It is time now to leave Melip on Malekula Island. For the last two days Tom, Alejo and Mr. Shushtari scrape the bottom of Alabama, diving underneath it, and now the yacht is ready to glide smoothly to the far South Korea.
We gather the crew, which is scattered around the island and bid a farewell party with baked corn in order to say a proper good-bye to our local new friends.
Tom lets me take the rudder and steer Alabama among the corals of the narrow bay. We start going out of Toman Island through the canal. There is a strong head wind and big waves. The current is so strong that although we are on engine and we are in full sail the speed is barely reaching two knots (3,6 km/h). I steer manually. Suddenly, right at the moment we are in the most narrow part of the canal heading to the cape of Toman Island, the hydraulic system fails (again). I can’t believe it! I start shouting we need to urgently install the tiller (the manual system for steering used in extreme situations).
All this has happened many times but now is the most inappropriate moments of all. The boat starts turning and the wind and the waves start pushing us towards the jagged rocks. The waves are huge and we are literally surfing on them. My hearts starts pumping with terror watching how fast we approach the coast. We are now just 500 m. away from an imminent crash. The engine works all the time in reverse. Then I signal Marcello to turn starboard. We swing 360 degrees and slowly start moving away from the deadly rocks. We are saved!
The plan is to reach to Espiritu Santo Island and its capital Luganville, which is the second biggest town in Vanuatu. Sails are set, the wind is strong – maybe more than 20 knots. The big waves are behind us but every time we change direction Alabama tilts formidably and everything flies in the air – oil and food are spilled all over the kitchen.
Map of our sailings described in this post
We start doing shifts on the rudder. Magy steers the yacht masterfully going in a perfect straight line. The wind is so strong and we move so fast that we need to correct our course in order to not arrive too early, while it is still dark. We sleep in the kitchen this time but it turns out that it is not the best idea as all the time people come to cook and make noises. Arfa astonishes us most when she decides to cook some Taiwan meal while suffering from sea-sickness. The result is pouring hot water on herself among flying saucers and pans.
The wind has subsided and in the morning Marcello wakes me up to turn on the engine. Soon we discover that it is overheating too fast and respectively this makes the pump to stop working. Another one of the lovely surprises of Alabama. It is interesting that just a day ago we discussed whether it wouldn’t be better to sail to Korea close to the coast and not head directly to the Marshall Islands and sail a month in the open sea. Back then Tom assured us that Alabama will be just fine 🙂
We start by fixing the water pump. It turns out that the steering system stopped because the generator failed for an unknown to us reason. Luckily we have another one, although someone had forgotten to close the exhaustion valve that goes out right on the water line and now the engine is filled with sea water which had mixed with the engine oil… Some more Alabama hardships…
A pavilion for resting
While we fix the boat we enter a narrow canal, the wind is slow and the current moves us backwards. At the end we arrive at 2 p.m. to Luganville instead in the morning as we had planned.
The town is much smaller than the capital Port Villa. Anyway because of the many weeks we had spent in traditional villages with straw-roofed houses, in the beginning this town looks to us too urbanized. There are streets, concrete, cars… We walk from one end of it to the other. People seem to be friendlier here. They smile all the time and greet us. The women are different than the ones we have seen so far around the region. They have fairer skin and their hair is often amber in color.
A river in Luganville
We pass by a small park named “Union Park”. The reason for this name is that when they were free from colonialism around the 80-s the people from Espiritu Santo didn’t want to be part of the country Vanuatu. We buy provisions at the traditional local market and even allow ourselves the luxury to buy ice-cream.
It is in the evening and we are at the quay sitting close to our dinghy when the rest of the crew shows up bringing with them Alex – a French guy who wants to join us. For dinner we prepare a delicious meal with cabbage in coco nut milk – a recipe we learned from the nuns on the Solomon Islands and to which we added some Fijian and Indian twists.
13. – 15.09
After revising our food reserves everyone goes to town with a specific mission. Afra and I will replenish our food supplies. We go around the stores and research the prices. Then we buy the needed products. Marcello refills the gas bottles. Tom tries to fix the generator with the help of a local electrician but their efforts are futile. We wash clothes, clean and download maps from the Internet. All this is a preparation for the Big Sailing to Korea. We will stay not more than a week or two on Vanuatu. Luganville is the last place that has shops, market and a dock on our way. Our next destination is Banks Island. There we need to arrange all the documents for leaving the country and then we can set our sails towards the endless Pacific Ocean.
We are ready in three days. The reservoir is filled with fresh water to the brim, the cupboards are packed with food. I manage to get the contact lenses that are delivered from Korea (contact lenses are not sold anywhere on Vanuatu). Alabama is fixed and we can feel the sense of adventure in the air.
People from Santo Island
In the evening some Americans and a Dutch guy come to visit us on the boat and the result is laughter and songs till late.
The usual madness before setting off is at its height – cleaning, securing stuff that could possibly fly in a storm, weighing the anchor, setting the sails and heading to the open ocean. A decision is made to sail on the west side of the island and stop at Linsburn Bay that is 20 miles away.
Sailing goes smoothly and we are anchored in a beautiful bay. People sail around us with wooden canoes.
17. – 22.09
It is timer for a walk in the village next to the bay. As everywhere in Vanuatu villages here lead a pre-historic harmonic existence, untouched by modern civilization. It is an isolated life in a small self-sufficient community. There is no asphalt on the streets, no concrete buildings of any kind, no shops, internet, TV sets or phones. The main occupation here is called “spell no more” – meaning to relax and not do anything. This is only interrupted by the need to go to the gardens to bring food.
The bay of Pelmol Village
We are already ten months around Melanesia and we start seriously wondering why would any person or society work, create structures, institutions and offices, living in a constant state of hurriedness and feeling that if you don’t sacrifice yourself for the system you will die without being able to choose anything 🙂
Interesting to know:
Espiritu Santos Island is the biggest in the Vanuatu archipelago. The first European to set foot here is Queiros – a Spanish sailor. He named the island “Australia del Espiritu Santo”, meaning South of the lands of the Holy Spirit”
On the island
Pelmol Village is quite different than Ambrym and Malekula. Here we don’t feel the enchanted atmosphere and the volcanic mysticism of the black sands around the small huts. The houses here are further from one another, bigger and brighter. All is so green that one feels like in some Hobbit village where everything is covered in moss and climbing plants. Most huts have one or two rooms and no furniture. People sleep on straw mats on the floor. The kitchen is outside usually under a small shelter. Toilets are pretty far from the huts. Interesting fact is that most houses, which are skillfully made of braided Pandanus, coco-nut leaves and bamboo, don’t have any windows and inside is quite dark. Electricity and running tap water are very rare to see. Of course there is a small church – actually it is the only building made of concrete and bricks. Usually it is Presbyterian. Other places for people to gather are the nakamals – where men drink kava and the football field for the kids.
We start our first walk and some local boys join us to show us around. They take us to the local chief to announce our arrival. Then all of us go to a beautiful waterfall in the jungle
We go back and arrive at the nakamal where people prepare huge bowls with kava in order to celebrate our arrival. People from the crew drink few coco-nut shells filled with kava and start staggering under the strange influence of the drink. Drinking kava has its disadvantages: namely that people who are not used to it and don’t drink it every day get not so pleasant symptoms the next morning such as intoxication and indigestion. People spit and talk softly in the night. It is yet another night in Vanuatu.
Kava roots are first being cut
Alejo holding a coconut shell of kava
During the next days we continue the never ending task of fixing Alabama. Aska and i go for a walk to the near-by village Tassiriki, which is 30-40 minutes away on a narrow path going through a thick forest of banyan trees. The bay of the village is hidden and surrounded by beautiful rocks. It is a starting point and a port for the people who travel from the west coast as there are almost no roads in the west part, meaning the area is only accessible by sea. Tassiriki is a lively village with many houses, schools and even some brick buildings here and there. We go around the village together with three locals who joined us.
Locals invite Aska to drink kava. The women are looking at her vexed as this is an activity exclusively for men. People here are quite traditional, women always wear long skirts, dresses or t-shirts. They communicate only with men from their family line and spend most of their time in or around their houses.
Seeing two women, walking alone among the villages and drinking kava with men, is flabbergasting and probably quite inappropriate. Sadly Mr. Shushtari and I didn’t have time to live with local families and thus couldn’t learn much about their taboos, psychology and customs. What we know about this people is what we have seen them doing during the day on the islands or in their canoes. Anyway from what we have heard we came to the conclusion that the Vanuatu people had a very interesting tribal culture filled with taboos and unusual traditions.
A local man prepares kava for our arrival party
Sometimes people came to visit us on the boat and from such a visit we learned that sex segregation is so strict that even cousins from the opposite sex are not allowed to eat at one table. Marriages are also arranged among various clans and villages and the interconnections of the clans are quite complicated and form a net. For example some villages and clans are not allowed to communicate directly with one another and need to always do so with an intermediate of the people who live in another village and this is specifically their duty. Magic and animistic practices are still strong and mixed with Christianity. This is contrary to Fiji where people were horrified if someone just mentioned the word magic.
The beach of Tassiriki
Our new friends give us tons of grapefruits and show us how to set fire with the help of a special tree without using a lighter or safety matches. We have already seen this technique on Solomon Island but are still impressed how fast the tree starts smoking after just five minutes of rubbing. There are not much lighters or safety matches on Vanuatu. Often one can witness someone walking around with a smoking piece of wood offering people to light their hand-rolled tobacco cigarettes.
One of the most amazing things we witnessed though is not the technique of how to light a fire in this way but that most of the people didn’t know their age. The youngsters who were walking with us told us that they are 20-21 but when we expressed our doubts, as they looked older to us, they said they they also might be 25-26. Then we started asking everyone and it turned out no one doesn’t know what their age is and many don’t have even the slightest idea of how old they might be. To us this is fascinating: what is the feeling of not knowing how many years have passed or how old you are? We consider it is a specific sense of freedom… 🙂
Mr. Shushtari and the banyan tree
It is already dark when we return to Pelmol Village where we encounter Marcello and Alejo palying traditional instruments with a large group of locals. In the mean time Afra is entertaining a bunch of kids with her wicked dance moves and the new member of the crew, the Frenchman Alex, juggles. The village is in a state of jolly ecstasy.
Afra and Marcello keep the children amused
At six in the morning we weigh our anchor and leave. We need to cross 50 miles along the west coast of Santo. The autopilot works for the first time during the whole voyage so we don’t need to use the manual rudder. The sea is calm so we just enjoy the hilly, unreal coast that seems to be mostly uninhabited. After we are saturated with sea gazing we play some Brazilian samba music and dance like mad till we fall down exhausted on the floor.
Night shifts are two hours each and slide in silence into the starry night. In the morning we drop the anchor in the next paradise-like bay.
The bay of Olpoi Village
The bay is very open and Alabama tilts wildly to its sides. Mr. Shushtari and I decide to leave after a breakfast with Taiwanese pancakes, in the midst of a dozen people visiting us with their canoes. We are tired after the sailing and sit at the far end of the black sand beach. The village is in the opposite part of the bay so there is no one here. The scenery and the flora here are quite dry and there are even some cactus in the sand. It looks like it hadn’t rained for months.
After napping and then training kung-fu we join the others who just get off Alabama. The chief of the village has given us permission to perform this evening. There is already a group of children who wait impatiently for our show. Locals set fire on the central glade and we are ready to “unleash the circus” 🙂
Every one of our group has specialized tricks. Marcello is the showman, fire-swallower and a master performer of Italian songs and he can also play the flute. Shushtari and I perform a kung-fu form with weapons and then Aska and Afra and I dance oriental dances accompanied by drums. Afra dances wildly, Aska swing poles with fire, Sebastian and Alejo wave lighted sticks, Alex juggles with balls. We sing and dance. The people from the village are ecstatic and start jumping and shouting. Guided by Afra the children start singing songs such as “Lord Jesus gives us popo (papaya) and mango”.
After the show we are invited for a feast under a long shelter. Woman bring boiled taro, pork and grapefruits. It has been long since the last time foreigners have been here the reason being that the bay is not very good for anchoring. We lie down to sleep directly on the beach under a lonely tree in the further part of the beach and don’t even pitch our tent. This night the hard ground and the Milky Way in the sky are like a soothing balm to us and to our shaken by the constant rocking of the sea brains.
25. – 27.09
The night recharged us and it is time to walk around. There are many houses skillfully made of bamboo and pandanus. This is maybe one of the most interesting and nice village of Vanuatu we have been so far.
Materials for roofs
Alejo and few more people organizes a workshop for weaving hats from coco-nut leaves and all the women in the village come to learn how to do this. They themselves train our people how to make baskets and mats.
Mr. Shushtari and I go to visit the next village Longerbush that is a Rastafarian paradise. An interesting fact is that the Rastafarian culture is quite rooted in Vanuatu – often one can see young people getting stoned and listening to reggae lying in the hammocks under the shadow of the palm trees, gazing at the sea.
We continue to the airport – a long piece of flattened grassy land with a small shabby hut. When the plane arrives people get off it and head slowly towards Olpoi village carrying their suitcases. Then they step on a narrow path that takes them the village which is 1-2 kilometers away. There is not even a dirt road for cars to the airport.
We walk on the path for half an hour more and reach Vunon Village. When we arrive people tell us that there is a big meeting of all the chiefs of Santo Island held here. Women wear amazing colorful dresses and are very busy preparing food in huge pots. A sweet granny gives us several mangoes. People tell us that the chiefs discuss matters on land distribution and traditional laws and customs. The country of Vanuatu has given back the right to decide all matters related to land property to local tribes and clan structures. In this case if there is a land dispute one cannot file a court notice – only the clan can decide such matters.
We decide to go back as it is starting to get late. The locals in Olpoi feed us with taro and Lap-Lap. Back at the camp there is some night action going on. People from the crew walk nervously up and down because the dinghy has disappeared and they can’t go back to the boat to sleep. We get paranoid that someone had stolen it and Alex and Mr. Shushtari swim to Alabama to check if it has been raided too. Luckily it isn’t but the mystery with the dinghy is unresolved. It is too late to wake up people from the village and we don’t see the rest of the crew so we go back to sleep.
In the morning all is solved: Marcello had taken the dinghy to another village and he, Aska and Sebastian stayed to sleep there. Today we embark on more long walks in the jungle and long talks around the fire.
At the camp:
Mr. Shushtari writes blog posts
Tom practices with a sling
Later Tom and Marcello buy a real wooden canoe made by the locals. The canoe is for Mr. Windy (the Korean owner of the boat). It is so much fun to glide with the canoe on water. Locals give us many huge sacks with taro and coco-nuts. They are so pure-hearted and all the time give us food and take care of us! On man arrives and gifts us a whole basket of coco-nuts for drinking. We put some jam on a batter we just made and give it to him. Communicating with people here is so easy and free: we will miss Melanesia terribly.
Children near their school
It is time to leave Olpoi village and Santo Island but before this Mr. Shushtari and i decide to walk around the huge taro gardens which everyone from the crew praised so much. The gardens are half an hour walk from the village, situated in a wide valley. Dragonflies are everywhere, the taro grows in filled with water terraces. The predominating color is bright sparkling green – with all its nuances. We walk on a skillfully crafted canal made next to river and which no one remembers when was built. The walk energizes us. Now it is time for sea-blue colors again
The taro gardens
In the late afternoon the sails are set and the rocking Alabama heads to the Banks Islands north.
29. – 30.09
The yacht and its colorful crew head north east to Torba Province which includes Banks and Tores islands – the last most northern islands of Vanuatu. Sadly we don’t have time to visit the last three islands we haven’t seen yet: Ambae – where now a volcano has erupted and 7-8000 people are evacuated on the neigbouring islands; Maewo and Pentecost, which is known for its wicked rituals of initiation of boys into man.
Interesting to know:
Pentecost Island is long and narrow and is fully inhabited. Some villages in the north of it still practice an amazing ritual for initiation into man. Every April or May people build high wooden towers (20-30 m. tall). The boys who want to show bravery tie themselves at the ankles with lianas and jump from platforms situated on different heights on the structure.
The jump is very dangerous because though it is elastic and strong the liana doesn’t have the properties of the bungee rope and the force that pulls one is stronger. Sometimes the liana rope can be torn thus bringing death or heavy injuries to the person jumping from 30 m. The ritual is done only these two months because at that time the liana are most elastic and strong.
Before the ceremony the boys lead a secluded existence and are on a special diet in order to connect better with the spirits that protect and guide them. Women are not allowed to jump, though the legend says that the first jump was made actually by a woman who hated her husband and tricked him to jump together from a high tree. She secretly tied her ankle to a liana and survived but he died. For that reason young men now need to learn how to jump from high – one reason is to develop their manhood and the other to save themselves from women’s tricks 🙂
We are sailing all the night and in the meantime all three sails are torn by the strong wind and we have to use the engine as the current is strong and we sail towards it. Advancement is slow at barely one-two knots. As usually we take the 100 mile distance not for the expected 24 hours but for 48.Fixing Alabama’s mast
Alabama is anchored at Sola, the administrative center of Banks islands at 2 p.m. the next afternoon. The island itself is called Vanua Lava. The bay is amazing. It is covered in oval green hills and thick jungle. It is time for a night walk. The football field is packed with people because there is a festival for traditional arts, sports and dances.
Sola has few scattered buildings, a police station and a few stores that don’t sell almost anything – even ice-cream. There is a bank but no ATM. There is also a hospital but not a doctor. Overall this a secluded place, far from civilization that has an incredible Pacific-style atmosphere.
A hat or a snake that has swallowed an elephant? ☺
For the two months of Vanuatu we haven’t been to any church so now it is time to research the matter. As in every Melanesian country the church here plays a big role and it is part of everyday life. The main church here is the Anglican. We arrive for the beginning of the prayer. Everyone is dressed in new colorful clean clothes. People sing in joy without the accompaniment of music. The liturgy seems pretty close to the Catholic one. At the end the priest greets us and welcomes us. People smile at us. What a great way to start your day!Blond Vanutu kids
Later we walk form one to the other end of Sola. There is nothing to see here but one can enjoy the calmness and the casual chit-chats with locals who are charming. We meet two men from the Peace Corps – an American and a Bolivian who had spent the last two years here as teachers.
In the evening everyone is at the boat and brownies are being prepared. There are many kilograms of cacao on board, which we have bought in Port Villa. The dried fermented beans are baked on the pan and then ground to a paste. Then with it people prepare chocolates, hot chocolate, sweets, cakes, etc. – all with 90% organic natural cacao.
While the Frenchman Alex grinds the beans I clean the disc where the paste comes out. As we joke and laugh suddenly my breath stops. I look at my index finger and see that its tip is missing – there is just red meat with perfect horizontal section. This is crazy: to cut part of your own finger! I go to Mr. Shushtari calm and tell him what happened. He goes nuts when he sees it and starts shouting and throwing things around.
We have to do something. The finger is tied tightly to stop the bleeding which is not excessive at all. In the meantime Sebastian finds the missing piece in the grinder and tells me to put it in my mouth so that the cells can survive till we reach the hospital and they attach it back. I do this but then I feel like I will pass out. We put the finger part in iodine. There are still people at the football field and we ask them where is the hospital. It is not so close and the man, who is the archbishop of the church offers to take us there.
It is late and the hospital is closed so we go the the nurse’s home to take her. She says that it is too late to try to put back the piece but the Argentinian Alejo manages to persuade her to put it back at least for protection. I ask for a local anesthesia and the nurse replies they are out of supplies. My body is shaking but the cleaning and the bandaging go relatively well.
We go back to the boat. All of the time, except the moment the nurse was disinfecting the wound, I don’t feel any pain which makes me feel happy. I miss only meat, the bone is not touched, so there is no need for much stress. The most important is that all ended well.
I don’t feel pain in the morning. After another visit to the hospital it seems like things go in a good direction and the piece grows back. We were about to start the Big sailing to Korea but because of the incident we decided to stay some more days and see how the wound goes. Wounds are the most dangerous thing in the Tropics as one need to care very well for them or otherwise they may get easily infected.
In the evening we decide to rent a room in a guest house where the guys from the Peace Corps stay. For the first time in two and a half years we take a room without anyone to pay for us as a gift or without being forced to do so, as was in Pakistan. It is so strange being surrounded by walls, to have a stable floor that doesn’t rock with the waves, with no people around, surrounded by silence. It feels like we are in our own house. I can’t stop enjoying the feeling of home – I lie on the bed or drink my tea in the dark kitchen or write on the desk. There is no one around – just the colorful birds singing under the window. It is worth every penny of the 1500 vatu (15 USD) for the room. This is what I needed in order to heal and stay in good mood.
We want to stay one more day on solid ground so after the hospital we decide to look for another place to stay. Mr. Shushtari goes to the archbishop to ask if we can pitch our tent somewhere. He invites us to stay at one of the houses that is uninhabited at the moment. I am overjoyed we found a place.
In the afternoon we go the the house that is situated on a hill over Sola and has an amazing view towards the bay. We settle in a colonial building. In one of its wings lives priest Berry with his family and in the other some boys carpenters. We are in the central part. Anette, the archbishop’s wife, has already prepared a mattress for us and is now waiting us to have meal together in the kitchen. The place is awesome – it somehow reminds us of an Indian ashram. Father Berry’s family is very nice and take great care of us. They offer us to use their fire in front of the porch if we want to cook.
Father Berry’s family
Later we get really close to everyone and spend the long evenings chatting, cooking, watching movies on the Father’s laptop and sometimes dancing with the kids under the moonlight. This is actually the first family on Vanuatu whom we live with. We really miss the closer contact to local people which are difficult to have while travelling on a boat with such a big crew.
04 – 07.10
Next several days are spent resting, walking around and visiting the hospital. The finger is healing really well. We also use internet that is quite slow but surprisingly there is some.
Sweet talks with the locals
Olivette, the manager of the tourist bureau, becomes our close friend and together with her husband Ricky invite us to use the computer in their office. We even manage to work on the blog. Later we visit them and they give us huge amounts of vegetables. People from the Pacific region never stop to amaze us with their hospitality and good hearts.
All the houses around the sea are straw huts. The way people live here seems so harmonic and close to nature. These idyllic pictures are stamped in our minds.
A week is gone after the incident with my finger and the crew is impatient to leave to Korea. So it is decided to set sails on Sunday. The day before Mr. Shushtari and I walk to Mosina Village, which is an hour away on a dirt road. The village consists of several houses and is situated on a white sand beach. The water around is in all shades of blue.
We spend hours in the bush and on some paths behind the beach. It is impossible to not enjoy our last moments on Vanuatu, well and the hard ground too. People as usually smile at us, give us coco-nuts and ask what happened to my finger.
Into the jungle
Banks island are one of our favorite now. It is interesting that here one can feel the influence of the Solomon Islands. The Solomon province Temotu is just a day away sailing from the last Vanuatu Island – Tores. Some people here chew betel, other wear necklaces made of dolphin teeth – both typical for the Solomon Islands.
It is time to sail away. My finger seems OK – without any infection. We pack our stuff, take a heartfelt good-bye with Father Berry and the archbishop. The priest’s wife is almost crying – another expression of peoples’ purity of heart here. We are appointed a driver who take us to the other part of the bay where the crew moved Alabama.
We sit in the car accompanied by a dozen of people who came to send us off. And here we are, again on board of the yacht. We are ready to sail in the late afternoon and everyone gathers for a short ceremony in the kitchen – a prayer to the sea. Everyone looks at the coast nostalgically. For the next two weeks we will see only different variations of the blue and now our eyes soak with the views of smoking huts, giant trees, palms, colorful birds, black smiling faces…
A boy brings twigs for fire
We say goodbye to Vanuatu – one of the most unique Melanesian countries. It is wild, traditional, filled with hospitable people with huge hearts that still maintain the sacred ancient balance between man and nature. A land far from the perversions of modern civilization. A land filled with magical places and secret spirits. Vanuatu is also much safer than the neighboring Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea and at the same time is archaic and untouched contrary to the more developed and modernized Fiji. To us this was as if living in a fairy tale happening in the dawn of human civilization. We spent incredible two and a half months here and wave a heart felt goodbye to this last Vanuatu Island.
Yorkshire pie for the last dinner before the Big sailing
The night is falling upon us. We weigh the anchor, start the engines and Alabama is lost behind the night curtain, headed to new adventures in the South Seas.