Visions of Paradise- Part 3 (1986)
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
by Elaine Weeks
This narrative forms part of our one year round-the-world honeymoon tour. In this edition, we depart rain-soaked Ovalau via a wild ferry boat to breathtaking Taveuni.
Dateline: Taveuni, Fiji, November 1987
A GOOD TRAVEL AGENT
We grew weary of the incessant rain on Ovalau and decided to move on to Taveuni, Fiji's third largest island island, attainable by ferry. Taveuni was reputed as fairly quiet and peaceful, without a tourist infrastructure save for Dive Taveuni, a skin diver’s paradise resort. The weather was reputed to be much more stable; as we were anxious to see the sun again, we made enquiries to book passage.
Unfortunately, it was maddingly difficult to uncover information about boats arriving or departing Ovalau. We joked the natives weren’t really as friendly as they seemed; they were actually trying to trap us here, becuase maybe they hadn’t completely abandoned their pre-colonial cannibalistic ways!
The books we’d been reading regarding these islands suggested cannibalism had been quite common before the turn of the century. One of the souvenirs we’d noticed for sale in Suva was an odd item known as a “Cannibal Fork:" rumour had it the early Fijians followed complex recipes for cooking humans to perfection.
Ronald Wright, On Fiji Islands,
“Victims were most often cooked in earth ovens (lovos)…a wild spinach … was deemed essential to avoid the constipated properties of human flesh; and yes, the latter was sometimes referred to as ‘long pig’ … Human flesh was both a sacrifice to the gods and a satisfaction of the appetites. It was prized for its flavour and supposed aphrodisiac qualities.”
Fortunately, this 19th century form of nouvelle cuisine was no longer in vogue in the islands during our visit. We found ourselves joking that in the past, when a Fijian asked you to dinner, it must have been quite a shock to discover you were the main course!
We decided to put our faith in The Fijian Times, "The First Newspaper Published in the World Today” (even though it was always a day late arriving on Ovalau) to uncover information regarding ferry movements between the islands. We'd read in a recent paper a boat passed through Ovalau enroute to Savu Savu on the big island of Vanua Levu. Our initial plan was to tour that island for a couple of days, and then cross the channel to nearby Taveuni.
We tracked down a ticket agent in Levuka where ferry tickets. A young East Indian woman was writing in a thick ledger as we made our way through the cluttered room.
“Excuse me. We’d like to book two tickets on the next boat to Taveuni please,” I asked hopefully.
She slowly looked up from her book to carefully scrutinize the two farangs standing before her. At last she said, “I can sell you two tickets, but I am not knowing exactly what time the boat will be arriving and leaving. I would be advising you to get there early, it might be late.”
We pondered this statement: Get there early, might be late. How neatly that summarized our experiences with the Fijian transportation system thus far.
“It says in this paper a boat leaves tonight at 8,” Chris said producing the Times.
“Yes, I am knowing what the paper says, but I am not knowing when the boat definitely is leaving,” she insisted joggling her head from side to side. “The boat may be leaving at 8, or 10 or midnight. You must be at the port ready to leave at a moment’s notice if you are liking to go. If you are liking I will call Suva to see what I am finding out.”
Picking up an ancient black telephone receiver, she slowly dialed some numbers. After what seemed an eternity, she stopped and listened intently. After about thirty seconds, she clicked the button on the base of the phone and started dialing again. Again, she listened intently, then depressed the button. Once more, her fingers slowly dialed and we held our breath waiting to see if this time she’d get through.
“I am sorry,” she said after the third try, “but I am not having the good success — the line is very bad. I am advising you that you go to the dock tonight at 8.”
Despite this discouraging display, Chris and I hoped for the best; we were anxious to get moving again so we reserved two tickets and returned to our resort to break camp.
By 7 p.m. we were back in town polishing off a dinner at the only restaurant in Levuka open after dark, run by a Swiss couple. The remains of our hiking gang, as well as some new arrivals, had joined us to say goodbye. After our meal, we decided a final drink at The Ovalau Club, (our unofficial headquarters and watering hole in Dodge City), was in order.
The club was about three blocks down a quiet lane, away from the bay so we didn’t have a clear view of the pier where the boat was purported to land. Every 20 minutes or so, Chris would run down to the end of the street to see if the boat was in port. Around 11, after about his 5th trip, he came charging back hollering: “The boat’s here, they’re loading it up with people, and we’d better haul our buns or we’ll miss it!”
We strapped our packs onto our backs, said our fare ye wells abruptly, and ran like fools to catch the boat. I was once a track star, but I swear that was the toughest 1/4 mile I’d ever raced. It’s likely the gravol we had taken to combat sea sickness combined with the beer we had drunk didn’t help matters. As we neared the dock, we could see the gate rising, the boat prepared to leave.
We spotted the ticket agent, who mercifully called for the boat to wait. She handed us our tickets, we threw some money at her, and jumped on board, our feet touching the deck as the boat pushed off.
A NIGHTMARE PASSAGE
The wind had been blowing hard for several days, accounting for unstable weather we’d experienced on Ovalau. We made our way to the upper deck to seek shelter, where we hoped to spread out our mats and sleep, as the boat was without berths or cabins. The vessel seemed rather odd for a passenger ferry. When we discovered instructions for use of the life-jackets were written in Kanji, Chris guessed it was probably a Japanese vessel.
We decided the video blaring in the lounge would be playing indefinitely, and as we hadn’t yet discovered the joys and benefits of ear plugs (a must-have accessory when travelling in the often noisy Third World) we had no choice but to head to the deck. Other passengers had already staked out their claim; we were hard pressed to find space to settle ourselves and our packs.
Under the curious gaze of Fijians camped all around us, we set up makeshift beds on the concrete floor between two rows of plastic chairs. These were extremely uncomfortable, definitely not conducive for sleep. We arranged our gear close around us to discourage theft and to act as a bit of a shield.
What a night! Despite being in the middle of the boat, Chris and I were tossed from side to side as enormous wave crashed against the boat with sickening regularity. Every 15 minutes, announcements broadcasting the current time blared over loudspeakers. In between time reports, ‘so and so’ was asked to report to the bridge. The blaring lights were left on and the concrete floor seemed to get harder with every wave.
At one point, I had the distinct impression someone was watching me. I opened my eyes to find a young native standing at my feet, gazing at me intently. When he saw he had been discovered, he quietly moved away. Watching him leave, I noted with envy how other passengers seemed to be sleeping with ease, oblivious to the rolling deck and the crashing waves.
Undoubtedly, many had made this trip before.
Mercifully, morning dawned bright and clear. Relieved to discover we were still alive, Chris and I staggered to the railing and looked out on a particularly spectacular scene: graceful coconut palms swayed, white sand gleamed and ranges of mountains rolled against a backdrop of soft pink and purple sky. The air felt balmy against our skin and a sweet fragrance hinted of unseen flowers.
Was this Paradise at last?
Instead of disembarking in Savu Savu as planned, we stayed aboard as we had fortunately discovered the ferry continued on to Taveuni, 6 hours away. While we were waiting for the boat to pull away from dock, I struck up a conversation with a young native man standing near me at the railing. He was a rugby player whose team had just played in a tournament in Suva, a game Fijians enjoy and play with great passion.
I confessed my fears during the night about the ferry. Much to my surprise, he confided that he too had been afraid.
“Waves very dangerous,” he declared, “I think worst voyage I have on this ferry. I worry boat going to fall over!”
And here I thought I was the only one having panic attacks. I wasn’t sure if I was relieved or not at this revelation, however, since it only confirmed our fears hadn’t been unfounded. How those Fijians remained so calm was a complete mystery to me; my admiration for these people was growing by the day.
Meanwhile, Chris approached the purser and queried him about the boat.
“The Fijian government bought it from the Japanese last year,” the purser explained. “It was used as a passenger ferry to cross a lake. It’s not really a sea vessel, but we’ve been using it to ply the islands, which are protected from the open sea by coral reefs.”
"Yeah, sure they are!" I said when Chris reported this info to me. "Good grief. We could have all been lost at sea!"
GARDEN OF EDEN
After 14 hours of boat travel (only 6 hours more than planned), we glided over calm waters into the pier at Taveuni. Needless to say, we were exceptionally tired. I had managed to catch a few hours sleep, as the water was much calmer between Vanua Levu and Taveuni, but Chris had been unsuccessful due to the heat, interest in the gorgeous scenery and severe exhaustion.
On dry land at last, we decided to head straight to Valentine’s Place, reputed to be 8 km north of the pier; we’d been told through the coconut telegraph that we could camp there for just $2 a night. After cashing traveller’s cheque and grabbing a few supplies, we boarded an almost empty bus, excited to think we were near our final destination at last.
Naturally, the bus turned around then headed in the opposite direction, past the dock and up a hill to a hospital. Here the driver picked up passengers, then continued to load even more locals as we headed back through town. The bus stopped any time someone was waiting by the road.
Occasionally this meant every 30 or 40 feet as sometimes, the people didn’t bother to move the extra few steps. In no time, the bus was jammed to capacity.
The packed bus hesitated and then lurched up and down the hilly coastal road. Though the going was slow, the breathtaking scenery managed to keep us awake. We never lost sight of the ocean, the hills on our right thick with coconut, banana palms and dense jungle. Taveuni was certainly living up to its nickname as the ‘Garden Isle’.
Occasionally, the bus lumbered past clusters of small, tin roofed clapboard houses with a few chickens scratching out front and smiling children waving from the porches.
“Why wasn’t I told about this wonderful place, and how can I prevent others from discovering it?” Ashleigh Brilliant
As we came around a bend, we caught a glimpse of the first pristine white beaches of the tour; the driver stopped, then indicated our stop, for this was Valentine’s Place.
Chris and I thought we were dreaming for a moment ... this just couldn’t be! Were we finally going to be staying somewhere that at first glance, fit our vision of Paradise?
We stood rooted on the edge of the road trying to take everything in – aquamarine sea, check, chalk white powder sand, check, palm trees draped lazily over the water, check! Waves softly broke off a coral reef which literally began metres from the road. And to complete the vision, a cloudless sapphire sky stretched to the horizon.
A male voice snapped us out of our reverie. We turned to see a young Fijian man slowly approaching.
“You come to stay at Valentine’s Place?” he inquired pleasantly.
“Bula!” we replied wonderingly, still in somewhat of a daze. “Is this the right place?”
“Of course!” he responded with a smile. “Come with me, I show you all around.”
Our charming guide’s name was Orace. Indicating where we could drop our dusty packs, he assured us that there was plenty of room for our tent (only one other was pitched). We were intrigued to learn we were going to be camping on the lawn of Orace’s grandparents’ house. His uncle Cilau acted as manager of the camp while grandma and grandpa enjoyed the extra revenue incurred. We soon discovered they were just plain delighted having foreigners around.
Orace led us to the back of the property where the washroom facilities were located. The toilet was the outhouse variety (at least it was a porcelain affair and not the ubiquitous third world squatter arrangement). The ‘shower’ was immediately adjacent, a rather amazing set-up; an armpit high fence had been erected encircling a small open-air wash area that consisted of a red plastic wash tub and a small bucket. The water supply was a single pipe feeding off a small nearby stream.
To wash, one filled the tub with water by turning a crude valve on the end of the pipe and then scooping up water with the bucket to pour over the body. Since the fence was so low, I realized I would have to stoop over to have my ‘shower’ in order to protect my modesty. Not the most comfortable arrangement in the world but one can’t be too choosy for 2 bucks a night. Besides, we’d get to experience life at the local level, the same way the natives managed.
We were then led into the rather modern (by Fijian standards) house. Orace indicated we could use the family’s kitchen to cook and that there was always hot water in the morning for tea. They didn’t have a stove, sink or fridge, so we knew meal making would be a distinct challenge for us. The kitchen consisted of a long table, a wooden counter built into the wall and a fire pit in one corner with a grate. No screens in the windows and no doors, either; our sudden appearance scared out some chicks which were busily pecking up crumbs off the floor.
We were shown into the living room, where we encountered a plump middle-aged man, who looked up from his intense survey of the Fijian Times.
“Bula! How are you?” he boomed cheerfully. “How long can you stay?”
“We were thinking of staying for a week or two if that’s all right,” replied Chris.
“Of course, stay a long time!” he encouraged.
Always nice to feel welcome. I thought: I’m going to like it here!
“My name is Cilau. Where are you from?”
Chris nodded and replied, “Nice to meet you. We’re from Canada. My name’s Chris and this is my wife Elaine.”
Cilau smiled and said, “I am happy you have chose Valentine’s place.” He produced a small school note book. “Could you please sign in this book and read our rules.”
Chris took took filled in our names and then read aloud:
“The charge for camping is $2 a night. This is to be paid at the end of your stay.
Guests are to finish cooking in the kitchen by 6 p.m.
Please cook your own food.
Please wash up your own dishes and keep the kitchen neat.”
“Good!” said Cilau. “Would you like some tea?”
“Not too hard to live by, are they?” I commented later about the rules as we pitched our tent near a flowering orchid tree, which we shortly discovered was a roosting place for the family chickens.
“Now those are the kind of rules I can handle,” agreed Chris. “If only the rest of life was so carefree.”
Our fatigue level dropped a few notches since our touchdown at Valentine’s. We celebrated our good fortune at finding such a beautiful place with a refreshing swim in the sea then a brief laze in the sun. Eventually, exhaustion made a reappearance and we returned to the dome home for a rejuvenating snooze.
We loved Taveuni so much we almost didn’t leave. If this wasn’t Paradise, it was pretty darn close. I think real Paradise would have better washroom and cooking facilities. Not to mention cheeseburgers. But waking every morning to glorious sunshine and walking across the road to the deserted beach to start the day with a swim in crystal clear seas certainly was better than fighting traffic on a daily commute to work!
Food was obtained from the little Indian shop about a mile away, an uncomfortably hot walk if attempted any time after 9 a.m.; here, the choices usually ranged between tinned mackerel, eggs, rice, doughy bread, and frozen lamb or chicken. Like shipwrecked survivors on a deserted island, we began to fantasize about fresh foods such as salads, pasta – and cheesecake!
One night, I attempted to make some flour roti in order to add a little variety to our diet. I foolishly started cooking late and before long, knew I was in trouble. I seemed to be getting in grandma’s way and was having a hard time dealing with the open fire cooking setup. The wood smoke was making my eyes sting and water, so I could barely see. In addition, the kitchen kept getting darker and darker for there was no electricity and, I couldn’t seem to keep the fire going. How absolutely frustrating!
Fortunately, Chris, who was a much more experienced camper, and was doing most of the cooking as a result, took over and the dinner was salvaged.
The next day, I watched enviously as grandma effortlessly made her own roti on the outdoor firepit using a big pot lid as a cooking surface. She must have been laughing to herself at my inept attempts the night before and I wondered if today she was perhaps showing off.
Not one to be easily discouraged, I tried my hand at making lolo. Grandma conjured up a batch almost every day for the evening meal and when she performed this chore, it looked easy enough. Sitting on a stool, she scrapped halved coconut shells against a sort of ridged blade which was attached to a small piece of 2 x 4.
The coconut shreds fell into a bowl, then water was poured over the pulp. After the shreds soaked for about an hour, she squeezed them over a cup. The collected “cream” was then used for cooking fish, chicken or vegetables and imparted a sweet, buttery flavour. There certainly wasn’t a shortage of coconuts on the family compound, which consisted of over 100 acres and came complete with a dense hilly jungle behind the homestead.
Hopping on the stool, I started scraping, and scraping, and scraping, but nothing seemed to happen. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t seem to master the twisting and pushing motion that grandma achieved with relative ease. Watching my feeble attempts, this time she did not hide her amusement and motioned me to get up.
“You ... like this!” she laughed, exhibiting a toothless grin. “Easy!”
I tried again and this time produced a pitiful handful of shreds. At this rate, it would take me all night so grandma stepped in and finished the job for me; at least I was able to handle the squeezing bit. The coconut cream was then used for cooking a freshly caught, bright blue parrot fish, kindly provided by the Valentines’ neighbours and cousins, next door. We had noticed they frequently caught fish and had asked if we might buy some. Once again, the Fijian generosity came through and they insisted we have the fish without payment. I think that must have been one of the best meals we'd eaten on Taveuni.
Speaking of coconuts, poor grandpa hobbled around the compound like he was listing to port. His walked with right shoulder all crunched down; we thought he was arthritic. Turns out he was standing under one of the coconut trees several years back (they soar as high as a hundred feet or more), and two coconuts fell on him. He was lucky not have been killed, as falling coconuts obliviate several natives every year.
One night, Cilau invited us to join them the next day for a lovo, an acceptable descendant of the Fijian cannibal barbecue, and a regular Sunday event. We gratefully accepted, happy to take a day off cooking and curious to see what it was about. We knew we weren’t going to be on the menu, but just to be on the safe side, we offered to donate a chicken to the cause.
The next day, Cilau and his grandfather spent several hours preparing the pit for the lovo. After digging a hole about two feet deep and three feet across, they placed a stack of wood on the bottom and then piled on some lava rocks. More logs were shaped into a pyramid and lit. Cilau watched the fire until the rocks were white hot; it was then time to cook.
Wrapped in fresh cut banana leaves (also plenty of these on the grounds), our chicken was placed in the pit along with a pot of lamb, garnished with lemon and garlic. Five giant peeled dalo roots (sort of like a huge potato) were then tucked in around the meat. Banana leaves were laid over the food and banana leaf stems were positioned like a teepee to allow the lovo to breathe. Dirt was shoveled back into the pit, and our meal was left to bake completely underground.
A couple of hours later, the piping hot food was unearthed and transported carefully into the kitchen. We piled our plates and headed to the living room to eat. As our hosts were all sitting on the floor we followed suit. We had decided that Fijians bought furniture as a sign of wealth; they much prefer the floor for relaxing or visiting, as has been their custom for centuries.
Everything was cooked to perfection. The banana leaf wrappers and the buried-cooked method gave the food an unusual flavour which we found quite pleasing and delicious. Chris and I felt very thankful to be included in the Valentine’s traditional dinner, an important part of Fijian life, and made sure we told our hosts several times how honoured we were.
Cilau was pleased and announced, “Since you are staying two more weeks, you will have two more lovos. Next one fish and then we kill chicken for next.”
“Thank you very very much!” Chris and I exclaimed in unison. “You are too good to us!”
Meanwhile, we were simultaneously thinking about those roosters that woke us up every morning at 4:30 with their crowing. How unfortunate they couldn’t be sacrificed for an upcoming lovo too.
THE VILLAGE PEOPLE
A few days later, as we lounged on our beach, a van stopped on the road almost directly behind us. Curious, as we usually had the beach to ourselves, we turned to look and the stocky Fijian driver called out.
“Chris!” he yelled, “How are you!”
Surprised we glanced at each other. “Anyone you know?” I asked.
“No idea,” replied Chris puzzled, “He doesn’t look familiar at all, especially with those dark glasses. Sort of menacing looking too if you ask me.”
We stepped cautiously over to the van to see who it could be.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” the Fijian said with a grin, “I met you at the Ovalau Holiday Resort! I was with that fat American guy.”
“Oh yeah, now I remember! Pio, isn’t it?” Chris responded laughing.
About half way through our stay on Ovalau, Pio and a fat American man had flown into Ovalau for a day to check out Steve’s resort. We'd encountered him in the Bula Bar where he and the American whiled away most of the afternoon due to the inclement weather. The fat American wanted to build a resort on a small island off the coast of Taveuni similar to Steve’s resort, and was touring the islands in search of ideas.
“You invited us to come to your village,” Chris continued, “but I lost your address.” Actually, we hadn’t really thought Pio had been serious about the invitation.
“I’ve been expecting you! When can you come?” Pio demanded pleasantly.
No need to consult our day book to see if we were busy; we announced that we could come the very next day.
In the cool of the morning, Chris and I hopped the bus to Gangeli, Pio’s village around the north side of the island. We decided to turn the day into an adventure by exploring the “birth of surf” at a nearby beach, as well.
Even though we were aware there were few Westerners on the island, the Fijians we’d encountered thus far on the local buses or shops did not regard us with overt curiosity. Rather more discreet, they stole glances when they thought we weren’t looking.
From what we could gather, most natives could be pro football players, women included. They were muscular, big boned and tended towards the tall side. With their bushy black hair and their wide, flat-nosed faces, they looked, at first glance, almost frightening, which belied their kind and generous nature. One woman we spotted on the bus was enormous, her bulk nearly pushing the woman next to her onto the floor. On her cheeks and chin, numerous black hairs sprouted. If it weren’t for the brightly coloured flowered ‘mumu-esque’ dress she wore, and her startingly red finger nails, we might have been certain we were looking at a man.
And we couldn't help but notice that the natives were in love with tattoos, and usually sported several. We shared a bench seat with a quiet young native teen who displayed a curious tattoo on his thigh: “Wisdom is gained from a heart full of faith, not a head full of facts”.
We could only wonder if he knew what that actually meant.
We got off the bus a little prematurely so strolled the last half mile to Pio’s village. By the time we reached the compound, we had accumulated quite a crowd; locals who had seen us pass, approached to shake our hands. In halting English, they asked where we were going and where we came from. When we attempted to make further small talk however, we were unsuccessful. Their English was somewhat limited and our Fijian almost nil, but no matter, they were content to walk with us in silence.
Chris and I were struck by the beauty on this side of the island. Though captivated by our spot at Valentine’s, we admired the lush vegetation produced by the more frequent rainfalls here. To our left, we could see Lauthala Island, which had been recently been sold by Malcolm Forbes, the American tycoon. The Lauthalan’s had worked for Forbes on his huge plantation turning coconuts into copra, the major cash crop in the South Pacific.
Pio had sent a couple of small boys to greet us and they excitedly led us through the village to his house. From what we could see, most of the dwellings were the typical clapboard buildings with tin roofs. These were well spread apart and immaculately tended and each had a little garden patch out back as well as the omnipresent chickens. We surmised the village was fairly prosperous and learned later the villagers ran a collective farm, the wealth spread amongst all the families.
“Hey! You made it!” cried Pio happily as he ushered us into his modest, well-kept home. Straw mats covered the floors and a plate rail lined with family portraits, rugby trophies, and shells ran around the top of the living area. Flowered curtains cordoned off the various “private” rooms. The concept of privacy is quite different in a Fijian village, we had discovered; everything is shared by the whole community and everyone knows what everyone else is doing. This is quite odd to most westerners who usually guard their privacy quite jealously.
We'd arrived around lunch time so Pio’s sister (one of nineteen siblings who were scattered all over the world, we learned) immediately began laying out food and drink on the floor. Pio invited us to sit down and eat, which we did with great gusto. Fish, chicken lolo, tapioca, fruit and of course, dalo comprised our delicious and filling meal; the journey and hike had bolstered our appetite, and we were glad we were hungry. We were also beginning to understand why most Fijians tend to be on the chubby side; with all that starch, who could stay thin?
As we ate, Pio regaled us with spirited tales of his various projects and employments. He was a smooth talker (unlike our friends we’d met on the road into the village) and soon, we were caught up in his unstoppable enthusiasm.
“How did you get involved with that American guy?” asked Chris.
“I’m working on a promotional tape about Fiji — I’m hoping to sell it to the Ministry of Tourism, so I’ve been making the rounds of the islands. When I was on Castaway Island, I ran into him and told him to come with me on some of my trips. Who knows, maybe I can get a piece of the action.”
Prior to his current entrepreneurial undertakings, Pio had been in the hotel trade, and had enjoyed some brief success when he had developed a special refrigerated truck to ship fresh papaya from the out islands to resorts in and around Nadi. Since this tropical delicacy didn’t grow there, the hotels and locals usually cleaned him out.
“I think this has been my best idea so far. Unfortunately, I haven’t worked all the bugs out yet. I can’t keep the damn truck cold enough! Usually, by the time I got to Nadi, about half the fruit was bad. I was only able to break even but I’m not giving up. I’m hoping that my new project will make me enough money so I can buy a better truck.”
As Chris and I listened to Pio’s animated monologue, we found it hard to believe he wasn’t actually from New York, rather than this sleepy little community.
“I even tried boxing,” he continued with relish. “I was billed as a Mr. T. lookalike! I had a lot of fun but I’m not a very good boxer – I hate pain!”
So that venture had been pretty short-lived. “Besides”, Pio explained, “I’m just too good-natured for such a violent sport!”
Then, it was our turn; Pio was curious to know all about us and what we were doing in Fiji.
“We’re from Windsor,” Chris explained, “it’s across the border from Detroit.”
“Detroit! I’m going to be in Detroit in a few months! How about I tape you so your folks can see how you’re doing?”
Racing to the other room, he extracted his 8mm video camera from under his bed (still an expensive rarity in those days in most North American homes, let alone in the Fijian islands!) and before we could say “cheese”, we were on camera.
“Pio, this is pretty wild!” said Chris shaking his head. “I mean, here we were on an island without running water or electricity, only one phone at most per village, with an antiquated transportation network, no television and WE’RE being videotaped by a local! We should be taping you!”
Despite thinking it was unlikely that Pio would follow through with his plan to contact Chris’ mom (he didn’t), we enjoyed our session in front of the camera, figuring that at any rate, he could entertain his friends and family with our antics.
Continuing our tour of the rest of the village, conducted by a wizened looking fellow named Lui, we wondered if they had been expecting us. We witnessed all kinds of ‘typical’ village scenes: women weaving mats and stenciling tapa cloths, a man carving a bone knife handle and a basket of freshly plucked mussels outside someone’s house ready to be transformed into dinner.
A climb up a small hill to the local school just in time to see a boisterous group of young students heading for the wash tubs with a water bottle in one hand and a toothbrush in the other. The headmaster, a man not be fooled with from what we could tell, required all students to clean their teeth at school after lunch; this ensured they brushed at least once every day.
According to Pio, if the village people liked you, you were welcome to stay as long as we wished, anywhere in Fiji. After our brief inspection of village culture and our glimpse into the lives of these gentle and hospitable people, Chris and I thought perhaps this wouldn’t be such a bad idea. Later on in our travels however, we encountered a couple who had actually lived in a village, and their tales of the lack of privacy made us realize that perhaps it wouldn’t have been such a great experience after all.
We decided not to stay in a village, mostly because we felt uncomfortable receiving so much without being able to, in our minds, adequately reciprocate. I called it the “Christmas Effect”; our society believes if someone gives you something, you should return the favour. This would have been quite impossible in Fiji; they were just too giving a people.
Lui led us back to Pio’s who announced he had to catch the dreaded Japanese ferry to Suva, so he could continue working on his video. (He wanted some shots of the boat itself, which we thought might hurt his video more than help it!) Pio grabbed his briefcase and opened it and a stack of airline tickets from Air Pacific and Fiji Airlines fell out.
“I got these as freebies for taking people from the hotel on tours of the region,” he explained seeing our astonished looks. “Anytime I want to go somewhere, all I have to do is book a reservation and I’m gone. It also allows me to come back to Taveuni any time I get tired of the rat race with the tourists,” he concluded with a wide grin.
We thought this was an extremely intelligent program, and thanked him profusely for entertaining us. Pio assured us we could stay in the village after he was gone but we decided to accompany him through the grounds to wish him fare well and then commence our trek to the “Birth of Surf”.
BIRTH OF SURF
To travel to this fabled spot, we boarded another bus towards Lavena, the end of the line around the northern road. Half way down the isolated northeast coast, we stopped to inspect the splendid waterfalls at Mbouma. These were set well back in the jungle, but their inviting roar could just be heard from the road. We followed the noise and soon located them, grateful to see a small pool at their base which meant we could swim and cool off from the day’s heat and humidity.
Though normally hot, the weather was really quite bearable, as there had been some rain in the area recently. In fact, we never found the heat in Fiji as oppressive as what lay ahead in Southern Asia.
After our reviving dip, we left the jungle and felt strong enough to hike the remaining 4 km north to Lavena. That way, we could walk off the huge meal we’d eaten with Pio, and fully appreciate the gorgeous undeveloped countryside along the way.
The effect of thousands of coconuts (we now knew that Taveuni was basically a coconut plantation) cascading in rows down the hills to the sea was breathtaking. Virgin beaches, seldom seen by most tourists (except through a rent-a-van window) were ours to explore; we roamed several half moon bays, each about a quarter mile in length and noted with satisfaction the lack of any visible dwellings. It was exhilarating to pretend we were the first white people to set foot on shore.
Back on the road, we passed several traditional mburres, thatched huts that have almost completely disappeared from the islands. The natives here were more timid, but couldn’t resist coming up to us to shake our hands. Our few words we’d managed to learn of Fijian limited the conversations; their command of English was minimal so we didn’t linger. After experiencing several of these pleasant encounters, we spotted Lavena in the distance. As if on cue, a miniature waterfall materialized on the side of the road just before we reached the village and we were able to refresh ourselves again before carrying on.
Lavena was another typical Fijian village, although we could see more mburres interspersed here and there among the clapboard huts than in previous villages. The first soul we encountered was a young girl of about twelve, who was fetching a jug of water from the communal water supply. Through a combination of sign language and broken Fijian, we asked if it was permissible to trek through the village to the beach.
The locals appreciate this common courtesy, and she shyly acknowledged that it was all right. We thought it likely the locals had probably witnessed a fair few tourists, since we’d seen a couple of tour groups who flew in from Suva for the day zip pass Valentine’s Place headed north in rented vans to the end of the road. Usually, their heads would turn when they saw us, as the effect of two deeply tanned, sulu-clad Westerners walking barefoot down the road must have been quite a novel sight.
The beach in front of the village was at least 2 or 3 km in length. We thought we might walk it all, but were a little fatigued after our stroll so were content to lie on the flour-white sand and gaze upon the cobalt sea. We could understand why Lavena was the end of the line; spectacular cliffs plunged directly into the sea just beyond the beach.
According to local legend, the first surfing ever undertaken by man was successfully launched off this beach. We gazed out at the reef, where giant rollers attempted to break through to disturb the quiet stretch of the water which lapped up onto the sand. As we watched, a group of female villagers waded out into the water. Since they were wearing clothes, we surmised that surfing was not their intent.
The tide was out which apparently indicated prime fishing time. Singing softly, the women cast out a large net and then formed a giant circle around it. Slowly, they waded towards each other until and the circle was almost closed. Then, suddenly raising the net in unison, they triumphantly trapped an undulating bundle of brightly hued fish.
LIFE’S A BEACH
Several years before our arrival, The UK's Prince Charles, then a wild bachelor, toured the Fijian islands during one of his forays into the South Pacific. The native Fijians were extremely energized at the prospect of his visit, and prepared for his arrival with much anticipation.
The natives were particularly fond of the British because the great imperialists allowed them to keep most of their land during colonial days, almost in direct contrast to what occurred to the aborigines in New Zealand. We read that over 80% of the land in the islands was owned by the natives, while in New Zealand, only 3% was owned by the Maori.
One of the Prince Charles’ stops was at a small beach, viewed as one of the prettiest in the islands. Unfortunately, due to his tight schedule, Charles was unable to have a swim, and could only admire its attributes from the royal limo. Somewhat disappointed, the locals decided to name the beach after him anyway.
Charlie sure didn’t know that he was missing a tropical postcard: soft white sand, turquoise water, coconut palms, with one bent low to shore, as if to take a drink from the sea, and an incredible reef just off shore. The reef teemed with life, and across the bay, the famed Rainbow Reef, reputed to be one of the “eight great scuba dives in the world”, attracted professional and amateur divers from round the world, who glimpsed giant turtles, shark and schools of spectacularly coloured fish.
Prince Charles’ Beach was only a hundred feet south of Valentine’s. Most days you could find Chris and I enjoying this lovely spit of sand and we generally had it all to ourselves.
Occasionally, small local boys would share the beach with us, and sometimes, they would shyly approach to ask us where we were staying and where we were from. They were intrigued when we explained we were Canadian.
“Ohh, snow, snow, snow!” cried one imp.
“Yeah, lots of snow,” Chris admitted, “but not where we’re from.”
This was too much for them and one asked to describe what snow was like.
“Well,” I began scooping up a handful of sand, “it looks like this but it’s made of water and is much colder.”
“Wuh?” they said.
I tried again. “Snow comes from the sky like rain, but when the air is very cold, the rain gets hard and becomes like cold sand. But, you can make a ball with it and throw it at your friends!”
This made them all roar with laughter and they immediately began flinging fistfuls of sand at each other yelling, “Snow! Snow!”
At low tide one day, an old man and his grandson arrived to fish. We watched as the grandfather expertly stuck several fish with thrusts of a short wooden spear. The little boy attempted to spear his own fish and it was adorable to watch him mimicking his grandfather without much success. Only twice in our three week stay did another traveller arrive for a swim; on the whole, it was our beach.
Perhaps the locals should have named it after us!
A NOVEL USE FOR ZIPLOC
A couple of days after visiting Pio, we experienced another dose of Fijian culture when Trevor came over one evening for a visit. He was a native Fijian who had lived in Australia most of his life and was now renting the house next door (for $30 a month!).
In a thick Australian accent, Trevor proceeded to regale us with stories of native black magic and witch doctors. Up to now, we had heard nothing of these things so were eager to hear what he had to say.
“Belief in evil spirits on the islands is quite prevalent,” he began. “Even high government officials are supposedly given their positions by God, because evil spirits try to exercise their nasty powers through the village chiefs. Kava ceremonies are a part of parliament procedings as the officials believe the grog drives away any lurking spirits. “
Chris and I had heard only that social reasons accounted for the Fijians frequent quaffing of Kava. Apparently, their belief in these spirits had something to do with their abuse of the yangona root. The ritual grog ceremony we had participated in on Ovalau had only been a taste, so to speak, of the real thing; as many as 70 men (women not invited) might take their place before special bowls, called tanua, carved from a single block of wood. The men would grog for hours on end in order to chase away the evil spirits. (We couldn’t help thinking how similar this was to western man’s tendency to drown his sorrows in alcohol.)
With the moonless night as thick as molasses, Trevor proceeded to tell a spooky chronicle by candlelight on the Valentine’s front porch.
“When Henry, my father’s friend, was a young man,” he began, “he had the desire to learn boxing but didn’t want to bother with practising. He had heard about another man who had managed this feat with the aid of an evil spirit. Henry was told he too could learn to box if he was willing to allow witchcraft to help him.” Trevor claimed. “When he agreed, Henry was warned to expect a visit from a stranger in a few days and not to be afraid. Three days later, he was lying in bed. His house was built on stilts, so anyone standing outside his window would be far too short to see in. Suddenly, a huge head with bright red eyes the size of tennis balls and a mass of bushy hair, filled his window.”
“‘Why did you call me?’ the head asked with a voice like the roar of a lion. Henry was too frightened to answer, however, so the head demanded again, ‘Why did you call me? What do you want?’”
“At this point,” Trevor reported, “the huge head abruptly poked itself through the window into Henry’s room. Scared to death, Henry leaped out of bed and fled screaming from his room and into the arms of his astonished mother.”
With a laugh, Trevor concluded his story by relating that the man was afraid of the dark for the rest of his life.
“Are there any evil spirits on Taveuni?” I asked somewhat nervously.
“Sure! Thousands of them!” replied Trevor. Seeing my look of consternation, he assured me that, “they’re not interested in you and Chris, however.”
I wasn’t sure if I should be relieved or disappointed. At this point, Orace piped up and recounted his own close encounter.
“One night, I was walking on grass towards road. Very tall man was standing still and when I passed him, I look and he look at me but did not know who it was. When turned to look again, he move away, very fast, like airplane and then, he gone.”
“Where did you see this guy, Orace?” inquired Chris.
“Your tent, near there,” he replied.
Possessed of a very active imagination, I expected to spend an extremely restless night. I was especially concerned about what I would do when I had to use the facilities as nature called at least once a night. There was no way I was going to unzip that tent flap lest I encounter Orace’s spook.
Then I had a brilliant idea. As I took my toothbrush and paste out of the plastic ziploc bag (the kind that fastens tightly together at the top by pressing together two grooved ridges) that I kept my toiletries in, I thought, why not? Dumping out the contents I placed the bag under my pillow. That night, instead of venturing out into the spirit-filled night, I simply retrieved the bag, did my business, zipped up the top, placed it near the tent flap for dumping in the morning. Burrowing into my sleeping bag I slept till morning like a baby.
A word to the wise traveller: Don’t leave home without them!
IN SEARCH OF THE LOST DAY
Taveuni is located precisely on the International Date Line; in fact, there’s a spot south of the port where the line is demarked. On one of our excursions into the little town of Somosomo, we thought we’d see about getting back that day we’d lost when we flown across the International Date Line after leaving Canada.
After a short walk, we found the marker, which stated:
Crossing this the 180 º Meridian where each new day begins
A notched piece of wood was attached to the top of the marker and pointed to Yesterday on the east side and Today on the west. Sniffing a perfect photo opportunity, Chris erected the tripod and set the camera for a timed exposure. We gleefully anticipated how friends and family at home might get a kick out of seeing us holding hands across the date line, me in Today and Chris in Yesterday.
Mark Twain's Following the Equator,
“..Yesterday it was September 8, Sunday; today, per the bulletin-board at the head of the companionway, it is September 10, Tuesday. There is something uncanny about it. And uncomfortable. In fact, nearly unthinkable, and wholly unrealizable, when one comes to consider it. While we were crossing the 180th meridian it was Sunday in the stern of the ship where my family were, and Tuesday in the bow where I was. They were there eating the half of a fresh apple on the 8th, and I was at the same time eating the other half of it on the 10th – and I could notice how stale it was, already.”
DAYS OF HEAVEN
Two days before we were to leave our ‘enchanted isle’, we chanced to meet a young couple from Australia and their two children. We were on our way to book a plane back to Suva (there was no way we were going to take that bloody ferry again, even if the weather was much improved!), and they were good enough to stop their jeep and give us a lift when they saw us walking down the road. Later that day, we ran into them again on the beach in front of Valentine’s.
We were impressed to learn they were staying in the fancy house just above us on the hill. It had been so long since we had talked to any friendly Westerners (another contrast to our stay on Ovalau), we were soon chatting like old friends.
“We’re going out on a boat tomorrow to explore some of the outer islands. How would you like to come?” they invited.
“Sounds great to us!” Chris responded eagerly. “When were you thinking of pushing off? Oh, by the way, we’re Chris and Elaine.”
“Chris and Rob and these are our children Adrian and Anthea. We thought we’d head out around 8 a.m.” explained Rob. “Perhaps you’d like to join us for dinner tomorrow night as well? We’re having curry.”
Talk about good fortune! This was going to round off our stay here on Taveuni very nicely.
The next day dawned obligingly clear and hot. We jumped into their jeep and soon came to a dock with a small skiff. On the way to the first island, the sea was a bit rough and we all got soaked. Zipping over the clear blue water was like flying a small plane low over a garden; so many colours and varieties of coral! We dropped anchor at a tiny island directly opposite the Indian store.
Really not more than a large rock we nonetheless carefully heaved ourselves up and relaxed in the sun a bit before slipping into the water. The kids were in seventh heaven due to all the birds, crabs and fish to gaze at and Chris and I shot half a roll of film in about fifteen minutes.
Snorkeling was excellent with visibility even better than at Prince Charles’ reef. I got a good underwater look at some vivid red coral, as well as a black and white sea snake which fortunately, was swimming in the opposite direction; I learned later that these were reportedly quite deadly.
The second island was the exact opposite of the first: a sandy beach and lots of shells but no snorkeling. The kids were again in their glory, collecting shells and mischeviously dropping them down the top of my bathing suit; we adults were content to relax in the sun, agreeing that it is a hard life being a tourist. Gazing across at Taveuni, with its lush green hills and wide beaches, Chris and I suddenly felt a bit nostalgic realizing we would soon be leaving this beautiful place.
Rob and Chris had arrived on the island only a couple of days previous, which explained why we hadn’t seen them before. The house they were inhabiting belonging to a rich Australian friend, who was too busy making piles of money to pencil in any time to enjoy his Fiji retreat.
They were intrigued to hear details of our trip thus far, and were fascinated by our accounts of interactions with the locals. When we described our facilities at Valentine’s, they took pity on us and insisted we have showers when we came to their place for dinner. A proper hot shower had been one of the key ingredients missing from our little slice of paradise! I anticipated with delight the thought of it, something I hadn’t enjoyed in almost two months.
We spent the afternoon washing clothes and organizing our packs for our departure early the next morning. By 5 pm, we were peering through the windows of our new friends’ exquisite ultra-modern bungalow, marvelling at magnificent hardwood floors, sumptuous furniture and plush carpets.
Our hosts were running late so we took the opportunity to admire the compound. The grounds were well tended (the pseudo grass, really a tropical weed, looked like it had been trimmed with scissors), and packed with eye-catching flower gardens. We then stood transfixed on their huge deck watching the glorious sunset over Valentine’s Beach, and in the distance, Vanua Levu.
“Look at our little dome home down there,” I pointed. Our tent looked like a little brown bug burrowing for cover.
“Talk about contrasts!” agreed Chris, “To think we’ve been living there all this time, with this gorgeous shack just above us!”
“Amazing, isn’t it? I think we must know how the locals must feel.” I guessed. “Although I don’t believe they really mind somehow. Their way of life seems pretty mellow and idyllic, don’t you think?”
Before Chris had a chance to answer, our hosts arrived and we were ushered inside to marvel at the interior of the house. High ceilings, exquisite South Pacific artwork on the walls and tables, and a myriad of rooms kept us enthralled for several minutes. I felt somewhat like a poor relative come to visit.
The meal was delicious: spicy curry, rotis, salad, rice, fruit salad for dessert and ice cold Fiji Bitter. Everything was prepared by the gardener’s wife, who also did the dishes (not to mention, their laundry!). The gardener was a peaceful old guy whose job was to keep the place running ship shape, should the captain ever finally decide to come on a retreat.
The shower was the highlight for me, even though I did have some peeping toms in the form of Adrian and Anthea. For some reason, (perhaps he was a voyeur?), the owner had had the bathroom built with a glass wall. As it was situated next to the living room, anyone sitting in the right spot, had a good vantage point of bathroom activity. Despite my audience, I managed to enjoy a reviving shower anyway, and joyfully wrapped myself up in a huge fluffy white towel.
Sadly, the wonderful evening drew to a close, and we reluctantly prepared to leave. As we thanked our friends for such a fabulous time, we asked for their address in Australia, since we expected to be travelling there in a few months time. Then, carefully descending the hill in the dark, Chris and I mutually decided we must be completely crazy to be leaving this place the next day.
But it was still early in our long trip to stay in one place and we were anxious to begin the New Zealand segment. We’d fallen into the typical traveller’s ruse of always looking forward to the future instead of being satisfied with the present.
Before boarding the ten-seater plane the next morning, Chris checked to see if we had all our gear. Glancing in our note book to see whereabouts in Australia Chris and Rob made their home, he suddenly announced, “Guess what those Aussies’ last name is!”
“I give up.” I replied, busy with the camera.
“Heavens!” Chris proclaimed with a grin.
“How appropriate!” I professed wonderingly.
And then, before the full impact of this intriguing revelation could fully sink in, we were airborne, craning our necks to have one long last look at the jewelled island of Taveuni, our home for the last 21 days and our almost perfect Paradise.
Next Stop: New Zealand & The Kindness of Strangers