Thursday, February 11, 2010

Figi Blog

Two years ago when I sailed to Antarctica I became fascinated with the Southern Hemi- sphere. It is not a
place many North Americans go but the cultures found here are some of the coolest on earth. My friend Holly
works here part-time and invited me to visit. It is a
journey that takes me from Homer, Alaska 7000 miles south to below the equator. I am really excited to dive here. In America we have polluted our oceans to the point that there are almost no healthy coral reefs left except in Hawaii. I grew up near what was once an incredible reef called Pennycamp in the Florida Keys. When I was a kid it was covered with tropical fish and fan coral but Pennycamp is now a dead reef.

It only took 40 years of “progress” for humans to kill an ecosystem that had survived for millennia.


From Honolulu flush with six bags of Kona coffee I fly southwest 6 hours to Nadi, Fiji. Fiji is south of the equator in the South Pacific and the native people here were once cannibals who sailed all over the Pacific in giant outrigger canoes. It is summer season-Nov-April-hot hot hot. My friend Holly meets me at the airport. Bula! Bula! (hello) she shouts as I walk down the stairs to baggage. Holly is working with a non-profit group of Fijians to install safe drinking water and sanitation systems in villages. It is a big issue on an island that depends on rain for most of it’s drinking water. Holly is a biologist and her friend Victor is a marine biologist studying the coral reefs here. He has become something of an activist because he sees what many poor sanitation practices are doing to Fiji’s beautiful fringe reefs.


We stock up on paupau (papaya) and pineapple at the huge Sigatoka Saturday market. Funny this is the kind of market my friends in Alaska would love to have. All organic foods, fish and clams and lobster fresh from the sea, raw sugar, no chemicals in the food, no processing, just pure… from the earth. Figi has missed the so-called progress of fast processed foods so they already have what America wants to get back to: locally produced organic foods! And the prices here are good too! I buy a palm fan and limes and seaweed and paupau.

Coral Coast

We dive today on the Coral Coast marine protected area where Victor is working; He has set up racks under water to grow coral and has dozens ready to “plant.” Actually you swim to a place where you don’t see a lot of the little black fish called Farmer Fish and find a hole in the main coral and shove the little “seedling” in. It’s fun! The coral are fantastic shapes and colors-scarlet, purple, green, brown and my favorite is white with iridescent blue tips.

Resorts all over the islands pump nutrients into the water. Even with sewage treatment for bacteria the nutrients still make their way into the sea. This causes algae blooms and everything gets out of wack and eventually the coral dies. A simple system using the water to irrigate plants solves the problem but getting the businesses that make their money from tourism i.e. the beauty of the land and water---to make this simple change is difficult. People would rather point fingers and shift responsibility. It’s the resort; no it’s the pig farmers; no it’s the village. Meanwhile the reef dies. Climate change is not ever far from my mind and it seems humanity has two choices-unite globally and fix it or play the blame game and watch the world move, again, toward war.

A coup lead by Colonel Frank Bainimara on December 6, 2006 ousted then president Laisenia Qarasee. Now Fiji is run by an interim military government. People tell me the last group was corrupt. That’s when all the deals were made withoverseas resort developers with bags of cash. Now the government ministers are trying to stop the corruption and heal the environment. The people have hope for the future.


We took a horseback ride upcountry to see the flying foxes-fruit bats-soar over the valley. The horses are barn sour and took off once we hit the beach on the return and I almost came off. But that one rein stop is bomb proof! Tomorrow we go to Suva-the capitol-to visit Holly’s friends then to the Island of Leleuvia. All the Dahl soup (lentils) is giving me gas! We go to dinner at a great seafood place but Victor is called away. Poachers are on the protected reef with spear guns. Later we learn they were men from another village. Fists bring swift justice for their larceny.
Holly wants me to go on a shark dive she has been on twice. The Beqa island natives have the shark as their totem and as such, believe the sharks will not hurt them-or their diving clients. So far they are right. The Bega (bee gan) folks also walk on fire and are healers. Today we talked with some divers who saw a 5-meter big mamma tiger shark that glided over as the Bega guys were handing out chunks of meat. I have seen and been in the water with tiger sharks in Hawaii and I would feel safer with the Bega Island Fijians along.


We rent a car and drive-like the English on the “wrong” side of the road-to Suva, the current capitol. Holly’s non-profit is partially funded by Rotary International so I give a presentation on Alaska at the weekly luncheon. The guys like the pictures of sled dog racing and polar bears the best! The luncheon is at the Figi Club and the place is right out of a movie script. It is the British Club where decisions about this country were once made over gin and tonics under the lazy whirring of the ceiling fans. British rule came to an end in 1970.

Suva is a city. Hot, dirty, crowded but we visit the South Pacific University, the Fiji Museum
and the handicraft market. The market is full of stalls selling cool stuff. One stall is
all about ancient Fijian weapons: neck breakers, skull crackers, brain pickers (remember the cannibals) throwing clubs, you name it. Another is all tapa products, another tanoa’s-the huge bowl the kava is mixed in. The tanoa’s run from simple dishes to elaborate mahogany masterpieces inlaid with mother of pearl. I agonize over two and finally choose. It will be a great addition to my home in Alaska. I grab gifts for friends then we adjourn to an Internet cafĂ© to take care of some business.

Bau Landing

Our plans are shifting with the weather. Neither of us have been sleeping well in the heat-I’m taking five showers a day and keeping my hair soaked to stay cool. I just want to get out of the city so we head out of town in a taxi headed for Bau landing. Our taxi driver is a boxer and a bodyguard for the movie theatre owner. Guess he shows bad movies?! Like in Alaska, many villages here are only accessible by boat or plane. School children, mothers with their shopping, men with supplies wait at the landing for their boat taxis to arrive. Some kids come to school each morning by boat and the school bus picks them up at the landing.


The boat ride to Leleuvia was a trip! Forty minutes in a really hot boat from Bau Landing with 12 wackos from the Czech Republic. They hoot and holler and drink whiskey from a bottle in a brown paper bag. My daughter and I hung out with some Czechs in Croatia this spring and they were the same way. Party hard fun people.

Now on the island life is ruled by the tides. We stay in a small cabin that is so hot at night I move my bed to the porch where I sleep under mosquito netting in a lovely sea breeze. Bures--traditional thatched roofed huts-are interspersed with the more modern tin sided cabins. The bures are much cooler but the coconut frond walls are ripe with cockroaches.

The reefs are amazing. Poisonous sea snakes (Holly says they have a hard time biting you with their teeth in the back of their mouth) Giant clams, sea cucumbers, crown of thorns and of course fish, fish, and fish. All the outrageous colors- orange, scarlet, blue, turquoise- of the Pacific. Ten colors of yellow on one small sea mount. Fan coral, fire coral, brain coral, stag horn, branching, massive, lettuce leaf, finger, lace, soft corals and the sea feathers that look like a coral but are really an animal that fishes with it’s feathers. Poisonous anemones shelter orange and white clown fish. Lion and scorpion fish wave their deadly elaborate fins as we swim by. Brown stingrays with blue polka dots glide across the bottom.

Figi is home to 500 pound giant clams that live 150 years or more. The largest mollusks in the world, giant clams have been over harvested, like much of the sea. Now an effort to protect them is sweeping Figi. Brilliantly colored and patterned, the bivalves seem to be winking at a diver.

We spend the mornings snorkling in clear water before the chop makes the water murky. Then we cool off any way we can when the water system is working. They haul water by boat from Ovalau, a nearby island where the former capitol, Levuka, was.


Pole dancing. The meager bar has a aluminum pole sunk in concrete that the children play on in the day and the adults dance on (with?) in the night. It amazes me. Just think about it: Fijians once ran around these islands naked but then the missionaries came. Now the Fijians are very conservative in dress. They cover their shoulders and wear long concealing (hot) sulus. Meanwhile the tourists run around naked. The pole dancing is just out there.

Every evening at sunset the men gather on a mat to drink kava-a mild narcotic tea made from the roots of a pepper plant. It is a tradition. When you go to a new place you must perform i sevu sevu where you meet with the village leader and present kava and the leader mixes pounded kava root powder with water in a tonoa ( a wooden large bowl with four feet.) The village leader asks the ancestors and the spirit of the land to keep you safe on their land and water and gives you permission to be there.

Everyone claps once as they are handed a coconut shell cup filled with the gray kava. You drink it all at once, return the cup and clap three times. By the third cup your lips are numb. As the evening goes on you ask for “low tide”-half a cup. Then you go to bed and sleep like the dead.

One of my favorite things to do in Alaska is sit around a campfire and sing. Fijians do it every night. They play ukulele’s, guitars and drums called lali made from ironwood. They also do a form of the hula called the meke that tells historical stories.

Coconut palms are cool. You can make anything from them…a house, a mat, a curtain, a door…The bure’s are thatched roofed with the support poles notched and tied with-you guessed it-coconut fiber rope. Coconut is used, of course, as a food, the oil is rubbed on skin and hair. Coconut fiber is used to make magi magi-string, the wood for building, the leaves for weaving fishing nets, baskets, hats, fans and cooking food in the lovo (underground oven). Last but not least, you burn the husk to keep away the mosquitos.

The Fijians pound the paper mulberry tree into pulp and press it out with water to make masi then they use vegetable dyes to create the Tapa-a kind of paper used for decoration, clothing, ceremonial presentations, storytelling, darn near everything. At 6 p.m. when Leli blows into a conch it is dinne time. Tonight is the lovo. We have lentils with carrots, noodles with carrots in teriyaki, fresh water clams in coconut milk, barracuda, chicken, salad, taro leaves and onions…it’s a feast.

Food here is heavy on taro and every meal you get a sort of tortilla called Roti to soak up the coconut milk everything is cooked in.

Cy and Leli run the desk. They wear traditional clothing. Cy the woman’s sulu and jaba and Leli the man’s sulu and a salu salu necklace made of banana leaves and flowers.

We only expected to stay on Leleuvia two days but it is so peaceful and beautiful we park. I read and write while Holly works on a proposal for a new piece of metal art she will build in Alaska. We swim and talk and dance at night under a full Fijian moon.

As we leave Holly sighs, “Back to reality. Indian food and spas.”


Back in Suva at Reanu’s house we do laundry and I pack. Holly makes sour sap and mango smoothies. Then we head for a spa called the Taste of Figi. We both get massages with coconut oil then stow all our treasures and start the long drive to Nadi.

Crossing a mountain the rain explodes, a sheet so solid you must pull over to the side of the road until the cloudburst passes. Black clouds scud across the sky. But in moments it clears and with a rainbow hanging over Bau Island we reach Sigatoka. In the harbor I see huge fishing trawlers tied side by side. Their homeports are exotic to me: Jakarta, Busan, Saipan and Bandar but I know their story. These are the ships that tear up the sea floor, indiscriminately killing everything in their path: dolphins, whales, sea turtles… all just dead by-catch thrown back overboard. What a waste. And that is what I think about once we reach 37000 feet headed back across the Pacific. As we cross the equator there is turbulence. It makes me think of ignorance.

How will this world survive if humans cannot evolve a conscience about nature?