This week's letter narrates what was, at the time, a slightly traumatic event. Upon my arrival in Vanuatu two months previous, I had determined to steer clear of kava, Vanuatu's intoxicant of choice. However, when in Rome . . .
Monday 6 March, 1987 Lakatoro, Vanuatu
. . . One-and-a-half weeks ago, there was a national holiday (Thursday, March 5). I can't remember the Custom Language name, but it translates into "National Custom (traditional) Chiefs' Day". Government policy is to encourage respect for Custom, including the chiefs, who run kind of a parallel authority and are integrated into Local Governments. Because Lakatoro isn't a traditional village (people just live here to work; the town was established as a government centre), nothing was shaking here. We heard on the radio that a big festivity was happening at Lingarakh, about 12 km S of here, and my boss offered us the LGC Landcruiser ("Oh, yeah - Don't forget to pump the brakes to stop." - an understatement), so off we went.
We gave a ride to the Minibus driver, who lives near there, and he asked the Lingarak chief if it was OK if we came - an essential bit of protocol I had forgotten. It soon became evident that we were the only visitors, which wasn't all bad, because we saw the real thing, which of course wasn't all that spectacular, just interesting. We had timed our arrival to miss the 10:30 church service and arrived at 11:45. Well, probably due to a combination of "Vanuatu Time" and a long service, most everyone was in the Presbyterian Church (again, all is relative - medium-sized bamboo building) when we arrived. A bunch of children and women (probably wouldn't fit inside) were sitting in the shade of a tree near the church, so we joined them. Of course, the chief (a nice old man) went into the church, kicked a bunch of worshipers off a bench, and carried it out for us to sit on (everyone else was on the ground), so there we were, perched on a bench playing "white king".
Church finished about 13:00 - we spent our time watching the kids play with a huge beetle and smiling back and forth - and we were told that food was coming up next. After a while, we all went to the Nakamal (a building used for a men's club or town hall), where it became apparent that we were "honoured guests". (Note: We were initially uncomfortable with being treated this way when visiting villages, until we came to accept that like it or not, because we were European and worked for the government, this was our our pre-determined status in this situation. This treatment toned down somewhat after we had been around for a year or so and people got more used to us.)
Before we ate, they had a traditional kava ceremony. Kava, the root of a local pepper relative pounded and mixed with water, is the regional drug of choice. In general, only men drink it (on some islands, women are forbidden to even watch men prepare or drink it), and use varies from every night, all night, to ceremonial occasions only. The missionaries tried to stop it, but finally gave up a few years ago.
Vanuatu Kava is the most potent in the Pacific. I had been told that it tastes like dirty dishwater, makes your mouth and throat numb, and induces a sluggish, mellow feeling. It is always drank on an empty stomach for maximum effect, with food after. Frankly, I had been avoiding it and had already turned down a few invites for "boys' night out". I had been warned that occasionally the big sport was to get a new whiteman to overindulge (you get real drunk and vomit), and I had been advised to stick to one shell (it is traditionally served in a half coconut shell) the first time.
Well, here I was, honored guest, and they lined me up with all the dignitaries and gave a speech, in which I was introduced (speaker had to come over and ask my name again - everyone knows what I do because I'd been announced on the national radio news). I figured I'd just watch what the others did first, because I knew there is a definite protocol to follow, but of course I had to go with the first batch of 3 very high chiefs. I just kept my eye on them and tried to imitate them. We went up front and stood in a line side-by-side (so I had to watch them out of the corner of my eye). The kava was poured out of the traditional container (a big aluminum kettle) into enamel mugs (part of the speech had been an apology for the lack of coconut shell cups), and the mugs were ceremoniously handed to us one by one, using 2 hands wrapped around the mug. I'm not sure if you are supposed to put your hands over the other guys or vice-versa, or not, so I just faked it. My closest experience to date was the U of A convocation ceremony, where I had to put my hands inside those of the Chancellor's before receiving my diploma (of course, my mortar-board fell off at that point, and I had to grab it).
Then, we all kneeled on one knee and drained the mug with one long, slow draw. I managed to do that - it didn't taste that bad, sort of like pounded roots with a bit of dirt and a faint air of pepper and cloves - and then I noticed with horror that everyone else, heads bowed, had saved some dregs which they were pouting onto the dirt floor! I thought, "What if there isn't any more in my mug?" and tipped it down. Luckily, a few drops ran out. Then we solemnly walked back to the lineup (shoulder-to-shoulder ringing the room) and waited while the other men went through the same ceremony.
Afterwards, the "old" pastor (retired 2 years ago, but returned for the festivities) said grace (followed by a round of hand-clapping. This is a presumably post-missionary ni-Vanuatu custom, the origin of which I never did determine), and we all ate. They had 3 long tables with benches (all built on legs sunk into the ground) with lap-lap spread down the centre of each on banana leaves. Lap-lap, the national dish, is grated banana, manioc (cassava), or root-crop mixed with coconut milk and (often) meat that is wrapped in big leaves and cooked in hot rocks. We also had rice and naora (fresh-water crayfish). Actually, the whole thing reminded me of an Arvin Congregational Church pot-luck dinner. They had a list, posted on a bulletin board in the center of the village, of who was assigned to provide or do what.
Later, I asked a bunch of questions about local crops, and they showed me their cocoa trees and different types of palm trees for coconuts and thatch (sago, or natangura, palms. As far as I know, sago palm starch is never prepared or eaten in Vanuatu.). One guy showed us that if you cut open a navara (sprouted coconut), the interior is filled with a crisp spongy sweet stuff that bears some resemblance to cotton candy. I asked how to plant bananas, so they told me you dig up a sucker and plant it; then for a going-away present, gave us 2 banana shoots to plant. I specified little sweet "lady-finger" eating ones and planted them out behind the house when we got home. All-in-all, a worthwhile day.
The kava, this being a church-supervised occasion, I guess, had been kept pretty weak and really didn't have much effect, except to numb the back of my throat a bit.
The Lingarakh Lady-Finger Banana Tree with its first fruit, almost two years after I planted the sucker. To get better fruit production, the additional suckers are normally removed as they come up around the primary tree. Photo ©S. Combs, 1989.
The old Green Malekula Local Government Council Landcruiser in Unmet Village. On occasion, we struggled from one stream crossing to the next, stopping at each to let the engine cool and fill the leaky radiator. Blowing out the sludge in the fuel filter (all fuel was distributed in old dirty 200-litre drums) every week or so while on the road was also a tasty joy. But, we always got home.
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©S. Combs, 1996.