October 16, 2011
Incredibly kind, considerate, thoughtful and polite. The people of Tanna may brutally club their pigs to death and surely some must carry memories of munching on man, but it would never occur to them to be impolite to guests.
In fact, they go to great lengths to accommodate guests. As Jim wandered around the Circumcision Ceremony toting his camera, a man lowered his young son to straddle a dead boar. As I've said before, pigs are a big deal on Tanna. The child wanted nothing to do with it but the man held him there, with a slight smile on his face, to be photographed by the white guy in a lava lava.
It was only seventeen days ago that we left Tanna, that magical, spiritual island so steeped in the past, where people live fully in tuned with nature. Their bodies are strong, fit and agile and their minds possess generations of wisdom. What would send big red warning flags up before Westerners does not phase these indomitable people a bit.
At the end of the primary school's playground is a 50 foot cliff that drops precariously to the rocky beach below. One day as we took a dinghy load of younger kids out to Tenaya we heard whoops and hollers from the shore. Looking up we saw dozens of kids lined up along the edge, with Johnson the nurse and assistant chief in the middle, waving to the little ones. No fence protected them, only their common sense.
Children learn to use knives when they are three years old. By six they wield them confidently. Westerners teach their kids not to run with scissors. Ni-Van kids run, jump and climb trees invariably clutching a machete the length of their limbs, all of which remain intact. As I followed a small boy along a path in the bush he mindlessly whacked at plants to the rhythm of his steps. I thought back to when Scott was little and had to fashion knives and swords our of sticks and things like the center rolls of giftwrap. Toy weapons were out of the question because they represented violence. I fear we cheated him.
Western kids are usually made to put shoes on at some point in their lives. Not so in Vanuatu. It appears most make it well into adulthood without every donning a pair. People walk near and far, over hardened lava, spiky coral and deep into the bush, day after day, barefoot. Jandals seem to be worn more as an accessory than for the protection they may offer. I saw one guy wearing a pair of sneakers. Once. We were there for three weeks.
Up to two dozen people will pack themselves into the back of a small 4WD pick-up truck. Those on the outside sit on the narrow lip of the bed while all inside stand wedged among other bodies and cargo as the truck hurls along rough bush roads and careens up and down steep mountains. Airborne bodies always settle back inside. I think.
The rim of a very active volcano is easily accessible and is the main tourist attraction on Tanna. Would the Ni-Van's consider putting up any sort of barrier to protect their visitors? Heck no! As long as the streams of glowing projectiles do not eject too high above the rim, all are free to walk completely around the crater and peer over the edge as it peels away in a steep descent to a bubbling cauldron. My mind briefly morphs the porous black ash to soft white corn on a spring day in the mountains and I imagine skiing or snowboarding down the smooth, steep section inside the crater until the fiery conclusion snaps me out of my daydream. The rim is completely natural and devoid of any man made objects. No path, no railing, no lights. Should one misjudge a step in the black of night, stumble over a previously expelled pyroclastic bomb, and slip over the edge, well, consider the gene pool cleansed of a little of clumsiness.
Our experience in the remote village of Ikquramanu was amazing. But lest we make it sound entirely paradisiacal, here is an excerpt from my notebook made on our second day: As I scratch my head over the magazine I am reading, a dusting of tiny black specks forms on the page. I am happy nothing moves.
Ash permeates everything in the village. This makes sense considering it lies in the shadow of one of our planet's most active volcanos. Shortly after arriving, a fine layer of soot coated our bodies, clothes and all our belongings. The tree house must have been swept moments before we arrived because when we first stepped inside the floor felt clean under our freshly debooted feet. That did not last. During our stay the floor continued to collect ash just as we did.
The village has water piped to a sink, separate shower and toilet for guests. It runs sporadically. It seemed to flow when we had no time for a shower, but in the early evening when we desperately wished for one, there was not a trickle.
We arrived back at Tenaya and found her covered as well. The wind had changed directions and deposited copious amounts of ash all over her. Jim did not feel well and went straight to sleep while I swept as much as up as possible. My reward was a dive into the refreshing sea where I lingered until my body felt clean.
So it is no wonder I awoke the next morning with an infected finger. The knuckle that had been repeatedly grated the night I helped make laplap shone all the colors of the Vanuatu flag. Red for blood, yellow for sunshine, green for the islands' riches, and black for the skin tone of the population. Unlike the rasta colored flag though, my finger was puffed up like a sausage and really sore. We decided to get to Port Vila as soon as possible. This might require more than Johnson and the dispensary in Port Resolution could offer.
Fortunately our son had the good sense to marry a physician's assistant. Jim called Amy who explained which of the antibiotics we carry on board was best to take and suggested soaking it in warm water several times a day. She said to keep it oozing. No problem there.
Less than 24 hours after we slipped out of Tanna without saying good-bye to anyone, we were tied to a mooring ball in front of Yachting World in Port Vila. A cab was waiting on shore to take us to the hospital. It was Saturday and that was our only choice.
The doctor had a look at it, prescribed cloxacillin, and gave me a shot in the butt. The nurse painted on something that looked like mercurochrome, sprinkled a dash of white powder on top, and wrapped my finger up in gauze. The doctor said it should be better in three days and apologized for my long wait, which was not long at all by US ER standards. Armed with a package of antibiotics and another package of pills in case fever ensued, we went back to the boat having spent a total of $20 USD. Again I wondered why healthcare is so expensive in the United States.
Six days after the hospital visit my finger did not seem to be improving and my lower legs, ankles and feet were extremely swollen. Marcie on Nine of Cups recommended Chris at the clinic across the street from the anchorage, so off we went.
Chris changed my prescription to Flucloxacillin, the newer version of what I had been taking. He also prescribed an ointment and told me to clean the wound with hydrogen peroxide before applying it. This, he promised, should do the trick. He thought the swollen legs were caused by the infection and as it went away, so would the swelling.
Jim gave Tenaya a good cleaning with salt water to rid her of any remaining ash. Just as he finished the skies opened up with a fresh water rinse that lasted for two days. No ash could have remained in the rigging after that. It was the only hard rain we have received since leaving New Zealand.
I spent the days waiting for my finger to heal working on pages about our time on Tanna. Of the nine days we spent in Pt. Vila, I got off the boat three times. Once to go to the hospital and twice to go to the clinic. I did not see much of the town but did manage a quick pass by the wonderful market that is open 24 hours.
Jim took a part of each day to explore the city. He walked different streets to all the high points he could see "just looking for what he should take note of."
He found an arcade filled with ladies selling dresses and sewing them on site. He was amazed by two brand new looking Singer motorless hand cranked sewing machines and wondered if the company still produces these for outer islands without electricity. The ladies here needed something and the ladies of Kuna Yala definitely used something while stitching up molas.
He also found a hardware store that sold bush knives and is now the proud owner of a rather large one. I find it a little frightening to have on the boat.
One day he watched a group of men intently playing boules which is basically bocce ball in French.
My finger was less swollen and Chris had scraped off all the dead skin which helped the appearance considerably. The swelling in my legs had all but vanished. I thought I was healing well. The weather was favorable for a passage to New Caledonia so Jim checked out with Customs.
As we were filling Tenaya with duty-free fuel I ran across the street to ask Chris a quick question. He had a look at my finger and said it was not healing and that we should watch it closely for the next week. Can't do that, I said, we've already checked out and are leaving for Noumea right away.
He dabbed it with some deep purple potion and said to leave it exposed. He gave me a one-time-only pill and said to continue my course of Flucloxacillin and keep my finger painted purple and hope that it scabs up. He said to see a doctor in Noumea before heading to New Zealand.
Amy was a bit skeptical of the healing qualities of the purple paint which, oddly enough, is the exact color of a yam grown here. I think Chris may have bailed on western medicine and gone to his ancestors for this one!
The route from Pt. Vila to Noumea heads directly S and the prevailing winds are SE and usually 20 knots or so. That would not be a pleasant ride. Not horrible, but not pleasant. We timed it between a low and a high when the normal tradewinds were disrupted. There was very little wind and the sea was smooth. We motored at 5 knots or less the entire 3 days under sunny skies or a full moon.
Sunsets were beautiful. Night watches were magical. Dawn broke each morning at 0500 with the promise of good weather. Daytime brought boobies and other birds to visit. We did not fish for fear of catching something that I could not help land and quickly kill.
The bottle of Gentian Violet Solution says Bacteriostatic. For burns, boils and carbuncles, whatever they are. Okay, I looked it up ... a painful, localized, pus-producing bacterial infection of the skin. Bingo! It was bottled in Karachi and says poison in red above writing that looks Arabic. But it did the trick! I've got a scab! I think I will go to the doctor tomorrow to have it checked again anyway, just to be sure, but it seems I am finally on the mend.
As we wait in Noumea, New Caledonia for a favorable weather pattern to cross back to New Zealand our minds wander back to our experiences on Tanna. We are sorry we left in such a hurry. We miss the simplicity and the kindness. We talk about returning next year.
I was already hurrying across the street yesterday so as not to keep the car that had stopped for me waiting long. I carried a bag of laundry in each hand. A big white sport ute with a laughing driver and passenger sped straight towards me. I ran for the curb as it shot through the crosswalk without slowing down. Jerks, I thought. I wished I were back on Tanna.