September 30, 2010

Making friends

We spent several days anchored off a village at the south end of Waya island. It's stunning, and we found a warm welcome from the residents.
Waya Island

One of my favorite memories is from this particular evening:

what we love to see:

Our children had spent the morning at the school village: helping with English lessons, sharing experiences, making friends. That afternoon, we played on the beach, and the other kids- familiar faces now- welcomed them as if they'd been there for years.

Vastly different life experiences, different mother tongues, different lives... it all melts away, and you just have a pile of kids who jump and play and shriek and find the same joys together.

September 29, 2010

Visiting school: Yalobi village

We spent two days visiting the school in Yalobi village. Children come here from all four villages on Waya island. Because of the distance between villages (and, oh, probably something about the mountains between them), they begin boarding here at age 6. With an enrollment of 150, it nearly doubles the size of the village. Students continuing their education after grade 8 board at the high school on Naviti island, a few hours by boat to the north of Waya.

marching to the cafeteria

The first classroom we poked our heads into was fourth grade. We were warmly welcomed by Mr. Koroi, who helped us meet the head teacher and learn what we could do to contribute. For the next two days, we spent half an hour to a couple of hours each in a classroom, helping with English classes and sharing some science lessons.

Totem carries a microscope and prepared slides from a couple of kingdoms on board. The school only has hand-held lenses, so it's fun to be able to give them the opportunity to look through a much higher powered microscope. For some, simply learning how to look is the experience: closing first one eye, then the other, then straining to see what's on the slide. Others get it right away, and you see them linger to look around and see as much as they can. all radiate interest and excitement. The looks on their faces are the very real gift we receive.

Lining up for a peek

With help from the teacher, we explain what's visible. Most of the slides are subject material like cellular plant structure, or thin cross sections of animal tissue. Outside the context of a curriculum, it might not seem that useful for the children to look at. I can't help but remember, though, what Niall's fantastic kindergarten teacher- Mr. Hoffman- told us once upon a time. "One of the best things you can do is to give your children experiences." Arguably, we've internalized that! But for these children, that's the message that makes sense to me. This is an experience, something they can remember, something that in accumulation with other experiences can make a difference in their lives.
school boys, Yalobi village
school boys, Yalobi village

slit drum
This slit drum in the central field is used for calling students

September 28, 2010

Fiji's Yasawa islands

It's been a few busy weeks on Totem. For most of September, we wound our way through beautiful islands at the northwest end of Fiji- the Yasawa island group.

These islands are so dramatically different from the lush green of the windward side of Vanua Levu. It's extremely dry- not only are we at the latter part of the dry season, but the last wet season didn't bring as much water as usual.

Brown grasses on the tall slopes of the mountainous islands belie the drought, but palms and mangroves and so many other things are so vibrantly green, it's not always easy to tell. The views are still spectacular. We should be jaded about views like this by now, but the truth is, they grab me every time. Every day- OK, almost every day- I am deeply grateful to be here, to be living this life.
Yasawa Islands, Fiji

As usual, some of the most memorable experiences are tied to people we meet.

After staying off unpopulated stretches of shoreline, we ended up in a bay with a small backpacker's hostel that was aptly named The White Sandy Beach Resort. Most of the employees are part of an extended Fijian family. Two women who took us under their wing were Kesa and Sila- they made us feel like part of the family, too.

Kesa and Sila adopted us

We joked that Sila was going to try to keep Siobhan when we left. Siobhan loves to be held and she logged a lot of hours hanging out in Sila's lap!

Mmmmmm good!
Mairen drinks from a fresh coconut

Kesa's family owns the property where the resort is located, and has memories of playing with the children of cruising boats when she was young. She hadn't been on a boat in years, though, and Kesa had never seen a cruising boat, so we brought them on board Totem for an afternoon of popcorn and trading stories.

We extended our stay there beyond our expectations, and much of it was because of the lovely people on shore. When you find a place that just sings to you, why rush?

September 23, 2010

What about recyclables?

I'm still ruminating about garbage- specifically, recycling. I'm We haven't had access to the internet in a couple of weeks, so I can't see if we have any comments on the garbage post below- my musing is posted through our high frequency radio. I confess to being curious what people think about it and am hoping to see a few when we are able to get online in a few days. Not hinting, though. Really!

Recycling is a big part of waste management for most people at home, and a subject that was left mostly out of the prior post. Getting used to *not* recycling was by far one of the most jarring transitions to cruising once we left the U.S. In our experience to date, recycling is rarely available. With the exception of ingrained programs for bottle re-use, we saw no evidence of infrastructure to support collection and processing in Mexico- just efforts at the local level in a few isolated places. I recall exactly 3 places from the thousands of miles we cruised along the coast where there was any formal separation/collection scheme in place. The flip side of this is the informal recycling: families who live literally on garbage, and survive by picking and reselling any scrap items of value. Some may claim this is crudely effective, but I don't think anyone who has seen the way these people live can make the judgment that this approach should be condoned.

Back in our "normal" pre-cruising life, a significant portion of the waste our family produced was recyclable. Putting things in that recycling bin feels good: you're not adding to the landfill, right? I'm not so sure. I think that recycling is mostly a false panacea. How much of this trash- what shoreside folks would put in a recycling bin, and so ease from their conscience- is ever well managed after the initial use anyway? Most of it is downcycled to lower grade plastic, and this is not an indefinite loop. Eventually it has the same incinerator/landfill fate, and meanwhile, there is a petroleum cost added to each step. As more jurisdictions require residents to recycle, we hear about overburdened recycling centers and recyclables heading to the landfill anyway. We saw bins on Hiva Oa in the Marquesas for collecting plastic bottles. It's great that they're collected, but you really have to wonder what happens to the bottles that do get collected. An island with a population of a couple of thousand, are they really processed? Is it possible worth the cost to ship or fly them elsewhere to process? I guess I'm a skeptic.

So what do we do? Mostly, try to use less. We try to make choices about the type of packaging we purchase. In Mexico, I was really excited about the paperboard boxes known as Tetra packaging, used for growing numbers of typically canned items on the shelves- everything from salsa to corn. Since we need a lot of preserved food on board for long term stores, it seemed like a great solution. No BPA, said some sources. No plastic, said others. I don't know about the BPA (and I'm suspicious of corporate messaging anyway- thanks a lot, Sigg), but the diced tomatoes we purchased have a bonded plastic lining inside.

Once again the skeptic in me looks askance.

Totem is currently anchored in a sweet little bay on Waya island, in Fiji's Yasawa group. We'll be back in "internet-land" in a few days and I can't wait to share some more upbeat tales and scenes from island life!

September 20, 2010

That stinks!

We've been thinking dirty thoughts lately... specifically, about waste. We wrote about it in a more organized / for-the-public manner for the August issue of 48 North magazine (downloadable from This is more of an unvarnished stream of consciousness.

There's no doubt that living on a boat puts you more in tune with the garbage: every item that comes on board is considered (it's tight living space, and clutter can make it claustrophobic) and every bit of trash we produce must be taken off. Disposal is more complicated than wheeling a bin to the curb once a week or tossing a bag down the chute. It was one of the most difficult transitions for cruising outside the US: not only are there are no more convenient recycling bins, there is often no place to dispose of any kind of garbage at all. It pushes us to consider the waste we produce in a different light.

So, what do *we* do?

Most of our garbage is organic matter that can go overboard. Not in any body of water, though- it must 'flush' and the size of the waste is a consideration. Even if it breaks down eventually, nobody wants our hunks of pamplemousse rind scattered on their beach. But scraps of leftovers, coffee grounds, etc. that break down or become nutrients for another organism are easier to chuck out the porthole. Out in the big blue, materials which degrade without doing harm go over for sinking: glass bottles and metal cans. It does feel awkward to throw anything over, but we pop out the bottom of the glass and sink them with the cry- "fish house!"

What's left accumulates on board until it can be disposed of on shore: anything containing plastics. This may not seem like much, but consider that we may have weeks between opportunities to dispose. Think also about how difficult it is to make a complete round of grocery store purchases without acquiring any plastic, since almost all packaging contains at least some.

Then, of course, even when we do get to a dumpster ashore where we can leave our trash: what is the usual outcome? It depends on the location, but the waste is usually just being burned, and occasionally seen fluttering down the beach. It's not an attractive idea.

We've come a long way since cruising guides in the 80s (but even the 90s) recommended cutting plastic waste into small pieces before disposing them overboard (hello, not only stupid, but illegal?!). Even one of my favorite cruising writers recommended only using non-rechargable batteries for electronics aboard "because they work better" (um...irresponsible and innacurate?). One of the classic cruising cookbooks even encourages the use of disposable plates and cutlery for convenience and water savings on a passage.


We've still got a long way to go- all of us, shoreside and boaters alike.

September 13, 2010

Local treats

Considering how food obsessed I am, related discussion has been pretty absent here. That stops now! Food in Fiji has been a treat for the senses. My favorite finds are usually in the public "farmer's" market.

no spitting.
Vendor in the Savusavu market, arranging her wares

The prettiest of all: this seaweed, called sea grapes. I love seaweed (sushi! poke! soup! So many lovely ways to have seaweed) so this jumped out at me. Combined with coconut milk, lime juice, chillies, garlic, and ginger- it is prepared into a local dish known as Nama. I'm still looking for a place that serves this, so I can get the flavors right myself.

Sea grapes

My picture is terrible (sigh) but there were bunches of young fern fronds, held together with banana leaf wrappers. Nothing at the fiddlehead stage... I wonder how they're prepared? That's casava (also known as manioc, or tapioca) stacked in the background- I mislabeled them as taro in Flickr. Time to get my tubers straight.

Ferns and taro

The food fun doesn't stop at the farmer's market. Stores are full of indian treats. For fans of butterfat like me, this is a heavenly sight...

mmmmm.... ghee

I though the condiments on our lunch table were interesting. This peppers are wildly hot. A little sweet, a little spicy, to go on top of your curry?


September 9, 2010

The real "Friendly Islands"

I'm going to make a gross generalization: Fijians are the friendliest people in the world.

A few days ago, we went with Mike and Hyo (of IO) to look for a path up to the ridge behind the creek where we're moored. There is a radio tower up there, and we saw power lines, so presumably a way could be found to reach the top.

Heading in the general direction, we passed the hot springs, where two boys were cooking breadfruit for their family in the boiling water. The perfect pair to ask for directions. Did they tell us how to get there?


Of course not.

Why just tell us, when they could take us there?

Ridgetop view
Isaac and Anasa with the Totem kids

It was a good thing we had them as guides- they knew which house had a mean dog (don't go down that way!). It was easy enough to follow the road up at first, but it quickly became a 4WD track and then a winding footpath around and behind several homes (again, our guides offering gracious pardons to the residents along the way), before finally dissolving into bushwacking our way through shoulder-high grasses.

If Fijians somehow aren't the friendliest people ever, they've set a high bar, and it will be lovely to try and discover any place that exceeds it.

September 7, 2010


"Bula!" is the greeting in Fiji, and we hear it dozens of times each day. "Bula vinaka"- hello, how are you? We are bowled over by the gregarious friendliness here. Listen close, and you'll also hear greetings of "namaste" and "salaam aleikum."

Labasa public market: Namaste
Signs and pictures in the public market - Lambasa, Vanua Levu, Fiji

We find ourselves frequently wishing we had spent less time in French Polynesia. The farther west we go, the more interesting our experiences become, the more infatuated we grow with new islands and people. We've been in Fiji for a week now, and have a full blown crush blooming. With the cyclone season looming in November, it's necessary to keep marching west (and eventually south, to Australia) to reach our destination before the weather turns. As a result, we won't be able to spend nearly as much time in Fiji- a month, at best. I'm almost certain we'll feel the same about Vanuatu... which makes us wonder if we'll even get a chance to stop in New Caledonia.

It's impossible not to think about how we'd re-carve a season in the South Pacific based on what we know now.

Moving forward without regrets, though, we embrace the days we have in Fiji. Savusavu has been our only port so far. There is a melange of Indian and ethnic Fijian culture, with a sprinkle of Chinese as well. The ethnic Indian population stems from workers brought in (mostly voluntarily) to work the sugar fields in the late 19th century. After ~125 years, they are still culturally distinct- but here in Savusavu, it's a peaceful coexistince. Not all of Fiji is like this, we're told. Any short history of Fiji's recent politics underscores this. Fijians own the overwhelming majority land, and Indians own most of the commerce. But there are steps in the right direction: the current (Fijian) prime minister has at least declared all citizens to be known only as Fijians in government records, and no longer designated by their ethnicity in identification papers.

Lots of new pictures on our Flickr stream, for quick vignettes from our time here to date...

~ Om ~
Siobhan captures how we all feel about the lush, mellow eco-resort of Palmlea on the north side of Vanua Levu. Really, though, she's cracking herself up here...