Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Purity of Tanna

The crimson red glow of Mount Yasur's boiling volcanic cauldron greeted us from 20 miles away as we approached the island of Tanna at night last week. Tanna is in the south islands of Vanuatu, a perplexing group of 86 islands in the South Pacific and while it preceded our visit to Port Vila as well as this passage from which I write, it continues to hold a tremendous impression on me.

We were there less than 24 hours, yet I can't stop thinking about its way of life. We came ashore at daybreak at Port Resolution, where Captain James Cook landed hundreds year ago, and while the people are now dressed in modern clothing (as dirty, worn and holey as they are), I'm not sure much else has changed since his visit. The ni-Vans, as they are called, are a deeply superstitious people who, though having adopted Christianity, still incorporate much of the mysticism into their beliefs. And who wouldn't, given the grumbling angry mountain so close by. But more on Mount Yasur in a bit.

We were greeted by Simon who spoke little English and was slightly slow. Any 'stranger' who enters a village in Vanuatu is escorted due to the prevalence of 'kastom' and 'tabu' to ensure we walk the straight and arrow. We were looking for Stanley, who was to be our guide to the volcano, and Simon took us to him in the village, a short walk away and past the local school, bubbling with the yells and laughter of all playgrounds worldwide. The village itself is not much different than it's been for years. Houses on stilts are still made of the forest out of wood and leaves - one room with woven leaf mats for beds. Stanley showed us how the roofs are made to ensure no water leakage, but need to be replaced every couple of years. The little groups of huts are divided into family branches, and each couple of houses share a cooking hut, with fires going and food cooking almost all the time. The younger children are running freely, ridiculously dirty, some without any pants on, playing with each other mindlessly, or hacking away with a machete at a piece of wood (!). They toss around a home-made ball made of leaves and wrapped in spider webs. As we watch, Stanley's wife quietly places 3 papayas into my bag and hands me a bunch of green bananas. She then brings over an impressive woven dried-leaf shoulder bag which she holds out to me without looking me in the eye, and then quickly disappears.

Further down into the village, another clan of about a dozen men, women and teenaged boys are sitting in the midst of its group of huts on woven mats wrapping their latest catch of fish in some sort of green leaves, and tying the leaves around with strands of dried leaves of a different kind. One of the women explains in French that they will steam the fish. Water is taken from a central spigot. And then she places 5 ears of corn into my bag. The corn, she explains, is thrown into the ground in special pits and left to ferment for 3 months. We boiled ours later that day.

The pig pen is the pride of the village. After all, pigs here stand a rung above the women as they are the only way for villagers to climb in rank. A pig kill and feast hosted by the owner is a sign of wealth and power and feed the villagers for days. The most coveted are the males who grow tusks that circle around and painfully re-enter their jaw bones. We saw one on its way.

Later that day, we were taken to the volcano, a bumpy forty minute four-wheel drive away, along pot-holed rutted-out paths, often along dried lava flows that naturally created the way. We arrived at the parking lot, a colorless grey rocky expanse that seemed to go on for miles. We could have been on the moon. The climb to the crater's rim took less than 15 minutes straight up, and as we got there, the roar of the mountain made me jump. 'Angry' was all I could think of. And without delay, the fireworks display began. High into the air, red hot lava spewed up, up and up, lighting the area as if it were daylight, and then subsided again until the next rupture. All from about 300 feet away. Apparently, this is the closest one can get to the inside of a volcano anywhere in the world. And it was quite impressive.

Stanley explains that the people in Tanna believe that Mount Yasur is their creation god, and after the people prayed to him for a way to cook, he created the fire of the mountain. The people also use the boiling water that bubbles up through vents closer to the village for steaming their food, including those fresh fish that we saw being prepared. The mountain has not fully erupted in several hundred years, but has killed people who ventured too close as recently as last year. Stanley proudly explains that the people figured out the volcano's active phases far before the official government monitoring stations.

Vanuatu became a state only in 1980 (previously it was known as New Hebrides), after a mild tug-of-war between its French and British settlers. Interestingly, it was never actually colonized. The indigenous people make up over a hundred different unrelated clans, and the fact that over one hundred different local languages (not dialects) are still spoken today continues as proof. At one time, both French and British legal systems existed unofficially side-by-side (yes, people drove on both sides of the road, depending on where you came from). Still today there are remnants of this in school systems - one French and one English. The one uniting language became Bislama, a form of pigeon English - but that's a separate blog post in and of itself.

What struck me most was the purity with which these people live. They grow whatever they need. There are no stores. There is no need for money until the school fees come due every 3 months, at which time the clan harvests whatever they can to sell in the big city. They all work together and share any extras with others or it will spoil. They help each other repair roofs, wrap fish, care for children, and weave a mat. Time seems to stand still in its utmost purity.

-Barb, en route Vanuatu to Chesterfield Reef, New Caledonia
18 degrees 26.409 minutes South
164 degrees 05.324 minutes East
At 11/1/2011 08:56 (utc) our position was 18°12.65'S 165°04.78'E

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1 comment:

  1. It's hard to believe you experienced all this in one day. It's also amazing that such a simple life for them is so interesting for us. But, could we be content living their lives?