We departed Maewo for Loltong Bay on the island of Pentecost. The big draw to Pentecost is the Land Diving. We have read about and heard about this "do not miss" ritual but were too late in the season to get to see it. It is on the list of things to do if we return next year. Reader's Digest version: It is like bungee jumping but these crazy men and boys do it with vines tied to their ankles (which are not elastic), jumping from a tree on land – no water to brake the impact if they hit. They wear only "small red nambas", which I'll describe later. There is a superstitious reason for the diving – it is done to appease the spirit of Tamalie (the first land diver who died during his jump), to ensure a successful harvest and to fertilize the soil for the yam crops. The idea is to dive, arching their backs as they fall and to touch the ground lightly either with the hair of their head or with their chest. Some don't quite judge the angle and depth of the dive right and suffer broken bones and banged heads in the process.
So we missed Land Diving but we did see turtles! Loltong Bay was lovely, the water clear, and inhabited by friendly sea turtles. We snorkeled spent one night and then moved on to Ambrym.
Ambrym is known for two major draws – Volcanoes and Rom Dancing. We arrived in North Ambrym at Ranon Bay mid-day on September 1. This black sand bay is large and provides waterfront to a couple of villages. Just as we were setting the snubber on the anchor chain, an outrigger canoe approached carrying two young men. One was Jeffrey, who was as slick as any salesman we've ever met. He quickly introduced himself, thrusting large laminated brochures up at us illustrating all of the services he would arrange for us, giving us loads of options to divest us of our cash. It was a little too much. We told him we would like to arrange a few activities but needed to consult with our friends on other yachts first. He made sure that we knew to contact only him and no one else who may approach us offering their services. Marking his territory. OK, no problem. We kicked back the first afternoon, watching the colorful display as locals hand washed their laundry and then laid it all out on the black beach to dry. Then as evening darkened into night we could see the red glow of the volcano on top. It radiated into the sky casting reds and oranges into the clouds.
On Wednesday, we went to shore to the Visitor's Bureau. Hmmm, ok "hut". We arranged for a group of yachties to go to the village of Fanla for a Rom Dancing Experience on Thursday. We talked about hiking up to the volcano but were told that this activity is closed; it is Tabu after September 1, because if anyone sets foot on the soil going up the volcano it is not good for the yam crops – a Kastom belief. Another missed opportunity that will wait another year. No problem – we would not miss the dancing.
At 8:00 AM Thursday we gathered on shore for the trek to Fanla, which is a guided 45-minute hike straight up the mountain where the inhabitants still live as their ancestors have for hundreds and hundreds of years. They are not Christian and hold firmly to their Kastom (Pagan) beliefs. Ni Vanuatu women are not permitted to participate in this & several other rituals. In fact we felt like we had stepped into the land of OZ, or had fallen down the rabbit hole as the day wore on. While huffing and grunting up the mountain, we noticed loads of villagers walking down with armloads of fruits and vegetables, and carrying goods on a pole over their shoulders, dressed in festive garb. Our guide informed us that they were going into Ranon for a circumcision ceremony. This marks the initiation of boys age 10-12 into adulthood and is a very public and highly celebrated event. Happily we missed that.
After our hike we were each offered a drinking coconut for refreshment and asked to sit and rest in an adjacent village while our guides sought permission for us to approach to watch the "performance". Our package included the dance, sand drawing, magic show and flute playing. We certainly hoped we would be granted permission, since we had already paid our VT 4200 ($43.00) per person. Eventually we were told that we could move along to the village's staging area, but if we wanted to see the magic we would need to pay more. Uh huh. We didn't bite. So, no magic for us today. But after all we had primarily come to see the very unusual and sacred Rom Dance.
We had been instructed that the area where the dancers perform is Tabu (sacred) and so are the performers. We were not to approach the area until the official welcome had been issued, and then we would be ushered to a seating area near the periphery. Never were we to approach a dancer or to touch one. For photographs, after the performance, we were permitted to step a little closer but not within 3 meters of any of the men. I won't go into the details of the idiosyncrasies of the Rom Dance and the history – it can be "googled". We were not disappointed. In fact we were mesmerized, enthralled. The dancers themselves were eerie and ominous to watch. There were two distinct sets – one group, the dancers, wore the highly decorative Masks that were large, colorful and very tall (must have weighed a ton!), and covered their bodies in corn husks such that they resembled a dancing, bobbing hay stack, carrying a very long spear with a top that resembled a tiki torch, but that had a handled in it. When they slammed the spear on the ground it made rattling sounds. These men surrounded the musicians who wore nothing but "small nambas". This is more bizarre than the dancing hooded cornstalks, because in sharp contrast they wore nothing but a band around their waist, which supported their penis sheath. Yes, balls exposed, penis wrapped in a leaf, sticking straight out, supported by the waistband. Frank took photos, which we will get uploaded sometime this century. I think most of us sat looking hypnotized as these men – two were Chiefs the others ancestors thereof, chanted, made music and danced hauntingly for some 30 minutes. Following their performance, one of the primary chiefs played music for us on his beautifully hand carved bamboo flute and then the other chief performed sand drawing. Our guides explained to us that everything these people do is significant in some way to the spirit world, and is a form of communication. They further explained some of the Black Magic beliefs and why they ate each other. Some villages told us that they ate man just because that is what they did. Others said that it was the result of punishment for crimes, or for trespassing (like us white people being here), and then some still believe that you eat part of the person to hold them in perpetuity after their death. Whatever the reason, we are glad it is no longer practiced. After the performances we were offered opportunities to purchase, carvings and flutes. We bought two flutes.
We didn't sign up for any more activities because most of them we had already done on other islands. So on Thursday morning we set off for Malekula Island. The wind was gusting to the mid 30's and the seas tossed us like toys so we made the quickest and most direct landfall at Banam Bay, only 3-4 hours instead of 5-6 to our originally planned stop in Aiwa.