Cruise into village life
THE cross-cultural exchange is tentative at first.
Remaining a few metres apart, the strangers eye-ball each other curiously for a moment. Different coloured skin. Unusual hair. Strange clothing. One is slightly younger than the other but only by a few months. The older, more mobile of the pair creeps a few steps closer.
She makes a hasty retreat but another bolder attempt at a closer inspection soon follows. With a squeal of delight that brings smiles and laughter to those gathered in amusement, contact is made.
Who knew toddlers could play diplomats so naturally, breaking down communication and cultural barriers effortlessly?
But Savannah Makepeace, about to celebrate her first birthday on P&O Cruises' Pacific Dawn, and slightly older Alida - granddaughter of the Larofa Cultural Village chief - do just that at the end of our visit to this special place on Vanuatu's Efate island.
It's the first stop on a Round Island Safari shore tour from the ship, berthed in Port Vila, and the warrior's firewalking I had been so desperate to see in this village in the south-east of Efate has taken a back seat to this impromptu meet-and-greet.
Alida's father Kaperi, which translates in English to "Watch You", tells us the village was established nine years ago to preserve the ancient traditions, culture and heritage of Vanuatu and act as a showcase for visitors from around the world. Forget Survivor Vanuatu's television drama.
Life here is all about survival for real.
Initially, we are herded into a circular clearing and find ourselves surrounded and challenged by fierce-looking warriors brandishing weapons and impeding our path.
But Kaperi, the chief's son, gives orders to leave the intruders unharmed.
He later tells us: "Today, no more cannibalism. No more killing. We like to smile."
We are directed towards a neatly tendered village hut, and as a rooster crows somewhere in the forest background, Kaperi, who will become chief one day by birth, offers an insight into life in this small village of "25 plus little ones".
He reflects upon knowledge passed down from generation to generation over the past 4000 years or more in the South Pacific archipelago - how they have learned from their mistakes and let Mother Nature do the rest.
We learn, for example, how to make a fishing line using cotton tree branch fibres that have been dried in the sun and plaited before being attached to dead coral or a removable rock "sinker" and effective chicken bone "hook".
Kaperi rubs and rubs a coleus plant to produce a juice villagers use as a natural iron tablet for pregnant women. The plants also can produce ink for tattoos, while the purple coleus is used as a remedy for headaches and other ailments like we use paracetamol.
We move on to another clearing to see how a sticky golden web from the island's non-poisonous spiders can catch bait such as garfish used to net bigger species.
As a village child merrily goes to and fro on a swing made from vines in the background, inset above, we see how food can be preserved in a metre-deep hole in the ground using waxy leaves of the ginger plant family, which act like greaseproof paper.
An "old fridge" like this has been known to preserve food such as dried banana for up to five years.
And with a good wash to remove the "blue cheese" smell, Kaperi says the dried banana is wrapped in new leaves, cooked and able to be eaten once again - a godsend when surrounding crops and vegetation are destroyed in cyclone season.
He also tells us the buttressing of a massive 150-year-old banyan tree, pictured top right, can protect the lives of villagers in unpredictable times.
"We might get wet but we are saved in a cyclone," Kaperi says.
As we move to our final clearing for morning tea and before the warriors perform their welcome dance and firewalking, we see a warrior bite the skin of a young coconut to clean his teeth before Kaperi masterly carves another young coconut into the shape similar to a mother's breast.
With a sharp pin prick, the "nipple" releases the coconut liquid that appeases a crying baby and nourishes them if a mother's milk is unavailable.
On a parting note, he tells us once again: "Thankyou for coming, for helping us preserve our culture."
With Kaperi and his daughter Alida as village "ambassadors", no doubt their small slice of paradise will play host to an ever-growing United Nations of visitors.