We spent a week at Fulanga, and the only thing that made me want to leave was the fact that I have the copy edits of my new book coming on the 16th, and I will need to be somewhere that has Internet. So yesterday, when it looked like the sky might clear of the ever-present clouds around 12:45, Wayne turned to me and said, “What do you think?” We decided to take off and an hour later we were motoring out the pass at the high tide slack water. The pass looked completely different from the maelstrom we had entered through eight days earlier.
Fulanga isn’t a fully formed atoll – yet. It is an “almost atoll.” See, nearly all the islands in the Pacific were formed by volcanic eruptions. The islands started out as volcanic peaks like the islands of Hawaii, and coral reefs grew around their fringes. But after thousands of years, the volcanic islands erode away and eventually all that is left is the fringing coral reef around a lagoon where the volcano once stood. Along the reef, parts of the coral base collect sand and earth and little motus or small islands appear and you have a fully formed atoll. At Fulanga, reef surrounds smaller islands that form part of the remains of the volcanic rim – it hasn’t yet fully eroded away. Inside the lagoon, little pieces of the volcano remain. They are eroding though, and they now look like little mushrooms with narrow eroded bases and wider tops with palm trees growing out of them.
When we first arrived after our harrowing trip through the pass, I felt a little like Alice arriving in Wonderland. The sky was half covered with ominous dark clouds, but the late sun was shining through them creating a very eerie light. Our engine had quit and Wayne had disappeared into the engine room. Under mainsail alone, I quietly sailed through the dozens of little oddly shaped islands looking for an anchorage. I wouldn’t have been entirely surprised to see a caterpillar smoking a hookah atop of of those mushroom islands. It is one of the most unusual places I have ever seen.
One of the other things that makes Fulanga so special IS the fact that it is more cut-off from the modern world, although that too is changing fast. We sailed down from Vanua Balavu in a good weather window and we were one of seven yachts to arrive on Saturday or Sunday. We all went in to present our sevusevu to the village chief together on Monday morning. The whole group of us hiked over the hill and we were met at the outskirts of the village by Tai, who would be our spokesperson. He presents us to the chief and formally asks if we may anchor in the lagoon at his island. I had also wrapped a sulu around my shorts when we got to the village, and everyone is expected to wear shirts that cover the shoulders, no hats, and no backpacks. Tai led us to the chief’s house where we entered and sat on the wood floor of the small house.
In this case, the chief was a slender old white-haired man wearing the traditional sulu skirt, but also a T-shirt and track suit jacket with socks on his feet. It is unusually cold here in Fiji this year, and even the Fijians are complaining about temperatures in the 60’s. We all presented our packages of Kava root and the chief and his spokesperson said the ritual thanks, prayed and clapped and all of this was in Fijian. A woman who was sitting off by the door spoke up when the men had finished and she translated the gist of what the men had said. Then she told the group it was okay to take photos of the chief if they wanted to. She was interesting and her English was so good, I grew very curious about her. It turns out she is the chief’s daughter, but when she went away to work at a resort in Viti Levu as a girl, she met an American and married him. She now lives in Albequerque, New Mexico, has seven kids and she drives a big rig. She had come home to visit because her family had told her that her father was not going to church. Strange world, eh?
In addition to the donation of kava, the yachts were each asked to make a $50 FJ donation to the village. In return, each yacht is assigned a host family and one by one we were paired up with our hosts. Our family consisted of Net and Aliote, parents of one daughter who is off at boarding school in Suva. Net is the post master of the village. He took us back to his house and we sat on the floor. His wife Aliote arrived and she served us tea and plain white rice. Net explained that they were low on provisions because the once a month supply boat had arrived in a storm and determined it was too dangerous to enter into the lagoon. They then off loaded the village’s food at a nearby island and the weather had not been good enough for the islanders to go fetch their food.
Getting to know Net and his wife really made our visit to Fulanga. Though Aliote didn’t ever speak English, Net said she understood lots and when she didn’t, he translated for her. Wayne noticed the solar power set up in the corner of the room that first day we had tea, and we learned that the government had added solar power to over 50 homes in the village just over a year earlier. The government paid for it and each home now pays $18/month for their power. We learned that the Post Office has a satellite phone and anyone in the village can use it. And the school has a satellite TV system, so they can get news. Net even said that sometimes at the high point on the island, people’s cell phones can connect to the cell tower on Lakemba Island and they can text their families on Suva. Net taught me my first Fijian words that first day when we left his house. “Sota talay,” he said. “It means ‘see you later.'”
The next day we stayed on the boat working all day, but on Wednesday, we went ashore to meet Net and Aliote and we learned that it was a big day because at the school (which only goes up to grade 8) the kids in grades 3, 5, and 8 were taking exams. So standardized testing is even happening in Fulanga! The mothers in the village prepare the food for the kids, and afterwards, they took us into their home and fed us with a beautiful spread of fish cooked in coconut cream, a grated coconut and spinach dish and cassava (a starchy root vegetable). Even though the ship had not arrived and they didn’t have cookies or propane to run the oven, they will not starve. They grow most of their food and Net said he goes fishing 2-3 days a week. He has two garden plots and chickens and pigs. They were so wonderful and generous to us, we invited them out to the boat for afternoon tea the next day.
Wayne went in to pick them up and they were so cute in the dinghy waving at me and excited. I had baked a cake for them knowing that they didn’t have baking capabilities at the moment, but they arrived with 5 rotis and a huge tupperware of cassava, plus a lovely pandanus mat wall hanging that Aliote had made. We ate and talked and laughed until sunset. They both thought our dogs were hysterical and Net, a typical large Fijian man finished off all the cake. When they left, I gave them a signed copy of one of my books, and I gave Aliote a necklace that had been my mother’s. It had started raining a fine mist, and they had not brought any rain coverings, so I offered Aliote a trash bag to cover her hair. Net wanted one too, and it was the funniest thing watching Wayne standing in the dinghy with his two Fijian passengers with their heads covered with white trash bags grinning and waving good-bye. “Sota talay!” I called out, hoping that somehow, even with all the places I want to see in this world, some day I will return to Fulanga and see Net and Aliote again.