In those days, we were exploring the island of Malekula and its ex-cannibalism.
The guide that guided us on the island comes up with a conversation that we should visit his Wala, which was just 15 minutes by boat from Rose Bay, the village where we were based. "This weekend, that's where everything happens!" alert us. Even without realizing neither how nor why, who were we to doubt.
George gives us little more than a dozen minutes: “Boys, I know your legs must still burn but the market has been there for quite some time. Before long, they start arranging everything”.
We left the inn and went back to the march. We follow the guide along paths along the edge of the jungle and villages. We cross improvised petanque fields where some teenagers follow the judicious roll of their spheres.
Finally, we reached a small anchorage where the boatman who ensured travel between Malekula and Wala was waiting for more passengers.
Wow. A Sample of the Island that Conquered the Cruises
Wala is just a sample of an island. By some coincidence of fate, it happened to be on the route of the large cruise ships that depart from the largest cities in Australia and New Zealand heading east.
The routes of these authentic floating cities lead passengers to disembark in Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, in Apia and Pago Pago, capitals of the two Samoas, still in places of Tonga, Fiji and other South Pacific nation-archipelagos.
It is one of the truly divine beaches in the country. Several tourism companies have already offered millions to their secular owner to build infrastructure to welcome their clients there.
Fortunately, older Ni-Vanuatu continue to respect the ultimate love of generational land tenure. Offers are rejected one after the other.
Something similar but, in its own way, also different, happens with Wala. At Champagne Bay, the owner or family members remain at the entrance of those arriving by land and charge their own tickets.
The same happens when the boats and boats of cruise ships disembark hundreds of passengers eager to escape aboard and bathe in the irresistible waters of the Pacific.
The inhabitants of Wala and the mother island Malekula, however, continue to complain that they have never seen any benefit from the fees paid by companies to the government of Vanuatu to be able to dock off the island.
There are frequent reports in Australian publications that address the issue and question why the nation's politicians live in luxury when the populations of the target places have no idea how to add up the benefits generated by cruise visits.
An Ethnic-Cultural Amazement
While waiting for an answer, they do what they can to profit from direct contact with passengers. These, in turn, see us as authentic anthropological phenomena, human specimens, as they thought they no longer existed.
A few ni-vanuatu from Wala are already on the island, they just have to install their stalls or the like. Others hail from tribal villages in the lush, stewed reaches of Malekula.
Gradually they reach the vicinity of Walarano, a traditional community on the northeast coast of Malekula near Wala.
There, as George instructed us to do, they board small boats that carry out permanent shuttles between the two islands. As a matter of fact, when we make the crossing to the final destination, we have the company of several of them who watch us, intrigued by following that route, as a rule, not used by foreigners.
The boatman gives the departure signal well before the crowd is full. As the vessel skirts a recess in the island, the view opens onto an inlet from which a gigantic cruise ship stands out.
Unexpected in Vanuatu's civilizational panorama, the vision affects us like a mirage we are forced to believe.
"Now they come here almost every week!" advances George satisfied. “Malekula's staff organize themselves to receive them …” he completes using the popular gesture of money. "You are understanding me, aren't you?"
Shortly after confirming it, we disembarked. The afternoon remains gray and damp. From time to time, a small warm rain falls and wets the coral sand and saturates the rainforest.
Tour of the Wala Seaside Fair
“Come here first! “summons us George and diverts us from the sand to internal paths that are more than wet, muddy. “They here exhibit traditional dances for outsiders to enjoy. If we hurry, I'll get them to show you some.” We walked a few hundred meters.
We came to a long avenue open in the jungle, unobstructed but which, even so, the highest branches of the neighboring trees hurried to cover. There we found a group of natives not very formally dressed for the small outdoor shows that the guide had told us about.
Women covered in huge bead necklaces and other vegetable adornments hold large plant leaves and bunches of smaller ones. George introduces us in the ceremonious way that culture kastom ni-vanuatu requires.
A Bathing Display of Kastom Culture
Although already somewhat uncomfortable due to the somewhat lower temperature than it was felt, the women agreed to give us a final dance. They are prepared to match and, at the sign of an older one, they carry out a graceful undulating choreography that symbolized the importance of their skills in the tribe.
A few meters away, George announces our presence again, this time to a clan of young warriors armed with wooden paddles painted with motifs of the tribe to which they belong. They too surrender to positions so often rehearsed.
Standing, they pretend to paddle aboard a canoe and move the paddles accordingly, gestures that accompany with warrior chants.
Big Nambas vs Small Nambas
An elderly couple appears out of nowhere. George receives them with special reverence. “They've been Big Nambas chiefs (tribes in which men use larger penis coverings, as opposed to Small Nambas) for a long time.
They are the ones who grant the final permission for all this.” We salute your excellencies who hardly speak English. George sums up our mission and what set us apart from cruise visitors. He greets them again and announces that we are going to take a look at the fair.
The chiefs smile in apparent approval as we return to the sand in comfortable diplomatic harmony.
The cruise resists, anchored on the way out to the great Pacific. With the time to remain there, some of its passengers on land photograph natives with visible anxiety.
We zigzagged between them and the natives' stalls. We found a little of everything at that strange seaside fair: handicrafts, national beer and barbecues, tropical fruit ready to eat and the long-awaited kava, the traditional drink of Melanesia.
George remembers to officiate our welcome to Wala.
Vanuatu's Inescapable Welcome Ritual: Kava
It takes us to the resident drink tavern, identified as throughout the archipelago by a SerSer sign. The bartender on duty appears wearing very dark glasses, either already inebriated by his own product or by a mere aesthetic option.
Anyway, he serves us and George the kava in halves of small coconuts. George shortens the welcome procedures for foreigners, customary in Vanuatu, as in Fiji and other parts of Melanesia.
We pour the drink down and shiver with the bitterness of its crushed roots.
It would only be the first of other bad faces that he would provoke us during the long tour of those parts.
Recently, the most profitable offer at the fair seemed to be cultural. Its different modalities were a little everywhere. A woman surrounded by onlookers was scribbling geometric graphics in the sand at great speed.
Another, carried out mystical predictions of the future.
Still another displayed a fruit bat hanging from a branch with only one leg, carefully wrapped – another leg included – inside its membranous wings as it captured the action around it on its small cerebral radar.
Several other attractions followed, in such abundance that it kept cruise passengers fascinated and delighted. Thus, they freed themselves from the monotony of navigation.
At the same time, they fed the fragile local economy.
The Hut Bank Installed to Convert Foreign Currency into Vatus
When they finished selling their products and services, merchants from Malekula and Wala – who accepted as much Australian, New Zealand and American dollars as euros – immediately converted the profits of the day.
They did so at the rate at which a line lined up in front of the local “National Bank, Vanuatu's Own Bank” thus versed the yellow sign that marked it. In more than four decades of life, we had never seen a queue that was neither so compressed nor so bright.
Even if unnecessary, the squeeze did not seem to bother the customers who were waiting glued together, glued to the neighbors in front. Women, in particular, did so in dresses of the most vivid colors and patterns imaginable.
The target of their wait was the bank hut that allowed them to exchange the foreign currency for vatus, the much more familiar official currency of Vanuatu.
With the culmination of dusk, the meteorological influence of the sun behind the clouds weakened and the rain returned to take over the whole scene.
When we returned to Rose Bay, we still saw many of the participants making crossings further afield, piled up in small boats on the pine cone.
Wala's visitors disappeared inside the cruise. The cruise soon disappeared into the far horizon of the South Pacific.