The White Man’s Proof (part 8 of Magic Island)

This is part 8 of the article, “Magic Island.”  Read part 7 here.

Back in Port Vila, I took a cruise with Peter Whitelaw, owner of Sailaway Cruises, to Havannah Harbor, the other side of the island.  Peter is an Australian who sailed into Port Vila in 1980.  A cyclone suddenly hit and his boat was destroyed.  He’s remained in Vanuatu ever since, becoming one of those craggy but happy-go-lucky expatriates that you read about in Hemingway novels.  When I told him of my interest in magic, Peter gave me a warning.

“This is a very secretive society,” Peter said.  “Like an onion, you must peel it back in layers.”

The banyan tree, where magic is said to reside.

The banyan tree, where magic is said to reside.

And then Peter told me about black magic.  Whenever anyone dies at a young age or gets sick unexpectedly, Peter says, the ni-Vanuatu assume that someone cast a curse on that person.  In fact, he said, there is currently someone on trial on Espiritu Santo for killing three people by black magic.

When I researched the court case in the local newspaper, The Post, I was puzzled that the Vanuatu legal system was taking such claims of black magic seriously.  Then I discovered the most mysterious aspects of all: The man has confessed.  Why would a man confess to killing three people if he hadn’t?

In other Post articles, I discovered other surprising cases.  In one, a black magic group cast a spell on a teenage girl by hanging a black cat over a fire and chanting her name.  Later, they killed her.  Then, to cover up the crime, one of the group transfigured into the form of his sister “from the waist up,” and he successfully took his sister’s place for two days.  The legal system, astoundingly, is allowing such claims to be presented as fact in court.

This is truly a magical land, in which the realm of what is believed possible is far greater than what James Randi and the Skeptics Society might believe.  However, the Western mind does tend to reduce everything to explanations.  In my final days in Vanuatu, I was increasingly aware that most of my eyewitness accounts of magic came from ni-Vanuatu, people who are predisposed to magical rather than skeptical explanations.  Is a Western eyewitness more reliable than a ni-Vanuatu eyewitness?

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That’s when I heard Peter Whitelaw’s story.  Peter is a white man, an Aussie with a B.S. in electrical engineering, and thinks deeply about all things, whether cultural, political, or scientific.  A couple years ago, one of his ni-Vanuatu boatmates told him that he was being dogged by a curse that had been placed on him.  Peter was skeptical, of course.

But then one day, the mate was eating in the galley when his plate split into pieces in front of them all for no reason.  The shards and food all fell to the floor.

“This happens all the time,” said the ni-Vanuatu man with a besieged look on his face.

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A ni-Vanuatu fixing food in the traditional way.

When we perform magic in the Western world, standing onstage with our magic wands, most people consider what we do “just tricks.”  But there is a whole world out there, hundreds of millions of indigenous peoples, perhaps billions, who believe that the world is more than just the concrete and the verifiable.  They are willing to place magicians on the same pedestal upon which stood the ancient gods.

They believe that ghosts and spirits are all around us.  They believe that magicians can perform feats beyond all imagining.  They believe that the world is, like the waterfall at the base of Mount Yasur, evanescent and malleable and wondrously surprising, that it is, in a word, magic.

And who am I to disagree?

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(This is the end of this series.)

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A Moment to Be Afraid (part 7 of Magic Island)

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.

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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.

Roll2014Taking 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.

Roll2015Then 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.

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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.”

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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.

Roll2018“But do you believe that some of it is, for example, the work of Satan?”

“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.)

Chief Tom’s Magic (part 6 of Magic Island)

This is part 6 of “Magic Island.”  Part 5 can be read here.

The following evening, a group of us sat down with Chief Tom Numake of the Evergreen Village.  We were sitting in the velvety semidark on the terrace at Whitegrass, the waves of the broad, black coastline lapping somewhere in front of us.

Sunset as seen by the Evergreen Tribe

Sunset as seen by the Evergreen Tribe

Chief Tom is an important man on Tanna, a member of the Council of Chiefs, which has significant power in running the country of Vanuatu.  He carries himself with great authority, and takes himself quite seriously.  For three hours, while we sipped Australian wine in the candlelight, Chief Tom went into great detail about kastom, which is pidgin for “custom,” meaning the old, indigenous, pre-white-man ways.

Eventually, I asked him about magic.

“A magic man can turn into a dog, squirrel, flying fox,” Chief Tom said in a firm, authoritative tone.  “If he doesn’t like another man, he can wait till the man go fishing, then turn into a shark and eat the man.  A magic man can turn into a cat and climb in a window, and if you touch this cat, you will die.”

I had just read a passage in Azkaban about men turning into, alternately, a rat and a wolf, shapeshifting creatures that J.K. Rowling refers to as animagi.

“And devils are real,” Chief Tom continued.  “When you come across a devil, your ears become long like a cow’s ears, your hair becomes colder, and you start shaking.

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“I know the magic men on Ambrym, and they can fly from island to island—bam—in two seconds.  And you can go flying with him.  You hold on his pants and close the eyes.  You hear singing and then you start flying.  You fly straight—straight through buildings and mountains and whatever stands in your way.

“But if you open your eyes, you get stuck inside the mountain or the building or  whatever.  I know this is true.”

“That would be great,” I said with a grin, but then I caught myself, hoping Chief Tom wouldn’t take my grin as sarcasm.

“If I had known before that you wanted to fly, I would have arranged for you to fly,” Chief Tom said with not a trace of humor.

Chief Tom went into great detail about magic men, devils, flying, and curses.  Then he described what magic men use to communicate instead of telephones.

“They use marigolds,” Chief Tom said.  “They talk into a flower on Tanna and somebody in Ambrym can hear them.  In fact, we can use these marigolds to talk to people in the United States.  Have you ever seen someone in the United States with a flower behind their ear?  Well, that’s the talking flower.”

(Part 7 can be read here.)

Into the Wild (part 5 of Magic Island)

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.

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The Tanna security checkpoint

The Tanna airport

The Tanna airport

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.

Belden, my driver

Belden, my driver, who doesn’t look 26 years old to me.

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.

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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.

Yasur Volcano on Tanna

Yasur Volcano on Tanna

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.)

The Many Definitions of Intelligence (part 4 of Magic Island)

This is part 4 of the article, “Magic Island.”  Part 3 can be read here.

Ni-Vanuatu, I must confess, remind me of children.

More specifically, their reactions reminded me of 3- to 7-year-old Western children.  Kids of that age are old enough to understand magic but aren’t old enough to become cynical about our ability to genuinely conjure.  Many children of that age believe in magic as they believe in Santa Claus, with all their heart.  They are mesmerized by it, can’t get enough of it.

Once, a 6-year-old asked me how I did a trick, and I gave her the standard line: “I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you.”  She looked up at me.

“Okay,” she said in a tone that sadly consented to death in exchange for something much more valuable.

The ni-Vanuatu—and all indigenous people, actually—have some of the same childlike wonder: Their eyes go wide.  They look at each other to make sure their friends have registered the miracle, as well, their eyes saying: Did you see that?  And in those eyes, there is also an alternating current: excitement, then trepidation; excitement, then trepidation.

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I pondered long and hard about what the ni-Vanuatu reactions meant.  Are indigenous peoples stupid?  Are they inferior?  Was I simply shooting fish in a barrel?

Then a fellow traveler showed me a copy of Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond (Vintage, 1998), which is one long compare-and-contrast essay between indigenous peoples and the Western technological tribe to which we belong.  He suggests, to my great surprise, that indigenous tribes may actually be more intelligent than Westerners, starting with the people with which he’s most familiar, New Guineans.

The indigenous people of New Guinea are, on average, “more intelligent, more alert, more expressive, and more interested in things and people around them than the average European or American is.  At some tasks that one might reasonably suppose to reflect aspects of brain function…they appear considerably more adept than Westerners.  Of course, New Guineans tend to perform poorly at tasks that Westerners have been trained to perform since childhood and that New Guineans have not.

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“Hence, when unschooled New Guineans from remote villages visit towns, they look stupid to Westerners.  Conversely, I am constantly aware of how stupid I look to New Guineans when I’m with them in the jungle, displaying my incompetence at simple tasks (such as following a jungle trail or erecting a shelter)….”

Diamond gives two “obvious reasons” why indigenous peoples may be more intelligent than Westerners.  The first is that throughout the last several thousand years, the major cause of death in densely populated Western societies has been disease, which kills everyone, including the most intelligent, with near equanimity.  During the same period, the major cause of death among indigenous tribes has been war, which tends to kill off the most aggressive people and spare the thoughtful and intellectual ones.

The second reason is the influence in the West of endless television watching during childhood and beyond.

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“…Traditional New Guinea children have virtually no such opportunities for passive entertainment and instead spend almost all of their waking hours actively doing something, such as talking or playing….Almost all studies of childhood development emphasize the role of childhood stimulation and activity in promoting mental development, and stress the irreversible mental stunting associated with reduced childhood stimulation.”

Upon reflection, Diamond’s arguments gave me a new perspective not only on my indigenous audiences, but unexpectedly, on all my magic audiences.  Magic is not so much an intelligence test, as audiences often frustratingly assume it is when they cannot figure out a trick.  Instead, it is an indicator of the way in which a spectator has been taught to think.

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Did a spectator have an uncle who taught him some secrets?  Was he raised in an affluent household in Beverly Hills, for example, and see magicians twenty times a year at the birthday parties of his friends?  Did his rich parents buy him every trick that he ever craved from Houdini’s Magic Shop?

Or did a spectator receive no prior insight into deception or sleight of hand at all, and therefore approach magic as a tabula rasa?  In light of Diamond’s observations, such preknowledge, or lack thereof, seems much more relevant to the successful execution of tricks than intelligence.

In addition, one’s attitude toward magic seems crucial, as well.  If a spectator was raised to believe that magic is absolutely real, as ni-Vanuatu are, then they are more apt to accept a trick at face value rather than question it.  If, on the other hand, he is raised to believe that there is a rational explanation for everything, as Western children are, then he will continually ask, “How do you do that?  What’s the trick?  Come on, come on, tell me, tell meeeee….”

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Rather than making me feel like a god, like David Frum, my successful performances for ni-Vanuatu instead just made me think more deeply about what I do.  I thought about my astonished American audiences, some of whom can be seen here, here, and here.  I thought about the wide spectrum of reactions that my magic engenders.

But still, I craved to explore the subject more deeply.  Port Vila was the capital town, and I was eager to see what lay in store for me on one of the more remote islands.

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Tanna, I had heard, was brimming with magic and mystery.  There are 28,000 people on Tanna, most of whom are villagers who live in thatched huts in the jungle, without benefit of electricity or indoor plumbing, without a Western education, without television, radio, or mass media of any sort.  None of them have ever heard of The Masked Magician.  Many Tannans believe with all their hearts, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that magic happens every day, all the time.  It was no wonder that TV’s “Survivor” reality series chose this country for the site of its Fall, 2004 episodes.

So when the opportunity arose to visit Tanna, I leapt at the chance.

[Part 5 can be read here.]

Picking Money Out of the Air (part 3 of Magic Island)

This is part 3 of the article, “Magic Island.”  Read part 2 here.

Collecting stories about Vanuatu’s magic was one thing; performing my own magic was something I had to creep up on.

Early on, Don Macquoid arranged a performance date for me at The Waterfront Restaurant for Tuesday evening.  He contacted the newspaper, as well.

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The next day, while standing at the hotel registration counter, I performed a coin trick for a pretty ni-Vanuatu girl.  A crowd gathered, including all the counter staff, several bellboys, and a couple security guards.  After the coin work, I graduated to borrowing some silverware and bending a few of those with my mind.

I waited for them to throw me in a pot.  Instead, they just gathered around, eyes wide open, astonished as no Westerner over the age of 11 can be astonished.

“I’ll be playing at the Waterfront on Tuesday,” I said.

“We’ll be there,” one of them said.

“Can you tell me if my baby will be a boy?” one young woman asked.

I placed my hand on her belly for a minute, pondered, and then answered: “Yes, a boy.”

Later, I performed on the street, true to my street beginnings, in the open market to a crowd of 100 poor, uneducated ni-Vanuatu.  They did not throw me in a pot, either.  Over the next few days, I performed to strangers all over Port Vila—in restaurants, in retail shops, even on public sidewalks.

By Tuesday evening, word had gotten around and there was a huge crowd gathered at The Waterfront, a mixture of expatriates, ni-Vanuatu, and tourists who just happened to be in the restaurant.  With a microphone hanging around my neck, I went through my whole comic stage show.  Two months later, Macquoid later told me, his customers were still talking about it.

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I performed several tricks, the centerpiece of the show being The Silence of the Lemons, which can be seen in another context here.  Most Westerners enjoy this show, but ultimately conclude that it must have been just an elaborate trick that is simply impenetrable to them.  It seriously bothers some people, especially engineers, egotists, and bona fide geniuses, all of whom stake their entire identities on being able to figure things out.  These types come up to me days after my performance, their eyes red and fatigued.

“I’ve been staying up nights thinking about your tricks, dammit,” one husky egotist said.

But Westerners rarely go to the place where they believe—actually truly believe—that I can magically penetrate an uncut lemon with their own bill: It is just a sublime puzzle.

The ni-Vanuatu, however, are different.  After this show, as well-earned sweat was rolling down my neck and I was walking among the audience and shaking hands, I saw a different expression on the faces of the ni-Vanuatu in the audience.  One ni-Vanuatu stopped me and asked me to teach him a trick.

“It’s that trick where you….” and then he started laughing as he thought about it, his middle-aged eyes crinkling, “…that trick where you…” and once again, he devolved into laughter, “…where you pick the vatus [Vanuatu coins] out of the air.

It was the trick that I had performed at the hotel registration desk.  This man had seen an immediate application to the trick: He, too, wanted to pick coins out of the air.  To him, it was real.  I was a rich white man, and that’s how I became rich.

[Read part 4 here.]