Ana in Tanna was eating banana
…sitting in a hostel in Port Vila and debating with my new Filipino, German and Canadian buddies, how broke I’ll be after Tanna. All of them decided to stay in Port Vila for that same ka-ching reason. I couldn’t get over the feeling of being in Vanuatu and not standing on the rim of one of the world’s most active and accessible volcanoes, Mt. Yasur on Tanna Island.
My desire to see it was so strong that I didn’t care if I break my 3 year old record of hitchhiking without paying any rides just to get there. And I did. I paid my own plane ticket from Port Vila to Tanna and broke my hitchhiking rule for the 2nd time in Vanuatu. It was absolutely worth it. I would not forgive myself for visiting Vanuatu and not climbing up Mt. Yasur, no matter the cost.
Anyone who works in Tanna’s tourist sector knows that too, and trust me when I tell you, they will do anything to squeeze the very last vatu out of you. (The vatu is the currency of Vanuatu.)
I showed up at Port Vila airport 100% unorganized with the only goal to get to Tanna. After exploring all of my options, I finally bought a ticket from the laziest ticket-guy on Mother Earth. It took over one hour and a half to buy a ticket. Not because there was some complicated procedure in place, but because the guy who was selling the tickets was the laziest and rudest person I came across in a very long time.
Interesting thing about taking domestic flights around Vanuatu is that there is no security checking. 0. Nada. None! There was a local guy flying with 2 machetes sticking out of his bag and no one seemed to care. No one asked for my passport either. The only important thing seemed to be the weight of me and my bag because most domestic flights take only few passengers at the time.
Time is very stretchable item and not of a much value in Vanuatu – locals call it an island time. It could be the best described by two Czech friends who were taking a boat from Port Vila to the neighboring island and they were told to get to the port between 4p.m. and 8p.m. because of the “island time” as the boat could depart any time between those hours. Well, they departed at 4 A.M., because …island time! None of my planes in either direction were on time, but nowhere nearly as bad as Czech friends had it.
As soon as I landed to Lenakel, the largest town on Tanna Island, I took 2 painful (but awesome-view) hours to ride on the back of a pick-up truck to the closest village to Mt. Yasur. It’s a dirt road that’s currently under Chinese concession and hopefully it will feel less painful in 3 years when they finish with it.
I didn’t have a place to sleep, but I heard of a guy who was renting the tents in the village for a good price and I was determined to find him. It turned out; his place was just across the entrance of the volcano. He was there, but all of his tents were gone after cyclone Pam blew them away last year. He offered me the price of a tent if I stay in one of his bungalows instead. I couldn’t say no to that offer as all of the bungalows had direct view on a rumbling volcano. Every 15-20 minutes you hear the volcano roar just to remind you on whose ground you are standing on. The feeling was quite sensational.
I made friends with a local lady who was off to pick up the laundry she was washing earlier at the river, so I offered to help her carry it back to the village and she accepted. She said it will take 1,5h to get to the river and 1,5h to bring the laundry back. It took us only 1h in total for both trips…which says a lot about the phenomena called “the island time”.
I was back just in time before the sunset to get to Mt. Yasur. There was a Kiwi family of 4 at the entrance who I met earlier that day and they all had sour faces, because the locals raised the entrance fee from 3500 Vatu to 7500 Vatu (60 EUR) since the start of the year and they didn’t have enough cash to pay the difference. There are no ATMs on Tanna, so they couldn’t get more money out and the locals wouldn’t give them any discount even though they were traveling with 2 kids. The situation was getting ridiculous and I offered to pay the difference for their tickets. They were very upset with the locals for the lack of flexibility and communication of their new price across Vanuatu, so they said no to my offer and decided to return back to their tent. After some more drama, the locals finally gave in and let the family climb the volcano for the money they had with them.
After getting off the volcano, I digged into greatly overpriced dinner at the place I was staying – what probably wouldn’t bother me as much if after dinner I didn’t receive an hour long pep talk in a form of “my family is poor and you should donate us money” from the owner of the bungalows. Apparently, some Aussie tourist donated money to rebuilt part of the resort after the cyclone Pam. I asked a legit question why didn’t he build a cyclone proved bungalows with that money and I received no direct answer. Cyclone proved houses are built from the same material (same cost) as traditional/normal houses in Tanna, BUT the way you build them is different and they were the only standing houses on the island after cyclone Pam. I hope another cyclone doesn’t hit Tanna, but in case it happens, all the bungalows will be gone once again just because the owner rebuilt them with 0 common sense. The next day I learnt from the owner that he bought the 2nd car for the resort last week. That was when the whole “my family is poor and you should donate us money” pep talk absolutely lost all the sense if it has ever had one. The cherry on top was when I was told that the water on the island is not good and that I should buy bottled water from their store…right after their neighbors told me the water in that part of Tanna was tested and perfectly fine for drinking. I decided to believe the neighbor who didn’t live out of the tourism and I had 0 stomach problems while there.
Around 3 a.m. I got woken up by strong earthquake. The whole bungalow was moving and my 1st thought was “I have to get out of here.” My 2nd thought was…”Wait a second, there is nothing that can crush me.” The roof was made of folded coconut leaves and the walls out of woven bamboo panels. Apart from the bed I was sleeping on, there was nothing else in the room. Not even a lamp. When the ground stopped shaking, my bladder decided to take a walk to the outdoor toilet. As I opened the door of my bungalow, I got glued to the incredible view of Mt. Yasur burning red in a distance. Every few minutes complete silence was interrupted by heavy rumbling. Night walk to the toilet has never felt more privileged.
The next day I spent wandering around the villages and hiking to Port Resolution. I bumped into hard working women of a local church who got together to make some woven bags and mats for the people in need. I told them about Ulicne Svjetiljke project for homeless people in Croatia and the ladies agreed to put together a little message of support for all of them. Interestingly enough, even though these women were religious and highly involved with their church work, they all believed in black magic which Tanna Island is quite known for. The leader of their church group told me the story how black magic killed her son. Apparently, he was very handsome and successful young man who scored himself a job in Australia. The islanders got jealous of him and prepared some black magic that made him sick, so he died.
I was freaking out on my way back, because it was getting dark and I was still 2 hours away from my village, alone on a dirt road with the occasional small boars running across my path. I shitted my pants few times unnecessarily… as I’m typing this text it’s obvious I survived and that it wasn’t nearly as bad as my mind wanted to trick me into thinking I was about to die while I was hiking in a dark with my torch on. 🙂
Lovely Kiwi family of 4 was moving to the other side of the island the next day, so I took an early walk to the river near the Mt Yasur and asked Kiwis and the owner of the bungalows to pick me up when they see me walking by the road.
On the way over the hill I met two brothers in mid 20s with the machetes who were going to cut down some plants for their family. We were in the middle of nowhere and as our strange conversation progressed, I realized I could be in trouble if I don’t move away from them. Their questions were getting aggressive, so I tried to steer the conversation in a direction of their families and asking questions about their sisters and mothers while hoping they would associate me as one of their own – rather than seeing me only as a white girl walking around alone. I kept it going until I finally noticed 3 people on the horizon, walking up the hill. I said I was going to join these people for the walk and I shook the hand of one of the men. He wouldn’t let go off my hand and pulled me strongly towards him. I broke off and started walking in a hurry toward the people on the horizon. I knew I was going to be ok.
3 people on the horizon turned out to be 3 women walking to the hospital. 6 months pregnant girl, her mother and their friend. I asked them if I could be a creepy girl who follows them. They laughed and said yes. That was how these shots happened…
They will probably never find out they saved me out of the possible trouble.
Later on, after experiencing another aggressive encounter with a bloke, I was told that Vanuatu ranks the highest in domestic violence out of all the neighboring Pacific countries. It seems the respect for women is of the same value as the time. Not much value. That was a clear sign I’ll have to be a bit more careful while hitchhiking around.
Few kilometers later, as my 3 women and I separated our ways, they showed me where the main road is and where I should wait for a ride. It was a perfect timing as only 15 minutes later Kiwi family stopped to pick me up with the owner of the bungalows.
We dropped the Kiwis off at the other side of the island and shorten our driving time with some deep?! conversation. That was one part of it:
Owner: So, how old are you?
Owner: You look younger, but 34 is not so young. You told me yesterday that you were not married and you don’t have any children. Don’t you want to get married and have children?
Me: Not really. It’s neither in my short term nor a long term plan. Don’t get me wrong, I love kids, I just don’t want any of my own.
Owner: But who is going to kill the cow or a pig in your name when you die?!
Me: I’m sorry; I don’t understand what you are trying to say.
Owner: On our island, it’s a tradition that your children kill a cow or a pig when you die and feed the people. I have a wife and 6 children and I can die in peace. Who is going to kill the cow in your name when you die if you won’t have any children?
Me: I really hope no one. I don’t eat meat and don’t want any animal to get hurt because of me. Especially when I’m dead.
Owner: Ohh that’s bad... That’s really bad in our culture. You have to feed the people.
Me: I’ll be dead, so probably my biggest problem won’t be if the people are properly fed at my funeral. They can grab some apple or a banana if hungry; I’m sure they will be fine.
Owner: Ohhh, that’s really bad in our tradition.
Me: There is nothing wrong with changing the way we used to do things, right? Maybe adjusting the tradition a little bit is not always a bad thing.
The rest of our drive we both sat in silence.
Mt Yasur is not the only reason to visit Tanna. The island is absolutely stunning, full of very old banyan trees that make you want to bow down every time you come across one. The biggest one is located only 4km from the town of Lenakel, but be prepared to pay a pretty steep price to see it. You will stumble upon some amazing examples (free of price) if you take a hike in ANY direction, because they are pretty much everywhere.
There is loads to experience around Tanna and this is my short list:
Beautiful blue holes, underwater caves, the wreck of "The Fijian" a sailing boat that sunk in 1916 and lies in only 20 meters of water, Shark Bay, Turtle Bay (yes, with sharks and turtles), hot mineral springs, exotic markets all around the island every Monday and Friday, white and black sand beaches…and plenty of black magic, custom, cultural and village tours that I avoided.
There are two cults on Tanna. One is The Prince Philip Movement - a religious sect that believes Prince Philip is a divine being. The 2nd one is John Frum cult and it’s even more nuts than the 1st one. If you can keep a straight face, you can visit them and they will tell you all about it. John Frum cult has public rituals every Friday and everyone is welcome to attend.
Tanna is also known for the drink called kava. The roots of the kava plant are used to produce a drink with sedative and relaxing effect that is quite similar to the effects of weed. These days kava is prepared in most bars around Vanuatu in the "normal" way by grinding. In the villages on Tanna Island, kava is still prepared in traditional way by virgin boys chewing the kava root and then spitting it out into a bowl before it is mixed with water and served. Cheers!
More about my own experience of drinking kava and the stories from Efate Island in the next post.