Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Beqa Island, Fiji, July 15, 2009


Waiting for parts we took a weekend trip to Beqa Island, located about 25 miles southwest of Suva. We were entranced and decided to return with our new alternator installed. The chartplotter still doesn’t work but the boat has managed well without one for almost 5 years, just a longer delay to our entrance into 21st century navigation.
Beqa (spelled “Mbengga” on charts) is 36 square kilometers of mountainous green jungle, beach and mangroves. There are nine villages on the island, which is surrounded by a large lagoon. No roads, off the grid, very quiet. We are told that it is written up as one of the “1000 Places to See Before You Die” and frequently makes the list of top dive sites in the world. It is also home to a clan of firewalkers that is unique to this island. There are a handful of intimate resorts which have been very welcoming – perhaps because business is slow, perhaps because everyone likes an anchored yacht in the foreground of their sunset photo, perhaps for diversion. The clients are mainly American honeymooners and dive groups.
All land and harbors –even surf breaks!- are owned by someone. Here, as in other rural areas of Fiji, one cannot anchor, walk, fish, swim – do anything, really – without permission of the village chief and payment of the “toll”. Here is the routine:
Anchor. Get dinghy in water. Put engine on dinghy. Go ashore. Remember to bring the kava (dried pepper plant that is prepared as a slightly inebriating tea) you bought at the market in town which the sellers dress up in newspaper and ribbon, and remember to bring the cruising permit that is written in Fijian. Remember to remove your sunglasses and hat – wearing them is disrespectful. Remember to be covered from the knees to the shoulders. Remember to bring the camera.
Greet the hordes of children on the beach, climbing into the boat, touching everything, dripping green stuff from their noses, with odd skin lesions and coughs. Ask for the chief. Walk through the village saying “bula” to everyone. Be shown into the chief’s house, into a large room covered with woven straw mats, where an ordinary looking guy with gray hair greets you. Be seated on the mat, cross legged. Make some small talk “Where are you from?” “How long will you stay?”, hand over your gift of kava.
The chief chants a short something over the kava then claps his hands five times (a distinguished, low-pitched clap) then dismisses us with directions: “The children will show you around the village. You are welcome to stay as long as you want . You may take pictures”. Later you learn if you want to climb that mountain you need to pay a guide. And that beach over there belongs to someone else, you can’t go there.
Sometimes the villagers are friendly, inviting you into their homes, and “giving” you stuff – a shell necklace, some papayas, a snack. It’s not so much a gift as the preliminary to asking you for something – a raincoat? Some batteries for her radio? Fishing line? Money towards a new pair of rugby boots?
It’s exhausting and very rewarding. You go back to the boat and bring the stuff you promised and meet more people who want to give you more things, and then you meet their children and grandchildren and some other people, and on it goes.

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