This is part 5 of the article, “Magic Island.” Part 4 can be seen here.
A flight to Tanna is a flight away from all modern security concerns. We boarded a 10-seater plane, without any kind of X-ray screening, and one of us sat next to the pilot. If he’d had a box cutter, we would’ve all been dead. Once we landed, the Tanna International Airport was no larger than a steakhouse. There were no customs agents of any kind. And once we hopped into the shuttle bus, we discovered that the road from the airport to the accommodations was unpaved.
The next afternoon, a group of us hopped into a Toyota Land Cruiser and made for the volcano. I sat in front with the slender ni-Vanuatu driver named Belden, who said he was 26, although ni-Vanuatu rarely keep track of their birthdays, and often simply guess at their age.
First, we rumbled across bumpy dirt roads through the Whitegrass Plains, past wild horses, boars, and goats. Later, we reached Middle Bush, still on dirt roads, passing village after village of thatched-roof buildings, natives carrying bows and arrows, black children in old donated clothes running up to the truck and waving happily at the Caucasians, kids stopping their soccer game to wave and yell at the Caucasians, all these black faces and white smiles and bugs and dust and no electricity and no signs, virtually no signs anywhere. When it rains, this place must turn into one big muddy mess.
As we passed through village after village, Belden told me his life story. Belden, it turns out, studied at a university in Tonga and received his A.A. in South Pacific History before the scholarship money from his tribe ran out. Upon his return, Belden was set up in an arranged marriage, which is the custom in Vanuatu, but he surprised everyone by refusing it, insisting on marrying a girl whom he truly loved in a neighboring village.
After much dispute and negotiation, Belden was allowed to make his own choice, but there was a price to pay for taking a woman from the neighboring village: The couple must eventually return a woman to that village. Thus, when their 4-year-old daughter Marsala becomes old enough—perhaps 10—they must give her up.
“Won’t that be difficult?” I asked.
“Yes, it will,” Belden said with some emotion from behind his steering wheel. “But it is for the good of the village.”
I thought about asking Belden about magic, but it was a sensitive subject, since the people in his village are churchgoing Christians. Indeed, the island is teeming with missionaries from various denominations, all seeking to convert the pagans to their own faith. The island boasts Seventh-Day Adventists, Foursquares, Mormons, Baptists, you name it.
After 2 ½ hours on dirt roads, it was getting on toward dusk. Suddenly, from nowhere, we mounted a grey, ash-covered plain that stretched out like a Tranquility Base moonscape. Belden sped across the plain for a few minutes, and then suddenly, the volcano rose up in front of us.
Mount Yasur is a study in blacks, whites, and greys, a huge smoking mountain wherein dwell the spirits. We crossed a stream next to a stunning waterfall, and then sped up the back road through the thick, overgrown rainforest, heading for the top.
It was 5:30 when we finally reached the crater’s edge, and darkness had just fallen like a hammer, no lights anywhere, just the black, black night. Belden parked the car and handed each of us a flashlight, and we wended our way up the last 150 yards of switchbacks in the dark.
A dull red glow in the sky. That’s what Commander James Cook saw from his ship in August, 1774, and what originally caused him to veer toward Tanna. When Captain Cook started to scale the volcano, however, the natives stopped him: The spirits inhabit the volcano, he was told, and climbing it was tabu.
But times have changed. As we climbed the switchbacks, we began to smell the sulphur, and when we reached the top, we began walking through a thin veil of sulphurous smoke. You feel and hear the volcano before you see it—the frightening hiss of flowing lava, the gentle ground tremors, the heat that you can feel if you squat down and lay your palm on the ashy ground. If you believe in such things, you can feel the presence of the spirits.
When you finally peer over the crater’s edge, the colors are unexpected, modulating in fiery hues. Occasionally, lava splashes high in the air like a Roman candle. The scene is hypnotic, and it beckons you to stare and stare.
“Do you come here often?” I asked Belden.
“Yes,” he said.
“How many times?”
“Maybe one hundred?” he said.
Finally, it seemed appropriate to ask about the magic. Belden was not taken aback by the question, and answered forthrightly.
“Once, I see man blong magik plant mango seed,” Belden said, “and all in ten minutes, it sprouts, it grows—how you say?—grows buds, it bores fruit, and the fruit falls from the tree.”
It sounded like a trick that I saw John Gaughan perform at the Magic Castle. Still, he had performed it onstage, with the benefit of 19th-century European technology.
“I also see a man blong magik cracked open a coconut and poured juice over there,” Belden said, pointing to his left, “and it disappear in the air. It appear again over there”—pointing to his right now—“in the air, and pour in the mouth of another man blong magik.”
I could imagine how this trick could be pulled off, but the stage could not be examined afterward. Belden told me of other befuddling magic, too.
I wondered about Belden’s stories, I must admit, as I had wondered five years ago about acupuncture. I had seen Western doctors laugh at acupuncture, and I must admit that I ridiculed it, as well. Three years ago, however, acupuncture rehabilitated my own badly injured shoulder and saved my mother from a severe arthritis that Western doctors were unable to ameliorate. I wondered, as I had earlier wondered about acupuncture, whether Western civilization had simply forgotten these arcane, illogical, and yet magical ways.
When Belden had finished his stories, I asked him whether the church approved of his beliefs.
The tiniest smile crept onto Belden’s lips.
“I do not tell them,” he said. “But I know it happen, because I seen it.”
With the red light of the volcano playing on his black face, I could see that his eyes were full of conviction.
(Part 6 can be seen here.)