My little sister, Mary, is in Fiji and we’re waving the goddess flag. We’re on a long boat captained by a man named Scoby. He’s cornfed with a crab smile. I just discovered that I know his mom, Emma. She’s one of the best octopus hunters and we once floated next to each other and spoke for a long time about love. Scoby was born from that love she spoke of.
It’s only 9 a.m. and the sun is powerful and bright and it flashes on the water like a disco ball. I’m worried about my sister’s snow-white skin as the boat blasts north towards Monuriki. It’s an uninhabited island. Ruled only by wild things like sea turtles and iguanas. And it’s where the movie Cast Away was filmed.
I’ve never seen the film but I can picture it. I know well the madness of being alone on a deserted island. The way the sea and the sun seep into the head like a drug. The way the body aches bad for another body. The phantom voices and ancestor ghosts that rise up out of the depths. The jolt of ones spirit as it fuses with the forces of nature. The vulnerability, the beauty, the ephemerality. And of course, the way the stars dissolve as the gypsy moon rises, making night feel less like night.
The word “HELP” is spelled out in coconuts on the shore of Monoriki. The water is crystalline and the green mountains fly sharp and high. Scoby takes us barefoot into the forest to look for iguanas, but they’re so camouflaged that we never find one. I wonder how much of my life is spent searching for something that I’ll never find? I wish I had eagle eyes and a panther heart.
Scoby takes us to his favorite places. We snorkel with zebra fish that float around our faces like flies. We crawl across a seabird-covered sand spit. We drift along a coral wall. Then this adventure ends.
Back on Malolo Lailai, I get a call on the coconut telephone. Turns out Ma, my friend whose father was murdered by witchcraft, is staying on the next island over and her husband, Teddy, is working nearby. Mary and I go on a treasure hunt for Teddy. We find him amidst a bunch of frogs. At low tide, he guides us to the other Island.
It’s a 30 minute walk across water. We pass a pod of mudskippers- they’re fish with fins like legs. Teddy is carrying a metal rod that he’s going to carve into a new spear for his speargun. He’s a big guy. I have to bend my neck all the way back to see him. He tells Mary about the importance of whale teeth in Fiji. She asks how they get the teeth from the whale. He says, “When you see a whale, you knock on him and ask for a tooth.” We laugh.
I ask Teddy to tell us a fishing story. He says his uncle was net fishing in the lagoon and accidentally caught a tiger shark. They used a boat to pull the tiger shark to shore and sliced it open. Inside of the tiger was a turtle and a small hammerhead. This is life in Fiji!
The village where Teddy and Ma stay is on the windward side. Women are making roti in outdoor kitchens. Radios are firing Fijian tunes. Kids are running. Smoke is rising. Laundry is hanging between trees. And there’s a woman wearing a Fijian flag dress. Mary and I look at the flag’s symbols; a Union Jack, a lion holding a cacao pod, sugarcane, coconuts, bananas, and the Fiji dove.
I see Ma. She sees me. She about faints. Surprise! For the first time I notice that Ma has Teddy’s name tattooed on her arm. It’s a stick and poke she did when Teddy went to work on the mainland and she was afraid that he wouldn’t come back home. I’m obsessed with her obsession.
We sit and talk until dark. The tide is too high to walk back, so Mary and I hitch a boat ride with ten men who are going night fishing. As we’re leaving Ma runs into the ocean with all her clothes on. Night is still night and the fishermen are flying through the shallows without any light. I squeeze the side of the boat in case it hits the sea floor.
The fishermen drop us on the dock at Malolo Lailai. Mary and I are sleeping in a bure hut for a few nights. We’re about to go to bed and she’s in the bathroom fluffing up. I hear her shriek. I run to her. “What’s wrong?” She’s got a brush in her hand and she points towards the toilet and says, “There’s a rat over there. It fell from the ceiling and almost hit me in the face.”
Look, I will chase a squirrel, or a snake, or a roach out of a hut, but I’m not messing with a rat. I run out to find a man for that. I look all over until I find a group of men playing music. I tell them there’s a rat the size of an elephant in my bathroom. A guy named Phillip puts his guitar down, picks up a broom, and follows me.
Phillip reminds me of a Fijian Harry Potter with his broom. I’m so flustered that I walk into the wrong hut and when I say “Mary” and she doesn’t answer, I think that the rat got her. I figure out the mistake and lead Harry Potter to the right bathroom. He shuts himself in there with the rat. For twenty minutes all we hear are grunts and smacks coming from there. “Are you ok,” we ask. He says, “Yes, but this rat is big, huh!”
Harry Potter finally sweeps the fat rat into a little trash can and that solves that. Mary and I clap and blow kisses to our hero. The whole ordeal makes me realize that I’m only a gatherer not a hunter, and there’s a part of me deep down within that really likes to dress up in sequins.
I end the evening with an online chess game. My opponent is a Russian with a male name, but his profile picture is of a seductive woman wearing a pink dress in a limo. I assume he’s a he. He takes one of my pawns then messages me, “We don’t want war, they our brothers.” I feel paralyzed. I can’t even deal with a rat and this person is in the middle of a war! I don’t care about the chess game anymore. He and I talk until our time runs up and when the game is over night is more night.
* I was interviewed for the Latitude 38 podcast. Click here to check it out!
*If you dig these sailing missives please consider becoming a PATREON. Your contributions help me keep this journey going & the words flowing! I do monthly Q&As for Patreon members & you will also receive the tracker information.