From The Vau Tree
1. Air and Water
A combined, raw commotion in the air – a batch of crazed gulls fanning skyward, seconds before a chopper low on the horizon belts purposefully to the city – propels me to action. I see how it can be done. I know I’ll start at the airport where my sister and I are strapped to our seats, set to lift off.
We left Sydney at noon and the edge of the city slipped away as we met the vast Pacific. Out the window cloudless sky lay evenly over flat blue ocean – the ratios of air-to-water tipping each time the plane dipped. My firm belief in a holiday adventure was based, in part, only on fleeting premonitions. Or perhaps it was also that, before setting out, a complicit ignorance of the mission I’d set myself had become essential to its success.
Later, when I returned, I read an analogy by Arthur Koestler where a sailor goes to sea with sealed orders in his pocket. He gets to a certain point, opens them and finds them non-existent. ‘Yet,’ said Koestler, ‘the fact he has these orders makes him behave differently to a man without them’.
Apart from being a woman, it felt exactly like my fate.
Initially, Lil had planned a holiday in New Zealand. I convinced her to go to Fiji, suggesting it was almost as close, but in fact it was Fijians themselves who had always interested me. I felt that their fame as history’s fiercest cannibals sat tantalisingly close to their modern tourist reputation as the world’s ‘most friendly hosts’. It was a near-overnight transformation that had long caught my eye and my fascination had only deepened over time through different black and white photos in borrowed library books: wild chief Thakombau’s rasta-haired warriors, carved death clubs, tattooed girls in grass liku skirts…
The night before leaving I dreamt of an island. I was a woman with dark-coloured skin and when a silver scalpel cut my leg it bled, not blood, but pitch-black ink. Later in panic I saw myself disappear and yet somehow also watched on – an illogical witness to a separate, terrifying life.
On my last trip to the library the next day I was stopped by an Indian man who threw up his fist and suddenly said ‘We have to talk!’ He insisted I accompany him down a side street and I only escaped his mad urging by promising that the next time our paths crossed again, I would.
Later the same day in town at dusk a large south-sea islander turned around in front of me and startled me with a loud broad ‘Bula!’
I reasoned at the time that my thrill at leaving for Fiji must’ve somehow ‘reached’ these people. Yet, if it did, it was neither eye contact nor intention that triggered it. At the library I eventually settled on three slim books for the trip: Koestler’s Roots of Coincidence, Peter Handke’s Across and Dashiel Hammett’s Woman in the Dark.
The next morning Lil and I linked up at the airport as planned. We sat safely strapped to our seats and taxied down the tarmac and took off just before noon. Up in the air we were told we’d land in Nandi at 5.45 pm local time and that the temperature would be about 28 degrees. Beyond that, I assured myself, I’d carried aboard no expectations at all.
I studied the Fijian cabin crew as they filed by our seats. Their faces seemed to have an elusive other-worldliness about them and I imagined in some I could see a wash of other races – piercing green eyes, lighter hair or an aquiline, Indian nose. One by one they floated down the aisle giving clarity to the air – their perfect skin and pearl teeth glowing like holograms far removed from the fierce fixed photos I’d stared at in books.
When a steward approached my seat I asked about lunch, worried I hadn’t registered as a vegetarian at reservation stage. I was relieved when he slid a purple pen from his breast pocket and wrote a neat ‘V’ on his finger next to my seat-number ‘93’. He then thanked me and returned to his other duties of flight and as he glided off down the aisle I sat transfixed by his finger set apart in his hand with its tiny mark: a brand-new purple tattoo tracing lines in the air as he reached to adjust some other passenger’s overhead light.
Then suddenly, silently, in unison all throughout the cabin, screens flickered to life. For seconds the whole capsule was bathed in boxes of blue light, which soon gave way to the words ‘Spirit of Fiji’ as a camera skimmed low over a procession of islands and an old man’s deep voice said ‘In the beginning there was the land. It’s all you can see. It’s all you cannot see’.
The scenes dissolved into a silhouette of a chief holding a club. I was struck by the power of the image – the full grass skirt, the wide helmet of hair and the dark shining eyes behind the stripe of a black Zorro mask. The segment continued as warriors with fire-sticks ran on the edge of an ocean in slow motion. In the background drums boomed, women in tapa cloth chanted and tribes of fierce men screamed blood-curdling cries.
A new segment opened with wide Fijian smiles. Water-skis and powerboats bounced on blue sea and gay parachutes glided over golden sand. Our boxes filled with even brighter colours of tropical fish and brilliant coral and the music sped to a happy contemporary pop. More and more tourists flashed on screen and I saw that the film had been building to this precise delirium all along – proving as we sped toward it that Fiji was a giant theme park waiting for us all to consume its dazzling, fun-filled, carefree island life.
The credits finished and the fun music faded. The boxes clicked back to black and the air filled again with the muffled sounds of tourists coughing, yawning and talking. Once more the cabin staff smiled at us and pushed their silver trolleys down the aisles dispensing cups of tea and coffee, sachets of milk and sugar and different coloured cold sweet drinks.
I chose spring water and was handed a square plastic bottle I’d never seen before saying ‘FIJI’. It had a picture of mother-in-law tongues framing bright red buds and there was another scene inside of aqua palms and a waterfall, which Lil and I took turns tilting up and down. Its utopian image took us back to our childhood growing up on the far north coast and of diving in clear rivers in king tides and from that point on we both feigned recurring thirsts, finally storing three bottles in our bags as easy free gifts for Sydney friends.
After refreshments a contented lull filled the plane. Most shutters were drawn against the sun. People dozed and the engine’s unrelieved drone became a comforting, dependable hum.
Hours later, towards the end of the flight and finally restless for the first time from the unchanging hours of sky and ocean periodically glimpsed from my seat, I randomly opened Koestler’s book on coincidences and read ‘we are, however, only aware of crests of waves; these enter into consciousness and are perceived as isolated coincidences, whereas the troughs go unnoticed. The waves of recurrent events are kept in motion either by causal or a-causal, i.e. “serial” forces. Examples of the former are planetary motions, and the periodic cycles derived from them – seasons, tides, night and day’.
Its convoluted scientific text set off an air-sick torpor and struck me as the wrong reading choice for a holiday, though the three words I’d glimpsed in the library (‘this oceanic feeling’) and the simple painting of dominoes and stars on the cover had led me at the time to see it as a lightweight and relaxed reading choice, something I could enjoy in a hammock at my own leisurely pace.
Determined not to be put off I decided to start at the start. On the first page a brief quote lay beside of a sea of otherwise unmarked, faded paper. It simply said ‘Ladies and Gentlemen I am afraid my subject matter is rather an exciting one and as I don’t like excitement, I shall approach it in a gentle, timid, roundabout way’.
It was labelled ‘Max Beerbohm’.
The assurance of his simple square of text resting calmly on its empty ochre page restored my faith completely that I’d made the right reading choice after all. I happily closed the book and relaxed.
I was comfortably dozing when the ‘fasten seatbelt’ sign chimed to life and a woman announced our imminent descent into Nandi.
Suddenly my window filled with shimmering blue and I sensed my eyes adjust to a new focus. Far beyond, above a coral reef’s cresting offshore breaks, I sensed the ocean’s recycling, joyous ways: ‘First there is nothing, then there is deep nothing, then there is blue depth’. I felt miles of vivid blue ocean come alive and knew I’d fathomed the meaning of Bachelard’s comments at last.
We passed high over sandy atolls with groups of palms washed by a thousand lacy waves. The plane banked. We were lowering, all the time moving closer to the main landmass of Viti Levu. When at last it appeared we dropped again and to the wistful strains of faint in-flight muzak, I finally saw the indelible watercolour marks of true island life.
The land swept wide on all sides, held flat by layered, painted shades. Against its palette I saw darker spots in empty ochre fields; further along a single rose-tinted dot sliding through green – the stepping motion erased by the plane’s height to a weightless silent glide. In front of us the sun was lowering, firing buff topographical shadows down a mountain range to the right and when the plane banked sharply a wide half-rainbow hung in the air right by my wing. I made out fields of sugarcane, stands of crotons and cordyline and clusters of men, women and children resting after work. It reminded me of seeing the first greens of Noumea ten years before – an unforgettable vision of emptiness after years spent living in a chaotic, quake-bound, over-crowded Tokyo.
It suddenly dawned on me that Fiji was similar not only to Noumea but also to the northern cane-fields of NSW. As the textured edges of pandanus palms and sugar-beets rushed forward to meet me I saw the Tumbulgum cane-fields of my far-northcoast childhood for four brief seconds from above before we touched down – the tarmac and the wheels bonding in one screaming thrilling brake as the final seconds of the flight ground to their heroic, shaky halt.
At last I was on Fijian soil.
And it was here on this exotic land, I knew I was now safe to think, that my dream of an all-consuming Pacific island holiday was finally all mine to begin.