In Search of Real Magic (part 2 of Magic Island)

This is part 2 of the article, “Magic Island,” originally published in the New York Daily News.  Part 1 was published here.

If you want to see Vanuatu, you must first fly into Port Vila on the island of Efate.  It is a bustling town of 36,000, but nothing like a real city.  There is a two-lane main street along the shoreline and a few quaint restaurants and shops.  The streets are populated with black-skinned ni-Vanuatu, Australian tourists, and the expatriate merchant class.

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I immediately set out in search of eyewitnesses to the feats of man blong magik, or magic men.  I asked around everywhere.

At the Botanical Gardens, I talked with Paco Mete.  He is the host of an outdoor museum that gives historical and cultural information about Vanuatu.  Paco is an eloquent young Melanesian man with an airtight mind, and when asked, told of two examples of real magic that he has witnessed firsthand.

“Once,” said Paco, “right here at the gardens, I see man blong magik cut a coconut in two, and then, suddenly, clap the two halves back together, healing it.”

I smiled and nodded, but still, this fell into the realm of trickery, since the magician Michael Ammar regularly performs the same feat with a lemon–as a trick.

The second, however, was more intriguing: During that same ceremony, Paco saw a conch shell grab onto a leaf as if it were a hand.

The incident sounded vaguely hallucinogenic, like the willow tree whose branches try to kill Harry Potter in Azkaban, and so my mind immediately went to kava, the local drink.  However, I had to be careful with such suspicions, because virtually every feat of magic can be discounted by labeling it a kava dream, and that would render all magic false before even examining it.

Paco recounted more chilling feats, as well.  Sometimes, Paco said, magicians have been known to sneak into people’s homes in the middle of the night and perform secret surgery.  The victims wake up the next morning and walk around as if nothing is wrong.  A couple days later, however, they drop dead.  If an autopsy is performed, the doctor finds that his guts are filled with nothing but leaves.

Another feat requires the magic man to boil a black cat live.  He then places one of the cat’s bones in his mouth.  Then he can walk around invisibly, like Harry Potter donning his invisibility cloak.

Everywhere I went, people encouraged me to drink kava (piper methysticum)People see strange things when drinking kava, although it’s not a hallucinogen; in fact, it’s legal to purchase even in the virulently anti-drug atmosphere of the United States.

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The kava plant

When I checked with my acupuncturist back home, I discovered that technically, kava is a euphoric and a soporific, which means that it “makes people feel mildly euphoric and then sleepy,” according to Laraine Crampton, L.Ac., one of the authors of Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology (AOM Press 2003, $90), with a private practice in Santa Monica, California.

Kava begins as a local leaf that young virgins prepare by chewing it into a mush.  They spit it out, water is added, and it is filtered through coconut fibers into a final product.  Kava bars abound on the islands.  After drinking kava from a half-coconut shell, you can see and even talk with the dead spirits, according to local lore.  First, your mouth becomes numb.  If you turn away from other people and stare into the distance, the spirits appear to you.  Within minutes, all of the questions that bother you will be answered, they say.

“As with any euphoric, it may open you up beyond your normal boundaries,” Crampton said to my surprise.  “If, by the term magic, you mean being in touch with other realms, then I wouldn’t rule out magic.”

In my search around Port Vila, I stumbled on Don MacQuoid, who runs The Waterfront Bar & Grill.  He’s actually quite a knowledgeable magician, having grown up in Southern California and studied in the ‘70s under the legendary magician Jules Lenier, who passed away several years ago.  MacQuoid claims to own nearly every magic instructional video and DVD in existence, and performs lots of great tricks for a visiting American.

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Macquoid is a real find.  He was an early investor in Apple and cashed out with a fortune.  He bought a yacht and cruised the world with his wife for a couple years.  He landed here six years ago, buying the Waterfront after fifteen years of sailing around the world with his lovely wife Donna.  From time to time, he invites prominent magicians to perform at the Waterfront.

After one particularly strong performance, the ni-Vanuatu employees were convinced of the magician’s genuine powers.  That night, a young boy fell sick in their village, and the next day, the employees refused to go to work, blaming the magician’s black magic.

“I had to bring in a village klever,” MacQuoid says.  “I paid her $60, and her job was to walk around the restaurant and discover the source of the curse on the young boy.  Finally, she found three black stones in a planter that she said were to blame.  She replaced them with three white stones, and suddenly, everything was right with the world again.”

Sometimes, Macquoid has put the ni-Vanuatu’s own beliefs to good use.  One of his ni-Vanuatu employees, for example, injured his arm.  It healed, but the employee didn’t heal psychologically, refusing to use the arm for everyday tasks.

One day, Macquoid decided to take matters into his own hands.  He ordered the employee to sit down and close his eyes, and then loaded some fake blood into his arm under a layer of rubber cement.  He took out Harry Anderson’s trick, “Knife Through Arm,” and began “cutting into” the employee’s arm.

“Open your eyes,” Macquoid said.

When the employee did, he was stunned, his eyes wide with alarm.  Macquoid rocked the blade back and forth, the blood running down his forearm.

“Those are the evil spirits,” Macquoid said.  “They’re leaving your body.”

Belief is a powerful thing.  Today, the employee’s arm is as good as new.

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From books, I happened upon other magical stories.  The Lonely Planet Vanuatu guidebook says that magic is especially strong around volcanos, for example, and that there are nine active volcanos in Vanuatu, two underwater.  Magic is believed to be strongest on Ambrym and Epi, remote islands that the travel agents warn me not to visit.  There are barely even accommodations on that island, they say.

One of Vanuatu's volcanos

One of Vanuatu’s volcanos

If you meet a magician, the book says, he may not even shake your hand, since magicians feel themselves superior.  (In my experience, the same thing is true in the States.  Or maybe it’s something in my approach….)

One intriguing eyewitness account comes from Isles of Illusion, a book by an anonymous author who’s identified only as Asterisk.  He was a colonial Englishman who was stationed on the islands in the late 19th century, and wrote back to his brother in England about his experiences in letters that were never meant to be published, but which one of his descendants deemed fascinating enough to put into print in 1913.

Asterisk didn’t believe in the ni-Vanuatu’s magic, so when a native told him that he was being pursued by a demon, Asterisk was skeptical.  But then one night, he saw the native being dragged through the jungle by no one, by an invisible person.  It may be historical, but it is an eyewitness account, nonetheless.

[To read part 3, click here.]

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