I have created this blog with the hopes that you, my friend, will follow me as I sail around the world (figuratively or literally, not sure yet) with my parents on their Contest 48. Whereas I hope to keep you updated with exciting adventures of exotic ports and epic waves, keep in mind that cruising - that is, traveling by boat in a leisurely fashion - tends to be filled with days of intense boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Please keep this in mind as you read these entries, for this platform will be just as much an attempt for me to maintain my sanity (and connection to the California-based world), as entertainment and reassurance for you. And so, follow me as I sail the world.

P.S. All material on this blog, words and photos alike, are copyrighted by me. Copyright 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018. If you decide that this material is worth re-publishing, please give me credit and lots and lots of money.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Life on the Hard

Noble House and Slow Dance at Port Denarau (photo circa January 2012)

When I told you that Musket Cove is the Las Vegas of Fiji, I misspoke.  Granted, there are not as many sea planes or helicopters flying in here, but Port Denarau is definitely the Las Vegas of Fiji.  I am not sure what the slogan is now, but it should be changed to Port Denarau: you can see Fiji from here.

I am not hating on Denarau, but it is the tourist hub of Fiji.  Combine the Hardrock Cafe with friendly Fijians trying to sell me a booze cruise every few steps, the mega yachts in the marina and Cardos steakhouse, of course, and you have got yourself a party.

In all honesty it is fun to be back here.  I spent time at Denarau when I crewed on Slow Dance in January, and some of the boats from back then are still here - most notably Noble House.  I became friends with the NH crew as many of them surf, have a bitchin' 36 foot Sportfisher "tender" and are always up for a good time.

Unfortunately it has not been all surf and binge drinking.  Dad decided that Rutea needed some work done and wanted it to be finished before he and Mom leave for California, so we headed into the marina last week.  His two main concerns were getting the cap rail re-varnished and the bottom painted.  In order for the bottom to be painted the boat has to be hauled out of the water (obviously) and the boat yard does not allow people to stay on their boats while they are "on the hard" so we have been renting a hotel apartment for the past few days.

A note on living on land: it is fun!  We have a real refrigerator with a big door and a light that comes on, a big stove, a maid, and TV!  This shit is awesome!

Fortunately Dad did not make me and Mom paint the bottom of the boat, which is a really dirty and toxic job, but he has decided that we are all to become master varnishers, which basically means that we have been sanding the cap rail for the past week now.  I have sanded the skin off my knuckles too many times and come back to the apartment totally covered in sawdust, but I suppose there are worse jobs to be doing.

Fortunately the Noble House crew has come to my rescue twice, whisking me away to go surfing. A few days ago we went out to Tavarua on the sportfisher to surf Cloudbreak, but it was well over head high, barreling and the peak was super shifty.  We opted to surf Restaurants which was much more manageable.  The wind was howling sideshore/offshore which gave the wave a bit of a bump, but it was still lined up and super fast down the line.  I made a few drops but couldn't keep up with the speed of the wave.  I also ate it on a few but managed not to get raked across the reef.

One thing about surfing Tavarua and Namotu is the crazy currents that flow through.  If you time it wrong you could very well get swept out to sea, or stuck inside getting pounded on the reef... It is worth it, but if you ever make it out here, bring your serious paddling arms.

However there are some other top secret surf spots in Fiji that are not as critical as Cloudbreak.  On Saturday morning Rob of Noble House came by asked if I wanted to go surf a beach break on the south side of the island.  I grabbed my board and we headed out, drove for about an hour, turned off down a dirt road and pulled up to a river mouth beach break with a perfect A-frame wave peeling right and left across the beach.

After surfing coral reef for the past few weeks, this was the most playful, easy, gentle and fun wave ever.  It was even a bit hollow with the offshore winds and when the over head sets came through I went on anything I could, stoked on not having to worry about hitting the reef.  I still got pounded a few times, but it was all good.  Unfortunately at the end of the day Rob's board gave him a kiss on the lips a little too forcefully and we had to make a stop for some stitches, but it really was an epic day of surf.

And so life on the hard goes - a surf here, a drink at the bar there, and heaps and heaps and heaps of sanding.  We hope to get the boat back in the water on Friday and I hope to be back in the water ASAP.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Lau Group part 6: A Glorious End

Leaving Matuku... I hope to return someday!

After two wild weeks aboard S/V Shannon I have returned home to S/V Rutea.  Yes, Kevin and my expeditious exploration of the Lau group has come to an end, but what a glorious end it was.  

I left off at our dinner party with Koli, Luciana and three kids from the village.  Since then we spent more time in the village, went on a gnarly spearfishing trip with James, made the two night passage back to Tavarua and Namotu where our buddies on Twister were waiting for us, scored more freaking amazing waves, and made it back to Musket Cove just in time to celebrate Mother's Day with my momma.

Now that I am back in civilization, Matuku feels like a very long time ago, even though it has only been a few days since we left.  By Wednesday of last week Kevin and I had totally run out of clean clothes, and even the remotely clean clothes were salty and smelly.  Time to do laundry - except with little fresh water on the boat one either has to wash with salt water (not very effective) or go into the village.  Kevin and I packed up the dirty clothes, a few new kids t-shirts and some fiberglass to repair Koli's leaking boat.  As it would have been deemed outrageous for Kevin to even help with the laundry, I took the clothes to Luciana's house while Kevin went to help Koli with the repair (seriously defined gender roles here).

When I arrived at Luciana's house to ask for some water to do laundry she said, "Laundry? Ok, I will do it."  "No, no, I will do it, I just need some fresh water if you can spare any,"  I told her.  "Ok, then I make lunch," she replied.  I was confident there was enough water as there was a torrential downpour the previous night.  As for lunch, you can't really decline to eat a meal with these people, so I smiled and said "vinaka." 

Luciana showed me to a faucet in the "backyard" (jungle) and I did the laundry in a bucket while chickens pecked at my ankles and mosquitos buzzed in my ears.  After hanging the laundry on the line I went back inside and pulled out a pack of guitar strings that I just so happened to have in my guitar bag.  Koli's guitar was missing one string and the rest were badly corroded, so I replaced all of them, making the guitar look and sound (almost) new.  They seemed to be pleased but probably thought it was wasteful to replace strings that were not broken, but hey, it is my gift to them.

Around lunch time Koli and Kevin showed up along with a few other kids who, knowing Luciana was cooking, stayed for lunch.  Kevin, Koli and I were served first - another ramen noodle and fish dish with a side of yams and taro.  It made me uncomfortable to have a hungry kid watching me eat, but there was nothing I could do about it.  After we finished eating Luciana ate, and after she was finished she made plates for the kids. 

Sipping lemon leaf tea we talked about the afternoon plans.  James, one of the guys Kevin and I liked most in the village, offered to go spear fishing with us.  We managed to slip out of Koli's house without being encouraged (too much) to take an afternoon nap and headed back to the boat.  The three of us took Kevin's little dinghy with its 2.5 horsepower engine out to the reef pass, set the anchor and jumped in.

Although I love eating fish I am a bit squeamish about killing them, so I just snorkeled and free dived while the boys went out killing things with their spear guns.  I followed James for a while and saw him shoot a puffer fish right through the eye.  It puffed up like a spiny basketball and floated to the surface, where James threw it on a coral head out of the water and proceeded to stab it a bunch of times to deflate it.  Then he stabbed it through the brain to kill it.  "Umm, do you actually eat those things?"  Kevin asked James.  "Oh yes, they are delicious.  They are my father's favorite."  James replied.  "Um, yea, but what about the poison sack?  Don't chefs train for years to be able to filet and cook a puffer fish?"  Kevin asked.  James had no idea what we were talking about, but I guess nobody in the village has died from eating one yet so it is still fair game.

After a few hours in the water James had collected a rainbow of exotic fish on a string he was trailing behind him, while white and black tipped reef sharks eyed his catch with a certain look in their eye that made me swim a good ways away from him.  In some places in the Pacific a shark would attack the string of fish without hesitation, but James told me the sharks here are "like girls" and are too scared to take from a human - unless it is night.  Ok, but I still would not want to carry a string of bleeding and dead fish around.

Kevin and James with their catch after a killing spree.

We headed back to the village with the night's dinner.  As we walked through the village James placed a fish or two on the doorsteps of a few houses.  "I like to give the fresh fish to the families with small children; it makes them healthy and strong," he told us.  What a nice guy.

You can understand why we were sad to leave the next day.  The hospitality of the villagers was overwhelming, the beauty of the reef was mind blowing, and to be completely honest I was really dreading the passage back to Viti Levu.  But we had to leave - I promised my mom I would be back for Mother's Day and Kevin was headed back to Hawaii for work.  Thus, after a few more pictures and saying goodbye to the entire village, we pulled up the anchor and headed out.

Although the passage back was not super easy, it was much nicer than the way there.  It only took us two days to get back, and whereas I really wanted to stop at Kadavu for a night or two - it is almost criminal to sail past a place like that and not stop - Kevin wanted to try and get in another few surf sessions at Namotu before heading back to Hawaii.  I couldn't complain.

At day break on Saturday morning we arrived at Wilkes Pass, the same pass we left out of some two weeks earlier.  As we pulled around Namotu, there was none other than my good friend Lars on his 28 foot boat, Twister.  Our mutual friend Gaz sailed up from New Zealand with him, and they have been cruising around together for a bit.  We yelled our hellos, invited them over for breakfast, and set the anchor - extremely happy to be back inside the reef at our favorite surf spot.

I whipped up a quick breakfast and then the four of us piled into Kevin's dinghy (with 4 surfboards too) and headed out to Namotu Lefts.  Unfortunately we timed the tide wrong and the current was ebbing so hard it was impossible to get to the waves.  We had tied up to a mooring and jumped in to paddle to the waves some 200 meters away, but could not make it.  I paddled for 30 minutes before I gave up and drifted back to the dinghy.  The boys gave in soon after and we headed back to the boats, barely making headway against the current.  However, we did make it and decided to try again later.

Kevin and I took long naps, ate a bunch of food, rallied for more energy and in the late afternoon went back to Twister and got Gaz and Lars for a second attempt at surfing.  This time the current was slack.  The waves were chest to head high; all lefts peeling across the reef.  There were a few people out, but as the sun set they went in and the four of us were left with all the fun waves we could catch.  Finally it got so dark that we couldn't really see the waves anymore and headed back to the dinghy. 

By this time the tide had changed and was running out the pass, so once again we barely motored faster than the current.  It was also pretty much dark and we were guided by the lights of the resort on Namotu.  Just then, the motor died.  Shit.  I could see Kevin's eyes go wide eve in the dark.  We all stopped for a moment and then Kevin, who is probably the most calm person I have ever met, tweaked the engine a bit and started her up.  She coughed a bit but did not die again, getting us safely to our boats.  That night we had a potluck dinner, jam session and tried to put a dent in the bottle of Bounty rum, but I couldn't get anybody to drink it.  They preferred warm beer over Bounty.  If that is not a blunt statement I don’t know what is.

The next morning we awoke to bright blue sky and absolutely no wind.  We had a nice morning with a cup of tea and leftover pizza and fried plantains, then loaded up the dinghy once again and headed out to Namotu Lefts.  Actually, we headed for Wilkes Pass, which is a pretty heavy/gnarly right that I was not keen to surf, but the other three are regular footers and wanted a right.  Unfortunately (and really too bad) there are no moorings out there and we didn't want to anchor in deep water, so we headed back to Namotu Lefts where we proceeded to surf our brains out for the next 3 hours.

Kevin, Gaz, Lars and me on our way to Namotu Lefts with Namotu island in the background.  STOKED!

The waves were amazing.  Head high to overhead, lined up and fast but not super heavy; clear blue turquoise water with light offshore winds... ohhh man.  Don't get me wrong - I took many waves on the head and ditched my board twice, got caught inside heaps and duck dived so much white water my arms were throbbing, but it was SO good.  I have never felt so comfortable surfing a coral reef pass.  Everybody out - which was not many people - was so stoked to be out there, so stoked on the conditions we were all cheering for each other.  Everybody was grinning from ear to ear. 

After three hours I had to force myself to get out of the water.  My face was burnt to a crisp, my arms dead.  Fortunately the current was not too strong so I was able to get back to the dinghy, where Kevin, Lars, Gaz and I all gave each other high fives on scoring such good waves.

This was Sunday morning, also known as Mother's Day.  As hard as it was to leave my beloved Namotu, I also wanted to spend the day - or what was left of it - with my mom.  Kevin and I got the boat ready, pulled up anchor and headed back to Musket Cove, where all these shenanigans started in the first place.  After doing a quick clean up and packing all my crap - ukulele, guitar, dive gear, clothes, surfboard, etc. - I returned to Rutea and the happy faces of my parents. 

How nice to be home!  After being on Shannon for two weeks Rutea seems like a palace.  And she is, really, but it is all relative.  When I got back to the boat Mom gave me a big hug and said, "Corie!  You are back!  Kevin didn't take you and sell you into slavery or something awful like that!"  I could see her concern - I mean, I hardly knew Kevin before we took off and she knew him even less - but it was all good.  "I realized I didn't even know his last name!  But I guess not many cruisers are axe murderers..." Mom went on.  Actually, I had been horrible about emailing, but Kevin had emailed my parents every night we were on passage letting them know we were alive.  If that isn't a good guy I don't know who is.

We all went out for a nice dinner - a restaurant! bright lights! no taro! tile floors! cold beer! - Kevin and I were a bit stunned with the whole scene.  After being in the outback for a few weeks coming back to modern (I use the term "modern" loosely) civilization is always a bit of a shock.  Regardless, it was a very nice night and all the more special that I got to spend it with my mom.  After dinner I gathered my last few things off Shannon, said goodbye to Kevin: "see you again someday, I hope!", and went back to Rutea to a blissful sleep in my own bed.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Lau Group part 5: Good Reef and a Dinner Party

Dinner party aboard Shannon.

After our Sunday adventure Kevin and I were both feeling a bit... burned out.  We have pretty much been "on the go" - although that has a different meaning in the tropics than in other places - since we arrived in Fiji respectively, and wanted a day or two just to relax.

We spent the morning making breakfast and jamming on ukulele and guitar until Koli showed up in his boat.  In spite of the 80 degree weather he was wearing a huge down jacket and a beanie.  Apparently he has come down with a cold (that I wouldn't be surprised the, ahem, white man brought), and invited to go to the hospital in the other village with him.  "Ummmm... no thanks..." Kevin and I both said.  Going for a free dive sounded like much more fun than going to the "hospital".

Before we could be waylaid by another friendly villager Kevin and I threw all our gear in his dinghy and headed out to the pass we sailed in through.  The pass is pretty deep and lined by a steep coral wall on either side, which makes for excellent diving.  We decided to do a drift dive along the pass as there was a bit of current, so Kevin tied the dinghy to his body so it could float along with us and we jumped in. 

We were immediately greeted by a huge school of travalli and a white tipped reef shark.  It is always a bit of a relief to see a shark or two because it is a sign of a healthy reef.  And healthy this reef is!  The reef is covered with purple and blue stag horn coral, bright green finger coral, huge growths of soft corals, giant anenomes with clown fish living in them, and tons and tons of psychedelic looking fish.  I also saw huge clams and some very weird giant nudibranch-looking things.  The closer one gets to Indonesia the more diverse the reefs become, and this one was pretty wild.

It is hard to describe the euphoria I felt being back in the water around a healthy and vibrant reef.  I could tell Kevin felt the same.  He works as a free diver for NOAA and was diving down 30 or 40 feet and doing back flips under water.  Curious fish came by to take a look at the two 5 and 6 foot intruders, but didn't seem to be scared away by us.  At one point when we were diving on the south side of the pass I saw the reef marker for that side laying horizontally along the reef, knocked down by a cyclone.  But who needs reef markers on both sides of a pass, anyway?

Our free dive was by far the best I have ever done in Fiji (which isn't that many) and I was so happy to see healthy reef.  The only thing I am sad about is that it took us so long (3 days) to get in the water here.  But respects must be paid to the locals first.  After getting cold - yes it is possible to get cold in 80 degree water - we headed back to the boat.  Koli had given us a bunch of cooked taro before he headed to the hospital and Kevin fried it up with spices to make taro chips.  I think he is on to something.

Kevin and I spent the afternoon drinking rum drinks, playing music and chilling out.  A note on the rum drinks: Bounty is the official and locally made rum of Fiji.  It is also the most god-awful alcohol I have ever tasted in my life.  Even a whiff of it can make me light headed.  It tastes like something that could be used to degrease and engine rather than ingested.  Nevertheless, I drank enough to give me a pretty nasty hangover, which made our attempt at a dawn patrol surf session a little less pleasant.

Yes, Matuku has surf.  Sometimes.  The island is known as a remote but popular destination for surf charters - maybe one or two a year.  Apparently a few years ago the Quiksliver surf boat came here and the guys scored, saying the wave here is way better than Cloudbreak on Tavarua.  Unfortunately the swell was not working for us.  Regardless, we loaded up the boards and snorkel gear and headed out to the outer reef, a quarter mile or so off the island.  We saw one potentially surfable wave to the north, and headed out.  Kevin's dinghy has a 2.5 horsepower engine which does the trick, but takes a long time to get anywhere. 

After motoring for about 30 minutes we got to the wave, which was even smaller up close than it looked in the distance.  Not to be deterred we got in the water and paddled around a bit.  The current was flowing to the south and for some weird reason I was very concerned about being sucked out to sea, so I ended up paddling right back to the dinghy.  Kevin nor I got any waves but it was cool to paddle around over the reef.  Anyway, if we had just wanted to surf we would have stayed at Tavarua and Namotu.  This has been much more of an adventure.

We decided to do another free dive on the pass which was just as spectacular as the one the previous day.  This time when we got in the water we were greeted by a giant Napoleon wrasse, which is one of my favorite fish.  We also saw a coral banded sea snake - a bit creepy but coooool.  Kevin brought his spear gun to catch us some dinner, but was so blown away by the beauty and serenity of the reef that he couldn't bring himself to kill anything.  I was not disappointed.

As soon as we got back to the boat Koli showed up.  I invited him for lunch, even though he and his family were coming back for dinner in a few hours.  He accepted and I made udon noodles, which made me miss Mark and Yuka.  After lunch Kevin and I were both totally beat, and took naps before we had to prepare the boat for a Fijian invasion.

Naps taken, we cleaned up the boat and began cooking.  We wanted to serve Koli and Luciana typical food that we eat, but they eat so much starchy food that we made a hodgepodge of dishes to make sure they were well fed.  We cooked up a bunch of lamb shoulders, made some curried potatoes, and Kevin made a delicious pizza in a bunt pan.

Koli, Luciana, and three little boys between the ages of 8 and 12 showed up as we were cooking.  They brought taro, yams and a fried barracuda to supplement the meal, as well as a basket full of bananas, avocados and limes.  The boys got a kick out of running around the boat, poking their heads down the hatches, and drinking Coca-Cola.  Everybody (including Koli and Luciana) squealed with delight whenever the stove was lighted.  The boys loved learning the words "pizza" and "pe-pe-ro-ni", and couldn't seem to differentiate between the words "lamb" and "lamp".  They were all very polite and it was easy to see the fascination in their eyes as they looked around the boat.

Dinner was a success, although I have never seen young boys who loved taro way more than the pizza, which they tasted but were uninterested in.  After dinner I served tea and cookies.  To a regular mug of tea a Fijian will add two or three heaping tablespoons of sugar - kids and adults alike.  They love their sweet food.  Another thing I have realized about Fijian hospitality: Fijians will give you anything and everything they can, but they also expect to be given anything and everything they ask for. 

Luciana was not shy about asking us for more dishwashing soaps, lotions and cookies for the kids who could not come to the boat.  I did not feel obligated to give her anything per se, but the fact that it means so much more to them than it does to me makes me more inclined to do so.  I just hope the villagers do not see the 6 or 7 boats that come through here each year as cash cows or supply stores.  But being way the hell out here I could see how they see our boats as mini supply ships.  Can't blame them.

After dinner I gave Koli my guitar and he strummed a tune which the boys joined in singing to.  Kevin taught them card tricks which they got an absolute kick out of, and I worked my way through a massive pile of dishes.  I think we used every one on the boat.  They left around 10 PM, with many a "vinaka vakalevu" shouted across the water.  It was a very fun night that I will remember forever.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Lau Group part 4: Church

 Congregating in front of the church before services with baby Margret, James, Kevin and Koli.

Fijians are not known for their punctuality, and even less so for showing up early, but alas, Koli was at Shannon to pick us up for church by 9:15 AM.  He had told us 10:00, but the tide was going low so it was easier for him to come out earlier.  I made him a cup of tea while he waited for us to get ready.  At least he didn't make us come in for the 6:00 AM service.

Donning my finest sulu and my least frumpy shirt - I didn't even think to pack any nice clothes - we got into Koli's fishing boat and headed into shore.  Koli was wearing a dress shirt, tie and blazer with "Lombati Methodist Church" embroidered on the pocket.  As we walked through the village to his house I noticed all the kids wearing their finest clothes - sulus, dress shirts and ties for boys and men, frilly dresses for the little girls, and brightly colored dresses for the women.

When I asked Luciana to teach me how to tie my sulu in the proper Fijian fashion, she went rummaging around for a proper sulu (I guess mine is not "proper") and I ended up wearing one of her heavy, long skirts all day.  After being appropriately dressed, Koli took us down to the church.  The church is a simple cinder block building with rows of pews, an altar adorned with plants and flowers, and a tapestry of the Last Supper on the wall behind the preacher.  I was relieved not to see a bloody Jesus on the cross or depictions of Hell or scary stuff like that.

The whole service - about an hour and a half long - was almost completely in Fijian.  At one point a woman stood up and welcomed Kevin and me in English, and Kevin stood up to say a little speech about how thankful we are to be here, Aloha.  But by far the most impressive part of the service was the singing.  I do not know what it is about islanders, but they have the most incredible voices - both individually and as a group.  They sing in 30 part harmonies, their voices filling the church to the point that I could feel the vibrations through my body.  I didn't dare sing along for fear of marring the perfection (plus I didn't know the words, even with a Fijian hymn book in front of me).

After the service we went back to Koli and Luciana's house for lunch.  Once again, when we got back to the house a cloth was spread out on the floor with place settings for each of us.  Koli is a carpenter but explained that he never has time to fix his own house, which is why the floor boards sag when you walk across, some of the steps are missing out the back, and there are some holes in the wooden walls.  His house, unlike many of the others I have been in, has four beds with mosquito netting around the walls.  Still, life takes place on the mats on the floor.

 Lunch and Koli and  Luciana's house.

Lunch was another two ramen noodle dishes.  The first was ramen noodles with curried taro and the second was ramen noodles with some sort of leafy green and canned mutton.  Yummmm.  There was also a plate of huge chunks of taro.  Taro, when cooked, turns a purple-greyish color, has almost no taste, is super dense and has a sticky, starchy texture.  It kind of reminds me of a cross between a potato and an unripe banana, but it really is not that bad.  I liked the curried taro with noodles, but eating taro with a side of taro is a bit much for me.  It is so heavy and filling, I was thoroughly impressed to watch Kevin eat about a pound and a half of it.  He loves the stuff.

Lunch finished, we sat around on the mats drinking tea.  I brought out my ukulele and a neighbor, James, showed up with a guitar and we jammed for a while.  His two kids played around on the floor and ate leftover food while Luciana washed the dishes and Koli smoked cigarettes.  After a while Luciana said, "Ok, now you sleep. One bed for Kevin, one bed for Koli, and one bed for you."  I didn't really want to climb in somebody else's bed to take a nap in the middle of the afternoon in a mosquito infested hut, but surprisingly, after a huge lunch of taro, it sounded kind of nice.  I got into a bed and Luciana put the mosquito netting down around me.  There were three giant mosquitoes flying around inside the netting and I sat up to try to kill them but Luciana said, "You lay down now."  Yes, Ma'am.  Luciana is very kind but not the kind of lady you argue with.

When Luciana left to go back to church I went on the prowl and killed the three mosquitoes in my netting, each leaving a huge blood splat on my hands.  I kind of hoped it was my blood but kind of didn't...  But in the village everything is shared.  From clothes to beds, food and cutlery, as well as bodily fluids - I am pretty sure Kevin and I have swapped spit with all the men in the village by drinking kava: slurp your kava out of a coconut shell, pass it back, same shell dipped out of the bowl and passed to the next person.  I like to think of it as an Olympics for my immune system.

Fortunately we were able to rest up before the Sunday night kava session.  After Luciana went to church the village got very quiet, a cool breeze flowed through the hut, and the rustling of the coconut palms lulled me to sleep.  When I awoke a few hours later Luciana was back from church and already preparing dinner.  I had not moved more than 20 feet or so in the past five hours, and was already sitting down to another heavy meal - the same noodles and taro - but nobody was complaining.  As a token of our appreciation Kevin and I brought in a whole, unopened jar of peanut butter for Koli and Luciana, and Luciana made us peanut butter and crackers to supplement our taro and noodles. 

A pre-dinner jam session with Jone (Johnny), a plate of taro and a bowl of canned mutton and ramen noodles.

It also seemed like more and more kids showed up at the door around dinner, and some were given plates of food to eat in the house, some bowls of food were passed out the door, and other kids were very happy just to get a PB cracker.  I am not sure exactly how eating and sharing meals works around here, but it seems to be communal.  I must say there is not much cuter than watching a little boy wolf down a sticky mass of taro with gusto.  And Luciana encouraged all of us to go for more, saying "Kane, kane," eat, eat.

After dinner we played a bit more music and then headed down to drink grog (kava) with the men.  I tried to help Luciana with dishes but she would not have it.  We walked into another hut with a bright kerosene light burning and maybe 15 men sitting around a kava bowl.  Once again Kevin and I were given places of honor next to the chief and the kava bowl at the far end of the room.  It seemed like we were kind of put on display, with everybody facing us and the light shining on us.  But maybe that was just me.  I would have loved for somebody to take a picture of the whole scene, but was too shy to ask, and even then I am not sure it would have captured the mood. 

A few bowls of kava deep, Koli took out my ukulele and handed it up through the crowd to me, insisting that I play for everybody.  By this time there were more than 20 men in the room - all staring at me - but I managed to play a little tune and they all seemed pleased.  "Vinaka, vinaka," they said.  Once again I didn't dare sing because in comparison to their godly voices I sound like a squawking hen, and a bowl kava does not give one confidence in the way, say, a few rums does. 

After 6 or 7 bowls of kava I was done, and Koli kindly took me back to the boat.  Kevin - the party animal that he is - opted to stay and drink kava until 2 AM.  Needless to say, it was quite a day.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Lau Group part 3: The Rugby Match

 The rugby field of Qalikarua village.

Kevin and I were just cleaning up our breakfast dishes when Koli's fishing boat full of people - to the point that it looked like it might capsize if hit by big enough wake - pulled up to Shannon.  Koli, his wife Luciana, six other men and a bunch of little kids were piled in the boat.  "Are you sure we can fit?" I asked Koli.  "Ah yes!  No problem, jump in!" he replied. 

Kevin and I grabbed our lunch, a bundle of kava, water and rain jackets, but no hats or sunglasses.  In traditional Fijian culture wearing sun glasses is considered rude or shady, and the head is sacred so wearing a hat is reserved for the chief.  Of course if I had worn either a hat or sunglasses nobody would say anything, but nobody else wears these things, either.

We hopped in the boat, were given the best seats, and set off around the island.  Kevin and I had absolutely no idea where we were going, we were just along for the ride.  After about 20 minutes of a rather interesting boat ride - it was beautiful cruising over the turquoise water and bright coral patches but scary in that I thought we would capsize or sink because the boat was so full - we arrived at a village. 

I went to jump out of the boat but Tui, the guy sitting next to me said, "No, we go around to the other side."  One kid carrying a huge bundle of kava got out of the boat and three huge rugby players walked up to the boat.  You are kidding me, I thought.  We were already cruising so low in the water every small wave we hit went into the boat, not to mention the leaks in the hull.  Nobody else seemed to mind, and the three guys got in, carrying their rugby cleats around their shoulders.  Space was made, and we were on our way once again.

After another hour or so we arrived at a bigger village.  Whereas Lomati has about 50 inhabitants, Qalikarua has about 90, and is the biggest village on the island.  Kevin and I, being somewhat of a spectacle, were taken to the community house right away to present our sevu-sevu to the chief, who is Luciana's brother.  Once again I was the only female in a large room filled with 40 or 50 men.  The men always insist that Kevin and I sit at the front of the room right next to the chief and the kava bowl, and you can imagine what it felt like to be one of two palangis (white people) and the only girl, with all the men of three villages watching us.  In spite of being incredibly out of place everybody was very kind to me, introducing themselves and serving me kava second only to Kevin.

The sevu-sevu concluded, everybody went outside to the veranda to watch the rugby players warming up.  Koli took Kevin and me on a tour of the village.  I was asked to take pictures of the rugby teams, people's houses, their kids, and the nursing station.  I promised I would print out some pictures and send them to the village when I get back to the "mainland" (Viti Levu). 

Finally the rugby game started and the whole village came out to watch.  The rugby field is a huge grassy area right up from the beach, palm tree lined on one side, the community house at one end, the nursing station at the other.  The goal posts are made of long wooden sticks and the field is uneven and full of prickles.  It seemed like only the VIPs sat on the porch of the community center to watch the game: the chief, the older men, Kevin and me.  No women or kids.  I walked around and chatted with people as the game went on... a very long game.  In the end our local team won, although I am pretty sure everybody was local, and everybody left in good (albeit mellow from drinking kava all day) spirits.

There was only one rather awkward moment during the rugby match when the chief of the village grilled Kevin and me about why we were not married.  We said that we were "planning to get married soon."  The chief seemed pleased and said, "Ah yes, I think you will find Fijians better to you once you are married."  I couldn't imagine people being nicer or more open with us, but apparently they were a bit scandalized that two young, unmarried people would travel around together.  Like I told Kevin later, we blew it by not telling people we were married in the first place.  "Yea, well we don't have any rings!"  was Kevin's response.

After the game Koli invited Kevin and me to eat lunch with him and Luciana.  We gratefully accepted as all we brought for lunch was peanut butter, nutella, and crackers.  Luciana had not been at the game and I assume she was cooking, as when we arrived at the kitchen shack there was a cloth on the floor with a big pot of food, plates and cups set out.  We all sat on the mats on the floor and Luciana served Koli, Kevin and me ramen noodles with canned tuna, and big chunks of cassava.  The food was surprisingly good.  I mean, ramen noodles are hard to make bad, and after a long day we were starving.

I pulled out the peanut butter and crackers and apparently peanut butter is Koli's favorite, so he was very pleased.  He told us that the supply ship, which comes to Matuku "once a month", was out of peanut butter the last time it came so he has not had any in a long time.  Thus our meager contribution to the meal was more appreciated than it would be most places.

As for cassava, it is kind of like a cross between a potato and something stringy... not the greatest food but certainly sticks to the insides.  The Fijians love their starchy foods and I had better be careful eating all that cassava and taro, otherwise I will be filling out like them.  Even Koli mentioned it: "You eat lots of cassava and taro you get fat like my wife!  Ha-ha."  Luciana just laughed.

 Kevin and Sikelli playing after lunch.

After lunch, cookies, lemon leaf tea and being absolutely massacred by mosquitoes and no-nos, we went down to the beach.  I was very ready to head back to the boat after a long day in the sun, drinking kava, and hanging out with the locals, all of which were fun but exhausting.  After one more gathering in the community hall (all men except me, again) there was a speech, a bit of clapping, and we all disbanded.  As we climbed in the boats I heard squealing and saw a pig being loaded into one of the boats.  I was just happy it was not in ours.

On the way back to Lomati we stopped at the same village we picked up the rugby players from in the morning.  Much to my dismay Koli said we would be stopping there for a while to rest - although I think he wanted to show Kevin and me off a bit - and after walking around the village a bit I parked up on the grass.  A woman with her baby came out, introduced herself, and offered me a coconut.  We chatted as I drank the sweet water of the coco.  These Fijians live some of the most simple, subsistence lives I have ever personally encountered, but are also the most generous, open and friendly people I have ever met.  Isn’t it ironic that often times it is the poorest people who are the most generous?

We finally made it back to Shannon around sunset.  Before we got out of the boat Koli told us that he would be back at 10:00 AM to pick us up for church in the morning, and that we would have lunch with him and Luciana after.  Never mind going snorkeling, we wanted a local experience and now we are getting it -- to the max.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Lau Group part 2: Lomati Village and Friends

Our ambassador/ tour guide/ adopted father Koli.

Koli arrived in his little fishing boat (exactly like a Mexican panga) in the late afternoon.  His boat planes surprisingly well with the little 15 horsepower engine it has on the stern, but there is always about 8 inches of water in the bottom of the boat because there are cracks in the hull.  There is a palate in the bottom of the boat to sit on to stay relatively dry and long wooden sticks to push through the shallows, which also serve as fishing poles when a hand line won't do.  This boat is one of three in the village and it is absolutely essential - as a means of transportation, for obtaining food and as a connection to the outside world in general.  There are no cars on the island and one can only travel from village to village by these rickety boats through the inside reef passages.

As we are anchored right in front of Lomati village, our ride into shore was quick and easy.  At high tide the water comes right up to the sea wall, and I can only imagine the havoc wreaked when cyclones come through here.  The Lau group has not been hit by a cyclone in over two years so all the foliage is healthy and the water is clear, but it is not always so. 

As we walked into the village Kevin and I were greeted by little kids who yelled Bula! and ran away shyly.  Kevin was wearing the standard board shorts and t-shirt attire of a surfer/sailor but women in Fijian culture are very conservative with their dress, and so not to offend anybody I wore a sulu (also called a pareo, lava-lava or sarong) over my shorts.  I forgot my flip flops so I felt like I fit right in walking around barefoot along with all the kids - minus their dark hair, eyes and skin.

Koli took Kevin and me to the "mayor's house" where we were asked to sit down on a woven panadus mat on the front porch of a small cinderblock house.  There were a few men sitting in a circle and when we joined them, always sitting cross legged - sitting with your feet sticking out is considered rude - and Koli presented the chief with our kava.  The chief was an old man wearing a white but very worn Manchester United football jersey and a sulu wrapped around his waist.  For all intents and purposes he looked like a regular Fijian guy, but was obviously treated with esteem and respect by everybody in the village.

After chanting what I assumed to be a welcoming and thanking speech - I heard lots of "bula" and "vinaka" - we were served kava out of half shells of coconut.  Some people say that kava is the most disgusting thing they have ever tasted, but I do not find it so bad.  It has a bitter, earthy taste and instantly makes the tongue numb, but is not nearly as bad as the local Fijian rum, Bounty, which tastes like (and has similar effects of) an industrial carpet cleaner.  Kava is a very mellow narcotic that gives one a sleepy, dreamy sensation if enough is consumed.  The strengths of the root vary considerably, with Vanuatu's allegedly being the strongest, but the Fijian men drink it all day and all seem to be  functional, although pretty chilled out.  Nobody seems to drink alcohol around here.  They say, "When you drink the alcohol you start off quiet and end up noisy.  When you drink the kava you start out noisy and end up quiet.  Which would you prefer?"  They seemed to condemn alcohol so I didn't mention that I could really go for a beer right about now.

In reality it is beneficial to society that these Fijians are kavaholics rather than alcoholics, as I am sure it reduces the rate of abuse and domestic violence in this male dominated culture.  One of things I dislike most about the kava ceremony is that women are almost totally excluded.  As a Western woman I was invited to join and served kava, but Fijian women do not take part.  To be honest it is a little intimidating sitting in a room with 10 to 20 men all drinking kava and smoking cigarettes without another woman to be seen.  Don't get me wrong, I appreciate their willingness to include me in the ceremony and respect their traditions, but it would be nice to not be the only girl drinking kava.  And whereas Fijian women are powerful in their own way, men tend to dominate society.

My young tour guides.

After drinking kava for a while I was taken on a tour of the village by a few kids.  As we walked down the grassy lane between the houses we seemed to collect more, and before long I was being taken around by a gaggle of kids.  They all loved getting their picture taken and showed me their houses, most of which are single room dwellings built on stilts.  There is very little furniture in the houses, maybe a TV and a chair or two, but life is lived on the woven mats.  All of the cooking is done in little huts outside the house.  Many houses do not have electricity and those that do are usually lit by a single CFL lightbulb.

The village of Lomati is small so the tour was short, and I returned to the mayor's house to continue drinking kava with the men.  I met most of the villagers, who are incredibly friendly.  They all speak remarkably good English (considering their circumstances), introduced themselves, and seemed genuinely interested in our lives.  As Fijian culture is very traditional, Kevin and I decided to tell people we were partners - I wanted to tell people we were married so as not to raise any eyebrows - but Kevin wasn't ready to make the commitment so we just decided to tell people we are planning to get married, even though our relationship is platonic.  Needless to say we had a few awkward conversations, but everybody is so mellow and kind they just let it blow over.

After drinking kava and sitting cross-legged on the floor for hours, I was very ready to get back to the boat.  The last thing I wanted to do was offend anybody, but Koli could see the exhaustion in my eyes and graciously took us back to the boat.  He told us that he would pick us up at 9:00 AM to go to another village and watch rugby for the day.  "Bring more kava for the sevu-sevu," he told us.  Kava and rugby, I can't wait.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Lau Group 1: Surf, Passage, Arrival

S/V Shannon anchored at Tavarua island for a pre-passage surf.

Bula Vinaka from one of the most remote corners of the Earth.  Perhaps geographically the village of Lomati on the island of Matuku is not one of the most remote places on Earth, but considering what we went through to get here, I would think it to be.

Rewind.  I moved onto S/V Shannon as crew for Kevin, a 28 year old guy from Hawaii, on Tuesday (I think).  We were based in Musket Cove which, if I had to make a comparison I would compare Musket Cove as the Las Vegas of Fiji,  essentially being tourist central.  But not without good reason.  Musket Cove is five miles from the infamous Tavarua and Namotu Islands, where the best waves in all of Fiji break on the fringing reefs.  I talked Kevin into sailing up from Suva to pick me up and get a few waves before heading out to the Lau group.  If I had to make a comparison I would compare the Lau group to the outback of Alaska where you have to travel for days to get to.  It is fairly easy to get to Musket Cove and hang out in the bars and resorts, but it takes a bit more time, effort and desire to get out to Lau.  We will get there in a minute.

Kevin and I managed to score ourselves some sweet as waves at both Tavarua and Namotu islands the two days we were anchored out there.  Our second day we surfed Swimming Pools, a nice right hander on Namotu with a relatively soft break considering the shallow reef it breaks over.  I remember dropping into my best wave, looking at the wave walling up and sucking over the reef, deciding to charge across the face and screaming "Waahhhhhhh!!!" all the way down the line, only to have my knees shaking as I popped out the back at the end of it.  It was just so... good.

You can imagine what a tough decision it was to leave the easy life of Musket Cove and the perfect surf behind, to head out into the ocean for a 3 day, 200 mile, upwind passage to the unknown and relatively uncharted corners of Fiji.  The reason the Lau group is considered so remote is that it is upwind of the main islands of Fiji - between Fiji and Tonga - and boats have to check in on one of the main islands before going back to Lau.  Sailing upwind is most unpleasant - unpleasant enough to deter most yachties from ever going back up that way.  There is also almost zero tourist infrastructure so traditional Fijian way of life remains relatively intact. 

As Kevin and I prepared to head out into the ocean after surfing Namotu all day my stomach was churning with anxiety.  For one, I had just come off a gnarly seven day passage and had no desire for a repeat experience.  Two, Kevin's boat Shannon is a bit, um, rustic.  Three, it was damn near dark by the time we were ready to head out the pass and anybody who has done it knows that sailing a boat through a reef pass in the dark is no fun. 

Not to be deterred, we sailed out Wilkes Pass (also a gnarly/epic wave) under a waxing moon and clear, star-filled skies.  The weather was calm with a nice breeze and smooth seas.  I felt the tension in my stomach ease as I remembered that the ocean is not always rough, choppy, and wind swept. 

Our nice weather lasted about 36 hours.  As the direction we wanted to go is Southeast and, coincidentally, right into the teeth of the Southeast trades, we had to go wayyy off course so that we could sail.  We ended up sailing about sixty miles south of Kadavu and then cutting across, bashing into 2-3 meter seas and 25 knot winds for another 36 hours before we finally caught sight of our desired destination: Matuku Island of the Lau group. 

Whereas that three day passage was not nearly as bad as the passage from New Zealand to Fiji, it was difficult in that there were only two of us to share watches, Shannon leaks like crazy, and straight up is not nearly as comfortable or luxurious as Rutea.  Kevin, however, is a top quality sailor and got us to our destination as comfortably and quickly as possible.  He is also super laid back - at one point we got hit by a wave that broke into the cockpit and about three gallons of water poured into the cabin.  I looked to him to see his reaction and, as he had been sleeping, he poked his head up, laughed, and went back to sleep.  Gotta love the guy.

We finally arrived at the reef pass and went from bucking 9 foot seas to being in flat calm waters instantly.  What a relief.  Now to navigate through all the coral heads and find a safe place to anchor.  Fortunately just as we came through the pass a small fishing boat came out to greet us.  "Bula bula!" Kevin and I yelled.  The man told us to follow him an led us expertly through the coral to the bay in front of a tiny village called Lomati. 

Kevin with our bundles of kava for the sevu-sevu.

After anchoring we invited the man aboard.  We learned his name is Koli and he has since become our guide/ambassador/adopted father on the island.  After sharing a cup of Coca Cola with him he told us he would come back and pick us up in a few hours so we could go to the village and present the sevu sevu - a gift of kava - to the chief of the village.  After the first shower (jumping in the bay, soaping up, jumping back in the bay, then rinsing off with a liter of fresh water) and the first real meal we had both eaten in a few days, Kevin and I felt ready to jump into traditional Fijian culture.  We doused ourselves with bug spray, got out a bundle of kava and waited for Koli to come pick us up.