Friday, July 2, 2010

Melanesian Magic on the Beach

The unfavourable weather denied us the opportunity to go ashore on Tanna Island in Vanuatu. We stayed on board the Oceanic Discoverer. I just watched in disappointment as the inclement weather kept us at bay. That night I felt seasick for the second night. This was part of the job, I assured myself rather than complain.

By the time we arrived at Ambrym I was up and ready for the day. I felt much better. It was the first time on this journey that I was very comfortable. I had had a good night’s rest. In the morning I woke up to the calm waters off Ambrym. As we journeyed into the bay I realized that since we are in Vanuatu waters I felt much more at home.

Ambrym Island is an interesting island. Ambrym is a volcanic island. The Explorer took us ashore to Ranon Beach. Ranon has a black sandy beach. Volcanic eruptions deposited their volcanic elements around it.

A welcome ceremony was performed on our arrival. As part of the official party I was given a present of a wooden garamut carving. I was very surprised with this gesture. We then walked to the dance area where we sat down around the big dance area.

At the dancing area the mask dancers and the main chorus of the dance performed a couple of numbers. The villagers performed the famous Rom dances. It was one of the most striking ceremony and the costumes were extraordinary. The Rom dances seemed too familiar. I thought the dancers resembled some of the dances of the West New Britain area of Papua New Guinea. The masked men were covered from head to the toe with grass skirts made of dried banana leaves, a mask carved out of wood, and some palm leaves on top of their masks. The main core of the dancers, who were inside the circle created by the masked dancers, wore small tapas that covered most their hips and genitals, similar to the shell kambang dancers of Telefomin area in Papua New Guinea.

Following the dance an exhibition of sand drawing took place. Sand drawing is also very intricate and Ranon is the home of sand drawing. This area of Ambrym is famous for its fern carvings and tamtams (slit gongs). There were three acts featuring two Ambrym magic performances and a sand drawing. The finale of the performance was a solo bamboo flute player.

With the show over we left the dancing ground and walked back down to the beach. On the roadside near the beach front the villagers had built small stalls in which they sold artefacts such as carvings, animal miniatures, bamboo flutes. The woodcarvings were spectacular. The tourists bought some of these as souvenirs.

The village youth band strummed out a few local numbers sung in Bislama, in the local Ambrym vernacular, and in English. The band was truly a popular village band. Their strumming seemed to resemble some of the string bands of Papua New Guinea. Guitars, ukuleles, a base cello made of an empty wooden box with strings tightly stretched to a short pole. The vocals went from base to very high-pitched voice. Not so different to some of the coastal villages style of entertainment in Papua New Guinea.

Ambrym is considered Vanuatu’s sorcery centre. Sorcerers are treated with great respect. Many islanders have seen too many unexplained happenings associated with sorcery. I immediately put up my guard by taking extra precaution as I would when I visit a place where sorcery is known to exist. I don’t think the European tourists were scared of sorcery, but I was. It does not matter whether I am in PNG or in Vanuatu, sorcery is sorcery. I had to be careful in my negotiations.

I decided to walk with some of the crew to the Ambrym lower secondary school. The school was built next to the shore on a raised hill. From land this must be the best view, but the view from the Oceanic Discoverer is similar to the view of St. Johns Seminary on Kairiru Island in Papua New Guinea.

Our walk was distracted by two men busy making their Kava drink. One of the men pounded the Kava roots in a specially made container made out of an arm length PVC pipe stuck in the ground..The pounding instrument was a long iron bar that fitted the pipe. The other man squeezed the pounded Kava into a dish. They kept on doing whatever they were doing on our arrival.

Ambrym has the twin volcanoes of Mt. Marum and Mt. Benbow. They are usually shrouded in smoke and cloud for the best part of the year. The sky above the infernos glowed in red in the night as if to scare strangers.

We sailed onward to Champaign Bay on Espirito Santo Island the next day. This was the island where the PNGDF campaign flushed out Jimmy Stevens, the infamous rebel leader. I had little enthusiasm about this history as I was more interested in talking to owner of Champaign Bay, a well kept and managed beach without the support of the government.

The owner was approached many times by multi-millionaires to sell off the Bay, but he refused the offer. If he sold Champaign Bay then the villagers, who depend on the income generated from tourist visiting the Bay free-of-charge, would no longer benefit from it. It means the villagers have to pay to participate in the tourist industry. As long as Champaign Bay remains with the traditional landowner the villagers will continue to earn income to meet their basic social and economic necessities.

I can see the reasoning behind this position as it supports an indigenous Melanesian economic perspective. As long as traditional land remains with the traditional owners everyone in the community will derive their sustainability from it. Once it is sold, traded, or that the transfer of ownership is negotiated, a whole community can lose out on gaining any economic benefits.

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