Things were getting desperate. It had been a few weeks since we’d seen a vegetable market and even then it had been poorly stocked. We were down to an onion, a potato, some dried out chillies and a couple of sad tomatoes. We needed vegetables.
Armed with a set of GPS waypoints and a 20-year old cruising guide, we picked our way through the reefs on the northeast coast of Vanua Levu, the northernmost island of Fiji. Lonely Planet calls Vanua Levu “the best kept secret in Fiji,” which is travel guide code for there’s nothing there. It is in many ways unspoiled here, which means that there is great fishing, beautiful sand beaches and traditional villages. It also means that there’s not a lot of grocery stores.
We had a waypoint to get into the bay off the village of Visoqo, and our 20-year old guide mentioned that although they hadn’t been ashore here, there was a store. Excellent. We anchored about a mile off the village, as it was very reefy and shallow close to shore, and set out on a big long row into town.
After a 20-minute longboat row, with Steven on the starboard oar and me on the port, we pulled up to the crumbling stone pier off the village. We tied the dinghy to a rock and scrambled up to the grass of shore. We thought we could see a road and walked toward it, but it was just a clearing – sort of a village square.
As we were looking around and trying to figure out what to do, a couple of people came out and introduced themselves to us. We introduced ourselves and asked to see the chief, so we could give a gift of yaqona (the root which is ground up to make kava) and do sevusevu (the traditional ceremony asking for permission to visit the village). There was no chief we were told, nor were there a store or a vegetable market, but there was an American at the school.
Okay; that’s not what we expected. But, we just went with it. We met Scott, a Peace Corps volunteer, who helped us translate linguistically and more important, culturally, for the rest of the day. We visited the school, where we were cause to suspend classes due to the excitement of our visit. We visited each class and told them who we were and where we came from. Everyone was amazed that Canada has polar bears, sunlight for 19 hours in the summer and that I was the captain. One young girl, after several false starts, shyly asked what she should study so she could become a boat captain herself.
After the school trip, Scott noticed that we had yaqona sticking out of our bag and understood at once why a group of village men had accumulated at the edge of the school grounds, waiting for us. We were introduced to the town’s Methodist minister, who along with the town head man (the first person we met) performed the sevusevu ceremony. Then we were led to the village hall, where the yaqona was pounded and turned into kava, which we ritually drank with the rest of the villagers with much hand-clapping and chit chat.
It was a surprisingly casual event, with Steven coopted into a game of finger billiards, the headmaster of the schools arriving to ask me questions about navigation and the women supplying tea and pancakes. Finally, after the second bowl of kava had been mixed up, we excused ourself to return to Scream before dark. The head man offered to tow us, which we gratefully accepted. We gave him a tour of the boat and some fishing line and thanked him for the village’s hospitality. After a couple of nights we had to move on in search of veggies, but luckily the headman was coming out fishing as we were leaving and he dropped off a generous gift of coconuts and bananas.
In a world without vegetables, fruit will do.