Sometime in April 2017, Ted and I were at home in Pacifica in our small apartment on the Northern California Coast, looking for something to watch on Netflix. He found a series about the South Pacific and I didn't have the will or desire to shut him down, but I usually prefer something with a story line. The first episode started in Papua New Guinea and moved east in Melanesia, splitting time covering flora and fauna and tribal traditions. A third of the way through the hour, we were on Pentecost Island in Vanuatu watching the Ngol (land diving). Men wearing nothing but nambas (penis sheaths), with vines tied to their feet, climbed up scaffolding made from jungle and branches and jumped off so that their heads gently grazed the ground. It was a rite of passage and a harvest celebration. It was the most exotic thing I had ever seen.
What if I could go there? Why not go there? Really. Why not.
I started researching. The Ngol (Nagol/Naghol) was controversial. Originally only a festival lasting two weeks in the fall, in the last few decades, it started taking place every Saturday from April through June and became a tourist attraction. You could book day tours that would fly you from the mainland in Vanuatu, Efate, and back again before dark. I sent an email to the address I found online. Air Taxi Vanuatu. Was there availability for the last Saturday in June? Yes, there was.
My end date after the acquisition at work was still unknown: either June 15th or June 30th. June 30th would be after the last Ngol. So, I put the fantasy aside and continued to live out my everyday routine. Work from home, get on BART, go to downtown San Francisco, sit at my desk on the 36th floor of a building on Market Street. Work from home. Go in to the office. Look at the Golden Gate Bridge. Watch the fog roll in. Work from home. Watch the fog roll in. Go to the gym. Go to the office. Pick up groceries. Work from home. Go to the post office. Etc.
Until, in May, it was confirmed: June 15th would be my end date; I could go to Ngol if I wanted. I was apprehensive. I had lined up a job to start August 14th, so I was very pleased I would have an additional two weeks off before working again, but I was hesitant about booking the South Pacific island trip. Maybe it was too crazy. It certainly was too expensive.
I started my research again, and it evolved into tracking flight route schedules (there were only two Air Vanuatu flights per week from Port Vila to Lonorore, Pentecost Island, so the itinerary had to be built around flights). I read more and more and decided I didn't want to book just a day tour--with Air Taxi--to see the land diving because it wasn't clear how much money I spent would end up on Pentecost, with the locals. I would make my own way to the Ngol.
I picked up the Vanuatu Lonely Planet. Noda Guesthouse in Waterfall Village had excellent reviews and Silas, the owner, could help me arrange transfers and my entrance fee to the Ngol. His email wasn't listed, so I mustered up my courage and called the number (country code 678) in the guidebook. No answer. In the outgoing call log in my phone: Vanuatu. I loved that!
I kept reading. I found a stellar review of the guesthouse buried deep in the web. And at the end: an email address. I called the number I had again to no avail and followed up with an email. Could I stay and see the Ngol the last Saturday in June?
Silas wrote back when Ted and I were at Moss Beach Distillery, one of our favorite coastal watering holes, with spotty phone reception. This was it: I was going to Vanuatu. I would see the land diving, the most exotic thing I could imagine. Because, why not? What was stopping me? I booked all the flights and confirmed with Silas. I would stay at Noda with Silas's wife, the last week in June. I wondered if I would get bored spending so much time on Pentecost, but knew that the experience would be so much more rich if I put in a little extra time, getting to know some of the people and villages on Pentecost before going to see the Ngol.
The rest of my trip fell into place. I was even able to entice Ted to come join me at the end of my trip by closing out my adventure in Fiji, near to some of the best surfing waves in the world. On Saturday, June 17th, I set off on my adventure.
When I was younger, lack of money had me really anxious. If travel plans were foiled by unexpected delays or unrest, there was no possibility of recovery because every dollar I had was perfectly budgeted. As such, travel hiccups would throw me into a tailspin. Miss a flight or a train and miss a country because: no way to rebook and recover. Incredible despair. I'm a little bit older now, have a little more padding, and a lot more experience. Hiccups cause me some grief, but they're not catastrophic.
This trip had a big hiccup.
The president of Vanuatu passed away unexpectedly a couple days before I touched down in the capital, Port Vila. The day I was supposed to fly to Pentecost, there was a procession to bring the late president's coffin through the streets of Port Vila to a plane back to his home island in Banks, in the North. See a video of the scene in Port Vila below:
My flight to Pentecost--one of two weekly--was cancelled. My whole fantasy of getting to know Pentecost before the Ngol: completely foiled. I had had dinner with Silas the night before on Tuesday; he was actually a retired school principal and member of parliament, working in Port Vila, anxious to welcome me to Vanuatu and give me information about Pentecost and his guesthouse, Noda, which his wife, V'neth, managed during high season. I tried to remind myself continuously that the country was in mourning, but I couldn't hide my disappointment when I called Silas to inform him of the cancellation. He would have to call his people on Pentecost to cancel the transfers and visits he had arranged, all the while dealing with the upheaval and grief caused by the unexpected death.
On Wednesday morning, an hour before my flight was supposed to depart, I set out in the rain from my lovely Port Vila guesthouse (Traveller's) downtown to the Air Vanuatu office where I was able to put myself on the Saturday morning flight to Pentecost; I might still see the Ngol after all. I booked a second trip to Tanna, a southern island with an active volcano, in the meantime. (Blog posts: Mount Yasur, Kalili Village.)
The evening before my Saturday flight, I received another cryptic email from Air Vanuatu that I had missed my flight and my reservation was cancelled. I ignored it, decided to go to the airport early, and went to bed. I was in line for the Air Vanuatu ticket office at the airport first, before it opened. A couple men tried to push in front of me, but I put my elbows down on the counter, sheltering the window from sneaky sideways advances. More than an hour after the opening time listed on the window, the office opened. It turned out that a replacement flight to Pentecost had been booked for Thursday and all passengers from the cancelled Wednesday flight had been moved to Thursday, regardless of other changes (like mine) that had been made. I hadn't been notified of the change and was on another island when I "missed" the Thursday flight, so my reservation was cancelled. In the end, it turned out better for me because the agent was able to put me on the direct flight to Pentecost that Saturday morning rather than the one I had managed to book, which had a layover on another island.
Soon, Silas and Nettie, a Dutch woman--an old friend of Silas and V'neth--who worked in Port Vila and was going to Pentecost and staying at Noda for some time off, arrived at the airport. Silas had a cooler full of food for us to bring to V'neth, which he checked on our flight. Silas bid us farewell and headed out as Nettie and I walked out on to the tarmac (there was no security screening for domestic flights) and boarded the tiny eighteen-seater plane.
I couldn't really believe it was happening. I was going to see the Ngol on Pentecost Island in Vanuatu, through my own arrangements.
We touched down and the airport at Lonorore was the most rural I had ever seen. There were no doors or windows to the building and chickens ran around freely. While Nettie and I waited for Vincent, our driver, and V'Neth, who still thought I was on the later flight, we walked to the small market a little ways down the dirt road. We were enjoying some fresh coconuts when Vincent drove up in his 4WD truck. We loaded up and headed out.
The road to the Ngol was deeply rutted and bumpy. Thick jungle grew up all around. We drove south along the west coast of Pentecost, from Lonorore toward Pangi. Eventually, we seemed to veer away from the coast. Thick vines grew along all the palm trees. The only thing that broke up the green hues was the blue sky peaking through the canopy. Before I even knew what I was looking at, we were on a steep dirt slope next to the structure built for the Ngol. Several viewing platforms had been cut into the side of the hill for spectators. There were about twenty foreigners standing there and dozens more locals from nearby villages had also gathered further out, along the hillside and jungle's edge. The foreign tourists had considerable difficulty climbing up and down the hill in their shorts, skirts, and flip flops and I was proud that, in comparison, I seemed like a master of steep dirt after all the years I had spent rock climbing and making long approaches up gulleys in Yosemite and elsewhere.
We were on the west coast of Pentecost, but the Ngol was put on by a tribe from the East. Originally, the ceremony was performed on the more remote east side of the island, but this wasn't conducive for tourism, so the divers now travel to a site within striking distance of the larger airport. The tower was constructed out of trestles built from branches and held together by layers of tied vines. There were six stories to the tower, each for a different level of land diving expert. The first story was reserved for divers in training.
A group of bare breasted women and girls and boys in nambas began chanting above the land diving site and two young boys climbed into the tower, to the first story. They were first to dive with extensive cheering and encouragement from the other participants.
I had read a review of the tradition online from an Australian woman who was shocked that boys of such a young age participated in the jumping and I wondered how I would feel about the whole thing when I was finally there. A fellow traveler from Malaysia, whom I had met on Tanna, had also been vocally critical of tourism to the Ngol. What if something went wrong and a participant was hurt or worse, died? All to please tourists?
The Ngol was of particular interest to me because of my experience rock climbing, which I had been doing for nearly half my life. I was interested in the rope work (should we say vine work?) and systems as well as how the tower was constructed. I also had a personal understanding of taking calculated risks that may not be--or seem--appropriate to other people. In my mind, the land divers manifested the same human trait that drove me to climb or drives any humans engaging in an arguably high-risk activity, to seek and overcome a challenge. The fact the Ngol was such an isolated tradition that had developed without media influence and independently of other cultures demonstrated to me that all societies and communities develop different customs for people to channel the need for adventure and physical accomplishment.
The local lore behind the Ngol (and what follows is a butchered version!): A woman who wanted to escape her husband climbed high up in a tree where her husband followed her. She had secretly tied vines around her ankles, so when she jumped and he jumped after her, he fell to his death while she survived. Now men jump as a rite of passage, for fertility, and also to guarantee good future harvests.
The jumping ceremony before me continued and I was able to analyze the structure and how it had been built to minimize the impact on the diver's body. First, the dirt in front of the tower had been broken up, so it was a softer cushion than the hard ground. Second, each diver jumped from a platform that was held up by vine supports on both sides. Before the diver reached the end of the vine tethers tied to his ankles, another participant cut one set of vines holding up the platform with his machete. When the diver's vine tethers had completely unfurled and the energy of the fall was transferred onto the platform to which it was attached, the other set of vine supports that hadn't been cut would break from the load and the platform would collapse. The diver would then fall the rest of the way, basically the distance of the length of the platform, to the ground. There were multiple elements of the system absorbing the shock of the fall: the structure and platform, vines supporting the platform, the somewhat stretchy vine tethers, and in some cases, the soft ground, so it wasn't all on the diver's body. There was also a great amount of redundancy in how the structure was built and how the jumping systems were set up: two sets of vines as tethers and supports for the platform, the trestle design in the tower, and everything was protected from the sun by banana leaf covering when the tower wasn't in use.
As the spectacle neared the end and divers jumped from higher and higher, I started to feel completely at ease with any ethical questions I had had about the Ngol. It started taking on the shape of a spiritual circus; I let out a couple cheers. I noticed that the local viewers were all passively interacting with the divers, laughing at visible portrayals of fear and courage. The other tourists looked at me strangely as my reactions became more and more animated. At the end, the tourists slid their way down the hill without saying anything to the divers. I'm pretty sure, but it's so hard to know, that the divers are a little baffled at the lack of interaction they have with the foreign attendees. The tradition did not appear to be a solemn one. I snagged a photo with a diver before I left; he threw out a smile and two thumbs up.
We joined Vincent and V'neth again and I felt a bit like a VIP as some of the divers jumped in the back of our truck while the other tourists drove out in organized and isolated groups. Vincent let me play music from my iPhone during the thirty-minute drive to Waterfall Village where Noda was. I played "One More Saturday Night" by the Grateful Dead. Indeed.
The evening at Noda was extremely pleasant. Nettie was wonderful company. I enjoyed wandering by myself to the nearby waterfall and snorkeling along the rocky beach just in front of my really well built bungalow. Jocelyn, the chef, made some snacks and a good dinner.
At sunset, we flagged down a truck and traveled north along the coast to another village in search of kava. The closest kava hut was closed because the boy who had been running it in the manager's absence had injured himself by catching his hand in the kava strainer. Nettie, who worked for Public Works and had surveyed the roads on Pentecost previously, was struck by how bad the erosion on the road was. Throughout the evening, as I answered that I planned to leave on the Sunday flight, I was met with strange looks and questions. Was there now a Sunday return flight? No one seemed to think there was and I started to get nervous. I had a flight to Fiji from the Vanuatu mainland on Monday and had to return to Efate on Sunday.
That night, a cat from the guesthouse crawled under my door and slept with me. Her presence was really comforting and it may have been then kava grog, but I felt that she was keeping guard.
I spent the morning with a local guide, Michael. He brought me up a stream to the big waterfalls where I climbed and swam a bit and then to a cave near the guesthouse. The island was extremely peaceful and beautiful.
Vincent had misinterpreted when I needed to go to the airport, so was late picking me up. He made up for the time with some incredibly agile driving. We arrived at the airport and to my chagrin, the only other person there was this guy:
Michael had come with me and sensed my worry. He set off down the dirt road and eventually, came back with a guy, Ben, in a yellow Air Vanuatu vest. In the meantime, Vincent washed his truck with water from a hose outside the airport building. Ben checked me in (crossed my name off a handwritten list of two people) after weighing me with my backpack and writing down sixty-six kilos. A few nearby villagers had come to the airport after hearing there was a Sunday flight. A boy had a bandage around his wrist and a man had a bandage on his ankle. I started questioning my certainty that the Ngol was not exploitative. There were a few other young guys and one spoke good English. I asked him if he thought the Ngol was a good thing and without missing a beat, he said, "Yes, it is the tradition of Pentecost Island."
When the plane that would take us back to Efate landed, a few people got off and Ben unloaded the luggage. He started closing the passenger door to the plane when the small crowd inside the airport started crying out in protest. We still needed to board the plane! Small detail. Ben was embarrassed and apologized as we ran out to get on the plane. No problem, Ben!
And we were off! It was a pretty clear day, which made for great views from the flight. Ambyrm, another island with volcanos, and so many other amazing formations. I was deeply satisfied with my Pentecost Island adventure and sad my time in Vanuatu was coming to an end.