A few years ago, I visited the island nation of Vanuatu. I happened to be in the neighborhood.
I was living in New Caledonia, an overseas territory of France, while my wife did fieldwork for her PhD in anthropology. About halfway through our yearlong stay, we decided to visit Vanuatu, just west of Fiji.
Vanuatu is the kind of place you read about in rollicking adventure tales, full of jungles, volcanoes, and “natives.” The musical South Pacific was based on James Michener’s experiences there in World War II. It was the setting of a season of Survivor. Maarten Troost wrote a travelogue about it called Getting Stoned with Savages.
It’s a hotbed of ooga-booga stereotypes, which the locals embrace. Cannibal legends are good for tourism. Of course, I considered Tate and I to be above all that. She’s an anthropologist, and I’m a progressive open-minded guy. We’re the “good kind of tourist.”
At least, that’s what I told myself.
Tate and I spent a few days in the capitol city of Port Vila, then hopped a rickety twelve-seat plane bound for the tiny island of Tanna. Even by Vanuatu standards, Tanna is small and remote—it’s basically just a volcano.
Our plan was to stay at a hostel called Sunrise Bungalow and take guided tours of the volcano, jungles, and local villages. Because the island so tiny, no matter where you step you’re walking on someone’s land. Exploring is best done with someone who knows the territory.
After a stomach-churning flight, we arrived at an airport the size and shape as a 1960s McDonalds. A taciturn local named Peter picked us up in a jeep and took us on an hour-and-a-half drive across the ash plain to the other side of the island.
Sunrise Bungalow looks an Ewok village, if the Ewoks built huts on the ground instead of in the trees. At a palm-thatched gate, we met Isaac, the burly hotel manager who greeted us with a firm handshake. Morris, a friendly guy of about thirty who was in charge of tours, showed us a board listing various “excursions” to the volcano and other parts of the island. Mary, the cook, gave us little flower necklaces.
We were the only guests.
We were shown to our room, a palm-thatched hut. As we opened our backpacks, Tate said, “Hey, you should get out the cash we’ll need tomorrow.” I looked in my wallet and my stomach turned to lead.
I had forgotten to get cash.
Lonely Planet had explicitly said, “Get cash before you go! There are no banks! Make sure you have lots of small bills!” I was supposed to have done it. Tate had reminded me. I totally blanked.
I should take a moment to point out that I am not the calmest person when it comes to money. I feel that every decision I make is going to end in catastrophe and everyone will hate me.
I counted the bills I had: enough money to pay for our hotel stay, but nothing else. Merely venturing off the grounds of Sunrise Bungalow was going to cost money I did not have.
“Ok, that’s it,” I said, “we can’t do any of the excursions.”
“What, and just sit in our hut all day?” said Tate. “What was the point of coming to this island if we can’t see any of it?”
“I don’t know! We’re screwed!”
“Look,” Tate said, “go look at that excursion board and see how much everything costs, and maybe we can figure something out.”
I crept out of our hut. In the twilight, Sunrise Bungalow became a spooky village worthy of a Scooby Doo cartoon. With the flashlight from my phone, I scanned the list of excursion prices, scribbling them on a notepad and doing quick mental calculations. A shadow appeared.
“Is there a problem?” said Isaac.
Heart pounding, I tried to make my mistake sound as benign as possible.
“I uh… we had a miscalculation and… we’re short on cash. We have enough to pay for the hotel, don’t worry! Um, where’s the closest place to get money?”
“There is no closest place.”
“Uh, ok. Is there a bank or anything, maybe?”
“Nothing at all?”
Isaac shifted. “Well… there’s a hotel back on the other side of the island, near the airport. They have a credit card machine. You can have them charge your card, then give you cash. So you can pay for your excursions with the cash you have, and get more cash to pay for the hotel stay when you leave.”
“Ok great!” I nodded and scuttled back to my hut, terrified.
I explained the situation to Tate. She was fine with it. But I couldn’t shake the fear.
The people of Vanuatu aren’t cannibals. I know that. But lying under my mosquito net in that hut, with the jungle getting dark and the fruit bats screeching, I lost my grip on reality. I was afraid the locals would make us into white-tourist stew. Or worse — they’d decide they didn’t like us.
That night I lay under my mosquito netting with my eyes wide open and my heart beating like a tribal drum. I didn’t sleep.
The next day, Morris arrived to take us on a walk along the coast. I had budgeted carefully, and decided this would be the most inexpensive activity we could do. We tramped through jungle paths. We passed a rock formation known as “Captain Cook’s Hat” and some bubbling vents where you can boil bananas.
Soon the beach turned to a grassy field adorned with slit-gong statues. A man emerged from the jungle and made eye contact with Morris.
“We’re passing through his tribe’s land. We need to give him some money.” Morris said. I hadn’t planned on this. This wasn’t in my budget. Breathing deeply, I opened my wallet and paid up.
This process repeated itself several times over the next two days. We paid to visit Mount Yasur, the island’s volcano. We paid to trek to a secluded beach. We paid to pass through the remnants of a cargo cult.
Normally, I‘d be happy to engage in this kind of tourism. The money’s going to local people who need it, with minimal impact on the environment. For a lot of families, support from tourists is all they have. Everywhere we went, I saw people who were worse off than I was. I wanted to give them all the money I had in my wallet.
But the cash situation made me terrified. What if the credit card thing didn’t work? What if I couldn’t offer these people anything in return.
On our last day, Morris asked if we wanted to do the “Cannibal Tour.” We hesitated; Tate didn’t want to damage her anthropological credibility, and I was worried about my wallet. But Morris said, “You must do it. It is an authentic cultural experience.” We said yes.
Morris took us special part of the jungle. He led us along a dark, leaf-lined path. As we walked, he explained the properties of various plants and herbal remedies when —“BLAGABLAGABLAGA!”
A dozen mud-covered savages leapt out of the jungle and surrounded us. They brandished crude spears and knives and licked their lips hungrily.
The oldest was probably eight. Apparently, the Cannibal Tour is normally performed by young men, but the young men were away that week for a soccer match. So our “authentic cultural experience” was more like an elementary school play. You could see the kids’ shorts underneath their loincloths.
The cannibals pinch you and poke you. In their local language, they discuss how delicious you look. Then you are “captured” and taken inside a giant hollow tree to meet the chief. In his mercy, he lets you live. Then the little cannibals demonstrate their traditional methods of cracking coconuts and planting yams. They are clearly having a blast.
At the end, we were led to a small table in a clearing. We were given a snack of fresh oranges. All the tiny cannibals lined up in a row. One produced a guitar. They sang a thank-you song, with the repeating chorus of “Welcome to Tanna Island! We are so happy you’re here!” It was the most adorable thing I’d ever seen.
And then they all stopped singing. Morris nudged me politely. He whispered, “Now you pay them.”
I owed them 3000 vatu, or about $30. I had 5000-vatu bill in my pocket, and that was it. I should have given them everything. But the fear inside me said, “What if you can’t get any more money? What if the card machine doesn’t work? What if you NEED that $20?”
I wanted to give these kids every cent I had in the world. Instead I said, “Uh… thank you so much. Yes. I… um… need to get change.”
You could feel the mood shift. The kids shuffled back into the jungle. I felt like the worst human being on earth.
One boy volunteered to take my 5000 vatu bill, get on his bike, and ride a mile to the one trade store in town with enough money to make change. We waited in silence for fifteen minutes while he made the trip. When the boy returned, I paid him three thousand vatu and gave him all the pocket change I had as a tip.
That afternoon, Isaac and Morris drove us back across the ash plain to the east side, to the one modern hotel. I held my breath as the credit card machine sent the signal to space and back again. It worked. I paid everything we owed and more. I still felt terrible.
We were left alone in the hotel with a couple hours to kill before our flight. The restaurant was clean and full of other white tourists. Tate and I each got a burger and a beer and sat on the marble patio with a view of the ocean. For the first time on the trip, I felt relaxed.
I wondered why I felt so shitty. All accounts were square. Technically speaking, everything was fine. But I couldn’t shake the thought that maybe the guys in loincloths aren’t the real cannibals here.
I took another bite of my hamburger and tried not to think about it.