Island Life: part 2

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.

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Dumb Ideas – Tropical Island Part One

This edition is a diversion from what I have posted to date. But what’s the point of having a blog if you can’t write about what ever takes your fancy. I’ve put this under the heading of Dumb Ideas because, as you will see, this story did not have an auspicious beginning. However, I’ve always been willing to jump off the metaphorical cliff and this is merely one example of that.

I once planned a trip to go island hopping around the pacific on a bicycle. What was I thinking? The year was 1984 and I thought it was a good year to get lost. I was right.

The first leg of the trip involved flying to Fiji. I arrived on the main island Viti Levu at about 2am and stayed in a shared room at a youth hostel. I had left Australia with a total of $800 to last me for the whole trip and get me home to Australia again.

The next morning I set off on my trusty road bike to circumnavigate the island and see what adventures awaited. Those first few days were pretty boring. Riding through cane fields, dodging vehicles on a narrow road, not really meeting anybody. Everyone thought I was a complete lunatic and I was starting to agree with them.

There weren’t any hostels or accommodation of any kind on the northern side of the island, so finding somewhere safe to sleep was an issue. I got about half way before the gravel roads and the lack of opportunity to meet with local people saw me jumping on a bus and heading to the capital, Suva.

Suva was more fun with a few more travellers around. I wasn’t sure what my next move would be until I heard that you could pick up a crewing berth on a yacht down at the sailing club. I’d been out on Sydney harbour a couple of times – sure I could crew! So I rode my bike down to the club and looked at the notices on the board and left a message for a couple of them. A day or so later I had my ride on a 40 footer with an Australian captain – ex navy marine surveyor. The bike satyed in Suva.

Captain’s plan was to island hop around the numerous islands that make up Fiji. Sounded good to me. It was for a while too. We went to Ovalau the beautiful old capital, then up to Vanua Levu, the second largest island. We stopped at some very small islands, some uninhabited, one where a white couple had set themselves up to live out their remote island fantasy.

The most wonderful experience was going snorkelling for the first time. It was just off the boat about 50 metres from shore. I remember putting my head into the water and seeing this parallel universe. It literally took my breath away and I came scrambling up for air. I had to take a minute to summon the courage to go under again – it was an intense; so many fish, big fish, reef sharks, sea snakes, rays. We were in about 20 metres of water and the reefs created an unbelievably beautiful underwater seascape. But could I cope with the thought of those sharks cruising around not that far, in fact, pretty damn close to my flapping legs?

After a week or so of cruising up the west coast of Taveuni and going far up into the north eastern sector of the Fiji Islands we came to a small group of uninhabited islands and dropped the anchor.

The next day we went around to the other side of the island and found there was a small village. The people of this village were very excited to see us. About 40 people lived a very basic existence here – no roads, no electricity, no shop, just a collection of thatched huts. They waved for us to come ashore and invited us to eat lunch with them. Before we knew it, they had thrown us a party – guitars and singing, kava drinking, beautiful food fresh from the ocean. It was so wonderful, it was the kind of experience I had dreamed of when planning this crazy trip.

Made it back onto the boat that night, but the next day, after a generous invitation to come and stay with a family on the island, I abandoned ship.

The plan had been to stay, as invited for a couple of weeks until the next time a boat would be heading back to Taveuni. After those first couple of weeks of heaven, I was told I couldn’t go, that I must stay longer. So I did.

Many exciting adventures followed and will be shared in part 2