Fiji is a culturally-rich nation which has evolved over the years supported, in large part, by the power of stories and the talanoa (communication). With so much negativity out there right now, I sat thinking last night about what is good and specifically, what brought me to live in this country six years ago. It's a positive story, I think, so for no other reason than that, I wanted to write it out.
"I've never heard of such a thing," I remember saying. "I've never ever seen anything like that."
"No, of course you wouldn't have because you can't photograph them. Your pictures will come out blank!"
This was one of the conversations I had with George over the course of about three weeks. It was February, 1993 and I had been traveling in Fiji for about a month. I met George on an island in the Mamanucas where I had gone to get my scuba certification. As I remember it, we spent a great deal of time doing very little but sitting around partying and talking.
My time in Fiji listening to George relay these stories rank among my top travel memories of all time. It solidified Fiji in my journal as different from any other place I had every been to. Prior to Fiji, I had been in Tahiti and Bora Bora and although I felt the aesthetics of French Polynesia might always earn it top honors, there was a completely different vibration from the Fijian people and the air in this country. It felt as if every person I met was deeply engaged in the conversations we had and that, in itself, was a pretty unusual and special feeling. My conversations with George reinforced that.
Every one of these stories was awesome and coming from the east coast of the US where we don't have pregnant caves and spitting caves and invisible red shrimp, it ramped up the paradise to a whole new level. One particular evening, George and I sat on the sea wall looking out upon the ocean. We were just sitting there, chilling out, not doing very much in particular. It was one of those gorgeous and slightly breezy island evenings with tons of stars in the sky, the lapping of waves on the sand and the quiet scattering of crabs as they run across the grains under the silent gliding of giant fruit bats above our heads. Unmistakably south pacific.
Suddenly, George turned to me and said "Ya know, Jon, when we were cannibals...".
I had to interrupt at that moment. I couldn't let him finish the sentence. In my entire life, no one had ever started a conversation with those words. I was in heaven.
The rest of the time on that island pretty much continued at the same pace. I heard stories about sharks and how they've been known to circle the boats returning the bodies of Fijian chiefs to their islands. These are documented events, not tall tales. I gulped up this talanoa.
The morning George was leaving the island to head back to hims home, I overslept and awoke quickly thinking I was going to miss my chance to say goodbye. I ran out along the jetty and saw him getting onto the boat and just before he did, he passed along a gift. It was a small tabua (whales tooth). At the time, I didn't really know much about the item and I certainly didn't know much about its historical significance short of the paragraph included in a weathered Lonely Planet guide to the country. I think I might have known that I was not allowed to take it out of the country but it was too cool a gift to leave behind. I traveled with that tabua for a year through three handfuls of countries, never forgetting where I got it or the stories I picked up while in Fiji.
Fast forward seven and a half years ahead to September 11th, 2001. Two planes crashed in to the World Trade Center in New York City as I stood on the street below, watching in shock. The United States quickly declares its "war on terror" and all around me, that country morphs into a culture of fear. My employer lays off handfuls of staff as New York's economy contracts and I find myself out of the city doing freelance consulting from my home in North Jersey.
One afternoon, my daughter Kaia (who was about six at the time) was looking through old boxes with me in the basement. Her hands went into a box of books and photographs and when it came out, it was clutching the tabua. I remember telling her about it.
"This is actually the tooth of a whale and in the olden days, it was used as money. It's a pretty special item in the country where I got it." I explained.
As if it was yesterday, I still remember Kaia's face when I spoke to her about this. I remember her turning the tabua around in her hand, finding it inconceivable that it used to live in the mouth of a whale. I remember looking at her face and thinking to myself...
Ten minutes later, I was on my computer. I began with Telecom Fiji's website as I had previous experience in the telecommunications sector. Telecom had just spun off a new company (Connect) to provide Internet services to Fiji. I sent my resumé with a cover letter to their new CEO explaining what I could do. Six months later, I was in Fiji for an interview and a few months after that, had sold my house, packed up my family and relocated to the south pacific.
After leaving Telecom a few years later, I started Oceanic and one day, was telling this very story to a member of my staff. She wanted to know more about George and asked me questions about him. Where was he now? Had I seen him again?
Of course I had not...all I remembered about George was his last name and where I had met him. In Fiji, however, that's often enough.
The following week, George visited me in my office and we were put in touch with one another again.
To this day, I'll believe that it was the tabua which brought me back to Fiji. Rather, it was the tabua which brought itself back. I just tagged along. I keep it around me, though, and for whatever reason, it lets me feel as if I was playing a role in one of those cool Fiji stories I remember hearing about those years ago on the island with George.
That is the Fiji I fell in love with. It's out there always, even though it's a bit tough to find sometimes.