TO LAU IN A COPRA BOAT

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By Jennifer Miatt Traveling In Fiji

I’d reached the point in our journey where I no longer cringed at the black mould encrusted walls and pipes or the thick liquid swilling under the rusty grating that I stood on.

After the sweaty salty day, and invariably muddy from a trip ashore riding back on cheesy sacks of copra and rubbery beche de mere, I found the shower was a welcome ritual.

Lit by an open porthole above my head and, if timed well and the ship pointing in the right direction, a glowing pink and orange Pacific sunset mellowed the bright blue steel and seemed to warm the cold water.

I ran the few steps to my berth past the gentle engineer keeping a watchful eye on his pistons riding up and down. The necessity of using the hot neon strip light to complete my dressing combined with the hot proximity to the engine room, the one small porthole was the only ventilation when I closed the door for modesty.

So I hurried out and there was the mesmerizing sight of the bo'sun sweeping out the mats in the crew’s quarters by soft yellow light noticeable as the swift tropic night had fallen.

Then he sent the younger crew here for water there to wash the nai bo (crushed kava).

Soon someone would be pounding the yaqona (kava) in a huge metal pestle and mortar.

Then they would beckon and I would climb with difficulty over the sacks and slippery tarp trying to keep my sulu (skirt) at a respectful length while not dipping it in the pig mire.

Over the hold then and into the sweet smelling quarters as freshly bathed men dipped their heads as to a bure (thatched dwelling) and entered one by one and sat around the edge of the mats.

Some nights work would continue under arc lights, and boys would break off work to come for a bowl; some boys on the bunks would join in the stories.

Often I am excluded by my lack of Fijian.

Some of these boys are on internship from the excellent Suva Maritime School and take their watch on the bridge but most of the time they are under the care of the bos'n doing the hardest work aboard ship and living with the crew alongside other lads serving an ordinary apprenticeship.

First earning their overalls then work boots and eventually a real job description.

The bos'un would be making the grog, squeezing and kneading nai bo.

The ritual discussion continued about how much yaqona should be put in having been resolved. The seamen’s tanoa (kava bowl) or kumete - the Tongan word used by this mostly Lauan crew - is a buoy cut off above the equator and placed in the top slice, which is also cut off to hold the bowl and contain the slopping should the rolling sea be rough. Not rough, only a gentle rocking and pleasant breeze drifting in here for'd of the hold.

More fresh water is poured from a height over the kneading hands. And is the strength right?

A mumble of assent. First bilo (coconut shell) to me. I clap, in thanks, raising the half coconut shell and my eyes to the bos'n. Bula Vinaka (cheers/thank you) and down it goes and the warm numb glow begins as I return the bilo and clap three times in the traditional gesture of thanks again.

As the evening wears on I watch the men still working under the bos’n’s eye.

We’re running late because there had been electrical problems with the winch causing misfiring.

Now the men and boys are learning the elegant skill. Swinging the rope cradle over a small hole into the hold (it’s raining), and releasing one end of the cradle and jigging the sacks in after a swing towards the opening. Such extraordinary strength and gentleness are required of the same arms that carry a baby down into a small boat and the waiting mother’s arms in a rocking sea and now carry out complicated electrical repairs to a sophisticated winch, arc welding at night.

Night loading is only possible at the three islands that have a wharf. On all the others daylight is necessary to navigate the small boats over the break in the reef to the beach.

On one small island the coconut plantation is over a steep hill and the work of collection has been greatly improved by some steps hewn out by Japanese aid. Some islands have such poor soil that fertilizer is necessary.

But without copra and the monthly visit of MVTunatuki most of these small communities would cease to survive.

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