Imagine, if you will, the concept of being able to order any deliveries to your home only once a month, but with the order having to be placed over a crackling telephone connection and not via internet. Imagine having just one tiny shop in your community which, too, only receives deliveries of food, fuel and other household necessities once a month and which, despite your regular protestations, always seems to run out of the things you really need about three quarters of the way through the month. Imagine the excitement when the delivery finally arrives and the delight at receiving all the things you've been waiting for and frustration at finding breakages in transit or items missing altogether. Welcome to island life for the people of Fulaga.
Yesterday the monthly supply boat arrived at about 10.30am. From first light people had been gathering on the beach, bringing wheelbarrow loads of goods to add to the growing pile in the tin shed there destined for export to Suva and then getting to work on the palm-leaf woven baskets full of clams that had been gathered over the past few days and left in the shallows. The shellfish were labouriously opened and cleaned and the meat put into ten-litre plastic tubs, lids wired closed for security on passage, to go into the ship's refrigerator for delivery to relatives at the next island on the itinerary. The ship makes three more island stops en route to Suva so the entire trip takes four days.
Once the ship dropped an anchor, the incoming goods were unloaded into flat-bottomed boats and the men of the village worked in teams to wade out into the shallow water to carry all manner of boxes and sacks back ashore. Those destined for individual houses would have the address written large on them : "Simone, Muanicake, Fulaga" seemed to be sufficient. Large drums of fuel, mostly for the outboard engines here, were rolled off the boats into the shallows and we prayed that their seals were intact. Once unloaded, the exports were carried out to boats.
The amount of stock to be put onto the ship made us realise that this seemly relaxed and untroubled island is really a surprisingly busy and productive place. The main export is a wide range of wooden carvings, bowls, ceremonial paddles, masks and drums, all made from the Esse hardwood that is unique to the islands of Southern Lau. The carvers here have realised that it's most time- and cost-efficient to leave the carvings in an unfinished state so that relatives in Suva can finish and polish them for sale to the tourist shops there and in the other tourist hotspots of Nadi and Denarau. A bowl leaving here will fetch about $50 and will sell in the shops for around $130 once the polishers, middle-men and the retailers have taken their cuts. One suspects that the Fulagans could easily take a bigger slice of the income but they recognise that the cost of living in Suva is increasing and employment opportunities aren't great so the current arrangement gives some vital income for their relatives there.The whole loading and unloading process took about two hours and, apart from taking photos, some of us yachties contributed cold drinks and biscuits as refreshments to the workers, an input that was welcomed. The final event of the day was to take four or five passengers out to the ship; one needed medical treatment in Suva, one was a pregnant women going for her 6-month checks and to remain in Suva for the birth (on-island births are no longer allowed as part of government health policy) and a couple were returning for family events. The fare is $115 each way (subsidised by the government) so most people can't afford one of the cabins on board so take a mat and sleep on deck; we've heard tales of terrible passages in rough seas and, looking at the ship as it left the island, still with a considerable list to port, we were pleased not to be aboard.