Paradise Found

This is Brian, who took me in a tiny boat out to Paradise, although most people would call his island Aneityum, Vanuatu.

Our ship had dropped anchor near a place we call Mystery Island, which is uninhabited because, according to legend, it’s haunted.   

For some unknown reason I was the only person to sign up for Brian’s tour, so I got to have him, his family compound, and indeed his village, all to myself. I’ve never been to any place like it. If you want a lesson in the local patois just read this sign out loud. It says, approximately, “Please don’t make a short cut on the lawn, please and thank you.”

We were met by Susi, who I think was all dressed up for company, although possibly she looks this lovely every day. She had a long and specially twisty leaf for me to wear behind my left ear, because I’m not married. I kept it on all day, draped down to my collarbone, and got lots of smiles, and a few stares and giggles. It signifies welcome, and peace. Since these people were once cannibals, back in the day, I think it also means “wear this and no one will eat you,” but that might be a fanciful interpretation. That’s her doorbell on the post on the right, just rap the stick on the bamboo to announce yourself before entering.

I had a hard time figuring out exactly who Susi was, since Brian told me she was his Mom, and also that she was his Mom’s sister. Finally I determined that all of his mother’s sisters were his Mom, and all of his father’s brothers were his Dad. Because that’s how it is in his village of about 300 people, where everyone is family.

Our first visit was to the family kitchen. There’s no electricity in this village, but there is a tap outside with water they pipe directly from a river that flows down from the mountains. I felt that the kitchen might pose a challenge to my cooking skills, even though I’ve boasted that I can cook anywhere.

The sink looked especially difficult.

I learned that in Vanuatu the coconut is called “the tree of life,” because they use every part of it in their daily lives. Everything you see here is woven or made from various parts of the coconut, a broom, baskets, kids’ toys, sleeping and sitting mats, cups for serving kava. Even the green leaf has special significance. Normally you would offer it to guests with food on it, but if it’s placed, empty, in front of the door of your hut, it means that you are banished and need to move out of the village immediately.

These are three outhouses, the middle one built for guests like me. I didn’t venture in, but it was visibly fancier than the other two from the outside.

Here Susi’s husband (I think, it was never exactly clear to me) husks me a coconut in the traditional way, with a very sharp stick dug into the ground. He does this so that I may have a refreshing drink, so welcome on a hot equatorial day.

They also prepare me a little snack of freshly grated coconut, pineapple, and banana. All of which seemed incomparably sweet and delicious, in this magical environment.

Normally I escape as fast as I can from this kind of photo op, but before I knew what was happening they had adorned me with a garland and a headband and pulled me into this frame. It would have been horribly rude to protest, so I submitted, and although it’s not a flattering photo of me, I’m sure I’ll never have another even remotely like it.

Brian took me back to Mystery Island, where a big, travelling market had been set up for the passengers. There was no dock there, and his boat was really small, so I had to step right into the water to get in and out. It’s amazing how long it takes for salt water to dry out of  your shoes. And after my adventure a Vanuatu beer

and a local lunch of grilled tuna, plantain, cassava, salad, pineapple, and rice with green garlic seemed in order.

I had heard that there would be a kava ceremony, and really wanted to participate. When I got to the booth with the kava the guy told me that I was apparently the only passenger who wanted to try it. So he prepared it just for me. I think other passengers had been deterred by the ship’s guide’s description that it “tasted like dishwater.” Another passenger told me that he’d tried it once and it tasted “like bong water.”

I was interested in the effects, more than the taste, so I asked the guy to make some for me. He looked at the leaf draped over my ear and said “Oh, I see you have a ‘peace.’ I will be happy to prepare some for you.” He took fresh kava root, chopped it up,

and ground it up in a meat grinder. He soaked it in water, strained it, and served me a large coconut shell full of a muddy-looking drink. He told me that kava makes your lips and tongue numb, so it’s best to just chug it right down, to minimize that effect. I took a tiny sip, just to see what I was getting into, before really drinking it.

I didn’t think it tasted bad at all, kind of bitter, but I like bitter. Mostly herbal, and I like that too. So I gladly emptied the shell and waited for something to happen.

I sat on a bench by the beach and thought about my day. I felt very relaxed, but I had been all day long. I thought about how everyone I had met seemed very calm too. I couldn’t tell if all that tranquility was due to the fact that kava is ubiquitous, or because of the stunning natural beauty, or because a village like the one I had visited can still exist in this modern world. Or something else.

When I went back to the ship I kept that long leaf draped over my ear all evening. My Indonesian dining stewards thought it was hilarious, but the Filipino folks on board recognized the leaf, although no one knew its name in English. It was fragrant when crushed, and I invited a lot of people to sniff it, just next to my hair.

So I don’t know whether it was the sleepy village, or the shell full of kava, or the fragrant leaf with its promise of peace, or all three, but I had an incredibly relaxed day, and a very sweet sleep. Maybe that’s the mystery of Mystery Island.

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3 Comments on “Paradise Found”

  1. Don Says:

    Abra,
    I have no idea what the connection is or even if there is one, but Tusker beer is major brand of beer in KENYA, where “tusker” seems appropriate … but in Vanuatu?
    Don

  2. Abra Bennett Says:

    Interesting! I thought the name sounded familiar. But I Googled around and bit and can’t find any connection between the two.

  3. Emily Says:

    Fascinating!


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