The Land Divers of Pentecost Island
I was freaking out. The Cessna was so loud I thought Sia’s hearing would be damaged once and for all. I'd already brought her to a music festival and a riveting performance of bottle drums and bush bass, but this, this was a soul-rattling mode of transportation. For an hour. Over an active volcano.
Yes, yes, I’d come to the conclusion that I was officially a terrible mother.
Michael and I were communicating by the Notes app on my phone:
Me: IT’S TOO MUCH FOR HER. WE SHOULDN’T HAVE COME.
Michael: THERE’S NOTHING WE CAN DO ABOUT IT NOW. AND SHE’S NOT THE FIRST BABY TO FLY IN THIS PLANE.
German pragmatism at its finest.
He was right, but it still gave me no consolation that we were A) flying in a 110+ db propeller plane over B) a lava-spewing volcano to a C) remote island with little infrastructure, to watch D) men, naked except for a pumpkin gourd over their nether regions, hurl themselves off a 150 foot tower with tree vines tied to their feet.
(To clarify, seeing Mt. Ambrym from the sky is one of the few places in the world you can fly commercially over an active volcano.)
Pentecost Island is one of the 83 islands in the Melanesian country of Vanuatu, and the first of many islands in the South Pacific we’d be traveling through over the next month. A land of behemoth volcanoes, creative rituals as snake dancing and sand drawing, and up until as late as 1969, instances of cannibalism. Struck by Hurricane Pam in 2015, the country has been struggling to rebuild, but it hasn't stopped Pentecost islanders from their annual rite of passage., the anti-bungee bungee jump, land diving.
And we had come to see it.
We landed on an overgrown airstrip adjacent to the water (I’ve come to learn that most airstrips in the South Pacific were overgrown and right on the water). Once again our daughter was an anomaly- nobody brings a baby to a land diving ceremony!
A large, dreadlocked Vanuatan named Sam brought us over to the tower via a pickup truck. I was in the front seat with Sia, speaking English to his Bislama (the creole language of the islands). Now that I was a mom, I had developed an uncanny spidey sense that preempted most actions happening within a 20 foot radius. So far, so good.
We arrived at the tower, and I mentally assessed the situation: the sweltering hike to the top, the exuberant dancers, tree vines, giants ants, village kids with runny noses and all other obstacles in my immediate surrounding.
"We'll go over there," I said, and started walking up to a group of village women sitting under a large banyan tree.. Michael climbed to the top to get a better perspective.
I sat down with Sia next to a woman named Tanya, who's cousin was one of the land divers. Little girls carried babies in slings made of thin cloth, the temperature was cooler here in the shade.
"Does anyone ever die?" I asked her.
"No, no. Maybe just some problems with their hips. The ground is soft!"
Ah, the ground is soft.
A group of dancers were on the top ridge, chanting one long song lasting the entire ceremony. As the chosen men climbed to each platform level, the dancers' whistling and singing would intensify as if choreographed with the impending leap of faith.
Each brave soul would reach their platform, wearing only a nampa (a penis sheath) and stand on the edge, like Jesus crucified, taking in the praise, waving their arms about and smiling. Then, with an almost Hollywood-like bravado, they would collapse off the ledge. The tree vines fastened to their legs would snap back with a sharp crack! just before they hit the ground. Their hair would touch the ground first, symbolizing the blessing of a fruitful yam harvest. They'd lay motionless for a minute and then pop back up, effortlessly as if they'd done a trust fall onto a Sealy posturepedic mattress.
The whole process took about 2 minutes, each land diver going higher and higher till the most courageous one leapt from the very top platform. I had to adjust my senses to take it all in.
These people have dealt with cyclones, earthquakes and erupting volcanoes. They do snake dances and make beautiful sand drawings, celebrating the impermanence of life. Their devotion to life was mirrored in these rituals, year after year, binding themselves together. For a fleeting moment,I wished I had a custom that brought me so close to life, but then I looked down at my daughter and knew devotion came in different forms.
We filed back in to the truck, down the rain-soaked jungle road, back to the tiny airport, into the soul-rattling Cessna once again, over the active volcano to Port Vila. I looked down at Sia, who was asleep on my breast. It was all going to be ok. The ground, after all, was soft.