Vanuatu Culture at the National Arts Festival in Lakatoro

Our stay at the Batis Bungalows came to an end, and we began our trek to the northern city of Lakatoro in Malekula. Figuring out the transport was not easy. I tried calling and Facebook messaging several people and could not get anywhere. I attempted to go through an agency in Santo, and they were not able to get anywhere. Finally, about two weeks before we left, I was able to arrange a driver to drive us. 

We left the Maskylenes on the boat, and Sethric put on a rain jacket even though the skies were clear. Well, we shortly discovered that the rain jacket was because there were 3-5 foot swells for his little aluminum boat to handle. I have to admit that the boat ride was not that comfortable being tossed around and getting my fair share of sea spray. I was slightly confused when we did not turn into the area where we had previously met the truck and continued on the boat for another 20-30 minutes. We eventually saw some buildings and passed the town of Lamap. We then pulled up to a sand split with a waiting truck and disgorged. I am not sure if we took a long boat ride and a slightly shorter truck ride because Sethric would make more money with a longer boat ride, there was a problem with the road (I read something about a road an issue), or the truck driver wanted a shorter drive. 

I was pleasantly surprised when the truck was a quad cab, and we all had the privilege of sitting inside for what was deemed to be a 2-4 hour bumpy rather unpleasant truck ride. We loaded up and headed out. 

We passed many small villages along the way. One interesting thing is that most of the villages had been visited by the Red Cross or USAid (in this area) with an attempt to provide drinking water. The Red Cross drilled wells and tapped springs to provide at least one water tap per town. It was interesting to see the benefit that these programs provided in real life. The clam sanctuary overseer did say that it is not without politics on where the well got placed and who got the water tap near their house. 

The ride only took 2.5 hours, and it was bumpy, but not as bumpy as I anticipated. We passed a couple of “taxi trucks” and were glad that we were not one of the 10+ people in the back. Several people did try to wave down our truck for a ride, but we did not end up licking anyone else up. The driver did a friendly honk to everyone he knew, and I think that he knew most of the people on the island. One thing that I read was that in the 1600s there were a lot more people in Vanuatu than there are today. Supposedly there were about 200,000 people on Malekula which is hard to believe compared to the several thousand that are there now. 

We arrived at the Lakatoro Palms a little after noon and were met by Jennifer, the host. There was a miss-communication between her and me, which resulted in only one bungalow being reserved, not two. Accommodations were at a premium because it was the middle of the Vanuatu Arts Festival. I asked Jennifer if she would be able to find a room for Katy and me to stay in, and she said that she would. We ended up next door in a transit room of the Christian bookstore. I was impressed that that was our only hiccup during our more off the beaten path adventure (I would guess that less than 100 groups of tourists make it to the Maskylenes every year, not counting boats that sail through). 

We then headed off to the festival to try to grab some lunch.  The Arts Festival started in 1978 and has happened roughly every ten years. The goal is to prevent Vanuatu from losing their culture, which started to happen when they modernized. Each of the six provinces sends multiple groups to perform their traditional dances.  One impressive thing is that I would put the number of western tourists at the festival at less than 5% of the festival-goers. We were told that there were about 2,000 people there each day and I don’t think that there were more than 50 westerners there on a given day.  

We were told there was food, and we walked past a range of stalls that were not selling food and walked to the market next door looking for food. We found a couple of stalls behind the market, selling some food and grabbed food from various vendors for $3 each. We were at the end of the lunch period, so pickings were slim, and it was not straightforward. My dad ended up with chicken, Katy fish, and my mom and I had a ground beef dish. When we went back into the festival, we discovered that the one row of huts we did not visit before leaving the grounds to look for food were the food stalls. 

The day was hot, and the sun was bright, and it was humid. We went and sat under the shade of the bleachers and started to watch some of the dancing. Each group was given a time slot, but it appears that they used the schedule as a rough guideline for the performances. At first, we did not think there was a schedule, but then we saw someone with a program and we quickly acquired one for ourselves. 

Before we headed back to Lakatoro Palms Bungalows for the night Katy and I made a pitstop at the store and grabbed four Tuskers, the local beer. Tucker comes in at least five varieties, lemon, regular (5%), bitter, extra malt (6%), and OP (7%)  surprisingly my favorite is the OP, followed by the bitter. Many remote places will have the OP for sale and not the regular version. At the grocery store the OP costs roughly 10% more. 

We headed back and put an extra coat of bug spray on and discovered that we were locked out of our bathroom in our accommodations, but still had access to the shower and sink. I then attempted to figure out my SIM card issues. My original SIM card worked on the first day, but the data stopped working after that. I then bought a second one and loses data onto it, but couldn’t get that to work. I finally got the second one to work by trying to verify the phone number with Apple and it failing, but then showed a data connection. All I know is that my SIM card frustrations were greatly reduced after that.  We played a game of settlers and then went down for fish for dinner. They even had some cold beers there to refresh ourselves with. 

The next morning we had breakfast consisting of freshly baked bread and papaya. One interesting thing is that Fiji and Vanuatu refer to papaya as pawpaw, which is a completely different fruit. Katy and I then started the ten minute walk down the road to the stadium. We did make a quick stop at the ”supermarket” to see if they sold beer, they did not. Most stores not on Santo or Port Vila are 70% empty shelves and 10-30% actual products. It is kind of depressing to look at. The three staples in stock at all shops are Coca-Cola, cooking oil, and canned tuna/meat. 

We got seats in the stands and started to watch the exhibitions. The stands were partially facing east so we ended up on the cusp of sun and shaded seats and baked in the sun until the sun got high enough for the roof to provide shade. 

Katy is now in a promo for Spencer chocolate. Her payment was a piece on chocolate; she didn’t share.

It is amazing how varied the outfits and dances are among the different islands in Vanuatu. At a Hawaiian luau they sell each island country as having a distinct dancing style, but the performances we saw were as varied as a Hawaiian luau. One thing that they could do to make the event better is to have a smaller venue or allow people to get closer to the dancers. Some of the dances it was hard to really see some of the details. 

The Big Nambas, one of the most famous cultural groups in Vanuatu. There are also the Smol (small) Nambas. A namba is a penis sheath.

After the Big Nambas finished up we headed back to Lakatoro Palms, cleaned up, and played some settlers. We had a couple Tuskers and enjoyed our last evening together. 

The next morning we got already for a 630am departure to the airport, but they said the driver said not to get there that early and we had another 30 minutes to eat breakfast. Vanuatu does have a 0.5% tourism tax and in their constitution it is written that 1/3 of the tourism boards budget will be paid directly by the tax and the 2/3 provided by the general budget of the government. In addition to providing Facebook adds, it appears that they provide some training to operators with what tourists expect as part of their experience, an itemized bill, rain water or boiled water to drink, a trashcan, etc. 

We headed off to the airport and had an uneventful flight on a roughly paved runway to Port Vila. We then hung out at the cafe for an hour, playing a game of settlers, before we had a flight out and my parents headed into Port Vila for one night before their flight home via Fiji. 

Read about the next journey of our trip in Santo and our previous stops in New Caledonia, Tanna, and the Maskelynes.

Katy was thrilled that this was a paved runway. Granted they did not pave an excessive width of the runway.
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