This is part 7 of the article, “Magic Island.” Read part 6 here.
The next day, we toured Iwner, a kastom village. There, for an admission price, they show tourists the old ways. It is a fascinating tour. A ni-Vanuatu guide with a bare chest showed us around and described what life is like in this primitive village in the jungle.
Over 85% of the vegetation around us is used for food, medicine, shelter, or in other ways, he told us. A woman in a grass skirt gave us each shredded coconut wrapped in some kind of leaf, and although we hesitated, we finally ate it so as not to offend.
After the 40-minute tour, in a large clearing in front of a huge banyan tree, where the dead spirits reside, over 300 villagers in grass skirts and painted faces began performing a tribal dance. When asked, I joined in, trying to mimic what they did, although I was always a second or two behind. Over 300 people were stomping the dirt with their feet—one, two, three!—and you could feel the tremors in the ground. They were asking the gods to bless the yam harvest, and the dust rose up in response.
Finally, when the dance was over, Belden asked the chief whether I could perform a show for the villagers, and he consented. The entire tribe gathered around me, everyone from elders to fit young men to teenage girls to little children.
This was the moment to be afraid. I was surrounded by black faces in war paint, people who believe in the old ways, people who dance to please the gods. And I didn’t have J.K. Rowling writing the script to ensure a happy ending.
Taking a deep breath, I performed the sponge balls, the trick that always seems most like real magic. After each magical moment, there was an audible “Ohhhh!” as 300 people expressed their astonishment at the same time. A few superstitious elderly Iwners laid back with a conflicted, suspicious look on their faces, like maybe I’m the real thing, like maybe I’m going to put a curse on them, like maybe I’m a devil who’s come to make their ears long like cow’s ears and slaughter them all.
Then I performed some rope magic, a vanishing trick, and finally, a feat of magic that tends to freak out even skeptical Americans. They loved it all. Once again, I saw the familiar alternating current of excitement, then trepidation, excitement, then trepidation.
When it was all over, I walked toward the Land Cruiser, and every ni-Vanuatu’s eyes were on me, and I felt what Copperfield must feel when walking down Park Avenue. As we were driving away from Iwner, once again over bumpy dirt roads, heading back to our bungalows, Belden finally spoke.
“These people have not seen such a thing before,” said Belden. His eyes betrayed some deep emotion, perhaps awe or, perhaps, gratefulness. “You have shown them a very great thing.”
At Tanna International Airport, waiting in a crowd of ni-Vanuatu for the plane that will take me back to Port Vila, I saw a Mormon missionary, dressed in the familiar white shirt and tie, and short blond hair. I struck up a conversation, and discovered he was from Utah.
“What do you think about the magic here in Vanuatu?” I asked. “Is it real?”
“Most of it is just superstition and tricks,” he said.
“What do you mean, ‘most of it’?” I asked.
But he waltzed around my question, talking about kava, about sleight of hand, about naïve audiences.
“I believe,” he said, looking me straight in the eye, “that Satan’s power is real, and that if you look for Satan, you will find him.”
I wondered, chatting amiably with this young man from the Utah technology tribe, how much difference there really was between his beliefs and those of the ni-Vanuatu.
(The final installment, part 8, can be read here.)