National Geographic – Where Were You?
I know that reading National Geographic magazines as a young girl certainly fueled my “wanderlust” to explore the world. I never thought that I would be visiting Espiritu Santo, Pentecost Island* and the surrounding islands, located west of Fiji and to the north of New Zealand, where once cannibalism flourished!!
The first image that was in my mind was that the natives of these islands still practiced cannibalism and that some of the passengers on board would be one of their next meals if they weren’t too careful. After dismissing that ridiculous thought, I challenged myself to have an open mind and to live the experience. I have found that being exposed to different cultures and ways of doing things will expand your perspective. It boosts your creativity like nothing else that I have experienced.
Travel challenges your view of the world and your perspective. I have traveled and encountered many cultures – some have arrived with a preconceived notion of what the destination should be and others arrived with little or no prior knowledge and drink in everything around them. Which do you think have the most rewarding experience? I belong to the latter group and enjoy the richest journeys. So I put aside my images of being boiled in a huge pot by the cannibals of Pentecost Island and decided that I would open my mind to what would be my “National Geographic” Adventure!
When we boarded our mini-bus from the pier at Luganville, Espiritu Santo and were on our way to a Runsuc village in the interior of Espiritu Santo. Our tour guide explained that contrary to what we may have heard, cannibalism is no longer practice among the villagers. A collective sigh went out from our tour group – at least we weren’t on the lunch menu!!
After a bumpy ride through the lush rain forest, we arrived at the outskirts of Santo Village. Our tour guide explained that these villagers still follow the traditional way of life – hunting and gathering their food as well as wearing cloths woven from the leaves in the jungle. As we neared the village, warriors ran out from their hiding places in the jungle and challenged us to dare enter! Believe me, the spears and their faces were not kidding!!!
We were all corralled into the centre of the village where a group of young men and boys along with the chief were waiting. I could have sworn that at least a few of the gathered men were eyeing “the catch”. Not to fear, they circled around us and began to sing and dance which was the traditional way to welcome guests. After an explanation from the chief, who was the only one that spoke English, he showed us some of the ways that the villagers hunt, gather and prepare their food. The women had prepared a traditional dish – lap lap, fresh fruit for us to eat. What we didn’t know is that lap lap is a snake-based dish that is cooked on hot stones buried underground!!! OK, so I just took a small sample and buried it in the rice that was provided.
Once we had our fill of lap lap, rice and fresh fruit, our group was separated into men and women. Luckily, we had more men than women just in case we had to be protected from whatever was going to happen next. The men of the tribe took all of our men aside to a hut and said that they will be initiated into the tribe by participating in the traditional kava ceremony. I had read about this kava – a violent outcome.
After preparing the kava, the men were invited to drink from a communal cup. They were warned to take just a sip as the effects of the kava could range from nothing to a severe “drunken” state. Believe me, some of the most stoic of men, were the ones that were walking around as if they had drunk several rounds!! Even after just having a sip, my tongue was already numb from the effects of kava. Besides, I’m not a fan of drinking dirty water although I was glad I had the opportunity to try kava.
As I finished the last sip of kava, I was a bit worried though when out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a large fire and several large pots on the fire. Once again, the “cannibal” images flashed in my mind.
Our group was led towards this fire and asked to sit around it to watch the next ceremony – would it be our last? To our relief, the chief explained that this next ceremony was a rite of passage for some of the young men in the village – fire walking! Several of the young men lined up to walk along the stones which had been heated up by the fire. One by one, they stepped onto the stones to walk the 3 metres across to the other side of the compound. Amazingly, none of the soles of their feet were burned!
As the number of volunteers for this fire-walking activity was zero, we all realized that we had witnessed the incredible lives of the villagers of Santo. They shared with us their traditional way of life as their forefathers have done for hundreds of years. This was NOT for show, this was the real National Geographic moment!!
*Pentecost Island is one of the 83 islands that make up the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu. It lies 190 kilometres (120 mi) due north of capital Port Vila.