Giant Clams and Lepers
06 September 2016 | 17 26.50'S:178 57.09'E, Makogai Island, Fiji
Early yesterday morning we sailed away from one of our favourite villages, Savusavu, across the Koro Sea towards the main island of Fiji, Viti Levu. Our goal was Makogai island, about three quarters of the way across. It was a 50 mile trip and, with brisk beam winds and rough seas in the forecast, we were pretty sure that it was enough for one day.
The weather did not disappoint! Right from the start we had 17-22 knots of wind on the beam with short steep seas. This would have been a lot of fun, except that Dee and I both had wicked hangovers from a margarita party on Moonshadow the night before. We do have a rule that we don't drink much the night before a passage, but we completely forgot about that for some reason.
With very sore heads and queasy stomaches, we sailed towards our destination, bouncing mightily along in the rough water. We traded off helm duties so that the other one could close their eyes and get some rest from time to time. Moonshadow stayed in Savusavu, so even if they had a headache they had the luxury of waiting it out in peace. Agility was sailing with us and I'm sure they weren't feeling to perfect either.
Finally, we reached the island, threaded our way through coral heads protecting the pass, and anchored in a beautiful bay in front of a giant clam breeding station. Well, at least it was a clam breeding station until the most powerful cyclone in South Pacific history, Winston, made a direct hit in March 2016. Very few of the buildings are left and nearly all of the trees have been stripped of their leaves. With over three hundred kilometer winds, Winston leveled every strong buildings and uprooted trees. Even with the rapid tropical plant growth, after six months it still looks very beaten around here.
On shore we performed our very first Sevusevu ceremony. This is a long standing and important Fijian tradition where a visitor presents a bundle of kava root to the chief's representative and asks for permission to anchor in their bay, swim in their waters, walk on their trails, etc. All parties are sitting cross legged on the ground and the kava is put in front of the head man. If he picks it up, he has accepted you, and you are welcome to the village and are under his protection. This is a serious procedure here. After a reasonably lengthy speech in Fijiian where he was telling us that he would now take care of us we were free to explore his domain. Whenever we anchor anywhere in rural Fiji we need to find the local village that "owns" the water & land and perform sevusevu with them before we do anything else. The alternative, in days past, is that if we weren't welcome we could end up being the next meal!
That was all yesterdayÉ
Today, since we all felt much better, we hiked ninety minutes through a very overgrown trail to the village on the other side of the island. Again, because of cyclone Winston, virtually all of the houses are now just piles of timber and most of the villagers live in Rotary or Unicef tents. It's pretty sad. The one bright spot is a brand new four room school that was just opened last week to replace the one that was destroyed. One of the teachers gave us a tour and was clearly proud that they, with the help of the Sea Mercy Foundation, were able to get their school reopened so quickly.
Another interesting thing about visiting a rural village is the dress code! Again, this is a very serious deal here. Women have to have their shoulders covered and be wearing a dress, no pants, that cover their legs to below the knees. Nobody can wear a hat, sunglasses, or carry any bag on their back. Men must wear a shirt and a sulu covering their legs. A sulu is basically a long wrapped piece of fabric that reaches below the knees. Women wear them all over the world, but here in Fiji the men were them too. The locals will never tell you if you offend them by dressing improperly, but we have been warned countless times to obey the dress code whenever we visit one of the rural villages. At first, it felt kind of strange for me to run around in a sulu, but the teacher we met was, of course, wearing the same thing! My sulu is plain blue and with my white shirt it turned out I was wearing the school uniform!
After a long trek back to our anchorage, we explored some of the abandoned and wrecked buildings that were part of the huge leper colony that was here until 1969. Five thousand lepers lived their lives here at any given time in a full village including hospital, theatre, etc. Up the hillside, behind the anchorage, is a large overgrown cemetery where they all rest now. The jungle has reclaimed much of this huge cemetery, but the more I looked, the more I found crosses and headstones disappearing into the bush in all direction. Dee stayed behind as I think that she was little freaked out!
Tomorrow we will be on the move again, crossing the last of the rough Koro sea and then threading our way inside the reefs on the North shore of Viti Levu.