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Tanna Island, Vanuatu

arrival
The dance party was five months in the making. M.S. Paul Gauguin had just dropped anchor off the black-sand beach of Tanna island, Vanuatu. From the ship’s deck, we saw only uninterrupted green blanketing the volcanic hillsides, and the colorful specks of villagers readying for our arrival. Then tenders ferried the 300-some passengers ashore where the welcome committee far outnumbered the welcomees. The introductory songs came with grass necklaces and hugs. Then the ceremonial rump-shaking began.

women
About halfway through the first number, a guest felt inspired. Now, alongside the lead dancer clad in feathers and face paint, she twirls her skirts and plays to the audience. Within minutes, another dozen women from the cruise ship join her.

girls Behind me, the giggling grows louder. The locals had constructed bamboo seating surrounding the dirt stage, and I sit nearest the children. They hug in behind us, and scale the hillside using the vines as railings. It’s a full house.

And the kids can’t get enough of the action. When the dancer squats low, flaring his legs, the women do the same. The kids, shy and sweet, laugh harder. Ours was the first cruise ship ever to land on their beach. Ever. The chief’s wife, Margaret, told me earlier that morning that her great grandfather had prophesized that something wonderful would one day happen here. They’d waited years. Then five months ago, they learned a ship—our ship—was coming. They began stitching together costumes and building the bamboo seats, showers and stalls to offer beer and soft drinks. Those from nearby islands and villages slept here for months to help provide manpower.

They all believe our arrival is that great thing foretold.

There’s a joy felt by both sides of this coming together. It’s what makes these women from the ship comfortable getting down to the drumbeat. It’s a vigor in the handshakes. There’s such a genuine warmth to it all. After the music stops, and the sun begins to set, and those from the nearby villages start on the two-hour trek home, we stand on the beach, our feet deep in the coarse sand. Then the tenders scoop us up, carrying us over dark blue swells. All the while our eyes stay fixed on the island and the people waving back at us until the black curtain of night falls.

—Brooke Morton