"Arctracer" Letters

Epi Island and Ambrym Island, Vanuatu, June 2002

On June 2nd the school teacher, Peter, stopped by to share stories (talk). He told us that his wife will never forget us because we gave her four bowls that had been owned by the previous owners of the boat and four drinking glasses. He said that she plans to give her daughters each one of the bowls when they get married. We had noticed when we went to their house for dinner on Sunday that they didn't have enough bowls for their boys to eat with us, so the boys had eaten earlier. They were also worried about not having any silverware, as they eat Island-style with their fingers. They had also bought the equivalent of koolaid to serve as a drink, but had nothing to put it in except the bowls we had our food on. They bought it especially for us and we told them we would rather have water - so next time they won't have to go to the expense of having this "special" juice as they called it.

After Peter left Jerry went ashore to get the local Presbyterian minister, Apia and his wife, Bennington. Bennington had made a special laplap for us - wild yam laplap with chicken (on bones) and coconut cream. After eating the laplap Island style, with our fingers, we had pineapple upside down cake that I had made. That was a REAL hit with them. Bennington asked me for the recipe and said she didn't have any brown sugar, so I gave her enough to make a couple of cakes.

Laplap is Vanuatu's national dish. It's made by grating either manioc, taro roots or yams into a doughy paste. The mixture is then put onto taro or wild spinach leaves, and soaked with a milky juice made from grated coconut diluted with water. Next, pieces of pork, beef, poultry, fish, prawns or flying fox are added. Taro or banana leaves are then wrapped around the doughy mix and tied up with strands of vine. These tightly wrapped packages containing the laplap are placed in a ground oven which has been hollowed out and specially prepared with a base of heated hot stones. Lastly, everything is sealed with an upper layer of hot stones. This kind of oven is called a lovo in Fiji, an umu in Tonga and a hangi in Maori (Cook Islands and New Zealand).

We were told by some cruising friends of ours from the UK that we should meet Apia and Bennington. We really liked them and they decided we should learn Bislama, so they only talked Bislama on the boat for a while that evening. They are trying to find a way to be able to send their 5 kids to school. Everyone in the Pacific Islands has to pay for their kids to go to school - about $200 per semester - a phenomenal sum for these islanders. They have the same old system that most islands have where students have to keep taking exams to see if they can continue their schooling (from grade 6). When the islanders have so many children, sending them to school is more than they can afford. Bennington gave us a postcard of the resident dugong and wrote on the back of it in Bislama for us. I made her a collage of photos of Sydney and put contact paper over it. They are going to a church convention in Sydney next month. It will be Bennington's first trip out of Vanuatu, but Apia has been to church conferences in New Zealand. They are very lucky to have Australian friends paying their airfare and hotel bills. We know that Bennington will find the hotels in Sydney very different from the bungalows she has seen for the tourists in Vanuatu. It should be quite an experience for them. They have been thinking of building a bungalow for tourists, but after Jerry told them about campgrounds in the US, New Zealand and Australia they got very excited. It would be much less expensive for them to build an enclosed toilet and get running water to a camp site than to construct a building. They had never heard of campgrounds before and there are none in Vanuatu. They plan to ask the chief of the village if they can have such a place. Perhaps there will be news concerning this when we return to Lamen Bay in August. Anyway, they were so excited that they forgot about using Bislama and reverted to English for the rest of the evening.

We have invited this family to join us on August 19th to sail to Port Vila for the 2nd Melanesian Arts and Cultural Festival and the Fest Napuan (Music festival) from the 20th to the 28th of August. On the 29th we'll sail from Port Vila on Efate Island back to Lamen Bay on Epi Island to get them back home. Their two sons may go too. Eric is 18 and Andrew is younger (we haven't met him yet). Their three other children are away at school. It should be quite a learning experience for us and for them. We're really looking forward to this. We just hope we have enough time and good weather to sail back to Port Vila to check out by the time our visas run out on September 6th.

(view Epi Island photos)

After going ashore on June 3rd at Lamen Bay to say goodbye to Apia and Bennington, who cook for the high school, and to the school teacher Peter, his wife Nauli, their twin sons Adis and Carl and their son Joseph we left Lamen Bay for the island of Paama. Although Paama is only about 10 miles away, we had fairly rough seas between the islands and had to clamp the board back in our forepeak so that the hull wouldn't flex. Repairing that hull and strengthening it will be our next major project. We wanted to anchor off Paama as it has a great view of the two active volcanoes on Ambrym. We weren't lucky enough to have a clear night though, so we never saw the spewing volcanoes that evening. We had seen them one clear night from our anchorage in Lamen Bay. What a sight it was!

Our trip from Paama Island to Ranon Bay, Ambrym Island on June 5th was pretty good. The wind was fairly strong, mostly over 20 knots with gusts to 38, but the waves were not large and we went mostly downwind. We caught our first fish of the year, a tuna, on the way. It tasted great with fried ripe plantains and mashed local sweet potatoes for dinner that evening. We sailed past the two active volcanoes that we'd seen red in the sky from our anchorage at Lamen Bay, saw barren hills where nothing can grow because of the acid rain and volcanic ash, and went by some hot springs. We considered stopping for a swim in a warm pool, but the wind was strong and the anchorage very rolly so continued on to Ranon.

We had several reasons for stopping at Ranon Bay. Hank and Nalaka on the boat "Rivendel II" who immigrated from Holland to Utah in 1978 were there. We met them in Port Vila. Nalaka is a ski instructor and Hank used to practice medicine and now is a professor doing environmental research. They are the heart of MARC - Medical Assistance to Remote Communities. (They have a web site.) With the Hope Alliance, some cruisers and a group of international students, they are working this season to improve health care in a few Vanuatu communities, including Ranon Bay. They weren't here when we arrived because one of the islanders had become VERY sick and they had taken him on their boat to an island which has a hospital. Alan and Marta from Florida (who saw our schooner for sale in Palatka, Florida before we bought it) are here helping Hank with his project. They have a 60+ foot steel schooner named "Siome." We first met them in Russell, New Zealand when we entered the "tall ships" race a couple of years ago. They spend most of their time in New Zealand now, so they must have dual citizenship.

We bought two wooden masks and a wooden tropical fish from Ranon Bay at the market in Vila. This island is famous for its wood carvers and we might see some of these artists at work. There are other forms of art here too. They are well known for their sand drawings. With these they draw intricate, stylized designs without lifting their finger until the drawing is complete. Tam tams - tall slit gongs made from breadfruit trees, bamboo flutes, fern carvings, and volcanic stone carvings are also made on Ambrym - especially here in the village of Ranon. A ROM dance festival is held every year in the middle of July. It means 2 days of dancing, magic and feasts.

Our guide books say that Vanuatu's best handicrafts come from Northern Ambryn. At a village not far away is the home of a chief who is reputably the most powerful magician in Vanuatu. He is the most powerful and feared chief in Vanuatu and the island of Ambrym is the focal point of Vanuatu's black magic. The custom people believe (and some of the Christians too) that when someone gets sick it is because of sorcery. The top 3 chiefs find, pick, catch and cook everything they eat to avoid being poisoned. They don't even let their wives cook for them. The village, a walk over the hill from Ranon, is a custom village which means they aren't Christians. They have so far rejected Christianity, preferring to worship their own god Barkulkul instead. There is an ongoing dispute between the custom villagers and the churches over polygamy. The men wear only penis wrappers and the women only grass skirts in their village. Only foreigners are permitted to wear European clothes in the village. If they have to go to Ranon they sometimes don European clothes as worn by the villagers in Ranon. There are custom villages on several other islands but most villages now have adopted European ways, and some of the "custom" stuff seems to be now mostly for tourists. We are not going out of our way to visit any custom villages now. Our priority is to see the Banks and Torres Islands which are the farthest north and the most remote. Sometimes they don't see a supply ship for 3-6 months, the snorkeling is fantastic, the villagers are less educated, they don't see many tourists or sailboats, and it sounds like the perfect experience here in Vanuatu for us.

Other interesting facts about Ambrym are that Peace Corp teachers come here sometimes, the beaches have black sand from the volcanoes, the northern-most villages are mostly French-speaking (as opposed to English). Most villagers speak Bislama and their own native language, but not all villagers speak English or French. At Peter's school we noticed that the 10-year olds had textbooks written in English. Northern Ambrym is where the island's customs and traditions have been least affected by the modern world, especially at Fanla (the village over the hill from Ranon). Kava is very popular in Northern Ambrym. Unlike Fiji where dried roots of the kava plant are used for their drinks, the ni- Vanuatuans use green roots. We tried the kava in Lamen Bay and Jerry's stomach wasn't right for a couple of days, so we aren't all that keen to have too much of it. One guide book says that to refuse kava is to refuse friendship, so we'll probably find ourselves trying a small cup (half a coconut shell) of it. The taste is very different from the kava in Fiji and the ground green roots made our tongues numb. It was much more bitter than the Fijian kava too - not wonderful stuff.