Up Bot’s Valley

Bot came aboard Curly’s houseboat one day with Hanna. Hanna is one of Evi’s nieces who flew over to visit her from back in the States. Evi is the owner of SV Wonderland, mathematical wunderkind and for a couple years now Curly’s girlfriend. Curly is the jovial owner, and builder, of MV Curly, or more descriptively: the houseboat. This houseboat sits on a five ton cyclone proof mooring at the end of Savusavu harbor with SV Wonderland rafted up to its starboard side. For already a month and a half now Aluna is tied up to its port side. Beatriz and I met Curly way back in Taiohae, the magnificent but rather rolly bay on Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands. He was at the time half way through an ill-fated delivery mission of a fickle catamaran that would end up with an arrested boat in Tonga. We met up with him again there almost a year later amongst mountains of paperwork in preparation for the court case, the first of its kind in the kingdom. It is quite simply an understatement to say that he’s a real character with enough life lived high and dry to fill an entire book and two or three sequels guaranteed. Easily recognizable even from a considerable distance by his trademark, snow white Santa Claus beard, he is well known and admired for a good forty years of unceasing entrepreneurial spirit and good-natured generosity in Fiji and well respected as a weathered seaman, experienced diver and radiant radio personality all over the world. But back to Bot.

His shiny white teeth, framed by a dark-brown Fijian indigenous face and pitch black curly hair, set the backdrop for a contagious smile that sits with demonstrated confidence about halfway between the shy and preposterous. In his early twenties and from the countryside he must have been smitten by Hanna’s panty-revealing miniskirt that sat gingerly atop her long and slender legs. He valiantly stood up to her inquisition into tidbits of Fijian language but his ticket to the houseboat he earned with a pretty darn obvious white lie. “I have never been on a boat”, he said innocently enough, “I was always curious how one might look inside!” It worked beautifully for him. He got to see not only one boat interior, but three, and of very different kinds. Evi’s “Wonderland” is a Nordic 40, a classic fiberglass monohull; Curly’s houseboat, aptly named MV Curly, is a one of a kind floating villa, perched atop a steel barge it offers a vast living space with full sized kitchen, fridge, hot showers and all the comforts of living in a suitable house on terra firma, minus the rent or mortgage fees. Some also consider Aluna one of a kind…

Once Hanna and her dazzling miniskirt had travelled beyond the horizons on a jet plane, a not truly heartbroken Bot asked me for her phone number, which I was not authorized to give out. Since he seemed quite a frank and straight forward chap, I took over the relationship and asked Bot if I could come and see his farm, which in Fijian English denominates a plantation somewhere out in the bush. He kindly agreed, so one morning we hopped on one of the many windowless buses and rode out into the backcountry. We passed the primary school where he had gone to school and also the high school and then the road turned from pothole-pocked asphalt to red dirt track and the going was dusty and bumpy. A little village of a dozen or so house on neatly manicured lawns floated by and so did many taro, banana, papaya, casaba and watermelon plantations. After maybe a twenty-minute ride Bot signaled it was time to get up and off the bus. I squeezed my skinny self through the narrow aisle of brown arms, colorful dresses and black, wooly hairdos to the front of the bus and stepped out into the humid heat. We found ourselves in a small hamlet and Bot stepped off the road over a small bridge that crossed the drainage ditch along the roadside. It was made out of two short sections of palm tree trunks. Those, with their burled ribs and notches, provide an excellent anti-slip surface for bare feet, flip-flops or any other more heavy-duty footwork to grab a solid hold on.

Amongst a flurry of about half a dozen young boys Bot’s mom and stepdad welcomed me into their home. Corrugated tin panels painted blue made up the roof and walls of the simple house, which sat raised about two feet above the ground atop short and round wooden posts. When coming across the lawn I had noticed through the door and the louvered windows a frantic outburst of activity. I perceived hints of flying floor mats, clothes being ushered away and a lightning fast sweep of a broom. The introductions were then fittingly intertwined with apologies for the house being dirty and explanations of not having had time to properly clean it up. The planked floor was covered with two hand-woven, square Pandanus mats. I was offered a rusty metal chair, but since everybody else got ready to sit down on the floor I did likewise. A cup of lemon leaf tea was served, again with excuses that the local tap water was heavily treated with chlorine and the tea effectively had quite a sanitized taste to it. Some amicable chitchat followed with eager reassurances that the government was looking well after its subjects. Interestingly enough, I thought. Soon Bot had changed into working clothes and bush knife in hand we left the house and walked through a field of shoulder high switch grass towards some very verdant hills. A small creek with very clean and clear water had to be crossed and soon we headed up a quite steep incline. The valley full of coconut palms fell quickly below behind us. Once on the crest we passed a gigantic mango tree and then entered the bush. There were tracks cut through it so the going was brisk. A short decent brought us to an opening and I recognized immediately the Kava plants that grew there at regular intervals. Yaqona is the local name for it, which with the Fijian spelling that avoids certain obvious consonants, is pronounced “Yangona”.  It’s scientific name is Piper methysticum, which translates into something like the intoxicating Peppertree. The other common name for it here is grog, hinting at its use as a slightly intoxicating brew that is made with its ground up root, which had been dried in the sun. This brew is the cornerstone of Fijian social village life. A small bundle of these dried roots is presented as a gift to the local chief when entering a village for the first time as a visitor. For Bot, who is a Christian and does not consume the grog himself, Yaqona is the only cash crop within his reach that guarantees him a reasonable income. Even though it takes five years to bring it from planting to harvest he hopes with the proceeds of this small plot to be able to purchase materials and build himself a little house of his own, which at 23 years of age might not be such a bad idea!

Economic opportunity seems to be a predominant strive in Bot’s world. The following day he appeared with a bag of ready-to-drink coconuts at the little jetty where we dock our dinghies to go ashore. He asked me to lend him Alunita, our outrigger canoe, for an hour to go visit the yachts and sell the coconuts to the cruisers. He did so and came back with an almost empty bag. Counting the earnings it turned out he made $23.50. He carefully recounted the money and then put $2.35 aside. “This goes to the church”, he mused, “They need money to help the poor!” He had mentioned before that he believed in the Lord Jesus, so I wondered aloud to which denomination he might belong. There was a moment of hesitation, as if thinking about which way to best beat around the bush. First he pretended not to understand the word ‘denomination’, then he babbled something like: “Seven days, or something…” Well, it turned out his family were relatively recent convert to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, also known as the Mormons and even better known for their white shirt and black nametag clad, always in pairs, roaming also your neighborhood missionaries, who clad in military style haircut are sent all over the world from the headquarters in Salt Lake City to soldier through the poorest barrios and hassle fragile souls towards the revenue generating, architectonically not very inspiring temples they have erected not far away.

With the promise of a homemade lunch afterwards I was lured into joining the gang on Sunday morning for a monster session of three hours duly honoring the commandments of the Sabbath. The first hour in the humble church hall along the main road was spent in gender-segregated readings of the book of the President Joseph Smith. In spite of being dressed in a formal black sulu, the traditional loincloth used for all things official in the islands, I was thrown in with the males, which were all clearly not alpha, probably not even beta males. On a good day they might have been classified with the delta crew, if the graders of human dignity were to be sufficiently good humored. We were chewing our way through a chapter about all the laws, rules and regulations for what you’re supposed to do on a Sunday and what not. Of course there shall be no work! It’s a day of worship, for Christ’s sake, literally that is here for once, so you may worship your salary for six days a week, but day seven belongs to the Lord and you belong to the Lord! Here we all were, in fact, obediently following the commands of his lordship. Hour two I got pushed into a small room for Sunday school in English. Invited to present myself and I admitted at once to not believing in God. Immediately I became the center of all attention, which, of course, I quite enjoyed. The last hour, finally, was spent in plenum. The sacraments were served on white plastic trays, tiny pieces of fluffy bread and a miniature plastic cup of water. No wine!

The lunch at home back in the valley made up for all the boredom of institutionalized sheepdom. Tasty palusami, fish in sweet coconut sauce wrapped in a boiled taro leaf has been my favorite Pacific Island food since our lazy days back in American Samoa. Taro cooked slowly in an earth oven serves as bread. Of course it still being Sunday, the Lord’s day of Sabbath, the discussion quickly returned to the doctrine. Bot’s mom turned out to be quite an effervescent warrior of her newly acquired faith. She grew up in a Methodist family, but fell out with them after her first husband ran for another cover and her marriage fell to pieces. The Pentecostal Church with their trance-inducing congregation was next, but did more to confuse her inquisitive mind than quench her thirst for religious certainty. In came two stopple haired Mormon Missionaries walking down the dirt road in front of her house and a bald-headed neighbor from further up the valley who diligently but persistently followed up. It was a done deal by then, not the slightest doubt remained. The scriptures and the elders flown in from the USA answered every question there was about where we come from, where we are supposed to go and what we are to do in the chaos of the here and now. There’s hope with me though, they insisted. They appreciated my demonstrated curiosity and were certain that I would eventually come to see the light!

Until my time of salvation came though, I obviously needed to be nurtured and nourished. So Bot, who had slept through my hour-long discussion with his mom stretched out on the woven Pandanus mat, accompanied me a short while down the road on the way home to send me off with some fresh coconuts. “Just watch”! he chuckled as he jumped out into the field through a small path cut into the switch grass. The refusal to see any evolutionary connection with our tree climbing, tool using and socially quite more refined but hairy cousins with opposing big toes became divinely elevated to contrast sharply with Bot’s agility in scaling the slender trunk of a coconut palm. Within less than a minute he was back down to earth, uh, on the ground, I mean, and a couple skilled strokes with the bush knife later we had a cool stream of divine refreshment pouring down our respective esophagi, which made the walk home over the winding and rust-red dirt road an effortless stroll through a lush green illusion hauntingly similar to the famed but ill-fated Garden of Eden described with such brutal honesty in the holy scriptures.

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One Response to “Up Bot’s Valley”

  1. Beatriz Restrepo Says:

    This Bot is a real Monkey!!! I really enjoy reading your blog.

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