Saturday, March 7, 2009

#8: Visiting the Bule (Village)

Post by expedition member Jody Renouf

Dive photos: Keith Ellenbogen

Yesterday we did only three dives, forgoing our usual dusk dive so we could enjoy a village visit in the late afternoon and early evening. Instead of wet suits and fins, we donned bright island bula shirts and colorful sulus (complimentary fabric wraps provided by the Nai'a). Suli, the boat's purser and only female crew member, showed us how to correctly don this traditional Fijian garb; we needed all the help we could get! In preparation for the visit to Makogai Island, we were also given a few basic rules: wear shorts under your sulu, don't wear a hat into the village or touch anyone's head (including the childrens'), and don't sit with your feet pointing towards the elders during the sevu-sevu welcoming ceremony.

We board the skiffs for the short trip to the island, where we are greeted by the smell of outdoor cooking, the sight of about twenty smiling faces and the sound of their singing; the welcoming spirit is genuine. The children are front and center, presenting us with leis made from island flowers. Chief Watson introduces himself and shows us the pit of smoldering rocks where our dinner will roast under a thick cover of palm leaves. Next he explains the history of the island, which dates back to 1911 when the French Catholic Church set up a leper colony here; after a cure for leprosy was found the remaining inhabitants were transferred to a hospital in the capital of Suva and the current village was founded in 1956. While most of the buildings have crumbled, a few are still used.

The nearly 100-year-old diesel-powered generator still chugs along, powering the lights and the village's clam and turtle farm. The clams from the village help sustain the local reef's population, proving that even a community of such limited resources can give something back to the ocean. Unfortunately, at this time the tanks are empty because there hasn't been a delivery of diesel fuel to run the water pumps for several weeks. Chief Watson also shows us a few relics from the Europeans' occupation, including a large concrete wall that used to be a cinema projection screen and an enormous overgrown cemetery with leaning crosses.

One of us coughs; Chief Watson pulls up a plant and reveals its white core that is used like menthol to treat the problem. Then we pass a vine-covered fence that is selectively harvested before our eyes. Children, eager to share something with us, squeeze the leaves and the bright green juice produced is given to us as a topical treatment for our many cuts and scrapes; some of us are a real mess! The villagers obviously know and love the land, and Chief Watson is proud of their Fijian heritage; he left the hustle and bustle of the city to help preserve these traditions.

When our tour is over it's time for the official sevu-sevu welcoming ceremony. This consists of an offering to the village and the sharing of kava, the watery medicine-flavored lip-numbing beverage made from pepper root. The children also give us large leaves to use as fans in the hot and humid mbure (meeting house). The ceremonial exchange between Chief Watson and Nai'a's representative (Bosun/ Divemaster Moses) is beautiful to listen to, but lacks subtitles! Mo apparently represents us well, because soon the kava is poured and shared by all. The villagers greatly appreciate our gifts: school supplies for the children, twenty gallons of diesel fuel, and some money for additional fuel in the hopes of filling the clam beds again.

After a few rounds of kava Chief Watson announces that it's time for entertainment. The children have worked hard to prepare a show for us, and their efforts are evident; the choreography and costumes are topnotch! Between every song Chief Watson apologizes for the lack of high tech special effects and lighting but we are impressed, especially by the final number when the boys lunge ferociously at us with spears and grimaces!

Next, we are all invited to dance. Our dance partners, the village children, pull us one by one from the perimeter of the mbure where we are seated; eventually everyone is dancing, first as couples or trios, then as one long conga line.

Group photos and general socializing follow the dancing. By now it's quite dark, and the smell of cooking meat and veggies scents the air. Our dinner is ready to be dug out of the hot pit and loaded onto the skiffs to be enjoyed back aboard the Nai'a.

Later, if the wind is right and we listen closely, we can still hear singing from the island. The bula spirit is unmistakable; while they may run out of diesel, they'll never run out of energy!

- Jody

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