Bula from Fiji

Three weeks in Tonga was enough. Impatiently awaiting a weather window and not inclined to sit around waiting for the King to die, we decided to leave the waters of Tonga and head for the roti-rich islands of Fiji. After spending all of Monday clearing out, we departed on Tuesday morning. Prior to leaving Tonga, I decided to make a cultural purchase. As usual, my foray into the realm of local culture did not extend much beyond looking at drinking and drug paraphernalia. In this case, I purchased a hand carved kava bowl. This ornate wooden bowl is used during kava drinking ceremonies that are important in Polynesian and Melanesian cultures. The ceremonies have traditionally been used to seal alliances, commemorate births, deaths, marriages, and to start conferences. The kava itself is made from a root that is either chewed, pounded, or ground before adding water and filtering. Personally, I prefer my kava hewed by the gums of some islander, but the annoying advances of technology and the inescapable prosperity spread by globalization has nearly eliminated this fine tradition. The drink looks like muddy water and is said to cause numbness to the lips, a sure sign that an alcoholic beverage is working. In some cases, drinking kava has been known to produce religious visions. If Elvis can be seen in a tortilla in Mexico, I see no reason why some drugged out savage can’t meet The Almighty after imbibing a little kava. In Tonga, we observed several kava circles and we have been told that the social significance is even more pronounced in the small villages of Fiji. With any luck, I’m hoping that I will finally have the chance to meet God in Fiji, but I’m willing to settle for a soothing numbness. The trip from Nuku’Alofa, Tonga to Suva, Fiji is only 420 miles, but the passage is considered one of the most difficult in the South Pacific. Unlike most passages, when the only danger offshore is a collision with a boat or whale, our course to Suva took us through a series of reefs and unlit islands. As luck would have it, we managed to squeeze through one set of reefs on Wednesday night, between two imposing islands on Thursday night, and into the harbor of Suva on Friday night. The new moon provided no natural light to ease our navigation, so we relied mainly on our electronic charts – a risky proposition in this part of the world where islands that were surveyed back in the 1700’s sometimes are off by 1 – 2 miles from where they show on electronic charts. Happily, the passage went smoothly and we even ventured to anchor in the middle of the night; a departure from our normal policy of only entering unknown harbors during the day. Sailing normally consists of hours of boredom interrupted by a few seconds of excitement. One of these pockets of excitement comes when a fish is hooked on the lure that we normally troll behind the boat. When the line becomes taught and we notice a fish thrashing around in our wake, it is like a mini-Christmas as we anticipate what we have caught. A tuna is like receiving a pair of socks or underwear: useful, appreciated, but unexceptional. A dorado is slightly less common and can be compared to a gift of a nice shirt since it generates a little more excitement on the part of the recipient than a tuna, but it isn’t going to impress anyone at school. Snagging a billfish is a special experience, like receiving an expensive watch; it can be bragged about for years to come. On Tuesday, for the first time in my unimpressive fishing career, we caught an eel. To carry the Christmas analogy beyond the point of usefulness, catching an eel is worse than receiving a lump of coal – it is more like receiving a box containing a snake. Not only is the gift not really appreciated, the unlucky recipient has to figure out how to get rid of it. My approach was to just drag it all night and this plan seems to have paid off. In the morning, the hook was bare, meaning that the eel either slithered away or some sea creature appreciated the gift more than me. Whatever the outcome, I was happy that I did not have to be involved. Santa Clause was kinder on Wednesday when we received another tuna. One of the odd aspects of sailing that often surprises visitors are the vivid and bizarre dreams experienced during an offshore passage. The motion of the boat, the sound of the water rushing by and the sails working, and the stress of safely navigating to a destination combine to produce strange dreams. Further, the irregular sleep schedule that requires waking up every three hours to stand watch usually results in remembering unusual dreams. Finally, the relatively tranquil days spent staring at the endless expanse of ocean allow one to focus solely on the sailing and, often, on whatever book that person happens to be reading at the time. Human interaction is limited. During the most recent passage, I read Norman Mailer’s “The Naked and the Dead” before moving on to Robert Caro’s tome “Master of the Senate.” As a result of my brain being absorbed in the books, as well as the sailing, my dreams alternated between nightmares of the boat enduring enemy gunfire during World War II and wallowing under the procedural minutia common to the legislative process in the 1950’s Senate. It might be sweltering in the warm South Pacific, but my dreams take me to Dostoyevsky’s St. Petersburg, Hemingway’s Seville, and Langewiesche’s Sahara. These dreams are similar to what I would expect a drug-induced psychedelic trip to be like, blurring the thin line separating the dream world from reality. I am not really one for sharing or analyzing dreams, but should I ever have the urge, after several years of sailing I have had enough disturbing dreams to provide material for a lifetime of psychotherapy. Due to strict laws in Fiji concerning customs and immigration, we spent the weekend in quarantine and were confined to the boat. The wide bay is surrounded by rolling hills and the harbor is bustling with containers ships constantly arriving and departing at all hours of the day. With little else to do, Audentes was converted into a beauty salon with an assortment of facial masks, body washes, and various balms being utilized in a desperate attempt to restore the fading beauty of those on board. We may not fit into the normal age group of most cruisers, but constant exposure to the sun and lack of regular showers is beginning to make us look like we do. Our vain efforts at improving our appearance is undoubtedly a losing battle, but it provided something to do on an otherwise slow day. On Monday, we completed the piles of paperwork required to officially clear into the country and this process led us on an informal tour of Suva. Despite the tedious process of filling out paperwork, all of our interactions with Fijians were incredibly friendly – probably nicer than we have encountered anywhere else. Everyone offered the traditional greeting, “bula,” which I am told means “life” but is used as “hello.” My first impression of Suva, which is the largest city in the South Pacific, is that it feels a lot like India. This could be due to the large Indian population, the Indian music blaring from cabs, the women walking around in sari’s, the advertisements for Bollywood film plastered throughout town, and the ever-present smell of curry. Of course, there are differences from India and I look forward to learning more about these lovely islands in the coming weeks.

Leave a Reply