Architects of Bungee Jumping: Vanuatu's Land Divers
We are cruising over the Malampa Province in a Twin Otter plane, and the decibel level is through the roof. Our destination, Pentecost Island, is just a 50 minute flight from Port Vila; but first, the pilot insists we detour over a raging Mt. Ambrym (one look at the Smithsonian Institute’s “Volcanic Explosivity Index” shows Ambrym being most explosive in recent geological history).
That would all be fine and well if this was a standard excursion over a rupturing volcano with my husband, which has happened before. But the catch is I am breastfeeding our 8 month old infant and she keeps pulling the aviation headset off her head. It is a small irony (or function of privilege) that I can worry about her ear drums while the people of this country are the world's most 'at-risk' for natural disasters: storms, earthquakes, tsunamis and yes, volcanoes.
We are in Vanuatu, an 83-island republic in the middle of Melanesia, remote enough to be the first major ocean traversal in prehistory; also remote enough that children’s vaccines are delivered to the farthest-flung islands by drone.
It is April, and we have made the short seasonal window for land diving on Pentecost Island. Gol, or in Bismana language, Nanggol, is said to be the origin of bungee jumping. Vanuatuans would say it is a ritual for a bountiful yam harvest, but also, it’s the dry season when the monsoons can’t topple the towers and the liana vines, the natural bungees, are wet enough to provide a little bounce.
We make our approach over the green wavelets of jungle and land on an overgrown airstrip adjacent to the water. A towering man named Sam picks us up and ushers me into the front seat of his truck with Sia, Michael and a few others back in the cargo bed.
On our ride over to the site, he tells me the names of the villages we pass by: Rainbow, River, and other mercurial nods to nature, as if it was a spiritual force that had provided the mango groves and taro crops and not the islanders themselves.
We arrive at the tower, an outwardly phallic structure on which men dressed in nambas, or penis sheaths, were fastening, tugging and anchoring the last bits of wood and vines together. Legend goes that a woman actually was the impetus for land diving: in an effort to escape her lusting husband, she climbed to the top of a tree, tied a vine to her ankles and jumped, landing safely. Her husband, following suit but without the vine, wasn't so lucky.
In the seventies, Vanuatuans reclaimed land diving as a stand against colonialism (missionaries had tried to ban the practice in the early 20th century). The island’s Turaga indigenous movement rejects the Western economic system and instead promotes the “kastom economy”: only a certain amount of people are allowed to see land diving per season as to avoid commericialization.
The air is ripe and heavy with heat and I walk over to a group of women sitting under a large banyan tree to escape it. Michael had climbed to the top to get a better perspective. I sit down with Sia next to a woman with gentle eyes named Tanya, who's cousin was one of the land divers. Little girls carrying babies in slings made of thin cloth under the trees, the temperature is much cooler in the shade. Tanya reaches over and takes Sia onto her lap.
"Does anyone ever die?" I ask Tanya.
"No, no. Maybe just some problems with their hips. The ground is soft.”
The ceremony begins with the least experienced jumpers on the lower platform and ends with the most experienced on the upper platform. At the base of the tower, men, women and children dance and chant the Sa, the language of Southern Pentecost, dressed in ceremonial grass skirts and the nambas. As the diver climbs to the top, the singing reaches a fever pitch, coinciding with the man’s pantomimes, waving and ululations the top before he flings his body, mythically almost, over the edge.
The jump we are witnessing is 100 ft. He sails through the air and hits the ground with a loud snap of the vine and with the help of a few other men, limps away.
After the ceremony we return over Mt. Ambrym once again, the aviation headsets forced on my daughter’s head and she on my breast, I peer back down into the heart of the volcano, surrounded by the celestial white caps of the Pacific Ocean. It’s ok, I think to myself. The ground is soft.