Great Food & Giant Clams

After an absolutely wonderful welcome to Makogai yesterday we awoke to yet another beautiful, sunny day here. The other two boats that were here when we arrived have hauled anchor and left and now we have this special piece of heaven all to ourselves!

We started our day working on Dazzler. Dan had a few projects and I got in a little writing and photo editing. By mid afternoon we were ready to get off of the boat so we headed into shore. We had some gifts to take into the village. One was a new volleyball. They have a rickety old net but we heard they love to play so we thought a new volleyball would be a nice gift. The one we had was actually one I bought for Dan for a Christmas a couple of years ago. You know, the whole Wilson thing? But having met these people we decided it was better served here than sitting in our bunk as it has been for two years now. We also had some battery cables, light bulbs, women’s clothes, Fribees, beach balls and a handful of other items we wanted to donate.

When we arrived on shore the village was pretty empty. Seems most of the men were still out on the fishing boats or had made a trip to a neighboring island for supplies. Immediately on shore we saw Waisake. He’s the head of the island. He’s not considered a chief since this is a government island but he is still the head honcho. Waisake was sitting there chatting with another gentleman whose name I can’t recall. Dan presented Waisake with the battery cables and lugs. He seemed incredibly pleased. Dan also told him we had other items to donate but some specifically for our friend, Pau, whom we had met during the kava ceremony yesterday. He nodded in approval so we headed off toward the main part of the village.

About halfway between the beach and the houses is their communal kitchen area. There’s a small building that houses much of the food and under a very large mango tree there is a wooden platform that is built about three feet off the ground. This is what they use for their counter space and they also sit on it when they aren’t cooking. We were greeted by Kara and Tamekai. They are two of the women in the village. Actually, come to think of it, they are the only two women we’ve seen here. Anyway, we told them we had items to give to Pau. They showed us his home and said he may be sleeping but we should wake him up.

There are only four buildings in this village for housing. Three of these buildings are like prefabricated duplexes made with corrugated metal walls and roofs. They are all very clean and new. When Cyclone Winston came through here in 2016 it all but decimated the village. These new buildings were brought in to replace the ruins.

The homes don’t really have any furniture at all. They cover the wooden floors with sheets of a material like linoleum and then place large woven mats down to sit upon. Imagine sleeping on a hard floor every night. The only thing they have inside, other than clothes and some personal items is a bin that holds rice, cassava and other food items. Just remember when you think you have nothing; someone else actually does have nothing!

We walked a short way up the dirt path and Dan began calling out for Pau. He even knocked on the metal walls but Pau didn’t stir. The women hollered over and told Dan to go inside. He was very reluctant to do so but he did step in a few steps and continued to call for Pau. Still there was no answer so we decided it’s best to let a sleeping Fijian sleep and took our bag of goodies back to the ladies. On the way there was a young man, maybe eight or ten years old, sleeping on a woven mat right near the path. Dan reached into our bag and took out a Frisbee and laid it by the boy. I sure would have loved to have seen his expression when he woke up to find this brightly colored disk laying there beside him.

We continued to walk back to the kitchen. Once we were there Dan brought the items out one by one and the ladies seemed very happy with the gifts we were giving the village. Dan made certain they knew the light bulbs were for Pau. They said they’d make sure he got them.

Kara and Tamekai

What happened next was a treat we were not prepared to receive. The ladies asked if we had ever eaten land crab. It’s something they eat a lot of here. While we’ve heard of it we hadn’t had it yet. When they heard this they offered to send us with a meal of it back to the boat. Kara reached over and grabbed a large bowl from their stack of clean dishes and opened up a pot filled with crab and another with cassava. What’s cassava? Well, it’s a root vegetable with a thick, rough, brown skin and white flesh that we’ve seen a lot of here but we’ve never tried it. Honestly we would have had no idea how to cook it.

Kara filled the bowl as full as she could with crabs and cassava and sent us on our way. Of course they don’t use aluminum foil or plastic wrap so here I was walking down the path back to the beach with a giant bowl of food that we had to get to the boat without me spilling it. Okay….I accept the challenge!

As we reached the shore we said, “Goodbye” to Waisake and the other man sitting there and thanked them for allowing us to visit again. Then we made our way back to Dazzler.

So, let me tell you about this food. First of all it smelled amazing. It was in a greenish, yellow sauce and you could see the spices clinging to the crab. The crab were kind of small, sort of like a blue crab with tiny legs so they aren’t full of a lot of meat. That said, the meat is very sweet and tasty and the spice, oh my! It was wonderful. Turns out it was a coconut milk curry and it definitely had a kick to it. The Indian influence here makes for some very tasty and spicy food. Oh yes, let’s not forget the most wonderful and delicious cassava! This is my new favorite starch. It is sort of like a white potato but has a bit more texture to it so it holds up in sauces and things like that. I’m sure you could actually cook it enough to mash it as well but it was amazing just as it was. We tore pieces of it off and dipped it in the curry sauce. Yes, this was a wonderful and completely unexpected treat!

Of course, as Southern tradition dictates, we did not want to return an empty plate so when we woke up the following morning Dan made a batch of Giradelli brownies for us to take back to the village after we went snorkeling. We figured it’s probably not very often they get a taste of something quite so decadent and we knew the kids would love them.

After baking and also marinating some flank steak to make his famous Arracharra tacos for us for dinner, we gathered up our snorkeling gear and headed out to see the giant clams. 

Since they grow these clams here they actually have marked buoys to show you where they are located. They really aren’t far from shore but the water is probably close to 5-6 meters deep. Fortunately the water is very clear so you can easily see them. The first one was in the deepest water and I wanted my picture taken with it. The problem is I’ve had some sinus issues the last few days and I just couldn’t free dive down that deep as the pressure in my head made it feel like my eyeballs were going to explode!

There were a couple of other very large clams closer to shore and not so deep where I could get a much better look at them. These things are amazing! When you think of the strength of the clam it’s kind of scary. Glad they can’t move or chase you. If they closed their lips (mantels) around you, you would never be able to break free. I’ve done some reading though. The likelihood of one capturing a human is slim to none because they can’t just snap their lips closed. The time it would take for them to trap someone would be more than enough for you to get away. And, they don’t eat meat anyway. They filter the water for krill and stuff like that.

The interesting thing is that when they farm these clams on shore they take tiny ones and then set them into a wet concrete slab about a foot square. They put maybe 20-30 on the slab that has been indexed into 2-3 inch squares. Then they grow them to a suitable size to be placed in cages in the sea. They actually place the entire slab in an area where they want them to grow. Many will be eaten or won’t live but the hope is that one or two from each slab makes it to maturity. This only takes a couple of months. But, to get to the size of the ones you see in the photos here, it can take 20+ years! They can actually live to be well over 100 years old. That’s if you can keep the Chinese from poaching them. Taking giant clams or even possessing their shells is illegal here but we’ve learned that just as they do with the sea cucumbers in Tonga, the Chinese will poach these at the first opportunity. It’s very sad.

It goes without saying that seeing these giant things was pretty freaking cool! And, we saw a couple of other interesting things while we were underwater. There’s the underwater coral garden that they are growing on metal frames. Much of the reef was destroyed here during Cyclone Winston some they are working hard to repopulate it. Then there are bed frames strewn about on the sea floor. They are remnants from when this island was a Leper Colony. They are also using the bed frames as a base to grow new coral. It’s an interesting twist of fate as they use the old items related to death and despair to create new life. Yes, we found it rather interesting how this island has been historically associated with nothing but pain and death yet they are doing so much to breed new life. Snorkeling here was really very interesting even if the reef is still somewhat in shambles from Winston.

After our snorkeling adventure we went back to Dazzler and grabbed our brownies to deliver to shore. It was Saturday so the kids were out of school and all day we had seen them playing on the shore and jumping off the concrete dock into the water. Imagine this, children as young as four years old are jumping off a dock that’s about two meters above the water. There are no parents immediately watching over them either. They are climbing up a barnacle covered metal ladder and jumping and pushing each other off the dock. Sort of reminds me when we were kids. Of course you’d never see that back in the states these days. Some parent would likely end up in jail for child endangerment.

When we arrived at the shore the kids all came running to greet us. There were probably ten or twelve of them. All were wearing their soaking wet clothes and yelling out “Bula”. As we headed toward the houses our entourage followed in close pursuit giggling and talking amongst themselves in Fijian. Every so often Dan or I would ask a question and one of the older boys would step up proudly and answer. Of course they saw me carrying a large, glass bowl that was covered so we’re certain they were very curious as to what was inside.

As we reached the outdoor kitchen we found Tamekai sitting on the wooden platform with Emma. Emma is the sweetest, most adorable little four year old you can imagine. She stole my heart the very first day we came ashore.

I explained to Tamekai that where we come from we have a tradition and that is that when someone sends you home with a plate of food, you never return the plate empty. She liked the tradition but was even happier when we showed her the gooey treats inside.

Dear, sweet Emma. She stole my heart!

Tamekai told us the kids had been waiting for us to come ashore all day because Pau told them Dan was planning to play volleyball with them. Dan first said they should each get to have a brownie. Tamekai handed little chunks of brownie to the children and they all giggled and smiled as they enjoyed the tasty treats. Brownies devoured it was time for volleyball. Imagine…Dan and a dozen young kids playing volleyball on the shore of a remote island in Fiji. It was truly a priceless moment to behold.

The kids absolutely loved having Dan play volleyball and then soccer with them. I sat with Kara and Tamekai on the makeshift counter at the outdoor kitchen discussing life in their village as we listened to the sounds of the children laughing and playing with Dan. It was most definitely a special time. There’s something very peaceful and perfect here. No, they don’t have all the creature comforts but what they do have is an amazing quality of life. They have a strong community and family. They don’t want for food because each person in the village works to ensure there is food on the table. And when I say each person, I mean even the kids work. We saw children as young as five or six years old cleaning fish, hauling supplies and working to be a part of the community.

Some may say these young children are losing out on their childhood but we see it completely differently. These children are participating in life! They aren’t sitting on a couch surfing the net or playing games. They are out experiencing life and family and community. When they aren’t working, they are playing volleyball or soccer or walking the beach and jumping off the dock. THIS is real life and these beautiful children are experiencing it to the fullest.

Yes, that’s a butcher knife in the hands of a four year old. And you know what? She used it, cleaned it and never got cut. Imagine that!

As I sat with Tamekai and Kara we discussed how the Internet has eroded the true family experience in so many ways. Even here in the most remote of places Kara was able to tell me of a movie she saw in Suva where the babysitter was so busy on Facebook and messaging her friends that the children in her care died in a fire. These people have just enough exposure to the Internet from seeing it in the larger cities like Suva and Labasa that they instinctively understand its dangers and want to keep it from their children as long as possible. It’s quite sad that something that could be so positive has such a damning effect on the world.

After a couple of hours on the island while Dan played games with the kids and I sat learning more about their culture, fears, hopes and dreams we decided we’d taken enough of their time and said our goodbyes. We certainly don’t want to be the Kepalangi that they dread having come ashore.

The children were all excited to get their photo taken with Dan and with me. It seems here the photo spot of choice is in front on the Makogai Maricultre Research sign. Everyone is so proud of the work they do here and the kids knew exactly where to go to get their photo. Of course I was delighted that Tamekai and Kara allowed me to get a photo with them as well. I learned much from them and hopefully they gleaned just a smidgen or two from me. I know that I personally will never forget this afternoon or the amazing kindness they have showed us. As we left our friends and headed back to Dazzler both of us were feeling rather blessed to have shared these moments with these wonderfully kind people.

Until next time,

Jilly & Dan

Author: Dan & Jilly

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