Prophets, canoes, villains and other surprises on Malekula Island

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30.08.2017

In the morning the yacht “Alabama” is anchored in the bay of the central town called Litzlitz at the north side of Malekula. Malekula is one of the several big islands of the country Vanuatu and is popular with its myriad tribes, cultures and languages. Cannibalism and inter-tribal wars have been really vicious in the past of the island. The sub-culture of this land is still preserved and there are almost no tourists.

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_100448Malekula’s coastline 

The Koreans prepare their luggage hurriedly. Their ferry is set to leave in the late afternoon, but considering how time goes here it will most probably be off several hours after the scheduled time.

 

Tourist information:

Sea transportation is well organized in Vanuatu. Most of the islands (especially the big ones) are connected by weekly ferries. There are also a lot of cargo ships, which will probably be very glad to accept hitchhikers on board. The ferry’s prices are quite high. For example Malekula – Port Villa is 6 000 Vatu (around 60 Euro)

At 5 p.m. we go at the dock to send our people. There is a small market where passengers may buy cooked food for the journey.

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_100454The market at the quay

Our crew performs its usual show, which is an amalgamation of music, dances and laughter. All the people stare at us flabbergasted while we hug our friends for one last time. There are even some tears shed… For 16 days of sailing together strong connections have been made among everyone. At the end they embark and leave.

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_100439The whole crew

Our friends go to drink kava at the local nakamal and Mr. Shushtari and I go back to “Alabama” to bake pizzas. This evening there will be eight people on board, which is the original crew set to sail the boat to Korea. For the time being everyone got used to the madness on the boat with so many people and kids, that now we feel kind of lonely – eight people is such a small group.

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_100434Marcelo bargains for cacao

31.08.

It is a lazy day on “Alabama”. In the afternoon we decide to go around Litzlitz, which is half an hour walking from the dock. Cars and trucks travel on the dusty road. Alongside one can see the typical huts and villages. To say  Litzlitz is a town is not exactly right – it consists of a grocery shop, a gas station, a bank and a small market. We buy vegetables and hitchhike back.

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_103444With the locals

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_103452Nivan

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_103514Sweetie

Tomorrow Afra has birthday so we will sail this night towards the most secluded and beautiful places in the south of Malekula. Sailing goes as usual – the autopilot stops and then starts and then stops again. The sea is rough. Anyway we manage to cross the 40 nautical miles during the night.

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_103500Lobster

01.09

The morning reveals a beautiful scenery – the Maskelyne Islands. Around us we see quiet bays, yellow tropical beaches with coconut trees, cliffs and transparent blue waters. “Alabama” is anchored and we start cooking delicious meals for Afra’s birthday.

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_103256Maskelyne Islands

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_103247Locals also use sail boats

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_103304…and canoes

The day is cloudy and rainy. Mr. Shushtari and Marcelo go to dive. I go on land, enter under the hatch roof of a house for drying copra and start working on our blog.

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_103310The hut where I was writing the blog

In the evening there is a big celebration with huge dinner, whiskey and brownies. Later Afra performs a ceremony where she burns a big sheet of rice paper with beautiful wishes written on it in Chinese.

02.09

In the morning we go around the close by island Ahue. The local chief takes us to the village, which consists of three small houses. A group of women dressed in rather dirty traditional clothes, which resemble colonial dresses for governesses, clean each others lice. Some of them stare at us with suspicion, as if they have never seen western people before. Then they smile widely as they hear us talking in Bislama. The chief tell us stories of black magic, people flying and how to us cranial bones to make potions. According to him, because of drinking this potion, Chinese acrobats could perform somersaults and climb 4-5 people on top of each other 🙂

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_103318Local women

Everything looks mysterious and ghostly again – I don’t know if it is because of the weather or this is just the spirit of Vanuatu. In the afternoon it is time to go visit the coconut plantations of the main island Malekula. There are many people in the jungle. They gather coconuts or nuts form the “nangai” tree. A group of kids and adults dig out giant mussels from the mud of the mangrove tree near the shore and barbecue them on open fire.

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_103350The village

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_103401Kitchen

While Tom and Mr. Shushtari practice shooting arrows with a locally made bow I find a nice woman peeling “navel” nuts. For the first time I am alone with a local on Vanuatu and this makes me feel really nice and grounded. The woman gives me many nuts wrapped in banana leaves tightened with lyko.

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_112058LRM_EXPORT_20180420_112127Nangai and navel – Vanuatu nuts

Tom gives the woman some clothes for the children in village. On the way back the kids gather two dozens of coconuts and the other group gives us to try some of the baked mussels.  People here are so nice and generous.

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_103416The kids who gathered the coconuts

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_103342A grandmother with her grandchildren

In the evening the generator is turned on in order to charge the accumulator. We watch TV on “Alabama” for the first time – it is a strange feeling. In the meantime Afra’s phone has gone missing. After recalling the night the most probable option seems that the boy who was on the boat earlier in order to teach us how to make bows and arrows took it. Tomorrow we will go to the village to ask the locals if they know something.

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_103409The lovely “Alabama”

03.09

The quiet bay is cruised by canoes with bamboo masts and cloth sails. Four people of the crew hop on the dinghy and head to the close-by island Ahue in order to investigate what happened to Afra’s phone. The island is surrounded by shallow coral reef that served as a protection to the people here when there were extensive tribal wars.  A group of youngsters with the guy we suspect welcome us before we reach the village. We say to the boy that we know he took the phone and we would not leave without it and we would talk to the chief of the village and the school’s headmaster if needed.

The boy admits he has taken the phone and agrees to give it back. On the way to his house he says that he was disappointed as there were no movies on it. Before he gives it back he takes the the ring attached to it and keeps it as a memory 🙂 We forgive him as this is partly our fault – leaving such a temptation unattended.

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_103508Typical Vanuatu village

We go back, prepare everything, raise the anchor and start getting out of the bay navigating through corals and shallows. The wind blows in our direction so all three sails are raised and we head to the most southern part of Malekula Island – to the promised Rastafarian land of Melip Bay.

4. Vanuatu girls fishing in a dugout canoeKids in a canoe

Seventy miles of sailing pass by almost unnoticed and we enter a deep bay surrounded by thick jungle. People on the shore wave at us in order to point where to anchor. In minutes the luggage is prepared and we are ready to camp on land. There is an awesome mystical forest with huge wicked looking trees. A fire is set. Later the rest of the crew, after going around the village and drinking kava in the local nakamal as always, joins us.

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_103610Melip

2018-05-04 19.01.57Our route in this post

04.09

An awesome “gypsy style” bivouac is set. It is a windy evening so we put dry palm leaves as a protection from it, in order to be able to set fire. In case there is rain we put a huge roof shelter too. Afra gathers some strange beetles, snails and mussel shells. Tom and Alejo make wooden spoons with a machete. Everyone gathers wood for the fire and at some point we have a huge pile. There are also many kinds of pots someone took from “Alabama”. Our intention is to stay here for 5-6 days.

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_103602The bivouac

It is now time to go around the village. Our group takes a pathway through the forest, passing by a well that is actually a hole in the ground next to the sea with a wall of stones around it.

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_103700The well

The neighborhood we go through consists of two rows of huts made of palm leaves and shelters where one can sit, most of them with utensils inside. Then the strangest of churches I have ever seen appears in front of me. It is covered in woodwork and stone scriptures protruding from the ground. There is a four meter tall tam-tam (a hollowed tree trunk that has a crack alongside, used as a drum) with the image of Jesus Christ on it. The scriptures and the sculptures are cramped as if made by a child. All is painted in white and blue.

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_103651Village Vunbongbong

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_111359The blue church

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_111445Drums and woodwork

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LRM_EXPORT_20180420_111406The church’s garden

Passing by the church I see a giant banyan tree and a big garden with decorative tropical bushes planted chaotically. An old man with white beard stands close-by workings on a wood trunk with a machete. I decide to greet him. This is how I meet the pastor of the eccentric church named Tom Moses. He is a colorful personality and is considered to be a prophet. Back in the days he was cured miraculously by a deadly disease and decided to establish his own church, which was actually a branch of the Sabbatarian one. This church here has only one follower though – himself. Tom’s energy is admirable and though he is 84 years old he keeps working on his wooden creations, carving and painting them.

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_111454Tom Moses

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The decorations of the church include wooden angel swords and among them one can see traditional maces made of iron wood. Back then people used them to smash their brains out during inter-tribal wars. At the bottom, behind the altar, Tom Moses keeps an old wooden chest. Inside it is a small statue of baby Jesus sitting next by a bottle of wine and rice. Tom keeps telling me all these unbelievable stories while wearing a wooden crown on his head, like the one Moses had in the desert.

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_111422Tom Moses’s tresure

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The neighborhood with Tom Moses’s church is actually a village by itself wearing the peculiar name Vunbongbong, which means “under the candy tree”. Then the pathway continues along the football field, a volleyball playground and goes towards the main village Melip. I get lost among fairy palm houses with mango trees and hens poking about the sandy ground. Everyone greets me with a big smile. Then I come across the nakamal where all men have already lined up for the kava ceremony. They invite me to join them after we greet each other but I decline politely.

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_111336Nakamal for drinking kava with a table inside

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_111342Giant banyan tree

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It is the late afternoon. People go back home from their gardens carrying bags with cassava, bananas and coconuts. Some of the fireplaces already spit smoke as people start preparing their dinner. I (Mr. Shushtari) ask where Magy and Aska are as they left for a walk several hours ago but haven’t come back yet.

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_103628Afternoon walks

In the meantime Magy and Aska…

After walking around the whimsical village we hit a path going through the coconut gardens. Soon in front of us appears the next bay with a long grey-ish beach. After crossing the beach there is a dirt road through the forest that is supposed to take us to the bivouac. Our walk through the amazing forest is accompanied by a sweet talk. The road goes deeper and deeper inside the forest but as far as I remember our camp shouldn’t be more than 100-200 meters away.

It seems like this is some kind of detour road and soon we will reach our bay. A group of man stand by the path, planting yams roots and after giving us baked yams and coconut nut water they tell us to keep walking forward. In 10-15 minutes I become a little nervous: it is not possible to walk for two hours and still not reach the camp. Maybe we should go back. Besides it is not the safest thing to do: us being two girls walking in the jungle somewhere in Melanesia.

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Suddenly some huts appear with people gathering coconuts among them. We are relieved. Probably we have made a big circle and this is Melip. Imagine our surprise when they tell us the this is Batbang Village. The people are even more surprised than we are when they see us here. It turns out Melip is quite far and in another direction. The only way to go back is the path we came on. After a needed half an hour rest it is time to go back.

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_111322Houses

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_111438Stairs and a porch

Several nice women invite us to lie on the wooden porch of their house and give us so many bananas, coco nuts and even crackers. There is a guy from Melip in the village and he plans to go back, so we will have company. We arrive a little before dark just in time before Mr. Shushtari sounded the alarm that we had disappeared 🙂

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_111729Magy, Aska and local people

05. – 07.09

In the morning a man comes with his canoe and his child to give us fresh coconuts and some bananas. In the day life seems to have stopped in the village. Everyone is in the bush and works on their gardens.

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_111723Melip

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Later Tom, Marcelo and I head on an expedition with the dinghy towards a far away coral reef where we want to dive. Fishing in the lands of Nivan people turned out to be quite a complicated task. In every reef there is at least one rod, which signs that fishing is forbidden here. Marcelo made a mistake here the first day we arrived: he caught two fishes at the reef next to the camp not knowing that the son of a man who died took a bath here after a month of grieving in order to wash away his sadness and then put a taboo for fishing in the region for a month. What a system to keep the ecological balance intact!

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_111718A totem stone

It is windy and the sea is rough. Our small group sails pretty far from our bay, I take a deep breath and dive. It is pretty deep and the views are incredible. There are thousands of small fish and few big ones. One sea turtle comes up to the surface to see what kind of new fish has arrived here. The best moment is when I see a meter and a half long fish. The fish comes closer and closer every time I dive. One can see all the spots on its skin and I even get a little bit scared that it might bite me with its human-like mouth. Tom and Marcelo catch some fish and we head back. In the evening local girls play volleyball and every time, no matter whether one team scores or makes a mistake, they laugh wholeheartedly.

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_103553Alabama in the bay of Melip

Little by little our crew starts following the slow rhythm of life of the village. More and more people come to acquaint with us, all of them bringing bananas or something else, everyone smiling. In the evening Tom reads to us stories from “Sindbad the sailor”. The sounds of flute, guitar and drum beats are followed by silence and the chirping of the birds. Then we go on long walks to the close-by beaches and the winding river with bananas and coconut trees on its banks.

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_103618Jungle trips

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_111703Grinding dry kava roots

08.09

We are drinking our morning tea with Magy, Alejo and Sebastian when a local lad comes. We greet him and he replies. I offer him a cup of tea, he mumbles something, but I don’t pay much attention to it is as I think he is a friend of some of the crew guys, and continue playing the guitar. To my surprise I see him going slowly towards Magy and then jumping on her. All stand on our feet and ask him what is going on. He starts behaving aggressively and begins shouting that this is his land and we have to get the hell out of it.

Alejo tries to take the diplomatic side of things and attempts to calm the guy down speaking his language Bislama. In the mean time I asses the situation and see his eyes move crazily in all directions – this makes me believe the situation will soon be out of control. He continues shouting and grabs a thick sugar cane stick, then goes behind Sebastian and hits him strongly with his fist on the ear. I take the two machetes I see nearby and put them delicately behind my back. Then start walking towards the guy, talking to him, with my voice rising. Looking at his eyes it seems he will try to hit me any moment now so it is time to act. I take the machetes out and start shouting as a gorilla.

He gets really frightened and starts running backwards, stumbling and falling down. I chase him still shouting and he runs away inside the jungle. We are dismayed. Alejo goes to seek help in the village. Magy tells the people on the boat to get on the dinghy and come. While gathering the tent slowly I watch the bushes around and keep the machetes at hand. We don’t know what might happen as family connections are very strong in Melanesia and it is possible that the guy comes back with a back up.

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At some point Alejo returns and tells us that locals consider this not be their problem but that they advise us to go back to our boat and leave. We are quite surprised by this information. In the mean time the others arrive from the boat up so we get calmer. An old man comes to the dinghy and apologizes for what happened. He also tells us that the guy is in fact a little bit crazy and totally loses it when he sees a woman. We all go back to “Alabama” to discuss the current situation. Sebastian’s ear is still ringing from the blow. Marcelo is excited by what happened and throws karate-style punches around the boat.

09. – 10.09

We feel we are over with this place. The positive energy is gone and the magic has disappeared. Besides, as the Melanesian tradition says, we have to be reimbursed with few pigs, piles of cassava and bananas in this case and nobody did this 🙂 Anyway some people from the crew made friends with a local Rastafarian family and we had to stay a day or two more.

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On the first day after the happening we go to the close-by island Tomman in order to dive with Tom while Magy and Aska relax on the beach. What seemed as a secluded beach though is full of local people who walk around hunting fish with spears. In addition the beach is surrounded by shallow coral reefs so it is not reachable even with a dinghy. So we head to the village. All the people there, including children, women and old people, come to welcome us as they haven’t seen westerners in decades.

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LRM_EXPORT_20180420_111833A yard with a bench

LRM_EXPORT_20180420_111839Fat mango 

While we are diving at the coral accompanied by two locals Magy speaks with some local women for their traditions. From them she learns that the crew’s behavior here wasn’t really appropriate so far. People on the island are very traditional and it is not really accepted for women to drink kava or smoking.Camping  without being given permission by the chief is unacceptable too. People here ask for permission to go for a walk, not to even mention fishing or camping. Following other’s peoples traditions fully is what we always try to do when we visit other cultures, but now, being a part of a bigger group, we didn’t pay much attention to this and respectively didn’t act very adequately.

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On the next day we stay only on the boat. In the evening part of the crew are given permission by the village’s chief to perform a fire show as we want to part ways with these people in a peaceful and a loving way. Mr. Shushtari and I stay on the boat to eat Lap-Lap with a local guy who came to us with his canoe with two girls inside. Children are overexcited and eat freshly baked bread slices with jam while their eyes keep exploring the boat unceasingly.

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Gallery of traditional canoes made of hollowed tree trunks:

      

Gallery with Vanuatu plants and flowers:

   

Accidental encounters in the bush

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