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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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