A NatGeo Day on Ngau Island

In spite (Speight) of the continuing political unrest we are well and out of harm’s way. We have been cruising some of the remote north eastern islands for the last six weeks, and haven’t made much time to write, but I promise to fill you in on our experiences there when I get a bit more time.

We did have a memorable Sunday, so I sat down at the computer and wrote of our experience and thought I would pass on a little bit of what life is like in the more remote parts of Fiji, where there are no roads, resorts or many of the things that we all take for granted.

We had been anchored in a secluded little spot called Herald Bay for a couple of days on the beautiful little island of Ngau, pronounced like cow with a G. It is only 40 miles east of Suva, but light years away culturally. We had daily visits by manta rays, sea turtles, schooling fish as well local villagers who are curious about us “yachties.”

On Saturday we went to the main village of Sawayake to make our sevusevu. This is a customary Fijian ritual by visitors who offer a gift to the village chief for the privilege of anchoring in the village waters, diving, fishing and walking on shore. In addition to their land, the Fijians consider the reef, the fish and everything in proximity to their property to be their own. The gift is traditionally kava, a dried root that when ground and mixed with water is purported to induce some sort of euphoric high. It is THE local drink in Fiji. On another occasion, two bowls (half a coconut) of this so called “grog”gave me no noticeable effects other than numbing my tongue for a few minutes. It tastes sort of like a peppery dish water and looks like much the same. I guess it is an acquired taste.

We made our sevusevu to the chief’s brother, who quickly dismissed us. We were then shown around the village and school by his most hospitable wife who gave us some chilis (off the vine) and a fresh pawpaw (papaya). As far as Fijian villages go, this one was fairly prosperous as they had reasonably tidy homes, electricity, kitchens and toilets in each home and a cement sea wall to prevent erosion during storms. The school even had a carpet in the kindergarten room.

The locals are most friendly and love to come by in their punts (small boats) and chat with the yachties. One of them was Joe, from Somosomo, another smaller nearby village, who invited us to come for church on Sunday.

We dinked over that morning after breakfast and were greeted by Joe and many of the inhabitants of the village. They were stoking up a communal fire to cook lunch. Lots of hot rocks, tarot roots and coconut husks over the top. The village was definitely out of “National Geographic.” Most of the homes were thatched but a few were cinder block with corrugated tin roofs. There was no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no roads, no TV and no Starbucks. There was communal cooking, toilets and shower. Fresh water came via pipeline from a dam up above the village. The villagers scraped out their existence by subsistence farming their “gardens” and fishing in the waters protected by the barrier reef beyond their lovely little cove. I could only imagine that this is how life must have been a hundred years ago in many of the South Pacific Islands. Everyone was friendly, welcoming and curious.

We went to Joe’s house where we were served tea in Christmas mugs. There were no chairs and very little furniture. The house had one great room and two small bedrooms. We sat on the floor on beautiful mats skillfully woven from palm leaves by the women of the village. Everyone who happened by the open door popped in and greeted us. The home was simple and reasonably clean. A few old faded photographs of family and friends hung on the wall close to the ceiling. Some of the frames were draped in shells that had been strung like beads. There was one glass-doored cabinet that contained a few pieces of china that was probably used for special occasions. Joe rolled cigarettes from strips of tobacco that he had grown, and long, narrow strips of newspaper. His daughter brought him burning sticks from a nearby cooking fire so that he could light his long and skinny smoke. Afterwards, he showered in preparation for church and then rubbed himself down with coconut oil kept in an old half-pint rum bottle.

The village’s Methodist church was a simple and functional building. Many of the panes from the louvered glass windows were broken, missing or replaced with wood slats. The paint was old and discolored. There were no statues, paintings or stained glass, just four walls, a ceiling, a floor with at least three different patterns of rolled out linoleum, pews that could have fetched some nice money at an antique auction and a few bits of ornamentation at the pulpit, including an antique brass cuspidor stuffed with a bunch of plastic flowers. No church bells here – they use hollowed out logs for drums to call the congregation. The choir sat in front and to the right, facing sideways and sang beautiful hymns. The children sat in front to the left side, close to the pulpit. The congregations was segregated, men sat in the pews to the right, women to the left. Everyone was in their “Sunday best.” Men wore jackets and ties and dark blue sulus (sort of a long skirt). Women wore long white dresses or blouses and flowered sulus. Even though the temps were in the mid eighties, not a bead of sweat was shed. It was the only time that I can remember showing up for church barefooted, in shorts and a Hawaiian print shirt. Even though the sermon and singing were in Fijian, we were mesmerized by the experience. The pastor, dressed in a collar and tie, a tan suit jacket and a matching sulu, made a point of welcoming us “tourists” and we thanked them for their hospitality. After the rather long mass, which consisted of numerous repetitions of singing, preaching, readings, etc., we walked outside where the entire adult congregation came up to us to meet us, greet us and shake our hands. It was like a scene from a James A. Michener novel.

We went back to Joe’s house where lunch was waiting. Everyone sat on the floor around an old but clean tablecloth. Dishes were placed upside down. At least a dozen bowls of food were put out, and by our plates there were even “western” utensils that had been taken from a plastic bag and put out especially for us. The Fijians ate with their hands. The meal, more like a feast, consisted of taro root cooked over the hot rocks, dahl (a spicy lentil stew), curry, corned beef and rice, rock cod, parrot fish and a few other unidentifiable concoctions. It was actually a better meal than any we had eaten in any Fijian restaurant so far!

Interestingly, Cate, as the “guest of honor,” was the only female to eat at the first sitting. The other women and children (excepting the sons of the “landowner,” a prominent villager) ate after we and the men had finished. After lunch, we walked back to the dinghy on the beach. Along the way, the were invited into every home that was occupied. It is a Fijian custom to invite passers by in to join in the meal. We declined and instead were taken by Joe to visit to a resort being built by an American at the next bay to the south. It is quite simple but exquisite just the same. The best we’ve seen in Fiji. There will be three private thatched roof burres (detached rooms) with outdoor showers and plunge pools. There is a lovely private beach and a superb view of the bay reef and surrounding islands from the bar, dining area and infinity pool. There is a terraced garden which will produce most of the fresh food for the guests. If you are looking for a unique honeymoon destination or a secluded getaway with diving, this is the place.

Afterwards. Joe, his daughter Karen and cousin “Tooks” came back to “Moonshadow” for a visit. We served some cold soft drinks and Karen, aged four, asked what Cate was putting into the glass-she had never seen an ice cube! Ah, the simple life. I would like to say that this is just another typical day in the life of a cruiser. No way! Rare days like this are why we put up with long, tedious and uncomfortable ocean passages, hours with my ass in the air, schnoz in the bilge and a wrench with a hand full of skinned knuckles trying to fix somthin’, third world inefficiency and beaurocracy, sleepless nights in windy, rolly anchorages with the anchor chain “growling” as it drags over coral bommies, etc., etc. You don’t even want to know the bad news.

At the moment we are anchored inside the Great Astrolabe Reef off an uninhabited little tropical island called Yaukuvelevu. It is pissing rain and the wind has been howling for two days with regular “bullets” (gale force gusts) due to a trough that is passing through. It is good weather to do chores like cleaning, washing and boat maintenance, as well as a bit of writing, and to read a Clive Cussler novel, but we came for the diving and are hoping that the conditions settle down a bit tomorrow so that we can get out and do a few jumps on the legendary passes and walls along the barrier reef to our west.

Oops! The boat next to us in the anchorage just radioed to the fleet that they discovered a sea snake on the transom steps. These critters have some seriously deadly venom and it didn’t even ask permission to board! Just another day in “paradise.”

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