Posts Tagged ‘South West Bay’

South West Bay, Malekula – Where pristine nature meets ancient traditions

September 21, 2010

Traditional-boy-near-waterfall-South-West-Bay-Malekula

A few posts ago I mentioned that  I got involved in helping some locals with the promotion of their regions as tourism destinations through my photographs.  In fact I not only ended up doing the photos, but also dished out quite a lot of advice, since the people on most islands of Vanuatu (besides two main ones – Vila and Santo), well they don’t have much of an idea of what foreigners actually want and their misconceptions could not be further from the truth. That is of course very understandable, since their culture and general approach to life could not be much more different from that of “white people” or most foreigners in general.

For the moment and likely for at least five years or more, most of outer islands of Vanuatu (as all the islands outside of Efate where the capital is located are called) are pretty darn far from being “real” tourist destinations. I mean this in the sense that they are not particularly suitable for those who want to relax in comfort, eat well, drink or party. Outside of about three major towns, there’s no electricity, running water is very uncommon and perhaps the most painful thing, at least for me, is that the locals, for most part could not care less about what they eat. There’s no food culture, which equals to no tasty local cuisine as you get in most places around Asia or elsewhere where there is a food culture.

All the minuses aside, Vanuatu offers something that few places offer these days and that is untouched, pristine and absolutely stunning nature. On top of that the people (the Ni-Vanutatu or Ni-Vans, as they call themselves) are some of the most charismatic, friendly and likeable on the planet. There’s also no hassle, no one attempts to sell you crap that you don’t need, no one tries to trick you or rip you off. As much as I love places like India, Nepal and Indonesia, it gets pretty annoying when people constantly see you as a money bag and come up with the most ridiculously creative ways of making you part with your money. You just don’t have that in Vanuatu, at least not yet.

Besides the already mentioned virtues, there’s of course the culture. As I also mentioned in a past post, the culture is undeniably disappearing, but it hasn’t disappeared yet, at least not everywhere. And while there are still places where you can experience this incredible culture in at least some shape or form, you have to go. In some very strange way it appears that the foreign interest in the culture of Vanuatu’s islands has made a lot of  Ni-Vans realize just how precious their culture is. At the end of the day, it may very well be tourism which will help ensure that not all is completely lost.

But let me now get specifically to South West Bay. It is one of two regions which I photographed with the aim of helping promote it. As you might have already gathered I am also ready to promote it through my blog and the internet in general, but that doesn’t mean that I’m simply going to sugar-coat everything. I’ll tell the truth, and in this case the truth is good enough to get people to come.

My idea to do this little project came after I met a good man by the name of George Thompson. George was born and grew up in the very remote South West Bay, Malekula. Through some visionary thoughts, hard work and twists of fate he was able to become the leading tour operator and the head of the tourism department  in his region. This role even gave George an opportunity to travel to Europe for a tourism expo in the late nineties. He saw places that very few Ni-Vans get to see – France, Germany, Denmark. While he loved the experience, travelling abroad made him realize that things back home were not as bad as some of his fellow countrymen had imagined. Sure, Vanuatu is a poor country by Western standards, but paradoxically there are no homeless people and no one begs for money or food. On top of that the air is fresh and the culture is rich.

When George got back, he had become even more inspired and passionate about showing off his region to the occasional tourists. By 2000 things were looking good, tourist numbers were slowly growing and  the income that tourism provided made people’s lives just a little easier. However, things in Vanuatu can change rather quickly. Corruption and “mismanagement” of funds at the higher level are common and around 2004 the nationwide tourism company “Island Safaris” the branch of which George led successfully in South West Bay went down due to “mismanagement”. Tourism numbers started to decline faster than they rose, without the support of a bigger company there was no way that George or the locals could market their region to the outside world. To add even more pain to the dilemma, the airport of South West Bay was sporadically closing and opening, thus making it harder for anyone to get to the area. In a couple of years there were virtually no tourists visiting South West Bay.

Because of George’s past friendships and connections he was able to get a good job, managing a small resort in Port Villa. He had a relatively easy life and a high salary, by Vanuatu standards. George worked at the resort for a couple of years, but soon he became haunted by the thoughts of home. He was away from his family and he knew that while he was having it easy, the people of South West Bay were struggling. He felt pain and guilt and before long he got back to South West Bay with the hopes of reviving the small, but once stable tourism industry that he helped build.

Fast forward to 2010 and things are not looking so bright. Over the past few years tourism has still been near non-existent. Instead of helping bring up the lifestyle of others, George found himself in a similar situation as them. He didn’t tell me his story when I met him, he’s not the kind of person to whine or complain about life, that doesn’t seem to be part of the Ni-Van mentality in general. Instead I got all of this information out of him during the two weeks that I spent in the area, this of course made me even more motivated to help the man in at least some way.

The particular idea about me making some photos came after George showed me some of the past photos of the places in his region sent to him by tourists. According to his stories, the places were beautiful and the people in those places fascinating and so when I saw images that were let’s say not very inspiring I felt a little uninspired myself. I know that I’m not the only one who gets excited about a place by seeing a single beautiful image of it and so with that thought in mind I suggested that we create a little tourism marketing campaign. The campaign would be a combination of documentary images of some of the more photogenic activities, places in the region, as well as some set up shots of the locals dressed in their traditional costumes in their beautiful surroundings.

For me personally the shoots were a reward in themselves. I have been shooting documentary stuff for years and I’m always interested to be placed into new photogenic situations. As far as the set up shots, it was in a sense even more fun to do them. I’d made a couple of short fiction films while at uni and photo shoots of this sort, while fairly new to me were in a some ways similar to making short films. In this case you could say that the shoots were a blend of fiction and documentary (the line was very thin). Our “actors” had to be themselves, they simply had to be in specific locations, wearing costumes which they used to wear in the past and still wear during celebrations  or as was customary for the chiefs and some village members while greeting visitors (i.e. tourists). The dances, which are a big thing in the region are performed in similar outfits, (usually more elaborate) so all in all the images we created showed what was most visually exciting about the region of South West Bay and something that the visitors would get a chance to see themselves.

And so let me get to the photos. This is a just a portion of the images I created, you can see more HERE and in the coming months. The image at the top is of one of the boys (Pillison was his name)  who I had seen performing the kastom dance at a pig killing ceremony a couple of days earlier. I wanted to photograph him in a similar costume in front of the waterfall, one of the hidden little gems of the area.

Boys-in-a-canoe-South-West-Bay-Malekula

Pillison was a great model so we got him and his little mate into a canoe and asked them to row along the shoreline a little. For full impact, I expect this or a variation of this image to be shown in a bigger medium than the 450 pixel photo on a blog. You can get a better view by clicking on the image (to make it larger). Mountains and sea always look dramatic to me and more so when they’re bigger.

Chief-Ayar-in-the-bush-South-West-Bay-Malekula

This is Chief Ayar again. I blogged about him HERE. I took quite a few shots of this fascinating man. I expect that some of them will be used in something like a brochure, while I’d like to use others, like this one along with images that make up a story, which, if things work out will hopefully appear in some of Vanuatu’s tourism magazines.

_MG_9164

A moment from the pig-killing ceremony. During my stay in South West Bay, two chiefs “upgraded” their ranks. Two pigs were killed and meat was shared with the villagers.

kastom-dance-South-West-Bay-Malekula

Every pig killing is preceded by a traditional or kastom dance. Only certain individuals are allowed to take part. The young are once again being taught the steps of the dances as part of a cultural revival in South West Bay.

Ancient-burial-site-Melmes-South-West-Bay-Malekula

For those who like hiking, there’s a fascinating hike to the creepy ancient burial site in the hills above the village of Melmes. The guide, a young chief by the name of John was very passionate in telling us about the history of his people. Below those skulls is a mass burial hole, but before the bodies were placed there they were put onto a high rock. Because John’s tribe thought that they descended from the eagle, they had a little custom associated with this bird. They believed that if the eagle were to eat the eyes of the dead body (when it was placed on the high rock), that person would go directly to paradise, if not, well they go to hell. When I asked John whether many of the dead actually had they’re eyes eaten and went to Paradise, he replied with an uneasy smile – “No, most of our ancestors went to hell.”

Weaving-mats-South-West-Bay-Malekula

Mat-weaving is one of the women’s main occupations. They weave mats for home as well as for sale in big towns like Port Villa in order to generate a small income that usually contributes to the ridiculously high school fees they must pay for their children each year.

The-baker-of-Wintua-village-South-West-Bay-Malekula

Another documentary image taken inside of the village bakery. The baker is cleaning out the ash before putting the bread inside the oven. Once I am home, near a fast connection I’ll try to post some video that I did in this very atmospheric little spot.

Old-chief-South-West-Bay-Malekula

George’s uncle is one of the highest chiefs in South West Bay, people like him are an “attraction” in their own right, they are living history and chatting to folks like that is always a highlight of any trip. George’s uncle (his name escapes me, it was a long traditional name, not a Western one) had never had a white man in his house before, so he felt a little nervous when I came to photograph him there. He still had reservations about white people in general because in his youth the presence of a white man was usually bad news. He signed to me that they used to kill the locals by making the cutting of a neck gesture with his hand.

My presence I was sure left him pretty puzzled. I was using the off camera flash in a soft box, which meant that I’d click the button on the camera and the flash would go off (away from the camera). George later confirmed that the flash was indeed a source of bewilderment and amusement as his uncle told fellow elders “This white man came to take my picture. He pressed the button in one place and then this bright light would go off in another place! He’d talk to his woman, she’d press something on the thing that makes the light and then the same thing would happen again, over and over!”

The-coastline-South-West-Bay-Malekula

South West Bay is stunningly beautiful. I am not a landscape photographer, but even I was seduced by the scenery of dramatic, red, cliffs and greenery lining the shore. There are much more scenes for the landscape photographer and if I was one of them I’d probably stay even longer.

Boy-in-Canoe-South-West-Bay-Malekula

More beautiful nature  (click the image for larger size) and another youngster in a canoe. This is in fact a lagoon about a half hour’s walk from George’s house. Beautiful place, warm people and you only have to dip the net in for a few minutes before you catch fish. Once the traditional owner of this area builds a thatched bungalow, this will be a great place to spend a couple of days.

Trees-at-sunset-South-West-Bay-Malekula

Just a few hundred meters from the lagoon, you come to this place, which made me feel a little like I was in a forest in Europe. The setting sun made for a perfect lighting scenario and I couldn’t resist making a couple of exposures.

Some final words: For those who are into photography and interested in visiting Vanuatu there are some good news. Through working with me George learned a good bit about what sort of stuff more serious photographers might be interested in. In other words he knows that we don’t like cheesy pictures of kids giving us the thumbs up (very common in Vanuatu) or people standing with their hands by their sides like soldiers before a march. He also understands that sometimes real life is the most fascinating subject of all, so he can help the photographers get access to shoot stuff like that.

I might be doing a workshop in Vanuatu at some stage and if I do there will only ever be one. However for the more independent minded or more advanced photographers, I highly recommend you to get over to South West Bay and to let George show you around. I’ve only scratched the surface here. There’s reportedly a great reef for those who love shooting underwater (I had left my housing near the airport not knowing this) you can go on a wild pig hunt with a couple of dudes with bush knives and a pack of dogs. There are more traditional villages and fascinating elders in the mountains and some folks shoot river fish with bows and arrows.

Oh and did I mention that the whole thing will be extremely affordable, especially by Vanuatu standards? Whatever you pay will go directly to the community, there are no middle-man organizations (as is often the case when you do things through bigger companies). I don’t get anything out of it apart from satisfaction in knowing that I helped someone.  I’ll post more on the prices and the possibilities at a later stage, but if anyone is already interested, feel free  to contact me via this blog or the email on my website.

Chief Ayar Randes

August 29, 2010

Chief Ayar Randes portrait

I mentioned Chief Ayar in my last post. I also mentioned that he is one of the favourite characters that I’ve come across through all of my journeys. Chief Ayar is a unique man, he is sometimes considered strong headed, very opinionated and one might even call him a little cunning.

Two things that matter to Ayar more than anything in the world are his land and his culture. He has needed to possess at least a little of the mentioned qualities in order to hold onto these in the quickly modernizing, changing world which swallows and absorbs everything in its path without waiting.

For Ayar, his land is much more than just land. He believes that the spirit of his people came from it, from the thick forest, mountain rivers, creeks and some of the most fertile soil on the planet. Ayar is of that land and the land is a continuation of him, it’s can’t be separated, like an organ vital to the body.

Ayar realizes that others might want to take his land away. Vanuatu’s infamous land disputes are a testament to that and in order to basically not get screwed, you have to be ready to fight and to protect your land and your rights. Before the fighting was done with weapons, now one must play by the rules of the modern world. Ayar has negotiated with the government to create a law which ensures that his land will never be sold and the only way it can be transferred is from generation to generation, just as it has been for as long as anyone can remember.

Should there be any doubt or dispute in the future, Ayar’s children, who have all been given modern, Western education will be able to stand up for their land. The youngest is studying law, the middle is a director of a trading company, both in Port Villa (Vanuatu’s capital) and the eldest owns a small shop, in a village close to the ancestral land.

It is the eldest son to whom Ayar has entrusted the task of keeping the family history and his tribe’s culture alive. He told me that he once pulled the boy aside and said “You’ve had enough white-man education, now it’s time to learn about kastom (the word used for tradition/culture in Vanuatu).” Ayar taught  his son how to beat the traditional, wooden gong, how to dance, how to paint masks, how to prepare ceremonies and sacrifice pigs.

It’s hard to tell whether kastom will indeed stay alive for generations, but the pattern which the culture follows in parts of Vanuatu defies reason, or at least it defies the reasoning of most white-men, as the locals refer to almost all Westerns. On Malekula, the home island of Ayar there were still cases of Cannibalism and tribal warfare until late 60s. Then, as majority of the population was finally converted to Christianity, the natives suddenly turned away from their past and at times even became ashamed of it. The Church did their best to discourage anything that would remind the people of their bygone  “savage” ways, calling grade-taking and ceremonial pig killing, which were vital parts of the culture for so long – sinful.

By mid seventies, in South West Bay, the area of Malekula island, where chief Ayar’s ancestral land is, most traces of what once made the  smol nambas, the formerly fierce cannibal warriors of the region distinct and unique was almost gone. That is until Ayar, inspired and influenced by the knowledge passed on to him by his father decided to hold a grade-taking ceremony, to kill a pig, to become a chief and to begin the revival of the smol nambas culture in South West Bay.

Fascinatingly, before Ayar decided to become a chief he was already a prominent Church member, which meant that he had close ties to the very institution which tried their best not to revive, but to rid the natives off of  their history and culture. This didn’t seem right to Ayar and after the pig killing that made him Chief, he went to the Church to pray.  This move was intentional, Ayar wanted to show that Church and kastom could go hand in hand, that they could co-exist. The way Ayar saw it, both were about love,  peace and respect for other human beings.

The Presbyterian Church had a different opinion and decided to “discipline” Ayar by keeping him away from Sunday services for three months. Unshaken and still convinced that Church and kastom could and should co-exist, Ayar went up into the hills to build a church there for the few unconverted or (semi-converted) tribes. Once the church was completed he started attending the services in nothing more than a namba (a banana leaf around the private member). This was a big no-no once again, but no one could discipline Ayar up in the hills. Again he wanted to show  how Church and culture could co-exist, but to his surprise the mountain natives quickly exchanged their nambas for “white man clothes” and began to move away from their ancient traditions without ever really looking back. Unknowingly and unwillingly chief Ayar pushed the only remaining purely traditional people away from their history and culture.

This story would have a very sad ending, if it were to end this way and in most cases, in most countries, it would have. But let’s get back to what I said about the way that the pattern which the culture follows in Vanuatu makes no sense. Interestingly and strangely enough, Ayar’s pig killing and grade-taking gained a small wave of support among some of the older chiefs. It’s as if he reminded them that what they had was too precious to lose, even if it was considered sinful by the Church, and so began a small revival of the old ways, minus the cannibalism or the warfare.

Today South West Bay, Malekula remains a fascinating destination and the main “draw-card” for the few visitors that ever make it there is undoubtedly the culture, which still stubbornly holds on with its last breath, thanks to people like chief Ayar Randes. The younger generation have also recently caught on to the fact that there’s value in what their ancestors have passed on to them, not only spiritual, but commercial value. The few tourists that do make it to South West Bay are willing to pay to watch traditional dances and ceremonies and as a result new festivals and cultural programs are in the plans.

It’ll be interesting to observe which turn the culture of South West Bay takes in the next couple of decades. Will the youth continue to see the value in their past or will they be seduced to leave the small villages of South West Bay for “greener pastures” in Vanuatu’s capital and commercial centre – Port Villa? Will the traditions remain true to their original intentions or will they continue to exist purely as a form of entertainment or cultural experiences for the visitors? One thing for sure is that Ayar Randes is not very keen on festivals or ceremonies which stray away from the “correct” way of doing things, which don’t follow the tribal law laid out by his distant ancestors. He loves the idea of tourism coming and helping the locals understand the value of their culture, but Ayar won’t take what’s sacred to him and simply make a show of it all. The question is – will it matter when he’s gone? No one knows and perhaps for now, there’s no reason to think too hard about the future, but rather to try and catch the present, what still remains of the past.

chief dancing

Chief Ayar showing some moves from traditional ceremonial dances. Every ceremony has its own distinct dance moves, costumes, masks and gong beats. Here he dances by the remains of his “Nakamal”. The same word used these days for Kava bars was initially used for a chief’s sacred house – a place of great spiritual significance for any village. Chief Ayar’s sacred house was destroyed during a hurricane a couple of years ago and it’s been one of his main goals to rebuild it, the same way that it was before.

If you click on the photo to make it bigger you might also notice that behind Ayar is a pole with a face painted on it. The pole has spiritual value, but what’s perhaps most intriguing about this pole, is the way that one has to obtain a right to paint certain symbols on it. The law that dictates this is like an ancient system of copyright. Each new adopter of a particular symbol/pattern has to pay the original owner/inventor or his descendent with pigs.

through the bush with dogs

Ayar loves walking through the forest (or bush as its called in Vanuatu) which falls on his land. He tells me that he isn’t really happy when he’s in the village. The village is community land, he doesn’t feel home there and so every day he walks through the bush, to feed his soul in a sense. He talks about how much he loves the fresh breeze, the smells of various plants, which he occasionally tears off and rubs against each other to demonstrate (the smell). His three dogs (two pictured here) help him chase off any wild pigs, which like to come and make a mess of his crops.

coconut drinking

The last time I saw a person so passionate and proud of what their land produced was back in Belarus, in my grandmother’s countryside house. It’s interesting how ultimately there are all these similarities amongst people regardless of where we travel.

Ayar opened up a couple of coconuts for Tanya and I before he masterfully chopped the top off of his own. This was indeed one of the best tasting, sweetest coconuts I ever tried.

Elder Ayar in Church

I was pretty shocked when I saw Ayar in this “white-man outfit”. I joked with him, saying that I didn’t recognize him from the man in the namba I had seen a couple of days ago in the bush.  To this day Ayar remains closely associated with the Church, in fact he is one of the senior and most respected Church elders in the village of Wintua, which borders with his land. Being what I could describe as a devout non-believer myself (I believe in God, I just don’t believe in names of God or religions) I had a few very interesting conversations with Ayar. At the end of the day it was interesting to know that he’d gladly leave Church and go back to the bush, which is actually what he is planning to do in the next couple of years. When I asked him the pressing question of “What would you chose – Church or kastom?” he replied “kastom – it is my life, my history, my culture.


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