You could hear the singing echoing through the valley long before the men reached the village. A single, wavering tone followed by a powerful, synchronised chorus of voices. As they emerged from the bush, naked except for small strips of calico cloth tied around their waists, children swarmed around them, holding their hands, welcoming them back with warm smiles and curious eyebrows. Pride and joy beamed from the men’s faces, a powerful reminder of the strong sense of community and culture existing here.

I was in the traditional village of Jaramaja, high up in the mountains on the south coast of Espiritu Santo Island, Vanuatu, part of a small group of intrepid adventurers invited there by Chief Jean Sele.  We’d hiked two and half hours to reach the remote village and were in the privileged position of being the first white people to have returned to the community since it closed itself off from the world nearly three years ago after COVID reached Vanuatu. The group of men I observed singing had just returning from a nearby river, having speared a handful of sweet, freshwater prawns or nowra.

Nagramal Village

Jaramaja prides itself on being a “nagramal village”, a community that shuns the influences of modern society in an attempt to keep its ancient culture and custom alive. As such, none of them received the vaccine, so they have been understandably cautious about reconnecting with the outside world. However, after a short welcome ceremony conducted by the assistant chief (Chief Sele was sick), we were given permission to move around the village and take photos.

Long Houses

Befitting its cultural roots, most of the buildings in the village consisted of traditional longhouses made from slabbed local hardwoods and a natangora palm-thatched roof. The roofs reached almost to the ground, supported by stout beams and lined by walls of woven bamboo lattice. Unusually, there were no windows, despite the heat and humidity, only a door at each end. Every longhouse played host to one extended family – mum, dad, piccaninnies, grandparents and grandkids. Inside was a crude kitchen, some wooden stools and stumps and woven pandanus mats for sleeping on. The only concessions to the modern world seemed to be some calico cloth, cooking pots, bush knives and a string of solar lights.

Strangely, there were the remains of several fires scattered around the inside of the house. I was told that every week the fire was moved to a different area in order to allow the smoke to “cure” the inside of the natangora roof, effectively hardening up the leaf panels and preventing them from being eaten by borers and other insects.

Gardens and Games

Extensive gardens surrounded the village and supplied them with starchy staples like manioc, kumala, taro, yam, island cabbage, corn and pumpkins, as well as an array of tropical fruits, including giant jackfruits weighing 15 kilos or more. It was literally a giant garden of Eden. Cash crops like kava provided them with the means to buy the occasional goods and supplies from town. The children played tag, volleyball and soccer, while the men played more traditional games involving passing and counting coconut shells. Life seemed to be deceptively simple, trouble-free and laid back.

And it was, of course, except for those times when it wasn’t. Our guide Willie explained that in 2020 when Cyclone Harold smashed into Santo, nearly all of Jaramaja’s buildings were destroyed, along with their gardens. Hard times followed. The entire community of 100 people squeezed into the three remaining houses left standing. It took a concerted effort from the entire community to rebuild and replant. But you‘d never know that from talking to them now. Everyone I spoke to readily laughed at the simplest of pleasures and didn’t seem to dwell on the past or worry about their future. Rather, they seemed content with living in the present, soaking up and enjoying each moment. In the western world we’d call this mindfulness or maybe radical acceptance, but the villagers had no words for this, saying it was just life.

Kava

That night, as the sun set on the mountains behind the village, we gathered in the nakamal – the traditional meeting house – to enjoy a kava with the men of the village. We were shown a large metal tube with a base attached to it, which the men explained was used to pound the kava into a paste. It turned out the tube was actually a giant artillery shell, left over by the American Navy based on Santo during WWII and salvaged and repurposed by the villagers.

Following kava, a simple dinner was served consisting of boiled taro, banana, island cabbage and a paste of mashed taro leaf with lime juice and salt. Meat, apparently, was only consumed on ceremonial occasions or for celebrations. Later on, as I strolled back to my sleeping hut, I was struck by the sheer number of stars in the sky. The vast swath of the Milky Way was clearly visible against the inky blackness of space and it occurred to me, not for the first time, that if a nuclear war broke out and wiped out the developed world, life here would continue on with little if any change.

Waterfall Trek

The next morning after a breakfast of, you guessed it, boiled taro and banana, this time supplemented by a few slices of papaya, we set off for a nearby swimming hole at the base of the valley. For our guides, every tree or bush seemed to offer a treasure trove of food opportunities; fern tips that could be boiled and eaten like spinach, bright yellow five-corner fruit, startling pink pods containing navelle nuts, tart green berries nestled amongst bunches of white flowers. After half an hour of steady descent we reached the creek. A small, clear pool surrounded by lush greenery beckoned us, a chance to cool down and rinse off all our accumulated sweat and dirt. Our guides told us that a second creek just nearby actually sprung from the heart of the mountain. Did we want to see the cave it had carved into the rock? Hell yes, we replied enthusiastically, knowing full well that Santo was home to some of Vanuatu’s longest cave systems. Could this be the entrance to a new, undiscovered world?  Our guide, Morvan quickly and expertly hacked through the undergrowth until, a short time later, we emerged at the top of the cave mouth. Far down below we could hear the creek tumbling across the limestone rock. A preliminary exploration revealed an extensive chamber tunneling back into the mountain. How far does it go in, I asked Morvan? Very very far, he replied. It seemed Santo had once again delivered on its promise to surprise and delight those willing to make the effort to uncover its hidden corners.

Traditional Dancing

On our return to the village we were told that the chief had organised a custom farewell dance for us. A large, flat wooden base was dragged out in the centre of the village and placed on the ground in front of us. Several men then began pounding on the wood with hollow bamboo poles, drumming out a steady but consistent beat. They were soon joined by a dozen dancers, men, women, even picinninies, who circled the drummers and whooped and sang in concert with the rise and fall of the rhythm. Every now and again, the drumming would stop, before starting up again. It was mesmerising and hypnotic and I could understand how, during custom ceremonies, the dancing could continue all night until the dawn.

I reflected on the fact that villages like Jaramaja provide a unique insight into what life must have been like in Vanuatu prior to its discovery by the outside world, a time when nothing was owned outright, custom dictated every aspect of village life and everything was shared for the benefit of the community. I also wondered how long Jaramaja and other traditional villages could hold out against the considerable temptations of the modern world and the siren call of an easier life closer to the coast. Was it really possible to cherry-pick the best of the new technology – mobile phones, solar power, chainsaws, shoes and nylon clothes – while still retaining the purity of their customs and beliefs?

The answer was probably no, judging by the rapidly evolving state of change in other parts of Vanuatu. Which made visiting places like Jaramaja the ultimate gift, a chance to time travel and experience a way of looking at the world radically different from our own.

To experience your own tour of Jaramaja contact Mayumi Green at Wrecks to Rainforest Tours on Santo.