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Lepers & Giant Clams, Oh My!

The time has come to continue moving throughout this beautiful country. We’ve seen so much here at Vanua Levu that we feel we are ready to start making our way south and west. Today we said goodbye to the local friends we’ve made here in Savusavu and headed out. 

Just about 27 NM south of Savusavu is the small island of Koro. There are a couple of resorts on the west side of the island and there’s a nice little cove you can tuck into where they have mooring balls. We arrived late in the afternoon and picked up a mooring. We were the only boat there so we had the entire place to ourselves. NICE!

From what we understand a few years ago the Kepalangi (white people) began buying up property here to build their vacation and retirement homes. Let’s be clear. Non-Fijians can’t actually buy property here but you can purchase a 99-year lease. It’s pretty obvious when you see the homes dotting the shore and scattered across the hill that the people buying up the property were planning a very well to do resort like atmosphere. Apparently, however, their love of island living didn’t last as long as they expected and many of them have vacated their homes so there are many standing empty. Even one of the resorts is currently on the market so if you have an extra $2.5M lying around maybe you could get a good deal.

Anyway, we only stayed for the night and no one ever came out to collect any money for the mooring. Quite frankly the place looked all but deserted. We saw a small fishing boat out fishing the reef and a couple of kayaks but that’s it. There were no people walking the beach nor was there any noise from generators for that matter. 

The following morning we set out for Makogai Island. (prounonced Mako’nai) I was so excited to get to this place. This place is known for their giant clams. Yes, clams as big as people! It’s the stuff movies are made of and I couldn’t wait to get there to see these things. But, there is a lot more to Makogai Island than giant clams. 

Approaching Makogai.

Makogai actually has a very interesting past. From 1911 to 1969 it was a Leper Colony. They brought Lepers here from all over the world. As we entered the bay I had to kind of chuckle as I remember my Daddy always saying, “Well, it could be worse you could be living in a leper colony.” My guess is that Daddy never saw one because this is one amazing and beautiful island! 😄

After arriving and partaking in some anchor down libations we put the dinghy in the water and prepared to head to shore. No longer a leper colony, Makogai is now a government island with a marine research station and even though this is a government village and not a traditional one, sevusevu is still expected. Once again I donned my layers of clothes to cover my knees and shoulders. Within seconds every inch of my skin began to glisten as all of my sweetness started oozing out from every pore. But, it’s a tradition and we must do the right thing. So, onward Christian soldiers…onward!

It was a bit tricky to get to shore as the tide was low and coral surrounds the beaches. After a bit of searching we found a very narrow channel through the coral next to the concrete pier. Dan pulled the anchor onto the coral sand beach and we made our way up the beach. We started to look for someone to lead us to the man who runs the village. There was a young man in his late 20’s or early 30’s mowing the grass. He stopped and came over to introduce himself.

The man’s name is Seru. He’s sort of like the Taraga Ni Koro for this village. I say sort of because as I mentioned, this is a government island. The village where we anchored is full of government workers and Seru is one of them. These people are part of the marine research station here. Only some live here full time. Most, like Seru, come in for two weeks each month. Here they are cultivating giant clams, coral and they even have a sea turtle hatchery. They are very devoted to protecting the marine environment.

Us with Seru.

Seru led us across the lawn to some plastic chairs that sat under a tin roofed structure. After presenting our kava, Seru offered to give us a tour of the island. First up was the marine facility. Now, when I say facility you’re probably thinking of a place with large tanks and things like that. Well, that’s not really what we saw. There are several long concrete wells and a couple of round tanks too. Only a few of these tanks/wells had water in them.

One of the round tanks had about a dozen baby sea turtles in it. Another tank had a dozen or so juvenile clams that were about a four or five inches long. Each one had a different colored mantel (lips). Also inside this tank was a really odd looking blue spotted stingray. Neither of us had ever seen on before so that was a bit of a treat in itself.

Blue spotted stingray

Since the marine facility is rather small the tour only took about fifteen minutes. Afterward Seru took us through the jungle to see the Leper Stones. These are the gravesites of many of the Lepers who died here. Along the way we saw remnants of buildings that were once part of the hospital including part of a movie theater. The jungle, however, is an unrelenting beast that takes over every stationary object in its path so very little of the buildings are still visible. Even so, it was a wonderful and FLAT walk through the village and jungle.

When we returned from our hike we were treated to our very first kava ceremony. This is typically a part of the sevusevu but we’ve found at many of the villages they they don’t seem to want to share the kava we bring to them. Here it was much different. They invited us to sit on a large woven mat in the grass. Here one man had a large bowl sitting on the ground, he poured water out of a bucket into the bowl. Then he had a muslin bag about 5” x 10” that had the ground kava inside. He soaked the bag in the water then squeezed it. Similar to what happens when you squeeze a tea bag, the muddy colored water would ooze out of the bag. It looked like muddy water from a dirty river. He did this for quite some time as we chatted. Then it was time to drink. He filled a half of a coconut shell with the liquid and handed it to Dan. Dan was told to to clap once, say “Bula” then drink the entire contents of the shell in one gulp. Then he was told to clap three times, as do we all, and he handed the cup back to the guy mixing the kava. Next it was served to the Taraga Ni Koro with the same things occurring. Then it came to me. Each time everyone clapped and followed the ceremonial tradition.

The kava looks awful and doesn’t really taste great but it’s not that bad either. It makes your tongue and lips feel numb. We had many cups of kava with them over the course of an hour and a half or so. Eventually we started to feel uber relaxed and kind of jelly like. That’s when we decided it was time to return to Dazzler. Of course before standing it’s tradition to ask permission. With permission granted we knelt before the men, shook their hands and said our goodbyes. All in all it was a very cool afternoon with some amazing people. They treated us just like family and just until you hear about our next trip ashore with these fabulous people!

Until next time,

Jilly & Dan

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We’re Celebrities!

SV SuAn leaving Navatu Bay

After meeting the people of the village in Navatu Bay we were excited to visit more of these island villages here in Fiji. This is, after all, why we travel in the first place. So, this morning we hauled our anchors and set off to Nadi Bay which is just a short 20 miles or so away. We motored the entire way because there wasn’t even a whisper of wind. In fact it was so calm that it was hard to tell where the ocean stopped and the sky began but still it was a beautiful trip as we snaked our way through the treacherous reefs. I must be getting used to this whole reef business because the sphincter factor remained a cheery yellow the entire time. Either I’m getting used to it or I was so calm because SV SuAn was leading the charge and I knew that as long as we followed them they would hit the reef first. HA HA HA

We arrived in the bay shortly after noon and dropped our anchors in about 8 meters of very good holding sand and mud. There is a large reef that extends out from the shore so we had to anchor further out than normal which will make the ride in to the village take a bit. The good news is that it should keep the mosquitoes away from the boat. Most mornings and evenings we’ve had to put our screens in the companionway to prevent those nasty pests from attacking. We’ve been warned of Dengue Fever. Apparently in Savusavu they currently have 28 cases. For those who are asking, yes, you can get vaccinated against it but when we were in México and inquired about it we where told the shot would cost something like $1500 USD per person so we decided to take our chances.

Anyway, here we are in this most beautiful anchorage with a large village set on the northern shore of the bay. After enjoying a couple of anchor down beverages we set off to shore. As we approached the village there were several men in the water. One was riding a horse in the water and others were attending to a small fishing boat that was moored there. Everyone smiled and waved as we made our way to the beach.

Once on the beach we were greeted in a most grand fashion. There must have been fifteen young men in their twenties all waiting to greet us. Each shook our hands and told us their names and they all gave us such warm and welcoming smiles. One young man barely let us get on the beach before he was asking to have his picture taken with us. Yes, believe it or not, he had a smartphone and couldn’t wait to take a selfie with the Kepelangis. Of course we happily obliged.

One dear young man took the lead and led us up the narrow, muddy path to the village. This village looked much like the one in Navatu. The houses are made of corrugated metal and are small with openings for windows and doors but few actual windows. There were lines and lines of drying clothes and people milling about as well as the obligatory dogs. Each person we passed stopped to shake our hands and welcome us to their village. They all told us their names but of course we met so many people we can hardly remember them.

The young man led us to the home of the Chief. We are greeted by a very pretty woman dressed in blue floral clothing. Her skirt is navy and pale blue flowers and her top is white with royal blue flowers. It’s very common here in the islands for them to mix up the prints. She was very well put together with a pretty matching necklace and earrings and she asked us to come into their home. Another woman in her late twenties or so with two small children was also inside. We can only assume she is their daughter. She was so excited to see us that she was literally beaming and jumping about giddy with happiness.

We were instructed to sit on the floor as usual and Lutz was told to place our Kava offering in front of the woman in blue. Suddenly I thought we may be in one of the rare villages where the Chief is a woman but we were then told she is the Chief’s wife and that the Chief is out working in the farm but would be home later.  After some Fijian banter back and forth between the Chief’s wife and the young man who brought us there she tells us he will take us through the village to meet the Taraga Ni Koro. He’s the Chief’s first in command who will give us a tour of the village.

We were offered a Mango flavored juice. This put each of us on edge a bit as we were told by the Health Officials when we checked into the country that we should always drink bottled water. I watched as the young woman put a powdered mix into a used plastic coke bottle and then filled it with water from their sink. Unfortunately it is almost impossible to say no to these people and quite frankly it would appear rude so we all drank the orange colored drink and prayed no one would get sick. 

We learned that the village has around 260 people in 48 homes. There’s a school here that has 130 students of which many come from nearby villages. There are eight teachers at the school and from what we saw, they are mostly men. They have solar power as usual but they are only allowed to have power from 1900 to 2200 hours each evening unless a family can afford to pay for power. Most cannot afford it.

And while we asked many questions there were two that we asked that revealed rather shocking answers. We asked how many boats come into their bay and how many of the boaters actually come into the village. Shockingly we found that so far this season fifteen boats have anchored in the bay yet we were the first cruisers to actually come ashore to the village.

As I discussed in the last article, there is a custom that should be adhered to here in the islands. That custom dictates that as visitors we are to go ashore with a gift and ask permission from the Chief to anchor in their bays. The gift is typically Kava root but could be just about anything from sugar, flour, tea and rice to books or school supplies. The point is that you don’t just come here with this entitlement attitude. This is their country and their rules and customs should be followed. Furthermore, what is the point of cruising and visiting other lands if you don’t actually take time to get to know the people there?

The fact that so many cruisers come here expecting to take and do whatever suits them is not one that sits well with any of us. It, in fact, makes us all look like rude, selfish tourists. We’ve already seen in Tonga how this has made many of the Tongans not like the cruisers at all. Our request from any cruisers making their way through the islands is to please take the time to do what’s right and customary for the locals. They are kind and welcoming and you owe it to them to respond in kind and follow their customs.

After spending fifteen or twenty minutes with the Chief’s family we were led back out through the village with the young man who had led us up from the beach. As we walk through the village we eventually meet up with the Taraga Ni Koro. He welcomes us with a big smile and handshake. He tells us he will take us up to the school. Along the way each and every villager stops what they are doing and comes out to greet us. It’s hard not to feel like some sort of celebrity as we walk along.

Just before we reached the fence at the edge of the schoolyard we stop and they show us a small greenhouse filled with saplings from a tree of which, I apologize, I can’t remember the name. They grow these trees for the seeds they produce. These reddish purple colored seeds, when crushed, produce an oil that is used in perfumes. This, along with fishing is what supports this village.

The next stop is the school. It sits on the top of the hill and is rather large compared to those we’ve seen in other villages. Of course with 130 students it has to be large. As we enter through the gate the first thing we see is a large field used for athletics. To the east end is a very torn and ragged volleyball net and it’s just near that edge of the field where there is a small building that houses the kindergarten. This is where we are led first.

The teacher here has twelve students who come to school from 0800 to 1200 each day. It’s a very small building but she has it nicely decorated for the children and just as you’d see in any school anywhere, there is artwork on the walls that was created by her students. There are three children there who are excited by our presence and begin coloring for us.

Top Left is the kindergarten teacher with three of her students. To the right the men sit outside of the kindergarten discussing the village. Bottom left is Lutz, Gabi & Dan with some of our wonderful hosts. The man in blue is the Taraga Ni Koro.

The children from the big school are let out for recess as we are at the kindergarten. Before we know it there are children covering the field. The boys are playing rugby and the girls are playing volleyball. All of them are constantly stopping to stare at the four white people at the edge of the field. Along the way up to the school Dan stops to play a little volleyball with the girls. They all giggle as he and the Taraga Ni Koro join in their game.

Further up the hill is the main school. Here we are greeted by two very nice gentlemen. One is named Mac and again, sorry, but I don’t remember the other’s name. By this point we’d met well over fifty people. We spend a half hour or so talking with them about the village, schooling and the challenges they face. One of their biggest needs is books for the children. These could be any sort of books, dictionaries or textbooks or even books meant for casual reading. They asked if we have anything like that on board which unfortunately we do not. We did tell them, however, that we will be coming back this way next year and will do what we can to bring supplies and books to their village. After all, they have all been so kind to us. If we can bring some supplies to help them, we would be honored to do so.

After our school visit we head back down through the village. Once again the villagers stop what they are doing to come out and talk with us. They are really too kind. Just as we are about to the end the of the village tour we come across their vorlo (meeting house). It is brimming with activity. Women are scurrying about like ants and it’s obvious something big is taking place. One woman asks me to come inside and take some photos and wow, what a treat! As I walk through the door of this long building there are women sitting on the floor on either side of the doorway. In front of them are several very large pots. Each is filled with some type of food I’ve never seen before. The only thing I recognize is fish and it’s small fish approximately six inches long. It looks just as it did when it was fished out from the ocean. It is whole and their glassy eyes are looking a bit frosted over.

The women at the pots are scooping the food onto plates and passing them to others who are then placing the plates on the long mats. It’s a well-oiled machine even though it appears a bit chaotic to an outsider. Around the edges of the room there are men sitting and even sleeping on the floor as they await the feast that is about to be served to them.

Back outside a mob of school children have found us and are all clamoring for our attention. They all want to have their photos taken. Once you take photos they immediately want to see them. I’m not sure if it is the feast about to be served or the spectacle of us but more and more villagers begin to arrive. We met one particularly well-spoken man, Benjimi, who has been in the village for several days. He and his group are evangelists there to preach to the villagers. He asks us to join them in their feast, however, the tide is dropping quickly and we need to get back to the dinghy and get out before we have to carry it across the huge reef so we thank him but politely decline.

The young lady in blue is Gracie….my helper!

It’s time now to leave these wonderful people so we are led back down the hill to the shore. When we reach the muddy, somewhat slippery part of the path I comment to Dan that I hope I won’t fall. Before I know it a lovely young lady, Gracie, about eight or ten years old, grabs my left hand and begins to escort me down the path. She looks up at me with her beautiful brown eyes and infectious smile and says, “Don’t worry, I won’t let you fall.” It’s at this moment that I realize I have reached the age where children actually think of me as elderly.  Thankfully I’m too happy to dwell on that fact now. I’m sure there will be plenty of time for that later.

By the time we reach the shore there are probably twenty-five children and a half a dozen men there to see us off. They help us to push the dinghy out and we say our goodbyes and thank them all for the wonderful visit to their village. As we pull away the entire crowd is yelling, “moce”and waving. It is a scene I don’t think we will ever forget and I wonder as we are leaving if the cruisers who just anchor in these bays and refuse to visit the villagers really know what they are missing. 

How could you not want to come ashore and visit these amazing people?

Until next time,

Jilly & Dan