I still have the grass skirt; it’s lasted amazingly well. All around it in the wardrobe, woollen coats get eaten by moths and cotton fades, but this fragile piece of clothing made of dried pampas grass and vegetable dye, stays perfect.
It was made for me by a woman in Tanna for the monthly village dance. I had been in Sulphur Bay for two weeks and the ‘Mother Hubbard’ dress I’d been wearing up to then was getting increasingly dirty and ripped. My cousin, who’d grown up in these islands, had been given a grass skirt too. We tried them on in the neat, little guesthouse of palm and sticks that we were living in. Our dinner that night had been baked bird and taro. I’d been a vegetarian for years, but it seemed fine to pick my way through the tiny bones. There is a photo of me eating the bird, my hair lies dankly over my suntanned face and two little cats watch me avidly. The Mother Hubbard is yellow and flowery and has ribbons tied to the shoulders. You can just glimpse over my shoulder the rest of the village; the children in the photo are wearing torn t-shirts, given to them by my aunt who traded clothes and soap with them from her home in nearby Port Vila. Past the children is the sea, glimmering brightly and the long black curve of the beach. The children have black sand still on their clothes and feathers stuck upright in their hair. Several wear shell necklaces. The woman in the photo bends heavily to brush around the fire with a long broom, I think she is the woman who made my skirt for me, but I can’t remember her name now.
Two days before the dance I’d been taken to the volcano. It’s a sacred place for the people of Sulphur Bay and we brought propitious leaves and laid them down on the rim of the volcano. It had been a long walk there through wet jungle and up the baking sides of the mountain. At the top we sat and stared into the boiling depths underneath. We were very close; every now and then chunks of molten rock shot in the air and I flinched and cowered. There is a photo of me taken here too; the air around is thick with soot and smoke. Children squat near me and peer right over the edge as if looking for the god at the bottom. The people of Tanna worship several unusual beings, among them John Frum, possibly an American serviceman who arrived on Tanna during World War 11. The cult around him is known as the ‘cargo cult’. The name based on the wonder people felt at the goods that he brought with him. In a gathering area near the village, a wooden cross is set up alongside small statues of American planes and bottles. It is confusing to me. I guess that John Frum must have tried to explain his religious beliefs to the islanders, who from then on associated the cross and Jesus with the goods that he brought. Later my aunt tells me that the people I’d lived with also worshipped Prince Philip. That explained the Union Jack flags I’d seen some villagers with.
The night of the dance, all the village men disappear into the communal village hut to drink Kava, a narcotic made from coconut. It numbs your lips and your mind and some people have visions. It is not a great addition to a dance though. The women are dressed up, but not permitted to take Kava, I stand with them in my new grass skirt. When eventually the men stagger out, they are not in the mood for dancing. They lie on the grass and giggle. The women stay on the other side of the fence and we shuffle up and down stamping our feet to the rhythm of a lone guitar and some girls singing. There is another photo of me from here. I have obviously lost the rhythm. As the girls turn back, grass skirts swinging in the dark, I am going in the wrong direction, my face serious. The stamping up and down becomes hypnotic; I remember feeling slightly exultant and look down at the lolling figures of the men with distant fascination.