Magic Island (part 1)

2014 marks the 10th anniversary of this article.  Versions of it appeared in the New York Daily News and other publications.  It chronicles an experience that changed my life.

In Vanuatu, a string of islands in the South Pacific, the natives all live a secret life.

At Le Meridien resort, a fit young Melanesian man in a grass skirt and headdress opens the door of your taxi with a warm smile, but he is not what he seems.  Neither is the husky Melanesian bartender at Breakas Resort, where you swim up to the bar and order a Margarita while gazing at a stunning beach.  Nor the slender Melanesian who drives you three hours over dirt roads and through primitive villages to the active volcano of Mount Yasur; here, nobody is what they seem.

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The people of Vanuatu, men and women with dark faces who settled this island chain beginning in 1400 B.C., are called ni-Vanuatus, meaning literally, “people of Vanuatu.”  Beginning in 1603, Westerners arrived and brought the typical onslaught of civilization, including technology, written language, and most importantly, a logical and pragmatic philosophy of life.  But throughout the centuries, the ni-Vanuatu have resisted.

Today, nearly all ni-Vanuatu believe in a world in which magic, real magic, is a literal fact of life.  On Ambrym Island, they will tell you, there are magic men who can fly, transfigure into animals, and walk around invisibly.   Dead spirits reside in banyan trees, which can be seen beside every highway, and which are illegal to cut down without the clearance of a magic man.  And if you don’t watch out, practitioners of black magic will cast a curse on you, and the results can be serious, even fatal.

The banyan tree, where magic is said to reside.

The banyan tree, where spirits are said to reside.

During my trip to Vanuatu, I was toting around the third Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and midsentence realized, to my sudden delight, that ni-Vanuatu believe with all literalness in the world outlined by J.K. Rowling, a book that delights Westerners, but only as an imaginative childhood fantasy.

I was inexorably drawn to this magical land, being a professional mage.

But how would the ni-Vanuatu react to my own magic?


I had heard of the American soldier who was stationed on Vanuatu during WWII, and to whom they had later named a religion: the John Frum cult, named after the sergeant’s own name, “John from America.”  I had heard how some ni-Vanuatu now worship John Frum every Friday night, praying for his return as an evangelical Christian might pray for the return of Christ in the clouds.

But I had also heard of the Christian missionaries who had been eaten by the ni-Vanuatu in the 1800s, and of documented cannibalism on the islands as recent as 1987.


A ni-Vanuatu holding a human skull.

I wondered if, after seeing me pull a coin from a ni-Vanuatu ear, the villagers would throw me in a pot or start a David Frum religion.

Strangely, I was not afraid.

[Read part 2 here.]

16 thoughts on “Magic Island (part 1)

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