October 27, 2011

The Way to Santos

Vanuatu is mysterious. Port Vila is charming and modern-the prettiest city in the South Pacific. But when you sail out of the harbour you sail back 100 years. Maybe more. Only the ubiquitous slogan t-shirts, worn by children and men, truly indicate the century.

It's challenging here: The weather, the currents, the uncharted reefs, the people. When they paddle up in their canoes everyone is unfailingly friendly-but within a few words it's easy to see that there is more than simple language differences between us. There is a gulf that can't just be explained by the fact we come from a world they can barely imagine. It's more that even though we're here--visiting villages, asking questions, sharing laughs-we still can't quite imagine who they are.

Kalima, Gideon, Kal and Morres paddled up this afternoon in their dugout canoes.
Dugouts--each man makes his own, and his own paddle.
Kal's wife had sent him to ask if we had icing sugar. Their only daughter is turning one and she wants to make a cake. We invited them aboard for snacks and juice (we keep a stash of things for these moments).

Today's visitors came from the tiny village of Uri and spoke excellent English as well as Bislama and their own language. Whenever I ask people what the name of their village language is they can't tell me. They can speak the words and let me hear the cadences, and they tell me the geographic area it's spoken in-in this case the villages around Port Stanley… But the languages themselves don't have names.

With each language comes different customs and traditions-when I asked if their villages did custom dances the four men began to laugh, sputter really, "No. No we don't do that. Our traditions are different." The differences mean that the clan-based groups don't inter-marry. How can you marry someone who believes in one type of magic when you believe in another? Malakula, which is 2023 sq km and is relatively sparsely populated, has 28 language groups-28 different sets of beliefs.

Kal talked about village life-about how the children go to the main village for school when they are five and that how while it is only a few miles away their dugout canoes cannot make the trip daily. So the kids are gone for months at a time. I asked about where they got their fresh water, pointing out the hose that drains from our cockpit awning into a handy jerry jug. Kal told me they get a big bamboo trunk, split it in half, remove the insides and use it as a gutter for their huts, into their jerry jugs. And he told us about the community gardens, which based on tradition are either very near or very far from the village.

They asked about boat design, how to fix things, and about our life-incredulous that we have a heater aboard, fascinated by the idea of travel.

We've done more trading in Vanuatu than we have in other places-an old towel for a stem of bananas, fishing line and small old hooks for fish and tomatoes. We've also been given yams, pumpkin and pawpaw. But we still have food and trade goods we need to get rid of before Australia and so our visitors scored more gifts than simply icing sugar. They asked for magazines and string but were awed by the food and the t-shirts, notebooks and crayons for their kids. They invited us to the village for a feast of laplap tomorrow-eager to reciprocate.
We wish we could stay-but we need to be in Santos tomorrow. Our weather window is approaching and we need to sail on.

Vanuatu will stay a mystery-but really, it's that sense of barely knowing a place that makes me want to travel. There is so much left undiscovered, so much to dream about.

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