Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A Gift to See the Fall
By Michael

The German owners of Red Cat
pulled in front of us in Ha'apai,
Tonga and snapped this. That's
Windy on the bow.
So Fijian society is much like Samoan society, in that outside the cities, communities are structured around autonomous villages on communal land. Even today, the villagers’ relationship to the land is best expressed in this paragraph I pulled from Wikipedia:

The living soul or human manifestation of the physical environment which the members have since claimed to belong to them and to which they also belong. The land is the physical or geographical entity of the people, upon which their a group depends. Land is thus an extension of the self. Likewise the people are an extension of the land. Land becomes lifeless and useless without the people, and likewise the people are helpless and insecure without land to thrive upon.

There is a chief of every village. This elder man has considerable power and influence. He is judge and jury in criminal matters, deciding who gets punished and how. He controls distribution of land assets and the manner in which people work and live among those assets.

Because there is no public space as we know it, entering a Fijian village (and this includes anchoring in the waters off a village) as an outsider—whether Fijian or not—demands adherence to protocols that have been a part of this culture for millennia. The first thing a visitor must do is to seek out the chief to present a sevusevu. This is a Fijian term for token of respect. As far as I know, the only acceptable token is kava, in its un-ground form. From what I’ve heard, it’s never difficult to find the chief to present sevusevu, anyone who sees you will recognize you as a stranger and take you to the chief. When you meet the chief, you don’t shake his hand or touch him, you sit before him and place your sevusevu in front of him. You politely state your business in the village and wait. When he picks up your sevusevu, you are golden. You may be asked to join the chief and others in drinking kava and it’s incumbent on you to accept that invitation.

In case you're a Point Loma or San Diego
Rotary Club member wondering if your
money and time are going to a cause,
this seran-wrapped sign was posted
in the Vuadomo village.
Well, it all sounded to me like some cultural relic that is still carried out for the benefit of tourists. Sounded like artifice and if there’s one thing that turns me off, its artifice. Touristy artifice is the worst.


“Over there, in the market, you can buy kava for your sevusevu before we leave.” Windy heeded our cab driver’s advice and walked across the busy bus terminal to buy a handful of dried sticks wrapped in newspaper like a bouquet.

Seriously? We just want to go to the waterfall to relax and cool off.

Arriving in the larger city of Savusavu, the village culture didn’t apply. This would be our first time venturing outside of Fijian city life. This would apparently be our first opportunity to present sevusevu. I wasn’t eager for this; I sensed touristy artifice.

Twenty minutes later, we left the main road and bounced along a pocked dirt road in a lush, steep-walled valley.

“We’re almost to the Vuadomo village. The waterfall is back that way,” our driver said pointing over his shoulder. “Once you present your sevusevu, I’ll bring you to the trailhead.”

“Everyone take off your hat and sunglasses,” Windy announced from the back seat. I looked over at our Indian driver, my eyebrows raised in a question. He nodded at me.

“Are we going to sit in a kava circle?” I asked him.

“No, you’ll just present your sevusevu and ask permission to visit the falls.”

“Might he say no?” I asked.

“No. And when you’re done, you’ll need to pay a fee to use the fall; it’s eight dollars per person.”


The fall guy.
The old Toyota sedan stopped and I squinted into the sunlight. Several women sat in the shade, each before a pile of touristy trinkets, ashtrays and shot glasses with “Bula!” printed in bold letters, for sale among shell necklaces and other things I was pretty sure nobody in this village produced.

Bula!” we called out warmly. They motioned us over to survey their wares. We all decided on the most practical thing we could buy: an 8-ounce plastic bottle of coconut oil that was pressed locally. Then Eleanor bought a pair of earrings. Then someone said the chief was coming and told us to sit on a nearby bench. A woman took our kava bouquet from Windy.

The chief was small, old, dark-skinned, and wrinkled. He sat quietly on a mat about 10 feet from us and nobody made a peep. The woman who’d taken our kava placed it gently before him and backed away. He didn’t pick up our sevusevu. He didn’t look at us. He sat quietly for a minute. Then he started talking in Fijian, eyes closed. The seated women nodded. At some point he picked up our sevusevu and regarded it carefully, like it was something he’d not seen before, all the while talking to himself in Fijian. During this, the half-dozen women periodically clapped in unison, obviously in response to the chief. Then, he set the kava back down, stood, and walked, stooping heavily, back to the village house he’d come from. One of the women picked up the kava and followed him.

“Are we good?”

“All good.” One of the women said.

Then we paid the fee, got back into the cab, and drove to the trailhead.

“I’ll be back to pick you up at 3:00 p.m.” Our cab driver said.

Our first sevusevu presentation was probably different from what Captain Cook likely experienced. Seeing as how hundreds and hundreds of tourists visit this particular waterfall every year, it was probably nothing like what we would have experienced in communities a bit farther off the beaten path. But neither did I get the impression these folks were doing a song and dance for the tourists before retreating to their homes, pulling the iPhone 6 out of a hidden pocket, and resuming a Facebook dialog. Fiji is among the most affluent and developed of the Pacific Island nations—in comparison, way beyond Tonga by these measures—but the traditional culture is by no means completely diffused.

We’ve not yet experienced the outer island culture, but where we’ve been, it feels like we’re in a country with a healthy social dynamic. The vibe here is good. People seem content. I’m sure it’s not nirvana, and we’ve been here only just over a month, but there’s a warmth and genuineness and kindness that we get from nearly every interaction with a Fijian (and this from an eternal skeptic). It’s an easygoing politeness that strikes us.

You need a long boat for a long boat name.

Friday, August 26, 2016

By Michael
Momi Bay, Fiji

Mr. Kesteven was patient, attentive, and
competent--I highly recommend him
for your kids in Savusavu.
…a couple of the world’s newest PADI Open Water scuba divers.

While in Savusavu, we wandered into the Namena dive shop and saw their prices were reasonable. That night on Trip Advisor, we read all the reviews for the place, including glowing reviews for their instructor, Daniel Kesteven. The next day we returned and signed the girls up. Frances happens to be the minimum age for certification (10).

Now, dive shops in vacation destinations worldwide are used to spitting out scuba certifications after two very full days of multiple dives and lots of study. We told Daniel we weren’t in a hurry and that we wanted to stretch the instruction and the diving out so that the girls could more thoroughly process the information. He was cool with that. Eleanor and Frances never did more than one dive a day, took a couple days off in the middle, and got a break from normal school so they could study, study, study.

They both took it very seriously and also enjoyed the experience. About a week after getting certified, they went on their first recreational dive off Taveuni with a dive master and the 12-year-old daughter of the owner of the Paradise Resort. They had a blast.

We are likely pointing our bow north next and the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) are up there somewhere, with world class dive sites (Truk, Palau, and others) featuring WWII wrecks and clear, clear water. My girls will be ready.

The girls at the start.

Beginning first pool dive.

Doing a safety stop during their second open water dive.
Windy and I dove on one of their final open water dives.
It was fun to hang out in the periphery and watch them learn.
Daniel snapped this photo for us.
Me, Eleanor, Frances, Windy, left to right.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

By Michael

Dogs in front of a Savusavu market.
Damn, I thought to myself when we first arrived in Fiji, how do all these people get stuck wearing the wrong size flip-flops? Men, women, and children alike all wear flip-flops, always the cheapest thinnest-soled kind—the ones they sell in the drug store for $1.99. But on Fijian feet—and I remember seeing the same thing in the Samoas—every pair is just way too small. The tips of toes hang over the flip-flop fronts and soles disappear under bare heels. A size 7 shoe is the same price as a size 9, so it can’t be a money thing.

The other day, walking down Savusavu’s waterfront street in the rain, wearing my generous-sized Tahitian flip-flops, I felt the little water droplets filled with street grime flicking up onto the backs of my calves with every step. My questions disappeared. All the calves of the Fijians around me were clean. Damn, I gotta trim my flip flops.

Fiji is turning out to be an interesting place (for more reasons than the flip-flop conundrum). We’re rather enjoying it. The population seems to be an equal mix of afro-haired Melanesians and Indians. But they’re all Fijian. The Indians arrived generations ago and one man I spoke with said he is no more familiar with India then I am with Ireland/Sweden. But the difference between the Fijian Indians and melting-pot Americans like me, is that the Indian culture is preserved here among Fijian Indians who have never been to India and have no plans to go. Religion, language, and dress are all unmistakably Indian. I can choose from several brands and sizes of ghee in every store and turmeric and masala is sold by the kilo. We ride on buses owned by a company called Vishnu and the pirated-DVD stores are filled with Bollywood titles.

I asked the same Indian gentleman about relations between the Indians and native Fijians. Contrary to my limited understanding of politics here, he said there are no problems. He said that inter-racial relationships are not unheard of, but that they aren’t common. I asked if either group is relegated to a lower class. He said no. Then he said that native Fijians don’t keep their houses clean like the Indians keep their houses.

Fiji is inexpensive for cruising sailors, and not just compared to the rest of the South Pacific. We’re currently sitting on a mooring in front of a plush resort. The mooring is free and we have full access to all of the resort amenities. We got our 10-gallon propane tank filled in Savusavu for US$6.50. There were a dozen Indian food restaurants around Savusavu and the plates are a great value. The four of us enjoyed one excellent sit-down Indian dinner with rice, curries, roti, and drinks for US$15--total. At the awesome Waitui Marina in Savusavu, we twice stuffed ourselves on the all-you-can-eat Indian buffet for US$7.50 per person (cheaper for the girls). The pumpkin curry and dahl and roti were out of this world.

Well, those Nazis really did quite a job
stigmatizing the swastika. It's a prime
symbol in Hinduism. These ornaments
were for sale for the Raksha Bandhan
festival (informally called Rakhi)
that was celebrated a few days
ago. It's a celebration of the love and
duty that exists in a brother-sister
relationship. The Hindus and Jains
both celebrate it, but so do secular folks.
Remarkably, I can say that every person we’ve met in three weeks in Fiji has been genuinely friendly and welcoming and accommodating. Parts of this country were devastated by Cyclone Winston this past season, and the effects are still evident, all around. Rebuilding is in full swing and from an arriving visitor’s perspective, among a people of an economy that depends on tourism, I have the sense everyone is sincerely pleased that we are here, that they recognize the import of ensuring the few visitors who are here, return home with positive reports from Fiji.

So what’s bad about this place? Well, it’s the dead of winter and we’ve had very few clear, sunny days since we arrived. (I feel badly for the few fly-in tourists we’ve seen who’ve spent their 10-day resort vacations in the rain and drizzle.) But apparently, this spat of inclement weather is unusual. I can report that the check-in fees are steep (just under US$200) and the process was more demanding than most countries we’ve visited. In fact, a week before we arrived, we were required to fill out a dozen-page form and send a copy of it—along with a photo of Del Viento and a photocopy of my passport—to Fijian Customs. Then, upon arriving, we had Customs, Immigration, Health, and Bio-Security officials aboard before we could go ashore. Then we had to later rendezvous in town at the offices of all but immigration to pay. Additionally, we are technically required to report our whereabouts weekly. But we’re used to the paper chase and we take it in stride.

We’ll be here for a spell, so stay tuned for reports and photos from Fiji. It’s a good place to be.

Hours after completing a 5-day passage from Samoa,
Customs (l) and immigration (r) officials boarded to
begin the check-in paperwork. Health and biosecurity
officials followed. Everyone was friendly and efficient.
Waitui isn't a marina per se, but a club house with a
dinghy dock, bar, showers, laundry, and restaurant.
Something about the building's aesthetic reminds
Windy and both of Alaska. Jolene, the manager,
provides the best customer service in the
entire Pacific. And she is a nice person.
Fiji Bitter is so far the best beer of the Pacific.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The Same and Different
By Michael

I don't know the name of this fall and pool
in American Samoa, our friends Matt
and Brittany took us on a hike here for
a refreshing day. I'm about to jump in.
We’ve been singing the praises of American Samoa since we first arrived there a year ago and found a place and people who contradicted everything we’ve heard about, “the Americanized cesspool of the South Pacific.” We loved the place. We still do. We returned again on our way to Fiji.

When we first arrived in Apia, the big city in the other Samoa, we described the country to our friends as, “More American than American Samoa.” There was a McDonalds in Apia too, and a larger population; a snazzy marina with new docks made in Bellingham, Washington, and fringed with nightclubs; a bunch of tourists and the taxis to serve them; and prohibitions against anchoring and other restrictive rules.

We didn’t stay long in Samoa, but we didn’t leave before we got past our first impressions and came to appreciate the place more. We met people and we got a couple hours out of town, by car.

Samoans (formerly Western Samoans) and American Samoans are a common people divided only by a political border. From my lay perspective, it seemed to me that American Samoans had not abandoned elements of their culture for their American identity. They still speak Samoan, they still live on communal lands under the jurisdiction of a chief, they still wear lava-lavas, they still bury their relatives in a crypt in front of their homes. All true, but in Samoa we saw a contrast in culture and identity that allowed us to appreciate the differences.

Driving outside the city of Apia, we were struck by the care and attention paid to landscaping outside of modest homes. (I’m describing a structure built hastily of scrap wood and sheet metal with the knowledge that it will need to be rebuilt after the next hurricane. Doors and windows do not warrant their expense.) Many of these properties are surrounded by landscaping that was designed and maintained with exquisite care. There is a cultural impetus behind this that we learned about in American Samoa, but which I strained to see evidence of there. Apparently, although all property is communal, the appearance of the landscaping in front of a man’s home is a strong reflection of his character and status. This was obvious and dramatic in Samoa.

Another Samoan (and South Pacific) cultural aspect is the fale, a domed, pillared structure without walls that is iconic. People call them sleeping rooms and meeting places. They are all over American Samoa, in all shapes and sizes near people’s homes and not apparently used often. They appeared to me as empty monuments to tradition, perhaps widely used before TV and AC.

In Samoa, the fales were just as prevalent, and appeared to be in daily use. Woven mats of pandanus leaves covered floors on which children played and women worked. Cots and bedding were neatly arranged in many.

That’s all, just small observations between the two Samoas. I absolutely felt a kinship in American Samoa; perhaps that was the allure to a traveler who has been out of country for so long. And every single American Samoan we’ve met has been friendly. But they are indeed more like us than their more numerous brothers and sisters, just 80 miles away—but not so many worlds apart.

Okay, so this is Le Sua, one of two joined, collapsed
lava tubes that lead to the ocean and that make a great
swimming hole about 2 hours by car outside of Apia, Samoa.
I know you have no perspective, but that's a small
beach on the bottom. See another perspective below.

And this is the adjacent To Sua. The dark patch at the
top is the lava tube to the ocean. You can swim through
at low tide. Not the two swimmers climbing down
the final ladder.

Here's a closer view of To Sua. See the line strung
across at water level? That is a help for holding on against
the strong, surging current.

Recall the beach in Le Sua, here it is
from inside the tube--that's Windy and

The park that features the lava tubes also has
a sandy grotto near lava pools on the beach.

Eleanor poking around the lava-molded pools.

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