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Vanuatu

October 2003

The 460 mile passage from Fiji to Vanuatu was a sailing mixture that seemed to change every few hours.  At one point we were wing and wing going smoothly downwind in 15 knots and a few hours later we were flying along with 25 knots at 60 degrees apparent.  The next day we were motoring in light head winds.

The entrance to the harbor was marked by the wreck of a beautiful 54 foot sailboat.  The wreck was only 3 months old and its story gave us the chills.  The British couple aboard had been in the harbor and when the winds shifted in the middle of the night  they felt they would be safer at sea.  In the pitch dark they misjudged the reef by a few hundred yards and moments later their boat was a total loss and their lives were in danger.   Seeing this lovely vessel a total loss was a sobering reminder of the fickle nature of our life afloat.   It only takes a moment's inattention, the slightest miscalculation or a little bad luck to bring all hell crashing down around your head.

Vanuatu is a land of magic and mystery.  It is made up of over 80 islands and during World War Two provided numerous bases for the US fleet in our battles against the Japanese.  Today Vanuatu still straddles the gap between the modern world and its animistic past. 

With cyclone season rapidly approaching we had time to visit only one island and so chose the very traditional island of Tanna.  Tanna is home to the still active volcano of Mt. Yasur,  the cargo cults and the unique Jon Frum religion.  The Indiana Jones movie referred to the Cargo cults but they are much more than a Hollywood fiction. 

During World War Two a number of natives on different islands developed the so called Cargo Cult religions.  Seeing the Americans and especially the black American soldiers with so much material wealth they developed a religion based around a belief in a black man who would come to lead them and would bring them all the worldly goods they desired.  Noticing the Red Cross ambulances they adopted the red cross as their religious symbol.  Today the villages fly the American Flag and the US Navy flag and erect tall poles which they string with wires and tin cans as a radio antenna so Jon Frum can speak to his people. 

Today several tribes allow very small groups of tourists to visit and watch their Friday night singing and dancing.  We were interested in a more in-depth understanding of the religion so  forgoing the tourist mini-van we hiked about 5 miles to a John Frum village arriving in early evening long before the tourists and dancing.  Eventually the children directed us to the hut of Chief Issacs who led us to the community hut and sat with us for several hours and explained the Jon Frum religion in detail.   Suddenly it all made so much more sense.  If I were ni-Vanuatu (of the Vanuatu people) I think I would join the cult too.

As Chief Issacs explained a black American serviceman named Jon (from America) spent time with them in the early 1940's.  He strongly urged the chiefs to throw out the Presbyterian missionaries who had destroyed their traditional culture.  He encouraged them to run the missionaries out of town and  to return to their traditional custom ways.  The people  of Vanuatu had always been a bit more revolutionary than  elsewhere and in the last century  had eaten one of the most successful missionaries in the Pacific.  ( The last reported case of cannibalism was in 1969).    In any event they did run out the missionaries and began to reclaim their old custom ways.   In a scenario foreshadowing that of Nelson Mandela the British imprisoned the Jon Frum chiefs for 17 years from 1940-1957 for practicing their religion.   Today they continue to give thanks  and pray to Jon Frum (America) and hope he will return to lead them in the future. 

I applaud the Jon Frum cult.  The entire Pacific would be a better place today if more islanders had run out the missionaries who destroyed their cultures and continue to do so. 

In support of their religion we gave Chief Issacs an American Flag and have promised to have friends visiting next year bring a new US Navy ensign for him. 

On another afternoon we hiked a few miles down the road to a custom village and paid a small fee to watch the men dance in traditional fashion.  In the custom villages the men wear nambas (penis sheaths) and the women are bare breasted and wear colorful grass skirts.  The men of the small  namba tribe also demonstrated using two sticks to create a fire in just a few minutes. 

That evening we went off to see the BIG fire - Mt. Yasur.  We arrived before sunset to see the overall setting but the real action starts as the sky darkens and you see fiery tongues of lava and molten boulders thrown into the sky. 

One afternoon while hiking with Stanley, a well educated young man who runs the tiny "Yacht Club, " he explained a bit about their beliefs in magic.  The medicine men of the village can put hexes on people to either make them ill or to cure them.  They often do surgery and remove diseased organs using nothing but their bare hands and when they are through there is no blood or even sign of an incision but they hold up the removed organ.   By blowing into magical coconut shells they can wither the crops or conversely call up the rains to improve the crops. 

One day we took a hike with Stanley and were two hours into the walk that he said would only take an hour.  We teased him about it and then noticed he did not  have a watch so probably did not really know how  long the hike was.  He commented that whereas the whites had watches the Vanuatu people had time. 

Stanley also taught us a few words of their incredibly creative language of Bislama or pidgin English as it is sometimes called.

A few examples

History=      taim bilong bifoa     (time belong before)
What is your name?  =  wannem nem bilong yu      (what name belongs to you)
My name is  = nam bilong mi  (the name that belongs to me)
How are you?  =  yu alrait   (are you alright?)
Thank you very much  =  tenk yu tumas   (Thank you too much)
See you later  =  lukum yu   (I will look at you)

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