Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010
The skiff dropped us off on a sandy beach after expertly manoeuvring through the coral heads near the beach in Banam Bay. Stretching, we looked around. The trunks of palm trees and the branches of mahogany trees bent and sheltered the shore – offering us a canopy as the rain began to pelt down -warm and furious – bringing with it the sweet smells of wet bananas and coconut, flowers and earth. It seemed at first that we were alone on this beach – but then we heard the sound of a pick-up truck barrelling down a dirt road and we remembered. There was a village of people just around the curve and another village of people a kilometre or so down the road.
The Captain had already been ashore that day. He had taken a group of people and a few gifts and spent an hour or two with his good friend Chief Saitol – catching up on the years, making introductions and planning a ‘program’ for the crew. The Chief likes to plan a ‘program’. On the first day the program included exploration, meetings and greetings of our own and, in this particular moment, some shelter. We walked through the sheets of rain until we saw a long, covered building and then we headed for that. It turned out that we had stumbled upon the meeting house – where National assemblies for Vanuatu were held, chiefs met to discuss matters of local interest and communities gathered. We huddled on the benches and attempted to wait out the rain. Several children from the village also had the same idea and as the rain pelted down we played games and when our ideas for entertainment had run dry we risked stepping outside. Life continued as usual. No one carried umbrellas, but instead used banana and pandanus leaves to keep themselves dry as they went about their daily activities. They offered us some, which we gladly and thankfully accepted, and walked off down the long road road lined with coconut palms and banana trees.
Language is incredibly fascinating in Vanuatu. You can walk from one village to the next – and in this instance that meant 15 minutes down the road – and you will encounter a completely different dialect. Not only that, but in general the people from one village do not know the greetings of the next. That is why Vanuatu has a common language called Bislama (Pigeon English); Bislama comes from the French ‘beche-le-mer’ meaning ‘mouth of the sea’ or “Pigeon” English; which is a corruption of the English for “Business English” – one that everybody understands, from village to village and island to island. Smart. It allows them to retain individual and local identity, while being able to interact politically and conduct general business. In Chief Saitol’s village when you say hello you say (phonetically), “bwa la su”, but when you are in Chief Jamie’s village you say “Bwa la lay”. In Chief Saitol’s village you say “Sipa lambone” when you want to say thank you very much, whereas in Chief Jamie’s you say “Siba”. “Mifko” or “Mimco” mean good evening and in both cases the response is “Mo”. Tiina and Ollie turned out to be the language aficionados of the crew – meeting and greeting like they had been there their whole lives. If you did mix the greetings up, the children either looked at you in a politely confused manner, or they laughed and corrected you – thinking you just silly. However, with Bislama folks can effectively communicate throughout Vanuatu, the Solomons and New Guinea in one tounge.
And the children are everywhere. Shy perhaps at first. Timid and giggly – they will approach you and then at the slightest movement run away or hide. This phase does not last long. If you play with them, indulge them or chase them they will shriek with glee, copy your every move and follow you wherever you go. Many of the crew spent the first afternoon skipping down the road from village to village – occassionally stopping to play a game of tag with the children or meet with the adults. Taia thrilled the kids by playing hop-scotch with them and later by performing some Cook Islands dancing. Nadja and Logan were the first (but not the last) to discover that the children loved hair and they came home from the first skiff run with braid after tiny braid that took days to remove. Anybody with a camera was a big hit – as the kids loved posing for the camera and then seeing their pictures. And singing. They loved to get sung to. Inevitably if you are surrounded by a group of children they will ask you to sing. And you had better have some good ones ready. Funny is preferable. Although it seemed like we were hilarious to them no matter what we did.
Dr. Vicky and EMT Shawn set up a clinic and islanders walked or got rides from the other villages to come and see them. The Captain had noticed a marked difference in the quality of health on the islands over the past few years, so they didn’t have to deal with anything too serious luckily. Chris and Paula brought a generator back to the ship on the first day and gained a reputation – and over the next few days many other generators and gizmos were brought to the ship for repair. We also had many visitors during our stay in Banam Bay. People paddled in throughout the day in beautiful outrigger canoes – coming onboard for tours or visits. The on-watch crew was inevitably working on ships projects during the day and our guests willingly jumped in. They helped work on the new mast for the monomoy and rust-busted and primed the hatch along with the rest of the crew. Niko and Paul told me later that every saw every rust busting tool we owned were used in the projects. And when the music booming from our boom-box proved to be too catchy – they broke into impromptu dance with us on the well deck. Kinda fun.
We also helped to organize a trading day ashore and dozens of people showed up with their goods eager to see what we would bring to the table. The ship had bag after bag of second hand clothing and some pots and pans to trade, while the crew had a huge assortment of items – from batteries to soap to pots and pans to clothing to shoes to toys. A fun cultural experience trading is. It is certainly not to be mistaken with bartering. If you want something you offer something. If you both agree that it is a fair exchange, then you make it, and both parties walk away happy. We were certainly happy with our bounty. The ship got a large assortment of fruits and vegetables (squash, pumpkins, onions, green beans, papaya, almonds and bananas) and the crew walked away with homemade mats, jewelery and carvings.