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Fantasy Islands : It's Hard to Find an Escape More Remote Than Any of These South Pacific Outposts. With the Current Transpacific Air-Fare Bargains, There's No Better Time to Go. : Vanuatu: Jungle Adventure

March 01, 1992|MICHAEL MOSS | NEWSDAY

LABONCBONC, Vanuatu — We were threading our way through tanglefoot vines when, suddenly, our dogs wheeled away into the bush. Pathetic squeals could be heard in concert with their excited barking.

Ronni Senmor, barefoot but the more agile of my two local guides, let out a whoop, gave chase and returned hoisting a wild pig.

What luck. Not only might we eat well tonight, we now had another gift for the mountain villagers of Laboncbonc, some of whom were former headhunters whose attitude toward visitors could be somewhat fitful. Just moments earlier down the trail, we had spied a 62-inch wood-tipped arrow apparently lost by the village headman. Now we brought it and the pig along, hoping to win his approval.

Not to worry. Affection comes easily today to the people of this South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, known as New Hebrides until its independence from joint French-British rule in 1980. Their smiles radiate, and their laughter shimmers like the turquoise lagoons that cushion their shores.

Forming a "Y" just below the Equator between Fiji and Australia, the islands of Vanuatu (pronounced Vaw-new-AW-too) were the real-life setting for the musical "South Pacific."

It's where James Michener set his wartime tales, where the mysterious John Frum followers still wait for the Great White Ship, where some say boys diving off banyan-tree towers with vines attached to their ankles gave rise to the modern sport of bungee jumping.

But now it's Vanuatu taking a free-fall into the 20th Century, and there's a battle raging for the hearts and ways of people like the Small Nambas tribe in Laboncbonc. Tugging one way are the missionaries. Pulling another are the cultural traditionalist who preach preservation.

Modernization has touched off similar conflict around the world where custom remains as strong as it is here in the deep Pacific. And there's a role to play for the traveler willing to step gently into the fray.

En route to Laboncbonc, the squealing intensified as Alben Ruben, my other guide and interpreter of both culture and language, drew his machete. He slit, gutted and bisected the pig, skewering the two halves with a pole cut from a bamboo thicket. He then wiped his hands on the jungle carpet, picked up the load with Senmor holding the other end, and laughed as we resumed our plodding up the mountain spine.

At some point I fretted again about how the Nambas would receive us--one white stranger with two Nambas who lived an eight-hour walk away down on the coast. "Hey," said Ruben, laughing. "If they don't like our pig, we'll just sleep somewhere else."

Our arrival in Laboncbonc was timed right, culturally speaking. They potted the last kakae man, or victim of cannibalism, in 1969. The last elder traded his penis leaf-wrapper for Western-style shorts two years ago. Their huts now have frond walls as an improvement over mere roofs that reached to the ground. More ominously, disease and emigration have dwindled their numbers to 24: four families, one widow and a handsome bachelor named Liwah Mendua, who arrived after us carrying a soccer ball up from the coast where the occasional ship brings things from the outside.

Yet, much of their tradition remains unspoiled. Elaborate ceremony still envelops the circumcision of boys. There are rituals for planting water taro, for luring the rains, for hunting a bat they call flying fox, for death. Ceremony still marks their lifelong progression through a series of grades aimed at having power in the afterlife, and an elderly Namba man having passed all 19 steps is considered more godlike than human.

There are no guns in Laboncbonc. The headman, Maro Males, who doesn't know his age, still keeps the knobby club he used to clobber enemies with in battle. His wife, Lusek Trai, still makes grass skirts she wears in ceremony.

There is no electricity here. Only two of the seven huts have lanterns. Water is carried from the creek. Visitors and villagers alike sleep on the ground, on grass mats or on a layer of banana leaves. Father still teaches son how to draw flame from a fire stick, though nowadays their sweaty labor at this chore is likely to also draw some joshing from those watching: "I'm glad this isn't a cold morning or we'd be pretty hungry by the time you guys finish."

And they cook up a mean pig. Ours went into a pit covered by red-hot rocks. Many hours later when it emerged, the meat fell away perfectly from the bone.

To understand how these and other vestiges of traditional culture have become the object of battle, it's necessary to know some of Vanuatu's history. It parallels much of the wild western side of the Pacific, where the dark-skinned Melanesians first arrived from Southeast Asia via Indonesia at least 40,000 years ago.

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