Makogai: a night at the village

We arrived in Makogai (pronounced Makongai) yesterday, following the advice from Vivace’s crew, hoping that, like their daughter Tia a couple of years ago, our boys would have the opportunity to tend to the baby turtles. But turtles there were no longer as we learnt that it was too much work, but that they were giant clams just by the wharf if we wanted to go snorkelling there. We continued the tour of the clam breeding basins with Enoke, a weathered man 2 years away from retirement at 55 years old, but looking 20 years older with not much hair nor teeth left, which made me think of Tavae, that Tahitian fisherman who got blown offshore and survived 118 days out at sea only on fish and faith (a book my grandma offered me when I was a teenager). He suddenly asks : “Did anyone bring you to the cinema?” And I think it will be a projection room with a movie explaining the breeding cycle of the clams and turtles, but we head out into the bush. The “cinema” turns out to be a ruin overgrown by the jungle. Only the concreted parts are visible, the projection room, the floor, and the “stage” in front of the screen. This is a remnant of the Leprosis centre which harboured 5000 people between 1911 and 1969, well set up with a dam providing water and electricity and a road to the village on the other side of the island. Nowadays all of this is overgrown by the unstoppable Nature, erasing mankind’s passage, but for the last few dwellings, built after cyclone Winston, another force of Nature roaming the area, flattened the few houses homes to the clam farm workers and their families. The cyclone may have been a blessing in disguise as they now benefit from concrete and steel construction financed by international solidarity, solar panels powering up fridges at night, while the generator running all day to power up the pumps for the clam basins was previously the only source of power, and nights smelled of kerosene lamps. The luxury of civilization ebbs and flows in this bay, from the heights of the Leprosis centre, to the low pre-Winston, and the mid-way of today, with even cell phone reception if you’re on the right network and take a ½-hour hike to the top of the hill 😊

After the tour of the village, snorkelling we did, and indeed the bright turquoise of one clam was only rivaled by the depth of the indigo of the other. They’re not giant (about the size of a watermelon) but they’re alive and beautiful, and we can imagine, from the whitened shell of the defunct giant relatives standing by the basin, what it must be to encounter one “out there”. And actually, a couple of days later, a boy asks us if we’ve seen the giant ones.  And there it is, just a few meters from where we were looking, a specimen that could grab your foot like in a Corto Maltese album. It isn’t as beautiful as the smaller ones, but its apparently brown lips reveal to be a warm golden orange when looked up close, and peeking inside the slit we can see the rows of filters, bright white, and in the centre a glowing brown and orange “egg”. Seen at this size, it feels a lot more animal, than the outer shell appears, looking more like stone than alive.

Weird fish shaped like a parenthesis from the side and a reversed trident from the back in crystal clear waters, sorry no photos of giant clams 😦

Being a government own settlement, with hired workers as inhabitants, and not a traditional village with a chief and all the protocol that goes with it, we didn’t offer a gift of kava for a formal sevusevu, the “welcoming tax” as we, Occidentals, may call it. Instead, we brought a cake and some chocolate to thank Mere, a young mother of a five and a one and a half year old children, for all her tips on cooking papaya/pawpaw, with the pawpaws to go with (which we did as salad and curry), and her husband Pau for the coconut husking and grating lesson, with the coconut to go with (which produced the milk for the curry). But the chocolate disappeared quickly in the hands of a big burly bearded man, as the (banana) cake disappeared in the hands of the children, freshly debarked back from school, a boat ride away in the only village of the island at its southern tip. Everyone laughs a lot, as we ask the names of the three women sitting under the mango tree with us, and the kids hover over the cake tin as bees over their hive. With mostly Fijian being spoken I feel this awkward feeling of not knowing if the laughing is about us, of us, at us, or not at all, and keep smiling politely. The awkwardness doesn’t linger though, as it feels kind-hearted, and everything is beautiful in the late afternoon light, and soon the peacefulness of it all puts my mind at ease and I embrace the moment as it is.

Today we tried to climb the little hill behind the village. It looks like a 15-30 minutes hike. We ask our way to Mere, who says that it’s all overgrown and would take about 1 hour. Well, overgrown means there’s no track at all, we’re just told to aim for the big Mango tree by the three coconut trees, and then turn…which way again? No long pants, no closed shoes, no shoes at all for me (Thomas), no machete…several hours later we finally make it out of the jungle, at the base of the tall grass and rocks which form the last stretch up, a lot more vertical up close than it looked from the beach. When we finally make it back down (no track up means no track down either !), sweaty, itchy, covered in cuts and thorns, we welcome the coolness or the water, even if it comes with salty burning stinginess. As it is not too late in the day, I take the opportunity to go for a spearfishing mission on a big, deep coral head in the middle of the bay, and bring back a red fish about 40 cm long with big bulgy eyes, and nasty stinger on its cheeks, with which the rascal stabbed my index! As I brought it back to shore to ask the locals if it was safe to eat and if I needed to worry about the sting, they confirmed it was good to eat and I was going to be in pain and numb for a couple of hours, but no need to cut my finger, what a relief! Just then a boat arrives and unloads a ton of gear, along with 4 Saudi Arabians and their Australian & Fijian guides who came here for game fishing, but not as you know it, spear fishing big blue water game fish! They speak of dog-tooth tuna and whichever fish puts up the best fight, excited as they are after having flown to the other side of the world for an 8-day attempt at “a kill of a lifetime”, reminiscent of how colonialists may have spoken of lions and rhinos once upon a time. Will these very common fish of today end up endangered species of tomorrow?

As they’re here on a commercial basis, they’ve been briefed, and come prepared with a huge bunch of yaqona, the root from which is brewed the kava, the traditional drink of Polynesia, which has for effect to relax you and make you sleepy and slightly numb, exactly in an opposite way to alcohol, very gently. As it’s been a couple of days we’ve been here and we start to know people, and we’ve been helping bring all the Saudis’ gear from the wharf to Pau’s house, he invites me to join them to enjoy a bit of “grog” later on, as is affectionately known the kava in some places. That’s how, after dinner back on Obelix, I row back ashore, gliding on the moonlit mirror only disturbed by my oars. Pau brings us to “the chief”, my big burly chocolate man, named Sully, whose grandfather came to work at the leprosy center when his father was three. He was born here, and will most likely die here, so chief indeed we may call him, and maybe he took our chocolate as our form of sevusevu. But tonight is the real deal, and Pau formally offers him the bunch of yaqona on behalf of the Saudis (and me). Sully then formally acknowledges our gift and welcomes us, giving us his blessing to benefit from the area’s riches as our own, and wishes ‘us’ (actually the Saudis) good fortune with their fishing. All of this exchange between Pau and Sully is done holding and looking at the bunch of yaqona root, and only the last few words, scanted as an “amene”, are spoken looking at us with a big smile. Three claps, a big “Bula ! Vinaka”, and now is the time to prepare the kava.

The yaqona root is dispatched in favour of a bag of pre-pound powder (like ground coffee instead of beans), which is simply thieved in fresh water. Pau fills a ½ coconut serving as a bowl, the drinker claps first, receives it with a “bula”, then scull it, and everyone claps two or three times, with this particular Fijian way of clapping with cupped hands. It doesn’t taste as bad as mud, as I had been described. It doesn’t taste like much actually. It isn’t particularly pleasant nor unpleasant. It leaves a kind of tingling in your mouth as peppermint would. Perhaps a bit of numbness but maybe some people are more sensitive to it than others (Salome said she felt like at the dentist !). We do a round and talk, getting to know each other. Who comes from where (that’s how I learn of Chief’s origins), and how did they meet (Peter, the Fijian dive guide is a childhood friend of Pau), etc…A few minutes later another round, and so on. Relatively early the divers go to bed, planning to get at sunrise for their attempt at “a kill of a lifetime”. I stay and continue chit-chatting, trying to learn a few Fijian words, and getting to know a few of the local stories, like these two tribes, one having control over fish, the other over pigs, and if you don’t ask permission before you eat of one or the other, you may choke on it and only a member of the relevant tribe can and will save you from it, no one else would even try to help.

And so the night wore on, drinking kava and smoking Fijian tobacco, which they cut in thin strips from a full leaf, and then roll tightly in a strip of paper, torn off a page of the local phonebook, rolled diagonally resulting in a “cigarette” like a long stick, about 20cm long by 3 to 4mm diameter. As the conversation dwindles down, and eyelids got heavier, I get on my way, not before my host wouldn’t have me go without a torchlight to make sure I wouldn’t trip in his treacherously steep walkway. As I thus lit my way back to the dinghy, dozens of shadows scuttered away from my steps. Forest frogs out on the grass to enjoy the dew already forming up, each striking a pause of tiny guardian before finally giving way to my giantess. This way, the moon doesn’t reflect into a path of light as I had on the way in, but dives in the deep and shines on the coral which I can see almost as in daylight if only in black and white. Obelix’s anchor light guides my way, and soon I am back on board, where I am surprised to find Salomé watching a movie. Kava is meant to make you sleepy, but it is well past midnight when we finally tuck in. Lucky we don’t have to make lunch boxes before the kids go to school tomorrow!

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