Fulanga – A World Apart

Sat 25 Aug 2018 21:29

Fulanga – A World Apart

19:08.97S 178:33.91W

The Old Chief is Dead – Long Live the Chief

They don’t know who he is yet as he will be chosen by the clan elders of the family within the village sometime after the initial mourning period of bakabogidrau (one hundred nights). The old chief, Taniela Bese who ruled from 1999 until his death a month before our arrival succeeded an isolationist leader who banned cruisers from visiting the island.

However Taniela Bese could see that there were mutual benefits from welcoming us lot. Our visits are without religious, political, land grabbing or commercial elements. We bring no disease (hopefully) and need only friendship and enlightenment and any fruit and veg they would like to sell to us. With that money they pay for the electricity to light long life bulbs in their homes so they can enjoy an evening life, usually of kava drinking, thus lengthening their days and enriching their quality of life and frustrating mums who have to get the children up for school the next morning.

Each cruising yacht pays $50 at their sevusevu which goes into a fund to benefit all the villages on the island. The fund is drawn on to finance official travel business expenses to Suva of the chief and his assistant, school needs and church requirements.

The villagers ask little of the government and if they need expensive items for their homes (each house has at least two solar panels) or for the school then they have fund raising events to bring in villagers and visitors who love to buy their fabulous carvings and weavings and naturally organic fruit and veg.

However out of all of this union there comes also the richness of mutual generosity and affection. Many New Zealand and Australian cruisers return year after year to their village friends here and I envied them their geographic location enabling them to do just this, return. Just think the villagers had none of that before the last chief came into office.

We needed to get ashore and present ourselves for sevusevu, the official welcome to the island at which we are given permission to explore to our hearts’ content.

Tai and some other villagers met us, all introducing themselves with a warm handshake and a “Pleased to meet you, what is your name?” Grey haired Tai was taking some of the younger generation of men out to a distant island across the lagoon for a day of cassava planting on a patch of good soil. The cassava root is boiled like potato and adds starch to their diet. It is also yummy if sliced after boiling and fried into chips.

Tai presented to us Bill, Taniela’s grandson and a man of late thirties early forties who is never far from the next joke. He came across from Suva in February to join the family team in looking after the old chief who was in his mid-nineties and failing fast. Bill led the way up the narrow, foot smoothed path talking as we went. He was looking forward to the end of the bakabogidrau (official 100 nights of mourning) so he could shave off his hair and beard and wear anything but black, as it attracts the wretched mosquitoes, scratch, slap!

He loved his grandfather who raised him in Suva after his parents separated and his mum, Tara returned to the village, but he was used to the city ways and appeared keen to return to Suva.

Tame swiflets swooped around our heads as we approached the village and removed our sunhats as required by custom. We both wore long trousers and covered our shoulders, also part of the custom of respectability. Far to the left the ocean thundered against the reef and the ocean water was an astounding blue, competing with the sky for beauty. Just back from the beach in the shade of palm trees a loose row of homes had the best ocean views. “Bulas” came from all around especially children who would come up to us and reach to shake hands with “What is your name?” Theirs were the likes of Isabella and Eleanor, James and Jone.

The door to the medical centre was open and the nurse in her pristine white uniform strode off, medical bag in hand, on her errands.

Bill introduced us to the ladies in one house enjoying their weekly weaving session. Only women make the beautifully precise parchment coloured pandanus mats and it is an ongoing job since they are exported to Suva and further as well as being a part of every village home. They are cool and clean to sit on as chairs and tables are rare and the floor puts the seated in the direct cool draft through the open doors and they last for years.

Outside the whole process of cutting the pandanus leaves, laying them out in the sun to dry and then weaving them into baskets was underway with groups of ladies sitting in the shade of makeshift canopies and chatting and laughing together.

Mark and Teri had already arrived by a different track from their anchorage and were enjoying their sevusevu with Mika the temporary chief and nephew of Taniela Bese so we stood in the shade of a breadfruit tree awaiting our turn and chatting with Bill who had donned a Sulu or sarong for the formal meeting.

We were invited to join the threesome inside the neat hut and sat cross legged facing Mika. They spoke some Fijian and Bill handed Mika our $50, the kava and our ships papers and cruising permit. The last two items are not usually required but a few weeks ago a local fisherman found a big stash of cannabis buried in the sand above an anchorage, took it to the village where the police and customs were advised and two yachts were impounded and their crews were arrested.

I filled in the visitors’ book to find we were the 52nd visiting yacht this year, quite appropriate I thought as my birthday was the next day and I was born in 1952.

Formalities over, Mika could get back to his chores while Bill introduced us to our host family, Mere (a teacher in the kindergarten school with 13 in her class) and her husband the drop dead handsome Jone, a wood carver of great talent. (matai = skilled carver)

“This is ‘Madame Speaker’ (his nickname for her) who is so happy to be your host for your stay here. Now that your sevusevu is done you are free to move around the island and village, take photos and fish if you wish, you are very welcome always.”

“You must believe less than one percent of what Bill says” Mere joked and the friendly banter between the two is ongoing. Poor Mere, we hadn’t announced our arrival in advance so Mere only learned she was hosting us about 10 minutes before we arrived. She is a volunteer host so she didn’t mind but it meant she hadn’t had any time to prepare food. She is not paid for her hospitality.

Mark and Teri’s host is So, Jone’s older sister. As you can imagine there are family connections throughout the village which is divided into four clan groups, must have been some Scottish influence at some time in the past.

There are 80 villagers here and two other villages on the island. All the children attend the school here in Moana I Cake (I cake = above) for their first year. Mere and Jone’s daughter is now at school in the capital, Suva on the main island Viti Levu two hundred miles away. She lives with Mere’s sister and is missed greatly by her mum. Mere’s parents live on their farm in the hills behind Suva but visiting them by the once a month supply ship is prohibitively expensive, $119 each way (it was $135 until recently) and then one has to pay extra for luggage and supply one’s own food and bedding for the night passage and of course stay a month until the next supply ship voyage and the same expense again. So they see their mainland family once a year, the same as us when we travel across the world and they travel across the Koro Sea.

But Mere (Mary) chooses to live the island life, “Every day in the city we have to earn a lot of money and everything costs money, always there is this pressure. The city doesn’t compare with the peace and beauty here. I like the sense of community where we all look out for eachother.”

Their food is growing just outside the door in the trees, in the ground or squeaking and snorting in pens, or in the water (surf and turf) and there is plenty of it and a good variety. What they don’t grow, rice, flour, sugar, custard powder etc they order at the little shop and collect and pay for when the long awaited supply ship arrives.

Mere’s government salary for her teaching has been increased to match a male teacher’s salary by the military government that is in office. They have also made education free. Despite those two improvements for her personally, Mere will vote labour at the coming election maybe in a desire for civil harmony, I didn’t want to probe too deeply.

Fiji has historically had a military government on occasion when the tensions between the Indian population and Fijian residents have risen to levels that threaten peace on the main islands. Despite being the capital Suva has been the scene of violent protest many times in the past.

Mere stepped out for a few moments to pick some lemongrass, scrunch it up and pop it into a jug. She then filled this with water she had boiled earlier and stored in a thermal flask. We sat cross legged chatting and enjoying fresh lemongrass tea and coconut milk bread made in the same early hours as the water. The birds sang in the trees and the scent of the frangipani blossoms filled the room from the tree just outside one of the three doors. The house has attractive bowed ends to offer little resistance to cyclone winds and the bigger of the two rooms which we were in was about three quarters of the entire home and around 6 metres by 4 metres in size.

The corrugated tin walls are draped with colourful cotton hangings and supported with six stout round tree trunks, which double as comfortable back- rests. Mere cooks on two cookers, one a gas oven with hobs and the other a single, much hotter primus stove. Away from the house is a little shed with a proper toilet and lots of containers of rainwater where they have hand showers. Washing up is in a bowl on a bench just outside the house and clothes washing is done by soaking in a large container, just as I do. There is no need for a fridge as food is taken fresh daily and cooked to preserve it. This way all the families have a constant supply of cooked food ready for their meals.

Bill wandered in and asked if we would like to see one of their numerous vegetable gardens. “He is a city boy, he knows nothing about plants only what Tui told him yesterday,” Mere joked.

Peter and Martina from Havachat joined us and Bill showed us the red stemmed cassava saplings planted in neat rows at an angle to the ground, taro plants that grow everywhere in the south Pacific islands, self-sown wasabi leaves (horseradish) which are edible raw and Martina had a ball chomping away on one of her favourite leaves. Usually they boil them and then replace the water with home-made coconut milk, delish.

Coconut and banana palms swayed in the breeze above us and papayas and breadfruit were in abundance on their trees. Zu wove us baskets from green pandanus leaves and filled them with a variety of produce for us three groups of cruisers.

Then we were all invited to take kava with the ladies and a young man hosted the mixing of the crushed kava inside a fabric bag with fresh water he poured into the big vesi wood bowl (Tanoa) that had been made by one of the village wood carvers. An elder whose name eludes me sat and watched to make sure the mixing was in the correct portions. “High, low or medium?” we were asked meaning how full did we want our half coconut cups (Bilo) to be on each round.

We would get used to the dry slightly aniseed, peppery taste that on the third round or so leaves a tingly sense on the lips and a numbing in the throat, but today I made visitors and villagers laugh when I pulled a screwed up _expression_ on the first round. “Oh dear Barb, you’ll get used to it.” Mark said. Everyone is affected with varying amounts of the drink which has ‘mildly sedative and anaesthetic properties’, unquote the guide book. We felt no such effects!

So (Mere’s sister in law) entertained us for lunch, the six of us sitting cross-legged and feasting on pumpkin and tuna curry and rice made by her teenage daughter, Bellina. It was a well-rounded mellow curry, very easy to eat and we complimented the young chef. “All those mugs So and piles of plates, why so many?” I asked.

“Sometimes all the villagers come here and eat,” she replied. No wonder Bellina is learning how to cook and no wonder the villagers all come!