Lenakel aka Blackmanstown
I soon realised that my original impression of being in the middle of nowhere on a dusty track was pretty inaccurate. We were on one of the best roads between the airport and not only was the “city, which was in walking distance it was also served by erratic minivan buses. The this town has a population of about 11,000 and is called Lenakel, or Blackman’s town for its policy of only allowing locals to set up in business there. There were several tiny hamlets on the way and a couple of schools. Most of the school buildings had been damaged in the cyclone and UNICEF had supplied them all with marquees, books and backpacks. A teacher we talked to one the way told us that, although school was reasonably optional for small children, the aid had made a positive impact by normalising life for the children after the trauma.
Before going to the Prince Phillip worshipping village of Yaohnanen, which I privately named Phil Vill, I wanted to get more of an idea of more of the Island, so we made a few trips around. We went to Lenarkel a few times. The first part was the business centre with a post office, bank, Air Vanuatu office, a paplik fon and an internet vilej, all very low key. A generator stood outside bank, just incase. An ATM suddenly appeared one day, but unfortunately it was for local use only. No matter how frugal we tried to be with our money, it was disappearing fast!
A short walk along a dusty and pot-holed road takes you to the main street, where there were a few shops, another closed internet place and the market place. This was, of course a much more low-key affair than the one in Port Vila and consisted of a small covered area and a group of people selling things under a large tree. Nearly everything being sold were vegetables, luckily the fertile Tanna soil meant that these were starting to grow again after the devastation. Not everything would grow back so quickly though, coconuts can take up to 10 years and the coffee for the local coffee factory, five. There was also a small Kava market down the road. A strangely modern-looking petrol pump was housed in a large metal shed propped open by a stick and there was also a small local garage. Apparently there is a biggish hotel with wifi there that NGO’s stay at and has internet, but I didn’t see it.
After the market, I was delighted to find that not only was there a Kava bar, but women were allowed to drink there too. This was surprising as I had been told that it was taboo for women on Tanna. But, it seems times are changing. My previous experience told me that I should not drink Kava after the afternoon, but I was interested to try the supposedly strongest Kava in the world. It was also the only place that sold food, and the woman selling the scrawny but tasty chicken stew seemed surprised but delighted that a westerner would want to eat it.
During the day this one seemed to have a different feel and was as empty as a country English local during a week day. So, feeling like an old soak, I went to the just opening counter and ordered a large shell. The tradition here seemed to be to down it in one, leaving a tiny portion for the gods/ancestors, which you then throw on the ground. I then sat down to smoke the obligatory cigarette which they sell separately for that purpose, and started to chat to a local man, who taught at a school in Port Vila and had come back for a visit. He seemed amused by my Kava drinking and insisted on buying me another and one for himself. After that it seemed churlish not to return the favour and I’m sure I saw him wink at the man selling it to make them really big ones.
At this point, I really have to say that normally I’m a complete lightweight; I have a very low tolerance for alcohol and go for months without drinking it. I just seem to have an unusual reaction to Kava.
So, at this point, people are already surprised to find foreigner in their bar, especially a woman who drinks a lot in the day with no seeming effect, loves their local food and so what better time for my son to do the Elastic Band Trick! This even freaks me out a bit, even though I know how he does it as it appears that he passes one elastic band through the other and he is very, very good at it! A few people gathered around to watch and were suitably amazed, but one man came along who completely panicked, screamed and ran away to a safe distance. We did manage to coax him back and reassure him it was just a trick, eventually.
Tanna, in common with most of the other islands of Vanuatu has a very strong belief in magic. There seems to be a divide between the Christians, of several denominations, and the Kastom people. Many people told us that the chiefs of the island had got together and reassured the people that they could protect them from the impending cyclone and some believed them and others stuck to their christianity. However, neither seemed to have much of an effect and one of our lovely hosts told us about how they spent two days holding on to the roofs of their houses while the cyclone raged around them. Despite the damage, the death toll was relatively low and five people died, that was obviously five too many.
Lenakel has a pier for the ship from Port Vila to dock at and although a lot of people fly, the boat arrives every few days or whenever the sea allows it to. A lot of heavy items can only be brought by boat and when its due there is great excitement as everyone waits for the sea let the boat come close enough. This might take from an hour to a day!
Unfortunately you can’t hire bikes on the island but have too bring them from Port Villa and local transport seems to stop once you get to the airport. We decided to go a to place past there that had the reputation for the best snorkelling, we got as far as the airport, but after waiting some time, we realised that we’d have to hitch a lift. It’s not really hitching as it involves paying a reasonable amounts of money for fuel costs! We arrived at a surprisingly swanky complex run by an Australian, who kindly let us use the amenities. There was a jetty you could jump off and climb back up and I stupidly took the cowards way down, which I paid for by cutting my knee; I would come to regret that later on. Luckily the workers’ pick-up was just about to go and we hitched a (free) ride back on that.