Jump with a smile

With a nice twist I ended up on a plane to Vanuatu from Leticia, thanks to the strange anomaly in the plane ticket prices… it was actually cheaper to fly here than to Bolivia, which was my original aim. I did not mind it too much, especially now after spending almost a month in the Pacific. The only country I actually sad about not visiting is Cuba. To be honest I even forgot about it when I saw the prices to Vanuatu. Well, at least there will be a reason to wander later back to that area. It was a long journey to here, take me 3 days altogother. I have special feelings about Vanuatu, during our first trip it was our ultimate destination, but unfortunately we never made it here, so after nearly 10 years of daydreaming about it sighting first the group of islands was special for me. The weather was beautiful, the sun was just about to set, the hills where green and the sea below almost electric blue. After my arrival I take the local bus to town. Finally I’m on english speaking land! Here, there are 3 different official langualges, bishlama (which is quite simmilar to english, but with a very funnily strange grammar), english, and fench. Next to this 3 there is almost 180 local languages still actively spoken across the 83 beautiful islands which forms the archipelago. Vanuatu is famuous about the inhabitants, the most happy people of the planet. (After a month or so, I’m happy to confirm that it is absolutely true)By the end of the busride, which is about half an hour, I ended up having 3 mobile numbers in case the cheap hotels are full, and I need a place to sleep. Everybody seems absolutely friendly and welcoming, usually people say thank you for visiting their country. It is a magical land. There was a very special moment during the busride, we delivered a few bags of vegetables to a young local fella, when the bus stopped, he opened his door with such a great, open heartedly smile, peacefullness and kindness I never see such before. It is hard to describe by words, but I will always remember that moment, it was somehow special, an indication where I really arrived. Same experience at the hotel. I picked the cheepest one in town, which is still several times more expensive than any accomodation I took at Colombia. It is a super-expensive destination but still one of the cheapest around the Pacific. Also compared to the other islands which ones are already developed and commercialized, here locals still live according to their traditions. 

As transport prices are really high, including the local flights, I choosed to use the way how the niVans travel across the islands: on cargoships. I had to wait a few days in the capital, Port Vila, until the ship arrived and it depurture was also delayed with a day, so I had a bit of time to look around in the city. To be honest it does not have anything for me… full with expensive resorts and touristy restaurants. The passage took 1.5 days with the ship with several stops at different islands on the way. Usually the stops are long as it takes a while until they transport all the goods back and forth with a small dinghy. Same way as on the bus I gained several phonenumbers by the end of the trip. Basically I chatted with every single person on the boat, everybody is interested who is the lonely forigner as tourists usually fly instead of the tireing boatride. The crew was super-lovely as well, they offered their bed to everybody, as there are not many option to lay down or even to sit actually. For quite a while I was trying to have a sleep on top of some construction material, but it was not too successful so I took the chance when I was offered a bunk for an hour or so. Still everybody is really kind, if they know something about my destination they are always keen to share and also they are usually very interested about where I’m coming from and generally about everything. Even the very few people who does not speak english we manage to chat as bishlama is easy to understand. The highlight of the trip was when we stopped in the middle of nowhere as we lost the steering. Does not sounded right, but as everything else here, it seems inpossible or messy at the beggining but by the end there is always a solution even if it is a rather makeshifty one. After an hour we where already on the way again. 

Due to the delays we arrived to my destination, the wanderful Pentecost island quite late, but here you will never be left alone, so when we arrived a kind local gentleman offered his help to find a place for me to sleep. We checked a few guesthouses (usually nothing indicates on the huts if it is a storage room, someones home or a guesthouse) most of them was full, so it took a while until we found a place. As I arrived soo late there was no option to have some dinner, here you have to indicate in advance, so they collect materials from the garden or from the bush, but as an experienced traveller I always has a few china’s noodlesoup in my bag. There are very few dangerous thing living in Vanuatu, no poisonous snakes or spiders, the only annoying thing are the rats. But from that there are many. They do not spread any disease but are eating everything and anything coming in their way, including my usb cables and earphones. It takes a while until I used to them, every time you switch on the light at night there is a few around… ah, by the way light… there is generally no electricity at the island, locals use solars and small tourches. As far as I can see selling solar products are simply the biggest business around… well from sunny hours there is plenty here…The lady from the guesthouse was lovely enough to boil some water and prepared the noodles. Here usually the whole fammily will join you and watch you while eating, this disturbs some visitors, but I enjoy it, as at least I’m not alone and there is a chance to have a chat. This is how I met Mr. Gibson, he is the brother of the lady from the guesthouse… basically we chatted the whole evening until the night… he explained me a lot about the area and the local customs, he is a really kind and friendly person, I’m soo lucky to met him! He is teaching in a secondary school a bit north, around the middle of the island, but visited the big sister to help out with the construction work (the guesthouse is still in progress a bit). Lucky I’m as always. I never met such an open hearted, honest, friendly person as him. I went to sleep with an euphoric feeling, wooo, Vanuatu rocks!

Next day early morning I started walking to the next village as this was the day for the last big event here for the year: the legendary nangol, the ancient bungee-jumping. As Gibson explained to me it started long long ago, when a local lady realized her husband is visiting an other girl as well, so she climbed up to either a coconut palm or to a banyard tree (more likely) she tied some vines around her legs and when the husband realized it he climbed the tree as well, the girl jumped, the husband followed but without the rope around his leg, he died while she survived. So this is how it started… at the beggining even girls where allowed to jump, but there was a bit of a problem with the act, as man wear some tiny cloths around their penis, called the mamba, which keeps the instrument hidden, than the girls grass cloths allowed a bit more than desired visibility during the jump, so girls where banned from the performance. With time it transformed to sort of an initiation ceremony, young boys start their act from the lower level platforms, and every time they jump they go higher and higher, until they reach the top. Today, instead of a tree, everybody jumps from a constructed tower which is built from scratch for every single event. (Usually jumps are held during the yam harvest season, from may to june every saturday, but originally it was only a month around may, but it attracted such a big attention, it is extended for a longer period) although nowadays there is no jump without at least a few tourist watching it as it gives a great income for the village, it still has quite a bit of tradition involved. Like on one occasion a gentleman was running up to the tower with a branch of leafs in his hand, when he climbed up he smashed the leafs to the structure, which means as Gibson explained that he was the uncle of the follow up jumper, if by the end he changes his mind and will not jump, he has to pay his uncle with some money or maybe a pig. It was soo great that Gibson came with me, without him I would have not understan the half of the event. Also he explained that all the dancers and singers where coming from a far away kastom village, as they are the only ones who knows the proper songs, without them lots of things could go wrong. In Vanuatu there are basically two type of villages, the normal ones and the “kastom” ones, where people leave according to their traditions, how their ancestors where living. To be honest even in normal villages the kastoms are still very strong and alive… ladies at the guesthause where warning me not to go to the forest, as there are many sacred places around and if I accidentally wander into them the spirits could kill the whole village… also once we had a chat with Gibson about the life expectancy at Vanuatu, and he expalined that it is surprisingly quite low, when I asked why is that he explained to me that it is the result of the witch-craft. 

But back to the jump. It is indeed very interesting tradition and rather suicidal as well, I was told accidents do happen usually, during this jump there was only one smaller incident, when a platform breaked away, and the boy arrived to his back… he hitted himself quite badly, but was able to walk away. Few years ago during a private jump at the exact same spot for a documentary team unfortunately the guys where not that lucky… the whole tower collapsed leaving the jumper and a cameraman dead. It is not without risk indeed. No wander why it is common that jumpers change their mind quite often. I have not seen anything like that, but everyone says it do happen often. When Gibson was young he was jumping as well from all the way to the top. Breave man but he himself admits, that he was way too young and careless and now as he has a wife and 5 lovely doughters (the 6th is on the way) he does not even like to climb up if it is needed. I also learned that there is only one guy in the village who is selecting and cutting the vines to the proper size, if anything happens there is noone else to blame. This day there where around 13 jumper, and the top jumper came from a far away kastom village. He was standing on top of the tiny wooden stucture around 25m height like it would be absolutelly normal, even to look up spooked me enough, but it is well known that I afraid of the height a lot.After the jump is over usually the destroy the towers and start to build an entirely new one for the next weeks jump. 

Next day the whole village started to buzzle reather early, it was a big day in the life of south Pentecost, the cruesship arrives, they only come around 2-3 times a year, so indeed everyone around the south gathered, dancers, stringbands, artifact sellers, some guys convert their homes to some activity center, like a fish feeding show, or a crab show. It was quite funny to see how different the place can be in a few hours, if 700 tourists arrives for a half day. Usually I have very little respect for this type of tourists, and the mass serving it, but the guys from the surrounding villages where rather nice, it was done indeed on the relaxed, friendly south Pentecost way, kindness and friendship first…After a day rest, I started my slow progress towards the north. As the transport is so extremely expensive, I walk all the way. Gibson already went forward to Ranwadi as the shool started on monday, but we agreed to meet there. The walking is a bit better on the sourth and starts to be hilly from the center… otherwise it is lovely to walk here, everywhere you go you sit down with the villagers, toktok a bit, they always make sure you are not leaving hungry/thearsty/underinformed. It is very comon here that peoples approaching me while walking offering freshly collected fruits, freshly baked taro, or even a piece of chicken. Food is so plentiful here, everybody is happy to share it with the strange white man walking with a massive “basket” on his back. (My backpack is around 25 kilo, plus the photo gear, computer in an other bag….)

When I arrived to the center I stopped at the village called waterfall. As it tourned out it is very close to Gibsons place, so we could meet after school. He was again very kind with me, he introduced me to his fammily, everyone is soo happy, kind and friendly with me! Unbelievable people like Gibson and his friends and family makes me think if I ever want to leave from here… a strange feeling to one like me, who used to the goodbye’s while travelling, indeed this is the first place from the long list of countried I ever visited where I actually feel and consider seriously to stay…. My friends where nice enough to prepare me to the experience I will face in the north… there it is a different world, a place filled with kastom even more, a place where villagers still leave in communities, they cook and work togother. Gibson one night took me to a surrounding village’s nakamal. It is the first time for me, its the “mans clubhouse” in every or basically in most of the villages, they have a nice long thatched roof building where man gather at sunset, after finishing the work in the gardens to enjoy a few kava drinks together next to the fire… it is the place to have a nice quiet talk with the others, all topics are on the table… from agriculture to girls and when there is a forigner like me around it extends to comparing our countries and kastoms.   The best joke so far I found to throw in in the middle of the chat is to mention that “and my country does not have a sea”. Well this sentence generates a good 10 minute really deep lough, some people start to drop tears from it.. And than… -my favourite part- in a metter of a blink, everybody stops loughing, it comes a few moment of silence than some from the crowd usually says: ” ah, we are so sorry for you” and than usually I mention to save the situation that we have a big-big lake, and two large rivers. If there is some who does not understands english they translate to him that we only have a “wan bigfella bluhol an tu hotwota” well, bishlama is based on the features you can find in Vanuatu, so our mud-brown murky Balaton translates as a blue-hole… the ones you can find here below waterfalls and the Danube is as a spring-water or better known as hot-water here thanks to the vulcanoes. I love bishlama! It is the funniest language I ever heared. 

Gibson also made sure I drink enough kava before I continue my journey. He is a big kava drinker, he could not even sleep if he is not having a few before… he wanted me to got drunk properly from it, so later in the really traditional kustom places, I will not have any surprises. Well, it was a successful mission, at a certain point I could not stand up for a few hours and I saw everything not doubled but at least trippled. I have to admit I had to focus hard not to vomit in the middle of the sacred nakamal… the taste is really horroristic and the effect is strong, nothing like I ever felt before in the kava-bars… here in the makamals it is the original, strong handmade variation….

After a few days here, it was time for me to continue walking towards the north… my friends prepared me perfectly of what I could expect up there, … they explained a lot about traditions, kastoms and the way of life here, I learned soo much!… it is not just the kindness and welcoming, I have the constant feeling, that I had something common with this people… I never for a minute felt like a tourist, it was more like visiting friends you did not see for a long time… it is a feeling really hard to express but somehow I felt home here. Maybe I was living here in my ex-life… I wish I could stay. If I will ever have a family, I would like to come back and stay here… I think the best I could do for my future kids, to give them the possibility to live amongst the kindest and happiest people of the world, where a nice chat with someone is the most appriciated thing where kindness and happiness is the part of the kastom. If everyone on earth could come here for a month or so to experience this, im sure the world would be a better place. 

One Comment Add yours

  1. Kurt says:

    Splendid captures!

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