The troops were rallied, a guy in a pick-up gave us a reasonable price for a ride across the island, and we were on our way. Side note, we had no set plans, but only the possibility of running into the chief of a small village who (if we found him) may be able to guide us on a night hike up to perhaps the most accessible active volcano on Earth, except he’d be doing so at the risk of angering the tour operating company; the volcano is on his family’s land but the tour operator says the chief cannot bring others up there since they have sole rights to tours. Through the open truck bed we whisk by numerous small villages with roadside stands selling veggies, fruits, eggs, kava root and, diesel. We crest the high point of the island and peer into the thick blanket of rainforest below, a lush carpet of mixed greenery continuing down to the ocean shores. Or gazes are raised across the valley to see a stark contrast – a black hillside, rising up to thick black clouds. In case there was any question on what was hiding there, just then low grumbles sounded from above confirming that the mountain was alive. We hop back in the car, a buzz with anticipation, and stop minutes later when we emerge onto a vast ash field, an alien landscape providing an eerie frame for the monster before us. We watch in awe as be intermittent gurgles emerge from the mountain, followed like clockwork with new billows of smoke spilling from the summit. The truck delivers us onward back through the jungle to the far island shore and the nearest accessible town to the chiefs village. Because I hadn’t yet mentioned: the chief’s village is a good hour hike from the nearest road. We mention the chief’s name to the town’s people who look confusedly at this truck of white people speaking a language they don’t understand (14 distinct languages thrive on the small island of Tanna) and after about 20 minutes we are following a girl who speaks French who is gladly leading us up a trail, apparently in the direction of the chief’s village. Sure enough, an hour of a straight-up scramble later, we emerge from the jungle onto the most idyllic village with about 7 beautiful woven huts, pristine landscaping lush with flowers and abundant gardens, and children playing. They smile at our arrival, we mention that Captain Clemens sent us, and the town welcomes us with open arms. We’re introduced to each of the family members one by one. We are given a tour around the immaculate village as the Chief’s family steps into action preparing food for us and a place to sleep. The chief then takes us on a hike to meet his horse, and he shows us the viewpoint where we can assess the weather on the volcano’s summit. Although the sheer possibility of ascending the volcano was in question due to tour rights, he poses the question whether we would like to hike to the crater rim tonight given the clouds hindering visibility. We all agree without hesitation that we’re committed to the hike regardless of mother nature’s plans for the evening. Plan made.
We return to the village, and the men from our group are invited to join the men from the village for their daily Makanal. They retreat to a separate hut where women are strictly prohibited , where they sit around, discuss the issues at hand, and drink a slightly mood altering beverage prepared by young boys chewing up the kava root and thereafter spitting it into a bowl that is filtered through coconut husks and shared. As much as I would have loved to experience the makanal, I arrived to town aware of the gender roles of the kastom and the chief even apologized that we would be excluded so I left my equal rights pumps in the corner and joined the women of town in the common cooking and dining hut to chat. The Philoman’s sister Mary had very good english so we exchanged life stories. She was 30 and had 3 children from a previous marriage with a man who lived in Tanna’s main village, and was due in January with her third from her current marriage. That said, it was very apparent she lived a happy and empowered life. She was impressed by my previous position as a female building satellites and called me “strong”; however even though she wanted to stay in touch she did not look listful of my life. They say that Vanuatuans are the happiest people on the planet. They have the resources they need as they live in very fertile areas lush with an abundance of native fruits and vegetables. They have kastom traditions and purpose to teach their children and connect their community. Many children do go to a “modern” school until they’re teens, at which time some move to one of the bigger cities for college and a higher paying job. But many others return to the village to raise children and continue to contribute to their community. Money is unnecessary within the village, and as such they happily share meals and a bed to sleep with complete strangers. More than one of us commented that never in our lives had we experienced such immediate and unwaivering generosity.