As I sit here on a plane headed from Vanuatu to Fiji my heart is full. I mean the fullest it has ever been. I will try and describe how it all happened. Two days ago we left Port Vila and headed to Tanna Island to take part in a celebration with the people of Tanna and other NevHouse contributors. I wasn’t so sure of what to expect but I knew it would be an experience of a lifetime and one that may never come my way again. While waiting for the flight to Tanna a lot of people with the same itinerary started showing up and we just started introducing ourselves. It was there that I met Nev Hyman for the first time. He was just as gregarious as I had imagined him to be and full of life. Soon enough I realized that we were in the company of some really great people. We met investors, shareholders, journalists, optometrists, solar experts, inventors, board of directors, architects and a photographer whose photos I have seen many times all over social media and in magazines named Ted Grambeau. Surf Journal called Ted “the master of surf photography” in 2009. Here is something to feast your eyes upon by Ted.Photo by Ted Grambeau Photography
When we landed in Tanna, there were probably 20 or so 4×4 trucks waiting to drive us to Enkatalei Village, a bumpy hour or so drive. We ended up in the back of one of the 4×4’s with Ted. We started off and soon we were away from the airport and things just got more and more pretty.
With each kilometer passed the scenery became more lush and super green. It is hard to imagine that after the cyclone in 2015 that the entire island turned brown and that all the leaves were gone from the trees. About 45 minutes into our trip we started seeing lots of people in brightly colored garb walking in the same direction. I certainly didn’t realize they were headed to the same ceremony as us. Later I found out that some of the people had walked from the other side of the island, some for at least a day to get there. Ponder that for a minute. We started seeing little huts and people coming out of them to greet us with magnificent smiles and frantic waves. Their outfits were made from local plants and trees from their villages. It was surreal.
Each minute that passed materialized into something greater than the last. We pulled into this huge clearing where there must have been two thousand people. I kept saying “where are we”? I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. We jumped out of the truck and started following the masses and were greeted with a flower lei as a welcome. We were corralled onto another area that was open this time with even more people we saw than when we pulled up. It was overwhelming. About as soon as we took a seat the villagers started this massive circular dance where the men came out first then the women and children encompassed them. They sang, chanted and danced followed by running holding hands. Each tribe had 200 people in this dance. I will save you from doing the math and tell you this was a giant circle with 2400 people. While they jumped you could literally feel the ground beneath your feet shake. You could feel it through your entire body. This went on for the good part of thirty minutes. Afterwards I was so jolted and I am not sure I have ever felt so alive.
At the end of the dancing a series of men started bringing out, one by one, a live pig, root crops, kava plants and woven mats (the pillars of life in Vanuatu). I was puzzled but had a really bad feeling that something bad was going to happen to them. A translator came out into the middle of the circle and explained in English what this celebration was about. We learned that there were 12 tribes on the island who have agreed to work together as one for the betterment of the island. The gifts that each tribe brought were an offering and a a gesture to confirm their commitment of tribal unity. It was powerful considering that these tribes had never seen each other before this great day. I won’t go into the details of the sacrifice other than to say I didn’t watch but being ringside you really could not escape it.
The Prime Minister of Vanuatu, the Tanna governor, Nev and Ken the NevHouse architect all made speeches this day. All of this was geared toward the work being done by NevHouse, which is quite remarkable how far they have come in just four years since its inception. We got to take a tour inside the NevHouse and it was really nicely made but more important than that is the fact that it can withstand a category 5 cyclone. This means that if another cyclone ravages Tanna again, the people can take refuge in these houses built from recycled plastics. I had a chance to speak with Nev about the construction of these houses and realized that the NevHouses have the ability to clean up the planet. Nevhouse purchases recycled plastics and makes their new materials for the houses. So what if laypersons knew that if they could be paid for the plastics they use? I believe that people all over the world would be incentivized to keep their homes, streets, beaches and everywhere clean. People who cannot find the money for food would now have an occupation and a way to access the some of the basic necessities. In many places we travel I see dirty beaches, dirty towns. I see people throw an empty water bottle to the ground after they finish it. This could be a thing of the past. How cool is that? I see so many positives to the NevHouse project. It is absolutely brilliant.
The rest of the day was spent with another Kastom dance with different people. This time the people were dressed more conservative despite the bright colored attire. Another highlight was being able to tour the NevHouse hospital run on solar power. It was built for everyone on the entire island, despite it being in Enkatalei Village. If you can make your way there, you were welcome.
Later that day we met up with Simon from the Vanuatu Surfing Association over at the beach where the inaugural Tommy Tanna Nev Cup contest was happening. The kids where strutting their stuff out in the water. They are pretty good surfers considering they have only been surfing for a few months.Photo by Ted Grambeau Photography
At the end for the awards ceremony Nev was talking about how cool this day was and he got a bit emotional, I was thinking thank god I am not the only one. It is magical what he has created here with the local people and especially cool that he started the Tommy Tanna Surf Club there. The next day we ventured back over to the village to drop off some surfboards that Nev had brought with him. We were told to go back to the nakamal (the meeting spot for the people) and ask for the chief and tell him we were there to donate the boards to their people. So we did that and the chief had left for Port Vila so we gave them to the kids and for them to tell the chief. The kids were keen to surf so we walked down the path with them leading to the surf. When we got close enough you could see that a lot of the kids were already in the water surfing on their Firewire Surfboards. It was awesome. We then asked if we could borrow a board so we could join them. As I was paddling out I had a strong sense of just how magical this moment was. We were in this far off land, surfing fun waves with the Tanna locals with a backdrop of the most lush, tropical setting. I was taking it all in and almost overcome with tears because of what I was getting to experience and how most people will never have this epic experience. I was grateful.
As the sun was starting to drop we packed it up and made our way back up the hill. The hill was pretty hectic so I kept making little stops to take a breather then some local girls caught up to me. We introduced ourselves. They didn’t speak much English but they kept saying “God is good, all the time”. Then I would join them and we kept repeating it. They were so sweet. One girl kept pouring out her water on the back of my legs because I was tracking mud up the backs and she wanted me to be clean. I kept thanking her but felt bad because she was using all her water for my legs. It was a moment I will remember forever.
Soon enough we found our way to the truck and hopped in the back and headed off in the direction of the volcano. We were told it was the most active volcano in the world and it would erupt every four minutes. I was pretty excited to see this. On the drive out all the kids and people would run to the road to smile and wave goodbye to us. It was one of my favorite parts of the trip. I felt overcome with love. They loved us and we loved them. It was a bittersweet drive.
Once we started getting closet to Mt. Yasur we finally caught a glimps of the volcano and holy moly it was pretty cool. You could see the smoke billowing out of the crater from afar. I was anxious to get there quick. The drive in was something out of Jurassic Park or another planet and every twist and turn got more and more exciting. We made it to the top finally and walked the last bit in the dark with flashlights. As we were walking up we heard a huge boom then lava jolted up into the sky. I was freaking out. Once at the summit you could see into the bottom and see the lava. Sure enough about every five minutes or so there was a loud boom and lava would go flying up into the air. It was amazing to see and to feel it too. It made for an epic end to our time on Tanna.Photo by Ted Grambeau Photography
Tanna is probably the most welcoming place I have ever been. The people are so full of love and willing to open their hearts to you if you do the same. Tanna was an experience of a lifetime!