4 : The Nakamal

The bowl in my hand is almost filled to the top. I look into the dark grey liquid in it. It smells earthy. Lifting the coconut shell to my lips I gulp, gulp, gulp. I can feel the Kava run down my throat. Surprisingly the taste is way better than in Fiji.

To my right Axel also puts down his coconut shell. We look at each other and smile. I can barely see his face, it’s so dark. We turn around and hand the cups to one of the guys. Some of them are chewing. Tirelessly, since we arrived their mouths are bursting full of a root. Kava. They put as much of the fresh plant as they can in their mouths. When they are done they bend over the big leaf of the Kava preparation station and spew the whole thing out. A big, yellow-greyish, slimy ball falls on the leaf and after finding it’s final form for the moment rests there. One of the men exerting the next step of the process grabs it eventually and throws it in a piece of cloth. It is twisted from two ends while a third man pours water over it which drips through the cloth into more coconut shells. Danielle comes over and hands us pieces of cassava. The men spit. I have never heard people spit this loud.

It’s a two part process. First they noisily collect the saliva in the back of their mouth, then they shoot it out onto the ground with an incredible speed. It must be because of all the rests of Kava stuck in their mouth. The noise mixes with the deep growling of the volcano, reminding us from far away that he is still there.


Kava is a root that grows on many Pacific Islands. It is dried, ground and traditionally consumed as a relaxing, social event in which people sit down together at night, sometimes around especial dedicated places. In some areas it is still used for spiritual and religious experiences. For this bigger amounts of strong Kava are consumed. It is traditionally served in coconut shells.

In most places the plant is nowadays dried and ground before being mixed with water in a big bowl. On Tanna Island though the traditional way is still maintained. It means that the fresh root is chewed for a long time before being spewed onto a big leaf. The slime paste is afterwards put in a piece of cloth, washed with water and then drained over a bowl to be directly served. This makes a way stronger Kava. Traditionally only men are allowed to drink it. In the cities nowadays it starts to be socially accepted for women to drink Kava as well. The Kustom preparation of the Kava usually involves a wild spitting by the people chewing and drinking. The immediate effect from it is numbness of tongue and mouth and a relaxing effect. If you drink more, it can give you a feeling similar to alcohol and even a spiritual experience. It is consumed on a daily basis and every night the men gather in the Nakamal. As it gets dark they sit quietly around the fire place and chew and drink the brown water. In this time everyone in the village stays quiet not to disturb the ceremony.

Mount Yasur Part 2

by Ramin Krause | Oct 27, 2015

5 : The Kaulaka

The Kaulaka comes from a very special place in Vanuatu. The Jankai Valley stretches from Yasur, the volcano, to the ocean. It inhabits many traditional Kastom-Villages with a strong spiritual connection to their land and due to the volcanic ash, very fertile gardens. One of these villages is Lamakara.

The people of Jankai believe that everything around them comes from the Stamba, the great spirit. The wind, the sun, the food, the water and the soil.

The grey mountain is ever present in their lives. From most places in Jankai you can either see or hear it. Every few seconds a growling echoes through the valley as if to remind you of something. Sometimes the volcano erupts.

Years ago it happened two times a year, now it happens less frequently, tells me Moses as we sit on the beach. But nobody ever dies and the villages don’t get devastated. That is one of the reasons the Kaulaka goes up to see the volcano. To ask for mercy, good harvests and for rain. For the people here he is an almost mystical figure. He speaks a different language, the language of the Stamba.

Moses builds a map of his home: The green hills of the Jankai valley that surround Mount Yasur.
As a comparison a satellite picture of the Jankai Valley with Mount Yasur on the left.

When we finally meet him in the Laukaikai Kastom-school an atmosphere of respect surrounds him. Here he teaches the traditions to part of the children of the surrounding villages. There is only oral teaching, no reading or writing. The rest of them either attends the french all-girls or the english all-boys missionary schools. The big bamboo house is full of students of all ages. We receive a very official welcome.

They demonstrate in a choir how well they can count in english and french. Then they start singing. I am mesmerised by the beautiful songs they sing almost in a canon, multi-layered, like a conversation. One person leads the song, starting a new verse before everyone else sets in. I do not understand any words but the rhythm and the tonality take me away.

After they are done they suddenly all stand up and leave the room. For their lunch break somebody tells us.

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As we are sitting together with the Kaulaka on this morning, he tells us about the village and the traditions, his role and how they live with the big, grey giant.

Every plant they harvest is connected to a stone and a family that is its guardian. This role is passed on through generations. For the family, this plant then is their Apu, their grandfather. Generally, the Kaulaka emphasises, the people are only allowed to eat seasonal food. When the time has come the man in charge of it fasts and goes through a Kava ceremony to find out whether the fruit is ready to be harvested. These spiritual Kava ceremonies involve strong Kava in amounts that seem to cause psychedelic effects. It is for example also used to find new, suitable places for gardens. Then one person from the village fasts, drinks Kava and is sent out into the bush on their own. Where ever they stop, the new garden is started.

The communication is not always easy. It goes from Bislama to french to english.

Almost every night the villagers sit together in the community house and play music. At 8 they slowly gather after the sun has set behind the volcano. The little house is full of people and in the middle sits a group of guys with guitars in their hands. “String music” they call this genre. They play simple songs that can go on for hours. They remind of mantras, endlessly and tirelessly repeated. On Fridays, he tells us, they play the whole night through until sun rise. The songs and the lyrics are of course received through Kava dreams in the Nakamal. They come from the volcano.

Mantra II

by Lamakara Village Band

One day, the Kaulaka says, his wife got pregnant and he became angry because he knew that it was not his child. Then the volcano told him that it is his own baby and that he wants the Kaulaka to take care of it for 15 years. Now his son is almost ready to step up and take over his fathers role. Apparently he is naturally so connected with the volcano, he knows before things happen. Did he know Cyclone Pam was coming? Of course, says our translator, a girl from the Kaulaka’s family. Of course.

Slowly, as we keep on digging into the stories, a picture starts to emerge. Like a jigsaw, we start to puzzle the single pieces together. As we sit on the floor of the school, a plate is brought for us. A base layer of cassava and pumpkin in coconut cream, topped with freshly grilled pork ribs. Gratefully we eat it all.

The festive lunch we are served on this Friday afternoon, including a freshly slaughtered pig.

“When the white men came they brought nice clothes, nice food, planes and trucks.” the Kaulaka continues. Again, he stops talking to the translator and looks straight into our eyes. “They even killed us. People in Vanuatu started to forget their culture and their customs. But not here, not in our village. Here the people hold onto their culture!”

I feel shivers run down my spine.

I have to think back to the John Frum movement. Suddenly the essence of the protectionism sits right in front of me and I can feel his energy. He talks even more passionately when it comes to protecting the Kastoms from the white men.

The Kaulaka.

After we are finished the Kaulaka tears a piece off a sheet of writing paper and rolls a cigarette from his little plastic bag. It is locally grown tobacco. He lights the cigarette and continues the story. We hang onto his lips.

The prophecy was given to the people of the Jankai valley by the Stamba, the volcano, and it says many different things. For example that the water will one day rise over the shores of Tanna. It will swallow the island and everything living on it. I remember reading about Vanuatu slowly disappearing due to climate change and the rising sea levels. Weird. It also says that one day many people from all countries around the world will come to Tanna and live peacefully together. This explains the role the cyclone plays in the prophecy. Yes, the Kaulaka says, the Cyclone happened and brought people from all around the world to Tanna Island. It made Vanuatu well known in the world. The volcano sent it. To help the people. In my head I already know how the people received the prophecy. Through Kava from the volcano. Like almost everything in this magical piece of land, I think to myself.

He looks straight into our eyes. After the cyclone happened, he says, he had to go up the volcano and see if it the fire still burns. It sounds like the volcano is his friend, like they are caring and watching over each other.

The Kaulaka stands up, walks to the window and rolls another cigarette. Outside the children are playing and screaming. A football hits the roof and the Kaulaka seems to consider reacting to it but decides not to.

The moon is female, the sun is male and in between is the volcano. No matter how many tourists come, he says, they will go up the volcano and only see fire. What they won’t see is the man in the fire, the personification of god. Slowly, as he speaks and we listen to the translations, I understand how in the Kastom culture words like christ, god, man, grandfather and the great spirit are all one. The lines between them blur and so lose in importance. More than about the abstract idea of it, it communicates a feeling, a faith in something bigger, something spiritual that goes beyond names and labels. There is a strong and true belief that we are all one with everything that is.

It reminds me of something Moses told me. As we sat on the beach near the hot pools, he said “the world, God,  Jesus, John, the volcano and all of us are not separate. We are all one, we come from one and will be one. There are no borders, there is no separation.” Then he went on to cite Bob Marley: “We are one, no matter what skin colour we have. We are all brothers and sisters.”

This moment almost brought tears to my eyes. As he said these magical words that forget any colonial history, monetary or passport differences he tapped with two fingers onto the inside of his arm, as if to say “We all have the same blood running in our veins, brother!”

6 : Ascending Yasur

Breathing under the bandana gets harder and harder. Everything around me is deep black except of the red tinted cloud rising up from the top of the volcano I am climbing. The ashes under my feet vibrate suddenly from an eruption in the crater.

Always forward. My hands dive into the soft ashes. They are softer where people have already been sliding down but it is more stable to climb in untouched, harder sand.

A strong wind blows from my right side, sand gets in my eyes. I ram my feet into the ground. When does this end? I wonder over and over again. It must be a magic mountain. No matter how much I climb I don’t seem to get closer to the top. I do ascend, yes, I can tell from the shapes of the breathtaking, black landscape in my back, but the top still seems unreachable. In the distance above me I can see people sitting. A few of the others take a break. I happily join them, trying to catch my breath. After a few minutes we continue our turtle race up Yasur, the big volcano on Tanna Island.

On and on we go until I fall onto my knees, convinced I cannot continue any further. Looking up the top still looks as far away as it did 20 minutes ago.

What is this? I notice a slight change of angle in the shape of the volcano and give myself a last push. Running, my lungs burning, slipping and catching my balance again. In the slight hope I can relax soon. The vibration of the eruptions gets closer, more intense. It is now bone-shattering. Within 30 seconds the ground flattens and I start to walk upright again.

The red cloud now towers right above me, huge and majestic. In front of it sit two black silhouettes. As I approach them a bone shattering explosion shakes the ground under me and vibrates the air with noise.

Up here stands the Kaulaka before he climbs down into the earth, down the crater, to talk to Yasur. The volcano. The God. I look at the lava flying up, reaching its peak and seemingly standing still mid-air in what feel like an eternity of beauty before starting their downfall again. He, the Kaulaka, the chosen one, comes up here, from his village Lamakara. After 3 weeks and 3 days of fasting he drinks Kava in the Nakamal. Then he leaves on his own and ascends to the top, to where I am standing right now. They say he stays up here for seven days. In this state he can build a bridge to Yasur.

We stare right into Yasur’s soul. 

Milliseconds later a huge load of Lava shoots out of the crater in front of us.

It disperses into many different bubbles as it shoots up.

They are of a glowing orange and change their form slowly.

The lava flies so high, it feels like it might fall on us.

Between the explosions towers a silence, only overlaid by the howling of the wind blowing into our faces.

After reaching its peak height the lava slowly starts to fall again.

Some fall onto the wall of the crater and slowly tumble down back into the inside of the earth.

Very irregularly the volcano growls and spits out melted earth.

Again and again this spectacle happens, day and night, whether I watch it or not.

The crater growls. I thank Mother Earth with all my heart for this beauty.


On this afternoon we leave Lamakara. The stoney road winds it’s way towards Lenakel in the west. We see the big hills in the distance that we will cross. Moses joins us on our journey. Sometimes I am not entirely sure if he is our friend or our guide, if he helps us or if we help him. It’s a hot day and sweat runs down my chest. After the sun has set our little expedition arrives on Noalani. She rocks in the nightly waves. 

After everyone has gone to bed Moses and me sit together. He asks me to send an email for him. It is still hard for me to grasp our relationship. He is very quiet and his calmness makes it difficult to see his intentions. Earlier we agreed to take him with us to Port Vila. After four days there is still a distance between us. He hands me a piece of paper. It has a name, a phone number and an email address written on it. Douglas. I type the address in the to: field and Moses starts dictating. 

As we sit in the dim, flickering light of an oil lamp David slowly tells me what he set out to get for his village. I understand who we are writing to: someone in an american aid agency that visited Lamakara shortly after the cyclone and promised to help. The list of things gets longer and longer. Building materials, a truck, tanks, pipes, tools, nails, screws, wire, cement mixing equipment, fishing and diving gear, cooking utensils and food and school utensils for the children of the Kastom school. We end the mail with “Thank you for stopping by. We love you! My community stills thinks of you dearly and wishes you the best.”After I sent it David seems relieved.

He is on a mission. On a mission for the things in the list. For the things they need in Lamakara. I do not know yet that he is going to Port Vila to find a job and that he is thinking about going to Australia to make money. I think back to Lamakara, to the pride of the people when they were talking about their Kastom way of life and about the fire in the Kaualakas eyes when he talked about the people from Tanna.

It makes me wonder about where the line is, about how much getting these things and going into the modernised world for that is possible before the Kastoms start to lose in importance. And about how happy can people be in a traditional way of life if they have not been fed the dreams of advertising. Certainly wire and diving goggles are not what consumerism bases on. But people in Lamakara were for example already wearing shirts and jeans instead of the traditional nambas (penis sheaths) and grass skirts of the bare chested women.

Cannibal feast on the Island of Tanna, New Hebrides by Charles E. Gordon Frazer (1863-1899)

Where is the line? I wonder, as I slowly fade in to a deep, quiet sleep on our rocking red sailboat.

I dream of the ash plains around Yasur, of the pigs in Lamakara and of the waves of the ocean near the hot pools:

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The End.

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