The Sudden Drop Into Paradise

(December 2006)
Published in The Sunday Times Travel Magazine, UK

Richard is mouthing words at me: something about plates, I think, or Kate, but Kate who? I can’t consider it too deeply, as I am busy planning my best course of action should this flying Reliant Robin crash into the coral reefs winking up at me. I’m holding my one year old son with one hand, and with the other I nonchalantly pull out the life jacket from beneath my seat. My husband has stopped mouthing words and is now grimacing madly, waving at the blue-green waves below.

Sweat drips into my eyes: is it better for me to get the life jackets on now, or would that minimise my chances of getting through the hobbit-sized door? I glance down, trying to consider the likely impact, and for a moment I’m distracted by the sight of a coral-ringed islet with grass-roofed huts—bures—clustered in the centre. A few moments later, the plane dips so suddenly that the life jacket on my lap flies into the air; a flat face of swaying green mangrove is suddenly in front of us. My grip on my son tightens until he has a red mark on his wrist. I can see no landing strip, no airport, and suddenly I realise how foolish my grip on my life jacket has been. Foolish because we are not going to crash into water, but land. Richard has twisted around again and is laughing with the mania that only impending death can provide, and before I can slap him, the mangroves have parted and a flat strip of green is laid out. The plane bumps slightly and a line of grinning faces flash past. When we finally stop, the four other passengers applaud. Richard yells: “Wasn’t that great?”

We have come to Ovalau, a tiny island in the Fijian group, for six weeks. I have a radio play to write and plan to create it surrounded by swaying palm trees, spending my coffee breaks snorkeling in the electrifying blue of the Pacific Ocean —my one brief shot at aligning myself with the long line of writers who have escaped dreary weather and domestic drudgery by holing up in Pacific retreats. Except that, with two pre-school age children in tow, it’s not quite Somerset Maugham.

Laleeta and Muneem, the managers of the Ovalau Holiday Resort, have a meal waiting for us when we arrive. Owned and run by locals, the resort is simple: a few self-catering cabins; a small, family restaurant; a pool. Levuka, the island’s main town, is a mile away. Once the capital of colonial Fiji, it’s a quaint mix of early colonial architecture and typically Fijian aesthetics.

We settle quickly into a routing of morning activities, and afternoons writing, with day trips twice a week. Our cabin is basic but comfortable, with the real draw being the luscious hospitality offered by Laleeta and Muneem. Our three year old daughter takes to following Laleeta around each day, helping to collect green lemons and ripe mangoes for our fruit drinks. Endlessly patient, Laleeta teaches us both—my daughter and me—how to chop and cook taro leaf, how to make mango drink, how to roll a perfect roti. We walk into the town most mornings, if we manage to wake before the heat is too strong. If we don’t, the taxi trip costs little more than a pound.

Richard and I take turns snorkeling while the other plays on the beach with the children. Ovalau is less sandy than other beaches, but its reefs are just as thrilling, and if anything, even more accessible. The Ovalau Watersports Centre runs dives daily, as well as beginner’s courses, and scuba divers travel from Japan, America, and Australia to ‘dive Ovalau’. I’m content with a snorkel mask, happy to be lured away from my work to explore the daily changes on the reef just across from our cabin. After just a few days, we have become so blasé about the tropical sea life—the astonishing, electric flashes of yellow, purple, green—that when I ask Richard what he’s seen that morning, he replies: “There’s not much out today—just the red and green fish and a few of those bright blue starfish.” I decide that with such slim pickings, I’ll wait until the afternoon. We spend the morning at the local waterfall instead, standing underneath the icy drop and shouting up at the sky.

In Levuka, we take the historical tour; wander the high steps; take tea with local hosts; watch Bollywood films and Moulin Rouge at the brightly coloured art-deco cinema, the meeting place for tourists and locals. We try all the cafes, testing their thick mango and papaya drinks and their sweet cakes while we watch the fishing boats slip in and out of the bay. We eat, then lie basking in the sun like fat lizards.

On our morning walks into Levuka, the villagers run out onto the road, calling to us to come and eat with them. Our daughter runs after the children, shrieking with laughter as chickens and goats scuttle across her path. The older girls stay next to me, tickling the baby’s chin and bouncing him on their hips. They invite us to their church, an overful wooden room in the centre of the village. All the village children sit quietly, not even a whisper, while my two wriggle and squeal. Embarrassed, I stand to sneak out with the baby: a line of hands pull me back in as the tall minister calls out, “Welcome to you, we welcome you to our hearts,” and the room erupts in singing so lush it is as though water drips over my skin. With a welcome like this, who wouldn’t melt? After church, Baba Mara—a round, elegant woman—takes us to her family house, a two-roomed bure. Her three daughters cook a feast in one room while the children run in and out of the village huts. It is impossible to tell who is family and who is not.
The chief—dressed in a red t-shirt that sports an image of Mick Jagger’s grinning face—sticks his head through the door, booms a welcome to us and sits cross-legged on the floor, beginning the kava ceremony. Kava is a tree root pounded to dust and mixed with water to make a liquid, served in a coconut shell. My mouth tingles from the drink, and my taste buds rebel. The ceremonies can be enormously formal affairs, with dancing and a strict hierarchy of recipients, or a casual passing around of the coconut shell, preceded by clapping. After the ceremony, we eat taro leaf in coconut, sweet pumpkin rice, and roasted yam. Fire-roasted fish is laid out on the mat. Hospitality is like this in Fiji—it will stuff you to the gills.

We take a trip to Leluvia – a ridiculously photogenic sandy island with a few bures to stay in. With electricity available for only a few hours a day and meals served in a small dining room, it’s perfect for stress release. Not that we need it after a fortnight on Ovalau. We swing in the hammocks in the shade of the palms, listening to the locals singing; we dip in and out of the warm water, catching glimpses of the vivid corals; we sing with happiness.

Back in Levuka, we arrange a hike to Levoni with Epi, a local entrepreneur who has been leading tours to his home village for several years. With two children, a seven-hour trek appears impossible, but Epi carries my daughter on his shoulders, while Richard carries the one-year old and, amazingly, everyone seems happy. We push through thick rainforest, swing on fat vines and drink coconut milk through reed straws. When my son, cocooned in his backpack, scrapes his foot, Epi pats a flat leaf on the wound and the bleeding stops. Astonished, my son stops mid-howl.

While we walk, Epi holds us spellbound with stories of the history of the villages and of Ovalau. When we get to Lovoni, we greeted and fed as though we are old friends. We swim in the clear river before jumping in the truck to rattle back down the mountain for a celebratory beer at the Royal Hotel.

After four weeks on Ovalau, I decide it’s time to check my email. The ‘internet café’ is the one office computer at the Dive Centre in Levuka. The screen fills with unanswered emails – several from my agent. Outside, the roti and fruit carts are wheeling up and down the street. London, novels, publishers: they all seem far, far away and, as if the kava has seeped into my blood, I cannot work up any anxiety or concern. If I were an advertisement, Que Sera Sera would be my incidental music.

By the time we fly out from Levuka—in the middle of a fierce monsoon storm—I am so relaxed that I peer out of the window at the downpour and grin at Richard: “Fabulous, isn’t it?” This time, though, he’s the one who’s sweating.