I friend you, you got t-shirt?

(from the power line poles in Luganville) Bislama blong awesome.
(from the power line poles in Luganville)
Bislama blong awesome.

We’ve been making admirably slow progress northward, stopping for heaps of snorkeling and spending plenty of time visiting villages. We’re currently in Luganville, enjoying the luxury of fresh water rinse-offs, restocking our food stash, and closing out our cruising permit before we move on to some of Vanuatu’s remote northern islands on our way to the Solomon Islands. Here’s a quick update on some of the highlights along the way:

More dugongs! Because I didn’t get to post a photo last time, here’s one this time! We went back to our favorite dugonging spot, watched several dugongs flicking their tails at us, and slipped in the water to watch. Rob had three circling him at once!

Dugong-gong-gong-gong-gong-dugong!
Dugong-gong-gong-gong-gong-dugong!

Rom dances We sailed to Ambrym, an island with twin volcanic craters that tint the sky red at night. Ambrym is the heart of sorcery in Vanuatu, and also home to some of the most beautiful tam tams (carved wooden drums), and sand paintings. The rom dance is a ceremonial dance from northwest Ambrym. It is traditionally a dance for men and by men. A man seeking to increase his status in the community arranges to buy, with pigs, yams, and money, the design for a mask. He sweats over many shells of kava in the men’s house with the owner of the mask to learn the design. Then, many other men pay for the privilege of drinking more kava and joining the dance. Eventually, there is a performance. All of the men don elaborate costumes made of banana fibers, drink much kava, and come out to stomp their feet a lot and chant. The costumes are burned after the ceremony to keep the spirit of the dance from causing trouble in the village.

Rom dancing in AmbrymAccording to legend, long ago, women designed the first masks. A woman seeking to win over a man’s affections made a beautiful mask in secret. A sneaky guy, however, discovered the women making the masks. Putting the end to those shenanigans, he took the mask. Interpret that how you will, the rom dance was born. Women are not allowed to carve masks anymore.

The Big Sista Vanuatu’s beloved ferry, the Big Sista, is smaller than any of Alaska’s feries, but she plies the boisterous waters of Vanuatu–open ocean, trade winds, strong currents creating big waves–and she is always at capacity (or above…). People love her. She shows up at 3am, miles from town, and people paddle canoes out to greet her. They light bonfires on the beach to guide her in, and she hovers off the beach while a launch takes people to shore.

A sailing canoe in the Maskelyne Islands.  People here canoe to their gardens daily, so there are lots of nice outriggers.
A sailing canoe in the Maskelyne Islands. People here canoe to their gardens daily, so there are lots of nice outriggers.

She makes a weekly loop, stopping by many small villages on her way between the two “big” towns in Vanuatu, and collects fish, veggies, and carvings from villagers to sell in Vila and Luganville. Then friends and relatives pile off the boat with fresh supplies for the folks back in the village.

We were surprised to hear that she’d be pulling into a tiny nook we anchored in on an uninhabited island one night. She was delayed with an engine breakdown, so the excitement was postponed until daytime (we were glad of that, as we thought we’d get run over at night). People in canoes and motor boats started arriving before daylight and the beach was piled with people by morning. A few canoes stopped by our boat to chat. Some asked for rope for their cows, others for fishing hooks, magazines, colored pencils for the pikinini. One asked us about independence day celebrations back home (Vanuatu’s was last week), and we exchanged stories. As Rob began to wax elegant about glaciers, our new friend interupted: “Excuse me, Rob. Thank you very much, I enjoy your stories. You story, I story–I friend you now! You got t-shirt from USA so I can remember you?” We invited some people aboard, we gave away or traded a few things we had, others we said no to, but all of our visitors gave us big smiles regardless.

When the Big Sista finally arrived, the folks on the beach directed the launch to avoid our anchor lines (we had 3 out…it was a tight spot…many rocks…strong currents). When all the loading and unloading was finished, people started to pile their canoes with crates and boxes, and even mattresses. We watched a flotilla of fully loaded canoes row off to their villages, scattered among the islands. We love the Big Sista, too, and whoever named it was a genius.

After the Big Sista, the canoes row home.
After the Big Sista, the canoes row home.

More critters! In the same anchorage we shared with Big Sista, we spent a lot of time snorkeling. Hours and hours. Usually, we found ourselves caught in surprisingly strong currents, and they always seem to be pushing us out to sea.

After swimming around the same rock several times, we finally discovered an evil space alien hovering above the coral. Upon closer inspection, we determined that this was a big, brilliantly camouflaged squid. He hovered above purple corals in a mottled, dark pattern, then he flew over white sand and instantly turned translucent. Mr. Squidly was our friendly neighbor for a few days, and we came over to harass him, err… gently observe him, daily. Once, we came toward evening and found two squids! They danced. Mr. Squidly approached, and the little squid retreated. Mr. Squidly got too daring, and the little one flared the inky black flash of death. It went from mottled to jet black in an instant roll of color, then back to its first disguise. I was ready to watch battle. Rob thinks it was more of a dance of love–a bit more, “hubba hubba, look how fast I can change colors, Big Daddy.” Our on-board library, unfortunately, does not cover squid antics in sufficient detail to settle the dispute.

Our friendly neighbor, Mr. Squidly.  Actually, I'm pretty sure he was happy to see us leave.
Our friendly neighbor, Mr. Squidly. Actually, I’m pretty sure he was happy to see us leave.

In another spot, we managed to see a giant grouper–the biggest fish we’ve seen yet. They get to be about eight feet long and are absolutely massive. We’ve had some fantastic underwater turtle watching in a number of spots as well. And we found a couple of pipefish (they’re almost like sea horses, but not quite), and some pretty lionfish, and a giant ray, and some huge butterflyfish, and a bumphead parrotfish, and a crazy shrimp thing, and lobsters, and sea fans, and snakes, and garden eels, and…

I think this is a hawksbill, but we don't have very good turtle ID'ing guides, so I can't be sure.
I think this is a hawksbill, but we don’t have very good turtle ID’ing guides, so I can’t be sure.

So, that’s pretty much what we’ve been up to in Vanuatu. We expect to start heading up to the Solomon Islands over the weekend, and we’re pretty sure we’re going to have just as much fun there as we have in Vanuatu!

Hard at work on dugong patrol
Hard at work on dugong patrol

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