30 Days in the South Pacific - True Stories of Escape to Paradise

Sample Chapter: Light on a Moonless Night

by Laurie Gough

Where are you the happiest?

I like to remember the night of my return to the remote Fijian island called Taveuni. Remembering it makes me smile. Warm winds dried off the saltwater slapped in my face during their earlier tantrum as I beached myself ashore after a thirty-six-hour boat ride on high South Pacific seas. My balance was as off as a tone-deaf minstrel after a night of medieval merriment. I didn’t care. I was back in Taveuni.

TAV-EE-UUN-EE. I loved the feel of the word in my mouth, full and rich and ripe like the island itself, about to burst with ancient lava and laughter and secrets from the past. It made me think of jumping from a place up high, like a rock, a tree, or a cliff, into someplace unfamiliar and alive. The mere speaking of the island’s name carried its own magic for me, was a way of entering and leaving the world. When spoken during the day, Taveuni was an expansive name for a place containing mirth and light and possibly mischief, but at night the name held its own dark sort of grace. And if whispered at night, or, even worse, whispered in just the right tone, the name caused shivers. Taveuni whispered. Think of it.

Eight months had fallen from the Earth since I’d left Taveuni. Eight months of exploring other places: New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia. It didn’t feel real, standing on that old Fiji dock again in the hot night, everything familiar in a dreamy kind of way. Even the taxi drivers came on like old friends. They sauntered towards us boat escapees looking as if they’d just heard the world’s best joke. Or seen it. Our faces had to be green. One man was puking his boiled-fish dinner into the sea while his wife patted his back. That’s true love. New visitors aren’t hassled here as in parts of the world where a traveler can be swarmed by a sea of faceless strangers speaking the few words of English they know to conjure up business: “Room, room, taxi, hotel cheap, Miss, Miss, good food, cheap, speak English, please Miss, come, cheap.”

Life’s gentler on Taveuni.

Like salty fermenting pickles crammed in a jar, six of us shared a taxi ride along Taveuni’s one road. The driver sang us a ditty. He was a happy man. As the taxi jerked its way along the bumpy road over hills and too fast around curves into the blackness of the night, I could imagine exactly where we were, what we’d see if it were daylight. Memories spilled over each other like ocean waves: of the two months I’d spent here, of the Fijians and their children I’d taught at the school, of the village that clings to the tropical mountainside, of the other travelers I’d met at the campground by the sea. I wondered if anyone would be awake at this hour. Would the quiet Fijian men and their children with immense eyes still be on the beach, circled around the kava bowl singing South Pacific harmonies? They’d be surprised to see me, of that I was sure.

I was surprised myself. Rarely do travelers return to such remote destinations even if they had the best of intentions when leaving them. I was seventeen when I visited the island of Madeira on a school-sponsored holiday and I vowed to return one day. Over ten years have passed, many of them spent traveling, and my list of secret spots on Earth to come back to is ever growing, with Madeira so far recessed that I don’t know when I’ll find my way back there.

But Taveuni called me back and I’d listened. I had daydreamed of this countless times over the past sweltering months, lost and bone-weary on noisy diesel-hazed streets, caught in crushes of human traffic in jammed Asian markets, or waiting for trains, buses, or cars with only a series of mangled straw hats between me and the unkind blaze of the equatorial sun. Ideas of returning to Taveuni—hidden so far and so secretly from the rest of the world that I often wondered if it really was of this world—had been growing steadily in my scorched mind.

I asked the taxi driver to stop half a mile or so before arriving where I thought, in the dark, Buvu Beach Campground lay. I wanted to walk the last part of the road as I imagined it. In my daydreams it had always been broad daylight, but I wasn’t fussy. The driver didn’t even question dumping me in the middle of nowhere at two o’clock in the morning. The other passengers eyed my tent skeptically. They were off to Taveuni’s resort. An elderly English woman warned me, oblivious to our native driver, “They were cannibals here, dear, right in this jungle. Whatever are you thinking?”

“That you shouldn’t knock eating people until you try it yourself.”

O.K., I said that after the taxi roared off and left me standing in the mud. I set off with my backpack through the darkness, hoping I wouldn’t veer off the dirt road into the bush. I suppose it was possible that ghosts of cannibals might still be hanging around, suspended in the confusion of trees. Or perhaps underneath the tender ground lay mute bones of half-eaten men carved up for special occasions. If I stepped in the wrong place, the bones would crumble into powder and release terrible secrets. So I looked up instead, into the soft center of the universe. The sky is ancient and the ghosts there don’t remember cannibals. The storm had passed back out to sea and a great white sweep of Pacific stars poured down. I tried to find the Southern Cross but couldn’t see it. As usual. Instead I spotted Orion directly over me and its familiarity reassured me that I was doing the right thing to return here. It’s a consistent constellation.

No light of the moon floated down into the world that night. Into an awkward blackness I walked for what seemed like hours, gradually losing confidence that I knew where I was. Not only disoriented, I was dizzy. Landsickness. I wavered back and forth along the dirt road, giddy and excited. I could see no lights shining anywhere, as at the time Taveuni (only twenty-five miles long and six miles wide) had no electricity except for the occasional house with a generator. Most people used oil lamps, all that was needed by islanders who lived naturally with the sun, sea, and land.

I finally came to a hill so I knew I’d passed Buvu Beach just behind me. Exhilaration lifted my load of clothes, books, and gifts as I found my way back to the campground’s entrance. I walked barefoot—the only way to walk on a muddy road. The earth is softer in Taveuni than in other places, and darker. It’s how the earth must have been millions of years ago, in the world’s warm beginnings. My hands remembered their way up a giant tree marking the pathway leading into the wooded beach. I’d arrived.

Heaven owns real estate on Buvu Beach. An extended Fijian family owns it also. They live up a hill across the road. The campground is shaded by towering and twisted trees which drop down leaves large enough to hide overfed cats. Coconut palms, mango trees, ferns, and bamboo shoots jump up everywhere to join the lush green picnic of it all. But it’s the flower blossoms that lure people inside. The smells they emit refuse to be shunned. Scent-drenched, the blossoms fill your nostrils, swarm the cracks of your memory until you’re inhaling more than flowers. You’re inhaling echoes of how the world once was. Three or four little bamboo huts, known in Fiji as bures, lie hidden among the voluptuous vegetation. A few tents are always edged away somewhere, too. I like to believe that travelers are blown this way by ancient sea winds. We fall inside the soft air and sleep to the pounding waves of the ocean’s heart which beats in time to our own. Only the occasional annoying rooster or thud of a wayward coconut interrupts one’s sleep.

Pitch black. The hand extended in front of my face was invisible. This was the kind of utter darkness that falls only in remote places, inconceivable to city dwellers. Nothing but an eight-month-old memory of the place could get me over the preposterous tree roots erupting out of the sand. They were like mutant flora. Last time here I’d broken a toe, twice, on one of these roots. The Fijians made such a big deal about it and laughed at me so much that if I did it again I’d be forced to hop back out to the boat unseen. There’s only so much jocularity about my feet I’ll tolerate.

I walked in slow motion toward the grass-roofed hut and heard it creaking in the wind. The little hut always reminded me of Gilligan’s island, being so makeshift, crafted out of whatever grew on the beach. The hut was our refuge, our hangout, our sheltering haven. Here campers and Fijians would cook, talk, and laugh for hours into the night. It had a sand floor and no walls, a stove and cupboards, a few benches, and a little table that mangoes, coconuts, and pineapples always lay on. We called the little hut our kitchen. Sometimes when the moon was full, the tide was high enough that the sea would slip right up and wet our kitchen floor. We didn’t mind.

Beside the kitchen, we would gather on the beach at the end of each day and watch the sun setting over the Pacific. It would spread over us like a mauve shadow. When it grew dark we would sit around a fire, drinking the Fijian elixir of life, kava, out of coconut bowls. Kava isn’t alcoholic, but it’s something. It slows down time. The Fijian men would sit with us and sing and play their guitars. After a while we’d all be singing. Then we’d tell stories. We’d tell travel stories mainly, since we were all travelers of some sort. The Fijians would tell stories, too, stories of their lives growing up on Taveuni. Storytelling is important in television-free places like Taveuni. It’s important anywhere. I remembered all the stories told around those campfires. And now I stood in the kitchen again, remembering these things as if I’d never left.

But I had left. I left because I couldn’t stop moving. I couldn’t stop searching for the perfect place. That’s the thing about travelers. We always have to see what’s over the next hill. But someone once wrote that to leave is to die a little. So I came back to the place I left. And immediately I found my heart beating alive inside this strange island’s quiet grace, stirred to see into the life of things here. I stood still and listened as moist night air invaded my hair like seaweed. What I heard was a kind of song coming out of the sea, like a drum banging in the waves, but singing too. All that time over in Asia, I’d only remembered the adventures I’d had here—the hiking, the snorkeling, the music, the family, the kids in the school. But now I understood it was the waves that had pulled me back. They’d been here all along like a steady pulse, patiently keeping time for the world. Waves like this never stop rolling inside a person, just beneath one’s awareness. The sea has a way of slipping us back to our beginnings, soothing a rusty place inside us, to remind us of something. Like a secret trance, a forgotten calling.

I stood in water as warm as my blood and exhaled a tremendous unconditional breath like the wind itself. The sea washed something out of me, freed me in its imperceptible way of what lay smoldering within: eight months of traveling alone on a road full of startling faces and unfamiliar tongues. I’d been traipsing through too many days and nights of dog-ridden streets and climbing over shaky mountaintops, not always liking what I found on the other side. But traveling is a journey to the center of the soul, a crazy Irishman once shouted at me. One forges through dark mountains and unnamed streets until there’s nothing left to see but chiseled pieces of light.

As I walked along the shoreline I thought about how nature overwhelms everything with the sea’s pastel painted fish and purple coral, the island’s extravagant trees of sweet unrecognizable fruit growing amidst waterfalls and volcanic mountains, rugged and wet. It would be difficult not to be delirious in such a place, a place where nature overpowers people, where people give themselves over to the land and sea. Little bits of phosphorescence, colored dots of fluorescent green, washed up at my feet. Laughter came in on the waves. I was home, as close to home as a traveler can get, and I felt like staying for good.

Laurie Gough has written for Salon.com, the Los Angeles Times, Globe and Mail, Canadian Geographic, and for several anthologies, including Wanderlust: Real Life Tales of Adventure and Romance, AWOL: Tales for the Travel Inspired Mind, and has been included in many Travelers’ Tales books. “Light on a Moonless Night” was excerpted from Kite Strings of the Southern Cross, which was the silver medal winner of ForeWord Magazine’s Travel Book of the Year Award and was short-listed for the Thomas Cook Award. Her new travel book, Kiss the Sunset Pig, will be published soon. She lives in Canada.

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