Before reading this blog there are a few details that you may find entertaining. In Sulfur Bay, Tanna, Vanuatu at the base of a very active volcano exists a village known as the John Frum village. They are reportedly a “Cargo Cult” established when a mysterious visitor, that may or may not have been American, visited the island. In 1939 he told them that America would be their brother and take care of them. This visitor John also told them to go back to their traditional ways, to give up Christianity and return to ancient Kastom traditions. If they did than a plethora of wealth and cargo would be bestowed upon them. WWII happened a few years later and the American military showed up in force defending Vanuatu (New Hebrides at that time) from the Japanese. The John Frum movement as they are now known still raise the US Flag every day. They are reported to march around in uniforms carrying bamboo rifles, and have red crosses adorning their monuments and buildings. They have a spirit seeing Prophet by the name of Fred that stirs up trouble and has caused a split in their movement. People say he practices black magic AND Christianity, and has been known to toss babies into the volcano. They are still awaiting the return of the mysterious John and the Cargo. We can’t wait to meet these people, to see what’s BS and what’s not!!
View of Sulfur Bay from the trail leading to Port Resolution.
“Hello, Hello! Is this the John Frum village?” we asked the dozen or so children swarming around our dinghy. Brady and I had just made a questionable landing on a black sand beach through some pretty large surf, leaping out at the perfect time to avoid getting rolled by a late breaking wave.
Dinghy bashing waves on the beach.
“Oui monsieur! John Frum!” a boy of about 11 replied bursting with excitement. Oh great, they speak French we thought. Time to revert back to French Polynesia skills. “Parler Vu Anglais?” I asked in my worst French accent ever. “Oui monsieur! Leaoni Parler Anglais.” Ok, that sounds promising. The boy was urgently pointing to a village just over the sand berm making the beach. There was a hurried conversation amongst the boys. Without warning they shouted “Un, deux, trois!” and lifted our dinghy, 25 HP outboard and all, well off the sand and started running up the beach with it. Cool, valet service Vanuatu style!
With our dinghy safely ashore we were escorted into the village on our quest to find Leaoni who apparently could speak English. We were lead through rows of huts and across a huge earthen field stomped flat by generations of bare feet. Everything was covered in volcanic ash. Mt. Yasur dominated the horizon with it’s belching smoke cloud. We were close, really close to the volcano. So close that we could feel the ground tremble under our feet in unison with the puffing smoke clouds and venting steam.
Sulfur Bay village center.
Leaoni was expecting us, no doubt informed of our presence by a village boy sent running ahead. “Hello, I am Leaoni!” Hi Leaoni. I’m Brian and this is my brother Brady. Is this the John Frum village? “Yes, this is the John Frum village in Sulfur Bay.” Awesome. Do you have a band and dancing tonight? “Yes, of course! We play and dance all night long.” Great! Is it ok if we come with our friends to see the dancing tonight? “Yes, please come see us dance!” Sweet! We’ll go back to our boat and get our friends. What time should we be here? “The dancing starts at 8PM and lasts until 6AM.” Wow, all night long. Ok, we’ll see you later then.
Mt. Yasur in the background belching smoke and shaking the ground.
You see, we were on a reconnaissance mission of sorts. Our driver that took us to Lenekal earlier that day was 7th Day Adventist and his Sabbath started on Saturday so he was unable to drive us Friday night. We heard the village was close to the beach on Sulfur Bay but had conflicting reports on how far inland. Some said 30 minutes, some said 10 minutes. All said that the waves were large on the beach and difficult to land in. So Brady and I were exploring the possibility of a dinghy mission in lieu of driving. Friday night is the big night in Sulfur Bay so we were keen to give it a try.
With our mission accomplished we gathered our valet parking team together and carried the dinghy to the ocean edge. The waves were pounding and breaking right on the shore, seeming much larger than when we landed. We waited and waited watching the sets come in. On the last wave of a huge set we launched the dinghy, started the outboard, and went like mad. Before we could get outside the break a wave caught us on the bow and lifted us skyward. Both Brady and I instinctively leapt to the front of the dinghy. We hung there vertically for an impossibly long time before crashing back down. Brady looked at me and gunned the engine again.
We had just gotten straightened out and making forward progress again when another wave moved towards us relentlessly. We didn’t have a chance. We both saw it coming and knew we were done for. This one was even bigger than the previous. The bow rose up and up and up. We went vertical, then the wave broke and flipped us backward. The dinghy landed upside down and we surfaced under the dinghy. Oh great I thought, we haven’t flipped the dinghy since Mexico. Total amateur move. All those protective reefs in Polynesia has made us soft. We dove out from under the dinghy to find the water littered with our GPS, VHF, oars, anchor bag, sandals, and fuel tank. Just about everything from the dinghy had come lose and was floating around our capsized AB. Before we even collected our thoughts we were surrounded by eager helping hands. Within seconds all our floating debris was collected, the dinghy was righted, and swam back to shore for us. The village boys had come to our rescue in amazing time.
Our valet and rescue team.
We tried to compose ourselves on the beach. The only casualty was our hand held VHF. No injuries and no other damage! Luckily the outboard started with only a little coaxing and seemed to run ok. We lashed everything down for another try. Leaoni tried to get us to stay but we explained if we didn’t get back to the boat our friends would worry about us. The village boys made a plan and using hand gestures motioned that they would swim the dinghy through the surf. So out into the waves we headed with a dozen boys swimming our dinghy out. They held the bow down by hanging on it, their bodies lifting out of the water as each wave passed. We repeated this pattern of crashing through waves and swimming like mad until we were out of most of the break. I quickly jumped in the dinghy and the engine roared to life for a few seconds before stalling. More swimming, more engine starting, more stalling. The boys literally pulled the dinghy well clear of the break when the Yamaha roared to life and we zoomed off clear of danger. A huge cheer went off from the boys in the water and the rather large gathering now on the beach watching the show.
Back on Delos we contemplated our options. Still no call from an alternate driver so it was dinghy back to Sulfur Bay or not go at all. Weighing the alternatives we decided to go for it. Instead of landing the dinghy we would anchor outside the break and swim in through the surf. Hmmmmm. Swim into a black sand beach in the middle of the night into a secluded village in Tanna Vanuatu. Yep, sounds like a great idea. The locals went into the water without hesitation so there’s probably no sharks. Plus there was a full moon and we really, really wanted to see the village ceremony. We loaded up our fins, and filled a dry bag with clothes.
Ready to jump into the darkness.
We dingied over, spent a few minutes psyching ourselves up, and jumped into the murky, dark water. The water was unusually warm, much warmer than it should have been. Brady and I both commented on hot sand spots launching the dinghy earlier, some hot enough to almost burn your foot. The whole area is littered with volcanic steam vents. The swim in was surreal. Huge breaking surf loomed just off the beach. The moon was casting shadows over everything. The volcano was spitting fire and lava. At night from this side of the bay you could really see the action. Huge molten chunks the size of cars were tossed into the air, over the volcano rim, and rolled down the side. Ok, don’t pay attention to the volcano now Brian. Just concentrate and swim, swim, swim until you hit that sand. So swim we did right through the surf which landed us on the warm black sand with a plop. We made it without too much hassle.
One hell of a view from the beach.
Sitting on an overturned outrigger canoe we dried off and changed clothes. Just after changing we saw a shadow approaching from the far edge of the beach. A few minutes later I recognized Leaoni approaching from the shadows. She looked amazed and confused at the same time but still managed a smile and welcomed us back. She escorted us to a thatched hut at the center of the village and seated us on a bamboo bench. We were just in time, the band and dancing would start in a few minutes!
We had read so much about the John Frum movementcult and were pumped to see it first hand. We wanted to witness the real deal and compare our experience with what we read in The Shark God, Getting Stoned With Savages, and a few other travel guides on Vanuatu.
Within a few minutes a man with a large stick walked uncomfortably close to us. He circled us slowly, and precisely. He made a perfect circle around us never, never deviating from his sharp gaze. He was intense, you could feel and see the energy in his eyes. He suddenly stopped walking and with completely rigid legs bent at the waste. He stared with a burning intensity right at Brady. I felt at any moment Brady could burst into flames from his gaze. We all became a bit uncomfortable. What the hell was going on here? What kind of crazy drugs was this guy on? This went on for about two minutes.
“Hi, my name is Brady.” No response. “Me name-name blong Brady. What name-name blong yu?” No response to Bislama either. We shared a few uncomfortable glances amongst ourselves. Ok, now this is getting really weird. Should we move? Is this guy going to beat us with his stick? Suddenly our strange John Frum friend straightened up, raised his stick, and proceeded to hit the post right next to Brady making 4 extremely loud cracks sounding like thunder. We all nearly jumped out of our skin. Suddenly the man’s face softened then he smiled and sat down next to Brady.
It seems we unknowingly sat down next to the Tom-Tom, which is a large wooden post buried deep into the ground. The man was intently praying or meditating on the post before striking it. He wasn’t paying attention to us at all, in fact to him we didn’t even exist until his job was done. We later learned that he was the ceremonial Tom-Tom striker which includes opening the ceremony and counting the number of songs each band plays. You see, in order to play all night long the John Frum people have multiple bands. Just like a sports team pulling tired players and replacing them with fresh players from the bench.
His job was to sit there intently and count the number of songs played. On the ninth song he would strike the Tom-Tom 4 times, very very loudly. The band would continue playing. At the end of the ninth song the Tom-Tom was struck 4 more times. The band would then play one more song. Then the Tom-Tom was struck 3 times quite softly. The band would stand up and slowly walk away into the darkness, starting with the outer ring of singers, ring by ring until the 8 or so men in the center holding their guitars, ukulele’s, metal drums, and other noise makers would slowly stand up and walk away. Within minutes the next band in the line up would sit down on the woven mats and start playing. The thing is they only play one song. ALL NIGHT LONG. The very same song is played over and over and over for 10 hours. Weird right?!?!?!?
The band going at it.
A large group of about 30 singers and clappers situates themselves around the band. Leaoni sat in front of us and motioned for us to come down on the floor. We were encouraged to clap in rhythm with the crowd which became very contagious. There was an incredible, tangible energy in the air. There was easily a hundred villagers rocking out to the same song over and over again. People clapped. People sat. People danced. Then out of no where a rumble on the ground would start and you could look over your shoulder to see Mt. Yasur spout out lava and give its contribution to the magical singing and dancing. The people dancing were fascinating. Completely free and uninhibited they found incredible ways to move their bodies. Children, adults, elderly, it didn’t matter. At some point everyone got up and lost themselves in their own personal dance. Not dancing with each other, but dancing only by themselves and for themselves. It felt that at any moment these people were about to start talking in tongues and faint. They waved their arms and danced in circles. They stood and swayed gently back and forth. This was their way of praying. This was their Church. The song repeated over and over was their prayer.
Josje, looking like a missionary, hanging with the ladies and learning to dance.
After a few hours of this bewildering spectacle the village was still going strong. Brady and Josje went for a walk to check out the village at night. On their way back they ran into a mysterious man standing alone in the shadows. “Hello, I’m on of the chiefs here, can I speak to your leader?”. Brady, confused by the situation said “uhm, well my brother is the Capt. I’ll go get him”. Brady came up and tapped my shoulder. “Brian, there is a guy here asking for our leader.” Fair enough, I’m the closest thing our group has to a leader. “Hi, my name is Male Wan.” (pronounced ma-ly) he said in passable English. “Thank you for coming to our village and watching us dance. It means a lot for people to come visit us, especially Americans. We are very close to the US. We feel the people of Tanna and the people of America are one- like brothers.” Oh cool, this is just the sort of conversation I wanted to get into. I asked him if it was ok to ask him some questions about the John Frum movement. “Yes, of course! It is important that people know what we are about and stand for.”
Male Wan from Sulfur Bay. Yep, he’s wearing a ski parka.
He went on to explain that John Frum visited his grandfather in the 1930’s, right before WWII. He explained that the missionaries had converted the villagers to Christianity and would not allow them their traditional Kastom ways. Kastom (pronounced custom) means everything pertaining to the spiritual way of life. It includes strong ties to their ancestors and customs for ensuring good crops, good weather, and beating your enemies in battle. Kastom is the unwritten law that governed the islanders for millennium before the missionaries came. Kava is a huge part of Kastom. It is the spirit of Kastom.
When John Frum arrived he told them they should get back their Kastom ways. They should celebrate their old ceremonies. They should worship in whatever way they wanted. They should drink Kava. Also, they should do all this on Friday. Why on Friday I asked? “Jesus was crucified on Friday. Who cares about Sunday? Friday is the real day.” was Male’s reply.
Much to the chagrin of the missionaries that suddenly lost all their flock. “You see, John Frum is just like Jesus. We think they are of the same spirit, like brothers. John Frum told us that one day America would come to our aid and help us in a time of need. America would be our brother. This came true only a few years later when the American’s came here and protected us from the Japanese. This is why we celebrate America and raise the US flag. John also told us that if we celebrated our Kastom ways we would be rewarded in the future. That he would return and we would prosper. Just like the Christians are waiting for Jesus we are waiting for John Frum. There is no difference.”
Very interesting. The travel books say some different things. Do you know what the books say? They say that you are expecting wealth and material goods if you continue to worship. They say that the Red Cross on your monument is from the American Red Cross army trucks of the war, that it is there because you think it will give you free medical attention. He chuckled a bit and said “Yes, I have heard this before. The cross is red because Jesus was crucified on it. It is red because his blood covered the cross. It is as simple as that. Plus, the fact that you are here right now is proof of the John Frum prophecies being fulfilled. Because you come to visit you bring money to the island. We will get roads, we will get trucks, our lives will get better and better every year. That is what the prayer song is about. It says 2011 is a good year but 2012 will be an even better year. We celebrate the past, present, but especially look forward to the future. By the way the books even have his name wrong. It is John Brum. With a B not a F.”
We spent the next few hours chatting with Male and absorbing all we could about this fascinating group of people, who were so much more interesting than any group we’ve met so far. We asked about Chief Isaac Wan, who’s father was apparently the first person to talk to John Frum. He lived in the next village over. We asked about Prophet Fred, who apparently went fishing for ten years on a Taiwanese fishing boat and had some spirit visions off the coast of Africa. He returned in the mid 90’s back to Sulfur Bay and told everybody they had it all wrong. They were on a path to damnation and should change their ways. He was kicked out of the village for various reasons, including draining a lake that destroyed half the village and casting spells on people with black magic. Is anybody sick? Blame Fred. Is the weather bad? Damn Fred. Volcano being too active? You got it- Fred’s fault. He moved up onto the volcano and started a new village with 4,666 of his believers. He promised them they’d be in Heaven in 3 days if they followed him. Apparently that never happened. He now lives in Port Resolution. We could see his house from our boat. We could also talk to him if we wanted.
There was once a lake here until it overflowed and destroyed part of the village.
“You should come back on Sunday and drink Kava with us. We can talk more. Kava is good for talking.” Absolutely Male. We’ll come back on Sunday for Kava.
We spent the next hour lounging in volcanic fresh water hot pools, laying in the hot water letting the black sand scrub our skin. The volcano was going full blast, never relenting. Always throwing fire into the sky. What a crazy place we thought. We definitely have to spend more time with these people. So we swam back to our dinghy braving the surf in the wee hours of the morning. As the Yamaha roared to life a huge volcanic plume lit up the village and shot a magma ball onto the outside of the crater. What a crazy send off for a crazy night.
Safely back from our early morning swim to the dinghy.
And so our quest to learn more about the John Frum people has begun. We need to track down Chief Isaac Wan. We definitely need to track down Prophet Fred.