Blog, Vanuatu

Village Life on Tanna

Still buzzing from the magic of the volcano, we took an afternoon stroll around the bay. From this simple walk came one of the best experiences we have had on our travels so far.

A little way down the jungle lined, dirt road we met Mary, whose village overlooks the bay. Mary, a similar age to us and heavily pregnant with her third child was on her way to her garden to pick food for the family’s dinner. After a brief chat she invited us to join her on her walk to the garden. Loading us with unusual vegetables, she explained what they were and how to cook them. Back at the village she asked if we would like to join her fishing the next day. Although we had planned to move on to the next island we were touched by her generosity and gladly accepted.

We arrived at Mary’s house the next day with some fish hooks and a few gifts of supplies which are hard to get in the village. Some ginger nut biscuits made us instant best friends with her 3 year old daughter Felda, the size of her grin was a sight to see as she clutched them to her chest. Armed with our fish hooks, Mary’s bamboo cane rods and machete, we set off to the beach with daughter Felda and their dog Lucky in tow. Little Felda’s bush craft skills amazed us as we watched her stop to pick up a nut or seed for her mum to open or point out beans or berry’s that she recognised but could not reach. When she wasn’t demonstrating what a vast larder the forest is for the family, Mary shared stories with us of her life in Vanuatu.

Using small hooks baited with a hermit crab (minus the shell) with a cane for a rod we were skeptical about whether we would catch anything. Amy asked the best way to kill the fish when/if we caught one. The response “bite it’s head” made her very happy that the tide was too high to wade out to the reef, limiting the number and size of fish we could catch. We were there for the company more than the fishing, we just felt very privileged to share in this regular, day to day activity.

We were very happy to invite Mary, Felda and Mary’s husband Jimmy on-board Florence for coffee and (importantly for Felda) cookies the next day. It was a pleasure to spend some more time with them and show them how we live aboard and sail Florence. Like many young men from Tanna, Jimmy has been to New Zealand to work on the farms, so he has a good understanding of western culture. Like many of the families we have spoken to, they live the traditional live in the village through choice as they feel it is the best way to provide a good quality of life for their family. Jimmy was keen to know if Matt drank kava. He was pleased we had drunk it in Fiji but urged Matt to make sure he tried Tanna’s kava “the strongest and best in the Pacific, far stronger than that Fijian stuff”.

Mary, Jimmy and daughter Felda on board Florence
Coming out to Florence

That afternoon Jimmy approached in his dugout-outrigger-canoe. Would Matt like to come and drink Kava with him? As a male only event, steeped in custom it is a huge honour to be invited so of course Matt said yes. Jimmy promised to look after him and return him unharmed to Amy as they paddled off in his canoe.

The kava drinking is done at sunset in the Nakamal (male meeting place), an area of the village set aside for this purpose. Jimmy first bought some Kava root from the ‘bar man’ and we watched it being prepared (always by the youngest kava drinker). The first Kava we drank was prepared in a similar way to Fiji, just more concentrated. It was measured out carefully from the bucket with a ladle made from an old plastic bottle. The Kava definitely tasted stronger than on Fiji and after only one bowl I felt the effect with a slightly numb/tingly upper lip.

Jimmy’s cousin then arrived with a fresh kava root in his hand. I was interested to see how this would be prepared so crouched with him and Jimmy to watch. Jimmy’s cousin cleaned the mud from the kava root using a coconut husk as a scrubber, before lifting it to his mouth, ripping off a strip with his teeth and chewing vigorously. The chewing went on for some time before the processed mass is spat out onto a banana leaf. To speed up the process, Jimmy picked up the root and joined the chewing and spitting, until the pile was considered large enough. It was then placed into a fine mesh cloth, wrapped up and squeezed over two coconut shell bowls. I was naively watching this thinking that I had drunk my kava and this was all for Jimmy and his Cousin. So I was a little unprepared when Jimmy handed me a bowl (full to the brim) and said ‘drink’. Having lived all my life in a very sanitised world with stringent food hygiene, the thought of drinking what was presented to me was incomprehensible. Perhaps it was because of how much of an honour I felt it was to be offered this, or maybe it was the affect of the first bowl of kava, but I accepted the bowl and stood up to drink. It is custom to stand up when drinking kava on Tanna and, a bit like in an English pub, you gain more respect if you down it in one, so I did. Wow, that was a lot stronger than the first bowl. Jimmy took me to sit by the chief and gaze into the fire as the kava took effect.

The kava drinking experience here on Tanna is very different to our experience in Fiji. Here the atmosphere is very quiet and reflective. Male friends and family members sit around fires, sometimes quietly chatting, sometimes just watching the flickering patterns of the flames in the fire. The kava is prepared in pairs and drunk in pairs and every body was relaxed and friendly.

My evening continued with another 2 bowls of the ‘good stuff’ before Jimmy led me back through the dark woods to the beach where Amy picked me up. I made the mistake of taking the oars for the row back to Florence which probably accelerated the absorbance of the kava into my blood stream. By the time we were sat back on Florence I was feeling pretty unsteady and Amy observed my pupils were very dilated. So I can confirm that the kava on Tanna is MUCH stronger than the kava in Fiji. That was an amazing cultural experience, that I continued to have flash backs of over for the next few days, disbelieving that I actually drank that…! Still, I am very grateful to Jimmy for sharing this important part of his culture with me. If only I could take him down to our local pub at home.

Here in Port Resolution there is no mains electricity. Only a couple of places in the village have a solar panel linked to a battery, and every body goes to them to get their mobile phones charged (most families have at least one mobile phone between them). When we showed Jimmy around Florence we were able to charge his phone as we have plenty of power on board from our two 125W solar panels. So it was understandable that the next day he paddled out with another device to charge. It was a bit of a surprise though when he reached into the hollowed out tree trunk of his dugout canoe and pulled out a laptop computer! We wondered what he could possibly need a laptop for in village life here? To watch movies of course! We happily put the laptop on charge and then Jimmy took Amy for a paddle around the bay in his canoe to see the steam vents and caves, with Matt following along in The Machine. This was Jimmy’s treat for Amy as it wasn’t custom for her to go kava drinking and she had been admiring the canoe. Paddle completed and laptop charged, we loaded his laptop with new movies for him, Mary and the kids. We laughed that they must have enjoyed them when the laptop came back the next day, the battery, flat as a pancake to be recharged.


Mary and Jimmy had said that they really wanted to cook us a goodbye meal before we left and had made us promise to tell them the day before, so that they could prepare. The kindness and friendship of Mary, Jimmy and Felda really touched our hearts. Before we started on the meal, Jimmy stood up and solemnly said a few words. He explained that they felt touched by the kindness and friendship shared in the same way. He and Mary had decided that when the baby is born, if it is a boy it’s Christian name will be Matthew, and if a girl it will be Amy. What an honour. If ever we make it back to this part of the world, we will make every effort to seek out Mary and Jimmy once more, for they will always have a place in our hearts.

Our farewell meal
Cooking an egg in the steam vent Mary sometimes uses to cook the family meal. The rest of the time cooking is completed on an open wood fire.
Another volcanic steam vent in the bay.
Port Resolution Bay

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