Thursday, August 15, 2013

Primal Wilderness Rambling From Cook Islands

“Where are you from?”

“United States.”

“What is your name?”


“Hey, I am John, too!”

Although the polite fisherman was dressed like a native in imported Salvation Army garb straight out of “That Seventies Show,” I couldn’t believe he was neither an AWOL backpacker nor an unemployed Import-Export artist.

For real, he was a local.

“When my mother gave birth to me, she was divorced from her husband,” John related sadly. “The villagers said I was a bastard and threw stones at her.” Thus, they were forced out of Vanuatu. “And now we live here,” he added for effect.

“That’s a very sad story,” I replied with alertness, hoping for the sake of a magazine article that he would say more.

“When I asked who my real father was, she just said ‘John Frum.’”

I had read a brief section on Oceanic cargo cults in my old Moon South Pacific Handbook - still pretty much the bible of time travel in Polynesia and Melanesia - but I never expected to actually meet a member, albeit one of obvious European descent. Aitutaki, Cook Islands was a long way from Tanna, Vanuatu, where the cult formed after an American serviceman named John came along during World War II, dressed in Navy whites and bearing gifts such as canned goods and processed meals.

Including Spam (™)!

According to legend, everyone asked “Where is John from?” The question was often assumed to include a surname: Frum. Locals are still awaiting John Frum’s second coming armed with profits and plenty. Thus, one of the world’s most popular conversation starters may also have been the origin of one of the world’s wackiest religions: The John Frum Cargo Cult.

One common belief of cargo cults is that uncountable riches will be lavishly sent from some heavenly place, if proper ceremonies are held. John Frum represented the white colonialists who had usurped their ancestors' wealth but were still willing to return it. The cargo cult members built modest replicas of airports and planes out of twigs to try to activate shipments of abundant cargo out of thin air.

John Frum devotees are more patriotic about America than your average Joe in Guam, an actual American protectorate. While most of the islands on which they live are independent nations tied to the British, French, or Australians, many of them sport USA tattoos on their chests and backs.

Even today, products like John Fromm Soap can be found from New Guinea to Vanuatu, as well as vintage cans of Campbell’s Soup and antique bottles of Coca-Cola. Not to mention, long-expired Pringles and Milo.

Plus, wherever John Frum cultists are, especially in the former New Hebrides, there are barefoot pro-American GI reinactors with bamboo rifles and Bald Eagle tattoos raising “Old Glory.”

James Michener’s book Tales of the South Pacific, upon which the famous Rogers and Hammerstein musical was based, is still one of the most popular reads among locals. Probably because not much has changed locally since World War II. Even so, anthropologists believe the cult is based on a much older source, involving European colonialists who did not need to work hard like the locals but wrote down lists on paper just before magical supplies and largesse were mysteriously flown in for everyone.

As I traveled with John past coral reefs and virgin beaches on deserted islets called motus, we pulled up in front of some palms and set about capturing lunch.

John dug a hole in the sand and filled it with corals, then after catching glittery fish in his net, he set about lighting the umu (earth oven) with dead palm leaves. With fresh coconut juice dripping like 
jism from his mouth, John cooked up a feast fit for a platoon.

I felt a little bit like a losing Survivor contestant. 
However, John pulled out a bottle of wretched table wine imported from French Polynesia and asked, “Can you open this?” Luckily, my handydandy Swiss Army Knife did have a rudimentary corkscrew.

Still, I think it was the can opener he was most into.

Lightly pressing John for more info about the cult, I waited until he settled upon the topic with gravitas, “I guess John Frum is our Jesus. We believe in both.”

Then John produced from nowhere some Kava: a mildy hallucinogenic herb named piper methysticum from the root of the yanggona plant. When wrapped in a T-shirt and dipped in Fiji-brand bottled water, it looks like dirty dishwater. Tastes like it too.

Within seconds my tongue went numb, then my entire mouth. Out of the fire came the South Pacific staples of taros and yams, which I had trouble eating since I couldn’t yet taste anything. Neither could I identify the fish we were eating, except that they were very fresh. But I was definitely enjoying the Kava Klatch.

“If we perform the dances, worship the sacred stones, and drink the Kava,” John said, pausing slightly to gulp. “Then John Frum will return to us with more gifts. Not just cigarettes and chocolate, but also outboard motors and TV sets.
” Once, the locals practiced polygamy and penis wrapping, but John says the Presbyterians from Scotland put an end to all that. Not to mention cannibalism.

With a sleepyheaded Kava buzz, I wondered idly, as I rolled over onto my side for a light snooze, what would be the next course? But John just sat there with a vague vampire smile, sticking a kebab skewer of stale marshmallows into the fire.

John M. Edwards is a writer and photojournalist. He has traveled five continents with experiences ranging from surviving a ferry sinking off Siam to getting caught in a military coup in Fiji. His writing has appeared in CNN Traveller, Entertainment Weekly,, Condé Nast Traveler, Islands, Matador, World Hum, BootsnAll, and other publications. He received five NATJA (North American Travel Journalists Association) Awards, two TANEC (Transitions Abroad Narrative Essay Contest) Awards, and three Solas (sponsored by Travelers’ Tales). He edits the Rotten Vacations anthology.

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm, a part of the world I haven't paid enough attention to. John Frum is not a story I knew about...