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The Yasawas





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We were moored at Port Denarau, for re-fuelling and re-provisioning. I took the bus from downtown Nadi which costs 70 cents. At one point a small yellow butterfly flew into the doorway and was an exact match with the color of the ageing paint lining the bus' interior. As soon as we crossed the bridge onto Denarau Island the sugar-cane plantations and cassava crops were replaced at first by a pristine golf course, leading then into the luxury resort grounds of The Sheraton and The Radisson hotels. There were fancy little shuttles with novelty thatched roofs for moving guests around the island.

At the marina there is a Hard Rock Cafe. Along with the rest of the boat's crew, I went there the first night at Denarau Marina because it was the only place not restricted to hotel guests where we could get a beer. I talked to other foreigners at the bar and watched nostalgic music videos on the television screens. The fijian bar-maids insisted on taking us to a nightclub when they were finished working. We drank at the bar until they closed it, then took a taxi to Nadi together.

The club was called 'Steps', and they played disco-music with a tropical feel. Apart from a few coloured lights it was mostly dark inside. We were the only white people there - I enjoyed watching the bright clothes of the black figures moving on the dance-floor. Many of the Fijians there loved us, whilst others had an obvious problem with our being present. One very drunk man stood over our table most of the night. His face looked hard and was lined with a film of sweat that would occasionally reflect the colour of the lights - especially the greens. Without being directly confrontational, he was obviously intent on making some kind of a point - looking at his eyes there was no doubt of this, although exactly what the message was remained unclear. He looked especially bothered when we danced; no doubt our style on the floor lowered the overall standard of the place, but I think his problem went deeper than that.

Other people were unreasonably favourable towards us. They bought an endless amount of Fiji Bitter for our table and were constantly making us drink in the way they all seemed to prefer; by pouring the stubbies into a jug, combined with rum, and then passing around the same small cup that everyone would drink from in turn. In a lot of ways it resembled the kind of social dynamic we'd experienced in kava ceremonies, only there was no clapping as a sign of respect.

When the club closed there was a fight just outside the door. The Hard Rock girls made us wait inside until it calmed down. I'd seen it begin earlier, and I'm certain that it had something to do with our presence in the club. The guy who'd been standing over our table was approached by someone else - probably telling him to leave us be - and this sparked an argument, eventually developing into a scrap involving a handful of others who tried to restrain him. I watched from the doorway. Their bodies were large and powerful. The intensity of the fighting fluctuated in the same way that small waves do when they roll onto a steep beach; there was a burst of violent energy followed by a period of calm in which the opponents would stand at a small distance from one another and breathe heavily.

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One village was situated on a flat area of sandy earth between the forest and the ocean. We were there to look for the wreckage of an American fighter plane that we'd been told crashed in the water just off the back of the island during WWII. The village was home to just one extended family, although recently many of the members had moved over to the mainland, Vitu Levu, for employment. There were only two people living there when we visited, an elderly couple. We found the old man first, in a small hut that seemed to serve as a kitchen. There was a small battery-radio playing inside at a low volume. We presented him with a paper bag of kava as sevusevu - a Fijian custom whereby visitors present cassava root to the chief of the village - then explained that we were hoping to snorkel and see the wreckage of the aircraft. He gave us two papaya and pointed us in the right direction.

There was quite a lot of wind but it was very warm. The sand had been raked flat around the huts and the only noise was the wind passing through palm leaves above us. We found the old woman on the beach - walking with a woven bag in one hand and a thin metal pole in the other - on her way to collect seaweed and shellfish in the shallows. It was 1943 when the plane crashed there, she told us, and she was 4 years old. The American soldier was in the village for less than an hour. As she spoke, she drew a figure-of-eight in the sand with the pole. A few moments later, she drew a second one. Nobody else seemed to notice this.

The plane was amazing - smaller than i'd imagined, but the skeleton of it was mostly intact from the cockpit back. There was a porcupine fish in the tail cavity, as well as a tangle of organisms similar to sea cucumbers, only much longer, woven all throughout the wreckage. Initially I'd thought they were a part of the aircraft, some sort of mechanical tubing.

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There are many islands.

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A few days later we dragged the dinghy ashore on the beach of another and we were met by 4 teenage boys of about the same age. They spoke very little English but greeted us warmly. One of the boys had a tattoo on the upper part of his right arm. A lot of the villagers I had already met elsewhere also had symbolic tattoos - usually a simplified and patterned representation of such things as the sun, men, or fish etc. - but this tattoo was different. It wasn't at all figurative and was rendered quite crudely on his skin. It depicted a square shape, rotated 90 degrees to resemble a diamond. The diamond was sitting at the head of a kind of vertical column, formed by two lines that extended downwards from the left and right corners of the shape. These two lines were of slightly different lengths and petered out just above his elbow. l asked him what was used as ink and he told me battery acid. At first I thought that he hadn't understood the question, but later found out that it's commonly used.

We spent a few hours in the village accompanied by the teenagers. They led us to the chief's bure (hut) for sevusevu, then helped us to harvest fruit and vegetables from the plantation and offered us a very good price. We seemed to understand each other well despite sharing only a little language. There was very limited conversation, but also limited confusion.

In the boat as we left the village I reflected on the apparent complicity between us, struck by the possibility that it may not have existed if we'd been able to converse more freely: the possibility that - without the language barrier - we would have had even less to say to each other. I was reluctant to accept it, but essentially we had little common ground and very few shared interests; we would have had hardly anything to talk about. The language barrier has the potential to make simplified communication seem somehow profound, as if your interactions have been stripped back to some shared, raw, human level - but often this experience is an inflated one, an illusion which owes itself to being without the filters that accompany more complex means of communication. Silent engagement - even if it isn't clouded by the inevitable vagaries of linguistic terms and definitions - is no more or less obscure than conversation. We replace the gestures of words with gestures made in flesh and even in its absence. Perhaps our time together was actually enhanced by the fact that we were unable to communicate properly. I was unsettled by a feeling that there is no real communion - that something is always deferred.

I watched the figures on the beach, who had their eyes fixed on us as we made our departure. When we were far enough away that I could no longer return their gaze I became suddenly aware of things - the noise of the outboard motor, the pitch of the boat in the wind-swell. Soon the anxiety dissolved; there was a salty spray blowing into my face as bow of the dinghy cut through water, into the wind.






july 2009