Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Kava, String Bands, and the Suicide Jumps

We anchored in a bay that was unpronounceable and immediately upon going ashore, met John. He taught us how to avoid Chief Alan and his anchor tax of $50. He also forced his wife to give us veggies and her handbag (Suzi would tell you it was voluntary). Then they came out to Barraveigh for some snacks and cold drinks. We put the hospitality ball back into their court as they marched us up the hill to a nakamal (meeting house) in the midst of a kava plantation. The party was the celebration of a 1 year olds birthday. In the hierarchy of authentic experiences you hope to experience as a traveler, this one was the equivalent of winning the brass ring.

The women had prepared an earthen oven and began excavating it shortly after we arrived. They removed a layer of palm fronds, then hot rocks, more palm fronds, more rocks, and then after the final layer of fronds, we finally beheld the taro and pig parts. The men were busy making the kava. They had conical tools made of coral that they've chiseled with stone (truly a stone age culture) to resemble teeth of a gear so as to make the rasping of the kava more efficient. One hand twists the tool while the other forces the meat of the root unto it, as it's reduced to a pulpy mass. It falls into a wooden bowl and they add water and mix with a high powered electrical blender (Not really, they mix by hand you numpty. This is the part they used to do by mastication. That means chewing and spitting. Thank god they don't do that anymore). They then strain it repeatedly thru the husk of a palm tree. It's tantamount to nature's cheese cloth. It worked perfectly. I could probably filter my diesel through that bark. As the male guest, I was offered the first coconut shell full of the greenish brown elixir. The crushing stupor was quick to follow. John drank his next and within 10 minutes we made eye contact from across the dirt floor. He gave me the eyebrow-rising-head-shake that universally means "Dude, I am wasted." He's a native and he was grilling his melon, can you imagine what it did to me? I can only say that the effect reminded me of college. It was as if I'd ripped way too many bongs and knew I'd be skipping every class.

Even without the frost that was encroaching on my consciousness, I thought the string band was one of the most interesting things I've witnessed in Vanuatu. The drink amplified the bizarre performance. It consists of 1 ukulele (it starts every song), 4 guitars, and one bass. Now let me explain what I am calling a bass: It's a wood box about 2 feet high and one foot square. Out of the center of the top comes a rope. That rope is tied to one end of a stick. The other end of the stick is wedged into a brace that is built into a corner of the box. The player puts 1 leg on the top of the box, pushes the rope away from him by using the stick and plucks the rope. He adjusts the tension on the rope as he plucks and thus alters the pitch of the bass. Ingenious! Then there's the singing. It's a cross between what a cat would sound like if you stood on its tail and the "Soggy Bottom Boys".

Vanuatu has turned out to be the primitive village experience we were hoping for. Their standard of living is 100 years behind Fiji. It's easy to tell that some of these pikinnis haven't seen many whites. No one can fake that expression of astonishment mixed with fear. The homes they live in look like they came directly from the set of Gilligan's Island. They're nothing more than woven bamboo shacks with palm frond roofs, but the job they've done of weaving designs into the wall paneling is fantastically ornate. Ditto for the bags everyone, men included, carry over their shoulders. They're lovely people. They have nothing and are eager to give. On some of the islands, that's how you get to be chief; throwing lavish parties to redistribute your wealth. It's called "taking grades" and is similar to the NW American Indians and their potlatches (Another US Indian similarity is in the pidjin English that the natives here use, and how it sounds to my ear like the syntax I used to hear in Flagstaff: "me wannem big heap smashed potatoes"). I'd spend more time with these people except for 2 reasons - 1.) Let's face it; they are the island equivalent of uneducated hillbillies. 2.) They stink worse than the Czechs. (However, Prague still holds the world record for "most waiters with b.o.")

The conversations are short because . . . well, their worlds are microscopic. I thought I ran out of things to say to the beach dudes back in SD, but it happens faster here. Every conversation follows roughly this outline: Agriculture, clan hierarchy, what to trade, and then we go back to agriculture. Sometimes you get a little superstition thrown in, but that's a complete dead-end. Further questions on that topic all wrap up quickly with, "It's our kastom."

I was told by Samsam that they only need money for kerosene, clothes, and soap. They might need it for those 3 things but empirical evidence proves they are only spending it on kerosene. The clothes never change so even if they wash with soap (not likely) they're still going to reek. And god do they reek. 3rd World Reek - new band name.

Then there are the runny noses on the kids and the communal lice picking from their afros. I think what we're beginning to see, are the first stages of real poverty. Now I feel like an asshole.

I'd like to tell you about the Land Diving at Pentecost Island. This is where the wire haired freaks jump off towers of scaffolding with vines tied to their ankles. Insane. However, this dispatch is long enough. It'll be on the next one.

Your Ugly American,


P.S. / Suzi has posted a lot of new pics at

No comments:


When you drive around Europe, you begin to see a pattern: Hard scrabble peasants colonized by the civilized Romans. From England to Spain, F...