Taveuni (30 Days in the South Pacific)

On a Fijian island, paradise awaits

By Tara Austen Weaver

I lie awake in the dark and listen to the scratch-scratching of a crab as he tries to make his way through the bamboo slats that form the walls of my thatched bure. The noise blends with the lapping of the ocean and the cry of a million different Fijian insects. The crab is persistent and soon is crawling about the sand floor of my hut. By daybreak he is gone, leaving behind hundreds of tiny crab claw tracks in the sand.

I wake early and breakfast on papayas the size of melons. There are bananas as well, an entire branch of them hacked off the tree with a machete and hung to ripen in the outdoor kitchen. I sit at a table under the palm trees and watch gentle waves break on shore, the persistent rhythm now a backdrop to all that I do. I have not been out of range of the sound of the ocean for weeks now. I have ceased to hear it, as I cannot hear my own heartbeat.

There are four small islands lying offshore in a chain, like bits of earth flung off the mainland. I point my kayak toward them in the early morning light. It is not yet noon but the sun beats down with a tropical intensity as my boat slices through water clear as glass. Below me the coral, distorted by the waves, looks like a miniature magical forest. The third island out has a small sandy beach and I pull the boat ashore. It is my island for the day—three trees, a few bushes, rocks, and sand. Clothing is discarded as I don my snorkel and rush to explore the magical kingdom under the sea.

Purple starfish drape over rocks of blue, green, and yellow. Tiny turquoise fish hover around a peach-colored coral, like bluebirds perched in a tree. Snakes are striped black and white like zebras, and sea anemones extend tentacles of green and gold. It is like a dream, a hallucination, stranger than imagination, yet as real as the salt on my skin and the sun on my back. I lie on the sand and savor my world.

Stretched out on the beach I can hear the laughter of a pack of local schoolboys echoing over the water. They laugh like all Fijians laugh, a cascade of sound pouring forth. It is laughter that is unrestrained and joyous, impolite and utterly entrancing. I have laughed more in these islands than ever before in my life. Laughed more, and heard more laughter, than anywhere else I have ever been.

I sink into warm sand and wonder what it would be like to stay here, to laugh every day and never know cold. To breakfast on fruit I pick myself and to drink kava each night around the campfire as the guitars are strummed and songs sung. What would it be like to chase crabs from my hut each day at daybreak, to live within hearing distance of waves crashing onto beaches and reefs, to float daily in warm water, to dive and splash and play?

My lunch is simple, a pancake-like roti folded over and stuffed with curried potatoes bought from the woman who runs a stand in what can barely be called a village. She smiles at me every day and serves tea, milky hot, sweet and strong. Though I am here alone, I never feel lonely. Friendly eyes watch over me and people I have not yet met call out my name, rolling the pronunciation so that it sounds like an invitation, an incantation, a bond between us. “Bula,” they greet me. Life.

Afternoon finds the kayak heading back to the mainland. The magic kingdom will wait for another day, another explorer. For me it is a long walk down the dirt road, into a flaming crimson island sunset. Later I lie in the dark—tired, invigorated, mystified, and satisfied. I listen to the lapping of the waves, the faint crash of the surf as it breaks on offshore reefs, and the scratch-scratching of a crab trying to get through the bamboo slats of my seaside hut.