We’ve now moved to the southernmost major island in the Vanuatu chain – the beautiful island of Tanna. Tanna is still a very traditional place, with most people still living a self sustaining lifestyle – growing their own food, making their homes from traditional materials (see pics), and living a clan based lifestyle. We stayed in simple bungalows made mostly of traditional and local materials (“Friendly Bungalows”), and run by local villages on a beautiful beach just east of the Yasur volcano (see below). Tanna is what one imagines when one thinks of a tropical paradise. Though their life is simple by Western standards, the Tannese we met are a contented people. Food is easy to grow in the rich volcanic soil, and there’s plenty of time most days to enjoy kava (see future post) with family and clan members. Homes are built along traditional Melanesian lines – walls and mat floors of split and beautifully woven cane, with roofs of pandanus (a palm like tree) thatch. The Tannese are always quick to smile and greet and you can safely walk anywhere through beautiful forests and gardens, with spectacular vistas of black sand beaches and the azure South Pacific (pictures below).
We came to enjoying the beauty of the place and learn more about the culture: Jane took an amazing traditional foods cooking class – hot stone steaming with no metal pots or cooking instruments, with the fire being lit by a traditional wood friction method in just a few minutes. One of our other objectives was to visit the Yasur volcano, which has been erupting continuously for hundreds, and possibly thousands of years. In 1776 and on his second Voyage Of Discovery, Captain Cook sighted the glowing caldera of Yasur far out at sea and thus the was one of the first Europeans to visit Tanna where they anchored, watered and replenished at what is now known as Resolution Bay (named after his ship).
The Yasur Volcano
As mentioned in previous posts, our travels in the South Pacific have taken us along parts of the “ring of fire” surrounding the Pacific. From the main island of New Guinea and onto to New Britan in the Bismarck Archipelago, rarely were out of sight of active volcanoes, they being created by the subduction of the Australian Plate under the Pacific. A bit of background: Volcanoes come in two basic types: shield and strata. Shield volcanoes are basically mountainsides from which fissures typicall pour forth liquid lava like the famous Kilauea volcano on the Big Island of Hawai’i. Strata are the classic mountains with bowl shaped caldera flinging out molten rock chunks which, building up over millennia, creating their cone-like shape. Yasur is a caldera of the “Strombolian” type, meaning it acts like what the Romans called “the lighthouse of the Mediterranean”, the Stromboli volcano, which has been in a continuous state of low level eruption for millennia (Yasur probably has been too). At just over a thousand feet tall, there is arguably no active strata volcano in the world which you can approach so closely and easily as Yasur. Dominating the landscape, it continuously spews forth a cloud of steam and sulphur gasses, hissing, even roaring at times, and making the earth tremble. But it is at night that Yasur becomes the living, breathing embodiment of “awesome” in its truest sense. An hour’s 4WD drive with Donald (our Tannese guide) across the volcanic cinder plain and another twenty minutes walk up the cone to the caldera edge at dusk delivered us to what I can confidently say is the most awesome natural spectacle I have ever experienced. As dusk ended and night began, we stood on the lip of the caldera (no guard rails or warning signs – you need a guide) just a few hundred yards from Yasur’s twin magma chambers, the liquid rock glowing fluorescent red. Every few minutes a smaller blast of volcanic gasses spattered glowing, semi-liquid rock onto the caldera walls, and every half an hour or so Yasur reminded us why the Tannese used their word for “the gods” in naming it. A tremendous explosion – a multiple of the most powerful thunderclap – ejected blobs of lava, some the size of a refrigerator or even bigger, hundreds of feet into the air, all this going on not miles, but just hundreds of yards from us. “Loud” does not do this experience justice. You could actually see a sonic boom-like pressure wave travel across the caldera and you felt it in your chest when it passed. At times, the breeze wafted a hint of the caldera heat and enveloped us in a sulphurous fog. Humbling. Scary at times. Yes, “awesome”….to be in awe…in the truest sense of the word. This barely begins to describe the experience. And all this is just what seismologists call “Category One” for Yasur. I asked Donald, who has lived his entire life at Yasur’s foot, what Categories Two, Three and Four are like. “Category two – where we parked the truck (a half mile away), the lava is falling there. Category Three, we must evacuate the village. Category Four, the lava falls in the forest and sets it on fire.” Every day is the 4th of July on Tanna.
The Jon Frum Movement On Tanna
One of my goals in traveling through Melanesia in areas where during the Pacific War the fighting took on a scale and ferocity arguably unequaled in human history, was to get the point of view of the locals, the indigenous peoples (and ex-pats) of Melanesia about the War, many of whom were directly involved in providing the vast amounts of manpower required (to both sides): building and supplying the hundreds of airstrips, ports, roads, bridges and military installations over the vast Central and South Pacific. Now is a critical time, for much of this history is oral and those who still remember first-hand are growing old or are already gone. As described in an earlier post (from Alotau in southeast Papua New Guinea, below), for many Melanesians – those inhabiting those archipelagoes of Fiji, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, New Guinea and other places – the Pacific War was tantamount to someone from our Western Society being visited by aliens from outer space. For these people, then living a near stone-age existence, airplanes, enormous metal ships that made deafening noises and explosions, bombs, food wrapped in metal, big men with yellow hair, blue eyes and pale skin that turned red in the sun – all of this was an overwhelming experience. As one can imagine, they had a thousand questions, but tantamount was: “Why are you here?” And just as the Melanesians were becoming accustomed to all this, the war ended, and the white (and black) American fighting men went away. Why? Perhaps they, the Melanesians, were not performing their work properly? Did they offend the Americans? I had questions as well. We noticed that wherever we went in Melanesia and we told a local person we were from America, their face usually lit up and a broad smile crossed their face. They wanted to shake your hand and tell us: “Amerika numbawan!” Why this love of Americans? We’d bombed and bulldozed some of their lands into a lunar landscape during the War, polluted their beaches and reefs, brought death and destruction wherever our troops went and left an appalling toxic, explosive mess behind. I’d heard of the “Cargo Cults” – quasi-religious movements that prophesized the return of the big ships and all the “cargo”, said movements having emerged semi-independently across Melanesia. The Cargo Cults are what one might consider to be a natural outcome of the extraordinary experience they went through during the Pacific War, and particularly the mysterious abandonment of so much cargo by the Americans at its end (see previous post on “Million Dollar Point”). Why would they leave all these things behind if they did not intend to return? Why did they push their cargo into the sea?
This brings me to the John Frum Movement on Tanna. I’d read of it but wanted to hear about it first-hand from those living it, those who choose to live in John Frum villages on Tanna. I approached Donald, our guide up Yasur, with my interest/request. Donald advised that, yes, there was a John Frum village not too far away at the far edge of their clan/linguistic group (more than twenty languages are spoken on Tanna). We flagged down a clan member on our way back to Yasur the next day. He said he would pass on the word of my request, than an American had come to learn of the John Frum Movement and wished to visit. Permission was granted and the next day we set out on the hour and a half walk to the village which lay at the base of the Yasur volcano. With me I brought a traditional Melanesian greeting gift – a bundle of kava root (see future post on the integral role the drinking of kava plays in the South Pacific). Jane tagged along as far as the Yasur cinder plain (John Frum practices are a male, elder thing on Tanna). As we walked thru villages, people invariably looked up and smiled, and not just because Donald their kinsman was with us. These people live a relaxed, slower paced lifestyle which we’ve largely forgotten in the West as we perpetually quest for more and more “stuff”. Meanwhile Yasur smoked, hissed and rumbled in the distance. As we approached the village, we ran into several men working in their gardens along the path. One happily went ahead and advised we were approaching. Upon reaching the village, we took a seat under a tree at the edge of the village square, a leveled area being used at that moment by dozens of children of all ages in what appeared to be a spirited and energetic game of tag. The village was completely traditional. There was no electricity and little sign at all of anything “modern” at all (part of the John Frum Movement tradition – to live “Kastom”), save one small concrete block building set on a hillside nearby. In front of that building were three flags. The national flag of Vanuatu flew on one pole, flanked by an American flag, with another American flag attached to the front of the building. A short time later, Chief Isaac greeted us along with Steven, a village elder fluent in English. We made our way to the flag decorated building on the hill, which turned out to be their temple for the John Frum Movement. Upon entering, the first thing I noticed was a huge American flag draping the ceiling of the entire room. On the wall were various items associated with the Pacific War including a canvas carrying case for a Thompson submachine gun. We all sat crosslegged on woven floormat:
Chief Isaac (through Steven): “I can understand you, but I don’t speak much English. Steven will help me. Why are you here, Bryan?”
Bryan: “My wife and I have come to Tanna to enjoy your beautiful island. Thank you for hosting us. I am also interested in history. I am interested in the Pacific War. My uncle served here with the American Marine Corps. He visited Port Vila and the American base on Santo on several occasions. He fought the Japanese. I have read the American and the Japanese accounts of the Pacific War, but I wanted to hear from the local people, the people like you that live here. I wanted to hear your story. I wanted to hear about the John Frum Movement.”
Isaac, who was quite old (I did not ask his age) contemplated me for a few moments, then motioned to one of the temple walls, on which was the bright red and yellow flag of the American Marine Corps. On a table in front of it was a bayonet and a walkie talkie.
Isaac and Steven: “Before the war, we had Christian missionaries that visited Tanna. They said the old ways were no good. They said we had to stop drinking kava. They said we must become Christians. Some of us refused. The Christians did not like this and told the British and French government. They came and took some of our elders away to prison. They took them to Port Villa (the capital on the island of Efate). John Frum came to them and told of a great people in a land called America, and that Americans would come someday and free them. And the Americans would bring much cargo. The Americans came. Two thousand men from Tanna went to work for the Americans during the War. American soldiers said the Japanese were coming for us. They said that they took New Guinea and the Solomon’s. They said that we were next, but that America would stop them. Many Americans died. America saved us. Now we wait for John Frum to return. A great door will open on the side of the Yasur volcano and John Frum will come back to us through it. He will take us to the next level and the cargo will come back. We want to create a Facebook page to share the prophesy. We decide what cargo we use and don’t use. Cell phones are good. No TV. No church.”
In the foyer of the temple was a mural depicting the John From prophesy and the great door that would open on Yasur (see pictures below).
Bryan: “Isaac, how do you practice the John Frum Movement”
Isaac: “We have raised the American flag every day since 1956 (he may have actually meant 1946). Every day we raise and lower the flag. Every Friday night we dance and sing until dawn. In February, we have big events.”
Bryan: “What kind of songs do you sing?”
Isaac: “Traditional and American, like the Star Spangled song.”
Isaac then launched into a long dialogue in his local language, and in his speaking, I heard…..California…..Bill Clinton….Pendleton….Carolina….Atlanta.”
Bryan: “Chief Isaac, you have visited America?”
Bryan: “How did you come to visit America?”
Isaac: “We wrote to American Marines and they invited us. Also, Bill Clinton invited us to visit. Chiefs from several islands and our president went after our independence.”
Bryan: “What did you think of America?”
Isaac: “It is as John Frum said. I like Los Angeles and Washington D.C. and Atlanta and Camp Pendleton. At Camp Pendleton, I fired a rifle. Bryan, you look like the American soldier.”
Bryan: “Thank you, but I am much too old.”
Isaac: “Maybe one of their big men.”
Isaac and the other elders studied me a bit. I could clearly see they wanted to ask me something, but they declined when I prompted. We talked some more about John Frum. The translational vibe clearly seemed to be that maybe John Frum had sent me, that I might be some kind of an emissary of John Frum. That this was part of John Frum’s plan. This was definitely in the air (or maybe I was just imagining it), but I did not ask, fearing such a question would be inappropriate (I now regret I did not).
The kava root bundle was given to Steven by Donald (it is traditional that you have a second person to do the exchange) and I made a small cash contribution to the village, the use of which would be decided by the elders – as was “Kastom”.
As we walked back to where we were staying, I asked Donald what he thought about the John Frum movement. “I’m a Christian. They are not. That’s OK. We just try to be happy. Do good things. Take the right path in life. We all feel the same way.” Such a beautiful, fascinating, tolerant people…. “Donald, we Americans could learn much from you Tannese…” And that is what we discussed on our walk back.
Final post: Short stories, and observations: Kava, betel nut, what is, and is not a fish….