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Saturday, September 7, 2013

2013, 09-06 Rabi Island and the people of Banaba

After our time in the Northern Lau we stopped back on Taveuni Island for groceries. The one day super stop included a taxi ride into town for the produce market and cash machine, a cart full of goodies from the MH grocery and even pizza dinner off the boat -our first dinner out in more than a month, woohoo! For the trip across Somosomo straight the rain stayed at bay and our autopilot was working -sort of- which made our trip much better than we had anticipated. We even managed to land our first Mahi Mahi since French Polynesia when the new wonder lure Bill made out of a plastic potato chip bag hooked up two back to back big fish. Having the big fish hook up was more fun than usual because we were using a pole and reel instead of our normal set-up of dragging super heavy line and double hook hootchies. Not used to "sport fishing" with rod and reel Mahi Mahi #1 nearly spooled Bill by the time I got us turned up into the wind and the headsail furled in but eventually might won out. Mahi #2 was mine to play with -meat was already on the table and all that- but eventually my bad elbow gave out and when I passed the rod on to Bill for backup the fish finally broke the surface and wriggled right off of our potato chip lures' hooks. Even with the lost fish I topped up the freezer as we motored into Catherine's Bay on Rabi Island.

Rabi Island (pronounced Rhambi)has an interesting history that makes it stand out from the rest of Fiji. Originally the island was sold by Fijians to Europeans to cover a debt. The Australians then came along as tenants and ran a coconut plantation on the island in the years leading up to WWII. Far away in the Gilbert Islands (now Kiribati Micronesia) an island called Banaba (also known as Ocean Island) was being systematically destroyed by the phosphate mining being done under the development of the British. The island was being so ravaged that as early as 1940 the British Government began searching for an island to purchase as a resettlement area for the Banabans. The outbreak of war and the occupation of Banaba by the Japanese quickly intervened in the resettlement plans but the British decided that Rabi Island Fiji would be just the ticket and bought the entire island with twenty five thousand pounds that was drawn from the mining profits. Meanwhile the Japanese had deported the Banabans to Kosrae in the Caroline Islands to serve as slave laborers so it was not until December 1945 that the survivors could be brought to Rabi where some 4000 descendants live today.

In 2000 the islanders voted and passed a referendum to become Fijian citizens though locally they are governed by a Rabi Island Council not the Fijian government. So Rabi lives by a different set of rules than the rest of Fiji, in fact all they really have in common with Fiji is their preferred religion (Methodist,) kava drinking (though they do not practice the ritualistic kava ceremony of sevusevu) their postal and educational systems and their money. They speak Gilbertese, look much more Polynesian than Fijian, paddle outrigger canoes and follow the social order and customs of the Gilbert Islands. It turns out that this isn't a totally unique situation. The neighboring island to the SE Kioa is home to the descendants of some 300 islanders from Vaitupu, Tuvalu. They were relocated here in 1946 when their home island became grossly overpopulated. They too continue to speak their own language and follow their original social order and customs. No man is an island as they say but a big enough group can sure change things up.

Despite the fact that officially we are supposed to check in at the town of Nuku halfway around the island before visiting anywhere on Rabi we arrived just before a wet and cold weather front and quietly dropped anchor off the village of Buakonikai where we stayed boat bound for several days. During those days we could hear and occasionally see the locals as they whistled or sang their way across the bay in their outriggers but were never approached on our boat. When the weather finally let up we decided to venture into Buakonikai to see what we could find out about bus transportation to Nuka where we are supposed to check in at the police station. So, with no real destination in mind we stashed the dinghy above the high water mark and followed a footpath inland to the single dirt road that circles this part of the island. We fell in behind a handful of pre-school aged kids who smiled shyly and waved but didn't venture too near as we walked along following in their same path. As we walked we passed neat and tidy cement walled houses each with its own garden yard dotted with breadfruit and pawpaw trees, bits of hedge and small vegetable gardens and tubs and old tires filled with flowering plants. The homes had places in their yards taken up with racks filled with drying kava roots or piles of palm leaves laying in the sun to dry. There were chickens wandering and pigs staked out in the back yards or locked into small stick cages. We saw glimpses of adults in doorways or through windows but no one seemed to be paying us much mind. Eventually we turned off the main road towards a church we had seen when we first motored into the bay. We knew from reading that this huge Methodist church had been built in the early 50's with money from the original relocation trust funds from the British mining company. Someone obviously had BIG plans for the place -the church is huge and seemed totally out of proportion to the small village.

As we entered the church's lower level, obviously a meeting hall and not the sanctuary we came upon three women weaving mats for the fellowship hall floors. Two older women smiled and waved shyly from there spots on the floor weaving but a school aged girl stood up with a smile and "mauri" (hello) said hello and offered to show us around and answer any questions we had. She turned out to be the pastors' daughter and happily took us on a tour of the church showing us the rest of the big fellowship hall, the upstairs sanctuary and the stunning view back over the bay from one of the gallery decks on the upper floor. She too was shy and quiet but spoke enough English to answer the few questions we had with obvious pride.

After our church tour we went looking for the village generator. We had heard it's low thumbing rumble every evening from our spot in the bay and because we had been told about other village generators that were often decades old we wanted to see if that was what we had been listening to. We never did find the village generator but our continued foray into the village seemed to have broken the ice. Soon we were talking with people all around us. One fellow in response to my questions about the drying palms in many yards took us to his home to show us the weaving his mother-in-law who was working on and then introduced us to his wife. His English was high above my one Banaban word of hello but we were still struggling to communicate. When we asked about the three groceries stores we had been told were in the village he happily set off to take us to the closest one.

Walking with this fellow was an interesting experience. We of course had no idea where we were heading as we walked along and seemed to keep muddling things up in a cultural clash never quite sorting out who was leading and who was following. Eventually he indicated that we had arrived though I couldn't see a shop -it just looked like another village home to me. Trying desperately to follow his lead and be sensitive to the right thing to do we walked through a yard and into the shop. A lovely woman welcomed me with a big smile on her face but I thought I detected a bit of a strain there too. By now both Bill and I were through the door and walking across the large almost empty room. Now there were even bigger smiles all around and I noticed that our guide was standing outside the shop looking in. Still the unease persisted: I couldn't quite tell what was wrong but I knew that something was not quite right. Finally everything sort of fell together what with the nervous looks and the now silent guide: I had managed to walk right in to this woman's living room. Oops. A bit of back peddling and a lot of nods and apologies and we were out of her living room and standing in her yard again. Aha!

Just to the right of her front door was a single step up to a small wood platform and a window cut into the outside wall of her house - which by the way looked exactly like any other window in any other house in the village sans the step. But there it was through the window and along a wall a few feet behind were a couple of narrow shelves filled with piled of cookies, chips, Coca-Cola cans, shampoo bottles, lighters, pens, bottles of soy sauce and small containers of vegetable oil. No meat, no bread, no vegetables, not even rice. Honestly we didn't even need anything we just are always looking for stores when we are out and about. Next dilemma: do you buy a few things to support the local economy or decline in the hopes that we are leaving the goods for the people who have nowhere else to shop? We bought a single can of Coke and a package of "ice cream" flavored Oreo cookies from the smiling woman whose living room I had just abandoned. (We later found out that Rabi doesn't have a regular supply ship schedule at all. Everything in the shops here and even in Nuku the largest town on the island is brought in by small boat by the shop owners themselves as is kerosene, diesel and gasoline. If the locals don't bring it in themselves or don't grow it they do without, and they often do without.

At this point our guide switched gears and set out to show us the generator we kept asking about. Soon we found ourselves in the back yard of yet another family's home. There were half a dozen men working on a long boat doing some fiberglass work, a couple of women working on the weekly wash and more kids than I could count weaving through the grownups and peeking at us. The man of the house looked skeptical and a bit puzzled but charmingly offered to show us his generator and took us across the yard and into a small shed. He told Bill all about the machine and its identical sister in the main house and one sitting in the shed half torn apart and not working. They must have thought us half crazy to have asked our guide to bring us to see the generator but were very polite and welcoming. We by the way were looking for the main village generator the one we thought might be ancient and which surely was a big one cylinder thumper we could hear from the boat. The generator they brought us to and what they were so obligingly and proudly displaying for us was a normal modern day generator that this comparably wealthy Rabi family runs separately from the village. We showed the proper amount of interest to justify this man's need to curtail his work and show us what we were looking for and ended up having a nice conversation about the US Marines and what they did for the South Pacific. He was proud and happy to shake the hand of an ex-Marine and perhaps decided there was more to his generators than he had thought.

Then once again our guide was off. This time he took us to his sisters' home to meet Ali which turned out to be a very good choice for everyone. Ali is half Banaban and half Indian and was raised in Suva. He is a licensed pilot working on acquiring enough air time to land a well-paying job and immigrate to Australia. In the meantime he comes to Rabi every month to weigh and broker Rabi kava -the best in Fiji- and ship it to Suva for resale. He makes $10 on every kilo which makes it a much better paying job than the piloting work he could find which in Fiji with his experience level only pays about $2.00 per hour! Having been raised in Suva he is much more "worldly." He speaks Banaban, Hindi, English and Fijian and is I think a little bit bored in Rabi. I guide had quietly slipped away which we have seen is par for the course. It has been standard operating procedure everywhere in countries where we don't speak the native language to pass us off on the best English speakers in the groups, easier for us easier for them. We had a lovely first visit and soon made plans to meet the next day so he could teach us how to make curry.

We met back at Ali's aunties house the next morning. Auntie is the widow of a former Rabi Island Council man who died a year ago. As a high status member of the village she still lives in one of the biggest houses in the village. Most Buakonikai villagers live in the original cement cyclone proof houses that were built in the late 20's with phosphate money from their home island. The village generator runs for two hours each evening to power the lights, cell phone chargers, TV's and DVD players for the households that subscribe to the luxury -many don't. In typical Banaban fashion the front rooms of their homes have no furniture. Personal items are kept in suitcases and trunks and now in 2013 in great big plastic grocery bags. For most the cooking is done outside in thatched huts though Aunties home has a large spacious kitchen with the cooking hut part through a doorway but attached to the main house. Many families have fabric covered cushions that are pulled out into the main room at night for sleeping and which are often seen sitting out in the sun to dry - I think lots of roofs here leak. As in Fijian homes the floors here were covered with decorative plastic sheeting -think plastic picnic table cloth only in large sheets- Fijian wall to wall. Over that are the rectangular woven palm frond mats.

We were ushered through the main room we had been in previously and on into the big kitchen area for our cooking lesson but first tea time. First in congruency of the day -tea here means food not tea, in this case noodles with butter and spices, boiled breadfruit and breadfruit porridge. As we noshed on noodles I brought out what I managed to stir up in the way of Indian spices and other goodies from the boat. I had brought along onions, two heads of garlic, a big root of ginger, hot peppers and small bags of garam masala, turmeric, fenugreek, fennel seeds, kalonji seeds, a mixed curry powder, a seed I had no name for and cinnamon from which along with a huge pot of pre-cut eggplant from their garden and a few whole cloves Ali planned to teach me how to make perfect curry every time with variations for meat, fish and other vegetables. He also had me bring along a liter of UTI milk that he seemed especially excited to have so he could teach me how to make paneer a semi firm Indian cheese. I also brought along a bottle of orange drink as insurance in case what we were going to soon be eating turned out to be super spicy.

The paneer was first. Turns out that paneer the Indian semi firm cheese that we find on restaurant menus but have not been able to find in the grocery stores is super simple to make. All it takes is whole fat milk, white vinegar, a stove and cheese cloth:

-Take one liter of milk (powdered milk works but doesn't produce as much in bulk as regular milk) and bring it to a rolling boil. Add two teaspoons of white vinegar (lemon juice will work too!)and stir. The milk should begin to curd up right away if not add a bit more vinegar and stir until it clumps together in a ball. Put your cheese cloth or other fine mesh type fabric in a sieve or colander and pour the mixture through. Close the fabric around the paneer curd and then rinse and squeeze, rinse and squeeze. If you have the time hang the ball of curd in the fabric to drip off all the moisture or spread it out in a pan and flatten to get blocks that look like thin tofu. Use in place of meat in oodles of recipes. *If you thoroughly dry the paneer it will keep well for several days out of the refrigerator.

Next up was the curry. While Ali and I went through the spices I had brought trying to figure out what each was and going over what went with what -fish, meat and veggies each have their own combination- Auntie had been busy peeling ginger and garlic and chopping onions. The onions were set aside and the ginger and garlic were smashed up with mortar and pestle along with part of one very hot pepper. Then it was off to the cooking fire. In the small add-on building to Aunties kitchen a wood fire already was burning. There were two metal bars across the fire that would support our cooking pot and an adjacent baking oven made out of cast off corrugated metal sheeting with a thick wooden door. We started with a big aluminum pot where Ali heated up a tablespoon or so of oil in a big aluminum pot. Once the oil was sizzling in went the onions. This was the critical part. You must cook the onions just right before adding the ginger, garlic and pepper mixture and then the spices. Just right meant first to translucence and then until the edges were just perfectly browned, no black edges but well past translucent. The garlic mix and spices set the whole room to delicious and that then was cooked for several minutes. Next came the eggplant into the pot (we were working with twelve or fourteen cups of sliced eggplant. That was cooked for perhaps a half an hour first cooking down and then drying it out to a perfect level. It was stirred and mushed until the eggplant was pretty much a puree rich with garlic and ginger, fennel seeds and Ali's custom curry powder. Finally on to the best part: we sat down to eat our eggplant curry lunch over wedges of freshly boiled breadfruit and cups of orange drink, delicious.

Eventually it was time to go but we were sent back to the boat with dinner: Aunties best glass bowl filled with our curry with a flipped over plate on top and a small bowl with our paneer to eat later all wrapped up inside a square of satin and lace tied over and around into a pretty parcel. When dinner came around all I need do was make a small batch of rice and pour some sauce over our paneer and dinner was served. A fun day and a whole house full of new friends.

After our time in Buakonikai village we decided to do some more exploring on Rabi. We had met a couple on S/v Elan from Munchen Germany who had become fast friends with a family living in Albert's cove and had raved about their time there. Since Albert's cove was just an hour and a half sail away AND lies just next to Elizabeth's cove where rumor has it a pod of people friendly dolphins often plays we soon set off for Albert's cove and another opportunity to spend time with the warm and friendly Rabians. We had an instant in when we arrived at the cove because S/v Elan had sent us as bearers of gifts. They had planned on returning to Albert's cove but their visa was quickly running out so they sent us in their place with a bag filled with goodies including a kava bundle, fresh batteries for the daughters radio, cigarettes, tea and a letter with pictures from their friends Dorte and Frank.

We arrived at the cove apparently during rush hour. We had been expecting an empty cove and a handful of people in a small village. What we found were two other cruising boats already at anchor, a Captain Cook Cruises cruise ship pouring out vacationers, two big aluminum skiffs ferrying people to shore and off to snorkel forays, a pile of starkly white people lounging on the beach looking at the view and a longboat with the name Supersonic God filled to the brim with Fijians and gear who had just arrived for a picnic -and Sam, Dorte and Franks friends shyly paddling by on his way home from fishing. His face broke into the biggest smile when we told him we had a letter and a gift from his friends and we made plans to come in to his home as soon as we got our anchor down.

Sam's home was a degree of magnitude more spare then the homes in Buakonakai village. As we waded to shore with our dinghy we were instantly in the mix of his whole family and half the neighbors too. We were quickly introduced to his granddaughter Tapita and her grandmother and an aunt while swirling around us were a grown up man with downs syndrome, the usual array of silent "lesser" males, several other women and more kids than we could count. Everyone was interested but once we were settled in Sam's hut they all pretty much went back to whatever task or distraction had been at hand when we arrived. The only exception was the fellow with downs syndrome who sat down near us in the hut but faced the other way and only snuck a peek at us from time to time.

Sam was thrilled to receive Elan's gift package but was sad to hear that they would not be returning. He welcomed us to the island and told us a bit about his life here. He did suggest we needed to travel to Nuku soon - we had been told he would and that he would be happy to make a trip to town with us as his wife lives there full time and he loved being able to go there in a Yacht or by cruiser dinghy- and seemed relieved when we told him we planned on traveling to Nuku in the next day or two. He explained that the cruise ship would leave in the morning and apologized for all the extra activity. He talked about the history of the island a bit and explained that the locals speak Gilbertese not Banaban as the Banaban language disappeared along with the phosphates on his ancestral island and that the Gilbertese language has only 13 letters in its alphabet then excused himself to go and get some fish for our dinner but returned apologizing saying he thought there was a bucket of Sweet Lip fish but apparently they had already been turned into lunch and eaten. It had been along day though so we excused ourselves to head back to the boat while Sam welcomed us again to the island and again told us to enjoy our time here and make ourselves at home.

As we left amidst another swirl of kids and goodbye's I was once again awed by the generosity of the people we have met on our travels. Here Sam had essentially given the keys to the city AND wanted to give us fish for our dinner too while the hut they live in is made of wood and thatch, has a dirt floor covered with mats and has mosquito netting hanging in the rafter to be used to keep the mosquitos off come nightfall. Their whole lives here resembles camping with outdoor cooking, an entire large families worldly goods stored in leftover plastic buckets and cardboard boxes, plastic bags and small wooden trunks. Treasured items were a small transistor radio, a swatch of beautiful fabric or a plastic bucket with a tightly fitting lid to safely store the essentials of life here -plastic reels with well-worn fishing line, discarded steel bar weights tied to the end of the line and bare hooks. Sam even explained how he starts every fishing trip by plucking up a handful of hermit crabs that he uses for bait to catch a small fish which then becomes bait for his next meal. And they wanted to give us dinner: humbling.

Happy Sailing, Kat

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Friday, September 6, 2013

2013, 08-30 Cooking in Fiji

One of the best things about staying in Fiji for the winter months is it's finally cool enough to enjoy a bit of cooking. We're spending days on end at anchor which means lots of meals to cook and I've been dying to start playing with the Indian spices I've seen in piles in market stalls for months now. Every market has a section with bins and bags heaped with Turmeric, fennel seeds and powder, kalonji seeds, garam masala, curry powder mixes and cardamom, cinnamon, whole cloves and nutmegs. Can't you just smell it?

Now of course yachtie cooking is always sort of an adaptation of home cooking what with the limits on space and gadgets aboard. We run a pretty basic boat with the extent of my appliances being a small electric hand mixer, a toaster and one small and one large pressure cooker so if it can't be done by hand and done without fancy gadgets it's not going to make it to any plate. So with winter bringing cool air it's been a great time to experiment. But winter here also means prime cruising time which brought us to the Lau Group which is far away from major provisioning (strike one,) and since we are spending long days at anchor my access to ingredients is more limited by the day (strike two.) Additionally we have been without internet since Viani Bay when someone who will remain nameless left the cell phone, our only means of accessing the internet (when we can even find it) in their shorts pocket when they jumped out of the dinghy for a trip into Lomaloma town- so we have no access to the internet and hence no access to its infinite trove of recipes (strike three) so my cooking has taken on a sort of seat of your pants style.

I took a cooking class in Savusavu which gave me some basics and got me revved up and ready to jump in to trying a few new things. There we made prawn curry, coconut fish, vegetable curry with eggplant and potatoes, Kokonda the Fijian equivalent to ceviche and roti the basic Indian flat bread. Nothing entirely new but it was a fun way to link up American spice names with the local names and characteristics and someone to ask some basic questions of. Between the cooking class and our penchant for tasting our way through each new country we visit I've managed to come up with some pretty authentic dishes and have enjoyed the chance to play with my ever growing stockpile of spices.

One dish which turned out especially good was fresh fish from the Bay of Islands courtesy of Bill, a bag of custom mixed spices that was a gift from Brian of S/v Ursa Minor another cooking class attendee, my last can of French Polynesian coconut cream and part of a box of spaghetti sauce with mushrooms left over from our time in Mexico. Cooked together Fijian curry style along with a pot of the last of my American brown rice with homemade yogurt on top (a yummy way to enjoy nutty brown rice I learned from my daughter-in-law) and a batch of my new recipe home-made garlic naan it was a truly international dish. Since then I have been cooking our way through loads of fresh fish and turning out some pretty interesting curry dishes along with more than 5 kilo's worth of Fijian "Normal" flour turned into roti and naan to scoop everything up with. Add a bowl full of fresh papaya and we've been eating pretty well out here. Kat

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2013, 08-06 Daliconi Village, Vanua Balavu Island, the Lau Group Fiji

Today we left Bavatu and motored to Daliconi Village (pronounced dal i thoni.) The village there "owns" the area that encompasses the Bay of Islands our next designated stop. We needed to make the run to Daliconi to offer the Chief our sevusevu kava gift and hopefully catch a bus ride into the town of Lomaloma for a few groceries. We had been pre-warned that we were not to try and anchor anywhere in the Bay of Island without first making the trip to the village and also were told that the Village is rather pro-active at collecting not only their due kava but also a per person charge. Some cruisers reported having the village call them on VHF instructing them that they needed to come in and offer their sevusevu when they were simply passing the village by.

This would be our second ever sevusevu and we were a little apprehensive. Our only other experience had been at Waya Island in the Yasawa's which had been simple and straightforward. When we arrived in the town of Savusavu we began hearing long tales and dire warning about all the charges and hassles we could expect in the Lau to the point that we were both wondering if a visit there would be worth the trouble. Maybe we should just skip The Lau Group?

Daliconi village made our visit simple and painless. As we entered their bay we were raised on the VHF which we were expecting and since we arrived early enough in the day quickly made arrangements to come ashore as soon as we had settle in. We were met on the beach by Sam the head of the village Tourism Committee. As we walked towards the Chiefs home Sam explained that he would act as our spokesperson and walk us through the entire sevusevu process, all we need do was follow his lead. When arrived at the small beachfront home we waited at the doorway for a moment as we were announced then stepped into the mat floored main room of the small house. The Chief was already seated on a woven mat that covered the floor of the main room in his home. Sam sat cross legged in front of and off to the Chiefs right, Bill next to him in front of the Chief and finally me to Bills right settled with my legs tucked under me.

Holding our kava offering in his hands Sam started things off with a solemn speech and a few of the Fiji signature cupped palm claps. Unfortunately the only words I recognized were: vinaka, kai palagi and yangona -thank you, foreigner and kava respectively. He then slid our wrapped gift of kava root towards the Chief who took it and began his own breathy reverent speech and clapping dialogue. At the end there were lots of thank you's and finally Sam said that the Chief had in fact accepted our gift of kava and the village and its surroundings were ours to explore. The whole thing took maybe ten minutes. Neither the Chief nor Sam indicated it was expected that we sit around and ask questions or make small talk so we took that as our cue and said our good byes.

From there we walked through the village and on to Sam's home to pay our fees and meet his wife Lako. Sam's house sits up on the hill behind the village with a beautiful view across the bay. His wife Lako -the village Tourism Committee's Secretary- was there waiting for us and invited us in and showed us to seats. Their modest home consists of the main 20' x 15' house and an adjacent thatched roof hut with an attached outside kitchen area. The main house with one interior wall contained the living room, a short hall past a stove and sink to the bathroom and a curtained off doorway to area that looks to be separated off in to two or even three small private bedroom areas. There were three doors, several louvered but glassless windows and the typical Fijian hand woven mat on the floor of the main room. There was also a large color TV, family photos on the wall, a framed certificate from The United Nations for service performed in Lebanon, a couple of small wooden shelves that proudly held two large trophies we later learned were with awarded to their youngest son for excellence in math and English and a small table with bits of a weaving project folded neatly away. Outside across from the front door was the main kitchen area with a smoldering fire left over from an earlier meal and an partly enclosed room that is used as a dining area and sitting room -they explained they spend more time there than in the house as it is cooler.

Lako showed us to seats at the love seat and chatted with us as she gathered the paperwork for taking our fees for the Tourism Council. As the Chairman of the Tourism Committee and its Treasurer respectively Sam and Lako are intent on their village jobs. They brought out a book for us to sign and were proud to tell us that we were the 85th yacht of the year. Last year they saw a total of 69 yachts and there are more than two more months of prime cruising season still left. They then showed us two pre-printed pages which explained what the charge would be, what that included, what additional services were available and what the village was doing with the money they collected. Our $30Fj per person helps the village pay for: building a concrete walkway across the village commons to assist their elders in making their way to church, construction and maintenance of a community center, fuel for the village generator that runs the church sound system (families pay $4/week for 2 ½ hours of electricity each night), salaries for the two teachers and one aid who teach at the 27 student village primary school, assistance for families who have students attending the high school boarding school at the neighboring village of Lomaloma and fuel for the village Tourism boat. We paid our money received a written receipt and later watched as Lako gave Sam their bank book and a pile of cash destined for the village account at the Bank in Lomaloma.

We now had the run of the village and the Bay of Islands! We were free to fish, swim, snorkel and dive or to walk the beaches and trails as well as full access to the village. Included in our fee was free garbage collection -a great pro-active way for the village to reduce the amount of trash that could otherwise end up left in the pristine Bay of Islands area. Or for the cost of gas we could have a guided tour of the areas limestone caves. As head of the Tourism Committee Sam was available to answer any questions we had and help us with any problems we might encounter. They offered laundry service and had recently opened a small bakery that offered fresh bread for $1 per loaf -when available- and even offered their new Community Center up or for parties -the village would happily put on a feast complete with lovo meal, kava drinking and meke dancing and singing. Friendly, simple, painless, not aggressive or impolite and for the cost of the kava bundle -$10 US and $30 US in fees we had a village contact and the run of the area for the season!

It's a lesson we've learn over and over again: Listen to everyone's experience, read everything we can get our hands on and file the information away but stay open to our own experience. It has never, I repeat never been as dire as the warnings predicted. From our first crossing of the straights of Juan de Fuca to crossing the Pacific it has always turned out to be simpler and easier than what we were lead to believe.

The next morning we met on the beach for our trip into town and apparently Sam had decided to come with us. By 8:30 we were loading into the Tourism boat -the typical Fiji open long boat- with eight villagers headed for Lomaloma. This is not a tourist trip. No wharf, no dock. You take off your shoes and hike up your dress and walk out into the sea to an open boat where you haul yourself up and over the side and settle in with your derriere resting on the gunnel of the 20 foot open and shade-less boat, then off across the bay. The regulars know just where to settle to stay high and dry but they were free with their advice for me which was lovely. The trip to the neighboring village took just a few minutes and soon we were reversing the process and wading in towards a small group of buildings surrounded by 12 foot fencing. To our right stood the Minister of Fisheries office and home and to our left was the local ice house. Between the two was a dirt road that headed inland to the village of Malaka. Like neighboring Dalaconi this village was neat and clean and just now coming awake. Everyone seems to know everyone else and there were lots of hellos and waves as we walked towards the waiting bus.

It is not actually a bus at all but a very large truck with an open but covered flat bed with long benches running down each side and a couple of old tires on the floor between the benches. The truck makes its run on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 9:00 am for $2 each way. But it is not quite like any bus route I've experienced before. The driver doesn't pull off the road at a stop in Malaka but instead he sits waiting as we walked up the rutted dirt road. The Malaka locals get their prompt from seeing Dalaconi villagers as they walk up from the beach. Everyone does try for the 9:00 am time but if the skiffs from the outer village happen to break down or are delayed everyone waits patiently -Fiji time at its best. It was a surprisingly smooth twenty minute trip over the only road on the island. We snaked up and over and through pine trees and then along the far coast. When we arrived in Lomaloma at 9:20 the truck pulled to the side of the road, shut off his engine and parked waiting for our 11:00am departure.

There were two small groceries in town both carrying basic staples and little more. Luckily for us the boat had been in recently and we were able to buy a 30 count flat of eggs, two cans of mutton, onions, five kilo of flour and toilet paper. By 9:38 our shopping was essentially completed. The only stop left to make was The Hot Bread Store. Present in every town of size in Fiji the Hot Bread store sells several sized loaves of fluffy Wonder type white bread, cream buns which are the same fluffy white bread with a gob of Twinkie like filling gobbed into a split top and butter by the half kilo block, stick and glob. It was our lucky day, three rows of barely cooling loaves of whole meal bread -pseudo whole wheat- sat waiting on the small set of store shelve. Too hot to slice yet we made plans to return and pick them up -sliced- right before our bus was scheduled to leave for its return trip across the island.

Besides the two grocery shops and the bread store the center of town seemed to be the raised cement porch running along the front of a small building. One half of the building was home to a small pool hall consisting of one pool table and two short benches and next door was a sometimes there women's clothing store. The clothing store consisted of perhaps 100 pieces of used women's clothing neatly hung along the walls and a half a dozen women busy catching up on life. One of the women graciously offered to watch our shopping for us freeing us to take a town tour with Sam. Following the one street through town we walked back past our bus ride home passed the two grocery stores and on to the Hospital. One of only two hospitals in the Lau group this is where you come for medical care unless you travel all the way back to Savusavu or on to Suva. Sam took us inside to the lobby and showed us the administration wing (one end of the small building) and the patient wing (the other end of the building) which he pointed out has a separate section for men, women and children. From there we walked to the end of town to look at the High School. Two blocks from "downtown" the boarding school here is where areas children come for instruction past the village primary school. From there we turned back and passed the bank/post office -sorry no ATM- where they handle only local banking. As we again passed the Hot Bread Store Sam explained we were about to enter the Tongan side of the Village.

In the Lau group every village and town has a Tongan roots. Years ago the islands of the Lau were owned and ruled by the King of Tonga. In fact some of the island we'd been visiting in the Lau lie closer to Tonga than to Fiji. In recognition of and by some negotiated show of respect to the Tongan King even the smallest village in the Lau has one Tongan building. Lomaloma town has one entire end of town that is Tongan. The difference by contrast is stark. Divided by a single dirt crossroad that T's at the ocean and the islands main road one end of town is owned by the Tongan King. Suddenly it was as if we were walking a road in Pangai Tonga: the architecture is distinctly Tongan with open Fale's, rounded domed roof lines and picket fencing. We were even introduced to the Tongan headman who wearing cargo shorts t-shirt and flip flops was walking down the road pushing a wheelbarrow. Here just a few feet from a good sized Lau suddenly everyone speaks Tongan. According to Sam every Fijian has at least some Tongan blood. Back in Dalaconi I looked for and found the one Tongan building in the village.

Our trip back across the island was simple and quick and we arrived in Malaka in time to find our long boat high and dry on a low tide. One of the women we were traveling with laughed and told me it's the Fiji way. So in typical easygoing Fijian fashion we all settled our store bought goods in the grass near the ice house and found a place on a shoreline rock to sit and waited for the tide to come back in. Then with a slightly longer walk through the sea across the low tide water we all climbed back in for the ride home.

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2013, 08-02 Time in The Northern Lau, Fiji

Bavatu Bay, Vanua Balavu Island

A few days ago we arrived at Bavatu Harbor in the Northern Lau. The 57 islands that make up the Northern and Southern Lau Groups are by far the most remote in all of Fiji. Prior to 2010 visiting the Lau by private yacht was possible only with special permission and only after first clearing into the country at one of the Immigration offices on the big islands of Viti Levu or Vanua Levu, both of which are downwind of the Lau. In order to be allowed to visit even one village in the Lau you had to present Immigration with a letter from the chief of the island village you hoped to visit. But the only way to get a letter from a Chief was to know someone in the village preferably someone with status. Even if did know someone you then had to make arrangements to get a letter from there to wherever you were which would of course be miles of ocean and a world away. No more. Now all it took was a trip to Lautoka for a renewal of our original six month cruising permit, a three day passage from Viti Levu to Savusavu on Vanua Levu and a decent weather window conducive to making our way 125 miles to the Lau. It was definitely worth the upwind sail.

The northern end of the island of Vanua Balavu is made of uplifted coral (the southern end which we have not yet visited is mostly volcanic.) Uplifted coral means tall craggy islands covered in lush jungle with the occasional sheer rocky face peeking through. The bottom of the land masses here have been undercut by eon's of trade wind waves leaving the islands and bays with a beautiful sculpted look. Mushroom rocks sprout up on many points and there are beautiful pocket beaches filled with powdery white sand and tall swaying coconut palms. The afternoon we motored into Bavatu Harbor felt like we rounded a corner into wild Fiji.

Bavatu Harbor is part of a privately owned 800 acre plantation. It is "freehold land" which means there is no village, no chief and no need to plan a day around presenting a gift of sevu sevu kava in the hopes of having it accepted by said chief and thereafter having his permission to anchor, swim, fish, snorkel, dive, walk the beaches or get to know the locals. We are sitting nearly still at one of two moorings in front of the Explorer Islands Yacht Squadron which was originally the homestead of the patriarch of a family that owns among other Fiji holdings the Copra Shed Marina in Savusavu, the Vuda Points Marina and the only western style marine chandleries in all of Fiji (where incidentally one gallon of Interlux brand bottom paint is $1000.00 Fj.) After the father's death the family operation renovated the old homestead and transformed it into the Explorer Island Yacht Squadron at Bavatu Harbor.

There is a small settlement on the top of the island where two families live. They are the acting caretakers keeping a visitors book, mowing the grass, caring for a herd of cattle and sheep and maintaining the two yacht squadron mooring balls. Twice a day six days a week someone from the settlement walks down the 171 steps that cling to the jungle behind their small settlement and boards a small boat before crossing the bay to a small dock in front of the yacht squadron where they climb more steps and then unlock and open the doors and windows for the day. There is no store or book exchange, no restaurant or bar just an empty well taken care of dock and club house. When we arrived there were three other boats in the bay all three of which left by mid-day the following day.

Bavatu Harbor -Turquoise Harbor in Fijian- is one of the most beautiful places we have ever stayed. To enter the bay you must first thread your way through reefs and around coral bommies then through a small northward facing opening with a small islet in the center. The shallowest waters are a lovely shade of turquoise that deepens to teal as the bottom drops away. It is a nearly landlocked bay with no town, no village, no garbage, no noise other than the rhythmic sounds of the tide as it rises and falls along the steep sided islands edge.

During the day the air is filled with the sounds of many different types of birds. We saw soaring frigate birds, a mid-sized hawk and numerous times a pair of dazzling white long tailed tropic birds. There is another bird on the island -a barking dog dove- that confounded me for several days. Its call sounds like a deep throated dog bark -exactly like a big old mad dog. Its call is not just a single bark nope, instead it is a relentless ruff, ruff….ruff, ruff, ruff. Ruff, ruff……ruff, ruff, ruff all day long the sound echoed off the walls of the bay. I was sure the settlement had a dog, no a bunch of dogs who endlessly roamed the island barking back and forth to each other. The sound is so spot on that when we were hiking with new friends across the island to a birds' eye view overlook onto the Bay of Islands and we heard the doves I kept looking over my shoulder wondering where the dogs were. I honestly thought they were joking when they told me about the sounds I was hearing was a dove smaller than a Seattle pigeon. Curiously now that I know the noise is doves my mind apparently has assigned the noise to relax mode instead of endlessly wondering why no one is trying to shut up the damn dogs.

We spent four nights at Bavatu Harbor, two of them we had all to ourselves. There are no electric lights in the Bay and each night when the sun began to set the birds would begin their evening squawk and squabble good nights, the giant fruit bats would begin to spiral up and up and up on the evening thermals catching a lift to their favorite dinner spots and the night insects would begin their thrumming. In the clear night sky the stars began to peek out over the edge of the high island walls and by true nightfall the Milky Way appeared in a long arc overhead so thick and bright that we could see the reflection of their glow across the waters of the bay. Happy Sailing, Kat

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2013, 07-27 Viani Bay, Taveuni Island and the Legendary Jack Fisher

After an easy one day trip from Savusavu we arrived at Viani Bay. The bay lies on the southern-most tip of the island of Vanua Levu directly across Somosomo Strait from the island of Taveuni. Thankfully the heavy winds and big swell that had been pouring into the bay for the last few days seemed to have subsided by the time we dropped our anchor amidst the corral bommies in 95 feet of water. Already in the bay were the sailing vessels Kahia, Black Jack, Slip Away, Mariposa and Kailani.

Viani Bay is a favorite with many cruisers in Fiji. It is beautiful large bay with plenty of anchoring room, is close enough to Taveuni island to make re-provisioning easy if you stay for long periods, is close to a number of top dive spots and is the home of the legendary Jack Fisher. Jack is a long time institution in Viani Bay. He makes his living here at the sight of his family homestead guiding cruisers on day-trips. His specialty is to gather up a gaggle of cruisers on one boat and for a $10 pp fee stays with the mother ship while the cruisers dive or snorkel the best nearby reefs and passes. He also arranges shopping trips to Taveuni, trips to island sights like the slip and slide water fall or the National Park at Bouma where there is a grand trail through the woods and up to a series of three waterfalls. He expertise lies in knowing the right tides to ride the passes and reefs, expertly piloting the mother boat and staying aboard to handle any problems while the cruisers play. He holds his captains license here in Fiji and is a retired dive master and takes the helm with both pride and expertise.

Our first day in Viani we went exploring in our dingy. The head of the bay is home to Jacks family homestead as well as a primary school that serves the families who live here. Unlike most of Fiji there is no village in Viani just the families who live here so there is no need for the usual village sevu sevu gifting of kava.
Just outside of Viani Bay we rounded a corner to take a look at a group of buildings we passed as we were first coming in. There is a large home there as well as a line of burres along the beach and high on the hill over the house is a tiny sparkling white church. Now from the water we could see the primary building -large, also sparkling white and made up of three connected pavilions and and a beautifully designed dock that reached invitingly out into the bay.

At the head of the dock is a sigh saying Navodo Bay nothing more. We could see into the main building of the house and it looked like a lobby or great room but we couldn't quite tell if it was a resort or if we would be welcomed in. We motored closer hesitant but wondering to ourselves if we might find an icy cold diet Coke ashore. As we got closer a man walked out of the main building and came down the dock to say hello. It turns out that it was not a resort but a private home owned by Bob and Debbie from California.

Bob invited us up while telling us a bit about his island home. He and and his wife Debbie bought 128 acres sort of on a whim twenty years ago. Ten years ago they began building the house and then decided to add the burres so family and friends would have a place to stay if they chose. They added the chapel next after feeling the property was "missing something" and needed something to "give the place soul." The home and out-buildings have been completed for several years now but amazingly his family has only spent a few one weeks stays here. He offered us tea and fruit and a place at his table to meet his family and the group of people they had brought along for a private yoga retreat. There were maybe ten people sitting around he massive dinning table that sat under the front porch running along the entire front of the three pavilion home.

It is hard to adequately describe the opulence of the home behind the massive dining table. The interior was filled with gorgeous but casual furnishings and backed by a restaurant sized kitchen filled with staff busy cleaning up breakfast and beginning preparations for lunch. We sat at the table for some time learning about his family and how he arrived in Fiji. He owns some forty jewelry stores in California where he and Debbie raised seven children and now enjoy their ten grandchildren. He is old enough to retire but can't seem to break away from is business affairs but they enjoy traveling the world and hope to spend even more time here in their private compound. After tea and conversation he offered us a tour of the house.

Calling the place grand is an understatement. The wide steps leading to the dining table are protected by two massive iron lions. The great room and kitchen complex -the middle pavilion- has high ceilings and plantation fans and is lush with heavy carved and upholstered furniture. Numerous portraits filled with generations of family grace the walls and uncountable picture frames covered table tops and credenzas. The kitchen at the back of the room was filled with four or five locals cooking and preparing the coming meal. Off to the right and into another pavilion are two huge bedrooms both with separate baths and private decks. The rooms focus on the views but the ornately carved antique four poster beds and matching dressers and night stands steal the show. These rooms too are filled with family portraits.

Back through the great room we moved on to the third pavilion which houses the master suite and adjoining office. The carved four poster bed in this room was jaw dropping: carved leather headboard, posters the size of a grown mans thigh and lush and romantic gossamer fabrics swathing each corner. There were two matching fainting couches sitting in front of the doors that open onto the front deck all again graced with thirty foot high ceilings and great slowly rotating fans. Off the bedroom behind perfectly placed screens was an open bathroom with a huge claw footed tub. Through one last doorway we stepped into Bobs office. The round shape of the office and the round woven wool carpet with its center sitting desk reminded me of the oval office -if the oval office where in Fiji.

The amazing thing about our visit wasn't in finding this wondrous family compound or the half-a-dozen reportedly $350,000 each luxurious burres along the beach or even in the gorgeous chapel built high on the hill here in this remote bay but in having Bob welcome us in and treat us like guests when he could have simply sent someone down to the dock to send us away. The home exuded wealth but Debbie and Bob with his pure white full flowing beard and long hair looked and acted like a California hippies who would have fit right in stepping into an old VW microbus. We said good bye amid an offer for any help they could offer during our stay, permission to snorkel their reef and an offer of a sailing trip if they were interested. Hats off to Bob and Debbie.

The next day we set off with Jack to Taveuni. Our host ship for the day would be Kailani with Harley, Jennifer and five year old Sophia aboard. All told we had 16 aboard including the crews from Black Jack, Mariposa and Slip away. With Jack at the wheel of S/v Kailani a Deerfoot 63 expertly winding us safely through the reefs we set off for a trip to Bouma National Park about an hours drive from the town of Somosomo. When we arrived at the anchoring spot off the end of the town of Somosomo we were ferried to shore on Blackjacks dinghy Daisy. Three trips and we were ashore and ready to climb into two vans for our trip to the park.

But first a stop at the neighborhood restaurant for roti parcels -a fresh made roti wrapped around mutton and potato curry all wrapped in plastic wrap for our lunch at the falls. We wound our way NE along the shoreline of Taveuni through five our six separate villages to our stop at the National Park. Fifteen dollars each bought our entrance and we were off to the first falls. The day was cloudy and cool but perfect for hiking into the rain forest. A easy and near flat fifteen minute walk brought us to the first falls. There were bathrooms and changing buildings and an easy path to the pool at the base of the roaring falls. The water plunged 100 feet out of the lush jungle into a large deep pool.

The second leg of the hike was steep and had us all sweating and huffing along. Near the top was great vista with a view down and back over Somosomo straight with the island of Vanua Levu off in the distance. After a short break to catch our breath and we were off to waterfall number two. Again up, up and more up then a drop-off trail winding deeper into the rain forest. At the bottom of this drop was a river that needed to be traversed but someone had kindly strung a guide rope to help us across. Quick thinking on Bills part got the smart phone out of his shirts pocket and into the top of his pack in time to avert a disaster when he ended up nearly waist deep in a pool he didn't quite successfully navigate. I was pleased to make it not only across the river twice but all the way up and back without a single fall in the damp rain forest despite the touch going and the damp and slippery footing and wet wood that had been placed to help footing and hand holds. The second waterfall was much tougher to enter but stunningly beautiful. The area around the pool was a jumble of boulder sized rocks that were slippery and made it tough to work your way to the pool so Bill and I opted to watch the tourists play and save our swimming for our lunch break back at waterfall number one.

With a group of fifteen -Jack stayed back aboard Kailani for safety and security- we were running short of time so we missed waterfall number three but since we were all hot and sweaty even in the cloudy cool for Fiji day and number three was reported to be another forty five minutes away we all decided to head back down to waterfall number one. The roti parcels were delicious and the water at the bottom waterfall was cool and refreshing.

Our two taxi vans were waiting for us back at the park buildings and we were soon all gathered for our trip back to town with a stop for grocery shopping at the MH and the produce market in Somosomo. Bill and I had fully provisioned before we left Savusavu but we managed to find we needed a few luxuries. We went for the ones we usually pass by in favor of staples and left the MH with brownie mix, a packet of Triple chocolate cookie mix, old fashioned oats for molasses oatmeal cookie baking and a litter bottle of diet coke. : ) By the time we had all been ferried back to Kailani we were quite a cohesive group and everyone spent the short trip across Somosomo strait on the large foredeck of Kailani talking and making plans for our next outing. A hike through the rain forest, new friends, luxury grocery items and a sunset trip back to Island Bound made for a great day. Kat

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