Most people spend their hard-earned tropical vacations reasonably focused on boat drinks, water slides and a nice hot stone massage.
I envy them.
Because I’m the annoying sort who sits at the swim-up bar and wonders what paradise was like before swim-up bars.
Much to my wife’s chagrin, I rent cars of questionable fitness to explore neighborhoods where tourists never tread. I chat up busboys and buffet chefs to better understand what life was like before we showed up. And while she happily sits on the beach with a novel, I build mental time machines, picturing the moment some European explorer first put a boot onto this sand and changed island life forever.
So, when it came time to pick destinations for “The Wonder List,” I set out to find a Hawaii without hotels, a Bali before burger joints.
I wanted to meet nice people in a beautiful place completely off the grid, where food comes free from the soil and sea and friends around a fire is wireless entertainment.
And mostly I wanted to know what they think about our modern world, closing in fast. I wanted to hear what happens when white men show up with a bag of money and offer to buy it all.
And then I saw this photograph:
It was taken by an Englishman named Jimmy Nelson for a project titled “Before They Pass Away.”
For three years, the self-described “visual anthropologist” traveled to the most remote corners of the planet to capture luscious images of indigenous people in all their traditional splendor.
I called Jimmy, explained what I was after and his response was instantaneous. “You must go to Vanuatu,” he said. “And I’ll take you.”
Thanks to the reality game show “Survivor,” I had a faint memory of the name Vanuatu but knew nothing of the people, history or culture. So I started digging and found something that made my hair stand on end.
It is a painting titled “Cannibal Feast on the Island of Tanna” by English landscape artist Charles Gordon Frazer. He reportedly stumbled upon this scene in the 1880s and became the only outsider to witness the grisly custom.
“Are we going to Tanna?” I asked Jimmy.
“Absolutely,” he said. “The people are lovely.”
“How do we get there?” I asked.
“You’ll need a plane,” he said. “And a boat.”
“We have several cameras,” I pointed out. “Is there power? Or…”
“Bring lots of batteries,” he said. “And a hammock.”
The journey that followed blew my feeble mind in a dozen unexpected ways. The whiff of ancient cannibalism turned out to be the least interesting thing on Tanna, edged out by the live, climbable volcano:
…and the tribe that believes a god named John lives inside.
They are led by a chief named Isaac One:
…who explained how the spirit first appeared on Tanna in the form of an American serviceman, who ordered the tribe to reject Christian missionaries and promised boatloads of American cargo in return.
Then came World War II and boatloads of American cargo.
To this day, the Stars and Stripes is a religious symbol for the people under the volcano and their children are shamans in training, learning to talk to the spirits in the trees and shoot birds from the sky.
As for the tribe in Frazer’s painting, they thankfully made no effort to eat us. In fact they turned out to be some of the warmest and most adorable hosts I’ve ever met.
A few of the village elders have actually spent time in New York and London. And they couldn’t wait to get out of their shoes and back into the jungle where money doesn’t matter and everyone’s a friend.
But while some in Vanuatu reject change, their countrymen on another island can’t wait for big hotels and bigger incomes. This includes the guy in Jimmy’s epic rock-top photograph.
His name is Bob. He wants to be an actor.
And when I climbed to the very spot in that photo, I was gobsmacked to discover…
…that the cell phone signal is stronger than Manhattan’s. Turns out that I stumbled into a modern garden of Eden right before they bite the apple. And the lessons about what we want out of life will stay with me forever.