My island in the sun
The island was tiny, accessible only by boat, populated by just seven guests and rained in for the entire weekend.
It was the sort of Agatha Christie setting in which someone almost certainly had to be murdered and by the end of the trip somebody almost was.
But let’s get to that later.
The island of Toberua is a privately owned patch of gravel some 30 minutes by motorboat away from a remote bus shelter that is in turn some 30 minutes away from the Fijian capital of Suva.
If you are a white person in Suva you are either trying to stage a coup, trying to avert a coup or hopelessly lost. Being none of the three we felt it was best to get out of town for a couple of days.
“Toberua”, it should be noted, is pronounced “Tomberua”, as the Fijians have a habit of inserting random unseen sounds in front of letters they don’t like. However much of this is a moot point, as the only word they really enjoy saying is “Bula”. “Bula” means “Hello” and the Fijians like saying it very much.
They say it to visitors, they say it to each other and they say it to pretty much anything that moves, including all forms of motor transportation.
I do not know if they have a word for “Goodbye”. Apparently the subject rarely comes up.
My mother, my sister and I met the motorboat and its two crewmen at the remote bus shelter, which also doubled as a remote boat ramp. The conversation went like this:
Half an hour later we arrived at Toberua and were greeted by a group of cheerful local staff members who were singing a song of welcome. In Fiji every occasion is marked by cheerful singing, such occasions including arrivals, departures, dinner, lunch, breakfast and any other event that is deemed in some way remarkable.
Given that there was nothing on the island except for a group of huts and a single telephone, pretty much any event was regarded as fairly remarkable.
I can only imagine the musical rejoicing that would have erupted had the telephone actually rung.
We arrived in the morning and as we were escorted to our hut, accompanied by the happy strumming, we were informed that there were only four other guests on the island.
These were a youngish but clearly eager and fertile pair from Townsville on their tenth wedding anniversary and an older couple from New Zealand who had visited just seven weeks earlier and liked it so much they decided to come back.
This decision would later raise many suspicions about their character but seemed innocent enough at the time.
We were also informed of the day’s activities, such as snorkelling, volleyball and afternoon tea. Given that our family had the usual instinctive human fear of other people, we decided to forego all such activities in favour of doing nothing. Indeed, this was not so much decided as silently enforced by the fact that we simply did nothing.
But even with the best evasive techniques, a person has to eat, and meal times were a strictly regimented affair, to the point where diners were literally summoned with a drum. I was not aware that this technique had been in use since the US Government stopped conducting psychological experiments on soldiers in the 1970s, but it remains surprisingly effective.
As the drum sounded we all dutifully arrived at the dining hut in waves, albeit in reverse order of socio-economic standing.
Needless to say, our family was always first.
Over the next two days we discovered many delights, including that the Townsville couple didn’t mind where they lived as long as they had each other, that the woman from New Zealand loved what she was doing and that her husband, who turned out to be a quietly spoken American chap, loved what she was doing as well.
I also found out that while the chef was prepared to abandon the set menu to cook scrambled eggs and bacon at breakfast time, he was less willing to cook the same dish at lunch and dinner.
We were also most enriched by other local staff members, who outnumbered the guests by a factor of about four to one. This imbalance was remedied by the management having them spend all their spare time raking the gravel that covered the entire island. Granted this was only a space of about ten square metres, however I felt sure that in other cultures this would provoke a violent uprising.
Not so in Fiji though, where even coups are generally quite civilised affairs, with far less bloodletting than recent Australian elections.
So with no bloody revolution to pass the time, I found myself chatting to the Fijians. This was both a pleasure and a political necessity, as I had previously pledged solidarity to their cause when the white man’s back was against the wall.
Through such discussions I met a very engaging diving instructor, who also happened to be the son of the Chief’s Spokesman, a very important role in Fiji society. He introduced himself as Nathan, a name which has more aristocratic connotations on his home island of Benga than it does in, say, Adelaide.
Nathan informed me that diving with sharks was very safe and that he and other Benga islanders did it all the time without being bitten. The only exception to this rule was when someone had something to hide, in which case they would be eaten.
Of course in such circumstances it was difficult to find out what secret it was that they were keeping to themselves, however the islanders felt this was a small price to pay for the general harmony of the tribe.
At any rate, Nathan enthusiastically invited me to come on a diving trip with him the next day, upon which he assured me we would see eight different kinds of sharks, including bull sharks, tiger sharks, mako sharks and “the ones with the white tips”. Tragically I had something else on.
But my favourite person on the island was my great friend Emori – who, and I swear this was just a coincidence – happened to be the bartender. He had only been working at the island for nine months and still seemed as amused by the whole thing as I was.
Another two things that counted hugely in his favour were 1) That he managed to find me a lighter when I had run out of matches and the nearest convenience store was seven nautical miles away, and 2) That he wasn’t much of a singer.
Emori and I shared a special bond throughout the two days and two nights of the trip, and by the end of it I felt sure that I was the only white man whose throat he wouldn’t slit when the raking roster reached tipping point. We even had a little goodbye hug.
Unfortunately this hug turned out to be several hours premature when it emerged that the New Zealanders’ flight home had been delayed and they insisted that rather than wasting their time waiting at the airport they would much prefer wasting their time at the resort.
The only slight complication was that as there was to be only one boat trip that day such a move would involve wasting our time as well. Mercifully, this did not seem to bother them in the slightest.
It was sometime after the second hour of waiting that we began to get a little impatient. My sister and I were trying to make our 17th game of Bocci interesting, which was difficult since each of us had already wagered Mother in Game Four.
Eventually the island operators decided that perhaps it would be more convenient if they allowed us to leave on our own and send the boat back for the New Zealanders if they ever decided to leave.
Defeated, relieved and thoroughly exhausted by our willful inertia, we trudged the five metres to the pier. There we were greeted by the same band of troubadours who had earlier served us breakfast. Just as happy as when we had arrived it seemed, and no doubt happier to see us go…
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