Vanuatu in June 2017: Living Dreams, Part II Rom Dancing

On Sunday, June 18th, Father’s Day, after a late morning visit to the Port Resolution village on Tanna when we distributed small toys to children and Bryce and Trent played volleyball and Frisbee, we prepared Kandu for the 24-hour sail to Port Vila, Efate, weighing anchor at 2:30 p.m. The winds were strong most of the way, but shadowed by an intermediate island. We arrived, as predicted, Monday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. Customs over VHF radio said we could finalize clearing-in the next day, Tuesday, but having cleared in at Port Resolution, they would allow us to go ashore tonight.

Port Vila city front, Efate, Vanuatu.

I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it, but the boys (I just go along with it) have a habit of hitting a town up for movie theaters and McDonald’s. In Vanuatu, only the former exists, and as we soon discovered, at a very cosmopolitan price. Fortunately, they had already seen all the movies showing at the 4-plex, having previously viewed them in Fiji and Samoa for a third the price, so we didn’t partake. Local food restaurants are a challenge to find in Port Vila. Chinese, Indian, Japanese, French, Australian, Vietnamese, Philipino, pizza, hamburgers, and fried chicken; no problem. Kava was the only native thing readily available. I really got a kick sucking down my tongue-numbing kava-colada smoothie at the Nambawan Café, Kandu anchored in front.

Vanuatu suffered much devastation following the aftermath of Hurricane Pam in 2015. Typically, countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and Japan come to the aid of Southwestern Pacific islanders. In the past, they have been quite generous, but in these trying economic times, there’s a void. Never fear, China to the rescue. We’re told China began by offering Vanuatu aid in the form of tinted-windowed Buick SUV’s for the leading politicians. Then, $4M USD to remodel the president’s residence and even more to build a very large convention center, too expensive for Vanuatu to support and maintain. With the political relationships firmly established, the aid stops and the loans begin. Want a new wharf? No problem, with unemployment at a high point, China ships over hundreds of Chinese workers to build it. And don’t worry if Vanuatu can’t generate enough revenue to pay back the loan, China will just take it over, making it their wharf, their business.

Port Vila Harbor, Efate, Chinese construction.

With tourism being the main source of revenue after aid money, local Vanuatu business owners demand that the government maintain its airports, repairing the runways so that airplanes from New Zealand, Australia, and New Caledonia can again land at Vanuatu islands other than the principle one, Efate. The new president promised that within two weeks of taking office, runway repair work would commence. Two years later—nada—and the president dies unexpectedly while we were there. During all this, China continues to enlarge another wharf to accept larger cruise ships, knowing the Vanuatu government hasn’t even enough funds to repair the roads leading to and from the port. Some Vanuatuans suspect China is in reality building a future Chinese naval base, the very location used by America during WWII in Luganville on Espiritu Santo, their second largest base after Hawaii. If Vanuatu, a sovereign state, elects to allow China to have such a base, no nation can stop them. It’s a compelling argument, albeit a bit scary in terms of how Vanuatu might ultimately be impacted: its resources, its people, its environment, etc. Anyway, it’s an interesting prospect to consider, and possibly (pardon the pun) a “red flag” for all Chinese aid-funding programs.

I had wondered why Dr. Alan hadn’t recommended anything to visit in Efate. It wasn’t difficult to understand why. The people were nice, but we found the town to have a weird vibe: for instance, lots of reconstruction along the waterfront, but very few tourists, even during this, the high season. And again, the prices were too high. Bryce, on the other hand, did some research and read that the best surfing in Vanuatu was a short drive south at Pongo Village, with three excellent breaks in proximity to each other. To learn more, he went first to the modern retail store advertising Billabong, an Australian brand of surf-wear. They suggested talking to a gal at the Paris Duty-Free store. She in turn gave Bryce the mobile number of a young man, John Stevens, as someone able to assist him in his quest. We called the number and John asked Bryce to meet him at a nearby café to discuss. He also wanted to quiz Bryce as to his surfing level. Bryce and Trent went together. Twenty minutes later they returned to our café table with John in tow carting his skateboard. John explained that he and a gang of young people skate around the town and surf the southern beaches. With tomorrow being a holiday (the newly elected president just died of a stroke after only 2 years in office and his casket procession would occur that day), lots of kids would want to use the occasion to surf.

Port Vila kids learning to surf at Pongo Village, Efate, Vanuatu.

John offered to include Bryce and Trent in the casual affair: skateboard in the morning, lunch (their own dime), then surf until dark. I had initially intended for Kandu and crew to leave for a neighboring island that day, but couldn’t say no to Bryce knowing his surf days would be extremely limited (perhaps nonexistent) between here and Bali. We would instead skip Epi Island, and go directly to Ambrym Island the following day. Bryce was ecstatic, and with his wingman, Trent by his side, we trusted they’d take care of each other. The day turned out well. The boys even witnessed the President’s funeral procession. Not returning until long past sundown, Leslie had become a bit worried. She was glad her two handsome boys came home, happy, exhausted, and unscathed, not kidnapped into pretty-boy slavery. It turns out, Bryce had met the husband of the Paris Store lady in Fiji, surfing Cloudbreak. He trains junior pro surfers. Small world the international surf scene is. And one of John’s tag-along kids, an excellent surfer, is the beautiful daughter of a wealthy Vanuatu family. Is surfing replacing golf and tennis clubs as the place to meet influentials?

Port Vila Market with Leslie Rigney.

On our 4th day hanging in Port Vila, having gotten all the laundry done and gathered a few fresh fruits and vegetables, we left in the afternoon so we could arrive in Ranon cove on NW Ambrym just after daybreak on Friday, June 23rd. A relatively easy overnight sail and we were setting our anchor in black sand beneath the clearest water I’ve seen.

Kandu in Ambrym at Ranon Cove, Vanuatu.

The anchor and chain were clearly visible as if in three feet of water. We quickly dropped the dinghy with the smaller outboard and drop-down inflatable wheels. Leslie and I hastened our way the short distance to shore, rolled Wee Kandu up the beach just past the high-tide mark near some local boats, and tied its painter to a tree. As usual several older men sat along the shoreline. I asked them if they knew of a William “Willie” Adel, the contact Dr. Alan had given as the excursion point person. They indicated down the road, saying, at the end. A hundred yards later down the wheel-lined road, I asked someone working in his garden. He pointed us further down, watching as we walked, waving us across when we’d reached our destination. William greeted us from behind the simple wooden fence demarking his quaint bed and breakfast, sporting the smile and warmth of a long-time friend. So charming was he, and when I mentioned Dr. Alan and Debora, his face lit up even greater. His simple pension establishment, Ranon Bungalows (Facebook, TripAdvisor), is a set of six simple thatched-roof rooms, overlooking the beach, all traditional and made of local materials.

William Adel’s “Ranon Beach Bungalows” dining room.

After getting to know one another a bit better, he asked if, for $60 each, we’d be interested in joining a group to watch the village of Fanla dance their traditional Rom Dance and sand painting tomorrow afternoon. This day was Friday, and tomorrow we learned was the last day the land divers would jump on neighboring Pentecost Island at Wali Bay. I regretfully declined. He picked up his mobile phone and made some calls. Ten minutes later, he had arranged a private Fanla village tour, dance, and sand painting demonstration for that afternoon at 2:30, . . . no car, we’d walk. No problem, we needed the exercise. He then went about arranging our Pentecost land-diving tour for the next day, setting us up with the village chief over there. If anyone wishes to experience Ambrym and beyond, a call to William is a must (mobile +678 59 33106). Ambrym is also home of the other two active Vanuatan volcanoes.

Vanuatu is technologically simple and mostly subsistence living. Leaving the beach, villagers kindly ask us for favors. Leslie felt for one man who pointed to our dinghy rope, asking for something like that. He didn’t like the one she initially offered him, so she gave him a 60’ length of 1” braided nylon rope instead, for which he offered a volcanic stone-carved head figure for good luck.

The 40-minute walk to Fanla was not difficult but you had to be on your toes to not slip on the terrain. With each step away from the beach, the humidity level increased accordingly. Arriving at the modest village, William introduced us to Freddie, the chief and our village guide. He showed us around his village, the size of a city block, patiently answering any questions.

Freddie, Chief of Fanla Village.

He explained that they farm kava and yams on the higher hillsides during the day, housekeep in the evening, with communal kava for the men around 4 or 5pm. The village was clean and simple. The community still practices traditional ways, including the role of a chief and the rule of tabu.

Fanla Village, Ambrym, Vanuatu.

When the signal was given, we were brought to the ceremonial dance grounds, the dancers, only men, were arrayed in traditional garb. One set of dancers wore nothing but a broad black waistband holding the neck of a gourd, which covered the shaft of their penises, testicles fully visible. The other set were ornately masked in bearded wooden geometric masks, resembling the open jaws of a crocodile with rooster feathers on top; these dancers’ bodies were cloaked head to toe in hundreds of long thin dried leaves, perhaps pandanus. In their hands they held finely carved narrow war-like clubs that tapered open to shield over the hands and forearms.

Rom Dancer with mask, Ambrym, Vanuatu.

With but a few basic percussive instruments to keep time, the men performed an ancient traditional dance and chant that took me back to some past life (or TV show?). I was transported. The smile on my face could not be removed. I felt honored and grateful to have been treated so generously to this intimate cultural experience. It’s a large part of what drives me to travel in the manner that we do.

Wood statue carvings from Fanla Village, Ambrym, Vanuatu.

After a brief photo op, posing in front of the dancers, the sand painting began. Once three initial 18” parallel lines are drawn, the artist’s finger doesn’t lift from the ground. Upon completion, we were asked to guess what was depicted. They were proud to offer the meaning behind each drawing.

Two drawings later, we were shown to their handicrafts of wood, bamboo, and stone. The artists stood close behind to see what we would select. The pieces were well done and appealing. We picked out three items, a wooden mask statuette and two carved bamboo chin flutes (No, I didn’t buy a penis guard. They didn’t have my size!). We were so very appreciative of the entire experience: the hospitality, generous smiles, and learning. On a side note, we learned that cannibalism is still occasionally practiced, usually as a form of punishment, not necessarily the chief’s wish, but the village as a whole may demand it being the highest insult to punish an offending family.

As with all our departures, it’s the people that make it most memorable. Although we’d only met Willie that morning, it felt like we’d known him much longer. Leaving him was bittersweet, but leave we must if we were to see the next morning’s land diving.

Local Fanla Village artisans displaying the artwork we purchased, Ambrym, Vanuatu.
Chin Flute presentation, Ambrym, Vanuatu.

4 thoughts on “Vanuatu in June 2017: Living Dreams, Part II Rom Dancing”

    1. And thank you for following. I know your travels in Northern Europe were equally transporting. So much to see and learn! Hugs, Leslie

  1. This part of your trip has held fascinating local traditions. Wonderful they want to share them with outsiders.

    1. We felt honoured to have been led to their intimate and quite hidden village to see their very personal dancing. The people were extremely open, and they did not treat us at all like aliens or stare at us…I guess they are used to foreigners unlike in the the outerlying islands of Indonesia. Pale faced people are spectacles. Leslie

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