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 kill you,” the Chief says. “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.

At independence, Vanuatu 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.

But while communal ownership may be enshrined in the constitution, 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 tourism developers can be an easy path to that form of wealth.

“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 frizzy Don King hair has my bald head surrounded. Like most in Vanuatu, they are Melanesian, sharing genetic links with Polynesians, Papuans and Aborigines.

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.

We speak sparingly in muted tones.

The Chief stands and stares down at me, framed by the last 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 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. 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 in our industrialized world might label this society as ‘primitive’ and out of time, but other stressed-out Westerners, those embracing the slow this and slow that movements, might view it as an almost mythical Eden. Both are of course simplistic generalizations, but there can be some verisimilitude in the broad strokes painting this canvass.

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 products about the relationship the ni-Vanuatu, as citizens here are called, 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 we call progress. Roads, hospitals, schools – these cost money, and the cash has to come from somewhere.

There is poverty of opportunity here, 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 social anxiety. Unless you are lost in the jungle. At night.

**

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 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. “Tudei 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.”

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 place isn’t big enough for the hopes, hypocrisies, and skeptical optimism of people like me. At this moment, I want a shower, a cold beer, somewhere I can check my email.

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

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

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

**

I was in the South Pacific on behalf of a Canadian NGO, making a radio documentary about the relationship the ni-Vanuatu, as citizens there are called, have with their land, and what this means for development and poverty reduction, not necessarily in that order.

This story was a finalist in the 2015 Malahat Review Literary Awards (Creative Nonfiction category).