We (and all the crews of the 8 or 9 yachts here) are very aware of our potential impact on this small community of Fulaga. Our host families are all unbelievably welcoming and generous but we all worry that we might be a burden on a village where the supply boat brings only basic staples once a month. We are a relatively new impact, too because, until two years ago, access to the Lau group was very strictly limited and only one or two yachts would make it here each year.
We chatted to a young couple, Bis and Joanna, the other day and they gave us some excellent insight into the economic and cultural impacts of the visiting boats. Bis and Joanna met at university in Suva before returning to Joanna's home village here two years ago so they bring a very different perspective to the island; they reassured us that we shouldn't worry. They explained that the host families really look forward to looking after visiting boats – they take it in turns though a few families, whose English isn't so good, do pass on the opportunity – and that our enthusiasm for the island makes the locals realise that they should be really proud of their home. Apparently other islands in the Lau Group have become quite jealous of Fulaga's success in attracting foreign boats.
There is clearly an economic upside to our arrival, though it doesn't seem very great. Each boat is charged an 'anchoring fee' of $50 (about £17) on arrival, something that would normally make us unhappy as the right to anchor for free is something we try to protect, However we were promised that this goes into community projects and the annual income from this will only amount to perhaps $3000. After the anchoring fees, the main source of income from us visitors is the sale of the exquisite carvings for which the men of Fulaga are well known; we've all bought wooden bowls or drums or animal figures and Bis estimates that this is worth another $3000 – $4000 per annum. Unsold carvings are shipped to Suva where they sell in the tourist resorts for three times the price but the importers and retailers pocket the difference. Dau, the wonderful head-teacher, told us that a lot of what they send to Suva is 'rubbish' and she said that the best work that the men do is given to yachties as farewell gifts (more on this subject in a later blog!). Finally, of course, there's a difficult-to-quantify economic value in the foodstuffs and other items that we give to our host families'; used yacht ropes, 12v lights, pumps and even empty screw top glass bottles and jars are really useful so we're all rooting around in our boats to see what we might have that the village could use.
Perhaps the most valuable thing that we can offer the Fulagans is our combined and varied toolbox of skills and experience. Over the past days we've all helped Batai, the wonderful 25 year-old island Nurse who is now 8 months into a 3-year contract from Suva, conduct a series of health checks on all of the inhabitants of the three villages. Height, weight, blood sugar and blood pressure were recorded so that Batai could then carry out follow-up checks where necessary; it gave him a very good indication of the overall health of the islanders. He was concerned that about 20 of the school children were underweight so would be working with their families to rectify this but overall he was fairly happy with the results and each adult now has his or her own health booklet which contains the results of the tests and their target weights. The job was completed in three days and Batai said it would have taken three weeks without our help; the villagers seemed genuinely delighted that we wanted to assist and that they were the centre of attention. The Maunie team was given the job of calculating the Body Mass Index for each person and there was a lot of laugher and comment when their result was shown on the Underweight to Obese scale – no patient confidentiality here, the outcome was happily shared with everyone in the room, with cheers or boos depending on the result! On the day Maunie helped, 49 villagers attended. It was a real social event and at one stage, breakfast was laid out in the middle of the hall, slightly undoing the 'eat a bit less' message.
There have been lots of other skill-sharing activities going on too. Several crews have been to the school to conduct lessons and yesterday was our turn. Before the lesson, we went to find the children who were all on the beach. When asked what they'd been doing, their reply was, "Brushing"..."Brushing the beach?"...."No, our teeth." A few weeks back there had been a call for tooth brushes and paste so a yacht had brought lots in and now an after-lunch bell is sounded and the children all head down to the beach to brush their teeth. For the lesson, we took the laptop and plugged it into a 21" tv screen to do a presentation about our journey from England. We had some videos from Yeo Valley so could show them the farm (they'd never seen cows or sheep before) and we made some yogurt and got them to taste it before showing them a video of the Yeo Valley dairy in Blagdon. We had about 60 kids sitting spell-bound and then had them doing some silly things so it seemed to go down very well: Adam from 'Bravo' was on hand to take photos so we'll post a few on the blog soon.
So, we're happy that a great symbiotic relationship has developed, we're making very firm friends and we know that locals and yachties alike will be very upset when we have to leave. Meanwhile, though, we'll continue to savour every minute of the experience and yesterday afternoon's 'Ladies' Party' was a great example of the fun side of it all. The women sang and danced (they have been rehearsing, with much laughter, all week) whilst the men sang along and drank kava. A wonderful meal was then provided - the yachties all contributed cakes, biscuits, etc. (ok, so the villagers have a real sweet tooth) but the locals produced wonderful crab, fish and vegetable dishes. It was a 'fundraiser' so generated about $500 (about $300 of which came from the crews) towards community projects.
The balance remains a fine one, however, and a careless attitude by visiting boats or a promise of a commercial project could easily change things forever. A few years ago an Australian developer arrived here and spied a set of small islets in the lagoon as a potential site for a hotel; he gave the chief $18,000 in cash as a deposit and promise of diesel generator for each village if he could go ahead and build his resort. The chief said that he and the council would have to think about it. Three years later the developer returned, expecting the money to be spent and the deal, by default, to be done but he was surprised when the bag of cash was returned, untouched, accompanied by a shake of the head. Bis told us that some people still think they should encourage the building of a resort here but his advice (as someone who has nearly, but not quite, completed his business degree!) has been listened to and he has warned of the dangers of allowing foreign money into the island. We've all told him about the horrors of Bora Bora which has become a community dependent on the low paid jobs in the expensive resort hotels around the reef and where the obvious wealth of the tourists has bred jealousy and unhappiness and,sadly as a result, lots of petty thieving from visiting yachts. So, for the moment at least, things won't change too much.
Finally, the possibility of thoughtless yachtsmen troubles us so all the boats here are spreading the word about proper and polite conduct. Sadly, a week ago we heard a yacht called Bellamy calling to another boat on the VHF; the skipper had an English accent so Graham called him to ask if he needed any help or advice. He explained that his vessel was 'slightly larger' than most so wouldn't be coming into the lagoon – Bellamy is a 52m long motor yacht but his tender (44ft, 6ft longer than Maunie!) would come in to take his 'guests' (who arrived by seaplane) for a picnic on the beach. He said he had a 'guide' on board called Nigel who knew all the protocols and he would come in to offer the sevusevu to the Chief. Sure enough, the large motor boat came in to the beach but nobody came to see the chief – the villagers couldn't understand what had happened to the boat and why they hadn't come to pay their respects. So, Captain Ben on MV Bellamy, you're hereby named and shamed.