I wake up to a faint rumbling that lasts a few seconds, settle back in and just before I fall asleep, it happens again. Could it be a giant truck driving past? I’ve stayed here 3 nights now and haven’t experienced this before so it seems unlikely. At breakfast, everyone else says they felt the shaking as well so we give it a quick Google to find it was, in fact, an earthquake. A 5.2 magnitude from Tanna – maybe I did make the right choice by coming to Santo. Yikes. Google doesn’t pull up any articles about fatalities though, so fortunately I don’t think it was very serious.
A shuttle comes for me and 3 Americans who are also going to Pentecost today. I’m hoping it won’t be totally overcrowded with tourists but I’m preparing myself for that possibility. When we get out the shuttle driver asks us for our vouchers. Vouchers…? What vouchers??? When I spoke to the woman at the lodge she told me I would pay “them” directly. In hindsight – who are “they”? Everything is just so lax here, and visiting Pentecost on Saturday for the N’gol is such a common thing that I didn’t assume I needed any kind of ticket.
A little confused, I go to the ticket desk at the airport and see if there’s still space on the flight. I’m lucky and relieved to hear that yes, there is. I book a return ticket for 12,500VT ($165). The lodge had quoted me 33,500VT ($435) for the whole day, so so far I’m 20k up. Awesome. I’m asked to step on the scale. Surely they just want to weigh my bag? So I remove my shoulder bag and put it down…I’m not even sure it’ll register on the scale – it’s probably 2kgs. No no no. My mistake. Me. The whole human. I have to step on the luggage scale.
We board the tiniest plane I’ve ever been on and I understand why I had to be weighed. A fuel truck is parked up next to our plane and they’re roughly the same size. There’s only 18 seats and the cockpit is wide open for the duration of the flight. There’s no safety demonstration (those are boring anyway) and our captain gives a quick hello, points to the emergency exits, and we’re off.
25 minutes later we arrive at Pentecost island. After the shortest flight I’ve ever been on, to the smallest airport I’ve ever been to. Many records being broken today.
On the other side we’re greeted by a man who will show us to the ritual grounds. He wants our vouchers. I explain that I haven’t paid yet and he says I can pay later. When later? How much? To whom? But I’m rolling with it.
We hop in the back of a truck and take a very bumpy road along the coast and into the jungle, over rocks, bridges, and through a couple rivers before arriving at a village.
We’re welcomed and told we can roam freely around the village. Some kids are running around with paper airplanes (made out of old French homework) and kicking around a football. One of the boys uses a long stick to steal a spider from its web, and starts a sick game of tag, chasing us around with a gigantic creepy crawler. It’s cute, but I’m also terrified. It gets weird when they start putting the spiders on the paper airplanes and launching them into the air. Flying spiders? Truly what nightmares are made of.
After some running around we follow our guide to the location of the N’gol. A wooden structure stands tall on the side of a steep hill. Some villagers are dressed in traditional wear – grass skirts for girls, and nothing but wicker-made ummmm…penis holders? for the boys. Feels a little weird to be fully clothed, looking on and taking photos of these basically naked people (and children) but it’s just how they’re dressed. This is the traditional attire.
Everyone is singing and dancing and amping up the first jumper, who can’t be older than 10. I hear our guide say it’s his first jump, and I watch this young boy dive head first to the ground with nothing but vines tied around his ankles. I can only aspire to have that much courage. The wooden board makes a loud cracking noise, the vines snap, and he thumps and rolls into the dirt. Everyone cheers and shouts, and the men at the bottom cut the vines from around his ankles with a machete.
I should provide some context. The N’gol is a ritual observed only on this island in Vanuatu. It descends from an old story, some time in the 1900s, about a woman who was escaping the abuse of her husband, climbed to the top of a cliff and jumped. He jumped after her, but did not know she had tied vines to her ankles. She survived the fall, and he did not. For years after, women from the village would jump every year around the yam harvest to remind the men that they better not abuse ‘em (go girls), but somehow the dudes turned it around and now are the only ones who do the land diving, to show the women they will not be tricked again. At least that one lady got the better of her abusive husband.
We watch as the men from the village climb higher and higher each time. The final jumper is a wildly brave 12 year old boy, who dives off the very top of the structure, which must be about 15 meters high. Again we hear the cracking, and the thud as he hits the dirt, but rolls out of it with a big smile on his face. It’s such an incredible atmosphere. I’m in another world. I am sitting directly next to the structure, like I could reach out and touch it but don’t dare, because while I know it’s solid and people are climbing all over it, I still have the impression that it could collapse at any time. There’s some insanely good engineering that has gone on here – it blows my mind.
THIS is what I came to Vanuatu for. Our guide and some other people in the village thank us for coming and helping their economy. We thank them for letting us be here. The ritual is not just put on for tourists, it is held every Saturday for 3 months during the yam harvest, but the rest of the year Pentecost sees almost no tourism. I genuinely feel like it’s a good situation for everybody, as long as it doesn’t start to become too crowded, and as long as the money still goes into the hands of the Ni-Vanuatu people on Pentecost.
I pay another 12,500VT ($165) to our guide who brought us through his village and out to the N’gol, and the wonderful lunch his wife cooks for us – rice with a whole boiled yam, chicken, and some greens. I’m happy to put the money directly in his hands, and am stoked that I’ve saved 8,000VT compared to my mates by cutting out the middle man. To be fair, that money would also go into Vanuatu’s economy if it were organized by a local tour operator, but it’s not like I didn’t try. The few people who flew from Vila paid a whopping 50,000VT for this day trip. Whoa. I’m not saying it’s not worth it but like…
We hang around a bit after lunch but head down to the airport early because sometimes the planes will just leave when they feel like it – be it early or late. I find another cute pup.
We get back on the ridiculously small plane and home to the Hidden Lodge, for my last night in Vanuatu. I had such mixed feelings over the past week about whether or not I made the right choice by coming North to Santo instead of visiting Tanna. Now there’s no doubt in my mind this was the best decision. Truly a once in a lifetime experience. It can’t really be described – I thought I knew what to expect but it was unbelievable.
After having saved 8,000VT ($100) today, I’m feeling like I have some money to spend. I’m leaving tomorrow and have wayyy too much excess cash but it’s just enough that it’s not really worth re-exchanging. I’ve seen coconut crab on a few menus here but it’s always significantly outside my budget (3,000VT/$40+ vs. 500VT/$7 to eat at my lodge). It sounds delish and I’m really keen to try it so tonight seems like the night. Coconut crabs are massive and actually eat coconuts, so sometimes they have a natural coconutty flavour, which sounds hella good.
I take a taxi into Luganville and guess who picks me up? None other than the famous Ken, who drove me to the Blue Holes and Million Dollar Point, but then failed to pick me up again. I ask him what happened and he said he had to drive someone else from the lodge last minute. Can’t believe he chose another guest over me, but okay. He drops me in town outside a fancy hotel where he reckons they’ll have crab, and offers to wait but I tell him to go on and I’ll find a ride back. I don’t want the pressure of him waiting, and he’s unreliable anyway.
This establishment doesn’t have what I’m after, so I walk down the road to try another. Luganville is shockingly quiet after dark. Usually a major town has some sort of night life. Usually tourist areas have a nightlife, but Luganville goes to sleep with the sun. Someone directs me to a chinese restaurant but I feel like that’s not the coconut crab experience I’m after. But out of options (literally 2 open hotel restaurants on the strip) I give in and check out the Chinese shop. It’s empty but they do have coconut crab on the menu. 2,500VT per kilo. Surely I don’t need a whole kilo of crab? This seems affordable. I ask for half a kilo and the waitress tells me they have to cook the whole crab. Okay fair play – how much does a crab weigh? She doesn’t know. Can you check? No. Ummm k well I’m not willing to risk it. This isn’t really my vibe anyway – a takeaway restaurant when I’m tryna treat myself.
There’s another Chinese restaurant across the street, so I give it a shot. There’s a lot of Chinese investment in the Pacific islands and I don’t really understand why. Tonga was the same but I remember it was causing some cultural/racial tension. I don’t really know what the climate is like here but I haven’t heard anyone talk about it. I have definitely noticed a lot of chinese restaurants and shops though.
This restaurant is closed. A security guard on the street points me in the direction of a hotel just tucked in off the main road. It looks like a proper posh place from the outside. A bright white building with floor to ceiling windows, bright lights, and a third floor restaurant with a terrace. Surely they’ll have dat fancy crab? But nah. Not only does the restaurant not have crab, but it’s eerily empty. There’s not a soul in here on a Saturday night…and it’s a hotel. It doesn’t feel like there are any guests. Just one big round table of men playing cards. Maybe some money laundering front, or underground poker? Who knows, but something dodgy about it for sure. Outta here.
Okay. I’ve given up my quest. The restaurants I’m entering keep getting weirder and weirder and I can’t handle it. Even if I could, I think I’ve been to everything that’s open. I don’t feel at all like I’m in danger but omg is it ever a ghost town. It feels like 3am but it’s only 7. I walk back to my first stop at the fancy Espíritu Hotel, where I run into an Aussie couple that I met today in Pentecost. They’ve already finished dinner but chat with me while I eat a gorgeous steamed fish with coconut milk, wrapped in banana leaves. Possibly better than coconut crab, but I may never know.