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The Dashing Life and Exuberant Times of Brian Harrison....And Other Rare Anecdotes

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Rambling Into the Interior of a Tropical Paradise, In Search of a Chief and a Village and Some Adventure

Balancing a sack of powdered kava on my knee, I sat on a jostling bus with the windows stripped out allowing the tropic air to pass through in cool, brisk wafts. I sat intent on traveling to a village into the interior of a Pacific Island. Scrap the hammock and the margarita scene, the plush hotels with its white linen frocked staff. Forget the sun-screen polluted beaches, through they have their lure. And also turn my back upon the clamoring streets of Nadi with the Indians selling jewelry out of tiny shops. Neither the resort, nor the town life. Let me see the people of a Fijian village. So full of an itching anticipation, I ventured on one of these buses into the interior of Viti Levu, the main island of Fiji. I had with me a little bag with a few shirts, books, and my notebook in them. A few other necessary items, water bottle, toothpaste, soap, passport, etc.

My first full day in Fiji, after that eventful night previously illustrated, I had cut the leggings off a pair of pants converting them into a good pair of shorts. The only pair of pants I set aside for wearing during this excursion. I had left my other luggage under lock and key in the Nadi airport. I felt freer than I could possibly imagine, only hauling around a little bag. And of course, I had that paper sack full of kava. This was a necessity for what I intended to do.

I had heard rumors that the people of a Fijian village were extraordinarily hospitable. That all that was required to be taken in as a guest among them, is some kava presented to their chief. And this was mostly only recommended as to encourage them in their generosity. Most naturally, they would take me in anyways. But this special powder from which a very soporific drink could be derived was aptly regarded to secure me as a friend of an entire village.

This was all that was needed. And such vague instructions, excited my imagination beyond anything that I could possibly throw myself into on these islands. So I grew resolute in my determination to visit a Fijian village. At first, I went about the town of Nadi heaping up invitations of Fijians beckoning me to accompany them to their villages. But some of these were far away, and a good deal of financial preparation was needed. So I settled on the most exciting way of travel, and that was to just randomly pick out a village without the acquaintance of a single person in it, and hop on a bus, and go.

Picking out an exact village, also proved to be a dilemma. I had no map nor travel guide for Fiji. I just wanted to go inside the island, and possibly up into the mountains. Passing by a travel agent post in town, I stole a glance at a map, and scanned a few villages noted there, remembering as best I could the strange Fijian vocabulary, and walked out entirely ignoring the conning solicitations of the agents. The same spills, "Want to go to the smaller islands? Stay in paradise?". These perfectly-pitched, tamed and organized package deals have all the other backpackers shuffling out a considerable fortune, thinking that they're seeing the real Fiji when the only Fijians they actually see are the boat drivers and the ladies who do their room service.

The name of the village that seemed the most intriguing was called Numulomulo or Mulomulo for short. It was not too far; but yet far enough and a considerable distance further into the interior of the island. So I hopped on a bus, leading to Mulomulo, wondering, if this was a Fijian village, why were there so many Indians on this same bus. But this explanation soon showed itself when one by one the large majority of the Indians stepped off, near their rolling sugar cane plantations, where their ancestors had worked for years and years. The bus tore its shoddy way through the dirt path which was a road, heading further into the mountains and brush of Viti Levu. Occasionally, we hauled over planks forming some type of bridge across tiny rivers or creeks. We even passed a mosque, a hindu temple, and a few small churches. But when we finally arrived in Mulomulo, the village of my whimsical destination, I saw a little hut turned into a village market with several houses around it. Some how I wasn't too impressed with the exoticness to induce me to exit the bus. And besides, there were still a number of indigeneous Fijians staying on the bus; there must be another village still further into the wilderness. I thought to myself, "I will stay on board til the very end of the bus route. There must be an interesting place there. And whatever place that may be, I will make do there." So I was content with the abrupt change in my travel plans. This last leg of the journey had only a few passengers boucing on the bus seats our arms hanging out where no windows were.

But before I could even have that bewildered moment of stepping off the bus, and seeing its rear bumper disappearing in the dust clouds of the road as it headed back to town, and before I could watch this standing all alone and asking to myself, "Now what?", a girl hopped over to where I sat and asked me in the sincerest fashion, where I was going. I told her that I was going to the last village on this route. (Hoping she didn't realize that I didn't even know the name of the village.) She said that she lived in that village and asked me how long I planned on staying. I told her a few days. Next, I told her my intentions of offering kava to the chief there. She said a few words to the large woman she had previously been sitting next to. The woman said some words and the girl said that I could stay with them for this was her mother. So as I exited the bus, finally, I already had two friends and a place to stay. Such is the hospitality of these people.

We walked into the village, the chickens running wild, the children running wilder, and the little village huts, sitting quaint and welcoming in the afternoon sun. A large river washed down in this slight gulley where the people at their appropriate times washed and bathed. I passed by a white sign nestled in the large branches of a tree, barely legible. "Yavuna Village", it read. "So this is the place that I've finally settled on.", I said to myself and what a remarkable stay it turned out to be....
To Be Continued....

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Escape to Fiji

New Zealand winters were boring a hole straight into me. I decided to get out. So I went to Fiji...a much acclaimed and talked about island to the north where the sonorous South Seas lap at the ravishing beaches where palm trees stand stretching themselves happily in the hot Pacific sun. What I found greatly rivaled the pleasantries of the landscape and climate. This great competition being won, very respectively, by the people of these islands.

The Fiji Islands spread out and cover a considerable quantity. Here tourists pour in and bombard various resort localities on the many different islands which constitute the nation of Fiji. But, as for myself, not having hardly a cent to spare on anything luxurious, I had to settle for my entire visit on the main island of Viti Levu. The island that is most discernible from a map. The inhabitants of these islands are some of the most curious, if not altogether friendliest. The majority of the population is indigenous Fijian, that is of Melanesian stock. Which is a bit different than the Polynesian traits which are common in the Pacific Islands. No, Melanesians are dark and have big bushes for hair. And broad noses and mouths. They look more in common with Africans than with Hawaiians, Tahitians, or Samoans. And another interesting fact is that once upon a time these inhabitants were known the world over for being notorious cannibals. But fortunately for myself and all the other Western visitors, they have given up that practice and took to a very sincere Christian faith that noble missionaries brought with them some 200 years ago.

The other inhabitants that make up a large portion of the population of the nation are, curiously enough, straight from India. Here, only a few generations stretch back to when their first ancestors trod on these islands. This was due to the sprawling British Empire of the 19th century which held its sway over Fiji and India, and who transferred Indians into Fiji as indentured servants to till the land for the promising sugarcane fields. And yet these Indo-Fijians still trace their culture, beliefs, and values from that distant land of India. Many Hindu temples tower above the palm trees. An occasional Mosque is also spotted. All of this is very exciting for me, no matter how much it may bore you. But I used to want to be an anthropologist as a kid, so I take my time in these descriptions.

These islands have known coupes and strife among the various types of people, several very recently, but for the most part, the two main ethnic groups get along amicably well. Occasionally, I could spot a difference or maybe even a concealed tension between the two. But I would suspect that any talk of persecution between the two would be incorrect.

I first arrived in Fiji on a tropical Sunday night. Immediately at the airport I befriended this British fellow from London named, Tom. We both were directed to downtown Nadi to a cheap backpacker and found our lodgings in a typical bunkhouse atmosphere.
I tried sleeping but all in vain; Perhaps I was too excited about being in this strange, exotic land. But about 4:30 or so, I grew fed up with laying in my bunkbed. I went for a little romp around the town. The streets were empty for the most part. And as far as paranoia about crime, I knew that Fiji could be dangerous as far as petty thievery, but as far as anything horrible, it was pretty safe.

Besides, the streets were asleep. I kept walking until I perceived a group of Fijian men seated on the sidewalk in front of some gated stores. They sat on cardboard and in any American city would have been conceived as being homeless. “Bulah!” they cried out to me and waving their hands in the air. This was the Fijian “Hello” which is amplified from the shops and streets at all times of the day and night.
“Bulah”, I yelled back to them and began to approach them. All of them were indigenous Fijian. They are stared at me as though I was some great white phantom floating through the vacant streets. They had this bowl before them. And it was with this bowl that I was introduced to my first kava partaking. “Come and have some kava with us.” They said. I approached shaking hands with all of them. And sat down.

Kava is what the Fijians live by. No trip to Fiji is really taken if one does not partake of this murky stuff. It’s this drink, really a type of tea, that they extract into a powder from this root of a type of mint tree. They mix the powder into water, stir and then drink. It is non-alcoholic. Though, does deliver a slight buzz to the unaccustomed drinker. The effect usually makes one very relaxed, almost sleepy. It is this drink that is the fabric of their society. All their gatherings revolve around this drink. If all addictions are harmful, then this is the least offensive and most innocent. These men had been drinking this grog since 6 the previous evening. It was now 5 the next morning.

Also the thing about drinking kava, is that it can only be imbibed in a certain ceremony. There is half a coconut shell used as the cup. And the group surrounding the bowl drinks one at a time and only in between intervals. There is one server and before one can drink his portion, everyone claps 3 times. The drinker smiles at everyone and says, “Bulah.”
Then in one drink, the drinker throws back his head and consumes the entire bowl without hesitation. To westerners this is difficult because both the looks and the taste of kava resemble a bowl full of muddy water. That is why ample concentration is needed to down the stuff. After one’s bowl is quaffed who says “matta” and everyone again claps 3 times. And next, the bowl is passed back to the server who fills the shell for the next drinker. Usually the eldest present is always the first to be served and then it goes around the circle and finally, the coconut shell rests in the bowl while everyone talks for awhile, discussing this and that until it is time for another round. For hours upon hours Fijians can sit and do this. While my 2 or 3rd bowl my tongue or lips become numb.
By the end of my stay in Fiji, I got to the point where I enjoyed drinking kava. In one day, I think I almost had about 20 coconut shells full of the stuff. Which is quite the accomplishment for any tourist.

I sat with these guys for maybe 2 rounds of kava. And then departed, looking for what other interesting things I could get into as the dawn was approaching. Before I took part in this kava ceremony, I began to suspect that my visit to Fiji was a mistake, but shortly after, realizing how friendly and open the people here are, I just knew how much fun and how many adventures I was soon to have on this exotic island. At which, I’m just now kicking off the many stories that occurred there.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Living On a Houseboat...Kinda...Sorta

I rented out the perfect accomodation from this Fossil Bay on Waiheke Island. -A sort of houseboat. Or this little shed situated on this wooden, square deck afloat a tiny pond. More like a swamp. I had to balance across a gangplank to get to my beloved houseboat. And I had the entire shed to myself. Though I realized at night that I was sharing the swampy pond with various birds; ducks that would quack dramatically now and then, several pukekus, a New Zealand water fowl, black with a bright red beak that made the most annoying, indescribeable squawks throughout the night. And then nearby was a chicken coop. These hens were mostly silent. But none of these were worse than the one rooster that stood on this patch of land right outside my houseboat. He'd Cockadoodledo every morning at 5 o clock, incessantly until I was about ready to run out, plunge across the swamp, and wring the cursed fowl's neck.

And then if I had managed to go back to sleep, the same rooster would crow in the same spot at 6:30 to make sure I was up before sunrise. Blasted thing. During the day, I actually caught myself plotting murder. Images of myself bagging the rooster, in a sac, feathers flying, blood-curdling squawks ringing out, and then dropping the loud bird off one of the many cliffs that dropped to the ocean below, invaded my mind. But I never did it. Got myself earplugs instead.

The other tenants of the Fossil Bay Lodging were very interesting, likeable people. All of them had been to Waiheke for some time. I had mentioned Madeleine in my last note, but there was also her Kiwi lover Martin. This couple, I absolutely adored. They were both in their 50's, I guess. And had spent so many of their years hopping around living in certain places...England, Ireland, India, New Zealand, etc. Martin worked as a remodeler in these various places, while Madeleine did what she could, cooking, sewing, making things.

Many nights we would sit around the main house. A stovepipe fire heating the kitchen and the greenhouse turned into living room. And our stories would abound of all the places we'd been, the people we knew, and the experiences we had. Madeleine would talk of her camel-guiding days in India. Martin would tell us stories from his boyhood growing up on the New Zealand coast learning how to swim. I would tell a tale about Muslim dance parties in Turkey or midgettowns in Ohio. The stovepipe furnace with its iron door swung open would pop and hiss as embers sizzled to our wholesome tales.

I remember talking with Martin, at length about the book, "Don Quixote". He was reading it currently; we both recounted the parts that we liked best. Who needs television when you've got people with stories, and great books to discuss?

There were other tenants of this lodge. The manager was this Kiwi gay guy in his mid-thirties. A very quiet guy. He kept to himself. They called him the "cybermonk". He stayed up in his attic room often. Helen was another tenant. She was also a Kiwi in her mid-thirties. She was the manager of the island theatre. An artsy cinema where cultured flicks and documentaries were shown while the audience sat on large sofas. My first night at the Fossil Bay Lodge, I went to this cinema, invited by Madeleine, and watched this movie about Bob Dylan. It kinda sealed the possibility of this place being my next move.

However, the working situation was getting a bit questionnable. What I thought was going to be full time work turned out being a full 2 days. On the evening on the 2nd day, the contractor texted me with the message, "No work tomorrow." No big deal It actually freed me up for the 4th of July. I was able to chart across the Gulf to Auckland again and spend that American day with some fellow Americans. Doing American things like eating hotdogs, watching old cartoon He-Man episodes (this was my American childhood.), and going to the movies. And during that American weekend I received another text, "No work for Monday." And also on Monday, no work for Tuesday. So you can see that I began to get a little disappointed. I mean, there was no work and already my expenses surpassed the wages that I've already earned on the vineyard. So, seeing in what another dire strait I was in...and also the fact that the island was so tremendously expensive. I said my farewell to Waiheke Island, to Madeleine and Martin, to Fossil Bay, and to any hope of becoming a sophisticated wine snob.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Island of Wine

Hopping on a ferryboat, I launched off onto this island just a half an hour from Auckland. The entire island is composed of vineyards. It's called Waiheke Island and supposedly it has its own ritsy, artsy culture thriving among the grapevines and the wine glasses that clink in happy celebration of fine, sophisticated island life.
I had every intention of working in a vineyard. This time of year, the dead of winter, serious pruning is underway. Most of the vineyards on this island deliver high quality red wines; Merlots, Cabernet Sauvignons, Malbecs, and Cabernet Francs, ect. But recently there has been a delving into a few white wines like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. There must be about 30 or so different vineyards scattered throughout this little island with a few wineries, and then the townships of Oneroa, Onetangi, and Ostend. Within my arrival I had a job lined up for the pruning season with a contractor who hops around the smaller vineyards doing whatever needs to be done. The first two days I spent on this very small, family-based vineyard called the Lonely Cow Vineyard. A small group of us, a Brit, a Canadian, myself, and our Kiwi contractor all get to work stripping the deadened vine shoots, or canes, out of the cables. Row after row doing this all day long. Not much different than picking kiwi fruit. Except here, we'd work through the rain. The weather in New Zealand in mid-winter is entirely fickle. It'll alternate between rain and sunshine about 5 times a day. So getting soaked was to be expected, but then fortunately the sun would come up and dry us. Regardless of the vineyard work, I really did not feel to be an intricate part of the fine art of wine-making. I didn't see a single grape.

Meanwhile, I was intent on finding a long-standing accomodations which first had me at this backpackers lodge sharing a room with a snoring Frenchman who was master of the grape and a virtuoso guitar picking German tourist. Not to mention other interesting folk who stayed there. An Irish kick-boxer, a dope-smoking Maori construction woker who was middle-aged and actually was quite the cook, and a kiwi lady who had hopes of becoming a country singer in the US. Though, I greatly doubted this actualization. I heard her sing. But the charge was $160 a week to stay there. And I wouldn't get my own room, but have to share in an open camp-like atmosphere with bunkbeds, loud snoring, and stinking feet.

Everthing on this island was a great bit pricey. New Zealand prices are expensive to begin with, then Auckland prices are a bit much compared to the rest of NZ, and finally Waiheke Island prices are slightly steep compared to Auckland. So I've escalated to the high life of paying $8 for fish and chips which is unheard of in other parts of NZ. (and that's without a drink. If I want a coke that's an extra $3.)

So word of mouth brought me around to the conclusion that I was getting gyped with my rent. Actually fish and chips ladies told me this; the irony is that later a person commented on how the fish and chips people are gypping everyone else off. And being the affable people that kiwis are, they gave me leads as to other, more economic places. One was the chance of living in a wool shed. I guess that's the equivalent to a barn for that's where they store all the fleeces they sheer from all those sheep.

I was on my way walking down, my heart leaping in excitement of actually being able to tell people that I lived in a woolshed on an island once. But there was a problem. I really didn't know what woolsheds look like. Are they big barns, or are they little quain sheds? Or maybe they look like houses? I was walking down the street keeping my eyes wide open for that supreme clue that would indicate "woolshed", when I see this lady walking. I talk to her and we begin walking together for she knows where this place is, but she also mentions the place where she is staying and that I should have a look. This lady turned out to be American, from Massachussetts. Her name was Madelaine. One of the coolest ladies. The only lady in her 50's to have a nose ring. She was also dressed like a gypsy and had long flowing blonde-grey hair. She was certain a flower child. A roving hippie. I got along great with her.

I followed her past the woolshed, which lost its attraction when I heard the TV blaring out of the large tin barn. There was only one large room, and another guy living in it. So it didn't appeal to me. I continued to Fossil Bay where Madelaine makes her abode. And I enter this beautiful little walkway, where small, quaint sheds are here and there spread out. Flowers and gardens and bright colors. It felt like some sort of artist's colony. The next day, I moved in here...and it truly was the best part of Waiheke Island. To be Continued...

Friday, July 04, 2008

True North

By trial and simple deduction I arrived at the next step of my journey. Where should I go? It is wintertime so that rules out a launch anywhere southwards. (It is here below the equator that entire geological terms are reversed...the south implies a shiver and a blanket, and the north is what you cling to in the hopes of feeling warmth of the sun playing upon your skin). Take this into account where my psychological clock is ringing away striving to wake me up to the fact that it is very much summer where I am from and it should very well be now. But because the summer is denied me, the winter which is actually very mild here, is that much worse. I think most of all desire to see the sun up and shining past 5:30 p.m....because it's been awhile.

That's when I got the prospect of working on a vineyard in the north...not far from the mecca of Auckland...and even better, a complete island with its own style of living. I wanted to work on a vineyard here, learn as much about the process of wine-making as possible and even intended on going south to this very hilly, beautiful region of the South Island called the Marlborough Sounds, but seeing how it was a long way from Tauranga, it was a bit colder down there, and the fact that because vineyard work was such the vogue among the backpackers this time of year, there was simply no place to live. All the hostels were booked. The idea of heading north to do the same type of work won me over.

So I recall telling people in Tauranga that I was heading towards the grand, resplendent Waiheke Island. And before long, I was headed in that direction riding caravan with a bunch of Bible students. in route to their covetous trip to Fiji.

Brothers and sisters sharing a common belief in the beauty and therefore sanctity of hospitality and well fare of others is truly a remarkable thing in a country where you enter as a stranger. A wild-eyed straggler on the highway taken in by a vast assortment of different types each synonymous in their focus in life...is something unbeatable.

Immediately upon arriving in Auckland, I was picked up again by other folks who had done the AIM program as well. I spent several days among them. As they were planning their church plant here in the sprawling environs and suburbs of Auckland. On a Tuesday, I left them heading on a ferry to Waiheke Island for my new place of residence for awhile.