FIJI, CHAPTER 4: Sharks, Fire Walkers, and Kava

I woke up to find Jennifer and her luggage had gone. I hopped in the shower and the little black cat was curled up against the outer side of the window. I finished getting ready, and the cat escorted me to the dive shop. There was a giant white board that contained all of the divers’ names and to which boats they were assigned. I found my name on Brad’s “cool kids” boat and erased it. The Fijian divemasters looked confused, and I asked them to please put me on one of the other dive boats. Dicky wrote my name at the bottom of the Beqa Bull Shark boat. The cat followed me to the dining room, but stopped just outside of it. “What’s with the cat?” Barry asked, as I piled bacon on my plate. I smiled, “The dogs ratted me out.” Tim walked up to the table and sat down next to me. “Hey. I noticed you switched boats, so I did too.” Joan looked upset, “You’re leaving us, Megan?” I nodded and assured her, “I’ll still see you underwater.”

After breakfast, we headed to the dive shop for the shark feed dive briefing. Dicky explained that we were not allowed to wear anything that attracted sharks such as the colors pink, neon yellow, neon green, white or any contrasting colors or really anything other than black or blue. Preferably, our skin would not be exposed due to the contrast between our skin colors versus our wetsuits. We would descend with our backs to the reef in groups and line up along the wall at the bottom at 60 feet. We had to wear gloves, and we were not allowed to move our hands, our bodies, or touch the sharks in any way. We were not, under any circumstance, allowed to enter the arena with the sharks. If our camera lights bothered the sharks in any way, we would have to turn them off. The tiger sharks were especially dodgy about dive lights. Dicky stressed that this wasn’t the Bahamas, and they wouldn’t be doing any tricks with the sharks. It was a shark feed only. After 30 minutes, we would feel a divemaster tap us on our shoulders, and we would slowly move with our backs to the reef until we reached the ascent line. We would then ascend to 15 feet in groups and complete a safety stop. After a surface interval, we would repeat the dive.

The other divers whispered in nervousness. I trudged to the rental gear station to pick out some dilapidated, ill-fitting, solid blue rental fins since mine were purple and white. Since Stormy was covered head to toe in pink gear, she looked particularly annoyed. Once on board our assigned boats, we headed 45 minutes out to the Cathedral dive site. Since it was only a few days after Cyclone Keni, the ocean currents were ripping at the surface. The divemasters built an elaborate system of lines at the surface and underwater that connected the three boats to each other and to the mooring. It took them an hour or so to complete it. I approached Dicky about my concern over my rental fins, “There’s no way I can handle those currents in these crappy rental fins, no offense. Look, my foot slips out. I’m more worried about the currents than the sharks. Please let me wear my fins.” Dicky nodded.

My dive group was the first to jump in. I jumped onto the line and held onto it with all my strength. The garbage bins, full of chum, bobbed next to me. The other divers jumped in away from the line and kicked as hard as they could to get to it. I grabbed a diver that was about to blow past me and pulled her hand to the line. Once we were all on the lines, we descended one by one, pulling ourselves along the system of lines to the bottom of the ocean. Dicky told me the best place to be on the wall was just to the right of the bait cage. I headed straight to that spot and kneeled there. Gradually, all 30 of us or so lined the wall, and we waited for the show to begin.

The arena was empty with a few nurse sharks gliding along its edges per usual. The shark feeders entered the scene dragging along the chum-filled garbage bins. They placed chum in the bait cage and anchored the garbage bins to various rocks in front of us. Gradually, a swarm of fish appeared, ranging from giant trevally and snapper to small drumfish and angelfish. There were so many fish clouding the arena that it was hard to spot the nurse sharks, twisting around and shaking their heads near the bait cage. The goofy-looking lemon sharks boldly approached the shark feeder with snaggled teeth and chomped onto the bait.

Finally, the burly bull sharks entered the arena and scattered the other sharks. One of the shark feeders picked up a garbage bin and swam off with it leaving a cloud of speeding fish in his wake. Then another feeder appeared above us and released some chum which caused a sort of fish-firework display. The bull sharks particularly liked to pursue the feeder in mid-water and, periodically, the feeder whomped one of them with the garbage bin. At one point, three bull sharks darted in and out of the chum cloud directly above us; I noticed the divemasters, who were guarding our backs, raised up large metal hooks over us to deter the bull sharks from getting too close.

I could not have been more impressed by the feeders, who seemed to have eyes in the backs of their heads, as they whirled around to bop the bull sharks on the nose for sneaking up on them. I recalled the feeders said they never fed the bull sharks by hand because they were too unpredictable.

Back on the boat during the surface interval, the divers couldn’t be more ecstatic. “Hey, Megan!” One of the divemasters, Jerry, called me over to the inside of the cabin. He opened his hand and revealed shark teeth he had collected after the dive. “Whoa! Which is which?” I asked. He placed them in my hand and pointed to each. “These are lemon and these are bull. Keep them.” I could not stop smiling, “Find me a tiger shark tooth, Jerry!” Tim interrupted, “There wasn’t any tiger sharks.” I replied, “Give them time, Tim. They’re big and slow like me.”

During the middle of the second dive, the bulls dominated the arena until–out of the corner of my eye–beyond the giant fish cloud on the outer edge of the arena, I spotted stripes. In my excitement, I nudged the diver next to me and pointed at it, trying to yell “tiger” through my regulator, which no one could have possibly understood. The 15 foot tiger shark made a magical entrance. It started out on the edges and then climbed mid-water, swam straight towards us, and then turned and disappeared back to the edges. I feared that was going to be our only sighting, until it returned to the bottom of the arena and swam straight towards the feeder standing in front of me.

The feeder presented the tiger shark with a massive fish head. The tiger shark’s eyes rolled back as it gently accepted the fish head with more grace than the little black cat had with his fish filet. The tiger shark made a wide loop around the ring, and then slowly approached the feeder again. It almost appeared to stop as it politely waited for the feeder to reach in the bin for another fish head. The feeder practically stuffed the fish head into the tiger’s mouth, and I saw the full glory of all of the tiger shark’s teeth.

As the tiger began another loop, a bull shark approached the feeder in almost the exact same manner as the tiger shark in an apparent attempt to fool him into feeding it a fish head. But, the feeder only bopped the bull shark on the nose, and it sped off in a fright.

The tiger shark sniffed the sand on its path back to the feeder, who placed a fish head in its mouth; unfortunately, the fish head fell out of its mouth while its eyes were rolled back. The tiger turned back towards the feeder for a second attempt, but the feeder pushed it away. The tiger shark continued to follow the rules; its many rows of stripes passed by my mask, as it turned to get back in line on the feeding merry-go-round. It appeared to be led entirely by its nose.

When I felt the tap on my shoulder this time, I didn’t want to leave. The tiger’s hunger seemed insatiable, and I wanted to see how many fish heads it took to satiate it. For a moment, while the great big tiger’s head was below me sniffing in the sand, I had the urge to reach out and pet its snout to say goodbye. I felt another hurried series of taps on my shoulder; I backed away as slowly as possible towards the ascent line, so I could continue watching the tiger. As I reluctantly crawled up the ascent line, I joined the other divers at the 15 feet safety stop, and our bodies waved on the lines like flags.

I had mixed feelings about the tiger shark back on the boat. All of the divers were in a raucous mood, shouting “Those teeth! Did you see those teeth?” I sat in a contemplative silence. How could this stereotypical fearsome creature remind me of a dairy cow grazing along the grassy hills of California? How could I equally fear, admire, and love this tiger shark all at the same time? And, whose leg did I have to hump to feed one for myself?

“Megan!” Jerry called me from inside the cabin. I wobbled over to him, and he looked very serious. He looked around with wild eyes to make sure no one could see, and he opened his hand to reveal a very large shark tooth. “Is that what I think it is?” I exclaimed. He nodded and smiled, “After everyone left, I went to the spot where Taylor was feeding it. I saw it fall out during the feeding.” I hopped up and down in excitement. “Let me buy it from you. How much would you normally sell it for at the market?” He thought about it for a second, and he proudly said, “25 dollars.” I handed him the money, and he placed the tooth in my hand. “You have no idea how much this means to me,” I whispered, and I hugged him.

On the ride back to the hotel, when all of the divers were on the top deck and out of ear shot, I sat down with Dicky. I asked him, “Can you please explain to me what the deal is with the Christmas Fund?” He looked nervous. I continued, “It’s just that Brad and Shelia insisted that we don’t tip you guys until the very end of the trip in some sort of Christmas Fund that you only get one time per year–but, it seems fishy to me. They said your culture considers it rude if we tip you individually. I wanted your opinion.” Dicky answered, “I don’t know where it goes. We don’t see much of it, and I have three kids at home.” I nodded. He said, “I would marry you, but I’m already married.” I laughed, “Vinaka.”

Suddenly, the boat stopped. Sam climbed down the stairs and nodded towards the ocean, “Awww…Do we have to pick up the trash?” I peered overboard where he pointed to, and I spotted Stormy and a divemaster. Neither carried a safety sausage. They had drifted at least a few miles from the Cathedral dive site, and they were lucky the captain happened upon them. Stormy climbed aboard looking a little more serious than usual, “The line I was on totally broke off!” Since the boats were tied together with the intricate system of lines, it took a while for the divemasters to free the boats to pick up the divers who drifted away. I found out later that the other boats picked up missing divers, too.

Back on shore, a Fijian villager stood on the beach with souvenirs. I was starting to realize how the Fijians survived without tips. I approached her and said, “Ooh, I like your bull shark teeth earrings. The bulls are impressive!” She told me her husband is Frasier. I exclaimed, “He’s my divemaster! He’s really helping us navigate those crazy currents.” I wanted her opinion on the Christmas Fund as well. She answered, “How do you say it…misappropriation?” I nodded knowingly and smiled, “I’ll take the bull shark earrings, please.”

On my walk back to my bure, I smelled a fire. Finally, I thought, a real American BBQ. Maybe there would be steak. Maybe there would be ribs. Maybe steak AND ribs. Hopefully, not curry mongoose. My stomach rumbled, and I spent awhile in my bathroom, as usual. While I was reading, I overheard a diver who must have been talking on the phone; it annoyed me that someone actually had access to dial home. “It was an absolute shit show. I didn’t think I was going to get picked up. Yes, it was a total open water situation, can you believe it?”

Suddenly, I heard a whistle and cheers, and I was immediately transported back to my early volleyball days, when volleyball was what I lived and breathed for. Could it be? I quickly changed my clothes and instinctively headed out to the sand volleyball court. The sun was out it all its glory, and the court was no longer flooded. The entire hotel staff was joyously playing volleyball. There were two referees and two teams of 6 people, with 6 people watching from the sidelines.

“Megan!” Landon ran up to me. “I heard you play professionally.” I laughed. “I haven’t played in years.” A staff person walked off the court, and Landon pointed at me to replace him. When the whistle blew, all of my training came back to me. My arms instinctively raised above my head to guard the net. I never wanted to hit a ball so badly. When my hands didn’t reach the top of the net, I realized I was playing on a men’s net, which is almost a foot taller than a women’s net. It was probably for the best since the last time I played with men on a women’s net, I ended up with a broken wrist.

I ran. I jumped. I dived, and I sprawled in my attempts to get the ball. “Megan, you shouldn’t dive.” I was completely out of breath the entire time, and the Fijians hadn’t even broken a sweat. “Why not?” I heaved as I bumped a ball. “Because your leg is bleeding.” I glanced down to find blood running down my leg from my knee. “It’s fine, it’s nothing,” I hopped up and smacked the ball directly into the net. “Shoot! I’m sorry guys.” Landon walked up to me. “You don’t see any of us diving in the sand because….” He brushed the sand with his foot to revel a bed of dead coral junks. “It’s not just sand here.” I was too high from the fun I was having. “Okay, let me run and wash it off, and I’ll be right back.”

I scampered to my bure, ran my leg under the shower water, threw some Neosporin on it and slapped on a bandaid. I skipped back to the court and found that Stormy had joined the opposing team. It was my turn to serve the ball, and it couldn’t have been better timing. I aimed at her every time, and she shanked the ball. When I was back at the net, I aimed at her again. I bumped and spiked the ball at her, and she kept missing it completely. I felt so much better. After we reached 10 points and won, the teams dispersed, and Stormy and I ended up on the same side of the net. The other team learned that Stormy was the weak player, and I chased after her shanks and covered for her. She tossed me the ball to serve, and I said, “Thank you.” Everything was peaceful after that until my stomach rumbled. “Hey, Landon, I have to go. Will you all play again tomorrow?” He answered, “We usually play every day at 2pm on our break, when it’s not raining. This is the first day since you got here when it hasn’t rained.”

I limped back to my bure and felt like a weight had been lifted from me. I really missed playing volleyball. Volleyball ended Fijian cannibalism, I was sure of it. And, then I remembered…I played in a Fijian volleyball tournament when I was 18 years old. It was an unusually peaceful tournament, and I loved it because the Fijians weren’t competitive. They just played for fun. They even fed me for free. They were the nicest people I had ever met. I made a promise to them that I would one day visit Fiji, not really thinking I would ever get there. But, I did. Fourteen years later, I honored my promise, and I played volleyball in Fiji with Fijians.

The drums sounded earlier than usual, and I followed my nose to where I thought a real American BBQ was in the works. The divers sat in unfolded white chairs, and there was indeed a fire, but no meat in sight. I approached Shelia, “Bula, how does this work? Do we grab meat inside and then bring it out here?” She laughed, “No! This is for the fire walkers. Dinner is after the show. The villagers are getting ready on the volleyball court.” Puzzled, I walked back to the court and sure enough, my teammates were donning grass skirts. “You guys just played a killer game of volleyball and NOW you have to walk on fire?” They smiled and nodded. I felt so lazy. The Fijians never stopped moving. My dream of steak and ribs was crushed.

The fire had apparently been going that whole day in order to make the rocks over it super ridiculously hot. My teammates, (aka the Fire Walkers), appeared in their grass skirts and shuffled over the rocks in a single file line. When each fire walker stopped in the middle of the rocks, they yelled “Bula!” before shuffling back to the end of the line.

I asked one of the guys in line if I could jump in, and he said that only men could be fire walkers. In fact, pregnant women weren’t allowed anywhere near the fire because of a superstition that the men’s feet would light on fire. I laughed, “Seriously, though, we just played volleyball together, I can’t run across those hot rocks with you?” He smiled, averted his eyes, and said, “Women aren’t allowed.” My dream of reenacting the fire walking scene from Ace Venture 2 was crushed.

I wasn’t accustomed to being told I wasn’t allowed to do the same thing as a man. Shelia’s daughter, Cindy, approached me and asked me if I still wanted a quick massage before dinner. I left the show and followed her to a bure overlooking the ocean. During my massage, I asked Cindy what she thought about cyclone Keni. Cindy answered, “I’ve lived on this island my whole life. That was our fourth cyclone this month and the closest to hit us. It just seems to be getting worse.” I asked her what her favorite thing to do on the island was. She answered, “Kava.” I questioned, “Not diving or snorkeling?” She laughed, “I don’t go in the water.” I protested, “But, all those colors, the soft corals. Your reefs are gorgeous!” She shrugged her shoulders. I said, “Okay, so tell me about Kava. It sounds familiar.” She said, “It’s just nice to drink. Your mouth goes numb. You should try it.” I nodded and smiled.

During dinner, the male hotel staff sat on the dining room floor in a circle and mixed kava and water in a large bowl. The muddy liquid reminded me of my stomach troubles that haunted me the entire trip. It was an oddly quiet ceremony considering their other shows involved a lot of singing or yelling. The men clapped a certain number of times, drank the kava like a shooter, and clapped again. After they were done, they poured kava into the same cups and passed the cups around to the divers. Tim turned around and handed me a cup. I whispered, “I’m assuming that’s not filtered water, and we are just all sharing…” He interrupted, “Just drink it. They said it will help you sleep.” A diver’s kid shook her head at me and mouthed the word, “mud.” I shrugged my shoulders, “Bottoms up!” I downed the kava concoction to the protests of all of the divers. “Megan! You’re supposed to clap first!” I passed my cup back to the men, and they filled it up again. I clapped a few times and asked if I could go ahead and drink it, and the men nodded. I downed the kava and noted my tongue and throat were already numb. I sighed, “Wow. I feel like I just sprayed Chloraseptic spray in my mouth. That is so weird.” I realized the room was quiet. “You’re supposed to clap again, Megan.” I clapped, and the men laughed.

After three or so more rounds of kava, I walked back to my bure and looked up at the black sky, which was free from clouds for the first time. There were so many stars. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw stars piled on top of stars, all of the way to the horizon. I heard the black cat’s meow, and I remembered the bacon I was holding in my hand, which I dropped in front of the cat. I slipped inside of the front door before the giant moths flew in, climbed into my bed, and fell fast asleep.

The next morning, I met the divemasters in the corner of the dive shop; and, like a drug dealer, stuffed the remainder of my cash into their hands. As I checked out of the hotel, I doubled what I would normally tip for the Christmas Fund in the hopes that the Las Vegas-based hotel company would at least allow the staff to keep half of it. I hugged the staff and promised to return someday with loads of calculators.

The journey home was difficult. The cut on my knee was infected and grew red and angry with each passing hour. The waves were rough which made for a slow rolling crossing back to Viti Levu. My nausea returned. The wife of the diver that yelled at Brad and disappeared for the remainder of the trip approached me and asked me how I was doing. “I’m ready to go home, how is your husband doing?” She looked at me with tears in her eyes as she said, “His mother died yesterday. We just found out. He’s an orphan now. We are both orphans.” I told her how sorry I was as I tried not to get sick. She reached for my arm, looked me straight in my eyes and said, “You know, the only thing that happens when you get old is that everyone you know dies.”

When we arrived at Pacific Harbor, our smiling Australian hotel manager greeted us for the first time since he abandoned us before cyclone Keni. He held out his hand to shake mine, and I limped passed him. On the bus, I sat in the very back, and I hung my head out of the open window. No matter how sick I was, I still managed to smile and yell “bula!” back to the waving children running alongside our bus. For the whole three hour ride back to the airport, the Fijians yelled “bula!” and waved to us, even if they weren’t near the road. I grew weaker, but I kept waving and smiling. The Fijians’ happiness was infectious.

In my haze, I noticed the glassy turquoise ocean, wide empty beaches, a woman riding a horse, cows grazing with their ribs sticking out, men and women cleaning up debris in their yards, and stacks of scattered cinder blocks.

At the airport, I finally found Imodium and popped a couple of pills. I spent the whole time in the bathroom reading a book I picked up at the gift shop called A Hard Day at the Office. A Fijian woman sang as she cleaned the stalls next to me. Every time I returned to the bathroom, she was there singing with the most beautiful voice. I slumped down in a seat at my gate, and a diver approached me. “Megan, your knee looks really infected.” I nodded. He said, “I’m a retired Kaiser nurse, and I can bandage it up if you want.” I practically yelled, “You’ve been a nurse this whole time and now you tell me? I’m so sick.” He bandaged my knee and pointed to the group of divers as he said, “Megan, we’re all sick. We’ve just been drinking a lot of Pepto Bismol.” I smiled as we boarded the plane, somehow glad I wasn’t alone in my hell.

As the plane took off, my nausea returned. Before we reached altitude, I took off my seat belt and stumbled to the back of the plane. A seated flight attendant yelled, “Go back to your seat, you’re not supposed to be up!” I replied calmly, “I’m going to throw up.” She looked like I was going to attack her as she screamed, “Don’t you dare throw up on me!” I climbed into the bathroom and got down on my hands and knees and spewed. My stomach was a mess, and I couldn’t take the pain anymore. I sobbed silently as I stood in the back of the plane and a flight attendant handed me a garbage bag. A passenger approached me and told me to focus on the horizon, as though I had mere motion sickness. 

After we landed, I wandered up to my parents with my garbage bag in hand. I sighed, “I’m ready to go to the emergency room now.” My parents drove me to Kaiser, and the doctor prescribed me a heavy dose of antibiotics for food/water contamination and my infected cut. As time passed and my health returned, I realized how much I loved Fiji. It changed me and somehow healed me. With Cocos Island on the horizon, I felt ready for my next adventure.

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