Meeting the tribe
Finally, it was time to visit the tribe that I’d come all this way to see. There were a few arranged tours to a few of the Kastom tribes, but “Phil Vill” - real name Yaohnanen wasn’t on the general list. I didn’t want to take one of these anyway, far preferring to imagine myself as an intrepid explorer, rather than a tourist. In actuality our hosts, who had been quite excited by my story of wanting to meet this tribe as a child were able to provide us with transport and Lizzie came with us as she came from a nearby village and could speak their language. The driver arrived in a smart 4 wheel drive, but the journey was pretty easy, but even though he came from a few miles away, he didn’t know about this tribe and couldn’t speak their language. He spent a lot of time taking photos on his smart phone of the dancing: the juxtaposition of modern and primitive life never ceases to surprise me, in fact its one of the great joys and reasons to travel.
However, I was still a bit surprised that the primitive tribe had been expecting our arrival through their mobile phone. I discovered that an Australian film crew had recently made short film, not a documentary, but using some of the tribe as actors! They had left behind a solar panel behind, whose only use seemed to be used to charge this phone.
The tribe were dressed in the same clothes as I’d seen in the photo, although the women had a racy new fashion of coloured grass skirts! The men still wore nothing but their “nambers”, as I’d been told the penis gourds were called. Lizzie had told us that these are carefully fitted garments. Unlike some other tribes, who were rumoured to put on western clothes once the visitors had gone, this tribe had decided to keep to their traditional ways but I saw a little evidence of modern life, such as a bright red plastic rake leaning on a traditional house.
Another surprise was the appearance of a white man dressed in his namber, a watch and pair of crocs. He told me that he was called Jerzy, from Poland and for several years had spent about a month every year with the tribe, who he clearly adored, before returning to his high-powered computer job. His English was excellent and he accompanied us around the village and translated our questions and answers.
I immediately wanted to come and stay there and was working out in my mind the practicalities: would I get cold in nothing but a grass skirt, how would I communicate with the tribe, would they let me visit, should I start getting my top parts used to sun exposure etc. Meanwhile trying take everything in and taking every photo possible and telling the impatient driver that we would definitely be longer than the 10 minutes he wanted us to take (we’d obviously bargained too well).
I was introduced the main woman, who had been the now previous chief's wife. We hugged and I felt the same bond that I have in the past with other women in remote places; just two women who’d experienced life understanding each other.
We walked around the village, which seemed to be divided into 3 parts and looked at the gardens, which were coming back to life again. The huts were thatched and made from local materials.
They were, of course, re-building after the cyclone but not only are the traditional houses relatively quick to build, and they have hundreds of year experience and a lot had withheld the cyclone.
There was a large communal space in the middle of everything. A relatively, large three storey building built onto a tree was on one side, apparently it was the women’s space. As a visitor, and we were absolutely certain right from the start, we’d be paying visitors, I was allowed to barge right into the men’s space and take photos. Luckily, I wasn’t told it was just for men, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone there and had those photo opportunities.
However, the hardest moment for me was definitely when the main Prince Phillip man went into his hut and brought out his coveted framed photos of himself and some of the others with Prince Phillip. I’m not going to go into my politics here, but I’m not a royalist and Phil is well known for making large numbers of gaffes. Now, after all these years, their worship of him is no longer an amusing fact, but I’m faced with the knowledge that this man actually worships him as a god! Controlling my confused feelings, I show the expected response and we briefly hug. My Polish guide explains that the tribe believe he is the re-incarnation of John Frum and the fact that he is married to England’s most powerful woman helps to encourage his kudos.
The John Frum Cargo Cult originated on Tanna and is still quite big there, with celebrations every Friday in some villages. Some people claim it started in the 2nd World War and other that is came before. Basically people are waiting for his promised return with all the modern amenities that those in the Western world have selfishly kept for themselves.
So, I’m feeling very confused here; this tribe have lived the same way for centuries, they must have accrued a lot of natural life knowledge, and I have the upmost respect for this and the fact that they have decided to keep to their Kastoms, but they worship a man often ridiculed in his own country! Again the paradoxes of travel continue to challenge and delight me!
After a while more of ignoring the driver’s impatience, the tribe ask us if we would like to watch them dance, of course we did! Lizzie told the gathered tribe about my story of wanting to visit for many years, which produced some mild interest and some hugs from the women. We were also invited to dress up, or down and join in, but I really needed to be taking photos. A large conch was blown to summon anyone who wanted to join in and some people added some leaves as decoration.
The dances were everything I’d expected them to be: a lot of chanting, stamping and running around, with the “best dancer in the village” taking a leading role. But everyone was involved, the children, the grannies and the younger men and women were totally absorbed and energetically enjoying themselves. I was told that the dances can go on all night during special ceremonies and I tried to imagine the energy expended during those times.
Finally, it was time to go and after some final hugs and handshakes some money changed hands, but by this time everyone had realised that we weren’t rich tourists and it was a reasonable amount, which we were happy to give.
Because of the cyclone, many of the buildings for tourists had been destroyed and we’d been very lucky to have stayed with our welcoming hosts so long, but for the last two nights we had to stay at another place. The silver lining was that it was very close to the pool where I’d been told wild horses came down to drink at dusk. Also it was quite close to the posh snorkelling resort and so we were sad but resigned to leave.
On our last evening, I swapped gifts with the lovely Catherine from Mystery Island, who worked there and whose uncle owned the bungalows. I gave her a sarong from Bali, which I hoped she liked and to my delight, I was given a yellow Island Dress. I put it on - it fitted perfectly and we all danced to some local reggae.
The last two days didn’t really go to plan. Both of us came down with a fever: the flight to Port Vila was cancelled (we had a flight back to Australia the same day from there) and the cut I’d been keeping under control suddenly flared up into a small and very painful hole. A small postscript here: on another island in another place, I practised jumping into the water, until I’d mastered my fear.
By the last day, we had had recovered from our fevers and an alternative flight was put on. To my delight the wild horses I hadn’t had a chance to see made a brief appearance on the runway. This plane was definitely the smallest plane I’d ever been on and we made an unexpected stop at a beautiful, even smaller island with just one track running across it, an even smaller shed of an airport and a grass runway.
We flew into the now seemingly huge metropolis of Port Vila and waited at the modern departure lounge. My sadness at leaving Vanuatu was huge. There is so much to see in this amazing country, my once in a lifetime experience had now turned into a burning desire to return.