Vanuatu Part Two: Falling Culture

It was a beautiful day to throw oneself from a thirty-metre tower with nothing but vines tied to ones legs. It was made all the more beautiful by the fact that I would not be the one doing it.

But for the Vanuatan men and boys who loitered precariously above, it was a real corker of a day I was sure. If they’d taken a moment to look up, just before they edged out to their planks extremities, they’d have found an uninterrupted denim sky admitting a hot morning sun to toast the new days air. In the distance this blue abyss met another; that being the ocean sprawled out before them, and it was on that meeting point that their eyes remained firmly fixed as they shuffled toward the precipice. Upon reaching it, they might have peered down beyond their toes and observed the village of Londot immersed in Vanuatu’s tropical green verdure, and taken a moment to reflect that this was not at all a disagreeable scene to find oneself painted into.

But, then again, it is hard to acknowledge things like this when a place is quite simply ‘home’, as Pentecost Island is for the famous land divers of Vanuatu. It is also probably quite hard to acknowledge this when you’re relying on some rather inelastic vines to save your neck from the grimacing height you’ve found yourself at, although you were at least allowed to choose that height, and so you really only have yourself to blame.

This is the Nanggol. It is the ceremony that has brought Pentecost Island world fame, as one of the most extraordinary customs to persist today.

It was inspired, legend has it, by the escape of a woman up a tree and out of the eager clutches of her new husband. His vertical pursuit had her ostensibly trapped, but she had the sense and the bravery – or perhaps just the bravery – to attach vines to her legs and fall to the forest floor so as to evade him once again. What her long-term plan was we shall never know, because he responded by – rather stupidly it has to be said – vinelessly leaping after her and ultimately to his death. Nowadays, it is only the men that perform this hair-raising ritual; one because they believe it will improve the yield of yams for the season, two to demonstrate their masculinity, and three so as not to be fooled by the fairer sex again. Of the last, one suspects the women of Pentecost must find this atypically male mind-set very amusing indeed, and it is this that they are laughing about as they gather in sensible proximity to Vanuatu’s fertile ground to watch their male counterparts give themselves to gravity.

We found ourselves sitting amongst them on June’s last scorching morning, gazing upward to the scantily clad men atop what could all too easily be mistaken for a rickety mesh of sticks, ascending high into the sky. The day is significant because local faith in the strength of the vines does not extend beyond June; and so after that morning’s Nanggol one would have to wait until next year to see an islander plummet to his seemingly certain death again.

An inevitable and infectious sense of occasion, therefore, accompanied this closing day. On the islander’s part, tonight they could drink kava to their hearts content – a mouth-numbing, plant-based, inebriating brown liquid – in celebration of another successful season. (I’ve seen evidence to suggest, however, this is what some would have done regardless of month, day, or even hour. More than anything else I note this with puzzled admiration, having unenthusiastically sampled the mud-tasting intoxicant myself.) And on our part, we just felt extremely fortuitous to have made it to Pentecost in time, when the fickle nature of a sailing timetable could so easily have conspired against us.

The scene before us bordered on the fantastical. A gathering of grass-skirted dancers sang, stomped and clapped relentlessly on a hill behind the wooden tower, whilst the people of the village made “Whey-whey, whey-whey!” calls, in a manner not dissimilar to the bark of a seal. All eyes lay on the man above, who himself was peering down at his audience whilst fellow villagers tied the vines to his legs. Undoubtedly he could have picked the tourists out from the crowd, not by the pigment of their skin (although that is usually a fairly reliable indicator) but rather by the expressions on their faces: pride and amusement spread across those of the locals; concern and bemusement across those of the uninitiated.

Finally steadying himself, the diver made a succession of rapid claps above his head that echoed down through the valley, and took a deep and dramatic inhalation – for all he knew it may well be his last. He then lifted eyes and arms to the heavens – a better idea than looking down, I mused – and with an arched back there he remained posed for several teeth-clenching, breath-holding, world-stopping moments.

At last, an almost imperceptible tilt forwards, and he launched himself out into that hot last day of June.

*          *          *

Well over a year ago we petered nervously on the edge of Panama’s Pacific coast, readying ourselves to leap out into the abyss of the world’s largest ocean. It was hard to know what to expect of the people and the places that lay ahead, but that didn’t stop us romanticising about it. The coming months were sure to be spent amongst Polynesian families in their traditionally built houses; with nights on the beach barbequing fish and coconuts to a serenading ukulele; and everybody going about their business in a grass-skirt and a huge smile.

The problem, we quickly realised upon arrival, was that whilst most of the people and villages are hidden from the outside world, the outside world and all its temptations are no longer hidden from them. Modern amenities had long reached these peoples before we did. Perhaps I say problem selfishly: it was a problem for the romantic preconceived ideas in my head. For the women of Tonga who used to spend hours hand washing clothes in the rivers, the arrival of the washing machine was not a problem. For the family in the remote village of the Marquesas mountains, the solar panels on their roof were not a problem. For the occupants of isolated Fijian islands, the affordable mobile phones and SIM deals were not a problem.

On an individual level, such luxuries are surely only a positive thing. But the increasingly evident paradox of modern life is that what benefits the individual, is costly to the group. I am not talking about the environment that our species is quite merrily obliterating – although that is related – but rather of the steady homogenising of human culture via the spread of apparently-necessary material items. To quote from Yuval Noah Harari’s illuminating Sapiens: “One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.”

For example, for all its wonder, it’s conceivable that the washing machine merely encouraged the buying of more clothes, which demanded more time spent washing them and more time spent working to afford them. Not only that, but for the women of Tonga a community practice of washing and gossiping down by the river is replaced by the lonely task of moving clothes in and out of a machine. The net effect of such technology is that a once vibrant culture is now comprised of poorer people going to work for longer hours, in clothes that are all invariably produced by the same global brands. Indeed, in a Tongan city one might be amused by the novelty of a man trying to sell you a piglet on the street, but otherwise there is not a whole lot else to distinguish it from most other towns in the South Pacific.

Of the family with the solar panels in the remote village of Marquesas, well the solar panels were broken actually, and so we sat down to dinner with them by candlelight, which was just as I’d hoped it to be anyway. But that family had to find a way of fixing those panels, and without access to internet, spare parts or an electrician. For a husband whose expertise lay in river fishing and mountain hunting, and a wife who skilfully tends to an expansive garden, it is surely an insurmountable task for them to fix such complex technology. The solution will demand money of them, which demands more labour of them. One has to ask, to what extent does the solar panel make them better off than their ancestors, who lived just fine without electricity for centuries before them?

And of the mobile phone… well such a rant has the potential to be long and insufferable. But if a picture is worth a thousand words, then I will invoke a scene I believe to epitomise and chastise the recent material revolution across the South Pacific. It is of an islander floating in a traditional outrigger canoe across the blue splendours of a lagoon, as an orange sun sets over the hillside behind him with silhouetted palm trees lined across its top. In their hand you might expect to find a fishing rod, but this particular islander holds instead a smartphone upon which he is scrolling through Facebook. This is not an uncommon sight in the South Pacific, but it is one of the saddest.

Harari’s Sapiens taught me that this steady standardisation of human culture into one homogenous mass started long before modern globalisation, and it is what has permitted our species to be so successful in recent millennia. That this homogenous mass so happens to be taking the form of a capitalist-driven machine which values man over animal, efficiency over equality, and productivity over happiness, is not to my liking at all, but I am not so naïve as to ignore the enormous benefits that such a machine has also brought to us. Global levels of poverty, education and health are all much more promising than you might think – I urge you towards the book Factfulness by the Swedish statistican Hans Rosling – and, despite what the news might suggest, the world is actually a wonderfully less violent place than it once was – for which you should consult The Better Angels Of Our Nature by Stephen Pinker.

On these measures, then, we might cautiously tend towards optimism for the future, so long as humankind can overcome the biggest challenge of learning how to live on this planet in a sustainable way. But having now seen that even the most isolated cultures on earth are being reduced to the consumerist tendencies that grip the bulk of the globe, I fear that anywhere that hasn’t yet heard of Coca-Cola, Nike, or Apple will do very soon. Commercialism is the latest coloniser of the world, and so anywhere that still remains beyond its oppression is a very special place indeed.

*          *          *

Which brings me back to the stretch of islands in the South Pacific that go by the name of Vanuatu. Indeed, the biggest threat to the culture of Pentecost Island – I realised as I stared in horror at the Vanuatan man plunging towards the ground – is this bizarre culture of Pentecost Island itself.

The airborne man was known as the champion of Pentecost, and fittingly it was he diving the very last dive of the season. Like the five divers preceding him that morning, he wore only a traditional, brown – for want of a better word – thing about his waist; which accommodated, if you will, his palm tree, but not his coconuts. These remained exposed and aerated, and I reflected that if nothing else this was certainly a day for showing one’s balls.

He seemed to hang before us for as long as I have prattled on to you; gracefully sinking through one hundred feet of thick, humid air in soundless slow motion. And yet in no time at all the platform snapped loudly as it took his weight just mere inches before he met the floor, the great tower shook creakily and ominously, and the diver experienced the most amount of G-force anybody outside of the industrialised world has ever survived. Thanks, Guinness World Records.

Such was the jerking of his body as the vines tautened, it seemed impossible he’d emerge unscathed. And yet, very soon we were alongside the smiling man, shaking his hand and eager to impart our foreign-tongued admiration with wild arms and wide eyes, that were trying really hard not to glance down at the champion’s trophy cabinet. He was quite unfazed either way, of course, and headed off down the hill for a few well-earned coconut shells of kava. The season was over.

*          *          *

As soon as we jumped off the coast of Panama into the South Pacific, we were hurtling towards the solid realisation that globalisation had beaten us to all of earth’s most secluded spots. The bright lights of a Galapagos city, the satellite dishes of the Cooks, the skyscrapers of Fiji… each more baffling than the last. All those preliminary romantic notions in my head were set to fall flat on their face, as the fall of South Pacific culture became increasingly obvious.

But, ironically, it was on an island with a falling culture that we found just what we had been looking for the whole time. An island without electricity or technology, where the villagers lived off the earth and the sea, and they really did go about their business in grass skirts and a huge smile. At the last moment, the vines of Vanuatu saved us from the nasty thud of having to conclude that there was nothing traditional left in the South Pacific.

Statistics can be used in many ways. But I’ll just leave it here that Vanuatu sits fourth in the world in the Happy Planet Index rankings. This is an index that prioritises a country’s sustainability and health over its productivity and wealth. One can only hope that Vanuatu continues to keep prioritising these things too.

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