I am in the back of a pick-up truck with eight other people. We are sitting on wooden benches and getting bounced around like yo-yo’s. The road is all roots and mud… if you don’t own a truck in Tanna, you’re walking. I see a lot of people walking, they pop out of the bush like ghosts as we pass, their machetes glistening. I smell rotten eggs, body odor, and new earth forming. I hear drum-bells and hushed laughter and pigs, so many pigs. Oink oink oink. I see Huts. Villages. Fires. Volcanic jungle- prehistoric, futuristic, and lush looking. I see ferns. Flowers. Bongo trees- each root it’s own wooden realm that we could live in. I see the ever-evolving cloud of smoke lingering above the volcano.

I am a cloud, a cloud in water, a floating world. You’ll never know me, only a reflection of me, which is an illusion. Even if you asked me a million questions, even if you tried hard and paid attention, all you’d know for certain is but a drip or a drop of my ocean. I mean really darling, that’s all we could ever know of anybody anyway because we, like the cloud of this volcano, are ever-evolving. You and I, forever ever ever evolving.

Hells bells, we are here or there or somewhere close to the volcano. The truck has stopped. The earth is a black fine silt that falls through the fingers like sand dust. Dust. Dust. There are Tiki god faces carved into all the palm tree stumps. There is a building. I walk in. On display there are silver metal suits and gloves that people wear so they can get close to the volcano without burning. That seems impossible, like superhuman manic magic.

The name of the volcano on Tanna is Mount Yasur. People call it the lighthouse of the Pacific. It’s been active for about 800 years and has 500 daily eruptions that eject bombs and ash and sulphur dioxide fumes. A cute Vanuatuan man – I think everyone is cute right now- with a round face and small hands, stands in front of all the tourists and says, “The volcanic bombs can go 120 meters per second with a thousand degrees of heat.” If one hits me I imagine I’ll turn into a meteorite or a wizard or a diamond and you’ll catch me sparkling in some future time zone that is light years from now.

The cute man is finished scaring us with his facts. We hike up and up and up and it’s a heartbeat of a climb. It gets windier and redder as we go. I am barefoot…. always. At the top I can see straight into the belly of this earth. I see a fire burning and that fire runs deep. The crater is a blazing hot magma mama. She’s a living, breathing, cosmic thing. Majestic as she blows and bonafide. There is nothing dull about her.

Bam, bam, boom. Bang. She’s exploding. Gushing. Roaring. Firing. Flaming. Popping. Red embers fly up towards me in flooded sparks, it’s as if someone popped a firework right into my face. The bangs bang on and beneath them are low frequency rumbles. The volcano goddess is a wild mess. She seems possessed, or pissed, or like she has a belly ache, or perhaps she has just been kissed and this is her excitement.

My hair is dancing around my head like snakes as I watch her blow. My eyes unblinking. I feel like I’m in Outer Space. The man next to me is afraid to get too close, there is nothing but a few sticks with flags on them separating us from her lava hole. I feel like the volcano wants me to get closer and I want that too. I want to get closer and look deeper into her fire, but I could fall in. I wonder how many people have tripped and fallin in, or been pushed in, or jumped in? I wonder how much new earth is forming right now beneath my feet? Is this island growing fatter as I speak?

The people of Tanna believe the volcano is a portal to another secret world and that spirits of the dead emerge out of her fire, and take over human bodies. Prince Philip or “the man belong Mrs. queen” is one of the bodies believed to have been taken over by a Tanna Volcano spirit and he was worshiped by some on this island. I can believe that this volcano is home to the dead. I see crimson spirits emerging right now.

I think the volcano is a violent mystery like you and me. I don’t think even the volcano spirits, or the people in the silver metal space suits, or the tribes of Tanna could know more than an exploding red drip or drop of her.


I am swimming in the sea along the cliffs with seven people. The sun is behind the clouds and the water on our skin makes us shiver. Every time we see steam blowing out the cliffs, we stop and sit on the rocks and the lava-warmed volcano water mixes with the sea and heats up our bodies.

Sometimes the water comes out in a trickle and we need more of it’s heat. Other times it fireballs out of the cliffs and it’s too hot and before we can move we get burned. A guy named Guido, who is Italian and has a hoop earring in each ear like a real pirate, looses the top layer of skin on his upper arm from the mountain lava water. And one of my butt cheeks gets a surprise blast of too much firewater and now it looks sunburned.

We swim like this along the waters edge, getting close to the heat and pulling away from it, until we reach a beach filled with warm water pools. We lay in them. I ask a little girl in a pink dress with a machete in her hand where the hottest pool is. She walks. I follow. She stands on a rock and points to a puddle. I step into it, anxious for the heat. Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit. It feels like I’ve stuck my foot straight into a bonfire. This sea is boiling. I scream and scream and the girl in the pink dress stares and stares and it’s all I can do to get out of that pool. The skin on the top of my toes is gone and they look as red and weird as hot dogs. The little girl in the pink dress must think I’m a white fool.

I find out that the puddle that hot dogged me is where the villagers do their cooking and now all the cruisers are doing their laundry in it too. I’ll never touch that pool again, no matter how dirty my clothes get.

We wander into a village above the beach, it’s so remote that the babies cry to see our white faces. One of the swimmers says, “Can you imagine growing up here, it’s like growing up on another planet.” It’s true. This entire island looks like another planet, a red planet, like Mars. This is life on Mars.

We spend the afternoon surfing the pass. The break is called Canoes. I don’t know who named it that, some ancient surf explorer, I suppose. Because of all the canoes fishing in this bay, I suppose.


I’m going to the big city. It’s a long off-road ride past the jungle, through a black volcano ash desert, and over volcano warm rivers, until you reach pavement. I drift along and I feel like a mushroom spore in the back of the truck, landing and flying and landing and decomposing.

There are a lot of local man in the truck with me. One of them has a homemade slingshot for killing birds. One of them is a current chief. One of them is a future chief and he’s the most luscious to look at. I ask the future chief about the wedding rituals on Tanna. He tells me that throughout a man’s life there are three major rituals; the circumcision ceremony, the shaving ceremony, and the marriage ceremony. He says l marriage happens as early as the age of 20. He says if a man loves a woman he must have kava with the family and tell them so. Then he must build a vegetable garden and fatten up a pig. He will give two pigs or a cow in exchange for the bride. The garden is for he and his bride to live on. He says, “In your country, you go to the store to get vegetables, here, we go to the garden.” He says, “In your country, you exchange rings, here the bride and groom exchange white chicken feathers and wear them on their heads.” He says they bake a cake and cut it into pieces and the husband feeds his wife a piece and the wife feeds her husband a piece. I tell him that part is the same in my country.

I ask the future chief about the man-hating dugong in Port Resolution bay. He says that dugong is gone, a swordfish killed it.

We pass a town called Blackman. It’s a place where white people can’t do business and everything is locally owned.

Now we are in the main city, Lenakel. It feels like a big village. Butcher shops. Juice shops. Concrete shops, straw hut shops. We pass a red truck with the silver words “baby” written across the entire windshield. We pass a group of twenty men building a house. I scream “Hey Bay-bay” and they go crazy screaming back at me.

I go to an ATM. It tells me to “enter your secret number.” I like that. I wish all ATMs said that. My secret number is always the same, it involves a lot of 7s.


It’s 5 PM on a Friday, which is the day that people worship John Frum- he’s that mythological WW II hero I was telling you about. There are two cargo cult villages on Tanna that pray to Frum and believe doing so will bring an abundance of American treasures like cars and radios. I’m in the back of a truck bumping my way towards the main Frum village.

I get there and wait inside of the spiritual hut. It’s totally dark. The clouds are drizzling. People are shadowing around. There is a woven straw mat on the ground. That’s all I can see for certain. Sometimes somebody bangs a wooden drum. The men are all pounding cups of kava in some hut somewhere and the women aren’t allowed to go.

I meet a local gal. She is gorgeous, wearing a blue floral dress with a baby over her shoulder and FaceTiming her husband who is in New Zealand. She takes me to the toilet which is a rank smelling hut draped in colorful fabrics. It’s across a river and up a hill. I ask her about John Frum. She tells me her granddaddy is a Baptist minister and that she married into the Frum village and had to let her Christianity go. She is the wife of the chiefs youngest son. She doesn’t know exactly what they believe or why they think Frum is a God, but she sings along while they play “John Frum.”

While we wait for the men to get juiced up on kava she takes me to the meetinghouse. It’s a locked concrete building where they keep the sacred Frum items like American flags, bamboo batons, and American military clothing. There is a mural inside the building. It shows Frum coming out of a secret portal on the backside of the volcano. Supposedly Frum used the portal to travel back and forth to America and has been to the White House plenty of times.

The lady tells me that every morning they hoist the American flag up a flag pole and every evening they take it down. She says on May 15th and July 4th, the men in the village dress up like American soldiers and march around with their bamboo batons. This is the strangest religion I’ve ever come to know.

We go back down to the spiritual hut. Somebody bangs the wooden drum one last time, then fifteen young men with guitars, surrounded by singing children flood into it. Most of them are wearing Bob Marley shirts and sarongs. The youngest guitar player is five and when he sings his mouth gets as big as his head and his whole body shakes.

The people sing a few songs while standing, then sit in a circle on the straw mat and sing some more, and more people come and they clap along and sing, and they sing and clap and sing and clap and sing, song after song and it’s the most mesmerizing music. Between songs everyone tunes their guitars and even the sound of that is a dope cloud. I feel like I’m floating. Like the angel of John Frum is returning in his military uniform and is about to carry us all away through the volcano portal and into the White House where we’ll all be gifted with a brand new Cadillac.

I only stay for about an hour. The road is bad and the night is black, I have to make my way back. My lady friend in the village tells me that they will sing like this until sunrise and many people will go into a trance. I wish I could stay here until the 4th of July.

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5 Replies to “LIFE ON MARS”

  1. Super interesting day. Americans consumed with acquiring things — the “shopping experience” has become a goddess . . . it almost seems a disease. It should surprise no one that Cargo Cults are our legacy in remote Melanesia. Would love to see some flics of this adventure.

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