Black Magic, Living With Locals & Too Much Kava in Vanuatu
First Impressions of Vanuatu
It wasn’t even ten minutes after landing in Vanuatu’s largest city of Port Vila that we had something amazing happen to us, a sign of things to come.
After collecting our backpacks, we walked over to a young woman working the information booth. We asked her where we could catch a bus into town and her response was, “You cannot take a bus into town if you have bags, you must take a taxi.”
Huh?!? If you have bags? This is an airport of course people will have bags!
Feeling like we weren’t being told the whole story and knowing now what we know about taxi scams and cartels around the world we decided to try and dig a bit deeper.
After exchanging some of our money, I asked the lady working there where the locals catch the bus into town. She smiled and leaned in as if she was telling me a deep secret. I leaned in and she explained to me in almost a whisper that we needed to head over to the domestic terminal where you can easily catch a bus but not to tell anyone who we heard this information from.
It was obvious that the taxi drivers have a lot of power at this airport and make a lot of money doing this. The bus into town takes only 10 minutes and cost us only a couple of dollars whereas the taxi driver’s will take you on the same route and charge you in excess of $35 USD!!!
So, we found a bus, which in Vanuatu is really just a van that you can hail down on any road in the country and took our seats in the back. As we pulled away there was only one other passenger in the van, a lovely local, 40ish with a beautiful flowery dress and a giant smile. Her name was Nilda. We made some small talk for a few minutes and before we knew it she had invited us to stay at her home with her family. We jumped at the opportunity as we have found that homestays are the absolute best way to immerse ourselves in culture of a country.
Before getting to her place we stopped off to meet up with her cousin at a small village called Tagabe just outside of town. After meeting him we found out he had actually studied in New Zealand for a while and consequently had fantastic English. He explained to us that the villagers were building what they hoped would someday become a tourist destination where travellers can experience authentic village life in Vanuatu. The area included little enclosures for snakes, reptiles, crabs and the grand daddy was an eel that lived in the roots of a tree in the villages creek which a few men gently coaxed out with a stick which they moved back and forth as if it were prey.
As we continued on our tour I noticed that every time I looked back the group of villagers following along us would double. We were told we were the first foreigners to visit this community project and they were all really excited and nervous to see our reactions. We were so honoured and thrilled ourselves as we’ve come to realize during our travels that this doesn’t happen all that often.
At the end of the tour we were introduced to the village’s healer. A young, good looking man named Robson who has become somewhat famous around Vanuatu due to his apparent gift to heal any illness. With the cousin translating for Robson, we learned that he had foreseen our coming as he had a dream the night before about two beautiful white fish who swam upstream through the village’s creek. He then explained that his healing powers are used to combat black magic, which as he put it, is becoming more and more powerful with every coming year. He said Ni-Vanuatu citizens were struggling with more physical and mental ailments which he believed were due to the influences from outside of Vanuatu as well as powerful black magic practitioners in the community. Many locals follow a hybrid of traditional tribal beliefs and Christianity and some believe that with black magic, curses can be placed on people and objects causing anything from financial disaster, sickness, divorce and even death.
Robson invited us to join him in his healing hut where he created a special drink for us made from plants from around the island which he said would give us more energy and prevent us from getting sick. Call it what you want, but I did feel like I had more energy after drinking, like all the cells in my body were suddenly awake. A strange but pretty awesome sensation.
He then performed a healing and protective ceremony for us and luckily Nilda’s cousin was next to us the whole time translating. One by one he had us stand on a cross which he drew in the dirt, he then sprayed the air around us with a potion he created from local plants and herbs. He then walked around us shouting, blowing air into our ears and spraying mist around us. Our friend explained to us that he was protecting us from any black magic that we might encounter in the country.
See the video below for a short clip of this unique and incredible experience.
Before leaving the village we were then honoured with a traditional kava ceremony. We had read about kava before leaving and were hoping we’d get to try this local delicacy, a muddy bitter drink made from the roots of kava plants, leaving you with a mild head buzz and numb lips. Here we were drinking it only an hour or so after getting into the country and not in a kava bar but in a small village!
Isn’t life awesome?
Kava is a very famous drink in both Vanuatu and Fiji and is made by mixing ground kava root and water together. In Vanuatu they drink their kava much stronger than in Fiji where the Fijians dilute the kava root with more water. It tastes pretty terrible, like a bitter muddy pepper water, and afterward leaves your tongue and lips a little numb. You can find kava bars all over the country usually by looking for a red or yellow light outside a small building. Basically the equivalent of the local pub back home.
We were both quite nervous to drink it as we’d heard it tasted awful and they had poured us each a very big bowl but with everyone in a circle honouring our company there was no way were not going to drink it. I just hoped I wouldn’t yak! Down the hatch it went and even though it didn’t taste terrible, it wasn’t that good either but it did leave my tongue and lips a little numb and gave me a head high like smoking a cigarette.
So after being left speechless with our first experience in Vanuatu and having survived our first experience with kava we set off with our new friend to her home. As we pulled up to her property we were caught a little off guard. We were kind of expecting a small home in a village but what we saw was a beautiful property sitting on about half an acre with fruit trees, a guest house, an area with chickens and pigs and even a little hut for massages. Even though we would have been happy anywhere, we were pleasantly surprised when we found out we would be staying in their guest house.
We were introduced to her lovely family, three beautiful daughters and her youngest son who immediately took us on a tour of their property and the white sand beach just across from their front yard. Unfortunately we couldn’t meet her eldest son who was on another island going to school and her husband who was away on a business trip. We learned that her husband who works for the government in the geology division, is often travelling for work which was beginning to get very difficult for the family to handle.
That afternoon I played a game with a few of the kids that they apparently made up. The long and short of it is that I would run around in circles chasing a ball until I was sweating profusely and then the kids would then laugh at how out of shape I was! So while I was getting laughed at by the kids, Alyse was getting laughed at by Nilda and a friend of hers as she learned how to weave a traditional palm leaf mat.
That evening after enjoying a beautiful home cooked meal, we sat around sharing stories of family, adventures and then helped the children finish their homework before heading off to bed. As I limped back to our guesthouse, still feeling the after effects of the kids so-called “game”, we couldn’t help but think about just how lucky we were to have such an incredible introduction to this country.
The next day I was invited to go out with a friend of Nilda’s for some kava. Now since I did ok with the first round the day before I was feeling pretty good about heading to the local bar with this chap.
That was mistake number one.
He bought the first round of kava and decided to buy me the largest shell (cup) because I was his guest. We tapped shells and pounded back the muddy concoction. One thing that I didn’t mention before was that you must drink the entire thing in one go, this is not a sipping drink. When a shell is passed to you in a circle, you will say the appropriate words (based on where you are) and then pound it back like shot of tequila at your best friend’s wedding.
My new friend then offered me a cigarette and because I didn’t want to be rude I accepted it even though I don’t smoke. It was silly reasoning but at the time it seemed right.
Mistake number two.
He smoked that thing down like it was going out of style and so I felt compelled to keep up. It was about the same time that the buzz from the cigarette hit me that the buzz from the kava hit me as well. At this point I thought I felt ok.
As soon as we finished our smokes he asked if I wanted another shell which I obliged but this time it was on me. I bought him and I both a medium shell this time, we clinked shells and down the hatch it went.
Again, immediately after finishing he offered me another cigarette. It hadn’t even been ten minutes from my last one but I thought what the hell.
Mistake number three.
Now this time around he was smoking so fast that I swear he was racing me. My head was now spinning and my lips numb. I decided that I’d by us both an ice cream because after all that kava and smoking my mouth felt like an ashtray and quite honestly I needed a break.
I had hardly finished last scoop before my friend had hopped up to buy us another shell. It was at this point that I said to myself, “Nope not going to do it”.
My head was swimming as that last cigarette had really put me over the top but again I thought to myself, don’t be rude, don’t be a pussy in front of the locals, just do it.
Mistake number four.
Clink went our shells, down the hatch went the muddy water that I was beginning to really hate and again out came the cigarettes. I could’ve sworn my head was actually spinning. I couldn’t tell up from down, left from right and I just thought to myself you silly stupid white boy.
Thankfully it was at this moment that my friend took me back home perhaps sensing my pain. I thanked him for his company and generosity, bid him farewell, headed straight to my room without saying hello to anyone, bent down over the toilet and projectile vomited for five straight minutes.
As I laid in the bathroom in the fetal position I muttered those words that were normally only reserved for alcohol, “I’m never drinking again!”.
The next day, early in the morning we bid farewell to our new friends. We made an offering for our stay and they presented us with some beautiful sarongs from Vanuatu before praying for us and saying our last goodbyes. We will always be grateful for Nilda and her family for treating us like family from the moment we arrived.
As independent travellers we are constantly after authentic fulfilling travel experiences in which we make real human connections. We were extremely fortunate to make these deep connections in only our first three days in Vanuatu.
Living with a local family, experiencing ceremony surrounding black magic, indulging or should I say over indulging in some local cuisine and delicacies and learning about the current issues facing the people of this proud country left us feeling like we were on our way to understanding what Vanuatu and its people were all about.
As we boarded our flight to the remote island of Tanna, where the explosive Mount Yasur awaited, we were ready to experience all the natural beauty this country had to offer.
If you are feeling inspired to travel to this island paradise make sure to check out our popular post, “Backpacking Vanuatu on a Budget”.
Cheers and thank you for reading,
Ross & Alyse