Learning the island ways

Sep 22, 2011

To the editor: For a moment we were confused; we had arrived in the lagoon just the day before. “It’s for the tourists,” said a Polynesian woman weaving palm fronds around the posts of a beach shelter. As much as we did not like to think so, we really were tourists. But she plainly did not mean us. She pointed out to the anchorage, and when we turned around, we saw two big catamarans with identical yellow sailcovers: charter boats. “Les touristes,” she repeated.

Provided we are respectful and considerate visitors, distance voyagers are often treated as more than mere tourists in the remote places of the world, as our exchange on the Polynesian atoll made explicit. Perhaps this is because the inhabitants of these places, particularly Pacific islanders with a connection to the sea, understand the accomplishment of crossing an ocean to reach their villages. Or perhaps this is because they appreciate voyagers’ approach to travel, one that takes time to learn about people and places instead of snapping a picture and moving on. Nowhere was this more evident than in the bays of eastern Vanua Levu in Fiji.

For 10 days, our 38-foot cutter Heretic lay anchored in a mangrove-hemmed bay where giant land crabs prowled the banks and flying foxes whistled in the dawn and dark. Verdant hills climbed into permanent cloud cover, and muted sunsets silhouetted a skyline of palms and banyans, their luminosity reflected in the calm water. A murky river meandered through the tall mangrove forest and tinted the shallow bay brown at its outflow. On the fringing reef, the men hunted snapper and grouper with spears. We had sailed Heretic to eastern Vanua Levu to glimpse Fijian village life, but we never expected to be accepted into it. And yet the villagers welcomed us and three other American cruising couples as if we were family.

Beyond the mangrove forest, where the stream’s placid swirls turned to babbling rapids, were the family’s fields where one friend named Bertha spent most of her days. On a calm, gray morning, we rowed our dinghy up the twisting river deep into the forest of gnarled trunks until we smelled the acrid smoke of green wood and caught sight of the family’s copra-drying shed. Bertha had tethered her sturdy rowboat to a mangrove stump; a bundle of fishnet filled its stern. We climbed the muddy path over a small rise and slid down to the boggy taro field where Bertha moved among leaves that drooped like elephants’ ears. Seeing us, she beckoned; she was harvesting and replanting taro. She showed us how to cut the root so that part of it remained attached; that way it could be replanted and another root would grow from the same stem. She counseled us on a good hiking path that took us up the stream and then back to the dinghy along a ridge of coconut palms. In the dale, we had not noticed the strengthening wind and darkening sky, but as we climbed to the ridge, the hollow rattle of palm fronds and the ominous plunk of falling coconuts told us a storm was on its way. Rain burst on us as we clambered into the dinghy, a hard, insistent rain that pummeled through the mangrove canopy and frothed the river white. Aboard Heretic that night, hatches closed against dark and rain, we heard a knock on the hull and Bertha’s familiar voice. Just coming home after a long agricultural day, she had brought some taro for us to try.

The family spoke of some of the hardships of village life one evening over kava, a muddy, mildly sedative drink derived from a root related to pepper. Sitting on a large pandanus mat and clapping as we passed the coconut shell, we discussed the rising cost of the petrol required to reach the market, the lowering price of copra, and the necessity (due to distance) of boarding the children at the nearest school. Despite these hardships, they remained optimistic and generous. “We don’t go to church much anymore because of the price of petrol,” said Bertha, “but we celebrate here with brunch instead. We want you to come on Sunday morning.” Sunday arrived and the women greeted us in the kitchen wearing colorful Mother Hubbard dresses. We tried to squeeze our offerings onto the already laden table. Platters of taro and watermelon filled one corner and lentil curries illustrated the influence of Fiji’s Indian population. The day before, another visiting sailor had joined the young men in hunting wild boar with their dogs and knives; the evidence of their success lay next to freshly caught fish. Recalling our conversation the other night, we could hardly believe the generosity of our Fijian friends.

While their kindness came mostly out of the goodness of their hearts, it came also from the knowledge that we sought a deeper appreciation of cultures through the slower pace of distance sailing. As improved equipment makes cruising easier, faster, and safer, voyagers risk becoming more like the tourists looking for the next photo opportunity. Whether or not the generosity of eastern Vanua Levu endures depends on the values and attitudes of current and future offshore sailors. Remembrance that we are not entitled to such treatment, that we are in fact guests in foreign places, and consideration of the place and its people, both citizens and officials, is an easy price for such unique and exceptional moments.

—Ellen Massey recently completed a circumnavigation aboard Heretic, a 1968-built, 38-foot masthead cutter.

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