My life has been a volcanic jungle orchestra since I last wrote. It’s been a wild ride and there is much to tell. I must break it down into notes made of days and you can read it in pieces and parts at your leisure.
I am weighing anchor off of Espiritu Santo. Juniper is jerking around like a loon. I look down. I can see, clear as day, that my anchor is indeed right on top of the shipwreck. Bless it all! When I set my anchor there were three women fishing in a wooden canoe right over the wreck and not a one of them said a peep about it, though they did hold up the fish they caught for me to see.
I get the anchor off the wreck the help of a neighbor who steers my boat ahead as I crank. I motor 2 nautical miles to a tiny island with moorings and put Juniper on one.
I ride a banana boat to a plane to another plane. Get this, Vanuatu is so safe that there is no security at the airport! I land on Tanna, the island with the active volcano. The island I first sailed into. The island that I need more of because life there is an untamed weird dreamscape. It’s like another planet that’s all rugged and rich in music and magic ancient ways and I want to soak all of it up. There are fairies here too and tiny trickster beings that live in banyan trees and at night the mushrooms in the forests glow green and blue.
The sun is an hour from setting. I go see the volcano again. There are some locals at the top wearing sarongs with crocodiles and santa faces on them. I love the look. It’s chaotic up here with wicked sideways gale force winds. If I had wings I could fly. I take a step away from the edge each time the sky blows, afraid I’ll fall in. The wind makes the volcano smoke and the scene is all psychedelic- fuchsia and purple spewing out of the volcano hole.
I sleep in a village across the black ash road from the volcano entrance. All night I can see the volcano glow and hear it’s thundering ocean. The earth shakes beneath me in rumbles and tumbles.
I walk to a village where the women are grass-skirted and bare-breasted. I pass a lot of treehouses along the way- everybody in this neck of the woods has a treehouse. The village is set deep in a forest past a river and up a hill. This world is all fluorescent green. I am greeted with a flower necklace. The woman who puts it on me has paint on her face and she takes her face and presses it against mine- forehead to forehead, nose to nose, cheek to cheek, until my face is painted blue and pink and mirroring hers. They village dances for me making rhythm with their feet and bags woven with leaves.
I walk away with a small sculpture made of volcanic ash. It’s head has a long tongue sticking out of it’s mouth. The women tell me it represents their chief. I guess he has the gift of gab.
It’s noon, with great difficulty I am dragging my suitcase down the black ash road in search of a treehouse to sleep in. Life in all the villages is rustic. Most don’t have running water and inside is no different from outside. The treehouse I have found myself in has some roaches in it. The woman helping me put the bed together says in a sing-song voice, “So cockroaches don’t bite.” Something feels really off about this place, but the owner has promised to make all my Tanna dreams come true so I stay.
It’s night and there is no moon and a man named Chief Nadang is driving me to the John Frum cult village because it’s Friday, their holy day. The chief is old and he wears a baseball cap that says “ROCK” in fuzzy yellow letters. I call him Chief Naughty.
The wind is really moving and there are ash storms flying across the John Frum village. I feel like I’m being shaken up inside of a snow globe made of black dust. All of us are covered in it, our faces blending more into the night. There are flowers hanging up inside the holy hut and one light blinks on and off. I notice a beautiful hard-wooded heart-shaped handmade guitar among all the store bought ones, of which there are many.
The music is as good as ever. And the vibe is all Rasta. Men are playing strings upon strings upon strings and women clapping and voices both male and female mingling. Three women do a marching soldier dance outside of the holy hut. Chief Naughty, whose not even from this village, is bouncing around to the grove of it all, recording the songs on his phone.
These songs and dances are done in hopes that one day they will get a Chevrolet or a radio, or a refrigerator, or some other appliance of abundance from America. I am told that John Frum was a real person, not a mythological being. I am told that he predicted many future things. I am told he’s from Vanuatu, then I’m told he’s from France, then America… in the end I don’t know his origin. I am told that he has an identical twin that’s a fake human who doesn’t eat food. Who is Frum? A powerful being from who knows where, that is worshiped like God and has the ability to enter a porthole in the volcano to go back and forth between the White House and Vanuatu.
It’s my birthday. I go to a wedding in Chief Naughty’s village. People are walking down the road wearing painted faces and feathers and grass skits. The bride and her female relatives have there heads wrapped in sparkly purple heart tinsel like that that you see on a Christmas tree. They look like they’re headed to some music festival in California where everyone is rolling on ecstasy. The men are carrying live pigs on sticks and the pigs are squealing to be saved.
The families of the bride and groom assemble near a male banyan tree. There are male banyans and female banyans and all the banyan trees have names and spirits living inside. You build a house with the female banyans and you make sacred ceremonies around the male banyans. “Men the roots. Women the flowers.”
The families of each tribe make a pile of gifts to exchange- kava, bright colorful fabric, bananas. Then pigs and cows are brought out and slaughtered in front of us. I am sitting on a patch of grass with the women and children from the groom’s family. There is a kid with a cat going, “pussy, pussy, pussy.” I can’t watch the murder, I make the same noises anyone makes when they witness something horrific. The women next to me laugh. I explain that I’m a vegetarian, “I only eat the fruit and the root.”
The bride and groom exchange feathers. The bride is 26 and crying. At first I think she is scared to consummate the marriage and I ask an auntie if this is so. She laughs and says, “Oh no, they already have two boys. She is crying because she has to leave her family.”
On Tanna when a woman marries a man she has to move to his village and in exchange one of the groom’s sisters moves to the brides village. “You take a daughter, you give a daughter back.” If the groom doesn’t have a sister then the couples first born daughter has to go to the bride’s village. And if the couple doesn’t have a daughter I am told “they better have a lot of cows and pigs to give to her village.” There is no dancing or singing or kissing at this wedding, but people are eating cooked taro and beef off of folded leaves.
Afterwards Chief Naughty drives me to Port Resolution Bay. I want to see a gal there about some mud. Two teenage boys from the village go with me. Chief Naughty tells us to be back on the main road in one hour.
We meet the mud gal and she takes us up a mountain. The earth stones are hot from the steam of the volcano. We get to a spot that’s all muddy. She takes a stick and digs it here and there into the ground. She pulls it out, it’s covered in different colors – purple, blue, white, grey, red. She paints my face and says, “My ancestors used to climb this mountain and use this mud to paint their faces before ceremonies.” I paint her face back. She wants to show me how we can cook food in the volcanic thermal pools, but two more boys from Chief Naughty’s truck have just arrived saying it’s time to go.
Me and the four boys hike back to the main road. It takes us I don’t know how long.
By the time we get there, Chief Naughty and his truck are gone- we’re left high and dry. The sun is setting and it’s a two hour hike through the jungle to get home. Me and the kids are tired and pissed, but we suck it up and hoof it. I’m barefoot, always, and I have an infection on my right big toe. We sing songs and dance as we watch the pink sun set all whimsical through the trees. The kids tell me they want to be pilots so they can travel. They want to go to America. I tell them they live in the best place on earth because they have enough land to grow all their own food and there are no guns. They say, “Yea there are guns and n****** in America.” I tell them that’s a bad word. They continue, “In Tanna we can walk home at any time of night and it’s safe. And we have relatives all over Vanuatu, so we always have a free place to stay on every island.” I say, “Yea it’s not like that in America.”
The kids show me a green bug that looks like a leaf. I love it. We stop in one village to beg some of their relatives for a ride home but it’s Saturday and that village is Seven Day Adventist’s so nobody is budging. I’m walking like a flamingo in total darkness and we’re almost home when a truck stops to give us a lift. The man whose place I’m staying at is in that truck. He blames me for Chief Naughty leaving us as he tosses a live pig in the back of the truck and I don’t know that the pig is a pig until it moves and I scream. He laughs.
I’m bummed about being left behind. I move to another treehouse just behind the roach one. All of the treehouses in Tanna are owned by a mafia of brothers that are not united- they all talk trash about the other. This new treehouse is the best one I’ve seen yet. It’s built inside a massive banyan tree whose branches bleed into the house. It has two beds that smell like roses and the family that owns it uses bird calls to find each other on their massive property. It feels right. Like home. I tell the wife of the treehouse owner that it’s my birthday. She bakes me a blue cake and sings for me. I cry over her hospitality. So sweet. This woman. This place. Splendid.
This is when I realize that it’s best to quit trying to squeeze myself into the wrong spaces. If it feels wrong it’s wrong. And sometimes the right thing I’ve been dreaming for is just right around the corner.
I get trapped in the treehouse. The door won’t open. I am trying to find a window to crawl out of that won’t kill me while screaming for help. The woman who baked the cake comes running. She says, “Olivia are you ok? You’re screaming so loud I thought you were my nanny goat!” I’m terrified of getting trapped in any space.
I am now in a bungalow by the sea in the town of White Grass and it is flooded with black and white butterflies. The people here say that the volcano people are strange…. “The fire of the volcano controls you so you so you don’t feel happy. The people from that side come here looking crazed and a lot of them have lost their heart.”
I go octopus hunting with some village kids. The crackle of coral sings beneath us. One of them is wearing a Star Wars t-shirt another has hoop earrings with a cross dangling down. There are many more kids with lots of bright little fish in plastic water bottles that have been cut off on the top. A four year old girl is sitting on a rock gutting her fish. Someone finds an octopus. They let me watch it for a long while before taking it home to eat it.
I haven’t showered in I don’t know how long and I find a hot shower in White Grass. I stay in it forever, I stay in it until my entire body is pruned, I stay in it until the hot water runs cold.
I go to the village that worships Prince Phillip. They show me some traditional dances and the photos that they have of the Prince. They tell me that a Tanna spirit lives inside of him. There is a man with a leaf crown wrapped around his head. He looks like an ancient God. Dreamy and all. A woman weaves a bra for me out of pandenus leaves but the bra is too small.
I run into a car full of cops. I ask if there is any crime on Tanna. They say, “Rarely, there’s only been one murder in six years and it was a black magic murder.” Meaning a wizard like man used magic to kill someone without any weapons beyond darkness and spells.
I ride a banana boat up to the northern side of the island. I jump out and swim into a crack in the cliff that opens up into a cave. Inside there is a blue hole and the water is the color of a pool. There is an opening at the top of the cave pouring sunlight through. It’s all so beautiful.
I am in the mountains of White Grass. I will sleep in this village. My hut has a tin roof. Inside the windows are draped in tie-dyed cloth with turtles on them and there is the largest painting of Jesus I’ve ever seen on the wall. A man in the village shows me how they use bamboo to circumcise the boys and the medicinal leaf that they use to heal the wounds. They ball up the leaf until it turns black, then place on a fire, once heated they take the leaf and squeeze it’s black juice onto the boys. I have the dude put some of the black leaf juice on my foot wound. I can feel my heartbeat in it. You know a wound is bad when you can feel your heartbeat in it.
This village has love leaves too. When you want to marry someone the chief spits on two leaves, recites a prayer, and puts the leaves together in his hands to bind the love. If the love is not meant to be the leaves won’t stick together.
That night I eat food cooked on an open fire- rice and veggies, and I watch the dogs chase the chickens, and I dance with some women in the village. One of them is watching a TV show about mermaids. She’s 36 years old. I tell her I live on the sea. She asks me if mermaids are real. I laugh and say, “No!” I don’t know why I say that. I want to take it back. Mermaids are real. I just killed some magic somewhere.
It’s raining hard and I love the sound of it in the tin roof even though it’s leaking. The air is chill. Cow meat is hanging from branches. There are pigs fenced into a hole in a tree. Over coffee I ask the man who owns the hut I slept in how he makes his money- he has a lot of TVs and a truck, essentially he has everything the John Frum folks are singing for. The man tells me he owns many cows and cows are worth a lot of money.
The rain stops and every bit looks greener after the rain. There will be a wedding. Women are painting their faces for it. A grandpa is cutting his grandsons hair. Grandmothers are weaving leaves to wear over their grass skirts. I want to stay and see it all, but I have to go to the airport.
There is something wrong with our plane. We have to wait for a twin otter. A small cargo plane lands. I ask for a lift. The pilot says the plane is full and points to a Vanuatu man and his friend. I ask the pilot how much a seat costs. He says, “$2,500 USD.” Then he tells me that the Vanuatu man getting on it takes the plane once a week. I look at the Vanuatu man and say, “Wow! How many cows do you own?” Everybody laughs.
I make it to Vila on the twin otter. But there is no plane going back to Santo. Air Vanuatu puts me in the same hotel that the French President is staying in. There is a big festival happening in Vila to celebrate the countries independence from France and they invited the French President!
I wander around the Melanesian Culture and Arts Festival. I watch traditional bands and custom dancing from New Caledonia and Vanuatu and Fiji. It’s all eye-opening.
Most of the show I sit next to this older woman who hoots and bounces around each time a Fijian man dances. She tells me she loves their “rugby bodies.” I make her my friend and we run around from venue to venue together. At some point everyone gets up in the audience and flows down into a field to dance together. I cry because it’s such a loving thing to witness. I can’t even handle how awesome this all is. I’m looking at it all like I’m new to earth.
A man on a loud speaker saying, “Black is beautiful!” Yes it is! Then he says “Stall number 6 is now open for kava. Calling all kava drinkers. It’s good juice.”
My favorite dancers from Vanuatu are the northern Malekula ladies. They are covered from head to toe in purple grass. I can’t even see their eyes. They look like purple witches and their chief dresses like a gangster- lots of thick silver chains and an over-sized t-shirt. I expect him to get on a microphone and start laying down some raps at any moment.
The airlines moved me to another resort called Iririki. It’s on an island. There is still no plane to take me back to Juniper. I don’t know when there will be one. It’s ok because this place feels like a funky summer camp and it’s weathered and these walls have stories and I like stories.
Anyway here I am writing to you while laying on the bed like old car parts laying on the grass. Sometimes that’s all I want, is to just be in parts laying on the grass among the bugs. Remember when we were young alive little blobs and the only thing that mattered were the bugs on the grass and we would collect them in jars and watch them exist for days on end? I miss that. I miss you. I love you.