Captain's Log

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Entering Vanuatu

By Kate “Bob” Addison

Wednesday August 20th, 2014

Wednesday morning here at anchor on the SE corner of Malekula aboard Picton Castle at Banam Bay, is flat, glassy calm. It rained this morning, for the first time since we dropped the hook on Sunday, and the puffs of mist drifting above the dense, lush vegetation give a magical atmosphere to the shoreline with its narrow strip of yellow sand and steep jungled hills behind. It’s proper National Geographic stuff as the smoke from the cooking fires ashore hangs idly in the still air.

There is something deeply peaceful about this place: at night the fires dotting the shoreline are the only sign of the ten or so villages that call this bay their home. Malekula is a big island of small villages, maybe a hundred people or so each and all more-or-less family, the next village may be less than a mile away and yet might speak a completely different local language – so different as to be completely incomprehensible to people just along the coast. The languages in common are English, French and a pidgin English called Bislama, (‘pidgen’ is a corruption of ‘business’ as this was the language of commerce and ‘Bislama’ is from ‘beche la mer’ meaning language of the sea) so the people that we met were well used to conversing with foreigners in whatever language works, sometimes just in big white-toothed smiles and shy laughter, especially from the very young and old. Our guide book ‘Yacht MIZ MAE’s guide to Vanuatu’ recommends a Bislama reference book called: ‘Evri samting yu wannem save long Bislama but yu fraet tumas long askem’. I seriously want to find a copy.

We have 25 or so children from the nearest village aboard the ship just now and there’s a happy buzz of multilingual chatter as our crew show their guests around their ship, and sailors and islanders alike show off how many pull ups they can do, how well they can coil down braces and how far they can throw a heaving line from the foc’s’le head. The island kids might have never thrown a heaving line before today but there’s some serious talent there – the distances are rivalling our lead seaman on the second throw. I guess growing up on an island just makes you good at that sort of thing. There’s an enormous bowl of popcorn on the main hatch, which is going down pretty well. By which I mean it is being gobbled, devoured and all but inhaled. Some of the kids have double fists full and are shovelling it in, while others have made popcorn scoops of their T-shirts to hoard their own private stash. We’ll do a deck wash later to clear up the fly-away kernels.

Going ashore for our crew is a bit like stepping onto a different planet, or maybe a couple of centuries back in time. We load the skiff with crew in their exploring-ashore clothes and sun hats, shiny with sun block and smelling sharply of bug spray; pass down the snorkelling gear and bags and then cast off from the ship with lookouts up forwards to point out the clear water between the coral heads as we make our way to the beach, spin the boat around in the slight surf, lift the engine and drift in backwards. Crew hop out knee deep into the cool, perfectly clean water as the stern makes gentle contact with the coarse sand. Pass the bags and gear ashore, boat crew hop back in and push off and the shore party are left like explorers of old, standing in slight bewilderment in a group on the beach.

There is always a welcome party ready to meet us on the beach, just a narrow strip of coral sand between the water and the dense, untouched jungle. Usually it’s a mob of children of various sizes, from the polite teenage girls with a baby brother or sister on one hip, to the littlest toddling things, naked and brown, wide-eyed and snot-nosed. Usually there’s an adult or two as well, to shake hands with us one by one, say hello and guide us along the beach and up into the village to meet the people and look around. Here the houses are made of woven bamboo panels with coconut palm roofs that slope down almost to the ground. Between the houses are clear areas of swept dust, coarse tropical grass or sometimes concrete with children running around, chickens with their cloud of fluffy chicks, and colourful washing hung out to dry.

There are squares of garden with vegetables growing and ornamental plants too. A large tree trunk worn smooth by countless bottoms makes a communal bench in the shade of a magnificent tree standing with its bark deeply indented with the marks of machetes. There is a stand pipe for fresh water in the middle of the village, and a handful of shy girls are standing there filling up big basins and looking at the strange white people, but smiling back readily enough as we wave to them. As the Captain pointed out to us before we left the ship, the houses are really more like bedrooms and kitchens, and the area between the houses more-or-less living rooms here, so it’s as much like wandering through someone’s house and garden as walking the streets of a village at home. Understanding this fact makes it even more amazing how welcome we are made to feel, sailing into their bay unannounced as we do.

The Captain had come in on the first day with a small entourage to sit down with the chief and ask permission for the crew to come ashore, and together they had come up with a program of activities for all to share. This means it wasn’t so much of a shock to the village when a bunch of sailors appeared on the beach, and people soon crowded round offering to show our gang around and walk with them the fifteen minutes or so to the next village to meet people there too. Before long there was a gang of island children trying to bury our crew in the sand, playing catch with balls woven from coconut palms (‘basket balls!’) and taking photographs of each other with tongues sticking out and much silliness. Meanwhile, Captain Moreland’s two-year-old son Dawson was the leader of his own gang, galloping about chasing chickens with about ten skinny Vanuatu children running behind him, delighted by this happy, fat white boy who seems to stay shy for only about 30 seconds in each new place he goes.

The rather intense program of activities organised for us included football matches (a favourite with our Bermudian football team of Dkembe and Allafia), amazing kastom (custom or ‘traditional’) dances and a welcome party, followed the next day by a trading day and farewell party. Meanwhile Rob and Dr. Murray held ‘coconut tree medical clinics’, dishing out free medical care and advice to all who needed it, and Joe and Billy held an over-subscribed ‘pots and pans clinic’ making new handles for tea kettles, patching up holes in aluminium cooking pots and fixing whatever else people brought along.

Trading day was colourful and hectic. Dozens of local ladies laid out their woven baskets and fruits and vegetables on woven mats on the sand, and our gang laid out T-shirt, machetes, or whatever else they had brought to trade, or found they could spare from their sea chest or bunk. The idea is you walk around till you find something you would like, offer something in exchange and if both sides like the deal then it’s done with smiles; if not you offer something else or just move on, no hard feelings either way.

The ship brought a few bags of second-hand clothes ashore that we brought with us from a thrift store, what seems like a lifetime ago, when we sailed from Canada in 2012. We spread the clothes, shoes and sunglasses out on a big tarpaulin, with a couple of empty plastic crates to collect the fruit and veg currency. Picton Castle crew at each corner and locals crowding around three or four people deep trying to spot an item of treasure in the heap of clothes. Dixon, our good friend and a great organiser of people said the word in Bislama, and the shop was open. It was like a tornado of shoppers: trousers exchanged for kumula and capsicum, shirts for coconuts, shoes for bananas, oranges and pamplemousse. Joe was standing by the crates collecting veggies and they just rained in as the clothes flew out. I reckon it took about seven hectic minutes for our tarpaulin to be completely empty and the crates overflowing, a sack of drinking coconuts, stems of sugar cane and stems of banana lying in the sand alongside. We brought the lot out to the ship and it half filled the skiff. Now the aloha deck is colourful with vegetables and the veggie lockers are pleasingly stuffed. We won’t be getting scurvy this week anyway.

The welcome party was as much fun for the locals as for our gang, I think. Their excellent string band played their favourite songs, fast, melodic and loud. Swing Low Sweet Chariot was a favourite, and they played Jingle Bells once too, which was pretty funny. People were shy to dance at first, but once the crew started then everyone else joined in too, styles covering all bases from salsa and swing to crazy Danish party stomping. Vai enchanted everyone with a couple of lyrical Tongan dances, and the local boys were more or less queuing up to offer the Captain obscene numbers of pigs to marry her. She got a dance class going for a mob of little children too and they were shrieking with hilarity as she got them all swaying their hips and clapping with the music.

There was kava served from a plastic bucket under a tree and the place was all decorated with hibiscus and frangipani flowers stuck in the walls of the houses and the shrubs all around. Finally it was time to head back to the ship; we said our goodbyes and thank-yous, and set off on the starlit walk back through the forest to the boat landing. Even with no moon it was bright enough to see with so many stars out, and the coconut palms above us made their characteristic silhouettes against the pale sky. The cicadas (or maybe gekkos?) were loud, as the drums of the dance faded behind us, and the sweet earthy smells of tropical jungle mingled with bug spray to make a distinctive and evocative aroma. I discussed idly with the Captain how rich we would be if we could just bottle this moment and sell it at a vast price to the stressed-out executives of London and New York.

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Kastom dans (traditional dance) by the men of Banam Bay, Malekula, Vanuatu

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