Friday, 3 January 2014

Reece's Place 1

                                   Reece’s Place

   “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet...”
                                          Rudyard Kipling, The Ballad of East and West

The big Fijian island of Viti Levu is divided by more than its central mountain range, and West is East, and East is South. Robyn and I found out about the West is East part, during a two-week Fiji diversion, on our way to begin a new life in New Zealand. We landed at Nadi’s airport at the same time we would always land at Nadi’s airport- in the heaviest frangipani-laden tropical torpor of a Southern Sea predawn. We carried our packs and lethargy onto the tarmac, and into the dimly-lit incandescence of the shabby open terminal. We were greeted by massive moths on mustard walls, and massive black men, with massive black brillo hair. A deep resonant noise came out of the blue shirt and white triangle-hemmed sulu skirt, who took our passports.
“Bula.” He said, stamping them with such force that the imprint, but for the fixed date, might have been good for a few more arrivals. Colorful posters were tacked on the walls, warning of AIDS and elephantiasis. Outside, the insect swarms around the streetlights grew smaller with the increasing crimson of the horizon, and the flame trees that burst into the day, along the curb. Robyn and I had landed on the Cannibal Isles. All we needed now, were cannibals. Instead, a thin dark moustache pulled his car alongside, and rolled down his window, like he was using his last ounce of energy. A flock of mynas, black heads on chocolate brown bodies, squawked and foraged around us.
“Nadi town?” Asked the Indian taxi driver. West is East. We negotiated a price that converged on correct, when his head bobbled, and piled in the back. He drove out of the airport slowly.
“First time to Fiji?” He said. But he didn’t really care.
I was reminded of what James Mitchener had written. It is almost impossible to like the Indians of Fiji. They are suspicious, vengeful, whining, unassimilated, provocative aliens in a land where they have lived for more than seventy years. They hate everything: black natives, white Englishmen, brown Polynesians and friendly Americans. They will not marry with Fijians, who they despise. They avoid English ways, which they abhor. They cannot be depended on to support necessary government policies. Above all, they are surly and unpleasant. It is possible for a traveler to spend a week in Fiji without ever seeing an Indian smile. I wasn’t convinced that any of this was true and, if it was, I had some understanding of why.
The tragedy of Fiji’s Indians began in 1879, with the arrival of the Leonidas, a Mayflower of misery, bringing 463 indentured workers from Calcutta to the sugarcane plantations beyond the port of Levuka. It was the predecessor of other labor transport ships that would land another sixty thousand over the next 37 years. Indentured Hindus and Moslems from Madras and Calcutta were herded down into the lower decks of these coolie ships. The women were often victims of sexual predation by the European crew. Condemned to eat, sleep, and sit amid their own waste, many did not survive the long brutal ‘middle passage.’ Their dead bodies were unceremoniously thrown overboard. Every one of them had signed agreements, which they knew as ‘girmits,’ requiring them to live in the squalid shacks and work in the cane fields for five years, before their bond would be repaid, until the planter paid their passage home. It seldom happened. Their descendents were called ‘girmityas,’ like the one driving our taxi.
“The Polynesians brought black rats, and the British planters brought us, and the mongoose to kill the rats in the cane fields.” He said. “But the mongoose is awake during the day, and the rats are awake during nighttime. They never meet.”
Just like the Indians and the Fijians. I asked how everyone was getting along.
“The situation is dormant.” He said, like he was describing a volcano. The Prime Minister at the time was Major-General Sitiveni Ligamamada Rabuka, OBE, MSD, OStJ, otherwise know as Colonel Steve Rambo. Rambo had previously staged two military coups the year before we arrived, and was on record as wanting to ‘send the Indians home,’ even the ones that had been born in Fiji. The Indians considered the Fijians ‘jungalis,’ poor backward hillbillies occupying the southern coasts and mountains, and the capital of Suva. East is South. Mitchener liked the Fijians as much as he disliked the Indians. It is doubtful if anyone but an Indian can dislike Fijians. They are immense Negros modified by Polynesian blood. They wear their hair frizzled straight out from the head...They are one of the happiest peoples on earth and laugh constantly.
In some peculiar Disney fashion, the unintended admixture of Fijians and Indians worked for us, tempering happy, sleepy and dopey Melanesian dysfunction, with an Indian dose of bashful, grumpy and stealthy Indian efficiency.
Our taxi turned off onto a dusty side road lined with multicolored Bougainvillea, yellow orchids, red hibiscus, bananas, palms and papayas, and pulled up in front of a white trellised façade. There was a hand painted sign above the entrance. Sunseekers.
“It is the most economical hostel in town.” Said our driver. We paid him, and entered to a hospitable reception, scoring the only double room in a ramshackle rabbit warren of dorm beds. I locked the door with our own padlock, and Robyn and I headed back down the lane, across the Nadi River Bridge, and down the single market street of double-storied pastel houses, demarcated by external air conditioners, like rows of double-six dominoes. The shops sold clothing and jewelry and too many duty-free tchotchkes and trinkets, heavy on the trinkets. The largest emporium of artifacts and handicrafts and souvenirs was Jack’s of Fiji. Robyn and I entered the air-con, to look at jack shit. Inside were brash Australians, sizing up the Kava tanoas for salad bowels, and the hardwood cannibal weaponry for serving implements. I picked up an iculanibokola replica, the multipronged fork that had been used by attendants, for feeding chiefs considered too holy to touch their own food. I seemed to have touched off a homing signal, and was immediately surrounded by several Indian floor staff.
“Fork.” Said the tall one who had closed the gap the fastest. “For eating.”
“For eating people.” I said. Head bobbles all round.
“You are needing one perhaps?” Another asked.

“Perhaps.” I said, picking my teeth with a fingernail, and watching them all back away.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Aground in the Abode of Love 8

                    “You can throw your luggage down
                     Lose your cool and stomp around
                     But there's nothin', nothin' you can do
                     Wipe away your girlfriend's tears
                     Go to the bar and have some beers
                     There ain't no way that bird's gettin' through”
                                          Jimmy Buffett, No Plane on Sunday

They sent a dump truck. We certainly hadn’t expected that. Robyn and I were back out at Fua’amotu International airport, on a day when the King had parked his bicycle. We were scheduled to leave Tongatapu, back to Fiji, on to Canada, into the blue again after the money’s gone. It was time for us to ‘get on with it,’ get on with the rest of our lives. But time, as it turned out, was holding us, and holding us back, after all.
No one saw it coming. From where we were, at the ticket counter, more importantly, nothing was leaving. Air Pacific, Fiji’s national airline, had just experienced a wildcat pilot’s strike, and we were aground in the Abode of Love.
The fat Flying Dutchman ahead of us in the queue hadn’t started there. He had pushed his way there, because of his obviously greater importance, relative to ours. He was an important businessman, he said, waving his obviously important arms around the solid head cube of muscle, on the other side of the desk. He needed to get out of Tonga, and he needed to get out today, and what was the solid head cube of muscle going to do about it. The solid head cube of muscle smiled. The fat Flying Dutchman wasn’t flying today. In fact, it wasn’t clear when any of us would fly. The strike could last several weeks. And the only place any of us were going, was the International Dateline. Not the dateline itself, the International Dateline Hotel. The fat Flying Dutchman was angry that he had just come from there. Robyn and I were delighted, that our trip had just been bumped into business class. It still might all be worth the price of the flight cancellation.
And that’s where the dump truck came onto the scene. The fat Flying Dutchman had already secured his taxi back to the Dateline, and he wasn’t in the mood to share his ride. Robyn and I may have been promoted to the best hotel in the country to wait out the flight delay, but no one had told Air Pacific that they owed us a deluxe way to get there. We piled our packs in the back of the dump truck, and roared the 35 kilometers back into and through the vowel-saturated streets of Nuku’alofa, to beat the fat Flying Dutchman, by a hair. It seems that his taxi driver was on a meter, and in no particular hurry, given the fact that there were no passengers at the airport from any incoming flight, whereas out dump truck driver had other places to go, and people to meet. Call it differential motivation. Of course this didn’t matter to the fat Flying Dutchman. He pushed his way in front of us again, at the Dateline Hotel reception, because of his obviously greater importance, relative to ours. He was an important businessman, he said, waving his obviously important arms around the solid head cube of muscle, on the other side of the desk. The solid head cube of muscle gave him back his room, but it wouldn’t be cleaned for several hours, as they hadn’t expected his return. From the look on the face of the solid head cube of muscle, no one was likely to be in a hurry to accommodate him, likely because of their recent experience with him, whereas Robyn and I were brand new appreciative faces, and our room was ready for us, because Air Pacific was paying.
“Up deah.” The solid head cube of muscle pointed. “Turd floah, tree-too-tree.” And we carried our own bags up the stairs.
What Air Pacific was paying for was not only the room, but the meals as well. Which was about to sound the death knell for Air Pacific. For on the menu, among more plebian business fare, was an item that, since my marriage to a beautiful New Zealander, I had come to appreciate as one of the four basic Kiwi food groups. Crayfish. Big, tender, succulent, delicious lemon and butter and sauvignon blanc-compatible crayfish. At the International Dateline Hotel, although crayfish was only listed on the lunch and dinner menus, our first discovery was that, as long as Air Pacific was paying, they would serve it for breakfast as well. Robyn and I ate big crayfish for breakfast at a table by the pool, next to the fat Flying Dutchman, whose breakfast was toast.
If the time in Greenwich was mean time, the time at the Dateline, on the opposite side of the world was not only kind, it was fabulous. Every day, Robyn and I would wake up and have crayfish for breakfast. We would swim in the pool, and lounge around the pool, until it was time for lunch. We had the crayfish. In the afternoon, we would swim in the pool, or lounge around the pool, until it was time for dinner. Then we would have the crayfish. And so it went for us, aground in the Abode of Love. Letting the days go by, letting the days go by, letting the days go by, once in a lifetime.
Every morning we would check in with the front desk staff, to see how the pilot strike was doing. Every day we would find out the pilot strike was going well. And we would retreat back to the seemingly unending pleasures of swimming and sunbathing and crayfish.
One morning we went to the Friendly Islands Marketing Cooperative, to look at their handicrafts. In a country that produced nothing but banana-shaped postage stamps, Protected Persons Passports, and expatriate Tongans, handicrafts were the biggest local business going. The bone and wood carving, weaving, and tapa cloth were finely done, but the baskets were truly amazing, and Robyn and I bought two, to take home. Which was exactly the problem because, after a week of indulgence at the International Dateline Hotel, we were still castaways, and not only becoming shipwrecks, but at risk of becoming truly amazing basket cases. I couldn’t swim another length, check out another beach towel, or look at another crayfish. In Polynesian, Tonga meant ‘south,’ where nothing and everything appeared to be headed. The only fun left was watching the fat Flying Dutchman decompensate slightly ahead of us.
And then, just when we thought we were marooned forever, the word came one evening that Air Pacific was sending a special charter flight next morning, to rescue us from paradise. At dinner we celebrated with crayfish. Next morning we bid farewell to the reception staff, and climbed into the back of our dump truck, for the return journey to the airport. Robyn had suggested that I dress up, ‘in case of an upgrade.’ I told her we didn’t stand a chance, but I was wrong. Beyond the ticket counter, beyond the duty free, was a ramp to business class, and a new beginning.
Things didn’t go too well for the Dateline, or the Abode of Love, after we left. Thirteen years after our salvation, the International Dateline Hotel was sold to the People’s Republic of China. Five new clocks appeared behind the front desk, the biggest one in the center showing Beijing time. The Chinese manager was unavailable, and spoke no English. The swimming pool was closed because of an outbreak of disease. It was apparently bought to introduce the Tongans to the concept of Chinese fishing rights, and anger.
In 2006 riots broke out in downtown Nuku’alofa, killing six people and destroying eighty per cent of the central business district.
Puleʻanga Fakatuʻi ʻo Tonga, a kingdom which had never been invaded, occupied, colonized, immigrated to, or invested in, which had no desire to look beyond its own archipelago of 176 islands scattered over 700,000 square kilometers of remote Southern Sea, was about to have its vowels replaced by glottal stops and palatal glides and alveolar sibilants and tones and retroflex consonants, and its pa’anga currency replaced by renminbi.
Back in the palangi sky-bursting Business Class, Robyn and I were seated across from the fat Flying Dutchman.
“How did you get up here?” He asked.
Almost unconsciously, from my daypack, I pulled out my translucent castaway from the deep, the most spectacular gigantic spotted cowrie.
“Where do you get that?” He asked.
“King.” I said.
We had the crayfish.

                            “No plane on Sunday
                             Maybe be one come Monday
                             Just a hopeless situation
                             Make the best of it's all you can do
                             'til they get through”
                                     Jimmy Buffett, No Plane on Sunday

Tongan Girls Juggling

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Aground in the Abode of Love 7

As I sang, I thought of the riddles that the princess to which she had demanded Turandot’s answers. The first, ‘What is born each night and dies each dawn?’ could have only been ‘hope.’ The answer to the second, ‘What flickers red and warm like a flame, but is not fire?’ I remembered as ‘blood.’ But then, I never got to the third riddle, did I? Because I also remembered, that, while I was having the most wonderful time of my life singing operatic arias at the top of my lungs inside Mariner’s Cave, everyone on the boat outside Mariner’s Cave was waiting for me to emerge. I had no way of knowing, of course, that Robyn, especially, was flickering red and warm like a flame and, in fact, was afire, up top, and was almost beating the skipper around his head, in her frantic attempt to get him, or anyone else, to swim back into the cave, to see if I was still alive.
I bit into my snorkel, and drank in the only lungful of air I would be allowed to take onboard, for this long day’s return journey into daylight.
“Just hold your breath.” He said. I asked him for how long.
“Until you’re there.” He said. I asked him how I would know.
“You’ll be out of breath.” He said.
I swam towards the light. Just as I thought I was going to suffocate in one large saltwater gasp, my horizons widened out and up, and I surfaced onto an ocean of cursing and screaming. It was a rough ride back to the hilltop.
There was no way that Robyn and I, nor Jean Pierre and Maria, as couples or even collectively, could have afforded to rent a sailboat. The islands around Vava'u were the most pristine examples of idyllic South Pacific paradise that we would ever see. And it almost didn’t happen that we saw them. A wayward Spanish couple fixed that for us. We met them outside the Morris Hedstrom corned beef concession one morning. They told us they had a sailboat and, for fifteen dollars a head, they would take us on a day trip around the islands, and include a fish barbeque in the price. We quickly agreed.
Nothing quite prepared us for the experience, however. They had left Spain some fifteen years earlier, and had been trying for almost as long, to make enough money to sail home. I did the math in my head, and decided they would likely be here awhile. Their sails were original, but now the same Joseph coat of many colors as their frayed and tattered clothing, patched and quilted into a psychedelic rainbow of their nautical and personal history. It was as if Picasso had painted their trip on their canvas. But, as thin and gaunt as they were, they were also as good as their word, and we were once again the pirates, siphoning off Spanish treasure, at two bucks an hour. They sailed us through the most magnificent tropical dreamworld, of palms and frangipanis and clear liquid lagoons, to islands like little pancakes of white sand and whiter surf, where forests and other caves and serenity waited. They juggled coconuts, like the Tongan women used to, and caught parrotfish the same colors as their sails, with their held breaths and spear guns, and grilled them over an open fire on some secluded beach, on an island without a name. We were all deliriously and deliciously happy.
Live like a captain. Play like a pirate.

            “Letting the days go by, let the water hold me down
             Letting the days go by, water flowing underground
             Into the blue again after the money's gone
             Once in a lifetime, water flowing underground”
                                              Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime

'Stories of the Southern Sea' is now available on Amazon