Pyrotechnics in Paradise

The concept of paradise varies with each individual and reflects our own unique values and our highly personal natures. Some people imagine paradise to be white sand beaches and clear blue water. Others consider paradise to be a lush forest dense with vegetation. For some, majestic mountains rising out of the sea embodies the pinnacle of beauty in nature. In the Bible, the original paradise is described as “a garden in Eden … every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen 2.9), “a river flows” watering the earth (Gen 2.10), and it has “stones of fire” (Ezek 28.13). The commonalities among the many varying concepts of paradise seem to be a transcendent natural beauty and an innocent populace untarnished by the corruption and stress typical of modern life. By just about any definition, the island of Tanna appears to fit the description. The past week spent in Port Resolution on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu has been one of the highlights of our transit across the South Pacific. Spectacular natural beauty, interesting culture, and friendly people – Tanna seems to have it all. On Monday, we were able to see much of the island during a truck ride from Port Resolution to Lenekal. Although Tanna is only about 20 miles across, the ride took two hours each way thanks to the bumpy dirt road that serves as the only route from east to west. Leaving Port Resolution in the morning, our crowded pick-up truck began in a traditional village near the bay, passed a lovely white sand beach, entered a verdant rainforest, climbed up through the rolling mountains, traversed the moonlike desert of black ash near the volcano, drove by a coffee plantation, and descended to the arid town on the western coast. That is a lot of landscape for 20 miles. The ride itself was certainly an adventure. At one point, I counted 21 villagers crowded into the back of the truck with us. When the truck became stuck in the mud, about half the men hopped out and helped push. As we threaded our way across the rocky terrain, we noticed that people would emerge from the bush behind us, often small children toting machetes as toys. After an uncomfortable ride, we arrived in Lenekal, the main town on Tanna, which is little more than a few poorly stocked shops, a bank, and the market. Once there, we quickly completed the necessary formalities with customs and immigration and were ready to embark on the return trip. The truck however, was not up to the task. We were told that the four-wheel drive was not working and, on those roads, four-wheel drive is essential. So, we spent six hours sitting in Lenekal chatting up the locals. Since we wanted to save enough money to be able to afford the visit to the volcano, we were not even able to splurge for lunch or some basic groceries and we contented ourselves with nibbling on a loaf of bread that we had purchased earlier. As reparation for the extended delay, we were allowed to ride in the cabin of the truck on the way back to Port Resolution. The cushioned seats seemed the essence of luxury and, although the return trip was not as fun as huddling with the proletariat in the back, we were able to better observe the magnificent scenery. As in Erromanga, we secured permission to visit the village on Tuesday following a brief interview with the village chief. Once again, I offered a gift of kava and a bag of brown sugar. He was pleased with the brown sugar, although he regarded the kava smugly. He mentioned that in Tanna the kava is stronger than that made in Port Vila due to the volcanic minerals in the soil. Further, the process for making kava in Tanna is far more traditional and does not rely on machines to process the root into a fine powder. Instead, each afternoon children below the age of 18 chew on the root and spit the mush into a container, where it is stirred with water and filtered. Around sunset, the men of the village gather to sip kava while the women are preparing dinner. He asked whether I had tried kava and I had to sheepishly lie that I found the taste “okay.” Such obvious ambivalence did not provoke an invitation to the kava circle and we were dismissed to roam about town. After hiking through the bungalows of the village, we walked along the lovely white sand beach that stretches along the east coast of Tanna. The water was crystal clear and large waves were breaking over brightly colored coral. We were told that the inlet is named Sharks Bay because dozens of yellow reef sharks can usually be observed from the shore. We saw only a variety of crabs and some small fish. A couple of miles down the beach, we came to an impressive collection of dark black volcanic rocks. Known as lava tubes, these remnants of lava flowed down from the volcano and were quickly cooled into their present form when they came in contact with the tepid ocean. The enormous waves crashing near the lava tubes is supposed to be good for surfing, but it would take a far superior surfer to myself to venture out amongst the jagged rocks lining the coast. One of the discoveries that we made during the week was that Port Resolution is getting smaller. In fact, the bottom of the bay is rising at an average rate of three feet every ten years. Since we are anchored in the middle of the bay in 12 feet of water, this means that, if the trend continues, there will no longer be a bay in 40 years. When Captain Cook visited in 1774, he actually anchored ¾ of a mile inland from the present bay. At that time, Port Resolution was considered a deep anchorage. On Wednesday, we put the kayak in the water and scoured the bay. After exploring the long black sand beach of the current harbor, we portaged the kayak across about 30 yards of sand and dropped the boat down in a small stream winding through the forest. At times, the depth of the stream was less than six inches, but we were able to thread our way through low hanging palm trees and around obstructing branches until we reached a large brackish lake that is the remains of the lagoon that was once part of Port Resolution. Rowing around the lake, we were presented with a similar view to what the crew of Resolution must have seen during their visit. The small village along the lake still lives in traditional bungalows made of branches and palm fronds. Villagers continue to paddle around the lake in dugout canoes. The foliage is dense with impressive trees that give the impression of stepping back to a prehistoric time. Flying foxes hover over the forest. Towering over the entire scene is the rumbling volcano that periodically spews a cloud of smoke. Only the occasional airplane circling overhead suggests that we are really in the 21st century. On Wednesday evening, we joined the other cruisers in the anchorage for dinner and drinks aboard Chaotic Harmony, a catamaran from Australia. Each of the sailors from the three other boats in the anchorage has been cruising in the South Pacific for at least 15 years. The stories ranged from amusing to harrowing. One cruiser sunk a boat when his multihull hit a humpback whale while sailing at 16 knots, resulting in a night spent in a liferaft enduring 40-knot winds and 20-foot seas while awaiting rescue. Another sailor told of receiving a “mayday” call in the middle of the night from a cruiser nearby who had simply run aground in the sand. The distraught sailor wanted help setting an anchor to kedge off the sandbar and was preparing to wade into the crocodile infested waters before he was warned of the danger. There were fishing stories, shark stories, and many stories about interesting, out-of-the-way places that these well-traveled yachties have visited. It is always a pleasure to hear about these adventures and to learn about the places that other sailors have cruised, particularly as we move into a new part of the world. The experiences of other sailors is always inspiring and serves as a reminder of just how many fascinating places there are to explore. Thursday morning, we went ashore to the village and dropped off some gifts at the local primary school. When we arrived, the children were frolicking in the water and running along the beach. I assume that this is the local version of Gym class. The school in Port Resolution was far better supplied and organized than the one we visited on Erromanga, so we were happy that we had donated most of our supplies to the less fortunate school. After visiting the school, we again met the village chief and traded t-shirts for some fruits and vegetables. Throughout the week, villagers have visited our boat in dugout canoes and have happily traded local produce for t-shirts, wine, and even DVD’s (the village has a single television set with a DVD player that is shared among the community). In return for our items, we were provided bananas, eggs, tomatoes, lemons, papayas, and pamplemousse. The people here subsist on the land. Fishing and farming provide the food that supports families. Despite the lovely setting, it is a hard life and the villagers would be considered poor by American standards. Following our visit to the village, we walked along the black sand beach that surrounds the south side of Port Resolution. At the end of the beach are hot springs created by the sulphur gas escaping from the volcano. On this portion of the beach, the sand and rocks are heated up from below and cooled by the air and water above. The villagers use these springs to bathe, to do laundry, and to cook. We were told that in less than ten minutes, eggs or a lobster can be boiled in one of the hottest pools. After testing the many pools of water, we managed to find some areas of moderate temperature that provided a form of hydrotherapy when we laid or sat in the warm bath. When we had achieved a state of total relaxation, we sauntered back to the yacht club for a nice, warm shower. For most people, a warm shower is not particularly noteworthy; at least not an event on the level of bathing in a natural hot springs. For us, a warm shower is a rare luxury and this wonderful amenity offered at the tiny deserted shack that serves as the Port Resolution Yacht Club further elevates our high opinion of this terrific anchorage. And yet, after visiting a traditional village, strolling along a pristine beach, kayaking through a tranquil lagoon, bathing in natural hot springs, and taking a much-needed warm shower, the highlight of the week was still to come. On Thursday evening, we once again piled into the back of the sole village truck and headed for the rim of Mount Yasur. Accompanied by the seven other cruisers, we peppered our guide with questions and eagerly held on for our lives as the truck climbed through the trees and entered the barren sepia landscape near the top of the volcano. We were dropped off 150 meters from the summit and the short hike through soft ash sand slowly revealed the huge, fuming crater. As we neared the observation area, the wind howled and the tremendous booms grew louder. Reaching the rim of the volcano, we found about 20 other tourists gawking at the spectacle. People tensely waited, cameras poised for the loud explosion that was quickly followed by a flash of red and glowing embers of lava “bombs” flying skyward. Seconds later, a cloud of dark smoke would fill the sky. Above the tree line, the wind blew at around 30 knots. This was helpful in the sense that it blew the lava and ash away from us, but standing on a narrow ledge overlooking an angry crater with strong gusts pushing us from behind was slightly disconcerting. Our group climbed along a thin ridge to the highest point of the volcano to observe the action up close before retreating to the more secure observation area upwind of the blasts. From where we stood on the southeast portion of the volcano, the ground resembled what it must be like on the moon. Dark sand was strewn with tremendous boulders, evidence of past lava bombs that had fallen near where we stood. The hardened lava was surprisingly light due to the rapid cooling process that produced a brittle, porous rock. When we had ridden across the island on Monday, we passed through the ash plains to the northwest of the volcano. These plains were magnificent black deserts of smooth sand that stretch for miles with the minimalist perfection of the surface interrupted only by rolling sand dunes. On Thursday, we were told that the volcano has four vents that spew lava, two of which were actively exploding during our visit. The explosions occurred every couple of minutes and the spectacular colors grew brighter after the sun set, creating an incredible natural fireworks display. We remained on the rim for a couple of hours, furiously snapping pictures, oohing and ahhing at the particularly large blasts, and comparing our pictures and movies to see if anyone else had been able to effectively capture the brilliant spectacle. There is a post-structuralist philosophy that posits the theory that we are seeking a concept known as simulacrum, which is a copy of something that never existed. The classic example of simulacrum is a 1950’s diner, which they didn’t really have in the 50’s. The concept of paradise is another example of simulacrum. We sail great distances through treacherous waters in search of paradise, a place that we imagine to offer the beauty and simple life for which we long. The island of Tanna encapsulates our imagined utopia. The people are friendly and share a tremendous sense of community. Crime is virtually nonexistent. The land yields all that is needed to survive. Villages are surrounded by exceptional beauty. This is the simple life for which we say we yearn. Yet, would I really want to live here? Isolated, deprived of easy communication with the outside world, working hard to optimize the land – this ideal lifestyle is everything that we say we want, but is far from where we would really like to live. In reality, Tanna truly is paradise. It is a great place to visit and it offers an escape from the stresses of day-to-day life. Perhaps just as importantly, visiting such a phenomenal place reminds us of how fortunate we are to live in a highly developed society, corruption, stress, and all.

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