Today is Cam’s birthday and we are spending a quiet, rainy day near Punakaiki on the south island of New Zealand. We are ‘wwoofing’ here for a few days on a beautiful property overlooking the ocean, hosted by a lovely woman named Carolyn. We’ve had some great experiences here in NZ, but are still trying to process and write about Vanuatu.
Our trek in and out of Marakai and the day we spent with the people there will not soon be forgotten. Of the experiences I have had in my life, this is among those that leave the strongest impressions. Trying to put it into words is daunting!
It all started with the recommendation of our friends George and Erica who did this trek with their 2 daughters about a year and a half ago. They wanted to see and experience a custom village where people are still living a traditional lifestyle and thriving without western influences. In fact, in this particular case, the villagers have very consciously rejected the ‘trappings’ of western society. George gave us the contact information for a woman named Mayumi in Luganville who operates a travel agency called “Wrecks to Rainforest” and organized his family’s trek. So Cam emailed Mayumi from Fiji to let her know that we were interested in doing this 5-day, 4-night hike into the wild interior of Santo Island. Mayumi responded that it was certainly possible to do, but not always easy to get hold of her regular guide, Riki, who lives in a remote community. We had not even considered this complication, but, of course, Riki lives in a village with no electricity, so when his cell phone battery dies, it doesn’t get recharged until he comes into town. Mayumi said that she usually hears from him every few weeks, but sometimes months can pass without any contact. The Marakai trek is not one of the more popular excursions and only gets booked about once a month. We had a good laugh with her as she compared us (planning everything very last-minute) with George, who had contacted her almost a year in advance! Luckily for us, Mayumi is well-connected in the area and knew other options for guide and porters. It sounds strange to have to hire porters to carry our stuff. We, who are accustomed to backpacking in Canada, carrying all our food, tenting and cooking equipment for multiple days. Here we were, going out for 4 nights, only having to carry a few clothes, sleeping mats, and our lunches (since 2 meals per day would be provided by our hosts). We didn’t even need to bring a tent. Anyway, suffice it to say that there is NO WAY we could have done this trek without the porters!! Our guide (Thomas) and the 2 porters (Anatol and Anagle) were from a community called Namourou, in south Santo. It is a community serviced by a French school, so besides their native language and Bislama, they all spoke quite good French. This was fantastic for us as it allowed us to communicate directly with them. Mayumi, who knows how to organize successful trips, also sent along one of her employees, Esther, who speaks Bislama and English. Esther is a niVan from Banks Island in the north who is studying tourism at university and has been working for Mayumi at Wrecks to Rainforest. She was an excellent cultural interpreter to have along, and this would be her second visit to Marakai. The trek would involve a 6-hour hike in to the village of Fortunel where we would stay the night, then a shorter hike (2 hours) to the village of Marakai where we planned to stay for 2 nights. Then we’d hike out towards the south, again staying at a village along the way.
Our trip started with a 2-hour drive along rough roads to a ‘village’ called Sele (I did not actually see more than a few huts there). Along the way, we saw abandoned and half-buried American quonset huts from WW2.
We started the hike at about 11am, and the walking was quite easy at first (especially since we were only carrying small daypacks!) However, after about an hour, Thomas (our guide) seemed a bit perplexed as the trail was not as he remembered. He asked a local woman who explained that, due to some conflict between families, a certain trail was no longer being used and we would have to return to Sele to take an alternate route. A bit disappointing for sure, but we were still fresh enough to “take it as it comes”. We took a break for some lunch and fresh coconuts, thanks to our porters who could easily climb up the palm trees with their machetes!
We retraced our steps and started off along the correct path. Guide and porters were barefoot, and had made the comment “les souliers sont pour les Blancs”. We were all wearing our hiking shoes and strapped to the packs were our rubber boots (the ones we’ve been carting around for 4 months and only used in Costa Rica!) I explained to the porters that we were only bringing the boots as a gift for our hosts in the first village. But after hearing that footwear is only for whites, I questioned our choice of gift. However, Anagle assured me that they would be appreciated. Mayumi had arranged and sent along the proper gifts and payment for our accommodation, so the boots were going to be an extra. I was glad that the porters wouldn’t have to carry them the whole time, and I’m sure they were too!
The trail was a dirt track that took us up and down slopes. Some parts were quite muddy and slick, and there were a few creeks to cross along the way. We stopped for swim breaks, coconut breaks, and water breaks.
As we were suiting up again after the swim, Thomas suggested that I get the headlamps out. And I thought we were just minutes away! We started the longest uphill section of the whole hike, and I was already feeling like I had done a 7.5hr stair workout. In a sauna! It was practically dark by the time we made it to Fortunel, Riki’s village, where we would stay the night. Riki’s brother had passed us on the trail near the creek and had gone ahead with the message that visitors were coming (otherwise, because of dead cellphone batteries, our arrival was unannounced).
Entering Riki’s house was a moment of culture shock. We were exhausted and hungry. The house was dark, smoky, and full of people (he and his wife have 7 children). We sat on the floor and were served taro (like a dry potato) and susu (a slimy green vegetable). Riki’s wife told us (through Esther’s interpretation) that her sons had gone to the garden that morning to dig up taro root, with the premonition that guests would be coming.
Breakfast was similar to the previous night’s dinner. Riki’s family was really lovely and it was amazing to be so welcomed and looked after on such short notice. We heard that one of the reasons Riki hadn’t been in contact with Mayumi recently was because he had been dealing with his father’s disappearance. Chief Lisa, who I believe had been the head of the village for several decades, had gone missing about 2 weeks prior. Apparently, he had stayed home while the rest of the villagers had gone to a meeting in Sele (walking to Sele is not a big deal for them — they can easily go both directions in a day!) Upon their return, one of the chief’s sons had gone to check on him and he was fine. Later, they heard him talking to someone, but since no one was in the house with him, they assumed that he was talking to the spirits. The next morning, they found his front door closed but the back door standing open and he was gone. However, there were no footprints leaving the house. A search party set out to look for him but could find no trace. They continued looking for about 10 days. It is believed that the old chief entered the spirit world and has been turned into a stone. A woman from a neighbouring village was going to come to help the family discover which stone he has become.
We packed our bags and presented Riki with the gifts. They seemed genuinely pleased with the boots! I hope they can be useful. The previous night, Riki had shown me a bad cut he had on his foot and I had given him some antibiotic cream and a bandaid. But I doubt he will start wearing the boots regularly as bare feet are generally more practical!
Riki’s house has a corrugated tin roof. We wondered how the pieces had been transported, and the answer was: 2 at a time, on Riki’s back! My “7.5 hr stair workout” from the previous day was seeming kind of lame. I honestly don’t know how he managed to get those huge pieces of tin up and down all those muddy slopes!
We got a nice tour of Fortunel, including the school (grades 1-4, built by a Korean group and staffed by some locals and a Solomon Islander).
Well fed and rested, and minus 4 pairs of boots, we continued on our way to Marakai.
George had said to us before we started, “You’ll be heading into the stone age,” and I really felt that he was right when we ran into a family on the path who were walking home from their garden (I presume). She was wearing a leaf skirt, carrying a baby in a sling and a load of taro in a basket hanging from a tumpline. He wore a loin cloth, was also carrying a load: 2 baskets hanging from a bamboo stick. Their little boy was curious about us and kept sneaking backward glances as we approached. Thomas and the porters speak the local dialect and taught us how to greet people. The greeting changes for morning, afternoon and night.
When we arrived at the entrance gate to Marakai, Thomas went in first to let them know we had arrived. Most of the villagers, including the chief, were out tending their gardens. However, we were invited to come in and were able to rest at their guest house.
Marakai is an amazing place that I am still trying to figure out (but never will!) It is known as a “kastom village” dedicated to preserving the traditional, village-centered lifestyle of the ni-Vanuatu people. It was established in its present location in 1980 by a group of people (the Nagriamel movement, lead by Jimmy Stevens) who were opposed to the creation of an independent Vanuatu as it is known today. They wanted the island of Espiritu Santo to be its own independent country rather than part of Vanuatu which is comprised of 83 different islands (with more than 100 distinct languages!!) They moved further into the bush precisely because they wanted to be far away from western influence. Even though they did not achieve the political independence they wanted (and their leader was jailed) they have achieved a very real independence by living in a traditional and totally self-sufficient way.
They have a cashless society. They wear simple clothing that is made from local plants, eat only what they grow themselves and harvest from the forest and river, build their homes from local materials, and use medicinal plants. Their children do not attend school, but follow their parents and learn the skills needed for survival in their environment. There are very few manufactured items in the village, but the men do have machetes, and there are several solar lights that charge during the day and are used in the houses after dark. Esther noted a few changes since her last visit 6 months ago: there were now some plastic buckets for collecting water, a few cloth diapers hanging on a line, as well as a clock! The clock was a gift from a French woman who has been spending one month a year, living traditionally in Marakai. We read with interest her entries in the guest book.
One thing we couldn’t quite figure out was why the people of Marakai accept, and even seem to like having tourists come and visit them. What is in it for them? If they are trying to avoid western influence, why accommodate westerners in their village? The answer we got was that they are confident and proud of their lifestyle and are quite happy to share it with people who are interested.
The guest house where we stayed was really nice. It was clearly built with westerners in mind as it had a large raised sleeping platform as well as a couple of smaller platforms, a round table and 4 stools, benches along the wall, and a window at each end (none of these things are found in any of the other houses).
Soon after arriving, we were offered a beautiful plate of ripe bananas and a thermos of hot water for tea (oh, a thermos — another manufactured item!)
When the villagers returned from their gardens, they welcomed us with a song. Irene made a nice meal which was brought to us on wooden plates.
That evening, we participated in a kava ceremony and presented some gifts for the village.
The kava drinking continued for those who wanted, and Cam had quite a few bowls. Apparently he became fluent in French (or so he says) and had a great time chatting with Anatol and Anagle, the porters.
We went down to the river with Liston who was going to collect prawns. On the way, he caught a fairly large lizard which he immobilized (but didn’t kill) by scraping its neck. I realized later that it was still breathing. When lizard meat did not appear on our dinner plates, Cam said, “Maybe they noticed the look on your face.” Yes, I am a bit of a wimp that way! But I have the utmost respect for this young man, Liston. He is so in touch with his environment and skilled when it comes to survival in the Vanuatu bush. He’s probably the closest thing to “sustainability” that I will encounter on this trip.
But there is one thing that Liston cannot do, and that is speak Bislama, the official language of Vanuatu. Only the older generation in Marakai speak it, and they have obviously chosen not to teach it to their children. I really struggled with that one, knowing full well that I am coming at the issue with a MASSIVE cultural bias. Being a big proponent of bilingualism in Canada, I have always felt that it is important to learn your own language, but by all means to learn other languages too! Of course the people of Marakai have everything they need right there in their village and they can communicate perfectly with the people in neighbouring villages, but I just wondered… what if a mining company comes into the area some day and wants to extract minerals? Wouldn’t it be helpful for the locals to be able to plead their case directly? What if any of these children might someday want to travel to other parts of Vanuatu? But maybe learning Bislama is just part of the slippery slope of cultural erosion and it’s actually more valuable to have a group of people who are totally self-sufficient, living off the land, with no plans to adopt western practices. I don’t know. It doesn’t seem to have worked for the tribes living in the Amazon, though, as their land is being harvested for wood, minerals and oil. However, I’m sure the people in Marakai would question my parenting choices too. They might say, “What? Your kids have reached puberty and they don’t even know how to forage food for themselves? Why would any parent teach their child to be so completely dependent on others?”
Visiting Marakai really blew my mind.
Kaia and I tried out the local fashion and walked around in leaf skirts for most of the day. I realized that no clothes = no laundry. Imagine that! Cam had adopted the local “malmal” (loin cloth) since we were at Riki’s. The first one he got was made of cloth, but in Marakai, even cotton cloth is too western! They gave him one made from the inner bark of a tree. It was a bit stiff at first, but after he swam in it, he said it softened up quite nicely!
With Irene, we visited one of the vegetable gardens and also saw an artificial pond that the villagers have stocked with fish.
Cam took part in another evening of kava drinking and socializing in the men’s nakamal (meeting house). This time it had the undesirable effect of making him nauseous and unable to sleep. I guess all the warnings about the kava being different in Vanuatu than Fiji were true. Too bad he didn’t heed them. So our walk out the next day started off with one very hurting guy! The village sang a farewell song (actually with English lyrics, composed by Jimmy Stevens!) and we thanked them for the amazing hospitality.
Luckily, after a couple of hours, Cam’s stomach started to feel better and he was able to enjoy the walk. But I hadn’t been too worried because I had total confidence that had he been too sick to continue, our guide and porters would have simply built a small shelter for us to stay in. Honestly, there is nothing they can’t do with those machetes! The trail was quite muddy as it rained on and off, and there were some very steep sections, both up and down. We stayed the night in the nakamal of another village, Tsarangatui. Our soaking wet clothes didn’t really dry, but we knew we were only a couple of hours from the end point of the trek. Once again, the local fashion would have been more practical!
During our trek, there were four languages being spoken among the 8 of us. With Esther, we spoke English; with Thomas and the porters we spoke French, but Esther and they communicated in Bislama. And the three of them (Thomas, Anatol and Anagle) used their traditional dialect. It worked beautifully.
From Namourou, John, the same driver who had taken us to the start of the trek, drove us back to Luganville. He has been able to buy a pickup truck because he works seasonally in the fruit orchards in New Zealand.
Life in Marakai reminded me of the Himba vallages we visited in Namibia; traditional and village-centered. The openness and generosity of the people reminded me of the homestay we did on the island of Amantani in Lake Titicaca. But in Marakai, I sensed a sereneness and a level of contentedness among the people that was unique.