September 20, 2011
Headdresses of glittering garland, face paint, grass skirts and brilliantly colored feathers wrapped the women like magnificent gifts. Vibrant traditional lava lavas covered the mens' shorts while many wore a narrow wreath of natural fibers around their head into which a multicolored feather was wedged precariously. In a blazing display of traditional costumes, the villagers radiated custom and culture.
We had finally arrived at the circumcision ceremony in the small village of Lounupkomai on Tanna. The journey was not an easy one. A week ago we began asking Stanley if it could be arranged. If we could get to the airport, our friend, Winnie, could arrange transport to her village.
Each day Stanley gave us a glimmer of hope that we may indeed get a ride. It seemed some tourists were flying out and we could catch a ride. By Thursday night that plan had fizzled.
We seriously considered sailing Tenaya over and anchoring at Lenakel. In good conditions the anchorage is iffy at best and the forecast was not good.
Friday morning we headed ashore for a final attempt. Johnson and another guy were sitting on the giant buoy that had washed up on the beach from some place far away. We told them of our predicament and explained that maybe Stanley didn't understand that we were willing to hire a truck. Money was not an issue, words that seldom roll off our tongues.
Off went Johnson with us in tow to find a driver for Saturday. This was the difficult part. Of the three trucks in the village, two are owned by Seventh Day Adventists who observe the Sabbath and do not work on Saturdays. After visits with other men and several phone calls, Johnson said it was arranged. Be in the village at 5:00 the next morning. Hooray!
We arrived a little after 5:00 the next morning, having waited for dawn before heading in. We stood quietly, whispering softly if we needed to communicate. 15 minutes went buy. I cleared my throat hoping someone might hear. 15 minutes more went by. I coughed. A few minutes later Johnson appeared pulling his shirt over his head.
Out came his mobile phone and his fingers went to work. He wandered away to the high point, then over to the other side of the village. Eventually he came back and suggested we start walking. No questions asked, no information given.
We assumed we were getting a head start on a truck which would soon catch up to us. We were wrong. We passed village after village walking along the rutted dirt road in our lightest jandals, each carrying a pack full of gifts and water. Johnson stopped and chatted with everyone on the way, even picked up a friend at one point who joined us. 7:00 am came and went.
Eventually we came to a fork in the road where he told us to wait while he went to the village. His friend, who spoke only French, waited with us. Another half hour passed and it began to drizzle. We were entertained briefly by a man riding by on his horse who, of course, stopped to chat. That is the way it goes here.
By and by we heard a truck approach. It pulled over about 100 meters short of us, parked, and the two men inside got out and headed off across a field. Apparently the man who lives somewhere on that land died the night before and the driver and Johnson went to pay their respects.
Shortly after 8:00 we were in the truck and trundling towards Lounupkomai. It is an exceedingly harsh road, but the scenery is spectacular. As we drove up the road from Lenakel to Lounupkomai we passed people carrying mats on their way to the village. Our driver stopped for no one. At 10:00 we rolled into the village.
We got out of the truck as a group of women approached in a wave of flowing raffia and luminous leis. One face lit up and leapt out of formation towards us. With an enormous smile, Iesei, Winnie's mother, threw her arms around me. Until then I'm not sure Johnson thought we should really be here. She clasped my hand and led us down the street to the large clearing where, earlier that week, Jim and I drank kava in near solitude.
A few minutes later Winnie appeared and waved for us to follow her. Off into the bush we strolled until we came upon a young man and two boys with a bottle. "Do you want some kava?" She asked. Actually, no, it was a bit early in the day, but how could we refuse? We each knocked back the murky fluid which tasted particularly odious when not psyched up for it. Again Jim was given a second cup. Immediately my head swooned and the nerves of my entire mouth, inside and out, went comatose.
We walked back to Winnie's house on rubbery legs and most likely drooling slightly as our minds floated somewhere other than their normal place. This was, by far, the strongest kava we've had yet. Not hungry in the least, Winnie insisted we eat something. A little food is best after drinking kava. Our mouths moved slowly and not quite in sync with our cloudy, swirling minds. Conversation was out of the question.
At the proper time we made our way back to the ceremonial grounds. Jim and I were dressed up traditionally and our faces painted. People looked on with big smiles and hearty laughter, not malicious in the least. Despite all their trouble, I'm fairly certain we did not completely blend in.
A wedding ceremony was also taking place that day and would happen before the circumcision ceremony. When a couple marries, the woman leaves her village and moves to the man's. Piles of gifts and pigs are given but we are not sure if they are from the wife's village, like a dowry, or from the man's village, as a thank-you. We were told the piles were small because someone had been divorced.
The bride was the saddest looking person in all the land. We wonder if she had been unhappily traded to keep balance in the different villages, possibly due to the divorce. That, of course, is pure conjecture. We've got a lot to learn about relationships in the country.
Between the ages of 5 and 10, a young boy is taken from the village to a secret spot deep in the bush for up to three months. His mother, other women, and most of the men of the village are not permitted to see him.
Usually the circumcision is performed by the eldest son of the chief with a sharp piece of bamboo. Up to 5 people hold the boy down. He is given a calming drink but no local anesthetic to ease the pain. The details vary from village to village but the process remains largely the same.
During recovery the boy is taught by a special teacher and a few wise men of the village. He learns how to be a man as all the important information of his culture is passed on to him. Nothing is written, all is remembered. One man cooks and two older boys keep him company at night. He bathes his wound twice a day at a nearby lake. A shell is blown to clear the road of any women.
Once the wound is healed there is a great ceremony. Gifts of yams and taro are laid at the foot of a tree made of sugar cane wrapped in bright fabric. On top of the yams are laid long packages of laplap. Then many woven mats are added before dozens of lava lavas. Women of the mother's family top the enormous pile with baskets and more mats.
Once the pile was constructed great quantities of kava, several pigs and a cow were brought out. During this time the mother and the women of her family took spray perfume, or, more likely, aerosol room freshener, and sprayed everyone. We are not sure why.
All the presents are for the village of the mother's father. Grandpa, sporting a bright blue Izod shirt over his lava lava, was in especially good spirits. Most of the day he clutched a bottle of whiskey, gulping with gusto.
Once the pile had been completely erected the men drifted off. An air of excitement grew among the women and small children. The long, low sound of a shell being blown resonated through the trees. A hush fell over the clearing. Slowly men filed out in a single line very solemnly. Each carried an offering decorated with brightly colored leaves. In the middle of the line was a small boy, the only person not wearing a lava lava. Dried grass wrapped rings around his legs and head. An elaborate belt with dangling shells held up his much over-wrapped penis. Streamers spewed from the head. A nice touch, we though.
The procession inched out of the bush and wound around the giant pile of gifts as each man deposited his offering on top. They circled several times until the entire line had gathered round it.
Then it was time to dance. Grandpa found his way to the center as the other men circled him and the women jumped around the perimeter. He abandoned his whiskey bottle in favor of two cans of spray with which he doused the men as he swayed to the stomping, clapping and singing with a euphoric grin on his face.
When the dancing finished the men of the grandfather's village returned to the pile and began carrying things off. Soon it had been completely dismantled.
After an amazing day we returned to Winnie's house, ready to leave. It was about 3:00 in the afternoon and we were tired. Johnson appeared and said the driver had been called back to his village because someone was sick. He would return for us at 9:00 pm. None of us were thrilled about that.
Winnie set off and returned with news that we could nap as her uncle's home. We had met Iaken at the ceremony and found him quite likable. His kind wife, Mariani, welcomed us into their non-traditional home of solid walls and tiled floors. She gave us coffee and chatted before offering us a comfortable bed in a room with a door.
Darkness descended and we heard activity in the living room. We got up to find dinner was nearly ready. Mariani owns a restaurant in Lenakel so we dined in style! Dinner was delicious and we enjoyed talking with her, Iaken and their daughter, Asena. They told us much about their culture. Mariani is Fijian so it was interesting to hear her perspective.
Iaken didn't think our driver would be back that night. He assumed we'd be spending the night and was pleased that we might see the kastom dancers from other visiting villages. These festivities would not be in full swing until about 4:00 am.
At 8:00 we heard music. Iaken said the dancing had begun and suggested we have a look. It was fascinating! Men are in the center with women on the outside. For a while they dance in place, singing and stomping. All of a sudden they turned to the right and skipped around, still forming a circle. Women jump. Men stop hard. They do it over and over again during each song.
Promptly at 9:00 pm Rosie found us and said our driver had arrived. We didn't want to leave. It was the end of an incredible day. Well, not the end. We still had a two hour drive back to Pt. Resolution and a dinghy ride through bommies at low water. We crawled into bed shortly after 2:00 after one the most interesting days of our lives.
Our personal truck rental for 18 hours' use cost $200 USD. Considering the driver had to drive to Lenakel twice, which cost him $120 in fuel, the price was more than fair.