaroni.

While in the village I asked about the bush ukeleles they make. Alec, the villager with us asked if I wanted one and I said I didn't know how long we would be in the anchorage. The next morning he and his friend John came rowing out to "Arctracer" in their outrigger canoe, playing a ukelele that John had stayed up most of the night making. It even had "Jerry & Nina" written on it. The strings are fish line and the instrument is made of one piece of wood. We'll get a photo of it to you eventually, but not through this email address. Now, I'd really like to learn to play it. Maybe we'll pick up a booklet in Luganville, or maybe a villager will give me a lesson. I have often regretted selling my classical guitar to one of my students near the end of my teaching career in Durham. Now I have a smaller instrument to practice on and wonder if I'll take the time to do it.

While in Ranon we also met a Peace Corp volunteer at the school store. He and his wife have been teaching at the secondary school there for a year and a half and are from Minnesota. We were running low on pencils to give to students so bought some from the students there so that we could support their store a little. We still have plenty of notebooks to give away and wanted pencils to go with them.

(view Ambrym Island photos)

I guess it is time to talk a little about the value of pigs here in Vanuatu. This isn't for everyone to read perhaps, but it is a way of life here. The Papuan pig has been held in very high esteem here since before the arrival of Europeans. Pigs are used in place of money, become food for special occasions, and have sometimes been considered deities. Chiefs in Northern Vanuatu attain higher levels by performing special grade ceremonies, which require the ritual killing of many pigs. From the Shepard Islands south the chiefs mostly inherit their titles or are elected. In northern Vanuatu men rise in status as higher level chiefs by producing feasts for all their villagers. Each step up the village social ladder may cost the chief a large percentage of his wealth. The pigs are killed with a single blow by a specially carved club. We saw several of these instruments for sale in tourist shops in Vila. Boars with curved tusks are especially valuable. The ni-Vanuatu people remove the upper teeth of the boars once the lower pair of tusks are well grown. These tusks take between six and seven years to complete a circle. Once the circle is complete the pig is hand-fed and kept carefully tied up to ensure it doesn't snap its valuable tusks off while foraging in the scrub or fighting another boar. A double- circling tooth takes about 14 years to grow, and is very highly prized. Should the animal's tusks grow a third circle, which happens very rarely, it might cost a pig just for the privilege of looking at it. The circular tusk is on the Vanuatu national flag.

For some reason I decided that I would like a circular tusk to wear as a bracelet. In Ranon I bought a nearly circular tusk to make a necklace. This was the one I bought from Chief Bong. He wanted 10,000 vatu for it which at 135 vatu per US dollar is about $75. After leaving Ranon we sailed to Batnavni on Pentecost Island. Bennington from Epi Island told us that her Aunt married Chief Alan Bule there and that he might have pig tusks for sale. Upon arrival we met many nice people and traded some clothes for "kai-kai" (food). However, we discovered that Chief Alan was in Vila getting papers signed at the Department of Education so that they could start their own secondary school. His wife was also away from the village and in the "bush" attending to some business. For this reason, we cut our stay short and headed farther north to another village on Pentecost Island called Loltong. We had heard that the snorkeling at Loltong was great, but found that the reefs were tabu now. The high chief makes the reefs tabu occasionally to allow the fish and shell fish to replenish. After talking with the locals for a couple of days I asked if anyone had a circular tusk for sale. Phillip and Juliet, who run a ni-Vanuatu restaurant found one for me. Phillip's aunt had a beautiful, completely circular one for sale for 22,000 vatu or about $165. Believe it or not this is a phenomenal amount of money here. We learned on Epi Island that Peter the teacher receives 2000 vatu a fortnight. This means that 22,000 vatu is five and a half months wages here in Vanuatu for a teacher. After a lot of thought we bought the tusk. Now we have to decide whether or not to clean it and if so how much to clean it.

We had many nice experiences at Loltong. One especially nice lady named Rachael (over 70 years of age) gave me a woven bag she had made and wanted some clothes. I invited her to the boat for a "look look" and gave her one of my two "island dresses" or Mother Hubbard dresses. I also gave her a blouse. She was so excited that she had tears in her eyes. Then two of her daughters also wanted dresses, so I got more woven bags, grapefruit, papayas, and lemons. Of course I wanted to keep my other "Island Dress" so gave them dresses I'd found in Australia for just such occasions. We hadn't intended to eat at Phillip's restaurant, but it is difficult to not support the local economy. We ended up having mashed cassava with spring onions and tinned corned beef along with a sweet laplap. They also made a local cup of tea for us with some grass that smelled a little like lemon grass. They had asked us if we wanted sugar in our tea and we weren't sure. I told Phillip I'd bring some sugar in case I wanted it but he said "no." We had wanted to taste this herbal tea before deciding whether it needed sugar or not. Anyway, it didn't require sugar and he had an new, unopened bag of sugar he'd bought especially for this tea. Oh well, they'll use it at some point but went to great expense unnecessarily. Before having our meal, Phillip insisted that Jerry have some "small" kava with him. He had gone to a lot of effort to dig up the kava, pound the roots, and squeeze it so Jerry had a couple of drinks. One drinks kava on an empty stomach and downs the contents of the half coconut shell in one gulp. I have to say that I felt Jerry got much more talkative than usual. Also, once back on the boat his stomach wasn't right, his tongue and lips were numb, and the back of his throat felt like it had "stuff" in it. He doubts he'll be drinking much more kava here in Vanuatu as the effect it has had on him the two times he has tried it have not been pleasant. He may have a little on occasion to show friendship, but will be honest about his stomach and not down too much in an evening.

Saturday afternoon at Loltong, Pentecost found us at a soccer game. What a field they played on! It rains every day there and the grass was fairly long. Also the local cows and bullocks frequent the field, so you can imagine the conditions - slippery mud and dung amongst the grass. Quite a long speech was given after the game by one of the local men. We didn't understand much of it, but the idea was to keep the cows off the field with a fence on only three sides. Games are played there every Saturday and there is to be a big tournament there on July 3rd with players from two other islands also involved.

(view Pentecost Island photos)

We've continued to listen to the radio every morning to get the World Cup Soccer scores. Several men in the villages we've visited have been interested in them and we've printed out many copies to give away. We've had some time for backgammon and cribbage games and for reading our magazines. It has been neat to see the Big Dipper in the sky near the horizon just after the sun sets about 5:45. We've lost a pair of sunglasses with many locals visiting the boat and we've had our trolling fish line wrapped many times around our starboard propeller when we forgot to bring the line in before anchoring once. We've had lots of ripe bananas and served a lot of banana bread to local ni-Vanuatuans. Fresh grapefruit juice or fresh papaya juice has been enjoyed at breakfast time. We've seen many porpoises and they've played around the bows of our boat a few times.

Presently we're in Asanvari Bay on Maewo Island. We arrived yesterday, Sunday. We never know whether to go ashore or not on a Sunday. Chief Nelson and his grandson came to visit us shortly after we arrived. We are anchored very near a nice big waterfall. He said we could go to the waterfall, snorkel the reefs, and visit the village. He speaks English very well and seemed a very pleasant man. Of course he would like to earn some money by serving us a meal, but we haven't decided whether or not to do this. Vanuatu is very different than Fiji with respect to meals. The Fijians often invited us to eat, but none of them did it for money. In Vanuatu there are many make-shift restaurants where many locals sit around and watch you eat. In Fiji everyone was eating at the same time as it was their meal too - a much more comfortable situation. After having peanuts on the boat and "telling stories" as they say here (rather than "having a chat"), we gave the chief a blanket that was left on the catamaran when we bought it. Slowly but surely we're reducing the weight on board. The chief of each village expects a small gift upon the arrival of a boat. Again, it was much easier in Fiji as we knew the gift was kava roots. Here we have to keep thinking about what to give.

(view Asanvari Village photos)

Today as I'm writing this, Jerry is starting to take paint off the port forepeak hull so that we can strengthen it with marine plywood, fiberglass cloth and epoxy.

We plan to visit one more island, Ambae, before we go to Luganville on Espirto Santo to get permission to go to the Banks and Torres Islands. Perhaps we'll be able to watch a World Cup Soccer game while in Luganville? Chief Nelson told us that you can watch TV on Santo.