Friday, 10 January 2014

Reece's Place 4

We awoke to clouds of noisy collared lories, kaleidoscopic flurries of purple parrot heads and bums, green necks and wings, red undercarriages and yellow beaks, all of them high-pitched shrieking that we were missing the best part of the day. We emerged to a profusion of birds that existed nowhere else in Fiji, or on earth- Kandavu Honeyeaters, Kandavu Fantails, Crimson Shining-Parrots, Velvet Whistling Doves, Scarlet Robins, Fan-tailed Cuckoos, Fiji Bush-Warblers, Fiji Shrikebills, Golden Whistlers, Polynesian Trillers, and Vanikoro Flycatchers, all of them found only on the Kandavu archipeligo. And this didn’t include the Collared Kingfishers, Pacific Swallows, Black-throated Shrikebills, and dozens of other birds, which were endemic to other parts of Fiji as well. Kandavu, in fact, was a destination for birders, divers, and nobody else, except us.
Mona had rung the big metal triangle, announcing her breakfast of babakau Fijian fried bread, fresh pawpaw and pineapple, watermelon and bananas, and lemon leaf tea, but Robyn and I had a gauntlet to run, before we would reach her kitchen. The gauntlet was real and metaphorical. Hundreds of loaded coconut trees were swaying in the breeze above us, like there was already kava inside their shells.
The coconut tree was originally from here in Melanesia, and had been named by the Portuguese, after their word for ‘head,’ from the size and the three small eyes. Coco. Across thousands of kilometers of the Southern Sea, adrift for as long as six months, a light and buoyant and highly water resistant coconut, beaching on some new shore, will put down roots from two of these eyes, and send a shoot up into the warm sunlight, from the third. Within six years it will have become a fruit-bearer, with a lifespan of a hundred years. Its first metaphor, that of the ultimate vehicle for self-sufficiency, is echoed in its Sanskrit name, ‘kalpa vriksha.’ Tree of life. The Fijians, and other islanders, pressed it for oil, scraped it for cream, and used it as fire fuel. Its husks were used as coir for ropes and mats, and sennit for twine. The trunk of the tree was used in construction, and the palm leaves were employed as roof thatch, and woven into baskets. Sap was fermented into palm wine and toddy, and the juice from the leaf stems made into palm sugar. There is only one species, found in a vast area all over the world, usually from 30° north of the equator to 30° south, but as far away as Norway. It is the most abundant single food tree in existence, contributing as much as forty percent of national income in some Pacific Island nations. It is a metaphor for their diaspora. In New Zealand, successful Island migrants are still know as ‘coconuts.’ It is a metaphor for salvation. It was here in Fiji, during World War II, that the liquid inside young coconuts was discovered as a substitute for blood plasma.
It is a symbol for wealth. Beginning in the 18th century, Europeans suffering a shortage of dairy fats in their home countries, and with the comparative expense of harvesting whale oil, discovered the preciousness of coconut oil, and the dried copra flesh it’s extraction left behind. It takes about six thousand full-grown coconuts to produce a ton of copra, with sixty million tons a year now produced in over eighty countries for the production of soap and shampoo and detergent and cosmetics and cooking oil and glues and epoxies and lacquers, the Europeans efficiently exchanged this new source of wealth for disease and territorial and religious and cultural and genetic bloodline colonization. Which is the fourth metaphor. Exploitation.
The presence of coconuts in a landscape always seemed to connote a ‘backwardness’ that required civilization. The ‘millionaire’s salad’ of shredded coconut heart palm, required the death of the tree for its extraction, like the sacrifice of souls for Christ, or whole islands for atomic research.
But the Big Kahuna metaphor for the coconut tree, the one that did most of the damage, was that of Paradise. The seductive image of pristine, palm-fringed beaches was the one essential element on any exotic tropical brochure, capable of transforming white pasty lives of quiet desperation into real naked hedonistic freedom. The coconut was the icon of the castaway. To tourists, it was their ticket to a culture of ‘friendly’ natives. The coconut clashed with any concept of cannibalism, and encroached on reality.
The final metaphor encroached on our own heads, eighty feet above our circuitous path to Mona’s kitchen. The only revenge for the coconut, and the Southern Sea cultures that the Europeans exploited for it, for all the economic dependency and nuclear testing and social unrest and domestic violence and high unemployment and Japanese whalers and disease, is gravity. The only justice meted out for the intrusive cultural consumption of cocktails in half-coconut shells by the pool, and the conversion of cannibals into quaint local happy natives dancing in grass skirts, is a two kilogram coconut falling at eighty kilometers an hour with a contact force of a metric ton, or more. About 150 people are killed every year by falling coconuts, fifteen times the statistical likelihood of death by shark attack. Traumatic coconut head injuries account for 2.5% of hospital admissions, in areas with plantations. Many travel insurance companies now include coverage for injuries caused by falling coconuts, and many tropical resorts, to avoid costly lawsuits, now remove all the fruit from coconut palms, or replace them with other trees. Indian government officials ordered coconuts removed from the trees at Mumbai’s Gandhi museum for President Obama’s visit, not that it would have likely made any difference to the intelligence of his foreign policy. How ironic, that the most poignant romantic symbol of the fertile Southern Sea paradise, requires emasculation, for the safety of the seeker of Shangri-la. The shoreline of Waikiki is now graced by eunuchs.
Not so on the way to Mona’s breakfast shack, however. The ‘thud’ of hard falling coconuts would shake the ground, and wake us at night.
Robyn and I spent three barefoot days at Reece’s Place, exploring the rock pools down at the beach, snorkeling on the Great Astrolabe Reef, named after French commander Dumont d’Urvilles shipwreck, in 1827.  We watched green turtles during the day, and spooked ourselves silly, in the midst of the crunchy movements of the gigantic coconut crabs, at night. We thrived on Mona’s casseroles, with views of the rugged forests and volcanic mountainous terrain of Kandavu, just across the bay. We could just barely make out the eight hundred meter high top of  Mount Ndelainambukelevu, on the southernmost tip, on the clearest day. One day we went across, to boat down a river, and swim under a waterfall. On our return, Reece and I played guitar and smoked our pipes, full of Amphora and philosophy. I was curious about how a Fijian would get such a name, but he didn’t really know. When the captain of the HMS Pearl, James Goodenough, the man responsible for the annexation of Fiji to the British crown, visited Naitisiri province in 1874, he stopped for a night with a Mr. Reece.

   ‘The ground and labourers in good order. He has a horseshoe
   of 1100 acres, cultivates 270, and says that a man should look
   after three acres. He has a little cane in the ground, like every
   one else. It takes from thirteen to fifteen months to be made fit
   for crushing. Had an excellent dinner of turtle-soup and pie, and
   tea with milk... The officers slept in the cotton-house, the men chiefly  
   in the boats, a few of us in Mr. Reece's house. Mosquitoes all night  
   through. I don't think I slept fifteen minutes together; a horse kept on
   moving all night, and I kept an end of my sheet in my hand, and flicked
   at the mosquitoes constantly. I think that every one was glad when the
   bugle sounded to rouse out at 4 a.m., and all jumped up and dressed.’

The day we left, the sky opened up, and the water came down in torrents. Life is like this: sometimes sun, sometimes rain.

        “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”
                                                                                    Herman Melville

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Reece's Place 3

               “It is easy enough to define what the Commonwealth is not. Indeed this  
                 is quite a popular pastime.”
                                                                                               Elizabeth II

Each bay, its own wind. Robyn and I were back out at Nausori airport in the early afternoon next day. We had eaten lunch at Poon’s ‘Fully licensed wine and dine,’ and had acquired the same taxi driver that had brought us the nine kilometers, a day earlier. We checked in at the Sunflower Airlines Airline with a Heart desk, and were directed out onto the tarmac in the blazing sun, to wait for our pilot, beside the eight-seater matchbox toy Britten-Norman Islander. I asked the frizzy Fijian lady behind the counter if the flight was full.
“Only you two and the pilot.” She had said. As the sun began a descent past our 2:30 Flight 2S44 departure time, I wondered if there was only going to be the two of us when, loping out of the hanger, came a skinny white guy, tucking in his white shirt, and swearing a blue streak.
“G’day.” He said, unapologetically. “Bloody baboons. They could have bloody told me. Where are youse two from?”
“I’m from Canada.” I said. “And my wife is from New Zealand.”
“Yeah, well I’m from Australia.” He said. Not that there was much doubt.
“I guess we’re just one big happy Commonwealth family.” I said, trying to soften the edges.
“Don’t give me that shit, mate.” He said. “I’ve got no time for that bitch.” The Airline with a Heart. He went on to tell us that he was a ‘solid republican.’ I was hoping he was as solid a pilot.
“Hop in.” He said, like we were going for a spin. He pointed to Robyn. “You can sit up front with me.” He took off like a republican. I leaned over and asked him how he ended up flying for a small airline in Fiji.
“A man’s gotta eat.” He said, veering off to the right. A few minutes later, Robyn let out a giggle.
“Hey, hon.” She said. “I’m flying the plane.” I looked over the seat again, to find her clutching her wheel, and the Aussie looking out the window.
“Give it back.” I said. “Please.” It wasn’t but a few minutes later that the forested wasp-shaped form of Kandavu hove into view, and the pilot made his descent. I guess that’s what you could have called it, except for the fact that it was more like an abrupt nosedive, ten thousand feet straight down. He pulled out at the very last minute, hitting the muddy ground like he was landing an Aussie Rules football.
Out of the Britten-Norman, I put on my straw hat, and lit up my pipe. I looked up to find a tall striking older Fijian man, with a straw hat and a pipe.
“Humphrey.” He said. “Humphrey Bogart Reece. But you can call me Reece.” His handshake finished with the sweep of a large index finger.
“My boat is down that hill.” He said, pointing beyond the far end of the landing strip. “It will take us to Galoa Island later, but first we need to go to the village. Did you bring the yaqona?” I pulled the paper bag full of roots out of our daypack. He opened it and took a deep breath.
“Powerful.” He said. We got it right.
Past the volleyball net and the top-hinged shuttered open windows of the whitewashed school building, Reece and Robyn and I walked for several minutes out of Vunisea, to a small building, and a warm welcoming sevusevu ceremony from some mataqali village elders in sulus. We joined the large circle, already seated on woven rectangular pandanus mats, layered on the floor. They inquired after our health, and where we were from. We told them.
“Commonweath.” Murmered around the circle. God save the Queen.
With a nod from Reece, Robyn pulled the bag of roots out of the daypack, to expressions and mutterings of obvious admiration. Reece place the bundle in front of oldest one with the thickest glasses. He clapped his hands three times.
“Chief.” Reece whispered.
“Vinaka.” Said the deputy seated next to him. Thank you. And the Chief made a speech in Fijian, there was chanting, and then the herald clapped three more times when the monologue was finished.
“Tell them the purpose of your visit.” I had this one covered. Under no circumstances were we to consider this a material exchange. We had come to pay our respect to the village and its traditions. We were bringing, not taking. There was a slight vertical nodding of heads, definitely not side to side. The conversation shifted for good into Fijian and, except for the odd recognition of our names, Robyn and I were lost in the honorifics.
“You are now members of the village.” Said Reece. We sat a little taller on our mats.
A large old dark wooden tanoa appeared, without the salad greens. Its attached magimagi coconut fiber cord, adorned with cowrie shells, was extended out towards us.
“Grog bowl.” Said Reece. Three men closed in behind him, one to mix the yaqona, and two to serve. An ancient polished sperm whale tooth tabua was placed on the mat in front of him.
“Qai vakarau lose Saka Na Yaqona vaka Turaga.” Said the mixer. I will mix the Yaqona for the Chief with respect.
Upright and cross-legged, he pounded the kava quickly in a large stone with a small log, blended it with cold rainwater, and strained it through hibiscus fibers. In the old days, the yanqona roots would have been chewed by young girls and spat into the tanoa, for better extraction of its active ingredients, but the missionaries, who had brought the Fijians Mother Hubbards and the word of God, took away their saliva and their joy, in exchange.
The mixer filled a coconut shell bilo with the murky liquid, lifted it high, and poured it back into the tanoa, so the Chief’s herald could see its opacity.
“Wai.” He said. Too strong. More rainwater was added. Another stream careened through the air. I could sense the saliva, coming into mouths around me.
“Wai donu.” Said the herald. Just right. And the mixer circled the tanoa with his arms.
“Qai darama saka tu na Yaqona Vakaturaga.” He said. The chiefs yaqona is ready to drink with respect. He clapped his hands three times, and carefully took the Chief’s own full bilo to him. Cupping his hands, and clapping deep and dignified, the Chief took his first drink, as everyone clapped in slow cadence.
“Maca.” Said the herald, after the Chief had finished with a single flourish. Empty. Everyone clapped three times. Then it was the herald’s turn.
“Maca.” He said, again. Everyone in the circle clapped twice. The herald touched either side of the tanoa.
“Taki vakavo Na Yaqona vaka Turaga.” Now all may drink of the chiefs Yaqona. And he clapped twice.
Everyone else would drink from the same coconut cup as the herald had used. The bilo came around the circle clockwise, with much clapping and ceremony. It got to Robyn, and left with a grimace. By the time it got to me, it had left a trail of stories being told in Fijian. I looked down into the bowl. It looked and smelled like muddy water but, draining it in one long swallow, it tasted like muddy water, with a little pungent peppery wintergreen sawdust thrown in. I clapped three times, and then the novocaine hit. My lips and tongue were frozen for the next ten minutes. It was passed to the single toothed smile to my left.
“Fiji Bitter. “ He said. As a physician, I had read about this stuff. Sun-dried kava root is about fifteen per cent active kavalactones, water-insoluble compounds destroyed by heat, and producing a mild cheerful sedation, relaxed muscles, analgesia, talkativeness, and vivid dreams, through GABA neurotransmitters which increase dopamine and noradrenalin in the brain. The mechanistic theories always sound more scientific than they really are. What kava is definitely associated with, is liver damage, puffy faces, scaly yellow skin rashes, addiction, and lazy days. But in a culture where the principle preoccupation used to be cannibalism, kava was an excellent way to relieve short-term anxiety, and a peace pipe between quarrelling groups. Given a choice of conflict resolution methodologies between the collective effervescence of firewalking, or kava, kava wins, hands down.
The hands were down to indicate that the tanoa was empty, and another bowl of grog was mixed, and made the rounds. After it passed me the second time, I realized that my legs didn’t work. This was a potential life-threatening situation, as I was aware of the fact that kava ceremonies could continue on late into the next day. Earlier, I had received another warning from Reece.
“You may be asked to say a few words.” He had said. “We call it talanoa, shooting the breeze.” The breeze was about to become a gunshot fatality. I noticed the Chief waving his arm towards me.
“He wants to know about your travels.” Reece said. And I couldn’t move my legs, and my mouth wouldn’t work either. “But I told him we must go to our boat, before it gets too dark.” I managed to exhale, and told Humphrey Bogart Reece what his namesake had said. The problem with the world is that everybody is a few drinks behind.
Robyn and I thanked our hosts, swayed on our legs in gratitude, and followed Reece back through the village, and down to the long handmade hardwood skiff on the mud beach at the bottom of the hill. It was painted white and yellow, with red gunnels, and took but a single heave from our Fijian host, to launch us into Namalata Bay. The last of the daylight was almost gone, but we could see the northern tip of Galoa Island from our departure point, and it took but a few minutes to make the high-tide crossing. A hurricane lamp, suspended in the darkness on the other shore, nodded up and down, like the heads on our village hosts. Hovering just above it was Mona, Reece’s wife, a delightful charming Bacall for our Bogart. She welcomed us with happy Fijian enthusiasm, and brought us directly into the low ceiling of her kitchen, where we had the first of many home-cooked dinners of fried fish and casseroles, yams and potatoes, and pasta, rice and taro.
Reece’s Place was basic. There was no hot water, no telephone, no cold beer, no obvious maintenance, and electricity from a generator too expensive to run, except for the hour Mona needed it to prepare dinner each evening. Flat-wicked kerosene lamps provided light, and ambience. Our thatch bure, in a coconut grove under a large laden breadfruit tree, was decorated around its base with a continuous line of giant porcelain clam shells. The absence of mongooses on Galoa had ensured a ready supply of skinks inside our room, and a continually changing panoply of large moving head-height spider webs outside the square apertures that passed for windows. It was wonderful.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Reece's Place 2

Robyn and I continued along the street towards the main market. Many Indian shops looked old and shabby, with prominently displayed ‘close-out’ signs, for the purpose of emigration rather than expansion. We stopped in at the Sunflower Airlines office, to book our flight to Kandavu for the next morning. The Airline with a Heart. The market was in Technicolor, with yellow bananas and lemons and breadfruit and jackfruit, mauve eggplant and big pink yams, red chilies, green mangos and watermelon and cabbages, ash-grey manioc, tall tied pink and green taro, and bright orange pineapples. Large Fijian women with frizzled black hair, in their garish Mother Hubbard dresses, sat on plastic tarps around the outside of the stalls. There was the smell of flowers and fish and dust and frying oil. We walked under a sign, reassured. Poisonous fish prohibited for sale. The stringy earth color we were seeking, was sold only by Indians, for consumption only by Fijians. We needed it for our arrival in Kandavu. In one of the most interior stalls, we found trays of the long curled roots of Piper methysticum, the ‘intoxicating pepper’ of the Southern Sea.
“You are wanting Yaqona?” asked the stall proprietor, pointing to his collection of kava. “Very powerful.” We had been told to buy powerful, so this was the guy. He told us the price. I flinched.
“Gratitude is expensive.” He said, not appearing like he had much to be thankful for himself. The cost of four year-old roots had apparently doubled in the previous three years. I paid him.
Down the southern road was the blue and pink and lime pastel Sri Siva Subramaniya temple, aspiring to emulate the Dravidian skyscrapers of Southern India. But the concrete contract had obviously gone to the lowest bidder, and the tropical mildew was making inroads, like it had with Paul Theroux’s namba, in the same Fijian humidity. The situation is dormant.
Back at the market, we boarded a bus to Lautoka, for the evening firewalking. Just north of Nadi, we passed Raymond Burr’s Garden of the Sleeping Giant, four thousand acres that he and his paramour, Robert Benevides, bought in 1965, to house his orchid collection from Sea God Nurseries. I remembered his emergence from the closet, and the scandal created at the time for a Canadian actor, playing the role of a brilliant legal mind with impeccable integrity, to have so deceived his fan base. When you pick someone to lie to Mrs. Granger, never choose your doctor or lawyer. In both cases they can be fatal...In any country but this, they would have let him in.
We made the 24 kilometers to Sugar City in record Indian bus driver time. Lautoka had the largest crushing mill in the Southern hemisphere, but the sugar produced, like its girmitya producers, was brown, not white. Bligh had charted the coast while making his epic lifeboat voyage to Timor after the mutiny, in 1789. Not much had changed, except for the Japanese honeymooners that had also arrived for the firewalking ceremony. Robyn and I recognized the Australian salad bowl seekers from Jack’s. The social anthropologists who pretended to understand the purpose of these types of activities define a notion of collective effervescence, in which a common arousal results in a feeling of togetherness and assimilation. They quote data that purportedly demonstrates the synchronization of heart rates of the firewalkers and nonperforming spectators. This is presumed to be the physiological basis for an alignment of an aroused emotional state, which strengthens group dynamics and forges a common identity. I looked around at the social dynamics between the Indian owners, the Fijian dancers, and the tourists, and rather than finding any evidence of collective effervescence, I saw a bunch of tourists that seemed anxious to see some feet burnt. The dancers were Sawaus from the island of Beqa, and would be walking on stones that were white hot, from the bonfire that had been lit hours earlier. In the old days, the participants had to abstain from women and coconuts for two weeks before the ceremony, or the gods that had given them the gift to walk unharmed on these stones, would withdraw their protection. The guy with the girl on his arm, slurping his green coconut water through a straw, seemed blithely unaware of the injunction. Just after sunset, he defiantly pounded his way across the rocks, and emerged unscathed. I knew this was a phenomenon of simple thermodynamics. The ‘mind over matter’ was ‘matter over matter,’ quickly. The amount of time the foot is in contact with the ground was not enough to induce a burn, and the stones were not good conductors of heat. The square root of the product of thermal conductivity, density, and specific heat capacity is called thermal effusivity, and explains how much heat energy the body absorbs or releases in a certain amount of time per unit area, when its surface is at a certain temperature. It was the Leidenfrost effect from the insulating vapor barrier under the dancer’s wet feet that protected him, not his deal with the gods.
But you have to keep moving, or the thermal conductivity will catch up with you. The twenty managers of the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets in Australia, who confidently jumped into the firewalking team-building exercise three years after they were buying salad bowls in Fiji, were treated somewhat differently, for severe burns.
The collective effervescence also didn’t bubble up the fact that Iron Age Indians had been firewalking on coals since 1200 BC, when the current Fijians were still living an aboriginal existence on Taiwan. We all left the party after the situation was dormant, burning with togetherness and assimilation.