I am six hundred miles east of the Great Barrier Reef in the archipelago
of Vanuatu-or, as they say in Vanuatu, the "ni-Vanuatu"
archipelago -- home to nine active volcanoes. One of these, Mount Yasur on
the southern island of Tanna, is said to be the most easily accessible
live volcano in the world. Anyone can walk right up and peer down into its
fiery belly. A real volcano: fire and brimstone and flying ash.
It is late in the dry season when I get to Tanna with my friend, Michael.
The days are crisp and warm, the nights cool enough to require long pants
and a sweatshirt -- a departure from the perpetual warmth of Ambae, more
famously known as Michener's "Bali Hai," which is the more northerly
island, just shy of the equator, where I have lived and worked for eight
months as a Peace Corps science teacher. We plan to spend three days at
Port Resolution, and then head up to Ienemaha, the village closest to the
crater, where Michael's tenth-grade student, David, lives. David adores
Michael as his teacher and a living soccer maestro, so his family
graciously asked us to be their guests for a couple of days.
We climb onto a flatbed truck near Lenakal, the tiny capital of Tanna,
alongside about a half-dozen Tannese, and jostle and bounce the dirt
road distance across the island to Port Resolution. As teachers and
foreigners, it always feels we are the objects of special attention,
especially from the children. In animated Bislama, the local lingua
franca, they ask about us and are eager to tell stories along the
drive. Mostly, they recite meandering folktales, busting into giggles
at the anthropomorphized exploits of familiar animals and magical
When we drive across the ash flats that flank Mount Yasur, its black cone
smoking above us, our fellow passengers provide details about the
mountain's random acts of carnage: Three years ago, a tourist and her ni-Vanuatu guide were both burned alive near the crater's lip when
gobs of molten lava rained down on them. After that, the ni-Vanuatu
government shut down tourist access to the volcano for two years. With
animated gestures and vivid language, the children describe further
particulars: how half of the guide's body was found, the right side of it
burned away; how the woman, well. had lost her head; how, more recently, a
local village boy befallen by a blob of brimstone lived long enough to be
carried back to his village, his one leg burned away below the knee. He
did not last much longer, lacking access to more advanced medicine than
his village could provide.
I look at Michael with fresh trepidation, and I can see he shares my
Oblivious to our fears, a fine-faced boy brightens up and asks me, "Have
you heard the good news?" I have heard this before from ni-Vanuatu
children; the first time, it stumped me, but I learned that it is always
followed by, "Do you know about Jesus?" I evade the question. "Yes," I
reply with a smile, "I've heard it."
Until the latter years of the nineteenth century, the islanders,
themselves, had never heard the Good News. But when missionaries arrived
to help colonize the islands in the nineteenth century, a veneer of
Christianity spread rapidly over the indigenous animism. And, for the most
part, the ni-Vanuatu still practice a Christianity that seems to
have changed little in a century. To sit on decaying benches in an unlit,
unadorned, square wooden church, surrounded by the steamy breath of vivid
green forest, to hear old Anglican hymns sung in the spontaneous,
nasalized harmonies that characterize the traditional vocal style, one
imagines a fervent, sweating missionary might any moment swagger to the
front of the assembly. But things have changed; Bibles are now printed in
Bislama, and the islanders have made this religion their own.
Still, alongside this ardent devotion to Jesus, the indigenous ideas
persist, still regulating life and social power in communities: In
times of social crisis, people commune with the spirits of the dead;
misfortune and anti-social behavior are attributed to supernatural
forces. Nor is such belief in tabu, magic, and all manner of
spirits seen as being at odds with Christian practice. And while
Jesus's presence is abstract, spirits and demons are manifest around
us, giving context and sense to everyday life, providing limits and
contrast to our humanity.
At Port Resolution Guest House we are shown to our round bungalow.
Spacious, with latticed strips of wood for walls under a thatched roof, it
contains only two beds and a small table. Accustomed as we are to the lack
of electricity and heated water, the bungalow feels luxurious for the
mosquito netting covering the beds. Out front lean two wooden lounge
chairs, overlooking Port Resolution bay, a circular body of placid, azure
seawater, ringed by a mango colored ridge that once demarked a volcanic
Had I just arrived to this place from the United States, I might have
imagined it the most picturesque and serene spot on earth. Paradise.
But I came from Ambae -- likewise a "paradise," surrounded by the clearest
water in the world, water warm as a baby's bath, swarming with vibrantly
colored creatures that harbor and hunt in its offshore reefs -- and I already
know the limits of this metaphor. Already, I had learned to watch out for
cone shells and sea snakes near the beaches, to guard vigilantly against
malaria, and to lock my door at night.
Lounging in the sun, we hear the far away booming of Mount Yasur. But for
the present, we focus on the tranquil beauty of the bay, and wonder about
the resident dugong -- a large, marine mammal, cousin to the manatee -- who is
said to enjoy playing with swimmers. "You notice, the local people don't
get in there to swim," Michael observes one afternoon. "It's only the
tourists who talk about it."
It is true. We have met a dozen tourists at the guesthouse -- French,
Australian, Kiwi, American -- who speak excitedly about their attempts to
flush out the dugong. We watch them swim around the bay in large circles,
in search of the elusive creature. We hear them clap and slap the water,
following the example of their ni-Vanuatu guides, to rouse the old
guy. Still, though the guides happily demonstrate how to "call" the
dugong, they never venture into the water themselves. Children never
wander in above their waistlines. Fishermen stay in their canoes. Only the
tourists swim here, to whose chagrin, the dugong does not appear.
In the guesthouse book, we read of past encounters with the dugong and the
wistful regrets of tourists who missed him. Some have seen him from a
distance or even turned a few delighted circles with him. Others give
warnings explicitly or implicitly couched in their tales: keep your
distance; do not attempt to touch him; get out of the water if he swims
straight toward you. One marine biologist emphasized his point with
capitals: Remember that this is a
large, wild animal. He is not tame. He is not playing with you.
I am increasingly convinced that an encounter with the dugong is not to be
taken lightly, any more so than an encounter with a wild elephant.
Listening to more tourists eager to jump in, I am struck by how blithely
we pass through here, as though this really is a Paradise: a benign and
thrilling place, here to serve our wishes. But the Western dream of a
clean, safe, ordered world is not more well met in Vanuatu than it is in
most of the world.
In the guesthouse we also hear stories from those who have climbed the
volcano. They went up by jeep at night, when the fiery glow is most
stunning. They hiked the last ten minutes to the top and stood around for
a few minutes, waiting for something to happen. But Mount Yasur has been
quiet lately, so there are few tales of spewing lava. One couple says they
laid out their bags and slept overnight a few feet from the crater. When I
ask if they had been scared, imagining clumps of molten rock raining down
on them in their sleep, singeing holes through their bags then their
flesh, as the high-tech, synthetic materials ignite, they laugh
dismissively as though I am naïve: Bad things will not happen to them;
they are Westerners on holiday.
It is our last morning at Port Resolution when a young couple arrives with
a bevy of local men who had promised to show them the dugong. They clap
and slap and out of nowhere a fat, grey body slides into view under the
perfectly transparent skin of the water. He looks about the size of a
rhinoceros. Clearly, the young man considers this opportunity a highlight
of his life, given the gusto with which he dives in behind the creature.
At first the dugong shows little interest in him, so the young man -- an
athletic swimmer -- draws up behind him. But the dugong, at home in his
element, casually evades the swimmer, who laughs and keeps up chase.
Within minutes, however, the game has changed, and it is the dugong
chasing the swimmer. He laughs until the dugong makes contact, ramming him
in the gut and rushing him backwards through the water. When the dugong
moves off, the swimmer appears stunned at his unexpected loss of control,
at the unexpected aggression of the dugong, and he moves back towards the
shore. Before he reaches it, the dugong is upon him again, having circled
round to his front, shoving him forcefully and speedily backwards. The
girlfriend on shore looks frightened. And when the dugong releases him and
he recovers his breath, the boyfriend swims as fast as he can for the
rocks. The dugong comes at him a third time, and the man flails awkwardly,
yelling wildly for help. His girlfriend is at a loss, dropping to her
knees at the water's edge, and his ni-Vanuatu guides, till now
clustered on shore, talking amongst themselves, take notice of their man's
situation and chuckle nervously. No one, though, is ready to jump in, not
even his girlfriend.
I expect the dugong has never killed or seriously injured anyone. He is,
after all, a vegetarian. But he makes a clear point that he is nobody's
pet and no human is in control here. This place is not paradise, for
paradise is a human creation, and this place yet exceeds our human
A fisherman glides by in his outrigger canoe, and the men on shore coax
him to pick up the panicked swimmer. The fisherman complies without
speaking, his eyelids fluttering with annoyance. As soon as it comes
within range, the swimmer grabs the narrow front of the canoe and
desperately tries to pull himself aboard. This capsizes the small craft,
and swimmer, fisherman, morning's catch, and fishing gear are plunged into
the clear brine. The fisherman sighs as the swimmer still scrabbles with
mad futility to mount the upturned hull. By now the dugong has swum off,
and the men ashore are roaring with laughter. I am relieved the man is not
hurt, but I wonder what stories this couple will tell their friends back
Later this same morning, David arrives with his father, sisters, and some
friends. We head on foot across the island to Ienemaha. For two hours we
hike up and down narrow, forested ridges, between stands of ferns thick
and tall as trees. And as we move toward the volcano, we hear more of its
clamor. By the time we reach Ienemaha, we smell sulfur lightly on the
breeze. The muted rumbling of the volcano blends with the rustle of
leaves, the call of birds, and the voices of playing children,
occasionally giving way to a fierce, guttural blast.
As soon as we arrive, the village boys are eager to play soccer with
Michael, and they lead us down to the beach. Michael has carried his
surfboard the entire way, an unshakable habit of his San Diego heritage;
he is on a quest for the right wave in Vanuatu. So far, no luck: At Lamen
Bay on Epi, where he lives, the waters are calm and he had taken to using
his surfboard as a fishing canoe. He ended this practice and purchased a
tiny outrigger when once, his feet dangling over the edge of his
surfboard, he struggled with the monster on the end of his fishing line
and realized he had snagged a small shark. Now he looks at the rolling
surf with relish, though it still is not as high as he prefers.
I converse with the children in Bislama until they became incoherent with
giggles. Then they whisper to each other in their local language, which is
completely opaque to me. Before the missionaries and blackbirders and
colonists came to these islands, before the populations were decimated,
these islands were populated with nearly a million people speaking over a
thousand different languages. The fractionation of languages is attributed
to the rugged terrain and the surprising fact that, in this land of
natural abundance, the traditional cultures were extremely warlike.
Apparently, the combined onslaught of Christianity, blackbirding -- kidnapping
youngsters for the slave trade -- colonization, and population decline
subdued this aspect of their culture, but most of the original languages
have died out. Yet even today, the ni-Vanuatu archipelago is home
to one of the highest ratios of languages to people in the world. Some
170,000 people speak over a hundred surviving languages.
I learn that David's father is a baker. This means that most days he
rises early and mixes up a huge batch of plain, basic bread dough (the
only kind of bread one can get on the islands). He cuts and divides it
among his couple dozen aluminum bread pans, then bakes it in his
homemade oven. As the sun rises, the bread is done, and he stacks some
of it in the back of a hired truck for delivery to a small market; the
rest he sells to his neighbors. In this way, David's family has some
cash flow, which is used to send David to school on faraway Epi, and
to buy the few foreign goods that have become staples of life here,
like the cheap Western clothing -- produced in Chin -- that is now worn
almost everywhere on the islands. The rest of the time, David's father
does what village men do: visit with neighbors and take care of
whatever needs doing in the home and community.
Like nearly all ni-Vanuatu, David's family subsists primarily on
traditional horticulture. The garden plots take a fair amount of tending,
which is women's work, but the gardens are probably smaller than they
traditionally were, since now the table is supplemented with foreign foods
such as rice, tinned beef, and Top Ramen, more cosmopolitan cuisine than
the staples of taro, manioc, yams, plantains, and the enormous variety of
local fruits, vegetables, greens, and seafood. But the most prized food is
the occasional pig or cow that gets slaughtered for special occasions.
In preparation for our morning walk to the foot of the volcano, I steal a
moment to dash fifty meters down the path to the local store for film.
Like most island stores in Vanuatu, this is a square wooden shack with
mostly -- empty shelves built onto the walls. Luckily, this one has a few
boxes of film for the volcano tourists, like me.
After dinner, David's father takes Michael away to drink kava. Michael
does not relish it, but, being a man, it is expected that he should go. As
I settle down with a book and a hurricane lamp, David's mother knocks and
steps in for a chat. She entreats me not to run off by myself again. "I
have two daughters, and there is a whole village full of girls. Just ask
one of them to come with you if you want to go somewhere." She stresses
that they do not want me to get hurt, not to fall, for instance. And then
she reminds me of the devils in the forest.
I have heard this before. On Ambae I am warned often that I should not
leave the village alone, that I should be cautious of ol devil who
inhabit the surrounds. But this is an injunction I routinely ignore; I
walk by myself nearly every day. Still, I have become more hesitant about
it, experiencing that, in this culture, a lone woman is fair prey to any
group of young men who might wish to exert their will over her. Already I
had been chased and grabbed a number of times in various situations,
fortunately, never when I was alone in the forest. Listening to David's
mother's sincere concern, it occurs to me that groups of roguish boys
might be the very "devils" that the women are trying to warn me about.
David's mother also talks about the ancestors who live in the volcano.
They sleep in there most of the time, she says. Sometimes they wake up,
and that is when the real pyrotechnics begin. She cautions me to be quiet
when we ascend the volcano, so as not to disturb ol bubu.
I cannot sleep in the cool night air; after months on Ambae, Tannese
nights are too cold. When Michael returns, we lie awake in the darkness,
listening to the rumbling of the island below and around us. "Are you sure
you want to go up there?" he asks. "It's kind of crazy. We don't have to
go." I am scared, I tell him, but also certain. At his suggestion, we make
a pact: If either one of us gets too scared to go all the way up, for any
reason, at any point, we will both turn around and come back down
The next day the children take us to the ash flats, a wide, treeless
space, a surreal landscape of orange, red, black, and grey, rolling
here and jagged there around the edges. The ash cone called Mount
Yasur peaks sharply above the plane, and to one side a large pond
reflects the bare branches of long dead trees that reach up from its
stillness in supplicant poses. Above us, a steady cloud of light grey
smoke issues from the crater. As the children play soccer with
Michael, I take in what I can, knowing that when we return in the
immaculate darkness of the ni-Vanuatu night, I will see none of
Beneath the stark landscape, the earth rumbles; the volcano's power is
inescapable. It is impossible not to feel small. I watch the children
chasing the ball with Michael, laughing and playing; they look up now and
then, glance at Yasur's smouldering crown. This is a special place,
somewhere close to the beginning of the world, a place where creation and
destruction feel the same.
Fire is like life, disembodied. And a fascination for volcanoes is ancient
and universal among those who live around them. They are touch points with
the divine, the dwelling places of gods and spirits. The goddess Péle of
the Hawai'ian islands, the Roman god Vulcanus of Vulcano, and ol bubu
of Mount Yasur are only a few among them.
After soccer, the children run into the stagnant pool and swim before the
bone white branches of the trees. Perhaps these children already
understand something of death. I sense it is not alien to them, not
separate. These girls and boys will not be blindsided by the apprehension
of their mortality one fine day in mid-life, as we are in the West,
witnessing the death of a parent or friend, feeling our bodies dry up.
Here, life and death surround them; their lives, the life of their whole
community, is poised in between, at the mercy of spirits, magic, and other
mysterious powers. Neither will these children grow up to share our
illusions of safety, of dominion, of control. Every day tells them that
they are only human, small compared to what lies around them, and strength
lies in numbers, in community. In the West, we expect the opposite: that
strength lies in our individuality; that we are at the top of all things.
It is too soon after dinner that we start back to the volcano that
evening. My stomach is overfull with our hosts' generosity. I bring my
flashlight, but one of the older children commandeers it for the walk.
They grew up in these long, black nights, and can see in it far better
than we can. They walk easily in the darkness and flick on the torch only
for a micro-second, if something large is in the path.
Emerging from the forest onto the ash plain, no feature of the landscape
is visible to me in the moonless night. Only Yasur's luminous, amber halo
looms in the sky above us, Venus and Saturn standing as sentinels to each
side. It is alive, a breath of fire from blackness.
We make our way across the rough ground. The ascent starts immediately and
steeply. The children stop us after a few feet, reminding us to be quiet
as we walk; no laughing. And then the way grows steeper, though we follow
a path of sharp switchbacks. We are ascending the "backside" of the
volcano. This is the way the locals go up, not the trucks carrying
tourists. On the other side of the volcano, the truck path goes nearly to
the top. But we have a long climb ahead of us.
Maybe it is twenty-five minutes, but it feels like forever, walking blind
up a sharp incline, beneath us the ash sliding down from our footsteps
into nothingness. The cone is so steep, tipping to one side, I could sit
against it; leaning away from it will send me tumbling to oblivion. But we
do not rest on the ascent. My rugged sandals are a liability in the deep
ash, so I remove them and sink my ankles into its warmth. As we climb
higher, more chunks of dried lava litter our invisible path, and the
hillside heats up beneath my feet; the crust is thinner near the top.
The slope ends abruptly, and we are standing on the crater's flat lip. A
few feet in front of us yawns its cavernous mouth, nearly a perfect
circle. The inner walls are illuminated by the glow of lava somewhere deep
below. We approach the mouth cautiously until the children tell us to
stop. Standing three feet from the edge, I lean over. Anxiously, children
grab each of my hands and lean back. I am contained, held by them.
It is magnificent. Some distance below me -- I cannot say how far down -- a
churning sea of iridescent orange. Above it tiny fairies careen,
shimmer and dance, as though in slow motion, whirling drops of radiant
lava wheel toward us and then fall back to their source. I am looking
back through time, past myself, through the ancestors, and into the
eye of god. I have no sense of safety or danger or self-preservation;
arched over the mouth of the volcano, I stand outside of time.
Yet it is not long enough. Michael interrupts my meditations. "I have a
bad feeling about being here," he says. "Let's go."
For the sake of the promise, I follow him. Our descent is rapid. Following
the children, we slide and skid haphazardly through the loose ash, running
blindly down the cone, like falling. When we hit the flat, we keep moving
without words, swimming through the darkness to the edge of the forest.
And there we sit on a craggy stone, looking back at Yasur's halo.
We are not seated more than a few seconds when the volcano lets out a
momentous boom. Great, glowing whirls of lava explode from its mouth. We
watch them twist skyward, searing light and dark as their surfaces cool
and break open again. The largest of the globs leers leftward and thuds
finally down on the crater's lip, the very spot where only minutes before
we were standing. No one says anything as we watch the lava cool and
darken until it is invisible in the night.
Elation comes over me. Awe. Wonder. I am completely alive within the
bounds of my pressing mortality. Around me, the children share my secret
of life in death. And this binds us, binds all people, I know then.
Michael looks at me somberly. "Good call," I whisper. He nods.