Fiji is only a 3-hour flight from New Zealand and lies 22 degrees south of the Equator. It is bisected by the 180 degree meridian or dateline and is one of the first countries to greet the new day.
Fiji is composed of over 300 islands, and is divided into seven distinguishable island groups. Viti Levu is the largest and most influential of these, followed by Vanua Levu, and has over three quarters of the country's 800,000 population. The larger islands have rugged volcanic mountain ranges dominating their interior landscapes, while many of the smaller ones are no more than low-lying coral atolls.
Fijis population is almost equally split between indigenous Fijians and Indians, with small European and Chinese communities. The Indians were first brought to the islands in the late 1800s by the then ruling British to work in the sugar plantations.
They have subsequently become Fijian citizens and tend to dominate the economic scene here, owning the majority of the businesses and sugar plantations. The indigenous Fijians are generally-speaking far less aggressive when it comes to commerce, preferring the family and community-based lifestyle of subsistence farming and fishing. Outside of the main towns, it is these types of traditional village environments that predominate.
Fiji was first settled around 8000 years ago, followed by a second wave of migration about 5000 years later, by Melanesian people from Southeast Asia. These ancient warring Fijians were noted cannibals and animists, who lived in small, fortified villages and formed clan alliances with neighboring settlements through polygamy.
The face of Fiji today is very different. The last acts of cannibalism disappeared with the conversion of the indigenous peoples to Christianity by missionaries, and now the Fijian people are noted for their warmth and hospitality. Bula, meaning hello, is the greeting on everyones lips and smiles come naturally.
Unfortunately, due to political instability resulting from a divided population and land rights issues, a coup happened here as recently as a year ago and sent the country into an economic tailspin. I heard stories of curfews, riots and street violence, but everything has since calmed down and returned to normal. I sensed none of the animosity that had fuelled the unrest only a few months earlier.
Annette and I arrived to be greeted by a wave of warm air that almost took our breath away, and the smiling face of my friend Vani. She welcomed us with open arms, after a seven-year hiatus, and then bundled us into a waiting taxi, containing her husband Apeli and her brother-in-law Romano. It was really great to be back here after such a long absence with so many fond memories.
Vani and her companions took us back to the family home in Naboutini, where we were greeted by more familiar faces.
It was like taking a stroll down memory lane where, on the surface, little seemed to have changed in my absence. The small single level family house, which had been my home base for 5 weeks in 1994, was almost exactly as I had left it with the exception of the exterior, which had changed from cream to green.
There was still the meandering brown river behind the house, flanked by banana and mango trees and sugar cane fields on the far bank. This being the dry season it wasnt flowing as swiftly as before and the simple concrete bridge a hundred yards downstream had since collapsed making vehicular travel impossible.
The bridge crossing used to serve as a congregational point for the villagers, where children would come to swim and play and generally carry-on, while their mothers swapped stories amongst themselves and took care of laundry chores. The local open- sided transport buses still stopped directly outside the house and people looked on curiously at us.
Meroni, who was a teenager on my last visit, had now become a mother and her one-year old daughter Nelly, was just a little gem. Shy at first, it didnt take long before curiosity overcame her initial fear of the white folks and she quickly became magnetized by Annette. Young Penianna, too, had grown up, but she now seemed a little shy in our presence. We were introduced to Luci, whom I had formerly not met, as she was studying in the capital city of Suva for her nursing degree at the time. She too had a one-month old baby boy named Peni in her arms.
Abraham was in Australia at the time of my previous visit, but subsequently became a dear friend with whom I shared much in common. Caroline, the family matriarch, embraced us with her usual quiet charm and sat us down to share in the customary ritual of drinking Kava.
Yaqona (pron. angona) is the traditional drink of Fiji and is central to their culture and identity. It is derived from the root of the kava plant, crushed into a fine powder and then mixed with water in a Tanoa or large wooden bowl. The mildly intoxicating brown liquid resembles dirty water and definitely takes some getting used to. It leaves a slight numbing effect in the mouth while tasting rather unpalatable.
Participants sit in a circle facing the Tanoa and there are generally one or two people responsible for overseeing the proceedings, whose duty it is to be present at all times and guard the sacred liquid. A small half coconut shell of the mixed liquid is passed in rounds to each participant one at a time and throughout the ceremony there is hand clapping and occasional chanting.
Often, these gatherings around the Tanoa can extend for prolonged periods of time and like alcohol, it can have the effect of getting people really smashed! Annette and I joined in the customary proceedings and out of obligation managed to endure a couple of rounds before bowing out.
The Veisamasama family house is a simply constructed out of wooden boards and has a corrugated tin roof. The front door leads directly into the main living room and off this are 3 small bedrooms, a kitchen and shower stall. Partially opened shutters keep the interior relatively dark and take the place of actual glass windows, which are unnecessary in this tropical climate. Furniture is sparse, because, as is true of many cultures that we visited, the Fijians prefer to sit directly on the floor. Meals are also taken here, with a cloth spread out on the cool ground. Sitting cross-legged takes some getting used to and invariably we would get up feeling crippled from the experience.
After the initial greeting ceremonies had ended, Vani, Caroline, Annette and I went for a walk through the sugar plantation adjacent to their home and we ended up at a hot spring beneath the mountain (the only one on the island!). The hot waters of the spring were a nice way to relax and let the stress of another long journey ebb away.
It took a couple of days for us to adjust to the heat and humidity and way of life in Fiji. Things move at a much slower pace here and relaxation is a big part of daily ritual, especially in village life. It takes some getting accustomed to, especially for the western mind, which always seems preoccupied with planning activities and achieving goals - we found this to be all too true of us as well. There were certainly times when we felt a little restricted by the less than motivated attitude of some of the people. This is not a judgement against the Fijians, but an acknowledgement of our own inability to sit still long!
Fijians, like most races in the South Pacific, live in very tightly bonded communities where sharing and communality is normal. They exist within a hierarchical system that is dominated by the village and provincial chiefs. Families belong to mataqalis (pron. matangalies), vanuas and yavusas, which are ostensibly clans and sub-clans. It is a pretty complicated and inter-woven system. If you meet one person, then all of a sudden you are likely to be introduced to a long line of cousins and other related family members.
Typical Fijian homes are without defined boundaries and doors are seldom closed. Most families live within the village complex, though settlements are becoming more common today. In these settlements, families utilize the surrounding village land for home building and their own agricultural purposes. Fijians by law own 80% of the land in Fiji, not directly but through the tribal village system.
A large portion of the indigenous Fijian people are involved with subsistence farming or fishing for a living, though more are turning to the cities to earn money for their families. The majority of them live very simply, without the abundance of material possessions we are accustomed to surrounding ourselves with here in the West. In contrast, the Indian Fijians appear the antithesis of the indigenous people, most choosing to have city-centered professions, accumulate wealth and goods and have barb wire perimeter fences around their houses!
Before arriving in Fiji, Annette had decided that she needed to have some additional time with her family members in Hawaii, in addition to feeling overwhelmed from nearly 11 months of traveling solidly. So we had booked her on an outbound flight from Fiji only 5 days after our arrival here, which unfortunately did not leave us long to explore. Thankfully, Vani had re-arranged her Sheraton work schedule at short notice and took time off to do a very quick, 3-day circumnavigation of Viti Levu. We decided to include a visit to her brother Tevita (David), whom I had spent a lot of time with before, swimming in the rivers and hiking up into the hills. He was now a college-graduate and schoolteacher in a remote location on the opposite side of the Island.
From Nadi (pron.Nandi), we caught one of the old local buses that belched diesel, crunched through its series of gears and looked like it had been in service since the beginning of time. First stopping in the rather dirty and nondescript town of Lautoka, we waited in the shade of the midday heat, for the connecting bus to Rakiraki, which took another 2 hours to cover the distance. From here, we took a local taxi, driven by a very pleasant Fijian man, who chatted with us all the way to Navitilevu Bay.
We were dropped at this small beachfront settlement, which was no more than a few basic shelters and thatched bures (traditional Fijian homes), where the residents all fished for a living. As a form of supplemental income, a couple of people had small boats with outboard motors, which they used to ferry passengers over the bay to the tiny village and school settlement where Tevita taught his classes.
We arrived just in time, as the tide was well on its way out again and the rocky reef was becoming clearly visible. The incoming waves would surge at the lip of the coral reef and tumble over in a cascade of white spray and foam. Our captain and his young assistant loaded our bags into the front of the fiberglass boat and covered them with a plastic tarp, while we walked barefoot over the shallow reef until reaching sufficiently deep water to hop onboard.
We barely managed to clear the reef with a bit of a resounding scrape to the hull, which made me wonder whether or not a rupture may have occurred. It was about this time that we also realized that there were five passengers and not one lifejacket between us!
The Prussian blue ocean swells were starting to become more and more pronounced and I must admit the fact that we had nothing to save us in the event of an emergency did make me, at least, rather concerned. The captain was obviously accomplished, but he still had to ride the waves somewhat like a cowboy breaks a bronco! By default, I ended up in the front section of the boat, out of sprays way - but Annette, Vani and the other two guys got pretty soaked.
The bay crossing took nearly an hour, finally mooring about 100 yards/meters or so from shore at the edge of a muddy, exposed reef, which was predominantly lined with mangroves. As we approached the beachhead, Vani pointed out Tevita, who had appeared from behind one of the school compound buildings, dressed in his teachers uniform of traditional black formal sulu (sarong) and white linen shirt. I would simply have never recognized him on the street. He was 14 at our last encounter and would now be 21 in two weeks!
With no telephone or direct lines of communication to this remote peninsula, Tevita had no forewarning of this visit and it was equally difficult for him to comprehend my presence. We took our bags to Tevitas one room hut, which he was temporarily sharing with his cousin Missi who had come here for the purpose of adding some family companionship - not that Tevita lacked any number of local friends! Fijians are generally not accustomed to being away from family for any length of time and this bond is strongly shared within communities.
I introduced Annette to Tevita and his friends and we sat talking and re-establishing our friendship. We all got along well, though people invariably change over the years, especially through the adolescent/adulthood phase. Tevita was in many ways not the same person that I had connected with when he was a teenager and initially communication seemed a little strained. Like his younger sister Penianna, he became a bit shy in our presence, yet was obviously a very outgoing and gregarious individual around his companions. In time though, he opened up and we had a fun, memorable time here. Around 5 pm, many of the men from the local village began to assemble on the school playing field for a game of touch rugby. Some had walked from a days work in the fields; others showed up on horseback. Tevita and Missi joined in with this daily ritual, while Annette and I set up our tent.
As the sun began to set, we walked several hundred yards/meters down the beach to a large boulder that protruded from the reef, which typically gets surrounded by water at high tide. The view out across the bay and up the visible extent of the Island was just stunning from this elevated perspective. A variety of beautiful old gnarly trees spread their leafy green canopies all the way down the length of the beach and directly in front was a well-defined line of mangroves, adding yet another element of rich texture. The dusk sky was an incredible array of warm tones, which accentuated the depth of color in the foliage around the waters edge.
Being low tide, navigation along this particular stretch of shoreline was unhampered. On returning to the school grounds, Adi and Vani prepared dinner in Adis modest little bungalow, which differed only slightly from her neighbors' in that it had a kitchen. The food was cooked over a little wood burning hearth and the corrugated tin chimney was blackened from use. Both she and Tevita had separate and very simple outhouses with adjacent shower stalls made out of plank wood and more tin. There is no hot water except that which is boiled up over the stove and electricity has not even made it here yet. Life is fairly basic and revolves around the daily ritual of work and then some free time in the evenings for social activities such as rugby or drinking kava.
As soon as the sun set, around 6.15 pm, darkness ensued very quickly. After dinner we picked our way by lantern light along a small jungle path to the neighboring village which was no more than a mile away. The sky was black and glittered with stars and a gentle breeze blew across the water, but still it seemed hot and humid.
When we arrived, the village was relatively quiet, everyone having retired to their respective homes for dinner and family time. We entered a large thatched bure at the center of the village, which acted as a gathering place for the villagers, in particular, the men. (One of Fijis contentious modern day issues is the fact that although women do the bulk of the work they have little to say in the daily operation of their households. They are often busily engaged in catering to their families and husbands, while the men definitely indulge far more heavily in pursuits of their own choice)
Sitting on the palm woven mats that lined the dirt floor inside this building was the pastor of the village and a couple of his friends. They welcomed us warmly and invited us to join them in drinking kava. It did not take long for the word of our presence to spread, and soon the bure was filled. Vani and Adi excused themselves and went in search of some paraffin for the lantern, leaving Annette as the sole female in the room for quite a while.
Tevita assumed his position next to the Tanoa, mixing and dispensing the muddy grey liquid to everyone present. We were quite amused to see the pastor partake as heavily as anyone else in the ritual. We were informed that certain Christian sects in Fiji do not permit clergymen to drink Yaqona, but his particular branch of the faith had no issues around this matter.
The pastor was evidently highly regarded in the community, even though he did not hail from this particular village. He asked us all sorts of questions and seemed to take an interest in both our travels and ourselves. The majority of people in Fiji speak Basic English or better, but the pastors excellent command of the language helped us communicate our ideas and stories more fully - he then translated this information back into the native tongue for the benefit of all present.
An hour or so of sitting around drinking kava is about as much as we could endure and it was with some discomfort that we extricated ourselves from the ongoing proceedings. Just as we were making tracks back through the village, we were met on the path by Vani and Adi, who informed us that a group of women had gathered in one of the homes and had requested our company for yet more kava.
It is customary in Fiji to entertain and feed guests and even though we had not necessarily been given any formal invitations here, it was just assumed that we would be a part of their social evening. So the bowl was once more passed our way and we politely drank another couple of rounds, sitting there cross-legged and smiling between yawns. It had been a long, tiring day and we were by now sorely in need of some sleep. The tide had come up by the time we said farewell to the village and the return journey partially followed the trail through the woods and also required a little wading at times through the shallow, gently lapping waters.
The following day, we were awakened by the sounds of childrens voices. It was about 7.30 am and Tevita and Adi were already up and dressed again in their professional attire, ready for another days tutoring. The children come to school here from all over the peninsula, some having to make journeys of up to 3 hours. These more distant attendees often are the ones who stay here in the compound as boarders others arrive daily by boat or on foot.
They smiled and waved, or giggled and acted shy and everyone seemed curious about our tent of course. Some of the children were actually about an hour late for their first morning class, as they had to wait for the tide to rise and permit safe passage of the boat that ferried them here. They disembarked with enough food supplies to last a week and each of these children helped with unloading the boat.
Our friends ate their staple diet of cassava (root crop that resembles a fibrous potato), roti (chapati) and vegetable curry along with some milk tea for breakfast, while Annette and I prepared our strong coffee and porridge!
Once Tevita and Adi left for the classroom, Annette and I went for another walk along the beach and watched the colorful and noisy local birds through our binoculars. The sea was much calmer than the previous day and shimmered royal blue in the bright morning light. Numerous palm trees dotted the woods just back from the beach and piles of collected or husked nuts lay at their bases.
By 11.30am we were all packed up and ready to leave this scenically secluded location. The pastor from the village was already there with his new fiberglass boat and ready to make tracks back across the bay. Passing the noisy classrooms filled with excited young children for the last time, we said farewell to our friends. Tevita would be coming back to Naboutini in less than a week and so we would have at least one more opportunity to see each other. We had agreed to have a night out on the town in Nadi when he arrived home - a pre-birthday celebration!
It was a beautiful clear and calm day, making the return crossing was relatively quick and easy. It was a bit of a hike up the hill with our bags to the main road, where we caught yet another open sided local (express) bus towards Nausori, where we planned to visit Vanis in-laws.
Todays journey took us along the Kings road, which extends around the northern half of the Island from Lautoka to Suva. From its mid-way point at Rakiraki, the road veers inland and conditions deteriorate rapidly. It is unsealed and filled with potholes making for a slow, bumpy ride through the highlands. Vegetation here was lush and the soil very productive - the region receives high amounts of rainfall annually, making conditions excellent for farming. We passed through numerous small villages and settlements that cultivated such crops as cassava, taro, banana, papaya, mango and of course, kava.
There were schools in most of the larger villages with well-maintained playing fields, kept fastidiously trimmed by hand scythe - no lawn mowers here! Colorful plants and shrubs loosely outlined each familys property and along the roadside where inverted tree stumps stuck in the ground with painted white stones on top, that acted as markers for night driving.
Like the so many of Fijis towns, Nausori is a bustling little market center where farmers come from the surrounding countryside to sell their produce, while the majority of local retail stores are Indian owned and operated. It is in these town settings that you tend to see more general interaction between these two ethnic groups.
The air is typically choked with diesel fumes from cars, trucks and buses that clog the busy main roads. We waited in the unhealthy atmosphere of the bus depot, in hopes of catching one of the local buses into the hills once more, to our days final destination. Instead, a taxi ended up taking us to the village where Vanis in-laws lived on a small farming property. It felt good to be here after another long day's journey and a cold shower helped us wash away the road grime.
We found ourselves in another very beautiful but rustic setting, where the simple family home was surrounded by a colorful and richly textured garden with towering fruit trees. We pitched our tent at the foot of a grassy slope on the property, adjacent to a field of taro plants.
At dusk, against a backdrop of fading light and faint stars, the distinctive black silhouettes of huge fruit bats could be seen overhead. The wing span was easily equal to that of a large seagull and the slow downward beat of their wings made an audible whoosh of air in passing. They would come from daytime roosts to dine on the surrounding fruit trees and in the process would screech and fight over the readily available food source. Periodically through the night, we would hear loud thuds as large pieces of fruit fell to the ground from the bats feasting.
The following morning we continued on our express journey to the capital city of Suva. Here we stopped and walked around the busy central retail district, which was comprised of lots of small department stores, shoe shops and clothing outlets.
Suva is home to around 100,000 people and the sprawling city is built on surrounding hillsides that gently terminate at an expansive bay fringed with palm trees. It is a busy seaport where all incoming cargo vessels to the Islands stop to load/unload and passenger ships depart for the outer Islands. By our standards, it still appears to be a small town, but here in Fiji it is unmistakably the hub of Island activity and commerce. Suva is where central government presides and the Island's power struggles are debated.
From Suva we hired a taxi to drive us the remaining 3 hours back to Nadi, along the Queens Highway which skirts the southern aspect of Viti Levu. This coastal route winds through many small traditional fishing villages and we frequently saw people selling all sorts and sizes of colorful, freshly caught fish at the roadside. In elevated areas where the undulating road crested hills we were afforded some lovely sweeping panoramic views of several outer islands, which were set like jewels in a sea of shimmering blue. Along the seashore, tall palm trees stood like sentries over the white sand beaches and partially exposed coral reefs stood out in the low tide. A number of resorts and secluded retreats have found a home along this coastal section and we did see a number of tourists out exploring in the local villages on hired bicycles.
The following day, Annette packed up her belongings and said farewell to our friends in Naboutini and we caught a local bus to the airport for her connection to Hawaii. It seemed really strange for us to be going in separate directions at this juncture, having spent every minute of the past 10 months in each others company. We had grown accustomed to the inevitable but sad partings from friends along our route, but saying goodbye to one another was completely alien. By this time, Annette really needed a well-earned break from the rigors of traveling and the extra time and indulgences she knew awaited her in Hawaii.
My remaining two weeks in Fiji were primarily passed with Vanis cousins on the island of Vanua Levu, in a tiny fishing village called Namama, situated on the northern coast near the capital city of Labasa. The grueling 20-hour journey from Nadi, included an 11-hour boat crossing on rough seas.
From the ferry terminal at Savusavu, the early morning ride up over the central mountain range caught me off guard. I had packed minimal clothing, opting to save the extra baggage weight and omitted such essentials as a sweater, which I now dearly regretted. A layer of mist hung in the luscious green valleys below and I found some comfort in a pair of light pants, which I wrapped around my shoulders to break the wind coming through the open sided bus.
Stepping down off the rickety old passenger bus in Seaqaqa (pron.Sayanganga), cold and worn out from the long journey, I was then driven the remaining 13kms to Namama Village by taxi. The compressed dirt road was badly rutted and no buses drove this route. Gazing out the window, I began to see many of the old familiar landmarks that I had grown accustomed to on my previous visit to this beautiful part of the country. The further down this one lane road you traveled, the simpler and more rustic life became and I liked it this way.
Tavaga and Timothy were standing under the mango tree at the edge of the village, when the taxi pulled up. As I got out, we greeted each other warmly and they helped me carry my bags to the main house. It was so great to see all these good people again after such a long absence and to be made to feel part of the family and home.
The only fore warning they had of my visit was a Christmas card over 18 months ago, stating that Annette and I had intended to take a year off and travel the world and that we hoped to come again to Fiji. There is no telephone in Namama and it was only 3 years ago that electricity was brought to the village.
Life just happens here and each day is taken as it comes and appreciated for what it is worth. My arrival sent an initial ripple of novelty through the community but was otherwise just a part of the new days evolution and made to fit into the greater scheme of things. Many of the faces and names were familiar to me others were new and vibrant additions to the ever expanding family clan.
Gone were Tavagas wild man dreadlocks, in their place a beard and a belly - he had finally married and now had a young son. 15 year old Timothy had grown into a tall powerfully built young man who was still missing two front teeth and his gracious sister Rawa was now also married with two children of her own.
There was one very notable absence in the village community. A little over two months ago, Waqa, the Veisamasama patriarch and village chief had suddenly died of a heart attack leaving an obvious void in the family legacy. He was a wonderfully spirited human being, kind hearted and generous and I remembered him with great affection.
After a few cups of tea, some food and a round of re-introductions, several of the men escorted me to the far end of the village where their burial ground is situated. It is here amongst the mango trees and jungle that backs up to the mountainside, that Waqa was recently given full chiefly ceremonial rites and laid to rest. A small rectangular mounding of lava rock and several colorful plantings marked the gravesite. The elaborately designed Tapa cloth cover that had been draped over his grave on the day of the ceremony had started to deteriorate in the elements and turn to pulp. The natural cycles that dictate life in this small agrarian community would be allowed to reclaim Waqa and leave no trace of his present resting place.
In contrast to our society, where its graveyards are maintained as visual memorials to the people it houses, in Fiji the deceased live on in the memories and stories of its people and the land is allowed to naturally care-take the site. I was shocked to learn that on the hillside behind me were probably as many as 300-400 similar gravesites, but there was absolutely no visual evidence of such. After paying my respects everyone congregated around the simple gravesite for a group photo.
Back at the family house where I would be living for the next two weeks, Waqas wife and his daughter Bose had arrived from the neighboring village where they now live. Both of them burst into tears when they saw me and we hugged each other for a while. They said that seeing me reminded them of the time we had spent together when Waqa was alive. It was a very emotional and moving reunion.
Later, I was given a tour of the village and land to see the new developments that have taken place more recently. These included a test hybrid coconut grove that had been initiated under a government supported scheme, raising a variety of fish called Talapia in a newly formed pool and the most important and proudly noted new feature, the young Kava crop that had been planted in a jungle clearing. In 3 years the mature plants would yield good money and of course supply the village with a constant source of grog! As the day heated up, I remained indoors, sometimes venturing outside to sit under the shady mango tree, all the while entertaining a constant stream of visitors. Here, an old wooden boat sits turned upside down - formerly used for fishing it now acts as a seat and gathering place.
When the tide was full towards late afternoon, Tavaga, Timothy and I went for a swim in the sea, snorkeling over the reef at the head of the clearing. I had been allocated a room in which to sleep, but insisted that no one should have to give up their bed for me and that I would pitch my tent outside on the lawn. Well, that was just not to be the case. I ended up having to compromise by once more pitching the tent in their living room, where I would be safe(!) and mosquito free. Of course the tent was once again a great source of interest to everyone who watched me miraculously transform a bag full of cloth into a freestanding room that had all the luxuries of home (except for a fan!).
By the end of my first day in Namama, I was dressed up in a borrowed formal sulu (Fijian sarong), clean pressed shirt and polished shoes, ready for an evening church service in the neighboring village of Naduri. My last venture into a church for such an organized gathering was here in the same village 7 years ago! I was a little apprehensive, but more than willing to appease my friends wishes to accompany them to their weekly service. By the time we arrived, the service was underway and rapturous singing could be heard well in advance. Timothy and I entered through the rear door and sat at the back of the hall, but still I could feel all eyes on me. People smiled and welcomed me through the upbeat musical program, led by a 3 piece electric band. Kids and grown-ups danced and clapped to the beat, singing the praises of the Lord. After a two and a half-hour program and some serious preaching, I was more than ready to retire to the peace and quiet of Namama village once more and catch up on a good nights sleep.
Namama is comprised of 9 houses and 50 men, women and children, who are primarily farmers and fishermen. The land and sea provide a bountiful source of free food and there is never the feeling that life is pressured or stressed in any way. They do not have to concern themselves with whether or not they could manage to feed an extra mouth - abundance is not even a factor. Making money by selling their produce or fish helps to maintain other sources of staple necessities, such as rice, clothing and gasoline for the boat and of course cigarettes. But its not essential to their existence. If the financial system completely broke down, the people of Namama could very easily revert back to the old way of life and still thrive.
The village is set back slightly from the red dirt road that skirts the shore, on a flat piece of ground no more than two feet above the high tide line. Opposite, a man-made clearing in the thick line of mangroves creates an access point for fishermen and their boats to the bay and outer islands. The houses stand on short stilts about another 2 feet off the ground and are simply made of wooden construction with a corrugated tin roof - basic, practical and inexpensive. The floors are primarily covered in linoleum and woven palm leaf mats spread out as required. Furniture is sparse in this house with only one cushioned chair in the living room, where I generally sat. Unlike the house setting in Naboutini, where my friends customarily take their meals sitting directly on the floor with the food spread out in front of them, here in Namama there is a large wooden kitchen table and bench style seating either side. Pictures of family members hung pinned to the sparsely adorned walls of the living room, and several Tapa cloth wall hangings.
I found the examples of Tapa rather intriguing for their individual designs and the fibrous nature of the cloth, which is produced from the bark of the Masi tree. Tapa is traditionally produced on the islands of Taveuni and Vatulele, where the collected bark is pounded and stretched and then left in the sun to dry. Simple repeating designs are block printed on the cloth, more often than not with only a single color ink on the natural fiber background. Tapa is typically commissioned for traditional ceremonial purposes such as weddings and funerals or to mark a childs first birthday and subsequent 21st, though now many pieces are being made strictly for the tourist trade. So each of the wall hangings traditionally found in a Fijian home mark a significant event in the familys history and has a unique story to tell.
The village compound is set between flanking coconut groves and mango trees and backs up to the foot of a volcanically formed mountain. Namama is unique to the region in that it has an unlimited supply of fresh mineral water (with great water pressure), which comes straight from a source on the slopes of this mountain. It is fresh and clean and I had absolutely no need to purify my drinking water here. The village lands are quite extensive and include the entire mountain behind and many acres either side, much still wild, untamed jungle and grassland. The majority of the farmed lots are close to the village eliminating long walks and excessive stockpiling is not practiced. The crops planted year round for subsistence include taro, kava, cassava, kawi, bele, yam, papaya, coconut, banana, mango, and oranges, among others. During the mango season, hundreds of thousands of huge bats, come winging inland from one particular island offshore where they roost during daylight hours, to feed on the succulent fibrous fruits. It is quite a sight to witness flocks of these creatures silhouetted against the dusk sky.
The Palm tree is a key element in the life of this region. Its obvious by-products include coconut milk, pulp/meat which is shaved and boiled into lollo(coconut sauce) and forms the basis of many meals year round - it also serves as a source of coconut oil. The husks are used as fire fuel, while the hairy inner lining of the shell is incorporated into mattresses and cushions. Palm tree wood is hard and used to build houses, while the fibrous leaves can make for great temporary shelter when laced together and are commonly peeled into strips and woven into floor mats. The matting around the base of the tree resembles burlap and is utilized as a natural strainer and ignites quickly making it a perfect fire starter.
Meals are tasty, wholesome and frequent, usually including fresh fish and cassava. As head lady of the house, it is Rawas responsibility to do all the cooking, dishes and housework and she typically prepared a pile of food at meal times and always insisted that I eat more. Frequent cups of tea were served throughout the course of a day - the one exception for me being breakfast when coffee was the customary tradition. As a guest (and a man) I would not be permitted to do anything that was considered the duty of a woman, even though I tried to insist on numerous occasions. Men always eat first, as is custom while the women must wait until they have been amply fed before taking their own meals. Hospitality is something that is part of Fijian tradition and comes naturally here. I felt indebted to my surrogate family for all the wonderful treatment they bestowed upon me over the course of two weeks.
My second day back in Namama began with talk of heading up the mountain behind the village for the far-reaching views from the top. This is a trip that I did not do on my last visit and I was eager to have a new perspective on the area. After breakfast, I produced a pair of binoculars from my backpack and handed them to Timothy, who became transfixed with their magnification power. He started earnestly scanning our proposed day's destination and very quickly spotted several feral goats high up on the ridgeline. It did not take long for our day hike to turn into a fully-fledged goat hunt. Timothy casually and confidently stated that today we would capture at least one of these goats.
It was around 11am when Timothy, Wisea and I made tracks up through the steep jungle path that was known to these young men more by instinct than by any visible trail. We arranged to meet up with some of the younger boys from the village whose duty it was to bring along a couple of the hunting dogs. By now I was starting to feel like this goat hunt was for real and those poor unsuspecting creatures happily chewing away on the grasses above us might indirectly be victims of my binoculars! The sun beat down and although we were travelling under the protective forest canopy, it was still hot work negotiating the rough, volcanic terrain thick with vines and saplings.
Finding a suitable place to rest mid-way up the mountain, we sat for half an hour waiting for the others to catch up. Climbing a near-by tree, the three of us could clearly see the village below, while above the goats remained ignorant of our advancing presence. The sounds of kids yelling below and the occasional dog barking led us to believe that our additional party members were on their way, but as time passed we realized that they were not about to show up. With no dogs to assist with the capture, Timothy and Wisea began seeking out a couple of appropriately slender young saplings in which to fashion into spears. Wisea then carefully honed down a fierce looking point on each of them and we continued up the last remaining steep sections of forest and near vertical cliffs before emerging at the ridge top.
From this elevated perspective, 1100 feet above the village, we had the most magnificent views up and down the coastline and out across the deep blue bay, dotted with small islands. Sunlight glimmered on the waters surface and beat down unrelentingly. We were already dripping in sweat and filthy from the scramble up to this point and now the chase was about to begin in earnest. Timothy had taken upon himself to be the caretaker of the binoculars, which he consulted frequently, signaling the whereabouts of our target. We moved stealthily at this point, careful not to draw attention to our position and frighten off the goats. Circling above and behind the three goats, a male and two females, we descended upon them with an element of surprise. I had been instructed that Timothy and Wisea alone would be responsible for the chase and capture, while I was to act as photographer and where necessary decoy/herder, funneling the goats towards my friends.
Once the chase began, everything started to happen in rapid succession. Timothy and Wisea took off at top speed across the exposed volcanic rock of the upper slopes. I was simply amazed by Wisea who was barefooted and running over the jagged rocks faster than I could in tennis shoes! It was impossible to keep up with them and soon they were out of sight, somewhere below in the tall grasses. I could hear occasional shouts as they communicated with one another and periodically I would catch sight of one of them as I carefully descended the crumbly volcanic slopes. In the thick clusters of grasses that grow on the lower slopes, it was simply hell trying to weave a path through. They were over my head limiting visibility and the long slender leaves were particularly sharp and I ended up with numerous abrasions on my exposed arms. I was thankful that Timothy had insisted on loaning me a pair of long pants!
Hot, sweaty and cut up, I was pretty frustrated knowing that all the action was taking place elsewhere. Finally I heard a whoop of jubilation from above. Timothy and Wisea were calling my name and telling me to come quickly. At this point I had visions of a sorry looking goat with a spear embedded in its side. Instead, another grueling uphill struggle found the two of them seated on a rocky outcropping with one of the female goats very much alive but captive, her hind legs bound with a vine. She lay there on her side panting and bleating incessantly. My hunter companions were elated and smiled enthusiastically over their success. I was quite relieved to learn that they were going to take the goat home alive and sell it in the local market. They were also confident that they would be able to capture at least one more of the goats after a bit of a rest!
As I had found the tall grasses to be very tiring, so too had the goats and it is in this way that Timothy and Wisea were able to run their victims to the point of exhaustion. Both of them were cut and bleeding from the chase and Timothy had lost a flip-flop during the course of the initial chase. But after 15 minutes rest, they were once more in hot pursuit. It was not long before Wisea emerged again from below, exhausted but triumphantly carrying the larger of the two female goats slung across his shoulders. I was in awe of this mans physical strength, resilience and endurance - It tired me just watching him haul this 150 lb goat uphill, after a chase that had lasted about an hour in total.
Now we still had to get down with the animals, which was another task indeed. A couple of the women from Namama had been making their way up the mountainside to join us and we were most thankful to have someone else cut and blaze a trail back to the village. Timothy and Wisea each carried a goat, while I had a tricky enough time managing myself on the steep and slippery downhill sections. Sometimes, Timothy and Wisea would put the goats down and hold them by their bound hind legs, allowing them to be walked over the really bad steep areas like a wheelbarrow! Stopping briefly at the source of the wonderful mineral water that so abundantly provides for the village, we drank from its refreshingly cool waters and then cleared away the vegetation that had overgrown the area.
Back in the village we were greeted by lots of young kids eager to see the goats and congratulate the hunters. Everybody laughed and beamed at our success and re-told the story of how they had followed the chase from down below. Our day's adventure not only gave us great scenic vistas, a good workout and a memorable goat hunt, but also would provide some additional dollars for my friends at the local market. Rawa prepared us a wonderful and much needed lunch that incorporated a species of fish known locally as toatoa (chicken of the sea). As the name suggests, it could have very easily been passed off as chicken, the taste and consistency being remarkably similar. All her cooking is done over a small wood burning stove that once lit in the morning is kept going all day - in between meals its no more than a few glowing embers. There is a real art to cooking over this type of stove, where knowing how to control and maintain the right amount of heat takes time and practice and special understanding is needed to make an open flame function as an oven!
Tavagas wife had come from the city of Lautoka on Viti Levu and prior to marriage and village living, had never previously cooked over a wood-burning stove. Two years later she is still refining the techniques under the tutelage of his mother. Later that afternoon, Rawa went into the mangroves and fished for crabs, returning a couple of hours later with a sufficient catch to make a wonderful curried crab stew for the evening meal.
Everyone I meet here in Namama is kind, hospitable, curious and genuinely friendly. I am definitely a bit of a curiosity, especially to the younger children, some of whom have never seen white skin before. Little Rosi, Rawa's two year old daughter, bursts into tears anytime that I even so much as look her way, while her son Edi wants me to play games with him all day long. Joni is a young lad of 13, who is a real pleasure to hang out with. Bright, engaging, well mannered and aspiring, he wants to become a doctor when he grows up and remain in the area and treat people in the community. Until more recently, it was not uncommon to have large families of 8-9 children, though numbers today average 2-3. Possibly due to the relaxed lifestyle of the people here and the close-knit community bonds that exist between family members, everyone is generally happy and smiling. I never heard raised voices, reprimands or family quarreling. Young children receive care, nurturing and love not only by their immediate family but also through the community as a whole. It is a supportive atmosphere that fosters harmony and well-being amongst the inhabitants.
Village life is communal and participatory. Often as I walked through the compound I would come across several of the inhabitants grouped together doing a community task, such as shredding coconuts to make lollo or cleaning up the grounds. At the head of village structure is the chief, followed by the headman. These two individuals are responsible for posting agendas, settling issues, representing the village voice and concerns regionally and taking care of business matters. Members of the village, typically the men (the women do have their own groups and meet separately) congregate weekly at the chiefs house and collectively discuss outstanding business (typically followed by a grog session!).
The one contentious issue that will undoubtedly come to challenge the rather rigid traditional Fijian clan based value system, concerns womens rights. Undoubtedly it will be a topic for serious debate in the future and is recognizably the weak link in an otherwise healthy and integrated society. There is also a lot of interaction between neighboring villages and the church plays a pivotal role in societal matters. Games such as rugby and volleyball attract community participation and people come from all over to be a part of such daily gatherings.
The second night in Namama was not so restful. Midway through the night I was awakened by the sound of rats running across the rafters overhead and scurrying around on the floor nearby. In the distance, I could hear intermittent and prolonged thudding sounds, which I new to be kava roots being pounded into powder for yet another round, of what was obviously a late night grog session. Someone would surely have a hangover the next morning, if not me from lack of sleep!
Suviyaga Island sits about a mile offshore and is only one of numerous islands that are to found out in the bay. It belongs to Namama village and is deserted, having no fresh water source. A few coconut trees provide some fruit, otherwise there is little else here except grasses and some local tree species. It is almost totally encircled by mangroves, except where a small clearing has been maintained for boat landings and reef access. The island is roughly a mile in circumference and fringed with coral reefs.
Suviyaga was to be our next adventure. I was to be accompanied by Timothy, Tavaga, Solo, Jeke, Jeri, Wisea and Josiaha. We planned to spend the next three days living here, fishing and enjoying the ambience of the Island retreat. As we would be there during the full moon period, my friends planned on capitalizing on the monthly cycle of a certain species of sea cucumber. This particular creature could be harvested from the sandy seabed in the shallow lagoons that surrounded the outer reef and then sold to the local Chinese market, where it was considered it a delicacy.
Timothy, Tavaga and I had spent time here on my last visit and I was eager for a return to the place that had created many fond memories. Nobody had actually come back to stay overnight since that time 7 years ago, so it felt like a very special occasion. First, there were some basic essential supplies that needed to be gathered for the trip. Timothy, Tilli, Edi and I went to one of the nearby cassava fields to harvest sufficient crop for the duration of the journey. The tall spindly stalks (about 12 feet / 4m tall) of the cassava plant are first hacked down to within a few inches of the ground with a machete and the root tubers pulled up by hand. The stalks are then cut up into lengths of approximately 18 inches (1/2 m) and planted back directly into the turned earth to re-root. The crop is very low maintenance and a constant, sustainable source of year round nutrition.
Bundles of firewood were collected, 5 gallon drums of fresh water secured in the boat and all the snorkeling / spear fishing equipment placed on board. I packed up my tent and brought most of my gear to cover any eventuality, while my companions traveled relatively light. Rawa provided us with cooking pots, plates, cups and silverware, matches and a bag of sugar. A small branch was cut from an orange tree with which to make tea from the leaves and of course coffee was an expedition necessity for me. Two sheets of corrugated metal were taken along to act as a roof for the temporary shelter the other guys would build for themselves while staying on the island.
Solo, Timothys older brother, who captained the boat, planned to return daily to Namama to replenish our fresh water supply, so we would not have to endure too much in the way of adversity! With a spare drum of gasoline for the boat, we set out for Suviyaga Island. It was another beautiful day and we were all enthusiastic about the adventure.
The short channel crossing took only 15 minutes. Solo cut the outboard motor and tilted it up as we approached the island and cruised over the shallow reef on a rising tide. Mooring the boat at the sandy beachhead through a narrow cut in the mangroves, we unloaded the gear and made preparations for camp. It was apparent to us all that over the last seven years, the island had become ridiculously overgrown with the tall grasses and weed plants now having advanced right up to the beach. With several machetes swinging and the rest of us pulling up clumps of grass and making piles ready for burning, it did not take too long to establish a basic clearing and to free some of the better trees of invasive weeds. A haze of whitish gray smoke billowed about us and the dry grasses crackled in the debris pyres. We torched the ground around the campsite to discourage ants from sticking around, but this proved to be temporary. They were a tiny non-biting variety that would swarm over your feet in the thousands, leaving you with nothing more than a tickling sensation.
I pitched my tent between two short palm tress amidst a small grove that Tavaga had planted around the time of our last visit. The other guys collectively worked on erecting a shelter or temporary bure out of palm leaves collected from the nearby trees. Two of the palms next to my tent were utilized as upright structural members, with two additional cut stakes being driven into the sandy earth to create the remaining vertical supports. The palm fronds were interlaced and tied together with thin vines to establish walls on two sides, that would afford protection from the prevailing winds at night. Additional palm leaves were collected and striped off their central stems and scattered over the floor of the bure, creating a rather comfortable mat effect. The two corrugated sheets of tin were then secured down forming a roof and the dwelling was finally complete.
From the campsite, we looked onto an exposed rocky flat at low tide that is a partial remnant of the surrounding coral reef and when the tide peaked, water came lapping up against the thin sliver of a sand beach. The afternoon's work had pretty much drained our enthusiasm for going spear fishing for dinner. Coupled with the fact that the winds had picked up during late afternoon making for choppy conditions over the reef, we opted for a simple meal of boiled cassava and fresh orange leaf tea with plenty of sugar. Timothy and I were responsible for preparing dinner. We walked to the waters edge and cleaned the dirt off the sack full of cassava, then using a knife to make a long slit down the length of the tubers we peeled the skin off in large sheets, like bark off a silver birch. Excavating a small fire pit in the sandy dirt with an old clamshell, we then built up protective sidewalls from slabs of rock found along the shoreline. A hand full of the fibrous matting from a palm tree took seconds to ignite and soon we had a roaring fire that cast a flickering yellow light across the camp.
As the sun set, casting a fiery orange tint across the remnants of a blue sky, the guys lay quietly constructing long thin cigarettes out of natural tobacco leaf, rolled spirally into thin strips of torn newspaper. A full moon was on the rise and the palms bristled overhead. I lay back beneath the emerging stars and savored the ambience of the rustic tropical setting and listened to the flavor of the conversation as they swapped stories in their native tongue. It was marvelous to witness the close bond that existed between these men - who spend each and every day co-existing with one another, living side by side, working for mutual goals and community benefit, all the while managing to maintain spirited and joyful friendships.
There were no mosquitos to bother us here on the island, no doubt due to the fact that there is no fresh water source in which to hatch their eggs, and the gentle breeze that steadily blew all night kept any potential biting flies away. All six of my friends slept in their clothes on the palm mat floor of the bure, lined up like sardines in a tin, snoring through the night and unfazed by the ants that had returned - I retired to my nylon cocoon and blow up Thermarest sleeping mat. The following morning at first light, my friends were stirring and the fire had already been re-lit by Timothy who was preparing hot tea for everyone. Old habits die hard, as I settled for a customary bowl of porridge and hot coffee, my Fijian friends ate cold cassava and orange leaf tea with heaps of sugar.
Although the sun shone bright and it was another clear blue day, a light, gusty wind blew across the water, chopping up the surface into staccato sized waves. Periodically one of these ripples would surge over the top of my snorkel as we swam over the coral reef with our spear guns in search of food. Tavaga had inquired earlier as to whether or not I liked octopus and I replied yes indeed. Like a tracker in the jungle, he instinctively knew where to search the reef for his prey and to watch out for telltale evidence of their homes.
Octopus live in protective holes in the coral, often excavating old pieces of broken coral from their lair and depositing it around the entrance along with evidence of former meals - obviously, they keep a clean house! They are notoriously feared hunters by all other reef dwellers and are even a tricky animal to extricate, even by seasoned professionals such as my friends. From a distance I heard my name being called and looked up to see Tavaga, Wisea and Josiah hovering over a specific spot on the reef about fifty meters ahead of me. As I joined them, I found Tavaga poking his spear vigorously into a small hole on the otherwise seamless bottom. Black clouds of ink were being periodically ejected from the hole as my friend finally managed to pull the struggling creature out, quickly wrapping spongy tentacles around his arm. In a brief moment Tavaga had ruthlessly turned its head inside out, which is the only way to effectively kill an octopus and dropped it into the catch bag hung at his waist. In this fashion, they managed to catch four more octopuses and a couple of fish in one complete circumnavigation of the reef.
Once ashore, the catch was handed to Timothy and Jeke who laid them out on the sharp rocks at the waters edge and set about repeatedly beating the octopus with sticks to tenderize the tough, rubbery meat. They were put in a big pot along with a little seawater (just add salt) and set over the wood burning fire. Coconuts were harvested from the trees and the white meat inside was shaved into a pulp and added to the mix to create a rich, sweet tasting sauce. The resulting dish tasted delicious and was eaten in conjunction with cassava and locally grown hot green chilis.
I did notice that the reef appeared far less prolific now in terms of active marine life and coral vitality, compared to my previous visit 7 years ago. It dismayed me to watch helplessly as my friends continually stood all over these fragile coral formations, unaware of the permanent damage they were perpetually inflicting on this sensitive Eco-system. I felt it was necessary to make these good people aware of the problem that they were creating, but timing and choice of words would be important. After all, they have been accustomed to fishing the reefs in this manner for generations and might not fully understand the implications of their actions in the short term.
With the death of a coral reef, all associated fish and marine life moves on or dies off and I did not want to see the livelihood of my friends fade away over time. Just as they plough their fields and tend to their crops, so they needed to be aware of sound marine management policies that would ensure longevity of their staple food source.
Later that day I had a chance to speak alone with Tavaga, who would one day replace his father as chief of Namama - someone who already commanded a lot of respect amongst his peers. He seemed a natural choice for my attempt at conveying the implications of reef destruction, in hopes that he would transfer this information to his friends and neighbors.
For the remainder of the afternoon we continued clearing the surrounding bush, removing vines that were strangling native trees and collecting piles of firewood that would be used later for cooking the sea cucumbers, or vula as they are referred to locally. Solo had returned to Namama earlier in the day and had brought back fresh water and two large BBQs made out of an old oil drum split in half lengthwise. These would serve as cooking pots for the vula. Our camp area began to look very clean and respectful, almost ordered now that the majority of the invasive bush had been cleared. It felt open and spacious and my friends began to see the island as a place they intended to utilize more fully in the future. They talked of building a permanent bure here and using it as a home base for more frequent overnight fishing excursions. There was even some speculation as to making it into a tourist resort destination, though I would have my doubts as to the viability of this plan.
As dusk approached, Solo, Tavaga, Jeri, Wisea, Josaiha and I prepared to head out to sea on a night fishing trip. Timothy and Jeke stayed back at camp. The remainder of the octopus stew was distributed amongst us and then warm clothes and fishing equipment were loaded into the boat ready for the long evening ahead. I was warned that it could get quite cold at sea during the night, but this was hard to believe sitting at the stern of the boat with the warm evening air blowing through what is left of my hair!
There were several occasions during my stay when I felt like I was just along for the ride and did not really know what to expect of events until they occurred. Due to my inability to understand the Fijian language and in part because of my friends spoke only Basic English, sometimes we found ourselves unable to fully communicate our intentions, ideas and thoughts. This evening was one of those times, when I assumed that the night fishing trip would entail more spear fishing over the reef, when in fact this was not to be the case. I had requested to be taken along for the ride and they happily obliged, but probably wondered why I wanted to go out in the first place. Nobody was able to adequately explain to me what it was they were in search of or just how they would be fishing. So off we went, I believing that it would just be another fun adventure, when in actuality it ended up being a long evening for me of sitting and waiting in an uncomfortable fiberglass boat, while my friends went to work.
As the last rays of daylight faded into night, we negotiated a narrow passage through a lagoon that bisected one of the larger of the bay islands, allowing for a shortcut to the outer reef, where we would pass the evening. The sky went inky black for a short period and glistened with stars, while a faint yellow glow on the horizon suggested that the full moon would be up soon. We set anchor over an endless expanse of white sandy bottom that could only be discerned in the dim light when the guys shone their night diving lights across the waters surface. We were a quarter mile away from the nearest island to the south, indicated by a low-lying band of silhouetted mangroves that stretched a long way in each direction. Somewhere within that seemingly unbroken strip of land was the passage that had permitted us access to this particular site. The mountains of the mainland formed a majestic backdrop to the scene and were ever increasingly becoming floodlit by the moon. The boat rocked on a gently undulating sea that had reached its high tide mark, as my friends prepared to enter the water for their evening work.
Though the water at this time of year is not cold, it can still become rather chilly over a protracted time, as I found out earlier in the day when we were fishing for octopus. Tavaga and Solo were the only ones who possessed wet suits and this extra layer would undoubtedly make a big difference to their comfort level as the hours passed by. Each of my five companions entered the dark water around 7pm with only their snorkeling equipment a flashlight and a nylon sack tied to their waists. It would be nearly 5 hours later that they returned to the boat for the final time. All I could make out at a distance were the faint yellow beams of light that resembled inky stains on an expanse of black watercolor paper.
The vula or sea cucumbers congregate in the shallow waters of these sandy bottom flats to mate at the time of the full moon and the slow moving creatures make for easy pickings. My friends would swim on the surface, scanning their flashlights over the sea floor in water that was about 6-8 feet deep and periodically dip down and pick up another of the helpless vula. In this fashion, they systematically harvested numerous large plastic sacks with the spongy tube-like sea creatures. The local Chinese merchant pays $2.50 per kilo of vula and each full sack weighed nearly 30 kgs. By the end of the evening, an average of 2 filled sacks per person had been gathered and would mean a very good wage indeed for an evenings work - my friends would also be a little closer to their collective goal of buying a new outboard motor for the boat.
Still in the early part of the evening, I decided to go for a swim. It felt great to leave behind the relative safety of the boat and dive into the protective embrace of black water, without lights or knowledge of what lay below. Swimming around out there in the half-light (the moon had been consumed by passing clouds) felt liberating and gave me a sense of revitalization. It also felt so much warmer in the water than the surrounding ambient air temperature. Having passed several hours just sitting on the stern, I was only too aware of why warm clothes became necessary out here. The cold night air blowing across the open waters made for a long and chilly evening. I had wrapped up in Jeris fleece lined overcoat and dosed off under the stars.
Finally, my friends returned to the boat for the last time and hauled their catch on board. In the water the bags bobbed weightlessly, but trying to bring them up over the side of the small fiberglass boat took all their strength. The bottom of the boat was filled with bulging sacks of vula. Jokingly or not, I was informed that we would now have to spend the next 3-4 hours anchored out here, waiting for the next rising tide. Tavaga explained that passage back through the Mangrove Island would not be possible at present. I was tired, uncomfortable and dreaming of my warm bed when they mentioned this fact and must have looked a little despondent.
As the rest of the guys dried off and put on warm clothes, Solo unexpectedly fired up the motor and we sped towards the island in search of the channel. I could not have been happier. Tavaga went on to explain that quite often these late night fishing trips would in fact necessitate several extra hours at sea until the tide had sufficiently risen, but due to the hour there may be a possibility that tonight we could just manage to make it through. We approached the entrance to the channel slowly and once in the shallows, everybody except Solo and myself got out of the boat (to lighten the payload) and assisted in navigating us over the coral in what amounted to no more than a foot (30cm) of water. I thought that the guys were just being polite allowing me to remain in the boat, but in fact it was my feet that they were concerned about. I would not have been able to walk over the bottom without hurting myself, whereas their toughened soles were accustomed to the sharp corals. In some areas, the scraping sounds rock coming into contact with the fiberglass bottom of the boat were enough to remind us of how close we had come to spending a few more hours out at sea, waiting for the next rising tide.
Our progress would be temporarily halted until an alternate course was discovered, navigating more by touch and feel than sight. At last we had come to the far side of the island and the audible sounds of running water could be heard - the receding tide was fast rushing out over the now almost exposed coral beds. A few more scrapes and dull thuds and we had made it over the lip of the main coral reef and into the safety of deeper water. We anchored here for another 15 minutes while Tavaga, Wisea and Josiah went spear fishing for dinner. As most fish sleep at night in protective caverns or sheltered areas within the coral formations, (some species like the parrot-fish even shroud themselves in a mucus formed membrane, like a embryo in suspension), they become easy prey for the seasoned fishermen. Between the three men, they caught enough fish to cover a hearty late night meal and still have sufficient left over for breakfast.
Timothy and Jeke were asleep when we arrived back at Suviyaga Island around 1am, but it did not take long for them to rekindle the fire and cook up a welcome dinner. I was the last to awaken the following morning and reluctantly dragged myself from the warmth and relative comfort of my sleeping mattress. It was 6.30 am and breakfast was underway. In addition, big fires had been lit under the two BBQs and last night's catch of vula, was already being boiled and cleaned in preparation for market. White sticky mucus resembling latex oozed off the rubbery cucumbers as they tumbled from the nylon sacks into the hot water. Sticks were used to stir the bubbling mix and when this aspect of the process was complete, the water was then poured off and the vula given a final rinse in the sea. Once bagged and loaded into the boat, we retreated to the bure to enjoy breakfast and tea.
At this time, I was informed that we would be going back to the mainland a day early, as a funeral was taking place in Naduri, the neighboring village. A young man of 21, who, like my friends was a fisherman, had suddenly hemorrhaged and died - he was also due to have been married 2 weeks later! So this tragic misfortune necessitated their presence at his burial, but I felt it was not my place to be attending such a sacred rite, having not even known the man. I requested to stay here on the Island until tomorrow, if one of the guys could come back and pick me up. They agreed making sure that I had everything I needed to see me through a solitary day and night alone on this remote island! Then they shoved the boat off and waved goodbye.
I was actually very excited about spending time alone on the island, having had all my decisions, plans and time managed by others since arriving here. I relished the lush surroundings, the freedom to act spontaneously and the feeling of self-sufficiency that I am ordinarily accustomed to living with. The small microcosm of a retreat meant so much more to me than the obvious constraints of its landmass. Here I had a home, a garden and sea life to keep me busily occupied. I had matches with which to start a fire, some cassava, sugar and even a packet of Ramen noodles, so starvation would not be an issue. I would have to rely on my spear fishing skill and the sea to provide the remainder. The camp area looked so much more attractive and livable since clearing many of the invasive plants that had encroached over the past few years. But there was still much work to be done if the retreat was to be maintained in a somewhat groomed state.
I gave myself the merciless task of removing a sprawling, thorny bush that had taken over a substantial portion of the beachfront off to my immediate right. Everywhere that its long snaking tendrils touched the ground it re-rooted and fanned out new shoots in every direction. I worked for about 6 hours solidly on this one tangled mass of barbed vines, systematically hacking off pieces, dragging them away and cutting them up into manageable piles for future burning. Wearing only flip-flops, a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, I was a mass of scratches and thinly etched lines of blood, especially around my feet and ankles.
By 3 pm, all this physical work out in the open sun had sapped my energy. I stopped work with only a small section of bush remaining, but marveled at how much more substantial the clearing and beach had become. The tide was on the rise again as I entered the water to cool off and wash away the layer of sweat and dirt that had fused itself to my skin. Equipped with a spear gun, I swam over the reef one last time in search of fish for the evening meal. My Fijian friends would make this pursuit look all too easy, but those fish are certainly not sitting ducks. I would dive down to get a closer look at the many protective chambers within the coral formations, which would often house several inhabitants. But once they sensed my presence, these fish would rapidly retreat to deep within the intricate network of crevices. Stealth, quick response and a good aim are essential with spear fishing and I found myself re-loading the gun with frequency.
Half an hour later I finally found success in the form of an unsuspecting marbled cod, which had just popped out of its hole on routine patrol. The poor creature wriggled furiously all the way back to shore and I felt guilty at taking its life. I used a sharp piece if flint to de-scale the fish, carefully working the stone against the grain they popped off with ease. The cassava were peeled and cleaned at the waters edge and a fire lit back in camp. Half way through cooking dinner over the open flame, I realized that I had not removed the fishs intestines! So I waited until it was cooked through before separating the meat from the bone and vital organs. With Ramen Noodles forming the base of the stew, I added the fish and cassava and sat back under a setting sun to enjoy the well-earned meal. By 8 pm I was asleep.
Two hours later I was abruptly awakened by a voice outside my tent calling my name and asking me to get up! Tavaga had unexpectedly shown up and grinned like a child as I finally emerged from my warm cocoon. Laughing, he held up two huge freshly caught lobsters, which he had every intention of eating tonight. I still felt somewhat bloated from the earlier meal, but the idea of eating fresh lobster was far too good to pass up - besides, I did not want to disappoint my friend, who had made a special trip back to the island to make sure I was OK. I was honored by his presence and very grateful for the surprise midnight feast. It was just like the old days - on our previous visit to Suviyaga Island, when Tavaga, Timothe and I went night spear fishing and caught lobster. We laughed at the similarities and enjoyed the evening's catch, which was so fresh and tasty it didnt even need any garnishes.
By this time the cool evening winds had picked up substantially and tugged away at the make shift bure, which was by now in need of some maintenance. The palms swayed and rustled overhead and as Tavaga was feeling the cold, he decided to sleep in the tent instead of out in the open air. This ended up being a sensible call, as an hour after going to sleep I was rudely awakened again by the crashing of the corrugated tin roof of the Bure, falling down on the place that Tavaga would normally have been lying. Needless to say he slept on through, oblivious to the potential disaster!
Morning came around all too quickly. Once again Timothy, who had come across on the boat to collect us with his friend Junior, raucously awakened us. I cooked up a huge bowl of porridge for everybody, while I my friends also indulged in large quantities of fish and cassava. We gathered up our belongings and set everything in the boat, ready for the return trip back to the mainland. One last time I watered the young palm tree which I had planted on arriving 3 days before and said a silent farewell to the Island getaway. We sped across the deep blue strait that separates the numerous islands from the mainland and in no time at all we were docking back at Namama village, greeted by familiar smiling faces.
Fijis national sport is Rugby and nearly every male in the country plays, if only for fun at the community level. Provincial and inter-island games happen nearly every weekend, especially in the larger towns. Labasa, being the capital city of Vanua Levu, plays host to frequent meets and three of the guys from the village and myself bundled into a taxi and headed there for the day.
The 40km ride was slow and extremely bumpy. The one and only main road (highway!) that circles the island is filled with potholes and reverts to being not much more than a dirt road in sections. It is a national disgrace and sore point for the locals who realize that without infrastructure, tourism will always be limited.
Labasa is reminiscent of Nadi in that it is dirty, architecturally bland and polluted. Through the daylight trading hours it bustles with people, and vehicles choke the towns one main strip. As dusk ensues, shopkeepers roll down the steel storefront covers and padlock the window grates, the streets empty and the place all of a sudden resembles a ghost town. We passed the majority of the day watching rugby, under the protective shade of some trees. The muddy brown river that flowed through the center of Labasa, skirted the far end of the rugby grounds. An old wooden wreck of a fishing boat listed on its side, next to what was once a boat ramp and people used it for elevated seating to view the games.
A Womens Netball competition was happening simultaneously at the far end of the playing field and occasional cheers would emanate from the adjacent soccer stadium. A healthy crowd had gathered for the afternoons events and in true Fijian style, it was a relaxed and casual affair for the onlookers, while out on the pitch the gladiators did battle. As the hours passed, Timothy kept meeting up with friends who had also turned out to watch the rugby and by the time we decided to made tracks home, we were seven guys looking for a taxi (which by law were limited to five people). This proved a little difficult. We finally managed to convince this one Indian driver who had a real old clunker of a vehicle, to take us all the way back to Namama. We stocked up with beer and squeezed into the confines of the car, then eased our way, very slowly down the dark and heavily rutted highway.
My remaining days in the village were spent in a relaxed fashion, visiting neighboring villages and meeting new people. It was a memorable visit again for me and leaving was difficult. Special thanks go out to Rawa, Timothy and Tavaga who took special care of me and made the experience feel like one of family. I took a different route back to Naboutini, but the journey was still long and very tiring (I would definitely give thought to flying next time!). Two days later, I was stepping on an Air New Zealand flight bound for Hawaii, which in many ways symbolized homecoming and the culmination of almost a year's travels.