The Doctor and the Boilermaker: A Cruise to Fiji’s Islands


He was a Herr Doktor, a demanding, pompous man shaped like a pork sausage. By the second night aboard our Fiji Cruise he was the victim of mass-avoidance. Like Mark Twain’s “Old Traveler” he boasted about where he had been, about his prominence as a surgeon, how he was traveling the world while his wife, also a surgeon, stayed at home, tending to the sutures and clamps.

But Jack was a different type.  Everybody took to him immediately. Jack was a big Samoan, a boilermaker by trade who was taking his wife on her first vacation without the kids in 20 years.  Jack became our official chief, our Ratu, in Fijian tribal parlance, and he didn’t let go until he broke Herr Doktor.

Jack: “You ought to come to Samoa. We would make you chief.”

Herr Doktor:  “Ja?”

Jack: “And the women would fall all over you.”
Jack’s wife nudges him. “Stop it,” she whispers.

Herr Doktor:  “But aren’t there dogs in Samoa?  I don’t like dogs.”

Jack: “Oh yes, there are lots of dogs but they won’t touch you. They don’t like white meat.”

Herr Doktor blushed, then smiled, finally realizing the put-on. After that exchange, he understood. On a cruise like this through islands like these, taking one’s self seriously is worthy of severe punishment…perhaps some gentle stroking with a wet palm frond. And Herr Doktor wasn’t the only one to lighten up. The climax took place in the famed Saw-i-Lau Blue Lagoon after we boarded small boats for a leisurely sightsee.  Jack and Herr Doktor were in one boat, with about ten others, and  I was in the other. A beach umbrella got caught by the wind and blew off their boat.  We maneuvered to pick it up, but couldn’t grab hold.

Then Ratu Jack screamed Bula!, the Fijian greeting, and dived into the shallow water.  I turned on my video camera as everybody except Herr Doktor followed: diving, belly-flopping, flailing their arms and legs in the air before before going kerplunk, screaming Bula and laughing. The panicked look on Herr Doktor’s face changed to a grin. He jumped up into the bow, nodded for me to take a picture, shouted “Bula” and, fully clothed, performed what must have a painful belly flop.

In all of my years of  travel I never witnessed such an exuberant moment. As our boat drifted away, the gleeful bunch had lined up and were marching through the lagoon like a scene from a Fellini movie… led by a big red an white umbrella.

I thought that I would be bored spending seven days on “Fiji Time”, island hopping on a cruise ship. In the past I have become stir-crazy two days or so into a cruise. Not so on Captain Cook Cruises 7 day seven-day cruise aboard the Reef Escape or Dro Ki Cakau as it is called Fijian.

The ship carries a maximum of 120 passengers allowing for a family-like atmosphere that is not at all cloying, partially because except for the Captain, the Hotel Manager/Cruise Director and the Chief Engineer, the crew is entirely Fijian.

On my first trip to Fiji I suffered a bit of culture shock at being served by big, gentle men and women with flowers in their hair who always looked you straight in the eye. Family and tribe are powerful bonds in Fiji. Indeed there are power structures within tribes and some protest (we saw one baggy-pants “gangsta” adolescent on one of the islands) and some people do brand their “free village” chickens, but, for the most part, Fiji culture means sharing everything. That shows in a crew which sings together, serves not with an attitude of servitude but pride, people whom after a few days you just want to spontaneously hug.

Each day the ship stopped at a different island, took us ashore to a village, to a beach or to a reef for snorkeling. I got a chance to swim on by back in a sea cave and sing an old aria that I learned when I studied opera. It sounded much better here than it ever did in the shower.

Yangona, or kava as it is called on other Pacific islands, is both ritual and habit in Fiji. It is a pepper root, ceremoniously squeezed in water to create a drink that looks and tastes like spent dishwater. You are almost always welcomed to a village with a yangonna ceremony where you must share the stuff. Villages talk out their problems over the kava bowl. It is a mild stimulant that makes your lips tingle that some Fijians use as aperitif for marijuana.

Masi took my hand and looked up with eagerness in his eyes: “Where do you come from?”

That’s the first question most of these island kids ask, closely followed by, “Do you have children?” The villages of the Yasawa islands are remote. Most don’t have electricity aside from an occasional generator. The houses range from thatched roofs to cinderblock to corrugated metal. You would expect, looking at these homes, that you’d be seeing hollow-eyed hungry, poverty-stricken children. But no. These people are strong, vibrant and the children are sparkling inquisitive and energetic. And moreover, they are happy.

Masi was hanging out on the beach—a 13 year-old self-confident boy who obviously was popular, judging by the cluster of youngsters around him. While others from the cruise went on a tour of the village, I sat down in the sand and told Masi I was from near San Francisco—California—the United States. Immediately he and several of his little friends started into a song about San Francisco. Masi bounded off to get a piece of paper and a crayon so we could become penpals.

By now the brood of five or so children had doubled. One was sprawled across my lap, another hanging over my shoulder. Their parents way off in the distance smiled and checked to make sure I wasn’t being overrun. Not having had children of my own, I had never felt so much immediate affection and closeness than with these kids who had absolutely no hangups about strangers.

They loved to pose for my camera and even placed flowers behind their own ears, drawing their brothers and sisters in to pose for the picture. They ask nothing. They love the attention. Not that these kids lack for attention. It’s common to see mothers delighting in their kids’ splashing in the water or singing songs. Many Moms would not see their children for five days at a time as the little ones would be led by older teens to boarding schools that several villages might share. Education is taken seriously and the English language is well pronounced with a beautiful rounded Fijian accent.

Masi returns with paper and crayon. I write my address and he writes his along with Tima’s name, his 15 year-old sister. He asks, “do you have exercise books at home?”

“Exercise books?” I ask. “What are exercise books?”

“Books you write in,” he said.

“Ah, like notebooks.”

“Yes, yes,” he responds.

“Do you need them?”

“Yes, my school needs them. And do you have pencil boxes?”

“I’m not so sure we use them in the US. I’ll have to check. But how about pens and pencils?”

“Do you have pens that write in colors?” Masi ventured.

“Oh yes.”

“And rulers?”

I could see my shopping list getting longer as he wrote these items on the lined page of paper in blue crayon.

This fresh, beautiful sea of faces warmed me inside. No advertising, no violent TV in these islands. Kind parents, serious schooling and studies. Lots and lots of music—these people sing beautifully and their melodies are their children.

“These sound like very serious things,” I said, admiring Masi’s earnest dedication to his school. “How about something fun?” I asked.

“Like what?” Masi’s eyes were wide.

“Like colored balloons…”

“Oh yes balloons!”

“And maps?”

“Oh yes, maps! And magazines where you come from.”

I still wonder where they learned that San Francisco song…


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