With any form of travel it is easy to follow the well beaten path, visiting only the locations with the ‘best’ beaches, waterfalls or reefs. Although wonderful, these places sometimes leave us longing for a more genuine experience. We love learning about the places we visit and find that the best way to learn about a country is to get to know the people who live there. This can be difficult to do when you are just another foreigner, in an area frequented by tourists. We find that in general, the fewer tourists locals see, the friendlier they are likely to be. A handful of foreigners is a novelty, a bus load becomes just an income.
With poor charts and little information available, visiting less frequented islands with the boat can either be an exciting journey of discovery or a complete disaster. Tired from the overnight sail from Vanua Balavu, we arrived at Moala and had to work out the best approach. With very little information available on anchorages and no depth information available on the chart, we approached with caution, keeping a keen lookout from the bow. We spent over 30 minutes circling the bay, looking for a large enough clear area to drop the anchor without risking tangling with coral. We eventually settled on a patch just off of the wharf which was built for the island’s twice monthly supply ship. Apart from the supply ship and a once a week flight on an 8 seat plane, to get to Moala you need your own boat. There are no guest houses or hotels because, other than family and friends, there are no tourists.
Rowing ashore, dressed in sulu’s (Fijian Sarongs) we were greeted by a lady busy fishing from the wharf who kindly directed us to the village and Chief. Everyone we passed as we walked through the village greeted us with huge beaming smiles and a friendly “Bula” (Hello) or “Bula Bula” (Hello very much). In the short section of track between the wharf and Chief’s house we were stopped several times by members of the village who were keen to shake our hands, introduce themselves, and find out where we were from. We were directed to the Chief so we could present our sevusevu, the traditional gift of kava root given when asking permission to enter the village. Our gift was kindly accepted and we were warmly welcomed into the village of Naroi.
We spent the following day swimming from the boat, completing some maintenance jobs and recovering from the previous night’s sail. Throughout the day several open fishing boats zipped by, they would pass as close as possible to Florence to see more of the boat and take pictures of us. It felt slightly surreal to be the subject of their photos as we grinned, waved and and returned their hearty “Bula”s. Only 5 yachts had visited the island in the last two years so we were a novelty.
Recovered, and with Florence back up to 100%, we were keen to meet more of the villagers. We were just about to head ashore when we saw someone waving at us from the dock. We rowed in to meet them and were presented with some banana and papaya by Sasa and his brother Mo. Sasa lives on the beach by our anchorage and wanted to make sure we knew we were welcome to enjoy the beach by his house. We were soon invited to join them in the village later that afternoon for a farewell party for an American Peace Corps volunteer who had been living on the island for two years.
Sasa had worked in Australia for 20 years before retiring back to his home island. This gave him a great understanding of the differences between Fijian and Western cultures, so he was able to give us some great insights into life in Fiji. The Fijian islanders that we have met so far seem content and have a genuine appreciation of the simple life in their island villages. As we neared the village, Sasa joked that the first missionary to arrive from England in Fiji was eaten! Our reception could not have been more different, Sasa took us to meet his extended family, and then we were welcomed into his nephews house where we sat for a while chatting with the family and sipping delicious fresh coconuts. Then it was on to the pre-dinner kava or “grog” drinking session with other members of the village. Kava root is the main export of Moala Island and provides good money for the farmers. Grog farmers are the wealthiest people on the island. Great care is taken to test the quality of the grog produced as the root was continually pounded through the night and the large kava bowl continuously replenished. It must have been a productive season as we were astounded at the amount consumed in one evening.
Whilst Sasa stayed in the grog drinking ring we were ushered into the hall where we found that we had been given a place of honour at the head of the table (woven floor mat), next to the 3 Peace Core volunteers (the only other foreigners based on the island). We were then treated to a feast of fresh fish and local vegetables, prepared in many different ways and served by the women of the village. The Peace core volunteers were all fluent in Fijian and had been coordinating sea defenses for the island’s villages. After dinner it was back to the grog drinking, we were now given a place of honour in the chiefs circle and gradually picked up the etiquette of when to clap, how to sit (never with your knees up), how to say thank you and that we should down the grog in one! Informed that the grog drinking was likely to continue until sunrise, we said our thank yous and goodbyes at 11:30pm, as we had been invited to the school the next day to talk to the children about our travels. We were interested to see what effect the grog would have but, other than a slightly numb upper lip, we were unaffected.
We ended up spending the whole of the next day in school as we visited both the primary and secondary school, speaking to around 130 children in total. The Royal family is big here but concepts like the London Underground, blocks of flats, motorways and snow are totally alien so we tried our best to describe England. Our photos and videos helped us describe life at sea and some of the places we have visited. Guesses on how long it took to get across the pacific ranged from 2 days to a week so their jaws dropped when we explained that Panama to the Marquesas took us 33 days. They stared as us disbelievingly when we told them it took us 2 years to get here from England, but we have used less fuel than their Police boat takes to get to the next island and back. Whistles and “wow”s echoed around the room at pictures of Florence’s interior which they thought to be “like a very nice house”.
We returned back to Florence to find our friend Sasa had left us two large hand woven fruit baskets full of bananas, papayas and coconuts.
That evening three of the teachers we had met at the school came by for a look around Florence and to share some stories and refreshments. We had various invites to go snorkeling/fishing and take a boat around to the next village but bad weather was forecast to come in from the North which would have made the anchorage dangerous. We would have loved to stay and invite more of the wonderful villagers on-board Florence but as is often the case, the weather was dictating our movements.
We spent our last day enjoying lunch on board Florence with Sasa who entertained us with humorous tales of his immersion in Australian culture, such a far cry from island life in Fiji. We were very sad to leave our new friend as we set sail from Moala that afternoon.
Despite only having spent five days on the island, Moala is a place we will never forget. It’s amazing how people can sway your impression of a place. For us Moala didn’t need the most beautiful beaches, waterfalls or reefs to become our favourite place in Fiji. Receiving such a warm welcome when you are two strangers, as far away from home as you can be, is an incredibly humbling experience and one that will stay with us forever.