Of Pastors and Pastels – Fiji Newsletter 5

Bula !

I know how this newsletter will end. Not Moce, goodbye to Fiji, but Sota Tale, see you again. You taught more than any other place the importance and the potency of impermanence.

But first there is a story to tell.

I will start with the highway that I fell in love with, hard as it is to convince anyone that I have fallen in love with a highway. But a highway seduces you if it has a heart, which this one did. This highway, my favourite highway, is called the Hibiscus Highway. It starts at Cousteau anchorage, where I last left you, and meanders for five kilometres along the Lesiaceva Peninsula down a shady tarmacked road to Savusavu. Once it gets to Savusavu it no longer holds its charm. Its charm is in the getting there.

Along this highway you will encounter a purple grey heron about to take off, allowing you to get closer than the usual distance to herons, almost like you will become friends, and then it will take off. You will see houses crouched on one side of the highway in multiple hues, up on the hill, while across the road a patch of grass and palm trees tumble into hot steaming black volcanic rocks, and soft white coral sand and turquoise waters. Tiger cats will chase Polynesian rats across this highway, who scurry up trunks of coconut trees, ravished with the scars of numerous thirsty Fijians hacking their way up into the fronds to catch their fruits. Chickens will lay eggs amongst the hibiscus and bougainvillea bushes, which will be gathered in the cool mornings and placed carefully in straw baskets over shoulders.

From balconies the wanderer will hear songs, Hindi, Fijian, reggae (lots of reggae!) and laughter. There will be scolding and the smell of curries, coconut, fish, and baked breadfruit, and these will waft after you, following you down the road like memories.

In the morning you will set off in its cool, by the afternoon you will walk while it steams. If you are hungry, you can gather bananas and paw paws from the wild trees on the seaside seeded from the gardens across the road on the hillside. I walked along this highway for kilometres, and each time I put one foot in front of the other, I fell more haphazardly in love with it, its turns ever hinting at another paradise just around the corner, another scene of plenty; its hot tarmac sucking in cooling sea breezes to the glades which mercifully shade you from the slicing sun. Dazzling chalk white boats rest on blue, and you have before you miles and miles of walking to go, step upon step.

  

  

Every favourite place has its time for goodbye and so did this one, though we were convinced that we would never see such a place again. And yet we did – further places awaited us, equally as beautiful, some more delightful and one holding a marvellous coincidence.

Our next port of call was the bay of Vianni, encircled by waters rushing through the channel between the mountainous and green garden island of Taveuni and Vanua Levu, producing the blooming of corals of all kinds and some of the best diving and snorkelling in the world. It is also one of the places where one of the most devastating rotating storms ever known to the southern hemisphere, indeed the world, landed – Cyclone Winston.

Its devastation was no more telling than in sitting in Nessie’s kitchen looking through the remains of her kitchen wall, Winston having obliterated most of her house. After Winston blew through, pieces of her house were salvaged from the local area, and some walls rebuilt, but there was never enough wood to fully rebuild the kitchen, so for the last six years Nessie had cooked outside.

I sat in the remaining structure of her once indoor kitchen, amongst her drying laundry, and drew her uncle’s house next door, which mostly survived the storm. Nessie’s cousin Charlene lived there too with her father, and she and her son joined me in drawing. Thus we spent the morning together speaking in broken Fijian and English. Although I tried to convince them to hang their work on their remaining walls, they were more interested in giving things to us, so we left with lemongrass and pawpaws and their drawings, and a poignant memory of the incredible devastation.

  

  

The photos were taken by my friend Carolyn, sailing from Europe to Australia for her second time. Meeting up with us in Vianni Bay – after meeting us the first time on the island of Graciosa in the Canary Islands thirteen years previous – she is now an avid diver and brilliant underwater photographer (and if you like photos of corals you must check out her Instagram on @carolynspictures). Amongst her many skills, she is a master at riding longboats, and shopping for food in Pacific Islands, so took me with her on a choppy and madcap longboat ride to shop for fresh veggies on the island of Taveuni.

  

Amongst the revelry of seeing old friends and new, practicing yoga, drawing, snorkelling and hiking, it rained. It easily rained five times in a day, Taveuni trapping the rain clouds and squeezing them dry to blow down on us five miles across the bay. It was time to seek and find drier climes.

  

Our next passage was a windy and quick one, with fifteen to twenty knots on our beam and a smooth sea, catapulting us forward at 8-9 knots to Makogai, an intriguing island far enough off the coast of Vitu Levu to have been deemed safe to house a leper colony at the turn of the twentieth century. Once the leper colony disbanded, for fifty years it has focussed on aquaculture, and has been raising giant clams and planting corals to replant on distant islands since. Currents gushed through the breaks in the islands and reefs, cleaning the bay every six hours, making it perfect for an aquaculture outpost, and even more perfect for snorkelling.

Makogai held so many delights, it was hard to know where to start. When we arrived, we were the second boat in the anchorage, and with a few helpful words from our neighbours, anchored in 18 m on a sandy bottom. They soon left and we had the whole place to ourselves. Two children, Usa and Mai, helped land our dinghy and take us to the village chief, Usa’s father. However, due to the concentration required to fix their intransigent generator (made more complicated due to the fact all instructions were in Chinese), for the moment we were advised to meet with Joe instead. Convivial, halfway through university, happy for a chat, Joe took us to the clam beds and told us the story of the island – gleaning as much as he could from the remains of the leper colony, the graveyard, and the remarkable Cinema which took a whole football field in space, presumably so the colony would stay abreast of the latest from Hollywood.

 

The clam factory was run from the aquaculture office high on a hill, where we surveyed the village below. To the left were vine covered mounds and to the right the new town built after Winston destroyed the original, with a few remnants of the old town here and there the storm had mercifully left behind.

‘Is there nothing left of the original town other than that?’ I asked Joe.

‘Nothing. Nothing except what is buried under these vines.’ And he swept his hand to the left.

On the left were mounds revealing eerie shapes of the old village, torn to shreds by the winds and then buried by the vines, already so overgrown little could be seen beneath despite it being only six years since Winston had hit.

They hid in here, he pointed, and we turned to look at the square cement blocks half buried by the hill.

(And not three years after Winston my good friends on Nanuya Island, Lo and her family, had lost their business with Cyclone Yassa which, hard to believe, did more damage to Fiji than Winston. And when it did Prime minister Bainimarama simply tweeted ‘This is not normal, this is a climate emergency’.)

 

Along with the usual sevusevu ritual and request to anchor, I also had requested permission to draw, and this was, as usual, not only granted, but wholeheartedly encouraged, with requests to involve all the children. By this time, I had sought and bought school art supplies in Nadi for every grade of school, and brought them with me in the dingy the next morning.

Imagine my surprise and delight when half the village turned out to draw!

We found our spot on a rickety wooden platform worn grey with the sun, and shaded in the early morning by a stout trunked tree with shiny green leaves growing out of one of the original homes before Winston. As three of the ‘children’ were fully grown women, I could hardly play my usual card to keep them from touching my pastels – that they are poison (which many are!) – so I tentatively shared my pastels with them, instructing them on how to hold them, use them and to wash their hands afterwards!

Most of the children drew with the crayons I had brought and we passed the memorable morning drawing, me teaching them more or less useful drawing techniques when I remembered, and drawing them intently drawing me most of the time. It was one of the most pleasant mornings of I have had, and I was really happy with my work, especially drawing the scarves and sulus on Sara and Sarafina.

  

We all got hungry and restless when the sun got high, so we broke for lunch, me back to the boat to eat salad and they to their curries with fish and coconut milk.

After lunch we couldn’t wait to jump in the water and there we found a dazzling array of corals and fish; this place remains for me the VERY BEST of the snorkelling we have seen in Fiji. The dock was surrounded by old hospital beds now growing baby clams with tiny corals planted into their bedsprings. Gigantic bommies peppered the rest of the shore with valleys and crevices where fish hid out and layers of coral grew.

The most beautiful coral was a large bulbous formation in the shape of a giant brain, covered with soft creamy yellow velvet-like moss, but hard underneath. Encrusted like jewels into the brains were brilliantly coloured fuzzy ‘worms’ of maroon and black and white swirled like a candy into a spiral; there were yellow and black and white spirals, orange and yellow spirals, and blue, white and black spirals, all of them like tiny scrubbing brushes that recoiled to the touch, disappearing into the brains.

Giant angel fish, bat fish, swarms of tiny electric blue fish, large coral bass, giant clams all made their appearance and danced in front of us. But the dearest, my most favourite fish of all, was my new friend the yellow box fish (although I didn’t know its name then). This egg yolk yellow fish was shaped like a rectangular box with rounded edges, which curved down into a delicate piglike snout, and, best of all and hard to believe, splattered with tiny black polka dots! Lest you think I am joking I refer you to this photograph below to prove this marvellous creature actually does indeed exist.

My relationship with this fish was such that I always knew where to find her and I imagined she knew when I was coming. Swim swim swim to the coral valley, go round the corner and there she always was. When she saw me, she darted quickly behind a coral outcrop and hid. And then, as if playing hide and seek, she would slowly swim out, glancing at me several times sideways before becoming brave enough and curious enough to peer at me square on, with a steady gaze – her little side fins flickering back and forth to hold her in one place. First a highway, now a fish. I was besotted, in love with strange things.

The afternoon was filled with volleyball and coconut milk. Using remnants of a fishing net, a staked out area on the grass, and a volleyball donated by a passing cruiser, a volleyball court was set up, and games began – mid-field in the aquaculture centre.

Forgetting I was as old as I was, I dived for balls on my knees like I was fifteen and still the captain of the junior girls volleyball team. But far more serious, and far more talented, were Sara and Sarafina, modestly self acclaimed field hockey stars, but absolutely deadly with a volleyball. Sulus tied around their legs didn’t stop them from dominating the court. After four aces, Sara relented and served underhand.

The game was heady, hot and hilarious and we were very thirsty at the end. This was Sarafina’s cue to teach Usa his coconut retrieval skills and she made him climb up into the tree and hack open coconuts for us. Working smarter not harder, they claimed, the girls then used a pole with Paul playing front and centre. I couldn’t stop laughing, and neither could they. I wish I could embed videos in this newsletter but I haven’t figured out how so pics will have to do:

  

  

So now here’s the coincidence. You will remember my lovely friend with the Fijian shoes… Well the most delightful fact for me was to discover that, circles within circles, Mere (cutting coconuts above) was from Raki Raki and when I said ‘Oh, we stayed there and loved it and met a wonderful man there, a special man, with special shoes!’ she said : ‘Show me the picture!’

Then she squealed with delight – for she knew him, she knew him well. ‘ He is a very nice man, and his name is Usa too. He is a Pastor in our church.’

And to me that explains what you can find in Fiji. A man, close to god, wandering along the sand, with his Fiji shoes.

….

The adventure continued the next day when we headed out across the island with varying accounts of how to get there – from the route taking only an hour, to the route never being used anymore and taking two hours or more. Stranded in tall grasses after two hours of bush bashing, we decided to give the other side a miss, however not before having discovered the ancient and eery extension of the leper colony – for Hindus – separated as it was, from the indigenous Fijians. It was an Indiana Jones experience as Paul crawled through every opening he could find.

  

Day three was more snorkelling before the afternoon’s drawing session began, starting with a hike up the hill to the office of the agricultural manager to get an excellent view down the hill to the clam beds. This time more people had joined the drawing party and any shyness they may have had with me disappeared altogether. We spread our drawing materials out and surveyed the scene around us – the buried village in the vines, the bay, the island further out protecting the coral beds, the green volcanic hills. They each decided to draw their village and Usa draw a beautiful rendering of the bay below.

The more we drew, the more excited they got. At first they used the crayons I had given them, but were pretty soon bored with that and far more interested in my chalk pastels. I can understand that. My chalk pastels are brilliantly coloured, pure pigment, hand rolled by special manufacturers, very hard to come by; some from Sennelier in France and some from a very special factory in the states requiring long waiting times and very special packaging.

I tentatively let one or two of the eldest try them, but after that it was too late. It was no holds barred, and they all joined the party, grabbing the different colours with enthusiasm. I urged them to be careful, but the more they enjoyed them, the more excited they became, the younger ones tossing them left and right, more in love with the brilliant marks they made, than with preserving anything left of them.

I winced more than once. I was torn. I love my pastels: brilliant, soft, delicious, expensive, hard won, ordered from overseas, lugged from Australia. And at the very same moment I loved their enthusiasm: for making art, for loving the brilliant Senellier Ultramarine as much as I did, and, most precious of all, my Terry Ludwig handmade array of warm and cool greens I so depend on for my palms and banana trees.

What was I to do? What was more important in that moment, their enthusiasm or the preservation of my materials?

It was not an easy question for me to answer. Both, really.

I took a deep breath, and explained how important these pastels were to me, how much care I took of them. I explained how I had them carefully arranged, warm to cool, dark to light. I explained how I carted them across every island I had visited, how they have their own special place on the boat, and how I keep them and care for them in a very special way.

Almost instantly they stopped and stared down at their hands, full of the smudges of crushed pastels. Then they looked up, their faces full of recognition and remorse. From then on, extremely carefully, almost reverently, they placed each pastel back into its position, one by one, meticulously cleaning each one before situating it gently in cool light area if it was a pale tourquoise, and in the warm darks if it was a chocolate brown… until every single one was accounted for.

Then the eldest of the younger lot got a big bowl with soap and they cleaned their hands, making sure they didn’t leave a speck of pastel dust on their palms, and especially making sure the younger ones were clean, before we trundled home, leaving our perch high on a hill.

And so I mused. Things are hard to come by, desired, precious. But also at the same time fleeting and ephemeral. As we continued our sailing journey back down the glorious Yasawa Islands, intermingled with snorkelling with the black and iridescent blue manta rays, this paradox consumed me, the juxtaposition of the importance and the impermanence of things.

We visited my good friend Lo again. She was delighted to see us, if a little surprised. A local tour company had started to rebuild her kitchen so she could serve donuts to guests if it rained, but it looked like it would be a long time before it was finished. The sign I painted her was in need of improvement and since she had a few other tasks for us, we returned again over three days, painting signs and chatting. This time I brought her and her father, whom I hadn’t realised till then was the local chief, some reading glasses. She was delighted with them and couldn’t stop posing in them.

‘You are making me fancy’, she laughed again and again. That is for sure, but she did the same for me – she made me a necklace and ankle bracelet which I treasure – and made me just as fancy and her!

  

  

She made us donuts again, and we wiled away the hours, speaking of getting old and fathers. She took care of her father, who could not move much because of the pain in his knees. He lay on a cot in the shade with the tropical breeze blowing through the bure and the sound of the ocean crashing below. Medical support may be plane rides away, but I couldn’t fathom a better way to get old and die than that.

This time saying goodbye to Lo was harder and we both cried when we left. I hope very much to see her again.

But I had to care for my father too. For three weeks now, ever since I had last spoken to him in Vianni Bay, I had known I had to get back to Canada. My father was dying from cancer and I wanted to see him before it was too late.

If nothing else Fiji had brought this simple fact sharply into focus.

In the shade of palms, swaying in a hammock, I spent my first three years, my mother raising just born twin brothers and my father tracking Russian spy satellites across the sky from the Atlantic and Pacific missile ranges in Barbados and the Big Island of Hawaii, oh so alert for nuclear attack.

The oceanic murmur of the palm leaves, as wind blew through their fronds and stopped and blew again, was the first language I learned.

In this tension between the existential threat of nuclear annihilation and a profound peace, I grew up.

This poem I wrote about my childhood, when my father served for NASA, was circling back to me now. Did Fijians feel this same kind of tension, the tension I felt growing up in the shadow of nuclear annihilation? Where one moment you have a village and next you don’t?

How precious some things were and how ephemeral others. The glasses were revered, the signs were coveted, the found shoes were delighted over, at the same time as the crushed pastels, the crushed villages, were fleeting. The love for the material was instant, visceral, of the moment, for the next moment they could be blown away.

How can you hold on to things when your home is under threat by storms that pass overhead not every hundred, not every ten years, but four?

And that is when the paradox hit me. How shaped by their environment Fijians were. Not just in the content of their stories and culture, but in what part of their culture they held dear. It was not so much the material that was revered, it was relationship: to others, to their family, to god, to village, to land. Even their language was shaped by it, for the first question always was: where are you from?

So many things in Fiji were fragile, vulnerable to a fickle and changing climate, it was as if in their impermanence they made what was important all the more potent.

And so when I left Fiji for Canada to see my father, for me, certainly,

it was not Moce, Fiji,

but Sota Tale.

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