Land of kastoms

​After my preparation was done I continued walking towards the north. My aim was to visit a tiny and extremely remote village of Lavatmanggemu. Altough it is really far from everything and anyhing this small place once made it to the world news as they have a very special bank. A bank which instead of money, works with Vanuatu’s kastom high currency: pig tusks. The road on the north of the island is covered with rather steep mountains, so take me a while to battle them with my heavy backpack. Up and down for days on end. While walking, lots of people stopping me asking where I go and what I do here in the far north. It is quite evident that tourist never wander to this region… it is far from the see and the comfort of the guesthouses. It is a shame, as this is how real Vanuatu is… untouched, friendly, remote. If you stop for a night, you go to the local nakamal, which is a long-house, sort of like a club building for man, to chat and have a shell of kava or two… or five πŸ™‚ here people welcome visitors with open heart, they prepare a bed for you in someones home, they cook you food, for free. Payment is absolutely not expected, whats more, everybody is really proud of this tradition, if you arrived from the next village or from an other continent, doors are always open for you, and food is sooo plentiful it never runs out. During the evening you are invited to taste the local kava. Altough I really do not like it, I also do not want to hurt the feelings of my kind hosts when they bring out their best kavas and prepare it with high accuracy and care.

When I was getting closer to Lavatmanggemu the road suddenly disappears, sometimes you find a small footpath, but ususally it is grown over by the lush jungle years ago… as an indication how far and how isolated my destination is. On the final leg, it is a steep descend, so sharp and slippery first time ever I had to use a rope to lower myself down the slopes… without a heavy load it is doable, but with the bags I have, it was safer I felt. It is not just the descend but also you have to cut your way to the bush.. I did it a lot in the Amazonas, but there it is rather flat ground all the time. When I arrived down, unluckily I just landed next to a bull. I could tell he was not happy about my presence, and by the end I had to run uphill again, until he decided to stop and give me a go. What can you do πŸ™‚ I cutted an other path few hundreds meter away from him.When I reached the shore I could not beleive to my eyes. Sparkling white sand, azure sea, reefs, clear rivers rushing to the sea, large trees overhanging the beach. Magical… After a few minutes I bumped into a outstandingly friendly local guy, Robin, he was soo surprised what I do there he was actually running towards me. I explained to him what I do and where I would like to go. He told me not to worry at all, he knows the way and will guide me there. He told me several times -very proudly- that once he take part of a training about how to handle forigners coming to the area, so he can help me πŸ™‚ 

When we arrived close to the village, we saw everybody sitting at the beach, waiting for the once a month cargoship, the only one breave enough to come inside the reef between many rocks, large surf-waves and generally rough seas. It is a big event for the surrounding places, the only real connection with the outside world, other islands. They bring in goods, and take kava in surprising quantities. Everyone here, who wants some money will sell kava to the capital. Pentecost is the most famouos growing area of the world. From here they ship to Port Vila, where they dry it and ground it and in a powder form it will be transported to Australia, Fiji, NZ, and even to the US. In the EU, it is illegal πŸ™‚ as the Germans where complaining about it.. It is funny, as from kava, you will be quiet and peaceful not like from alcohol, you will not become addicted and there are no health side-effects however hard they tried to find, still, while alcohol is absolutely fine, kava is classified as a drog. I guess it is mostly more about the interests of the big german beer manufacturing companies. Sad, but usual representation of the world we are living in. 

I was sitted down to the sand to talk about my intensions with the villagers. They told me that the high chief is not at home at the moment, he went to Vila to campaign for their rights (according to other villages around he was actually taken by the police in the charge of some money-loundering) but he always requires forigners to indicate their arrival at least a few days before. Situation started to become akward, I told them that I did not know about it unfortunately, nobody mentioned it on the way here, and I did not wanted to offend them on any way… I also told that it is ok, I can sleep in the jungle until the word gets back from the high chief… I also mentioned, that I would altough need some drinking water, as I was walking for days to come here, and my bottles are rather empty by now. Suddenly everybody looked at me… “you where walking all the way from the south?” … “than it is allright, than you are very welcome… walking this long means you are really interested in our culture and kastoms, we respect that, so you are more than welcome in our small village” wow, sharp change… accidentally everybody started smiling as how I used to things in Vanuatu. They told me not to worry at all, I will have a place to stay and more food what I could eat, also I can stay as long as I wish. They immediatelly called the high chief in Vila, as I learned during my stay he wants to know about every moves and happenings in the village… he controls everything in his kingdom. Next to the piggy-bank Lavatmanggemu has a lot to show. It is the place for the kastom “shadow” government and also the kastom parliament. This is not just simply a place with kastoms and beliefs it is the home of the Turaga Nation, it is how they call themself. A cult system very little known about it. 

When we arrived a small but friendly village waited for me with all the the 46 inhabitants, some of the guys where doing some sand drawings for my arrival, they are beautiful! (Next to their beauty they also have magical meanings as well, some can only be drawn by a certain people, some only by the high chief) also some of them showd me their unique writing system as well, very simmilar with the sand-drawing, made by a line with many curves, amaizing, never seen anything like that before. In the meantime they prepared a place for me inside the parliament long-house, they wanted to give me a bed but it would result one of the ministers to sleep on the ground, so I pulled out my hammock with the moskito-net and hanged it from two bamboos. It was a total success among the guys, everybody who was breave enough tried it… while some where worried to fall out.. So just eyeballed the rest from a safe distance. The building itself is a really nicely done large long-house, with triangular windows on the first floor, something I never seen before. They proudly showed me that all this is made entirely without a single peace of scew or anything simmilar… all from local materials, made by hand. Some anthropologists says their culture is somehow simmilar to a cargo cult, but instead of waiting for the ww2 supply planes they are constantly waiting for the raise of their nation to a civilization. Strangest place I ever been so far in my whole life. They erect massive building from bamboos, longhouses, homes… they already started to build up a town, which will cover the whole hillside, so when their “system” will start working and people around Vanuatu and the world will recognize it, there will be a place for them to stay. Some of them are the most imressive tribal buildings one can see. Longhouses with 3 floors, able to accomodate hundreds of guests, ceremonial grounds, stone podiums where the high chief dances during the rank-taking ceremonies… inside the parliament building there are big thrones, for the high chief and for the kings. Unbelievable. Like in the movies. 

In the middle, there is a massive tamtam drum, with a diameter of around 1.5 meter maybe even two, and around 5-7 meter long… I was told they will only gong it, when the bigfella chief dies, and than all the other chiefs around the island will know what happened and they can came to show their respect. At that occasion they will gong with it for 3 weeks constantly. Next to that there are many other tamtams, some is used to tell the “mothers” to prepare food, others to call the kids to prepare kava. When the food is ready the ladies – “mamas and mothers” – gong an other tamtam, so man can stop working and can come back to the longhouse for food. Everything is shared and common property, except the things used by the “bigfella chief”. The ladies are cooking for everybody, man working togother as well, harwesting goods from the common garden, building big longhouses – nakamals. In the morning everybody wakes up around 6, they go to the garden to work, around 8 one of them cames back to gong for breakfast, when it is ready, the ladies are gonging as well, calling everyone home to eat, than back to the fields.. Later lunch and dinner is organized on the same way..ah.. Regarding the food, when I arrived they told me, that they are very sorry, but they only eat local, so maybe it will not be good for me… I started to worry a bit, but jezz, the amount of incredible food piles for every meal was unreal… yams, tarots, chickens… one day large crabs, enough for everybody.. Even more! Once I mentioned that I quite like fruits, from that on they always made sure I always have at least 10kilos of various fruits… pomelos (my all time favorite) big like my head, and sweet to the level I never felt that taste before, popos (papaya), sugarcanes, and others I never saw before. But the special care was not just for me, I learned that the ladies are preparing special food for everybody, who likes something more, or dislike other things. Unreal. They eat like kings, it is really a food paradise. And I can not even imagine what happenes during the celebrations, when they organize island-feasts. For dinner they usually prepared several kilos of different root-products, laplaps, for everyone in small nicely woven island-baskets. Usually I was only able to eat third of the portions. Next to that you get a big plate of all sort of goodies, chicken, crabs, cabbage, a selection of veggies, coconut souce, fruits… Once they told me, that when the kastom “shadow” government is here, they accomodate 2-300 people, but still even than, food never runs out. (And the ministers, chiefs, kings are usually staying for 1-3month) next to this they monitor closely the resources so when something starts runing out, like the reeffish, the “bigfella” chief declares tabu for fishing, planting some crops, harvesting some fruits, like right now they are not allowed to fish for 7 years inside the reef. 

One interesting thing is that eating fruits is classifies as drinking. You drink a papaya, orange, … by eating it. I realized they do not drink water too much, basically at all, as the next drinkable water-source is a few miles away at the source of the river. Usually they collect rainwater as well, but right now, there is no rain at all, they say, the rainmakers, or rainmaking magic is not effective for some reason (el-nino year it is otherwise). Also visitors can not walk alone, not by any other reason but it is so isolated and you could easily feel lonely, so usually nobody walks anywhere alone, especially visitors, even if I have been million times at the river, and I told them I can go alone, no problem… it is not possible at all, one should accompany me all the time, as if I go home, I will tell, “they made me walk lonely”. πŸ™‚ loneliness could be an issue here without this mantality for sure.

First night before drinking kava, I was shown a place between the reefs and rocks where everybody goes for “showering”. They told me that “sorry, but at the village there is no bathroom or other showering facilities”, they only come “here” to wash themselfs. Well, you could not imagine a better settings for some swim, large rocks, some nice trees, a white-sandy pool. The whole place is just so unreal as it could. After the wash it was time to go to the nakamal for some kava. Again, as in the movies, man sitting in the front, kids preparing the drinks, while the ladies and girls in the back-half cooking the dinner. Everybody is quiet, calm, peaceful… the sun slowly heading down… I’m in paradise. Kava is made by the kids here (they are not allowed to drinking it) it is their school… and if they master the kava-drink making, than that will be their first rank, “the one who can do kava for the chief” we talk about them with the other mans, they monitor them carefully, pointing out one kid, who does it soo accurately, with such a passion it is a joy to watch. When it is done, they call everybody by name. The “oldfella” chief first, than the visitor, and than everybody else. Kava is not about geting drunk, it is more about making a friendship, forming a connection betwean each other. It is about respect as well… when they call you, you walk to the boys, there will be a coconut shell for you with kava in it already, you crunch down next to them, everybody stops, no talking, no walking, you drink it with one go, and than you walk back to your sitting place and wait calmly for the effect. People will come and sit close to you to have a conversation, very quietly, very peacefully. And here, this is the most appriciated thing, to have a long quiet talk with someone. They teach me a lot about the culture and kastoms and I talk about my family, my country or other countries I have been. I show a few pictures on my phone and they show me a few as well. It is common that someone walks a day to see the visitor like me who is coming from a far away land, and to have a talk. It is very emotional sometimes while other times it is strange and funny. Like when someone asked me; “did you ever see a big snake in the amazonas?” I replies “yes, I saw only one snake” than everybody stopped, started to look at me suspiciously … silence… ok, so what did I said? Than someone come closer and explains that big snakes only appear to bad people to take them. I immediately grabbed my camera and showed the picture of the only snake I ever seen during my long amazonas adventure, a tiny brown one… it is really a small one… tension eases off, all good, it is only a small snake. πŸ™‚

An other day I had a long chat with chief Alan. He is the kindest man I ever met… hard to explain but we managed to form a special relation… he is 68, a really wise and hard working man, when he was young he went around the world by working on a cargo boat, it was way before containers where invented, he has interesting stories about all the ports and countries he had been. Once he told me that what he would like the best is if all the people around the world who has war in their countries or suffering from hunger could come here to his island until their countries are becoming better, as here everybody could have enough food, shelter, peace. This is what they as Turaga Movement fight for, this is why they build many nakamals, to invite people from around Vanuatu, the pacific and the whole world to learn how to leave well, in peace, in sync with neature and everybody else. They base all their “teachings” on the kastoms, they say if everybody would go back to their roots, and would live according to their kastoms the world would be a better place… well, could not agree more. Some people are chatolic here most of them live according to their kastoms, or somewhere inbetwean but they all believe in their traditions and their “system” that once they manage to find a solution to all the problems. During my whole stay I had one of the chiefs assigned to me, so he follows with me everywhere to show me around and to explain everything about their kastom. Next to the village there are many pigs wandering around or tied with a leash to a tree, they all grow impressive teeth, ones which curves around to a full circle or even more. Tusks are important here, but not just on Pentecost but whole Vanuatu. Even the flag has one in it. It is a very valuable currency, next to the nicely woven mats and shells which are collected on a long line as a necklace. All of this is used to pay and exchange things, goods, or ceremonies or the school fees for the kids even today. Here, which is the heart of the tusk-cult, you need 10 fully curved teeth, a few nice mats and a pile of yams to buy a wife. Other islands has different rules, close to Santo it is only 5 tusk, while on Ambrym you have to pay with at least 14 live pigs. Pigs are in the center of Vanuatu’s kastom, and to progress in the ranks of the village, you have to kill many pigs. But do not think pigs has a sad life here, they are rather the most valuable items one can have, they care for them, sometimes ladies are cooking separate food for the pigs, sometimes they are singing for them. The guys even explained that usually they have such a good connection with their pigs, that when time comes to kill them they have to ask other chiefs to do it, as they could not.

I was coming here to see the bank, with hundreds of thousands of tusks in it, but unfortunately I was not able to do it, it was not allowed, or better, it would have been way too expensive to do it for me. But this did not made me sad even if I walked a long distance to do so… instead I met this wanderful people, with so rich and strange traditions, I made a lots of friendships, ones I will keep in my heart for my whole life. Somebody told me one day, that I was not coming here to travel around, instead I came to meet friends ones I did not know before they exists, but they where always here for me. For some reason I really have a strong connection with the people of Pentecost, I do not know from where it is coming from, but it is evident, here in Lavatmanggemu they think my ancestors where coming from here somewhere around Pentecost, maybe it is that, maybe something else, but this place feels special for me. When it was time for me to leave the whole village was forming a long line in front of the main nakamal, you go one by one, shake hands, and you booth say a few word as goodbye… when I shake Alans hand he ended up in tears as far as I could see, he where looking at me and made me promise, that one day, when I will have a wife and kids I come back and I live with them. To be honest hard to imagine a better place for a kid to grow up, experiencing all this kindness and happiness, a world where money does not mean a thing, a world where talking with someone is valued more than anything, with a nation/cult who’s main aim is to make the world better place. 

Short time later I started to ascend the hill on an other route, as always I was not “allowed” to walk alone, one chief came with me to make sure it is all good until I leave the island. On the top we stopped at a small village, people where already waiting for us, here word spread quickly if a stranger is around. As usual the evening we spent at the nakamal, drinking kava. Some guys came from a far distance to check me out, I tried to have a chat with everybody. One conversation I will never forgot was with Sam, who lives around this place. He explained me a lot about the lifestyle, the rules, and the kastoms how every day is organised up here. He explained for example that he can have fun and can joke around with some guys while not with the others, the rule is if you could marry someones sister, than you can make fun of that person, if for some reason it is not possible, than there is no place for dirty jokes, you have to treat the other with respect. Also he explained that boys do not touch girls, not even their arms, unless they want them to move to their house to become their wife. When the girl says yes, than the deal is made, parents can not influence the decision. Of course during the wedding ceremony the boy has to pay the parents with the tusks and mats. Also we talked about what sort of fruits and vegetables we can grow in my country. After that he noted that than he will plant 500 potato tomorrow in memory of our talk and also if once I come back at least I will have something to eat, or to start with. He also explained that the reason why some of the locals where running away when they saw me is that it is a common belief here that white man usually has guns, and they try to kill the black ones. I quickly made a statement loudly that I do not have any guns whats more I really dislike them. Also he asked me if tinned food, like tuna is really for animals only? He told me that there was a foreigner here 15 years ago πŸ™‚ a man from India, and he told them that tinned food is just for animals, and they not suppose to eat it. When I told Sam that we do eat tinned food, and for example in my country which is far from the sea, it is basically the only way to get some tuna, a long conversation started between them with the local language. It seems most of them already suspected it, but they where still surprised about it. It is soo good to talk with the people here, not just because the topics are interesting but also happiness and kindness is just shining through their words. I would subscribe it as a treatment to some of the over-stressed, depressed, antisocial westerners. A week here and all would go away. I’m in paradise.

Next morning I went to the village called Loltong, my hosts where warning me that if I go there I have to pay as they have a guesthouse. They wanted me to wait here up in the village until the cargoship comes… to be honest my reason to leaving this early was to actually save that poor person whos job was to take care of me, I knew that until I stay in this area he has to stay with me according to the local kastoms, and I already made him enough trouble. So it was time again to say goodbye to everybody… sadly I could not find Sam 😦 I really wanted to thank him all that nice toktok we had the other night. I hope I will meet him again one day!! When I arrived to the shore I stopped at the shop to fill up my stocks, surprisingly it was even open and there where products on the shelfs. Here I met Willie, who owns the guesthouse, the best one I ever stayed so far, basically at high tide the waves where crashing on the wall, all in the most wanderfull bay full with reefs and corals. Interestingly this is also the cheapest as well I ever stayed. He told me at the beginning that they do not serve food (usually ghouses are cooking for you as well, as there is no other way for a forigner to find food) but this changed quickly, from the next day basically I was eating with the family and they did not let me pay for it at all. I spent the next few days here, swimming in the shockingly clear sea (it is the clearest of the world). Willie’s family treated me like I would be one of them. We where chatting all day long… what a lovely family! When the containership arrived I got at least 10 kilos of pomelos as a present from them for the trip. πŸ™‚ by the time I arrived to the boat I got an other few kilos of yams and different other food from the villagers, I was catering the whole boat for a day from it. Willie came with me and waited until I could board the boat, he went quite emotional, putted his hand on my shoulder, saying “please come back to see us one day”.

When we arrived to Ranwadi Mr. Gibson came to say goodbye to me, he also brought a beautiful island basket as a present for me, so if I arrive home I can show it to my family! It is realy wanderful… since than I always have it with me and people usualy stoping me to ask where is it comeing from as it is so nice. It would have been a sad event to say goodbye the last time to my friend Gibson, but I know 100% that one day I will come back and we can meet again. I hope that one day will be rather soon. Pentecost changed me it is not a question… this is paradise… a place where I made so many friendship, a place where I learned so much about life and myself as well, and a place which showed me how to be happy all the time no matter what. Pentecost made me think first time in my life if I really want to continue travelling, or should I just stay here forever to be happy the way nowhere else is possible…. For now I still continue on but I will come back, I found my place in the world. …

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