Fulaga, Lau Group, Fiji
It’s easy to lose track of time in Fulaga: we thought we’d stay for a couple of weeks, but before we knew it, five had slipped by. And we’d slipped into the daily and weekly rhythm of village life.
Monday mornings is the women’s weaving get-together, where – over much giggling and gossip – pandanus leaves are painstakingly prepared and woven into mats, dance fans, baskets and other items, and anyone can stand up and have their grievances heard, discussed and resolved.
I’d wondered about the petty politics and jealousies that usually fester in a small community. In the whole time we were in Fulaga, I never heard anyone speak ill about anyone else. One way of keeping the peace seemed to be the early and open airing of problems, where the whole village discusses the issue. Generally, it seemed, the air was cleared and the gripe session ended with everyone rolling around laughing and teasing one another. At least, that’s what we saw, though we weren’t privy to discussions of more weighty issues.
During the week, the Chief sets tasks for the village workforce: build a new verandah for the school, clear an area of bush, tidy up the village and mow the grass – whatever needs attending to. When not working on group projects, villagers work their own vegetable plots, or the men sit in convivial groups carving wooden objects – tanoas, sculpted birds and fish, drums, bowls – for export to Suva on the next supply ship.
Apart from the initial chainsaw-assisted recruitment of the piece of hardwood (nau nau or vesi), the carving is done by hand with shared tools. The carvers sit on the ground, holding the object between their bare feet and wielding chisels and adzes with merciful accuracy.
Every afternoon around 4.00pm, the volleyball net is strung up in the middle of the village, and just about every able-bodied villager comes to play. As with every other activity, we cruisers were enthusiastically invited to participate – but we soon learned that it was best to get in early, before things got serious. Once they did, we’d retire to the sidelines and gossip with the other onlookers.
Virtually every week, there is an event – usually some sort of fund-raiser for the kindergarten, youth group or other community project. It generally involves a feast (pot luck); kava drinking (there’s no alcohol in the village), music and dancing. Brothers, Jio and Sikele play guitar and ukulele and harmonise beautifully. They’ll be joined by someone on improvised percussion: a bottle played with cockle shells, or a stiff broom as snare.
At a ‘Bring and Buy’, we were ushered into Ma’s house where, incongruously, music was being played via a laptop plugged into the house’s one solar-powered electrical outlet. Salote, who fashions herself as the town clown, got up and danced, hauling other people to their feet to dance in a conga line, pulling faces and hamming it up until everyone was in stitches, literally rolling on the floor.
Everyone sits cross-legged on the ground playing lively card games, drinking kava, singing, some smoking ‘cigars’ made from a single leaf of the local tobacco rolled in newspaper into a foot-long, thin cigarette. Little kids crawl into the nearest lap (they’re not fussy about whose) and fall asleep. At some point, a plate is passed around for donations, and there’s usually a speech.
I noticed that most of the villagers have horny callouses on their ankle bones from a lifetime of sitting cross-legged on hard ground. I find it impossible to sit cross-legged comfortably, but it’s considered rude to have your feet sticking out in front of you. It’s amusing to watch fellow cruisers, particularly the men, with their ankles crossed and their knees in their armpits, trying to maintain some sort of decorum in their unfamiliar sulus – and generally failing. (On more than one occasion, discreet messages had to be passed from affronted villagers to cruisers that it wasn’t polite to go ‘commando’ under the sulu…).
Saturday was given over to collecting food for Sunday lunch. It usually involved fishing excursions, for which our big dinghy with its 40HP engine was welcomed.
One blustery cool Saturday, we headed out onto the lagoon with Seta and Penina, Joanna and Bis and Tui. Joanna and Bis are in their late twenties (at a guess), and have university degrees (though Bis hasn’t completed his last subject in Finance). They are back living in the village and starting up a composting project with the aim of improving the soil for growing vegetables.
Tui – the only skinny man in the village – is a bit older (hard to tell) and has returned, having chucked in his job at the Hard Rock Café in Denarau.
We dropped off Penina and Joanna by a mushroom-shaped islet to look for mussels (more like cockles) while the rest of us crossed to the far side of the lagoon and went in search of mud crab (caught one, lost two, pulled from a rock crevice). Just about anything around here is considered edible: Seta also collected chitons, sea cucumbers, cockles and land crabs.
Tui pointed out a footprint in the sand: “Joe was here this morning,” he said, explaining that everyone could recognise everyone else’s footprints.
We picked up Joanna and Penina, who were soaked and chilled, and tried line fishing for a while, with no success and, given it was rough, cold and rainy we headed for home. The day wasn’t a good one for fishing, but it wasn’t an unusual one, either: it seems the lagoon is pretty heavily fished out, though there is supposedly a chiefly decree that sections of the lagoon are out of bounds for fishing, in an effort to restore fish stocks.
Sunday is the big day in the village, where everyone (bar one couple) is a Methodist and everyone attends at least one of the three or more church services held throughout the day.
It’s almost expected that yachties attend – at least once. On our first Sunday, we accompanied Penina (Seta, as a church elder, was delivering a sermon in the next village) and sat in the front row opposite two rows of wriggling kids, the girls all dressed in long white dresses, the boys in white shirts and trousers, with their hair slicked down.
Things got underway with some lovely harmonised singing from the choir, but this was followed by the whole congregation joining in: apparently volume takes precedence over pitch, but general enthusiasm saw the roof just about blow away.
There are three villages on the island, all Methodist, and three ministers, who rotate around. That day was the minister from Naividamu at the far end of the lagoon, a handsome man in his forties who looked a bit like Martin Luther King in his black suit and crisp white shirt. His sermon was lengthy and in Fijian, but we were left in no doubt, from his dramatic gestures and booming voice, that he was preaching fire and brimstone. If we’d been god-fearing Methodists, we’d have been quaking.
I got a little distracted, along with the kids in the opposite row, and amused myself watching Joe, one of the village elders, dressed in the Fijian equivalent of a safari suit, as he sternly patrolled the aisles with a long twig and waggled it under the nose of any miscreant kids.
After the sermon, someone I didn’t know stood up and spoke in English.
“We have welcomed you into the village and into our church. It means a lot to us that you have shared our lives both physically and spiritually.”
And Robbie from Mersoleil, a Texan lawyer with an ideally sonorous voice, responded in kind on the cruisers’ behalf.
After church, we retired to Seta and Penina’s house for lunch: a banquet set out on the floor, featuring all the critters we’d caught the day previously, as well as rotis and numerous vegetable dishes (taro leaves in coconut milk is my fave, not so keen on the starchy taro root itself) and some donations from neighbours. Everything had been harvested locally (apart from the Maggi noodles!). The whole village had been up since before dawn preparing food and there were a couple of very disappointed hosts whose cruisers hadn’t shown up. *
We ate and ate until we were saved by the bell – or rather the drum – calling our hosts to the afternoon church service. We thanked them and waddled on home.
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*(Note to any cruisers going to Fulaga: attendance at church is ‘expected’ but not required. If you don’t want to go, you need to advise your host family on Friday. Otherwise they’ll be out all day Saturday catching food, and preparing it for your lunch on Sunday).