Sunday, June 22, 2014

Unbelievable Day on Pentecost Island

It was a once in a lifetime experience to watch the "Land Divers of Pentecost Island" on Saturday in Londot village. Michael remembers watching a National Geographic special on television as a wee lad where he saw this event. It stuck with him. On Saturday, we saw it in person and it was an unbelievable experience of sights and sounds.
The day was perfect – sunny with a bright blue sky and scattered white puffy clouds. A steady easterly trade wind kept the day comfortable and the mosquitoes at bay. We were joined by one other boat with Steve and Claire aboard from the UK. The four of us met on shore at 0930 and were met by Noel and Luke – our guides. We were taken to a small hut and greeted with flowers and a refreshments of juice, fresh fruit and coconut bread. Then we hiked up a hill to the tower. The tower is a 35 meter high structure of wood and vines. It looks like it will tumble in a big wind – but it is quite sturdy. It was built in March for the diving that takes place every Saturday in April, May and June. We saw the next to last event for the year. The tower starts to get a little more shaky as the season progresses and the vines holding it together get too weak in July to continue. The tower has five platforms off of it. Because it was late in the season, they could no longer use the top platform because it was too weak.

The landing zone is simply a dirt patch that has been cleared of rocks and growth and tilled a bit. But it is hard ground they aim for!

We got to climb up to get a close look at the tower and watch the first few divers from that vantage point – then we went down the hill to watch the last three. There are dancers in native "kustom" dress that "encourage" the divers with song and dance. "Kustom" dress is the very traditional costumes (or lack of!) that is worn in many "kustom" villages to this day. The women are in grass skirts and nothing else and the men wear "nambas." A penis sheath – a leaf wrapped around the penis...and nothing else. The dancing and singing is very choreographed though simple. Each diver has a song they request that they like to "dive" to. It is their special song to awaken their spirit and get in touch with their inner being.

The men climb the tower and have vines tied to their ankles – one on each ankle. There is a man who cuts the vine to the right length – with no tape measure or ruler. He looks at the height of the diver and what platform he is going to dive off of and then just whacks the vine at the appropriate length. Then they shred the bottom of the vine into long strings that are what they use to knot around the divers ankles. Then the man stands out on the narrow platform and does his own personal routine of getting relaxed and in touch with his own spirit. He claps, raises his arms and one even rubbed his shoulders with a special leaf (it is a poison leaf). The man who dived from the second lowest platform was the youngest and this was only his second dive. They sometimes say a few words to the crowd and then arch their back and fall forward off the platform. They land within millimeters (inches) from the slightly softened dirt. The vine cutter – if he did his job right – has correctly assessed the length – so only the hair of the diver hits the dirt. Two other men are below to grab the diver as he lands. Sometimes the vines break at this point – which is supposed to happen – but it can drop the diver pretty hard into the dirt if he hasn't yet been grabbed.
We saw five divers – each one coming from the next higher platform. The higher the dive the more frightening to watch and the more spectacular to see. The singers and dancers at the bottom of the wooden structure continue throughout the event. In fact one woman was nursing her infant while dancing! The baby seemed quite content with the dancing and simultaneous feeding!

This tradition has been going on for as long as anyone can remember. Young boys are taught to dive by their fathers. Some continue to dive as late as 60 years old – though most seem to be in their 20 and 30s. The youngest are seven and they dive only from the lowest platform. We did not see anyone that young dive.

The story of how it all began is a wonderful legend. Though our "Lonely Planet" guide gives a different story. We were told the story by our host Luke Fargo. It started as early as the creation of the island. In ancient times, men and women lived in separate places. Boys as young as eight would join the men in their house and live with their fathers. The women and their daughters would live together in different buildings. They would have no contact except on special days. Marriages would be arranged amongst the fathers of the young men and young women. But because the two sexes had no real knowledge of how to deal with each other – the wedding night could be a bit awkward and even frightening for the women. After a few nights with her new husband, a young women decided to run away from her new husband – not liking the situation. She ran through the bush and ended up climbing a tall palm tree. Her new husband tracked her and found her up the tree. He climbed up to get her. She kept climbing, all the way to a young vertical palm frond and it bent under her weight. She ended up tearing the frond into strings and tied it around her ankles. As her husband approached, she dove out of the tree. He dove after her not knowing she was tied – and he wasn't. He dove to his death but she survived and was still hanging from the tree. The elders found the young man dead at the bottom of the tree and the young woman hanging from the tree. They retrieved the body and the girl. She went back to live in the women's home and he was buried. That then became a ceremony – the women diving from the trees and the men below singing and dancing. However, at one point, the high priests, chiefs and elders found it offensive to see the woman's private parts (as Luke said, "this was before there were panties") as the grass skirts would come over their heads as they dove. So there was a switch. The men would dive and the women would sing and dance. It then progressed from trees to the wooden structure built from the trees and yam vines. It is only done in April, May and June because that is when the yam vines are the strongest. As yam harvest in June and July the vines start to weaken and it is no longer safe. Nobody knows when it started...but Luke dived and told us, that several generations of his fathers, grandfathers and ancestors also dived. The skills of building the platform, cutting the vines the right length for the divers, tying the right knots and the diving itself are passed on from master to apprentice.

We built tree-houses and "forts" in the woods. On Pentecost, young boys build platforms and practice diving. Or they dive off their fathers shoulders or from trees over the many rivers. It is a tradition that is only on this particular island.

It was a once in a lifetime opportunity and it was thrilling to see.

The day just continued to be fun and interesting with dugongs, kava, and a glowing volcano. More later!

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