Thursday, 3 September 2015

Vanuatu Port Vila and Ambrym

Port Vila 17 -20 August

The sail overnight was challenging to say the least. Catherine and I did not have any sleep and the other six boats that left that evening had the same problem with the swell coming from one direction and steep waves coming from the opposite direction – anything but relaxing.  After completing the quarantine requirements in Port Vila (basically they wanted the money and did not seem interested in visiting any of the boats) we went back to the boat as did the crews on the other boats for some sleep. So we wrote off that day and surfaced at 5pm for Happy Hour along with the other boats at the waterfront bar.

The weather had closed in again and it was clear we could not leave Port Vila for a few days with high winds and rain. A trip to the cultural museum left us with more questions than it answered as it seemed a random collection of items with next to no explanation of any of them. On the plus side we found a French supermarket on the way back where we could re-provision with many of the items we had not seen for a long time.

A wet dinghy ride in the evening from the boat to the shore did not bode well and after an hour’s walk through the town unsuccessfully dodging down pours we ended up in a pizza bar which if nothing else offered shelter. And the shelter was better than the pizza turned out to be so that is one restaurant off our list.

One of the delights of Port Vila is the market which offers a huge range of fruit and vegetables. Each island is allocated a day on which they can sell their produce and the market stays open 24 hours, six days a week. Apart from the lack of fruit because of the cyclone, the quality and range of the vegetables was fabulous. It was almost a pleasure to go shopping. On the other hand, the trip to the French supermarket was just something that had to be done and we stocked up for the next two weeks while we would be visiting the northern islands.

Port Vila is on the island of Efate. It is very different from the other islands. It has one main sealed road where the other islands either have no roads or just tracks. It has several supermarkets, resorts and some large western style houses. Vanuatu (formerly known as New Hebrides) was ruled by a condominium of France and England up until 1980 when they achieved independence. During that time the two powers never agreed, there was intense rivalry and even now there is bitterness about having to speak English and French to work in government positions. Their official language is Bislama, then English and then French. Some children go to French schools and some to English, however most villages away from Port Vila speak their own language. There are over 30 languages spoken in Vanuatu.

Some of the shipt wrecks in Port Vila
Port Vila was also struck by the cyclone and you could see many boats wrecked on the beaches. It has
however recovered quickly as it seems a lot aid (and there was a huge amount) has been spent here and not managed to get to the other islands.

Just as we were about to leave, the skipper of Gallant Cavalier who had already gone up to the northern islands had to be flown back to Port Vila for medical treatment. A small cut on his leg incurred sometime in Aneityum (he cannot even remember getting the cut) had become infected and he developed septicaemia.  He made the decision to fly back rather than travel back with his crew as he felt so ill, arriving 24 hours ahead of them. The doctor who treated him said that he would not still be alive if he had waited the 24 hours to travel back on the boat, it was that close. It will take him weeks to recover before he can think of sailing again.

Ambrym21 -25 August

Rainbow on route
We made two overnight stops on the way to Ambrym as the sea was rough with the strong winds –
one at Havannah Harbour and the other at Lamen Bay on Epi. On route we were greeted with a rainbow very close to the boat and where we could see both ends touching the water. We wanted to spend some time in Lamen Bay to see the Dugongs and sea turtles but that would be for the return journey.

Main school room
Pupils work on display
We sailed to Ranon on Ambrym so we could see the famous Rom dance and as we anchored, Geoffrey who is the local guide came out to us in his canoe. He arranged for us to take a tour or the village the next morning and he explained about the history of the island, the people and how they live now. The village has one of the largest schools in the island group where many of the people from the other villages across the island send their children. They board at the school since the journey along unmade roads is very difficult and impossible for the children to return home other than during the school holidays.

Dancing in mid flow
Rom Dance
The next day we took a 60 minute trek up the mountain to a village where they performed the Rom dance – a traditional dance with the principal dancers wearing masks and covered in banana leaves.  Four of the dancers wore the masks and banana leaves with 8 others in the centre singing traditional village songs, taking it in turns to take the lead. The square in which the dance is performed is sacred, surrounded by giant wood carvings which were magnificent. Some of these are hollowed out to form drums (called Tam Tams). We were allowed to take pictures but were warned not to touch the banana leaves of the dancers as this was strictly taboo.

The masked dancers
Tam Tam
The Rom dance is now a tourist attraction but they still perform the dance as part of the ceremony for the aspiring Chief to earn his next “grade”. Grades are how the Chief earns respect among his people and the other Chiefs on the island. The man finds someone who has a mask design which he pays for with pigs and money. The masks for the Rom dance are then made by the men in secret and each design is subtly different. The men practise the dance and it is then performed only in front of the men in the village with the masks being burned afterwards so that the spirit of the dance doesn’t stay to make trouble in the village. Ambrym is the island of black magic and although not practised often it is still believed despite the efforts of missionaries. The masks used for the tourists are not burned and anyone can see the dance (if you can get there!).

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