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.”