A Squid Ink Sky: Land, Happiness, and Good Kava in Vanuatu

The brooding face of Marlon Brando, circa Apocalypse Now, stares down at me from the last cloud of the evening light. “Do you know the way?” he mumbles.

I don’t answer. My lips are numb, my tongue heavy. My eyes are having visions of their own. But my ears…I can hear the hermit crabs at the water’s edge, scurrying over the sharp ridges of volcanic rock. I can make out the friction of fabric as two young women walk by, their loose-fitting Old Mother Hubbard frocks a legacy of early missionary concern about a woman’s curvaceous allure, the colourful dresses only partially tempering the temptation.

I was warned. Have just one shell of this particular strain of Kava. I gulp – you don’t sip the phlegm-green, bitter brew – two coconut shells worth of the mood-altering drink made from the piper methysticum plant. Four young pre-pubescent boys (it’s the custom) had spent hours chewing the tough, gnarled root, spitting out a mash that was soaked in water to produce the muddy cocktail. I didn’t want to appear unappreciative.


I’m crouching next to a local Chief on a small island, one of many isles and atolls that make up Vanuatu, their peaks breaking the ocean’s surface along a 1,300-kilometre arc of the South Pacific. The people of his village, like the majority of the country’s citizens, are farmers and foragers, fishers and hunters.

“You try to sell our land, we could kill you,” the Chief tells me. “Someone bribes you, gives you millions of dollars so you can make decisions by yourself, disregarding your tribe…your life can be taken away. Because you are taking the life away from thousands in generations coming.”

His gaze, stuck somewhere between fierce and resigned, takes in the expanse of ruddy sand beach. Ragged ribbons of waves break over the coral reefs a few metres offshore.

Vanuatu gained independence in 1980 from not one but two colonial masters, France and Great Britain. (It was said that the French prisons were more crowded, but the food was much better.) The country then reverted to communal land ownership based on the extended family rather than the individual. Most territory outside of the capital was returned to its hereditary holders. Markers in the landscape – stones, trees, ponds – are how people determined traditional boundaries. The new constitution meant that Vanuatu would be one of the few places where Indigenous peoples are no longer separated en masse from their ancestral soils. In colonial times, British and French nationals had full rights and kept their home country’s citizenship, while ni-Vanuatu, as citizens here are called, were officially stateless.

But while communal ownership may be legally enshrined, there are loopholes. One member of a family clan can register land without the consensus of the broader group, and then lease parcels of it for a maximum of 75 years – the productive lifespan of a coconut tree. In a country of around 300,000 scattered over the 70 or so inhabited islands, leasing to logging companies or foreign tourism developers can be an easy path to a certain form of wealth.

In days gone by, boundaries between different clans were somewhat flexible, but as land becomes viewed as a commodity, conflicts have erupted. “Mifala bigfala aggressive,” the Chief says in Bislama. ‘People on this island, very aggressive.’ Bislama is a Pidgin English that serves as the lingua franca in a country with over 100 distinct native dialects. In most of those Indigenous tongues, people don’t refer to themselves as landowners, but rather as children or parents of the ground.

“I’ll be very careful while I’m here,” I say to the men around me. Their tall frizzy hair has my sweaty bald head surrounded. Like most in Vanuatu, they are Melanesian, sharing genetic links with Polynesians, Papuans, and Aboriginal Australians.

The Chief laughs. “No, you can come and live here, do your gardening for free. You are boss over yourself, you make your own decisions. It’s really a nice lifestyle. Just not the land, don’t sell it.”

On paper, Vanuatu is a poor country using the economic standards that are, well, standard. Yet you see few homeless people and little abject poverty. If you can scratch soil with blade, you can farm here. You can eat here.

And you can drink kava here. People knock back a shell or three to welcome visitors, seal alliances, and mark birth, death and marriage. In some parts of the country, enjoying kava is an exclusively male activity, complete with rituals and taboos. It promises mild euphoria without disrupting mental clarity.

The Chief clutches a brimming shell in two hands, and chants to the setting sun before guzzling down the mixture. He does this one more time before sprawling on the ground next to me. At our feet a pale green sprout sneaks out of a fallen coconut.

“Is this strong kava?” I whisper unevenly. “Strong. Strong. Strong enough,” he replies, with mercifully muted tones. We sit. And spit. And stare out in silence. The sun is leaving now for my side of the world.

The Chief stands and stares down at me, framed by the retreating light. “Do you know the way?” he mumbles. I don’t answer. My lips are numb, my tongue heavy. My eyes are having visions of their own. But I can hear his uneven footsteps long into the jungle.


My head sways to the rhythm of wave on shore. I’m in an old Japanese film I saw as a kid, a few frames out of sync. Everyone else is inland now, at the Nakamal, the traditional gathering site near the small hut where my mosquito net hangs above a thin mat of woven pandanus leaves.

The night is squid ink dark, like nothing I’ve experienced before. Or could – there’s no electricity here, no dulling haze of unnatural light.

I can’t see the path and stumble up a ravine under the moonless sky, the hills covered in a woolly blanket of trees and vegetation. Uphill or downhill are the only directions I can sense. I do a two-step shuffle, the first move an exploration of what’s underfoot. I don’t know the full menu of wildlife here, but I do know there are wild boar – their curved tusks are used as a form of local currency.

I didn’t travel with a phone and the static noise is from insects, bats, breezes stirring the palm fronds. “No Brando, I don’t know the way,” I call out into the murk, a warning shot to any hog wanting its money back. Stay put I tell myself, someone will find me. Except those who might note my absence also drank the somniferous swill – many who partake in kava fall into a deep, dreamless sleep within an hour.

I lean against a giant Dr. Seuss fern. If not for the disorienting anxiety of being lost, it’s a ridiculously verdant place. Some might label this society as out of time, but other stressed-out denizens of modern life might view it as an almost mythical Eden. Both are simplistic generalizations of course, but the mind wanders when the body is lost.

I slump to the mossy forest floor and look up into the sky, trying to recognize the stars.


I’m in the South Pacific as staff of a Canadian development agency, creating educational materials about the relationship the ni-Vanuatu have with their land, and what this means for development and poverty reduction, not necessarily in that order.

There’s a story I was told on the way to this particular island, as we flew over dark green pyramids surrounded by a desert of ocean blue, the Australian pilot sporting bright green flip-flops. It went like this:

A man and his two sons had finished their fishing for the day, enough to feed their families. Grilled seafood, roasted yam and boiled plantain would be the evening’s repast. Time now to relax in a hammock on the beach while the fish traps dried out in the Pacific sun.

An aid worker visiting their island talked of a soft loan to buy a bigger boat. “Why?” asked the local man. To catch more fish, replied the aid specialist. “Why?” To make more money. “Why?” To create a better life. So you can eventually retire and stop working. “And do what?” Maybe relax in a hammock on the beach.

My seatmate smiled, then held on tightly to his duffel bag as we hit a roller-coaster of turbulence. I didn’t ask if his story was a true tale or a (not entirely inaccurate) caricature of international development.

Like many countries, Vanuatu certainly needs investment. It’s heavily dependent on foreign aid, and imports outweigh exports of beef, cocoa and copra, the name for dried coconut meat. People are fed, but most don’t have the trappings of what many call progress. Roads, hospitals, schools – these cost money, and the cash has to come from somewhere. But, one young man told me, money shouldn’t grow in the trees.

In another small village I had met Ricky, who had returned home from studying at university in the charming if faded capital of Port Villa. He wants to try his hand working the land, but is worried about what he’s seeing in his village. “When one person sells land,” he says, “the others see that he has a lot of money, so they go crazy about selling the land. People are brainwashed by Western things, like a nice house and a shiny car. It’s affecting us all – our land is being sold to foreigners.”

I ask Ricky if it’s wrong to want a nice house. “It’s normal,” he admits, “but in the past, people worked hard to build a nice house. The selling of land is like easy money. You can get your beautiful house, but you separate yourself from the community. If you have no job, when the money runs out you have no land to farm.”

“It’s like living nowhere.”      

There can be poverty of opportunity here and limited career possibilities, yet the people of Vanuatu are also some of the happiest on earth, once topping the Happy Planet Index, a measure of sustainable well-being.

And kava, their libation of choice, is considered by many to be effective at treating short-term anxiety. Unless you are lost in the jungle. At night. Under a moonless sky.


I hear the faint echo trickle down through the trees. A lone male voice singing.

Another joins in. More now. A fusion of intricate harmonies. Layered. Inviting. If Ry Cooder were here, he’d know exactly which way to go.

I follow the voices, tripping over rocks and roots, clinging to vines and branches for balance. Up. I keep moving up. I crest a hill and reach the edge of a cluster of huts with walls of woven bamboo strips, just a tamtam drumbeat from the gathering. A smoke-filled cooking house boils with the sounds of grating and grinding; meals are communally prepared by women, who seem to be always working. Sweet potato, banana, taro, crab – the staples are plentiful in this sparsely populated patch of earth.

Men stand around, eating bits of food to mask the taste of the kava. Women with a few minutes of reprieve dance to the beat of the night. Only the kids are surprised to see the pale, humidity-doused apparition appear from the edge of darkness.

The air inside the Nakamal is acrid from kerosene torches. The Chief ambles over, a grin topped by heavily lidded eyes. “Tu-dei kava” he says in Bislama, holding up two fingers – this was the good stuff.

We watch as more kava is prepared, the young men grinding and soaking the root in rhythm to their songs. I’m offered another shell.

Sean Kelly drinking kava

“Would you like living here?” The Chief has wanted to ask, curious what an outsider thinks of their Kastoms, a word referring to traditional culture and customs.

I pause as he gulps down more kava.

This is a beautiful place, with a time-forged depth of culture, pride and identity. There’s also a code of conformity, with little room for dissent or thinking outside the bamboo box. Yet harmony, sustainability, and egalitarianism are the goals of many people here, among the more honourable of human intentions.

I decide Canadian politeness is the appropriate option. “Maybe,” I answer with thick tongue, “but I don’t know if I’d be a good enough farmer.”

“You would be,” the Chief says charitably. “Everything is here. The sea, the rivers, the trees, we have it all. Our land is good, there are fish in the sea – it’s not hard work to live here.”

“You in the West, I’ve met lots of you. You work eight, nine, ten hours every day. Not us. A few hours, and we’re done.” He gestures at the people around us.

It’s not an epiphany worthy of the piper methysticum plant, but while I can complain with the best of us about being too busy or too stressed, I like to be too busy. I want to feel some stress. This isn’t the place for the restless desires and optimistic fatalism of someone like me. And at this moment, I desire a rum and coke with ice, a shower, and somewhere I can check my email.

I don’t want the Chief’s lifestyle. But he doesn’t want mine.

“Man blong Canada,” I say. “My home is somewhere else, with my son, where it’s colder. I’m very happy to be here now though.”

The Chief is satisfied with the answer. A woman offers us roasted crab legs. We gnaw in amiable unison as voices rise up through an expansive night, beneath a big dipper pointing a different way.


I travelled to the South Pacific on behalf of Cuso International, a Canadian NGO. This story was a finalist in the Malahat Review Literary Awards (Creative Nonfiction category), and was also short-listed in The Fiddlehead Creative Nonfiction contest.