October 25, 2011

Vanuatu Magic

Evan heard it first-the unmistakable huff of a marine mammal. We headed outside and discovered we were surrounded by dugongs. Floating like big brown seals just under the surface they would raise a nostril to the surface and breathe. Every so often one would dive and we'd watch the shape as it turned to shadow then disappeared.

"We sang them to you," chief Jean Soso of Tonomial village told us later in the morning when we found ourselves in his canoe. "It's part of our magic. We sing the fish to the reefs and the turtles to our canoes." Chief Jean thought that as visitors we might like to see the dugong so he told us the villagers had sang them to us last night.

Apparently there is a village here. So many of the Vanuatu villages are tucked into the bush that often the only way you know they're there is when you see smoke. Or when a canoe shows up and offers you a kastum dance.

Jean, Sam and David were on their way to fish when they stopped by very early this morning to suggest we might like to see a dance in their village. We explained we were headed to Lutes village to learn about turtle singing. Jean then explained that turtle singing was his villages' tradition and we should learn with him--and it would be cheaper. And while it may have been a line we were happy with the idea of not having to make another attempt get to Lutes.

So we climbed into their canoe and Jean explained that turtle singing is an old magic-he was taught by his grandfather, who was taught by his. And because it is magic there are strict rules to be followed-in the days when they hunted turtles wives could not talk to their departing husbands and once they were on the water all was silent. The canoeists would paddle to a start point where there would light fires and begin to slap the water and sing.

The song sounded very much like 'turt, turt…tortuga" with some added rhythmic whistling and complicated sounding words. Sam poled us through the shadows while Jean held the palm frond fire and David steered. The three sang in unison and in harmony-calling the turtles.

When the last fire burned out David exploded out of the boat and into the water-if they were still catching turtles this is how it would be done Jean told us. David explained us he was a champion-catching 35 turtles. David told us how hard the turtles would fight-that it would take four or five men to hold one big turtle. Then they would drum out the story of the capture on the side of the canoe-so that the village knew how the hunt had gone. Back when they caught turtles, before their numbers diminished and they began protecting them.

"But where are the turtles?" Maia asked as she scanned the water. Jean said they would come to us tonight-that the magic is delayed and they wanted the turtles to know it isn't a trick. They don't want the turtles to come to the canoes where they could be caught and held by people who might abuse the magic he said, "It was sad hunting turtles. They couldn't talk." Now, he says they are like the dugongs, they call them just to practice their magic. Just to see them.

It's all magic here, Jean told us later as he visited on our boat and shared banana bread with jam, "We use magic to heal illness, to change the weather, to find a wife..." He offered to teach us more magic-to calm the wind and get us safely to Australia. He'd teach us when we came to the village for the Kastum Dance in the afternoon.

So we paid for the turtle calling and paid in advance for the dance-then the chief, his canoe, and our money disappeared.
Like magic.
We've not been ripped off before and while the loss wasn't huge, it was annoying. It was foolish of us to give money in advance-especially when we didn't even know where the village was. We'll head to Lutes this morning to report the scheme-the area has been trying to bring tourists and this just gives it a bad name.

If you come to the area enjoy the dugongs in Gaspard Bay-but carry on to the Maskelynes with your money.

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1 comment:

Lynda Halliger-Otvos said...

Somewhere in the world someone figures the best way to fleece; fortunately lots of others are happy and honest and loving and generous. Those are the memories we take with us, I hope.