Market Day &
Sept 15, 2011
My right quad threatened to cramp as I kept pressure on the bent leg to force my upper body away from the person next to me. My head bobbed and jerked and occasionally bounced off the window to my left. Our shoulders banged together and the angle of the slippery seat encouraged my body to overtake his position. Fortunately the guy next to me was Jim.
The small 4WD pick-up truck in which we were wedged was simply driving down the road. But here on Tanna, the word road is used very loosely. I have yet to see pavement. The island is mountainous and Mother Nature is not always kind. Cyclones rip through, seasonal rains deluge, sudden earthquakes shift the land and an active volcano ejects fiery projectiles and prodigious amounts of fine ash. None of these are conducive to maintaining roads.
We bucked along, often in 4-low, under the canopy of the bush, across an arid ash plain, up dry river beds, over outcroppings of lava and through deeply gouged ruts. The truck bottomed out, kissed objects with one side or the other, was brushed by low-hanging branches and continued to plod along unscathed. Slowly, methodically, uncomfortably.
It's a wonder none of the 16 people crammed in the back fell out. They looked as if they were barely hanging on, as if this were all a completely normal trip to the market. To them it is. Was I ever glad that we scored a spot in the back seat.
Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are market days in Lenakel, the main town on Tanna. People from all over the island bring their produce, baskets, kava and pre-made food to sell. Many others come just to buy and to visit the only bank on the island. It seems every truck on the island is going to or from Lenakel with a load of wobbling, chatting, smiling bodies piled in the back.
Along with Evelyn and Peter from Renegade, we waited early Monday morning in the clearing of his village for Stanley to assign us to one of the three trucks crossing the island to Lenakel. The adventurous Austrians hopped in the back as we eyed the back seat. Stanley motioned for us to get in and joined us as Johnson slid in next to the driver before another guy stepped in and closed the door. All the while, men, women and children climbed into the back. Two hours later we bounced into Lenakel. The Renagades went in search of Customs and Immigration while we went in search of our friend Winnie.
Petrol costs $20 USD per gallon on Tanna. Whoa! It takes 3 gallons for a truck to make the return trip to Lenakel from Port Resolution. We yachties each paid 2000 vatu, about $25. So the driver took in $100 from the four of us, but it cost him $60 just for the gas. The cost of maintaining trucks in these harsh conditions, even dependable Toyotas, must be high. I don't think anyone gets rich by providing taxi service here.
Quickly a man came up to us. Anthony! He was still trying to get to Vila but had arranged transport on a cargo ship. I have no doubt he will make it. His experience having fled his war-torn African homeland as a stow-a-way to Argentina, making his way to New Zealand only to be denied asylum, and spending 10 years trying to make a living in Vanuatu after being adopted by a local man is a testament to his resolve. Anthony is hardworking, resourceful and a really nice person. It was a pleasure to see him again.
We found Winnie at the market with her mother, daughter and grand-daughter. They sell baskets that the women in their village weave. We wandered around the market as I admired all the offerings and bought a few things while Jim gave his camera a workout.
Yams, taro, choco, beans, bananas, cucumbers, different types of lettuces and cabbages, carrots, tomatoes, eggplant and lots of coconuts, as well as piles of kava root, were arranged neatly on tables and on banana leaves on the ground.
We sampled some local fried bready things flavored with a hint of coconut and tried our first laplap. Unwrapping the banana leaves revealed a light colored rectangle of a slightly sticky texture. How did they create that? I took a bite. Mmm... pretty good. Tucked inside was some sort of tasty flavored meat. It was like the combination of an Asian glutinous rice ball with a Mexican chimichunga, but baked in the ground, not fried.
I love the Bislama pidgin language. Just sound it out phonetically and you can understand most words. Jim got a message on his mobile about an offer: dabol dabol tedei ... usem fri kredit ... My favorite: Mi likem Tusker bier. In Bislama, the word for I is mi, you is yu. So yumi is the Bislama word for our. Makes perfect sense. The term no more is shortened to nomo. Old cowboy and indian movies meet jive.
In some places of Vanuatu married womed used to have their two front teeth knocked out. Looks like the tradition may persist. Let's hope it is different with cannabilism.
The taxi, another small 4WD pick-up, hauled Winnie, Joe, JoJo his son, Jim and me high up into the hills to the small village of Lounabeknai. Joe is Winnie's son-in-law, I think. Titles for family relations in Vanuatu are a little vague. A brother may really be a cousin and the chief seems to be everyone's father.
Winnie gave us a tour, walking us further up the street we had just driven. We passed houses, a church, corralled pigs, a small gas station and the community center. The sign for Tan-Yeba Comunity Senta boasts literacy. I trust it is written in Bislama.
Before returning to her house, Winnie took us to a large clearing under two banyan trees. Joe joined us. He had turned his t-shirt, which read POLICE, inside out. Several young men and a couple of boys were in one of the buildings. Otherwise, the place was deserted. It was not yet noon.
"Do you want some kava?" Winnie asked. We said we yes. But I had read that women do not drink kava on Tanna, that it was tabu for women to even go near the nakamal when it was being prepared. "It's okay" was all she said.
She and I sat below the tree house under the far banyan while Jim and Joe wandered off to the edge of the clearing. Eventually we were called over to the nakamal where I was handed half a coconut shell filled nearly to the brim with the sooty colored, mildly intoxicating, entirely foul tasting liquid. Down it went in one gulp. For some reason I was pleased. Next it was Jim's turn. He knocked it back, his funny face turning to a slight smile. Our lips became a little tingly and the sharp edges of our minds became soft and fuzzy.
Jim was in position to watch the kava being prepared. I am truly happy I was not. Two young boys chewed the root and spit the wad onto a dirty t-shirt. One of the men poured water on it while another wrung it over the natural cup.
Another bowl was ready. Jim? Jim offered it to Joe. No thanks. Winnie? Nope. Katie? A shake of the head; words were entirely too much trouble. Jim? Well all right then.
Apparently women can be present at the nakamal, and even drink kava, if they are visitors and it is not the normal time of day when the chief and all the men of the village are present. And, if a local friend supplies the root.
Lounupkomai has no water. No stream, no springs, no pipes, no tanks. All water is gathered in jugs at Lenakel and brought to the village in the back of pick-ups. Where the water came from for the kava, or how long it had been sitting uncovered somewhere were details we were happier not knowing. If these cups, which have undoubtedly passed the lips of most the village men, had ever been cleaned, we would be quite surprised.
Back at Winnie's family compound, her daughters, or sisters, again I am confused, had prepared lunch for us with salad, kumura with coconut milk, taro, chaco, beans and omlettes. All was laid out before us on a lovely cloth with a pretty bouquet of flowers. Two coconuts with straws poking out the tops were a welcome refreshment.
The area is to be a new home for Winnie's mom, Iesei, but is not yet complete. At the moment it a big covered patio. The women had decorated the supporting timbers with attractive green foliage and laid mats down to transform the ground into a floor. I don't know if it was for our benefit alone, but along one side was a low bench.
Kava takes your appetite away but it is important to eat after imbibing. Once we had gorged ourselves on the delicious meal, Winnie brought out gifts.
Monik (pronounced Monique) made us two absolutely beautiful baskets! One had s/y Tenaya woven into it and the other said Jim and Katie. Astounding! We were overjoyed! It was so much more than the small bag of clothes, accessories and kitchenware I had brought for them.
The taxi was waiting so we hopped back into the truck for our ride back to Lenakel and then back across the island. As she had mentioned several times during the day, Winnie again invited us back to her village the following Saturday for a Circumcision Ceremony. On Tanna, these are one of the highlights of the year. We would try our best to return.