There is a man standing on top of a rickety stick tower, 30 meters high, arms wide, wearing only his namba (that’s a penis sheath, honey). He reminds me of Christ on the cross, not because of the way he is hung, but because of the way he is hanging. He’s covered in coconut oil and there are a few men tying liana vines to his ankles. Behind the stick tower there are a hundred namba-clad men and topless women in grass skirts singing and dancing. The women wave fire red leaves and some have green leaf necklaces and their leaves and breasts bounce with each motion of their legs. The sun is a stinging blinding thing and I squint to see it all. My head ping-pongs around from the dancers to the man on the tower.
It’s all so ancient and sizzling. And it’s sensual too, all that skin, exposed. But it’s not pornographic, it’s more like national geographic.
We are on top of a jungle mountain, the sky is yellow, the land is green, and when I look way down at the blue of Homo Bay I can see my boat, like a needle in a dream. I am sitting on the earth eating a pamplemousse fresh from the island tree and the naked kids next to me are chewing on peanuts. Peanuts and pamplemousse, pamplemousse and peanuts.
The tower that the Christ-looking man is standing on represents a human body; head, shoulders, breasts, belly, genitals, and knees. The platform he is on is the penis and the struts beneath him are the vagina. I did not make this up, this is the truth. You know the game Jinga? That’s kind of what this tower reminds me of, a deep game of jinga that’s about to end in a crash. And this is the rush before the rush, which makes it it’s own rush. Dopamine floods.
The singing is getting more frenzied. The singers are hooting. The Christ-looking man is standing at the penis’s edge, his legs laced in vines, he claps his hands, he spreads them wide, and hoots back “huay, huay.” The earth beneath him has been raked soft by men with tail-feathers made of leaves. I feel like the foundation of my reality receding on the horizon. What is this strange planet on this mountain top wrapped in grass?
The dancers heighten their motions, feet are moving left and right, leaves waving, the hooting keeps hooting. There is a fever. There is the sun, burning. There is a warped shaking. There is the edge of a moment that feels like everything feels when it’s about to burst open and be something new and wilder than it was before. The air is untamed and tenuous, but there is an order to it that I don’t comprehend because I’m not from this planet.
The Christ on the cross man looks like he’s praying and thinking hard. He beats his chest, claps his hands some more, he is a warrior born too big for the bug world beneath him. I see his breath pulsing in and out of his coconut oil-covered body. Then, in a blink- a flash- a blip, he jumps, head first towards the earth. Like rain he falls at 45 miles per hour. There is a snapping sound. His body hits the ground. Members of his tribe rush to lift him off the dirt. He stands. He has survived. His yam harvest will be bountiful.
This is land diving on Pentecost Island.
The vine tying and dancing and jumping happens again and again and again for hot hours on end. The youngest boys jump from the smaller penises and as the age increases, the height of the jump increases.
According to the Guinness Book of World records the g-force experienced from the land diving jump is the greatest in the non-industrialized world. I want to do it of course, but only men are allowed to dive. Before the jump I got yelled at for going too close to the vines, only men can go near them. This a man’s world and a woman’s touch is taboo. Taboo. Taboo. Taboo. I don’t understand why. I feel like men are the body, and women are the breath. Men are the soil, women are the flowers. Men are the sky, women are the cool shapes of clouds rolling by.
But guess what? Land diving was originally a sport that only women in the village did. Legend has it that the ritual of land diving started because a woman was upset with her husband for his extreme sexual appetite, so she ran away into the forest and up a banyan tree. Her husband followed. He watched as she tied vines to her ankles and jumped and survived. He jumped after her without vines and died. For a long while after that women were the divers, until one day men took the ritual away from them.
I asked the men about to jump if they were frightened. They said, “yes.” I asked if people had died doing it. They said, “yes.” I asked, “why do you do it?” They said, “it is our custom.”
For the boys in this community, land diving is a rite or passage that originates from animistic beliefs. They jump to thank the gods for their yam harvest. When they jump they want their shoulders to graze the ground on the fall. And the higher the jump, the bigger the blessing of yams. It is also believed that jumping will cure their physical ailments and prevent illness.
After the hullabaloo I dance around with the women. They wrap me in a grass skirt and touch my hair and breasts. In the late afternoon I hop in the back of a truck driven by a man named Bong. He bumps me back down the mountain and to the beach where my dinghy is and I row home.
I can’t believe that this is my life. This is my life! This is living! People always ask me where my favorite place on earth is. I used to say wherever I am, but now I can honestly say Vanuatu is. It satiates both the sailor and the renegade anthropologist in me and I am frothing. This is the season for cultural festivals in this country and I want to see every festival this country has, especially the one in August hosted by Chief John Star, where the men paint themselves like sea snakes and slither around.
THE DAY AFTER
The chief of the vine jumping village has requested to meet with me. I jump back in the truck with Bong. We drive across rivers where women are bathing naked and up the mountain.
I arrive to the village and everyone is dressed exactly the way they were the day before… nearly naked. A woman wraps a grass skirt around my waist and I am lead to a hut with a wooden table inside. I sit down and there are eight men wearing only penis sheaths in the room with me. Some sit across the table, some sit next to me. Some are standing, leaning against the wall, sucking on sugar cane. The room is dark, only the light of a cloud-covered sun is dripping in from the open doors.
The chief speaks to me through an almost blind interpreter. The chief wants to know, “how many people in your country have boats.” I say, “many, many.” The interpreter interprets and the chiefs eyes get as big as his face. He tells me he wants more boats to come next year. He wants to know what price they can charge and how I can help promote it.
I paid $95 to see what I saw yesterday. A lot of yachties were there, but some didn’t come because of the cost. I told him that. He tells me they are going to increase the price to $125 next year. I try to explain that it will cost too much for some of us to come, but then again they are doing this death-defying thing which is sort of priceless and bizarre to witness and there are still a lot of people who would pay to see that.
This meeting goes on forever. At some point someone brings me a coconut. I drink it. The chief wants to know what other islands are doing and charging for tourists to see. He needs more activities to offer when vine jumping season is over. The jumping season is only April to July, in the months beyond that the vines are not elastic enough to withstand the jumps and people die. An out of season jump happened once for Queen Elisabeth II and the diver did indeed die.
After the meeting the men and I take photos together and the women make me take my shirt off. One of them chases me around and tries to get my bra off too, but I refuse and chase her back and spank her for being so naughty! We all laugh a lot. I love people on this planet.
THE DAY AFTER THAT
I am hard on a 22 knot wind with wicked gusts. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve been in these conditions, it always feels like the first time and it always takes me a while to trust myself and my boat and find comfort with the situation.
My sea-sister Holly is in front of me on her boat Gecko. She has full sails up and I watch as she almost gets rounded. It looks like her mainsail is about to touch the water and her jib is gonna blow. A sailboat almost fully horizontal is a terrifying thing to witness.
We are trying to get back to the village of magic and fire on Ambrym island so I can trade my old half-sinking dinghy for fruits and vegetables and beer. I’m almost out of provisions, plus I’ve been sleeping on the settee because my new dinghy is stowed in the v-berth and it’s a monster of a thing and I don’t have room for two dinghies in my life. Also the old dinghy, even though it’s sinking, is easier for me to manage on my own, so I just keep using it despite its holes, which is another incentive to get rid of it.
The wind is too strong. Holly and I decide to forget the magic village and sail to the far west end of Ambrym island. We fall off the wind and I’m too lazy to shake my reefs and my speed drops from 6 knots to 4.5 knots, but I don’t care. I’m the laziest most over-cautious sailor you’ll ever meet.
Holly and I anchor for the night, side by side. There aren’t any houses on shore, only one little boat and a small fire. The moon is full. Holly and I are both in a bad moon mood and we don’t know why, but tomorrow we are sailing to the islands where the bushmen roam and the moon will be waning and I am certain we will feel better.
*I am sailing right now. I will have to post photos later. Please watch my Instagram stories or if you would like to see visuals from the vine jumping. I will be posting there later this evening.
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