Sunsets, funerals & kava on Vanuatu’s Pentecost Island.

On assignment for Al Jazeera, I discover a remarkable but troubled corner of paradise.

North Pentecost from a 1960s Twin Otter. The small, grass landing strip of Sara is center-right.

I stepped off the broken and old light plane onto the grass landing strip. There was a teeming crowd — for the islanders of North Pentecost, this bi-weekly twin-prop is its only connection to the outside world.

My research had shown that the village of Laone, a few kilometers from the airstrip, had a homestay owned by a man named Willy Boe. After reciting that name to a young man, he introduced me to a driver who could take me there.

Landing in a troubled paradise.

Pentecost is known for its subsistence lifestyle and poverty-stricken community, but there are a few wealthier islanders who own four wheel drives. Most Islander’s commute by foot, but these battered hiluxes are not uncommon in even the more remote parts of the island.

I jumped in the front seat of the waiting truck.

‘Laone?’, I asked the grizzled, balding man in the front seat.

“Ue”, the old driver replied. We started moving.

The drive was short — about 10 minutes. I should have walked. But it was fun seeing the driver navigate near-vertical muddy roads. After descending the steep hillside, we arrived in Laone and pulled up out the front of Willy Boe’s homestay.

I stepped out and waited as my driver raised the villagers attention. An elderly couple — Willy Boe’s parents — hobbled over. The older lady looked at me as if I was a ghost at first, but her shock subsided and gave way to an endearing, welcoming smile. Her husband, blind and hunchbacked, was less enthused.

Not long after I arrived was I confronted with an enormous sense of guilt, as these ailing geriatrics proceeded to furiously tidy and clean the shack.

I winced watching the old blind man, in particular, go about sweeping with a broom as old as he was. His efforts were in vain. The dust and grime was no less a part of the building as the roof or the walls — it wasn’t going anywhere. I repeatedly assured them it was not necessary, but they of course spoke no English — nor any Bislama; and their sole language, Raga, is shared by only 6000 other souls on this Earth, of which I am not one.

The accommodation was of course basic. It was a simple structure of concrete walls and foundations and a thatched bamboo roof. The wash room was a bucket of water and a screen. The toilet a long-drop. The bed a simple wooden base on which a strip of foam no wider than my body was laid. But it suited my needs.

I napped, and then roamed the tiny village. It was a beautiful part of the world — serene and quiet. A long sandy beach was nestled under dramatic mountain peaks and a thick canopy of coconut palms shaded much of the village. My first afternoon was a lazy one, sketching thoughts in my notebook while taking my time to breathe in the fragrant island air. The temperature was perfect — that ideal equilibrium where there is no sense of cold but no sense of warmth, either.

I wandered to a neighbouring village to take some portraits of some accommodating — albeit unexpecting — local villagers. Apart from the activities in schools, the villages are sleepy places. Men sit in conversation or tend to small crops while women weave baskets and prepare food in the nakamals — basic bamboo structures that are the heart of any village. There is a subdued atmosphere about the island. The pace of life is slow. Fervour and excitement is rare.

These smiling faces typify those across Pentecost.

As the sun set that first evening, I watched from the sandy beach. A villager, about 100 meters from shore, paddle past in a traditional catamaran, his silhouette sliding across the horizon. The tranquility was only interrupted by an invitation: an English speaking man and his teenage sons were headed to a neighbouring village’s nakamal for a kava ceremony, and suggested I come along.

So we walked along the coast. The older man who’d invited me led the way, and I followed, the teenagers in pursuit. The tide had risen so much that we had to climb over the mangroves themselves, lest we swim to the neighbouring village.

A while later, we arrived at the nakamal. I quickly realised this wasn’t a standard night on the drink: it was a wake. Traditionally, ni-Vanuatu mark the 10th day, 50th day, and 100th day of a loved one’s death with a subdued ceremony. This was a 10th day ceremony, and the mood was understandably somber. The men huddled quietly around a teenager who grinded the kava into a liquid. The women sat separately, weaving baskets and boiling yams and taro. Children loitered with no defined space.

Having spent my first few days in Vanuatu in the capital, Port Vila, I’d had some experience with kava. It produces a mellow buzz, almost like a red-wine haze, but without the disorientating effect of alcohol. I’d heard the best and strongest kava was from Pentecost, and that the stuff I’d managed to chug down in Vila was nothing in comparison.

Being the guest in the nakamal that evening, I was the first to drink. I knelt by the boy who’d been labouring hard to turn root into liquid, and swallowed a coconut-shell’s worth of kava in one gulp. At first, I was overwhelmed by the vulgarity of the flavour. The drink is a brown, almost mucousy slush that tastes of grass and earth with a subtle acidic burn. Immediately, I felt the physical impact of the intoxicant. My cheeks and tongue went numb and began to tingle. The sensation spread from my face to my mind, and, as if time itself had slowed, I entered a state of unrivalled relaxation. The world momentarily seemed to melt. It was as if Dali and Escher combined forces to sketch that scene, until that first hit dissipated and I regained my composure.

Suitably inebriated, I spent the night chatting to my co-drinkers. The English speaking man was my translator. I was on the island to learn more about Chief Viraleo and his kustom movement on the island’s east, about 10 kilometers hard walk from Laone, so I thought I’d try and steer my discussions in that direction. One conversation I had that night stood out: Norris, an 18 year old, was one of Viraleo’s students. He told me he used to walk four hours each way to learn from the Chief before Viraleo was arrested. There, in Viraleo’s school at Lavatmengamu, he would learn kustom history and writing, and become convinced of Viraleo’s virtue and legitimacy as a custodian of Vanuatu’s ancient traditions. His commitment astounded me: there were numerous schools nearby, some only a few minutes walk away. The choice to learn from Viraleo was an active one.

The night grew old and I wandered back to my quarters for the first of several sleepless nights. As the kava wore off, I became increasingly aware of the rats that I shared the building with. Dozens crawled and screeched and fought all night, running under the bed with little reservation.

A small village in north-east Pentecost.