Some stories are hard to tell, because to tell it, is to relive it. This is one them. It starts out with me on top of a coral rock, howling like a banshee, and ends with a boat robbery, where I am again howling like a banshee.
I wake up with the sun on my face and rainbows falling. I’m an egg breaking open. Mind surfing. The first thought I hear is, “Inside your heart there are a million stars waiting to be seen.” It’s too early to know what that means.
I’m still in Kadavu. SeaGlub and Macushla went back to the big island, but I stayed. I stayed because the longer you sit somewhere, the sweeter it gets. I spent one night at anchorage alone and afraid of the dark, but Katatonic and Epiphany are with me now. One of them even hit the reef, flipped sideways, and got a boat bashing when entering the pass to get here. Nautical charts mustn’t be trusted in Fiji!
We’ve all been riding around this island cowboy style. Making friends. Singing songs. Drinking kava. Getting thrown in jail by a giraffe as wide as a gorilla. Being showered with fish and sugarcane and coconuts.
It’s 10:30 a.m. The wind just picked up enough knots to notice. I’m laying on the settee writing you this letter. I have to be horizontal when I write to you, I don’t know why. There’s a loud thud beneath me. I’m thrown forward. It happens again. And again. Imagine you’re riding on the back of a bull with it’s balls tied. That’s what it feels like.
I run outside. It’s a spring tide on a new moon and the water’s at it’s lowest low. Juniper is on top of a coral rock. Far from floating. A fish flopping. An unship-shape. Another thud, another jolt. I scream, “Help, help, somebody help!”
Bill from Epiphany jumps in the water and swims over. I throw him my snorkel mask. Juniper’s bones keep cracking. It sounds like she just lost a toe. Wind is whipping. Rain is falling.
Katatonic jets over on their dinghy that looks like a spaceship. Futuristic. The spaceship is ramming into Juniper and the wind is pushing her too and she’s crunching and bucking with nostrils flaring. I don’t know how long it all lasts or what happened to the sun, but eventually Juniper breaks loose.
Bill swims out to my anchor. It’s flipped upright with a drag mark is as long as a thousand snakes linked together by their tails and I’m a two football fields away from where I was. I have some sort of an anchor curse. I promise.
Five minutes later, Epiphany’s jib unfurls and sails itself onto a coral rock. Five minutes after that, Katatonic gets stuck on the same coral that tried to kidnap Epiphany.
For two hours it’s total chaos. Flotsam and jetsam is all over the water; stems and nuts and trees. We can’t see through the ocean anymore. Epiphany’s spinning in circles. Katatonic is trying to pull their anchor up. I’m on a paddleboard with my face in the water looking for spots made of sand.
Katatonic drops their anchor where I was anchored before my anchor dragged. Epiphany rafts up to their port side. I weigh anchor and tie off to starboard. One catamaran and two monohulls sharing an anchor. A quadamaran. I wish I could carve a portal into the sky and beam you here to see it.
THE WHALE TOOTH:
It’s 4 p.m. and we’re on our way to the village. Exhausted from our kiss with coral. The wind is flowing slow and the sun is sliding down the clouds. Bill asks me, “Did you lock your boat?” I say, “No, I never lock my boat.”
There are two celebrations in the village tonight. A marriage proposal, where a man will give a woman a whale tooth to request for her hand in marriage. And a celebration of life, that takes place 109 days after someone dies. This celebration of life is for a Bubu (grandma) who will be missed by a Tutu (grandpa). Bubu is not to be mistaken for Bu (coconut). Bu bu (coconut, coconut).
We pull up to the village. The earth is a slick slip-slide of mud squishing between our toes. Kava is drying on rooftops. Ducks are waddling around. A children’s choir is singing in the church. People are calling my name, “Oli, Oli, Oli.”
Everyone is dressed like a Diamond girl. Polished. Made up. Painted lips and eyes. Women in long dresses that cover the knees, with sleeves that maintain the mystery of the shoulders. Men in sulus with their best Bula or Bob Marley shirts. No hats, no sunglasses, ever.
I climb the hill to the chief’s house. He’s got big white eyebrows and he talks slow and refined, for he is the former Lord Mayor of Savusavu. Inside his house the grooms family is gathering around the kava bowl. The elders at the head- in front of the bowl, the young men in the middle- behind the bowl, and the women in the way back. The chiefs daughter, Grace, is the only lady in the room. She introduces me around. Everyone is her brother or cousin brother. Relations run deep in Fiji.
I’m asked to taki. It means to serve the kava. I carry the kava cup around to each man, starting with the chief. I kneel and say “bula.” He claps and says “bula” back. I pass him the cup. I clap five times while he drinks. When he finishes, I say “Aggh” and everyone in the room says “maca” (empty). I stand up, say “jilou” (excuse me) and bow low as I walk back to the tanoa (kava bowl) to fill the cup.
I like the Fijian culture. Their respect for elders and traditions. The way they welcome visitors and laugh and sing and move at a languid pace.
I’m bustin’ a gut to see the whale tooth, so the chief shows it to me. It’s big and yellow and hanging from coconut fiber. It feels like any treasure would in ones hands. I want to ask if I can put it on and dance around, but I don’t dare.
The elders ask if I’m single, if I really sailed here alone, and if I would marry one of their sons. I tell them, “I will consider it for no less than five whale teeth.” One elder says, “I’ll give you six.”
I drink too many king tide kava bowls at the chief’s house. Everyone is getting loose. I hear guitars and singing in the distance. I tell the chief that I’m off to find the music. He says, “Don’t lose yourself.”
I can’t tell the funeral celebration from the engagement. All the parties in the village look the same. Lots of Kava. Lots of laughing. Lots of men playing guitars and singing love songs straight to my face. They use a cooked taro root as a pretend microphone.
The bride-to-be’s house is my favorite. It’s filled with women and children and it’s the loudest, the most colorful, the wildest. Or is it me that is getting wilder as the night progresses? Someone tells me to get up and dance, so I do. A young man comes to dance with me. The people shout “low, low, low!” He gets as low as he can go and I twirl around him like an octopus. I wonder if he still has his whale tooth or if he has already given it away?
THE CACTUS MOON:
It’s 8:30 p.m. but it feels like midnight and my stomach is bloated with kava. The moon is brand spanking new and the tide is high. We have just arrived back to the boats. I step inside Juniper and turn on the lights. My face falls apart. I’ve been robbed. Two laptops, three hard drives, and my orange ditch bag with all of my safety and survival gear.
I’m screaming, louder and wilder than I was when I was on top of the coral rock. I’m pacing. I’m calling people. Grace, the Head Man, the police. Frantic. I’m not even making sense.
In a place where everyone leaves their door open, because everything belongs to everyone, I also left mine open. I think about all the memories on those hard drives. It’s everything I’ve ever captured for the past fifteen years. Every film I’ve ever made. Every film I will make. Every word. Every photo. And it’s the back up drives of all those films and words and photos too. I can’t breathe. I will break. I am breaking. I am broken. Who am I?
This new moon night is a cactus!
I ring my friend Vuni. He answers. “Vuni, it’s Oli, I’ve been robbed!” Vuni says, “What? No! I’m near your boat. I’m coming, Oli.” He comes over with a boatload of his piping hot cousin brothers.
I ask Vuni who could’ve stolen the stuff. He says, “Maybe an animal, or alien, or angel took it?” Vuni starts making calls. This bay has six villages and I don’t know how many clans, but it’s still a small community where everybody knows everybody, so somebody has to know something. Grab the coconut telephone and the bamboo gun!
Vuni says things went missing from the party village too, some kava and a drum of fuel. They suspect a fisherman. We climb into Vuni’s boat, me and all the cousin brothers, plus Murray from Katatonic. The boat is filled with fish. And there is fish slime on the seats and I slip on something fishy and it all stinks to fish heaven.
The bay feels eerie, like a rambling Twilight zone made of bioluminescence. It’s as black as outer space and there are beams of green lights moving underwater- it’s the spear fishermen, diving with their flashlights. The stars are singing too and the jellyfish are glowing and everywhere I look there are boats decorated with lanterns that lure fish. Vuni pulls up to every fisherfolk we pass and asks if they saw anybody near my boat. People point fingers, name names. Several tell us that they heard a boat without any lights go near my boat. Vuni asks, “Did it sound like it had a 40 or a 60 horse power engine.” They say, “60.” How in the heck do they know the difference between the sound of outboards? It’s phenomenal!
Some boats are filled with women, some with families, some have fishing lines, some have nets. Some caught parrotfish, some caught Tuna, some caught big red fish with bulging eyes, one caught a sea turtle. When I ask why they have the sea turtle, they tell me they’re going to take it to shore to feed it, but I know they’re going to eat. It’s a $20,000 FJD fine or five years in prison if they get caught doing it.
I’m frantic and choked up. I tell the fisherfolk how special the items taken from me are. I say, “It would be like if I burned your kava fields, and blew up all the fish in your lagoon, and then took your whale tooth too.” People get all moon-eyed when I say that. Then Murray says, “The robbers stole all of my beer after they took her laptop.” And everybody laughs.
I’m suspicious of everyone. Even the fisherfolk with genuine shock on their faces. Even the fisherfolk with 40 horse power engines. Even the fisherfolk without any engine at all. My biggest suspect is a fisherman whose name has been tossed around all night. But he swears up and down that he’s a Jehovah’s Witness and could never do such a thing and I believe him.
It’s 11 p.m. Vuni takes us to his village. We ask the fuel man who has come to get fuel and if they look like they just did something dirty. Vuni gets more names and leaves me and Murray in the village with the late night kava drinkers while he investigates further. Vuni thinks people will talk more without us around.
Something about this whole adventure is thrilling me.
I sit at the kava circle calling people. I’m having other people call people. I’m having my people call people. I’m having their people call people. I’m calling all the peoples wives too. I find out a ferry is heading to Suva tomorrow and that it’s the only place my stolen items could be sold. So I call the cops again and ask them to search the entire ferry boat first thing tomorrow morning. They agree.
Hours sludge by. It’s 1 a.m. we’re still in the kava circle and Murray just caught a gecko. The thing lost half its head in the shuffle and then it’s tail fell off and wiggled around for a long time. It’s still alive and somehow Murray has convinced me to put it in my dry bag instead of his own pocket. If I had a tail it would fall off right about now.
It’s 2 a.m. and Vuni calls. He’s checking abandoned houses in the mangroves. But there aren’t any footprints and the houses are all coming up empty. My euphoria is sinking. I can’t drink anymore kava. What is this wretched root anyway?
I ask the men to say a prayer. One of them prays real good then looks at me, points to the sky, and says, “You will get your stuff back because you took it up to God.”
It’s 3 a.m. Vuni picks us up. We talk to more fisherfolk on the water. Does anybody in this place sleep? It seems like everybody is on the water all night long and drinking kava all day long! I can’t sleep either. I go home for an hour. I pace and lay and fidget and make coffee.
It’s 5 a.m. Vuni picks me back up. The sun is exploding and the hills are all tropical green. We find a boat hidden way back in the mangroves where no boats go. It has a 60 horse power engine and it belongs to the Catholic Church. We suspect it was used in the robbery. Vuni’s telling me not to touch anything in case the cops need fingerprints. It’s like I’m Nancy Drew or Scooby Doo or the victim in a Law & Order SVU.
We go to the Catholic Church. They didn’t know the boat was missing. Vuni and I on to something, we’re about to solve this thing! We hitch a truck in to town and go straight to the police station. The police have written my name and items stolen, on their dry erase board. They take my official statement, then we all go to the ferry.
The ferry is chaos. Cars and bags and people everywhere. It’s as hot as a sauna in hell too. The lead detective, Milly, searches bags and finds nothing but kava and underwear. Meanwhile I’m going up to every face I know, telling them to spread the word that I’ll pay $750 FJD to have my belongings back.
It’s 10 a.m. and I haven’t eaten anything but an apple and some peanuts since yesterday at 3 p.m. I’m tired and I’m crying every time I talk.
Vuni and I leave town more clueless than we where when we came. We’re in a truck packed with men who live in the village where the party was. I tell them I’m heartbroken. I say, “The worst part is that I can’t work without the laptops and if my boat sinks, I don’t have any flares or safety gear. The robbers have literally taken my means of survival.” I’m crying so hard now that you can’t hear my words, only the mush of my emotions.
It’s 1 p.m. We are back in the village. It’s low tide and I can’t get home to my boat until the water rises. I’m laying on a purple pillow at the Head Man’s house. His family is trying to feed me kava to chill me out, but I’m bouncing between being a deflated balloon and an erupting volcano and I don’t want anymore kava for as long as I live.
I’m laying there looking worse off than Murray’s new half-headed and tailless gecko, when this half-Asian, half-Fijian man walks into the room. He’s kind of an outsider. He was at the chiefs house for a hot second the night before. And he was at the ferry this morning. And in the truck with me on the way back from town. He says, “Follow me, my father and I would like to speak with you in private.” Vuni and I follow.
“Do you know where my stuff is?” I ask. The guy says, “Hakuna Matata!” And he keeps saying it in response to every question I ask. I really wish he would speak something besides the Lion King to me at this moment!
Hakuna Matata leads me out of the village, down a road, past a pile of pigs, and to a river. His father is there, in the river, sitting on a stone. He’s smoking a joint and there are empty forty ounce beer bottles all around him. He tells me to sit down. He tells me that he knows where my stuff is and that they will return it if I tell the cops to back off and don’t mention his name to any of the villagers.
I call the cops over the speaker phone and tell them the search is over. The stoned man on the stone smiles. He says some teenagers took my belongings and that they were puppet mastered by an older guy. He says he wants to get my stuff back to me because he has daughters, and he saw me cry, and he didn’t want me to suffer anymore. He says he doesn’t want my money. He says he lives in the bush with his family because he loves nature. Then he just keeps repeating the same things over and over and over and drinking beer after beer after beer. His son continues saying “Hakuna Matata!”
They tell me to go home and rest and give them at least two days to recover my items. I thank them and stumble out of the drunken river with a bad taste in my mouth.
It’s 6 p.m. The Stoned Man and his son, Hakuna Matata, pull up to Juniper on a long boat. They are drunker and more stoned than they were at the river. My stuff is stuffed inside of a large plastic bag. It’s the type of bag that people fill with their collection of coconuts.
I open it up and bugs fall out. Almost everything is there, a little wet, a little askew, a little marred. The only thing missing is my emergency blanket. I look at The Stoned Man lopsided. He says, “It’s all been buried in the mangroves.” His son says, “Hakuna Matata!”
*Stay tuned over the next few days on the Wilderness of Waves Instagram stories to see visuals of this adventure.