The family I lived with in this island paradise consisted of the grandmother – an enormous woman who slept and spent most of her time in the kitchen, the grandfather – a skinny & fit guy who gardened and fished most days and kept himself generally busy. Their youngest daughter Salome and her husband Bale a young, couple who became good friends, and two teenaged grandchildren. There were other relatives on the island, but these were the people who I spent every day with.
Living on Yanuca (pronounced Yanutha) was a very simple and healthy existence. Food was mostly fish, caught each day, rice, some vegetables – eggplant and a delicious green leafy vegetable called bele, a lot of coconut milk and a huge amount of casava – a bland root vegetable that is a staple throughout the pacific. Every now & then a chicken or pig would be killed, but this was rare. I learned to bake beautiful bread on an open fire and would occasionally cook something to entertain everybody with the strange things that we eat in Australia.
Being the only white girl provided endless amounts of entertainment for everybody. I was the butt of everybody’s joke in the nicest possible way. As they explained it, I gave them something different to talk about and in a small, isolated community, that difference made a big impact. I got used to people laughing at me, so used to it that as I started to learn the Fijian language, I was able to have a laugh too. I certainly gave them a lot to laugh about as I learned about island life.
Everybody had to work, though it took them a while to let me truly make a contribution on a daily basis. Most of the work was done in the morning between breakfast and lunch. After lunch was reserved for a lie down. Oh how I loved that nap. It took me approximately 5 seconds to go to sleep and I’d wake about 2 hours later, ready for the next phase of the day.
Every afternoon as the sun went over the hill and created a beautiful shaded area between the bures and the water, we would start a game of volleyball. If you weren’t playing, you were watching. After a number of intense games, we would head back to the kitchen to prepare the evening meal – scraping the coconut, tending the fire, shooting the breeze. After the evening meal, everyone would gather again to drink kava, play music, sing, dance and tell stories.
I had some amazing experiences – seeing the annual spawning of the mbalolo coral worm where a flotilla of dinghies headed out pre-dawn to harvest these multicoloured headless worms as they rose from the coral and turned this corner of the ocean into a seething, wriggling wormworld – mind-boggling.
I saw quite a few sharks and I’m not talking about those friendly reef sharks I was initially worried about. One in particular silenced the boat as we passed it swimming in an area where they guys often went diving. The distance between dorsal and tail fins was easily 8 feet. It was a true Jaws moment.
One day a few of us took a boat and travelled around the island fishing, diving, picnic’ing and having a lot of fun. In the afternoon we were in the beautiful little bay where the yacht had first dropped anchor, when a friend said ‘oh, look, the big fish are coming’. I was in the deep water hanging onto the boat – I need more information. What do you mean big fish? You know – the ones with the (they made the shape of a dorsal fin). I started trying to hook a foot into the boat – trying to hoist myself out of the water in an extremely undignified and desperate manner (more laughter). I wasn’t keen for a close encounter. Of course, it turned out to be a pod of dolphins who stayed and played with us for the rest of the day.
It was my sad duty to have to tell everyone that Elvis had died (this was 7 years after the fact) – they were horrified. They were equally amazed when I told them about washing machines – that was simply too much to take in – inconceivable!
Eventually I had to head back to Australia. I had spent my $800 (mostly on flour, rice & tea) and had been there for close to a year. Christmas & New Years had come & gone and we were now in 1985. Time to go back to my home country and get on with my life.
The time I spent on Yanuca changed me. It gave me the chance to spend some time reflecting on what was important to me. I had no idea that was what I was doing but when I returned to Australia I poured all my energy into music and I know that this time had made me feel that was possible. I loved the freedom of having no expectations on me and in some ways felt that my time there was like a second chance to be a teenager, without the angst.
I cried like a baby as I left the island, everybody did. I stayed in touch for a few years, sending boxes of clothes and fun things for the kids. But as my life moved on that connection waned. I don’t think I’ll ever get back there but the people who took me into their home and their hearts will always have a place in mine. My dumb idea turned out to be one of the best moves I made.