We take off for Malekula in a plane that feels more like a car. It’s a Harbin from the 1980s, one of three Harbins and seven planes in Air Vanuatu’s eclectic fleet and, we figure, if it’s been flying this long it must have something going for it. The cockpit is open, so we can see every move the pilots make, hear every word they say, feel their mood. We get to cruising altitude and level off with a few measured inputs. The senior pilot opens his broadsheet, completely obscuring the view. Forty minutes later the co-pilot gives a sign, the pilot folds his newspaper, and with a sweeping turn over an old palm plantation they land the plane on a bumpy old runway as wide as a two lane road, in a field of overgrown grass.
The airport has no roof. A few people mill about, ready to board the plane we have just vacated, as casually as boarding a bus. We walk in to town. We ask around for Robert. Someone shows us where we can stay. They offer to call Robert. This is package tourism, Malekula style.
It’s 2011. We’ve come to do the Man Bush walk, a four to five day hike across the island of Malekula, Vanuatu’s second largest island. Named after the people of Malekula’s rugged interior, the Man Bush walk is one of the country’s newest tourist attractions, and has been steadily gaining popularity among those in the know – expats in Port Vila, Peace Corps volunteers on the outer islands, and their friends. My parents have been living in Vanuatu for a couple of years, and this is something they want to do before they leave. So here we are.
In time, on island time, Robert arrives. He has borrowed a truck to take us to the village from which the walk will start, and hour’s drive down a muddy track. It’s the last road we’ll see for days – the tiny Man Bush villages in Malekula’s interior have no vehicular access, and are each about a day’s walk apart. Despite several emails back and forth, our arrival seems to have taken Robert by surprise. He doesn’t have his usual helpers, so he sends a boy to walk to the next village, find a couple of willing hands, and walk back.
I get the front seat, alongside Robert. He has a big penis, he tells me, the edge taken off slightly by his pronunciation – penis rhymes with menace. Still, he says, it could be bigger. He asks if it’s true what they say about black people. He’s seen videos. He asks if it’s true what they say about the drugs. Can we send him some? Not that it’s small, but you know, but it could always be bigger.
Each day we walk 20km, give or take. Robert and his helpers keep us on the path, and carve a new one with their machetes when they lose it.
We snack along the way – by custom, travellers can eat food they pass, but can’t take it with them. We cut down hands of ripe bananas, eat what we can, leave the rest by the side of the path for the next travellers. Robert’s helpers carve cups from bamboo, and we drink from fresh streams.
Twice a day we eat boiled plantain, which competes with boiled taro – the other staple – for the world’s most tasteless food. While are constantly grateful for our small jar of Vegemite, there are occasional culinary surprises. Some days Robert sends his helpers ahead to catch a few prawns or fish, and one day to dig an oven for lap lap. By the time we reach the other side of the island we are grateful for white rice, spinach and spam – a local delicacy we only now begin to understand.
Robert and his helpers, like most men here, wear Western clothes. One day the helpers vanish from view for a couple of hours, which is not unusual. When we reach a large waterfall we see them, clad in the traditional nambas, posing like warriors, half way up the fall. It’s a majestic sight, if slightly cliched. The two major groups on Malekula, Robert explains, are distinguished by the size of their nambas. He assures us that the size of a man’s nambas – and these ones are small – has nothing to do with what’s under it.
Music greets us in each village. Teenage boys on improvised instruments, playing the catchy string band music that feels so very Vanuatuan. Western songs from the Beatles to Bob Dylan to Brittney Spears are jammed into the familiar rhythm and chord progressions of island music, and interspersed with local ballads and religious hymns.
Storytelling is at the heart of this culture, like so many others. We understand some stories, and others go over our heads. Some we hope we misunderstood, like the one about the men throwing their scraps over the wall to their wives, who in turn throw theirs to the pigs.
In one village we are taken into a large house – a meeting place – after dinner. The whole village seems to be there, and after a formal welcomed we are introduced to the old man of the village, who has a story for us.
The audience has heard this story before. They play off each other, back and forth, kids probing and prodding the old man to fill in gaps, add details that they already know, details he has now forgotten. Anticipation builds each the story nears an exciting point, laughter comes before each punchline.
The story is an amazing one, which I would retell if only I could do so faithfully. The vague outline, as it stuck in my mind, was this: as a young man, the storyteller and his friend heard a huge blast and, following the sound, came across the fresh wreckage of an American military plane. The pieces of the plane were still burning hot, and as they were investigating the wreckage some sort of secondary explosion – “a huge wind” – knocked them off their feet. The friend was killed. The storyteller spent weeks in the bush, fearful to return and be blamed for his friend’s untimely death.
In time the storyteller came back, was welcomed, became part of village life again, became revered. But what a story.
Each village has a graveyard, small like the villages themselves. Like all graveyards, they provide only the barest bones of stories, a tentative invitation for the imagination to take over. Like all graveyards, people who lived long ago died young, with a few notable exceptions. In one village the grave of an elderly woman, buried less than a century ago, bears the inscription “born in the cannibal times”. Whatever we think of the missionaries that wrote and translated signs like these, it’s clear that before and after Christ have a different meaning here.
We reach the last village – the land of spam and catamaran – as the mosquitoes begin to bite. There’s enough light for one last story: that of ten stick island. During the war, the allied soldiers stationed here were so bored they asked the locals if they could train their guns on this small and idyllic reef, just for something to do. The locals agreed, in exchange for ten sticks of tobacco.
We have no idea whether it’s true, but so what? If stories are what keep the Man Bush going, this one is as good as any other.