The cargoship arrived quite late to black island of Ambrym. It is well known in Vanuatu, that islands with active volcanoes has more effective, stronger magic. Ambrym considered the strongest as it has not one but two active volcano not far from each other, an incredible sight from the sea when you approach the island at night, all the clouds are painted red, like a glowing ball above the craters. When I managed to go ashore it was already late, around 2-3 at night… I tried to find two trees in a nice distant in between for my hammock but it seemed impossible around the shore, and I left my big backpack with my tent at Vila. Seemed no other option but to wake up the guesthouse owner Douglas. I really did not wanted to spend the night wandering around as I heard before that the locals are really suspicious about anyone doing anything at nighttime as you easily could be a which doing some black magic.
Douglases bungalows are just on the shore few meters from the sea in a beautiful black sanded bay. He is a legendary guesthouse owner, everybody knows him, sort of a hub for tourists and locals alike. He had a long term dream to build a small hotel on the shore, invested money and time in it, hired the best builders and craftsmans across Vanuatu.. It was finished 2 weeks before cyclone Pam arrived destroying his wonderful brand new hotel without ever anyone slept there. He showed me some pictures while explained the story… really sad… very unfortunate. Next to the accommodation he also owns a small wood carving workshop with his brother Fredy. I newer really appreciated this touristy polished carvings but here in Vanuatu even this is made on the kastom way. To carve a certain type of design, first you have to own the rights, you have to ask permission from the kastom chief, do sacrifices (pigs, yams) and than after every piece made you have to consult the chief for the final blessing. Interestingly it is not the tourists who is more interested in them but the local people mostly for ceremonies or to keep it infront of their homes for good fortune.
After a day or so it was time for me to start walking to the north. Douglas told me to look for a certain chief when I arrive to the top, he is the one holding the rights for most of the dances and festivals in the region, so if I want to see some interesting magic makings he will be the best point of contact. After a long day of walking I arrived to the village of Olal, and I successfully met chief Secor. He is a friendly smiley face, well known in the region, seems he is the ultimate chief and land owner around. He also owns a “guesthouse” … well… an empty room with an incredibly dirty toilet attached to it, I rather went to the bush every time just to avoid to even open the door. Other than this I really enjoyed my time with him, we went fishing during the evenings, daytime he showed me around the area, and told me many stories about the local traditions. He even has a small library with rare documentation for kastom ceremonies and legends. Although the region now belongs to the church, he is very vocal about his intention to recreate the lifestyle the missionaries destroyed. He is keen to form a new village on one of his land where his supporters could go back in time and live how their ancestors where living, he did not really plan to open it for tourism, his idea is mostly to preserve their unique culture once existed here (it still exists in some form but he is not happy entirely about it, and he fears this way it will disappear).
I’m more than happy to hear about his plans… I’m always a big supporter of traditional cultures and I as well strongly believe that the world would be a better place if everyone would go back to his or hers roots. (He organizes a big kastom festival every year mostly for locals, it is called “back to my roots” ) unfortunately the festival was still a month time from now so there was no chance for me to stay and see, but I was lucky again once more, as they already started to prepare and also there was a wedding ceremony in one of the villages around, where his dancers where performing, so he offered me the chance that I can join them to see the practice session and I can even take pictures. I was more than excited, it is even better for me than the real festival, as I was the only viewer so I could freely take pictures without disturbing someone. Their local dance, the ROM is one of the strangest and more famous in Vanuatu. As the story goes once there where two mothers who wanted to do some toys for their kids to play with, so they booth went to the bush to find out something, by the end of the day booth of them came back with the same exact looking masks.
The kids where very happy about it, running up and down in the village wearing it. After a while a high ranking chief saw the kids and their masks, he decided he likes them and he wanted them for himself, so he killed booth mothers and kids and performed a dance in the masks, which give him magical power. After the dance he burned the masks so nobody can take it from him. Since than masks are constructed, dances are performed (ROM dance) and than everything is burned to ashes. (Although some people instead of burning them they keep them for generations. Which is basically against the kastom rules) over time the outfit slightly changed, at first it was only the head masks, which was later extended with the haystack body-cover to give the actors a more mysterious look, and finally, they added the sticks to their hand, which is coming from mimicking the guns of the colonization forces. Today, this dances are still performed for ceremonies, not just for tourist shows and it is still respected and slightly feared. After the dance the local chiefs gathered to show me their famous magic making skills. I have to admit some of them are really above physics and I still have difficulties explaining them. As I promised I will not tell anyone about the magics I was shown so I can not explain it here, I’m afraid you dear reader has to travel here to see it with your own eyes.
Chief Secor also introduced me to his magic stones, which are so famous around Ambrym. He is using it mostly to help the yam growing, but could have many other uses. Magic stones are small palm sized rocks (or sometimes bigger ones) carved with faces or human figures. The magic is coming from the stone, not from the carving, so first you have to find a stone with some abilities and than you can ask a kastom carver, to work on it, by doing so the stone will belong to the local kastoms, so its power will “listen” to the songs and dances, and as a final step, you have to ask “blessing” from the kastom high-chief of your area. When all is done, your stone will be ready to use to help your garden to grow or to have a baby boy or just to have luck inside your home. It is highly known and accepted that this stones indeed has powers so they are handled with respect. After saying goodbye to my friend Secor and his nice family I headed to the east. The walking was easy and satisfying. This time I was smart enough to leave all my heavy gear at Vila, so I only bought the bare minimum… funny that after traveling so long I manage to fit all my stuff for a month walking across jungles and hills to a 9liter small sliding pack. (plus Gibsons island basket)
I was originally aiming to a village called Konkon which is just after the end of the main road… well main road is a relative term, after Olal it slowly faded away to a small footpath. Villages are less and less frequent and everyone is more and more surprised about my presence. The last settlement before my destination was a small primary school, while passing by I was invited for a small toktok by the principal of the school, Willy. He invited me to stay with him for the night, we where chatting until late. Really friendly chap. That is why I love to travel on foot, you always meet interesting people, sometimes they join you for a small walk, or they invite you to stay with their family for overnight… the best or possibly the only way to learn about a country. When I was on the right track the small ones went back. I have to admit I lost my direction a few times and the compass goes funky from time to time so close to active volcanoes but eventually I find my way back to Ranon.
Next morning we went early to the next village with Douglas to see a circumcision ceremony. It was held in a normal non-kastom village, but still was organized on the traditional way. Relatives and friends gathered even from other islands, all of them piled up large stocks of yams, fruits, chickens, a few cows… organized to nice heaps with a sign on top who contributed to that pile. When the ceremony started, the three boys where siting on a nice mat, they where covered by an other one, while all relatives came forward covering them with their own mats or blankets, as presents, later the closest family gathered behind the boys, diving deep in their pockets, the chief was calling everyone who contributed to the food by name and the kids where giving out some symbolic amounts of money was given to them by the ones standing behind them. It went on for several hours, as the pile of yams where really incredible. When this was done, the locals came forward showing their biggest yams harvested. They all formed a line, while the chief walk to them one by one and talked a few words about the roots. It is clear that yams are more than food here.
Shortly after the yams, came the main event of the day, the pig killings. Around Vanuatu pigs are the center of interest, the representation of status and ranks in the village. To progress forward towards adulthood you have to kill pigs. More you do higher status you will achieve amongst the tribe so the first pig killing for a kid is a major event. Since from the three youngsters two was way too young to actually kill a pig with a club they just touched the head of the piggies with a small stick and someone else did the dirty jobs. This way, it is still considered as a kill for the boys although not credited as high as if they would have did it. There was an other interesting little story one of the mornings… I was having breakfast when Douglas run to me excited, he asked me if I have my camera with me and if I could help him, as he wanted me to take a picture of… a yam 😀 I left my food at the table and was running behind him to catch a guy who was walking around with a larger than him yam on his back. Although he posed proudly for the picture his leg was shaking from the weight.
A few days later it was time for me to board the cargo boat to continue on my way, but unfortunately the ship had some engine problems and had to turn back to the capital, so I sited tight for a week until an other one was able to come. Island life at its best they say 🙂
Before finally I managed to leave the island I got a nice present booth from Fredy, a small carved face medallion, and a small stone from Douglas. He was saying that he did not had enough time to consult the chief before he carved the stone for me but he suspects it can hold some powers, although it will not listen to anyone without the kastom blessings.
What a few weeks it was! I’m in paradise! I wish I could stay forever.