We decided to go with the winds and continued west around Vanua Levu. The ride from Also Island was wavy and windy, with large swells that looked like they wanted to jump into the cockpit, but happily, remained in the ocean. By late afternoon we were anchored in quiet Blackjack Bay, where we were treated to a pretty rainbow arching over Freya during our cooling off swim. The lack of people and wind were both appreciated after a busy and blustery two weeks. In fact, the evening remained so calm that Bjarne fell asleep in the cockpit while gazing at the stars. The next morning we reached Malau and anchored near the shipping docks of the Fiji Sugar Corporation. From here we would catch a bus into Labasa to renew our cruising permit, which had about 3 days left before expiring. In Labasa we ran into some of the same folks I had traveled with when I went for my dentist appointment. They had already heard, even though we'd left Also Island just the day before, that we were considering staying in Fiji and returning to their village. News travels very quickly via the coconut telegraph.
We took the bus three times, which was two times more than the bus driver needed to get to know us. On the 1st return trip we mistakenly rang the stop-bell too soon. The driver disregarded the early signal and stopped right in front of our dinghy. We figured we couldn't get off early even if we wanted to. By the third trip when we rang the bell the driver laughed: we assume that meant, "you silly foreigners are the only white people on the bus, as if I don't know where to let you off."
We became a big hit with some of the security guards from the nearby Fiji Gas company. I doubt there are many security issues arising in this quiet area so I guess you take what excitement you can get. Each time we went ashore or returned to our dinghy we were greeted by one or two of these fellows. In addition to chatting with us, they also helped us haul One Night Stand onto or off of the grassy knoll where we'd leave her (well away from the rising tide). They also kept an eye on her for us while we were in town. One guard met us later while we were in Labasa and gave us his daughter's address in Canada. We also were invited twice to the home of another guard (Dharmand).
On the morning of our visit with Dharmand, we were picked up in the company vehicle after his graveyard shift was done (which was 16 hours long at $1/hour). We were dropped off at a long shared driveway and walked up to the house he built, where his wife, Raj, and their youngest daughter greeted us warmly. The small house is on ¼ acre of leased land (Indo-Fijians are not allowed to own land) and has a nice view over the heads of some of his neighbours, looking onto a playing field and a large patch of coconut and papaya trees. The view would command a good price in Canada, although it is not so rare here. They have a garden for most of their produce, such as cassava, and grow enough basil to sell it to the neighbours. There was a large sack of Haldi, which is the bright yellow stuff that gives curry its colour – quite a bit more than our 100 gram package that will last us for months. We were served very sweet tea, and then kava (grog). I found the muddy taste to be a bit much at 10 in the morning. We sat on the floor around a mat made from polypropylene sacks; judging by some photos of more formal celebrations, these mats are quite commonly used, and Raj offered to make one for us. We were then served a large meal of dahl soup, rice and fish curry for breakfast (we had thought we were just coming for tea). Raj took it easy on the chilies for us but our noses were still running. We extricated ourselves from this very welcoming family so we could get into town to sort out our cruising permit.
That evening we rowed ashore to play cards with Dharmand while he was on night shift again. I don't think he got any sleep during the day so our visit probably helped keep him awake. We learned a card game called 5,3,2. Somehow Bjarne kept winning.
The next day we were socializing like crazy. Dharmand, his supervisor, and the supervisor's son came out to Freya for an early morning visit (they were still on shift but hey, the boss was along). We served muffins and very bad tea. I used loose-leaf tea for a change and way over-estimated the amount; it was so strong it almost tasted like coffee! Aside from that, the visit seemed a success. From there, we returned to Dharmand's home and met his other two children. All of the kids were pretty shy, although the youngest in particular seemed fascinated by us. Initially, she just sat and stared, and it was fun to try to coax her into interacting with us. We got to meet lunch when Raj walked by with a live chicken under her arm. We were told they'd hoped to serve duck curry but I guess the duck ran faster. The chicken curry was very tasty. We had mentioned to Dharmand that we'd thought about going to the cinema to see a Bollywood film. It turns out he is a big movie fan and his family often watches 3 or 4 DVDs on a Saturday, so he put one of these crazy movies on for us. The DVD was clearly pirated by the Chintoo Candy Company, as their logo was plastered on the screen in the bottom corner, augmented by commercials with chubby kids enjoying candy. Unfortunately, this film didn't have subtitles and our translator was not very forthcoming. Dharmand's daughter, when she was in the room, gave the best summaries of what was going on, but she was busy helping her mother in the kitchen for a lot of the time. The acting is so melodramatic that one could still follow a fair amount even without the translations. The story had an evil villain, a comic-relief rotten sidekick, a dashing hero, impoverished and downtrodden people, a love interest, a rescue of said love interest, singing, dancing, flamboyant costumes, mistaken and secret identities, sibling rivalry, patricide, a wrongful imprisonment, a flaming car crash, and, finally, a teary scene of repentance and forgiveness. Wow. To those raised on Hollywood fare it was corny and overblown, but these films are really popular. It was a definite cultural experience.
We had promised two Fijian women from Malau that they could see the boat so we said our thanks to Dharmand and Raj, left a few small gifts and caught the bus back to Freya. On the bus, a woman insisted on giving us her address and was disappointed that we were leaving the next day. We tidied up a little and then Bjarne went ashore to pick up our two guests. He returned with a boat-full: two women and 4 kids, and one of the women was a different one than we had expected. At one point, we showed them some photographs of our travels on the computer, down below in the cabin. It got rather hot and crowded, and felt even more so when the toddler's noisy babbling became accompanied by the baby's wailing. We made the mistake of letting one urchin take a piece of muffin into the cabin. She clutched the slowly disintegrating treat in each hand, leaving pieces of it all over – we breathed a sigh of relief when the guests left and peace and quiet returned to our little home. That was more than enough visiting for one day.
We made the relatively short trip (24 miles) to Kia Island with the wind behind us and the welcome sun high overhead (it had been rainy lately). We were treated to the sight of a turtle who stuck around a little longer than usual, probably owing to the quiet of the canvas engine. As we approached the island, people on shore started yelling and whistling at us. We hoped they weren't offended when we continued up the coast to the smallest village, in the hope (vain, it turns out) that the anchorage would have less swell. Here at Daku village, a committee of children greeted us on the beach and brought us up to the chief. Thanks to some language lessons at Also Island we were able to introduce ourselves in Fijian and say where we were from, which seemed appreciated even if we did run out of vocabulary quickly.
We were invited into the Chief's home and sat on the floor around a large mat, along with with various villagers. The package of yaqona was placed on the floor in front of the chief; it is impolite to hand it directly to him and thus force him to take it. The sevusevu ritual is meant to request permission of the ancestral spirits for outsiders to be allowed into the village. Acceptance of it means not only that we are honoured guests, but that the village now accepts some responsibility for our welfare. The custom is very old and in these more remote villages we were traveling in, it is still taken seriously. In some places where tourists are more prevalent the ceremony has become less of a sacred thing and more of a way to get yaqona or entertain the tourists. During the ceremony the chief spoke for some time in Fijian, with others making verbal responses and clapping in a measured stately way at certain times. A very cute baby clearly had no idea what the fuss was about but delighted in clapping along with the adults nonetheless. After the sevusevu was accepted we were left largely unattended, except for some staring children, while the adults went to pound the kava. We played a game with the little ones of trying to grab their toes. At first just the men came in, bearing the large grog bowl. As each man took his first serving of kava he raised his bilo to us like a toast and said “bula!” The proper way to drink grog is to clap once before the bilo (half a coconut shell) is handed to you, drink the stuff in one go, hand the bowl back and then clap three times. The clapping shows appreciation.
The women returned after the grog got going (which they did not partake in) and brought us drinking coconuts, warm milo (a malty chocolatey drink) and some deep fried pancakes, which Bjarne noted were a lot like the “Beaver Tails” or “Elephant Ears” one can get at a fair but with less sugar. We were asked to tell a story, so Bjarne told about our bananas getting stuck in the cockpit drain. Everyone had a good laugh at that. Sometimes it is hard to know what to talk about so I asked about singing. I was reminded by the Chief that it was Sunday, so only religious songs were allowed (oops), which is a pretty limited repertoire for this pagan. The kids sang a few songs for us and the Chief suggested that we should come ashore the next day at 1800 for a meke (traditional dancing). As we left, I was given a very pretty cowrie shell. We returned to Freya, so stuffed from the pancakes and all the fluids, including several rounds of grog, that we felt queasy. The nice pot of chili I had made earlier was set aside for awhile.
We ended up going into the village two more times for evening socializing. When we arrived for the planned meke, expecting a party with most of the village participating (like in Qarnivai), we learned that the meke was postponed until the next day as the women who do the dancing weren't in the village that evening. We didn't know how long we should stay and visit with the few adults and many kids. The kids danced for us, which was great entertainment. Some of those nippers have amazing moves! They happily devoured the cookies we had brought (the ever popular Cocoa Quickies. We were asked again to tell some stories; not coming from a story-telling culture, this request was quite challenging for us. We told of some of our travels but our supply of stories certainly didn't meet the demand. We described some things about Canada, like how maple syrup is made, and we sang some songs for the kids. The Grand Old Duke of York was popular, as was the Old Lady Who Swallowed the Spider. We tried Farewell to Nova Scotia but, despite practicing, we got the verses mixed up. The Chief said, as we tried to recall the words, “vinaka, vinaka”, which means thank you, and in this case, that's enough thanks. The Hokey Pokey went over better. On the third night, there were hardly any men around, but the women did a meke for us. Before they started they stripped the tough inner core out of the hibiscus branches and wrapped the green, leafy, husk around their wrists. The Chief played a bamboo drum. We figured we were getting to be experts now since we recognized some of the dances from the night before when the kids did them. We joined in, wiggling our hips and spinning around, much to the amusement of all involved, including us. Hibiscus leaves lay strewn around the room by the time the dancing was done. I was given a long necklace made of small shells, and a short one that wraps around the wrist to make a bracelet, although it is long enough that I can wear it as a necklace. We were given a bowl of cornflakes (without milk) for a snack, and some very nice tea made from lemon leaves, which are not leaves from a lemon tree.
One morning I went to the school and offered to talk to their classes if they wanted. Bjarne had had too much people-time recently so stayed on the boat to do some chores. At the school I talked to the kids about our trip, showed them some charts, and told them some things about Canada. They seemed to like hearing about tobogganing, and how much clothing you have to wear in the winter time.
On a calm, sunny day, Bjarne and I took Freya about 3 miles from the anchorage to the outer reef (Cakau Levu), where we went snorkeling and diving. We anchored just inside the reef and explored the outside via ONS. We took turns looking for a good spot – one person drove while the other peered in the water with mask and snorkel on as we moved through the warm water. We explored some mini canyons and enjoyed the colourful hard corals, and the large fish. Some white-tipped reef sharks didn't pay much attention to us, but a large school of barracuda circled around us quite closely. Some were as big as a metre! I wondered why they were so interested, especially when a little later in the dive they circled us again. Did we look tasty? When we went snorkeling the next day at a spot close to the island, the water was full of “sea snot”, as Bjarne calls it, which are small translucent whitish things looking like bits of jelly fish. These sea ants sting and the zap lasts for a few seconds up to a few minutes, although it doesn't seem to be dangerous. In addition to the sea snot, there were many jelly fish to dodge (some can be dangerous), so we concluded that going outside of the reef was worth the trouble.
Kia island apparently has a cannon, which was brought to the top of a hill many years ago using counterweights. Four women on the island played a “large” role in this project. We were told the trail to it was too overgrown so we opted for a walk along the beach, but found ourselves drawn inland nonetheless. We had a bit of a start when we came across a snake. Having no idea if it was poisonous, we went with the philosophy to let sleeping snakes lie. Later, we went bushwhacking through chest high (waist high for BJ) grass in our sandals and hoped that the snake didn't have a lot of relatives. Later, we were told that, yes indeed, the snake is poisonous. Ignorance is bliss. We clambered up a steep hill, in the hot sun, occasionally losing our footing on the spongy turf. At the ridge-top there was a lovely breeze. We drank down our water, wished we had brought more, and ate our granola bars. The excellent view of the reef surrounding the island led us to conclude that navigating would be a lot easier if we could just figure out how to get that high. Going down was a lot easier and we soon found ourselves on level ground, if by level one means lumpy rocks strewn everywhere. We were hot and thirsty when we arrived back at the village, and were kindly given some watermelon. At this point, the adventure really began.
I had said, when asked, that the kids could come out to visit Freya, but it turns out that if you invite one Fijian you have invited the whole village. After a few rounds of ferrying we had 10 adults, including us, and a pile of pre-schoolers on Freya. Yee haw! Popcorn was a success: I think at least one woman hadn't had it before, and the little kids all held their shirts out so the popcorn could be put in the “pouch”. Bjarne had some success keeping eating-kids out of the cabin, having learned from the Muffin Masher of Malau. The men hung out in a group and the women stayed together, while the kids were up, down and all over. It was a successful and fun visit, and the women and kids seemed to enjoy riding in the dinghy. By the time they were all ferried back to shore we had an hour to catch our breath before the next batch. During this hour some fishermen went by in a boat, clearly curious about us. I waved them over, figuring, in for a penny... They stayed only briefly but took a small amount of our gel coat with them. Drat.
The next batch of visitors consisted of the kids who had been in school during the day. They were more active, zipping around the boat and talking excitedly with each other. They became really wired when another yacht, the Cookie Cutter, arrived. Bob Marley and Santana provided very popular entertainment and the popcorn was quickly eaten up. Bjarne, upon request, shared out our mangoes, some of which ended up back on our deck due to a case of sea-sickness. That was a cue to drag the kids away, although they didn't really want to leave. I started with a boatload of the younger ones and detoured to The Cookie. Connie and Peter looked a little worried as we approached so I took pity on them, and loudly restated my instructions to the kids that we were NOT going on the boat. When we got to shore, I was joined by a man who missed the earlier visit and wanted to see the boat. This delayed the departure of the next group, and in fact, I had to say more than once that it was time to go. We had a lot of fun, and enjoyed the fact that our guests had a really good time. It's not such a hard thing to provide and gives a lot of pleasure as people are very curious about the yachts that visit. However, there's no doubt that we were quite tuckered out by the end of the day.
We were very happy to see our friends on Cookie Cutter arrive, and not only because they still had rum left :-) After our tiring day of hiking and hosting, Connie and Peter provided us with a lovely dinner of fresh yellow-fin tuna, part of a 50 pound beast that they had recently caught. The next day we all went together on Freya, back to the outside of the reef, and spent a good amount of time snorkeling. I was lucky enough to see a large ray go by, and to finally see a clown trigger fish. Unfortunately, we don't have a picture of it, but it was the one fish I said I wanted to see before we left Fiji. It's black with big white polka dots on a rounded belly, with bright yellow lips, some less dramatic spots on the top of it, and yellow and light blue fins near its tail. The day was topped off with pizza aboard Freya. We had no pepperoni left (the hardships we endure), and Peter and Connie still had lots of yellow fin left, so our pizza tasted more like a big tuna melt with tomato sauce. Surprisingly, it was tasty. What more could you want - good snorkeling, good food, and good company!