From the beach we walked down a long garden path through trees, shrubs, vegetable patches, a huge Bukka tree. Tucked away, a house on stilts emerged with coconut trees towering throughout the land surrounding the house. A huge friendly smile greeted us that never left Gella’s face the whole time we were there. “Bula Vinaka!” (A warm welcome in Fijian). Gella was a local woman that helped Adam manage the project and doing all the household duties. A British couple, Si and Immy, also greeted us and helped us with the boxes of supplies. Finally we sat down and relaxed with some jungle juice (Moli fruit which was a sour citrus variety). It had been a long and hot journey and we were so happy to arrive.
Si and Immy had been there for 3 weeks and only had 2 more days on Qamea before the continued their travels. I could tell they had been more or less on their own for a while as they seemed to relish talking and questioning us all about our travels. It was nice that they were interested in learning about us and what we were up to. However, we can more or less predict the questions and the answers become a bit tiring to repeat to endless fellow travelers. It was interesting to hear that they had been working in South Korea as English teachers as well as working on a wine farm in New Zealand. It was definitely food for though for the future.
After a long journey we enjoyed what was to be the first of Gella’s culinary delights for lunch that afternoon. Chilli crab, rice,aubergine with coconut milk, chocolate cake and a jungle juice and rum to finish with. We enjoyed an afternoon swim and got our bearings with the place. The sea was warm and clear, perfect for a sunset swim which of course became a daily occurrence.
With all of the supplies we brought, Gella was happy to cook a lot of food. It also meant that Adam had brought her some Kava. A root that Fijians grind into a paste with water in a large bowl. It is what what described to me as Fijian beer. In fact it is not alcoholic but gives you a zingy numbness in your mouth and if you drink enough of it, a dopey feeling takes over you. Fijians LOVE Kava despite it not being the nicest taste and looks like muddy dish water. With the dopey effect it can make people lazy and the government has unsuccessfully tried to stop it’s consumption. It is far too ingrained in the culture for that to occur though. Our first night on the island, Gella wanted to introduce it to us. One of the few neighbours, Raphael, came over to say hi and drink with us. The custom is for one person to deal the Kava, with a half coconut shell full, half full or a little less of Kava. This was called ‘Tsunami’ or ‘Full tide’ or ‘Low tide’. The aim is for the amount to be downed in one. This gets harder and harder to stomach as the night goes on. We were also drinking rum punch so it wasn’t so clear what effects we experienced on this occasion.
Each day that Gella was working, our morning consisted of an amazing breakfast spread. Over our 10 days here she baked us up cakes and scones, steamed bakery delights such as custard buns, coconut buns. Often with fresh papaya jam. Fresh coffee or black English tea with powdered milk were not skimped.
Our first day, was no exception. A welcome start to the day after drinking kava and rum! After breakfast Adam was keen to get us involved immediately. Aware that we did not have that long to commit to the project, he introduced us to a few things he wanted to get cracking on. His long term aim was to build a permaculture school with living quarters. Also to become completely self-sufficient. It was a project very near the start, he himself had only been living in Qamea for a year. The land was undeveloped. His short term aim was food management. Terracing and managing plots, then planting were key jobs over the period we were there. With Al’s experience in building with bamboo, Adam was also keen to get Al to build an 11 sq/m round chicken coop to house 10 chickens comfortably.
With it being very humid and hot in the day, I began the task of making Adam some blackboards in the afternoons. He wanted this done so he could be more organised with impending jobs and know what his schedule of volunteers was. Making the blackboard was ongoing throughout the week. He only had some fairly rough plywood and paint. It had been attempted by a past volunteer, but the end result was that the chalk would not rub off.
So, this became my personal challenge for the week. With no sandpaper, I needed to find a way to smooth the wood. I went beach combing and decided to try an innovative sanding method. A piece of washed up hard flat polystyrene buoy and wet fine sand directly from the beach. In the same circular motions I would have used sand paper, I used the flat surface of the buoy to rub sand around the grains of plywood. This was effective with a bit of elbow grease. Over the course of the week I applied two layers of white undercoat paint so that the surface was no longer porous, and two layers of blackboard paint. The result? The chalk rubbed off, most effectively with damp towel.
Al’s chicken coop project didn’t get underway for the first few days. Instead he assisted Adam with preparing some land t plant sweet potatoes. I went to help them that evening to do the planting. It was such pleasurable work. The climate was good in the evenings. The sound of the sea with calm waves and the sun setting whilst working with the nature was great. Hardly to be called ‘work’.
We worked as fast as we could to get as much as we could get done in the gap of cooler air before the sun dissapeared behind Taveuni. Sometimes the sunset was just too good to completely ignore though.
Our first weekend at Qamae, Si and Immy enjoyed their last day and Gella prepared to leave to be with her family for Sunday. She was heavily involved in her church, so would be gone until Monday.
For Si and Immy’s last meal she made a beautiful spread with a freshly caught Parrot fish that a neighbour had kindly brought around for us. That afternoon a boat with her family came to pick her up and driver to the another village on Qamea. With it being Easter school holidays, she promised she would be back on Monday with her kids and husband Joe.
Si and Immy offered us the use of their snorkeling equipment, so we made the most of it that afternoon before they left the next day. Snorkelling off ‘our’ beach was amazing. All the resorts on the island would bring their guests there. Even the 7* resort in the next bay to ours would bring chartered boats around. It was the icing on the cake for us. Not only were we able to get involved in a worthwhile project on a remote island in Fiji, give Adam 50 Fijian dollars each per week for food expenses…we had some of the best living coral to explore on our doorstep. We kept having to pinch ourselves! The coral was beautiful, colours and textures I could not have imagined,of course with a fantastic variety of tropical fish. It was only possible to snorkel when the tide was in because otherwise the water was far too shallow. In the afternoon high tide it was a perfect depth, enabling us to swim past the dead coral and into alive coral territory before the reef suddenly dropped into an abyss of blue deep sea with bad visibility. It was here where the larger fish hung out, parrot fish for example. Beyond this reef drop there were reef and hammerhead sharks. Although we were not lucky enough to witness any, Si had spotted a reef shark only days before we arrived. This was quite unnerving and I kept popping my head out of the water when we were near the drop to check for any prominent fins.
Sunday early morning, Al and I rose to say goodbye to Si and Immy. They were appreciative of us getting up so early, but we were aware how much nicer it is to leave a place with a send off of some sorts. That morning Adam gave us tour of the land around the house (missing out the higher land at the back of the house). It was still a long tour and it suddenly hit home just how ambitious he was. His plans for the land would talk some time, but an exciting project which we had every confidence he would be able to pull off. We were so happy to be part of the project early on, to actually see the place before it was transformed and to be staying in what used to be (50 years ago) a coconut farm and was now totally overgrown with jungle. Later that day Adam went to Taveuni with the intention of doing some business and bringing back an Italian volunteer. This left Al and I up to our own devises for the afternoon. We decided to go on a coconut finding mission. They were falling all the time, we could hear them crashing to the ground. With the idea that we could have a coconut topped up with Bounty white rum on the beach then make Adam and the new volunteer lunch before they got back. Finding coconuts was quite a mission though. With so many ground plants it was not easy to spot the freshly dropped ones. Even if we did find them, they had often been eaten by insects or fruit bats. The key was finding young green ones, as this meant they were still filled with juice and it had not turned to milk and flesh (which is what happens in a coconut’s later stage of life). We did manage to get about two glasses out of 7 coconuts. Al having to put his machete skills to the test with the rusty and blunt machete available! We got our beach-rum-and-coconut moment. However it must have taken us hours to find the coconuts, so we rushed back to mack lunch. Chapati with curry.
Pietro, the Italian volunteer, arrived. At 37 yrs, escaping the London rat race he had quite his job and was finding his traveling style a renewal of himself. Not many middle aged Italians pack up and leave everything. Understanding how difficult it was in our 20’s to do that, I totally respected his guts. Over the rest of our time on Qamea, we spent it with Pietro.
We worked on the land, planted, ate together drank kava together and chatted a lot. He was really interested in food too. We had endless discussions about traditional food, Italian and English. For once, I did not even feel the need for a Sunday roast. Gella was feeding us far to well to wish for anything! Pietro was definately on a path of self discovery and some of the things he asked us and spoke about encouraged time for refelection; and there was plenty of time for that in such an apt place.
Monday came and so did the masses. Gella and Joe brought their 4 beautiful and very excitable children to stay with us for the week. Adam left for a few days to do more business on Taveuni. Throughout our week we worked on the land and on our own projects, helped Gella with cooking, played with her kids, swam, Al went spear fishing with Joe. I even babysat the kids one night while the rest went to the neighbours for a heavy kava session. We felt that our 10 days helping to build a permaculture school had been totally enhanced by living with a true Fijian family. It had been an unexpected twist but an experience that we will never forget.
The kids were always jolly and happy, mischievous but ready to help mum or dad without a seconds protest. Milly, the oldest girl helped with the cooking and cleaning as well as being a kind big sister to the little 5yr old Vani who enjoyed running riot and got away with murder. Paul, the oldest (12yrs) tried to fix everything but accidentally broke everything instead. He would pronounce, “SET!” each time he thought he was on to a winner. We all though this was hilarious. ‘Set’ was a common word used all the time in Fiji, meaning, ‘all set’, ‘sorted’. Adam used it continuously and before long it became ingrained in our vocabulary too.
Gella worked hard at the planting and food management of the land.
In between she was constantly in the kitchen. Al and I learnt more about tradition Fijian cooking this week that we could have dreamed of. Gella taught us how to catch mud crabs which are abundant on the coast on Qamea. So much so, they were actually a pest as they disrupted land and destroyed crops. To catch mud crabs Gella would set up traps of open coconuts covered with large leaves. The crabs would go and feast on the coconut flesh and then hang out in the cool shaded area that had been created. When the leaves were removed it was a race against time to catch them and toss them into a bucket.
They were fast and understanably aggresive.With big gloves Gella and Al succeeded, each time, with about 15-20 crabs that Gella would boil up and fry with chilli and garlic. Al learnt how to catch, kill and eat the crabs form start to finish.
The days went too quickly but soon we had found a rhythm and daily routine of working before it got too hot in the day, breakfast and a little more work on the land. After lunch a siesta was inevitable with the feasts Gella cooked up combined with the heat. I usually found a quite place in the shade on the beach whilst Al and Pietro would lie under the mosquito nets inside. Another bout of work would happen for a few hours before sunset. The main thing that made work hard other than the heat was the persistent mosquito. Tiger mosquitoes. They were always out, morning, noon and night. They were the type that could carry dende fever, although we were assured these ones didn’t. They itched like crazy though and hovered around our sweaty heads whilst we were digging and planting.
As the week went on I worked on the planting, while Al and Pietro worked together to get the chicken coop complete.
The task was challenging because of the size on the quality of bamboo used. Al learnt a hell of a lot about bamboo, understanding it’s difficulties and how to make a dome shape. With a lot of persistance, sweat and painful bamboo cuts Al succeeded.
Before we knew it, our time was coming to an end in Qamea. Gella and Joe were so kind and insisted on staying an extra day so they could make us the traditional Fijian food, Lovo, and have a final goodbye party. Lovo is when the food is buried under ground with hot coals and covered with big leaves. The food tastes smokey and truly wonderful. Fish and tarro (a staple root vegetable) are the most common to be cooked.
On the our last night with Gella’s familly we ate lovo, drank strong kava. Gella and Milly decorated the dining area with hibiscus flowers and made everything look so nice for us. It was the biggest feast of all, and we felt so privileged to have been made this by a local with the freshest fish imaginable and the famous Fijian hospitality. The evening was great, Paul played the guitar and sung with the softest voice. He was only 12yrs, but musically gifted and a pleasure to listen to. Gella even got the family to sing some gospel that they sing at church, it was a moment to remember. We drank kava until we couldn’t fit anything else into our happy full tummies.
They left the following afternoon. It was so sad to see them go. We had felt like we were part of their family and we suddenly felt very alone. Just Al, Pietro, Adam and I for one last evening in Qamea before we all left Adam for Taveuni. It would take us two days to get back to Viti Levu, where we intended to spend a couple of nights in Nadi before heading out of Fiji.
We enjoyed some bounty run, left over food (Gella being a mum had clearly made extra for us!) and listened to some music from Adams computer. A rarity with his computer only getting charged at his neighbours place. It was a nice last evening. Before we knew it is was early morning and we were saying our farewells. Pietro had decided to come too, so we all waved Adam off as he stood lonely on the beach looking like a true castaway.
What an amazing 10days. We were sad to leave, but so grateful to Adam and Gella for providing us with such a rich experience of Fiji.