by Peter Nelson
The sky above, the mud below. Quite literally. A beginning most inauspicious.
We got off the plane at Nadi (pronounced “NAN-dee”), and left the airport quickly, spurred on by a newspaper headline which screamed “Tourism Minister Warns of Hippie Invasion!”
And like most airport towns, Nadi really sucked, so we just beetled right out of there.
On the road out of town, I met Koroi, a native dude, also hitching, and he invited me to come with him to visit his sister Asena. Never say ‘no’, right? I assumed his sister lived like in the next town or something. Little did I know that it would be a 2 ½ day trip to get there. We would have to drive all day to where the road ends, then walk slippery trails all the following day, and then row most of the night around the coast in a small boat to get to her distant little village.
Anyway, Koroi and I get a lift from a couple of chaps pretty quickly, and we ride on for another 80 miles or so, and then take a quick plunge off the road. The road has ended. So it’s on foot from here on.
“Plunge” maybe isn’t the right word, since we’re climbing most of the time. Steep trails, quite rocky, and worse, it’s hard to see now that it’s twilight. Finally, we reach the top of a small mountain where a tiny village with the ironic name of Tokyo teeters precariously. Actually, there’s only one real building, with walls of woven bamboo and no windows. And we’re up high enough that it’s pretty chilly after dark.
As I’ve come to expect in the Pacific islands, we are heartily welcomed, and soon we hear that ominous thud-thud-thud which means yagona roots are being ground into powder, and soon enough, bowls of freshly-made kava are thrust upon us from all sides.
A little tongue-numbing, anyone?
Really, really good people. The Fijians are much darker than the Samoans, with tightly curled hair, thicker lips, deeper voices. Jone Masaga, the chief, speaks English well, as do two of the young people. We stay in Tokyo only one night. Koroi has managed to find a boat to take us around the coast, since there are no roads or even any trails where we’re heading. (Not that I have any idea where we’re heading!)
Next morning, we make an early start. All of Tokyo (maybe a dozen people) turn out to see us off. Amazing how quickly the locals make you feel at home; seems as if we’ve known them much longer than just a single day. Anyway, we shoulder our packs and start off — downhill this time, the steep trails not made any easier by last night’s thunderous deluge. Slipping and sliding and sweating, we stumble along until we reach an impassible-looking mangrove swamp.
Needless to say, a small thing like a smelly swamp isn’t going to deter us. The ground itself (if you can even call it “ground”) is exceedingly treacherous. It’s thin, oozy black muck that would swallow you up to your ears if you were foolish enough to step on it. So you have to step gingerly from one wet and slippery sinuous mangrove tree root to the next, each one more springy and less secure than the one before it. Every step is a wildly flailing balancing act not made any easier by having a 50-pound pack on your back. But everyone manages to survive somehow, and we eventually wade out to the small boat waiting for us.
It was a long haul to get here, so it’s twilight by the time we sail out into the bay, into this sea that’s literally lavender with jelly-fish. Blue-violet amorphous blobs bobbing up and down just below the surface. Must be thousands of them, repulsive-looking critters. (I don’t ask if they’re poisonous, ‘cause I’d rather not know!) But we push on out of the bay into the open sea, which is calm, fortunately, since our boat is quite small and hardly leakproof. In fact, we’re bailing it out continuously.
Darkness descends, and we’re still uncertain which of the many small bays is the one we’re after. Very hard to see, there being no moon, but the ink-black night gives us a great chance to see these microscopic sea creatures which glow phosphorescent green when disturbed. As we plow on through the water, sheets of tiny green flashes follow in our wake, and more green sparks dance around every stroke of the oars. Incredible stuff. Bioluminescence. Saw something like it a few years ago on Padre Island off the Texas Gulf coast.
Koroi hasn’t been to see his sister in a few years and has trouble finding the way in the dark, so we just pick places blindly and go ashore a few times to ask where we are. Finally, we find the right village, run aground with a bump and wade out into warm black water towards shore.
Pitch dark, right? Can’t see a bloody thing. Struggle up this steep and muddy bank, wondering where the hell we are. No lights, no people, no nothing.
Koroi pulls us towards this large dark shape, and then pushes us inside it. It’s a grass hut. There’s an open fire burning in the center, but no other light anywhere. As our eyes adjust to this sudden light, all we can see is this long horizontal stripe of white, gleaming in the firelight, suspended about chest high. What the hell?
Eventually, I can make it out. It’s a long row of shining teeth about 5 feet long! That’s right. The hut is full of people so black that their skin just melts into the darkness. But they’re all smiling, every one of them, and all we can see is their white teeth reflected in the fire’s glow! We’ve stumbled onto a ceremony of some sort, and most of the villagers are here. Everybody’s in grass skirts and they’re all singing “Isa Lei”, serenading us, and we’ve never, ever felt so immediately welcome anywhere in our whole lives.
Welcome to Verevere!