Friday, 2 Nov 2001

SANTA CRUZ, Calif.

Last night I went kite-boarding. This is a new sport to me and it’s really fun, although a bit scary. For those of you who’ve never seen it, kite-boarding is like a cross between surfing and parasailing; you’re on a surfboard, but you’re attached to a kite. The wind in the kite drags you forward — preferably on the water. It you’re on land, just getting started, you can end up being dragged across the beach until you manage to unhook yourself from the kite; that’s the scary part. It’s very exciting, but somewhat dangerous if there are rocks or pieces of driftwood in the way. But that’s part of the challenge. I’m proud of myself, because I can now stand up and go both directions. Turning, however, is still a problem …

But enough about strange sports! I’m out of the ocean and back at work now, and today I need to finish my Fiji story and send it off to Niumaia. He works at the Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Resort, and he’s agreed to review the story before we send it in to a magazine for publication.

Yesterday I left off with Niumaia telling me about the value of leaving forests untouched. I then asked him to tell me about medicinal plants. He walked over to some vines growing in a sunny spot and returned with a handful of leaves, which he then squeezed so that the juices ran onto a scratch on my leg. “This is the mile-a-minute plant. It is used to soothe wounds. We have another plant we call the bona bula ma kau plant, which is used to stop bleeding. You see, my family traditionally has been the medicine people of our village. My father and mother brought me here to learn about plants and healing and this is where I came with my kids. The forest is important because this is where we teach our children about the ways of our ancestors. If there is no forest, then how can we pass on our culture? In the past, sandalwood trees were used for chief’s houses. Now the sandalwood is gone. Europeans came over 100 years ago and cut them down.”

Niumaia stops talking; my lesson is apparently over. As usual, he does not condemn the outsiders who came to exploit Fiji’s natural resources. His is a curious culture — once among the most fierce in the South Pacific, now the most hospitable, and apparently very forgiving.

We take a break from the summer heat with a dip in the best swimming pool I’ve ever experienced.

Photo: Richard Murphy.

Niumaia then decided that it was time to stop to cook lunch. I had thought it was time for lunch hours before, but had kept it to myself. However, although I was cheered by the idea of food, I was skeptical about how we were going to cook it; the entire forest was totally soaked from an earlier downpour. My fellow hunters nonetheless cut branches from a dead tree, while I sat, grimly thinking that there was no way they were going to start a fire with that wood. As I watched, one of the group members pulled a yellowish blob from his pocket and began to pile the wood around it. To my complete astonishment, one match lit the blob, which then burned as though it had been soaked in gasoline. Mystified, I looked to the group for an explanation, and was told that the yellow blob was the pitch from a certain tree, which is highly flammable. The locals cut these trees from time to time so that the pitch will ooze out and can be harvested. Soon the wood had dried sufficiently for a pleasant little blaze. Gently, a large breadfruit was placed directly on top of the fire. The leaves of a ginger plant were cut and laid on the ground as a table. We chatted and dozed as flames engulfed our breadfruit.

In the midst of our midday nap, we were invaded by a troop of dogs, with their masters not far behind. The other group’s hunt had produced seven boars, one of them about a year old, the others only a few months. Three were alive and would be kept for pets and, later, slaughtered for food. The other three had been killed by the dogs and were destined to be our lunch.

When the breadfruit was spitting steam and the meat was done, we feasted. The dogs waited in polite attendance, focused on our every bite. They gobbled up whatever we threw them but never fought among themselves. Finally, we concluded our meal, leaving the “table” and scraps for the dogs to clean up. Seven hours into our hike, I felt totally rejuvenated.

A big bowl of kava.

Photo: Richard Murphy.

By the time we returned to camp, three hours later, it was beginning to get dark. We bathed hastily and got ready for dinner. The women had come back from a successful expedition to the river, where they harvested prawns, eels, and water snails. We feasted and drank kava, a drink made from a root that tastes like muddy water, tingles your tongue, and makes you tired. But I, for one, didn’t need anything to make me tired; as the kerosene lantern ran out of fuel, I blissfully concluded one of the most privileged days of my life.

Well, my friends, it has been a busy week. I hope this insight into my life has given you a better understanding of what this ecologist and environmentalist does for a living.

If you have questions or comments, feel free to
email me at rmurphy000@aol.com. Do good work, have fun, think about what kind of world you want to live in, and then do whatever you can to make it so.