A Mythic South Pacific

On Tanna, in Vanuatu, the height of civilization is a resort with electricity and showers -- but that's not the point

THE Pacific elicits odd reactions from those who choose to explore its faraway places. There are the malcontents who retreat into lives of remote tropical squalor. There are the yachties who planned to spend a year, perhaps two, sailing the South Seas, and inexplicably find themselves ten years later still at anchor in some blue lagoon, awaiting favorable winds that will take them not very far. There are seekers of converts or love or adventure who discover only that they can no longer reside in the continental world. Island fever and other, more corporeal illnesses drive the less-committed elsewhere; those who remain discover that the Pacific is the last great place to disappear.

That is not what my wife, Sylvia, and I had in mind when we arrived in Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, in the southwest Pacific. We had lived for two years in Kiribati, the Pacific's most unchanging nation, where time remains stuck somewhere between thatch and tin. We were leaving that world, returning to the hubris of modernity, and needed an interlude. We thought that on this holiday we would want a little luxury, something to eat besides fish, and the cosmopolitan air offered by Port Vila. Instead we discovered -- after a couple of days of refined nothingness, during which we reacquainted ourselves with hot water, gin and tonics, and restaurants -- that it was the raw Pacific we yearned for as a last, splendid destination. We wanted, it turned out, to disappear again for a while. And so we sought guidance from our friends in Port Vila, who all pointed in the same direction. Soon we were boarding a Twin Otter and departing for Tanna, an hour's flight south. Here we found one of the Pacific's most intriguing islands, with a vibrant natural beauty and a remarkable culture scarcely touched by the world outside.

Vanuatu was known as the New Hebrides until 1980, when it achieved independence from Britain and France, which had jointly governed it in a peculiar condominium arrangement. The country consists of more than eighty islands, which range south toward New Caledonia and north almost to the Solomon Islands. To the east is Fiji, and to the west -- a long way west -- is the Great Barrier Reef and the nearest continent. In this Melanesian country English, French, and Bislama, the local pidgin, are the dominant languages, but more than a hundred indigenous languages also remain. Not only the vast ocean inhibits communication but also the rugged terrain of the islands themselves, born from the fury of the Pacific Ring of Fire.

Tanna is a young island, approximately a million years old, and perhaps this explains why it appears temperamental, even moody. There are mountains on Tanna, some rising above 3,000 feet, with long, verdant ridges. A path, generously called a road, rises and crests these mountains, and to follow its serpentine route is to understand why on this island alone at least seven distinct indigenous languages are still spoken. Tanna (which means "earth") is segmented by geography and nature. Where mountains do not impede progress, the rain forest does; each pocket, each clearing where a village of thatch huts stands secure under -- and even in -- the majestic tentacles of a banyan tree, exists disconnected from all but its nearest neighbors.

CAPTAIN Cook was the first Westerner to alight on Tanna. He arrived on his second Pacific voyage, in 1774, aboard the H.M.S. Resolution, determined to seek out the source of strange flares he had spotted in the night sky. He was greeted by the islanders in the fashion that seemed to typify most of his first encounters -- with a tense blend of curiosity and hostility. He was not a god on Tanna. More likely, Cook and his men were regarded as ghosts, spirits returning from where the dead reside -- a hypothesis that would explain why islanders were keen both not to offend him and to see him on his way. Before leaving, though, one of Cook's men, pointing to the ground, asked an islander what this place was called. "Tanna" was the reply. Fortunately, our welcome was considerably warmer than that extended to Captain Cook. Of course, we didn't announce our arrival with cannon fire. There are perhaps a dozen places for visitors to stay on Tanna, mostly simple guesthouses providing food and shelter and little else. We divided our week there between two accommodations, at opposite ends of the island. The difficulty of traveling on the roads and the varied flavors offered by different corners of the island dictated our plans. At the eastern end of Tanna is the Port Resolution Yacht Club, a grandiloquently named but simple, earthy place that by both choice and default epitomizes the ecotourism ideal. The guesthouse is village-owned, and guests are made to feel that their welfare is important to the community. From the hibiscus flower that was left each afternoon on our bed to the daily meal consultation, the staff offered a kind professionalism that to our minds outweighed the lack of electricity and flush toilets. But it was the beauty of the setting that we found most striking. We stayed in a traditional dwelling overlooking the small bay that Captain Cook named for his ship. From the half-moon black-sand beach below, our hut was invisible, its walls of pandanus and roof of thatch obscured in the verdant tangle of trees and flowering vines that descend with the hills to meet the sea. On the clear, sky-blue water below us we often saw an islander in a dugout canoe thump his paddle flat against the water's surface, signaling to the resident dugong, or sea cow, until the semi-tame creature appeared, ready to play. The dugong, all 500 pounds of him, is frisky and physical, and swimming with him, as visitors can do, is like wrestling with a nine-foot child who doesn't quite know his own strength.

The guesthouse is also near Mount Yasur, the island's volcano and the source of the flaring night lights that attracted Captain Cook. Across the bay from the guesthouse, steam rises from vents in the hillside in mysterious bursts. On the beach, at low tide, steam rises from shallow pools. Walking there one afternoon, I came across a local family. Two boys scampered around their father while his wife tended the boiling salt water. She was cooking cassava and yams, which bobbed in the tidal pool. I asked the man if people often cooked here. "Oh, yes," he said, and then searched for a word. "Bachelors."

The steam vents are linked to Mount Yasur, which is billed as the world's most accessible live volcano, a description that makes it sound less imposing than it is. Mount Yasur, though it rises only a thousand feet, is a grim and forbidding thing, surrounded by a desolate ash plain that contrasts startlingly with the flamboyantly green landscape elsewhere on Tanna. Standing at the base of Mount Yasur, near Lake Siwi, a large, lifeless pond dotted with uprooted trees carried there by a cyclone, one can inhale the sulfur, listen to the rumbling, watch the crater emit gray ash clouds -- and realize suddenly that although the idea seemed compelling when elsewhere, to continue on up to the rim of the volcano is not an entirely reasonable thing to do. Three people were killed on the rim recently when they approached on a particularly active day.

It is possible to hike to the summit, but it is a better idea to hire a four-wheel-drive vehicle, which most guesthouses can supply, along with the mandatory guide. The volcano is at its most dramatic in darkness -- not a good time to attempt its steep slopes and crevices on foot. Our truck took us to within 400 feet of Mount Yasur's rim. Stepping out of the truck, we followed a narrow trail that led to the summit. Guided by flashlights, we wove around steam vents and boulders, and felt as if we were approaching Mordor. The air was redolent of sulfur and the ground was warm, but it was the noises -- whooshing and venting and blasting -- that made starkly obvious that this was not an inanimate mountain but a portal into the living earth. The volcano, when not exploding, sounds as if it contains an ocean sloshing in a chamber of rock. Earlier a light rain had fallen, and as we crested the rim, we were greeted by swirling steam lit an ethereal red. Small blasts sent lava and molten rock shooting in firecracker arcs just below the rim.

With the dawn we trudged as far as we dared around the crater, careful of the rim, lest we plummet 500 feet to the inferno below. The sun rose, illuminating the blue Pacific and the green hillsides. As we admired the sunrise, the volcano breathed deeply and sent forth an explosion so vehement that we dropped to the ground. Fire-red bursts of magma and rock flew high above the rim, and as our guide had instructed us, we watched to see whether this molten detritus was flying our way. We were exhilarated -- and terrified.

ON other Pacific islands contact between the West and traditional cultures has often created hybrid societies containing the worst of both worlds. Missionaries, traders, planters, colonists, soldiers, tourists, and the international aid community have turned more than a few islands into places where the inhabitants seem adrift -- tethered neither to the modern world of strip malls and stock markets nor to the old one of storytelling and cash-free ways. Tanna, whose people remain unreached by, or dismissive of, modernity's noisy allure, is still its own place. And the village of Yakel, deep in the interior of Tanna, is truly extraordinary.

Yakel is one of several villages on the island to have forsaken modernity entirely. Its people live according to the dictates of kastom, or "the old ways," in which religion, tradition, and the harvest are intertwined. The men wear only nambas, or penis sheaths, and the women grass skirts. Homes are little more than extensions of the forest, with some built among the branches, and others, particularly those used to take shelter from cyclones, created in the hollows between the roots of banyan trees. Pigs are the equivalent of a stock portfolio. To wander through the village is to step back into an age not even dimly remembered by Westerners. Yet the inhabitants of Yakel, the only kastom village to allow visitors, are not unaware of the outside world. The village sells a few handicrafts to visitors, and uses the money to buy axes, knives, and other necessaries. It also permits outsiders to attend traditional ceremonies, such as circumcision rites, for a fee. Mostly, though, Yakel seems to move within its own primeval reverie, according to a clock set by the cycles of weather and tradition.

We happened to visit at a special time, when most of the inhabitants had already departed for the Nekowiar, a three-day bacchanal that occurs but once every three or four years; lesser versions of the ceremony occur more often, usually in September or October. Peace between warring villages lies at the origin of this ceremony, but it has evolved to the point where it seems to encapsulate everything -- fertility, the harvest, kastom, village pride, and the glorification of both pigs and kava, the narcotic mud-water that derives from the roots of the Piper methysticum shrub and leaves imbibers feeling dreamy and content. The Nekowiar occurs when one village invites another to participate. It is both a unifying event and a challenge.

We, too, departed for the Nekowiar, which was being held in a small village high in the forested hills. First, however, we settled into the Tanna Beach Resort, which was closer to the ceremony than the Port Resolution Yacht Club was, and is also the island's most comfortable hotel (electricity, toilets, showers). It was an odd experience: musing over a wine list, reading Yachting magazine while nestled in an Adirondack chair overlooking a boundless ocean, sleeping easy under a quiet ceiling fan in our spacious bungalow, and then departing in the small, dark hours of the morning to ride in the back of a pickup truck until mud left the wheels spinning and sliding. From there we trudged up a steep hill a half mile or so, listening to the chanting, the singing, the energy, that emanated from the village. This was not a kastom village, though the only difference apparent to us was that here people wore clothing made of cloth. No more than a few visitors, in addition to the locals, slogged through the muck in anticipation of what is perhaps Vanuatu's most extraordinary spectacle.

On our first day at the ceremony the village chief greeted us: "You are welcome here. It is still safe." This, of course, left us feeling unsafe. Around us were swirling circles of women, painted and layered with ornaments, singing and dancing with a rapturous intensity as men from another village taunted them on the periphery. The words of each song, the choreography of each dance, were new, as they are for every Nekowiar, and the participants had spent months practicing in secret. The men would dance the following day, and then through the night men and women would dance together -- wildly, with even spectators finding themselves hurled into their midst. On this one night unsanctified couples may retire into the forest and couple without social repercussions. That this night of abandon was not yet upon us made us "still safe."

The high point of the Nekowiar occurs at dawn on the third day, when a dance called the toka is performed. As on the other days, we reached the village streaming with sweat and layered with mud, but of course no one paid us any mind. Everyone eagerly awaited the dance and the feast that would follow, for which nearly 200 pigs would be slaughtered. When we arrived, shortly before dawn, a hundred people were running from one end of the well-trampled festival clearing to the other, calling the male dancers of the toka with a rhythmic cry. Just as dawn came, the dancers emerged from the bush. They all seemed possessed of that mad energy that derives from sleeplessness, and everything seemed charged and beautiful.

BESIDES those on Tanna who subscribe to kastom, there are also some Presbyterians, and in the strange village of Sulphur Bay the John Frum movement, which is often referred to as a cargo cult, finds its epicenter. The John Frum people, who are unique to Tanna, make up nearly a third of the island's population.

In Sulphur Bay the Stars and Stripes flutters improbably, together with the flag of the U.S. Navy and the national flag of Vanuatu, which has been hoisted to appease a sensitive government. When the New Hebrides were granted independence, twenty years ago, not everyone on Tanna was happy about the change, and the island was the site of some violence, though the populace is certainly peaceful now. When we visited Sulphur Bay, the rumbling belches of Mount Yasur, which loomed overhead, could be heard above the thunder of surf. The village, arranged around a grassy square, seemed both tidy and desolate.

Guidebooks tend to characterize the John Frum people as a befuddled group awaiting the return of an enigmatic U.S. soldier who promised to bring them the material benefits of Western civilization. In truth, no more is known about John Frum than is known about Paul Bunyan. Like other Pacific islanders, the people of Tanna were deeply impressed by the flow of materiel into the region during World War II. Then, too, they are Melanesian, and much was made here of sightings of African-American soldiers, who physically resembled the islanders. In most places such experiences would no doubt simply lead to a recognition that the world is big and strange. On Tanna an explanation that would mesh with the islanders' lives was sought for such phenomena as jeeps, planes, and dark-skinned men from distant lands.

As we stood inside a John Frum church and spoke, through a translator, with one of the village elders, we realized that this movement is complicated and fantastic. In essence, the John Frum people have adapted bits of Western civilization to suit themselves. According to the elder (I subsequently tried to confirm what he told me, but the written record on the group is sparse), Jesus was from Tanna and was crucified on a red cross that now stands inside the simple wood-and-thatch church. The cross is only about four feet high and looks suspiciously like the Red Cross on the sides of military ambulances, but I didn't ask about that. Bethlehem is the wooded hillside overlooking the village. The River Jordan is Lake Siwi, beneath Mount Yasur. This knowledge, the elder explained, was lost until missionaries arrived with the Bible, which returned the Tanna people's story to them. African-Americans originated in Tanna, and the black soldiers seen during World War II were part of a secret army fighting for the interests of Tanna. And John Frum? According to the elder, he told people to ignore the missionaries and their prohibitions on dancing and kava drinking, and instead to live their lives according to kastom; if they obeyed, he would return someday, flush with goodies. Awaiting him, underneath the volcano, is an American flag and a people strong in their convictions.

Tanna sometimes feels like a Swiftian dream. The island is a powerful place, befitting its elemental name. The volcano, breathing its fire, is a constant threat, serving to remind us that we are not quite masters of our world. The hills, draped in a green, entangling canopy and rustling with the Pacific breeze, seem both inviting and indifferent. The waves, rolling in on the black-sand beaches, suggest distant storms. Everywhere on Tanna it is possible to feel wonder. And those who live on this peculiar island live in a time of their own making. Tanna is a place nearly disappeared.

J. Maarten Troost has written for The Washington Post and the Prague Post, among other publications.

The Atlantic Monthly; July 2000; A Mythic South Pacific - 00.07; Volume 286, No. 1; page 26-31.