Bobbing in the water next to the boat we’ve just jumped from, we clumsily put our flippers on underwater. Annie has the added challenge of a belly full of beer and an unopened can in her hand, but she manages.
We swim to shore then ponder our next move. Our fellow tourists are taking photos, reading novels, and snoozing on the sand. Of course, because we leapt from the vessel, our bags are still on the boat, so our options are to either lie directly on the beach or spend a full hour snorkelling.
Annie decides to do a self-exfoliation treatment (basically just “rub wet sand everywhere”) and I go to explore the reef. My goggles immediately fog up and I have a pebble in my flipper, but I am determined to tell everyone that I had a good time snorkelling, so I pretend these things don’t bother me.
Maybe I’ve been out in the sun too long, but I can swear this little blue and yellow fish is smiling at me. We swim, parallel, for thirty magical seconds, and I feel like I am definitely at one with nature. Like, this is it. Then my fish adjusts his course to head straight at me and I panic. I assume I’m about to get savagely attacked by the rare and exotic whatever, and I can’t remember if my shots are up to date, so I hysterically splash away.
From a fish. About the same size as my hand.
I feel like despite my best efforts, I am one of those skittish blonde villains in a kid’s movie. The sort that take lipstick to the jungle and are scared of moths. Depressed that apparently I’m more The Baroness than Maria von Trapp, I give up and paddle to shore. Annie has washed off her sand treatment and wants another beer, so we head back to the boat. The crew is busy having lunch and tell us to go back to the beach. Too bad, because Annie is “done” with swimming. She fetches another beer then sits on the bottom step of the boat’s ladder, a little bikini-clad barnacle on the hull.
Too scared to ignore instructions from a Sea Captain, I stay in the water, attempting to come up with a way to tread water that is easier than the commonly accepted method. Turns out the commonly accepted method is that way for a reason, as all my other ideas result in me inhaling a significant volume of seawater through my nose. It’s not ideal. But Maria von Trapp didn’t complain when the Nazis arrived, I doubt she would complain about this, and so I persist.
Eventually we’re welcomed back onto the boat, where we balance paper plates piled with food on our laps. Annie swigs from her beer can and gnaws on chicken kebabs while I burp through my now-warm diet coke and ask for a third bread roll, please.
I start to wonder if we are doing a good job representing New Zealand.
Our next stop is a visit to a local village. Ben tries to make sure we’re all going to be respectful, insisting that we all cover up and no one drink alcohol on the island. Annie fashions her sarong into a sort of dress and launches herself into the dinghy, a can of beer in her hand.
“Didn’t you hear him?” I say. “No alcohol on the island”.
“Oh, I’ll be done by the time we get there” she insists, throwing one arm up in the air in what I assume is a reassuring gesture. Given her consumption today, we’re lucky this manoeuvre doesn’t fling her backwards off the boat.
After we get to the island, and Annie is told off for smuggling beer (don’t worry, she’s very saw-rey) we are given a tour of the village. Simple wooden houses have woven floor mats peeking from underneath doorsteps. Children with huge white teeth play soccer with an empty Coke bottle. Faded towels hang from ropes tied between lemon trees. Stray dogs with alarmingly present testicles sniff at our fingers.
If this place had wifi, I could definitely live here.
Ben says we are to take part in a ritual kava ceremony, and could he have a volunteer? I notice everyone’s eyes immediately shift to Annie, and when I turn to face her, I see her arm already straight up in the air, eyes closed. Perhaps she is paying respect to the prestige of the situation. Perhaps she is taking a nap. Perhaps the eleventh beer has left its mark.
“Good, ok. Annie and your friend, you will be our volunteers”.
This is how I come to be sitting cross-legged in front of the elderly chief, his son, and a wide-eyed little boy who is learning the kava ropes. They’re sitting next to a huge bowl of what looks like muddy water. We’re taught to clap once, accept a coconut shell full of kava from the boy, drink it, hand it back, clap three times, and say ‘bula!’
Annie goes first, and as I expected, this set of instructions is way too complicated for her. She muddles through, managing to clap a few times in various places and only spill a little bit down her chin, and then it’s my turn. It’s a lot of gritty water to add to a stomach full of all that bread, but I get it down. Afterwards, the chief says a few words in Fijian and then Ben gestures at me.
“As the second in command, it is your job to say something on behalf of the group”, he says. I’m not sure if this is an actual tradition or if he’s removing the responsibility of the speech from Annie, but either way, I’m stuck with it now. Public speaking terrifies me, and there’s the added pressure of having to represent what is effectively the entire globe, with Swiss, German, American, and Japanese people sitting cross-legged behind me.
“Uh, uh, um, thank you, um, for allowing, um, us into your um, village. We are, um, blessed to be, um, welcomed. Thank you?”
My um-filled speech impresses the chief’s son, who requests that I have a second bowl of kava. I wonder if this is some sort of Fijian pick-up strategy. Sure, he has lovely eyelashes and Johnny Depp cheekbones. But there’s no wifi here. It would never work.
Afterwards, I join Annie outside the meeting house while the others drink kava and pose for photos.
“WOW”, she says, looking at me with reverence, eyes wide. “You said a SPEECH. You’re IMPORTANT. You’re LEGIT”.
I’m suddenly saddened she wasn’t called on to say a few words inside, as I feel like whatever she came up with would have given the “I Have a Dream” speech a run for its money with sincerity and length.
We walk back to the beach, where a pop-up market has opened. Fijian women all sit inside ramshackle lean-tos made of wooden planks and rope. There are maybe ten shacks, but the stock is exactly the same at each one. Each item I pick up I’m informed is made of “coconut shell, ma’am” – yet it’s all plasticky fuchsia and candy apple red. I wonder if it’s even made here, or if it’s all made in China then shipped here for resale. The idea creeps me out, and I hastily buy some bracelets out of guilt.
While I’m shopping, Annie has been down at the beach, making friends with local village children. When I get back from the market she’s asleep on the sand, using her own arm as a pillow. She’s had eleven beers, zero glasses of water, and six chicken kebabs. I stupidly assume she’s done for the day. No. When we get back to the boat she heads straight for the chilly bin and returns with two beers. She’s got her game face on now. There’s only an hour left on this boat and she has to get her money’s worth.
To be continued…