I Got Drunk with Cannibals in Fiji
I did not trust Bob. I did not trust Bob for a lot of reasons.
First of all, I didn’t think his name was really Bob. Everyone else I’d met here had names like Penaia or Waisale. They lived in villages with names like Namaqumaqua and Naboutini. We viewed a few such-named places from our little boat puttering across Somosomo Bay. Bob drove the boat, his broad black hand easily encircling the steering arm of the outboard motor. With pride he claimed the latter village as his home.
I did believe that, at least.
Bob was a very large man. He was perhaps six feet in height, which is tall but not overly so. His girth, however, was indeed overly. Perhaps even superlative. Bob was a very fat man. His features were rather small for such a large body, rather pinched. His tightly curled hair was lusciously black. So too was his skin—all but the bottoms of his feet, which were bare. Unlike most of the other islanders we had met, he did not smile much. That is not to say he was dour. He was just sort of uninterested, just sort of there.
He checked his cell phone a lot. It was incongruous to see a native man in his native element waxing poetic about his native village checking his cell phone like an angsty American teen. Sometimes he was genuinely proud of his subject, or seemed so—especially when discussing village life. But regarding other subjects he seemed to be just going through the motions. I couldn’t tell if I was being played or not. (That wasn’t new. Just ask my ex-wife.)
Secondly, Bob claimed to be a dive instructor. This, despite his glancing over the sides of our boat with nothing less than abject fear. To me, each colorful fish in the crystalline waters was a delight, a fascinating glimpse into a far corner of the world—the glorious, evocative South Pacific. To him, the fish were something else. Venomous, perhaps, or at least toothy and mean. For all I knew he thought they were sharks. But our resort, Crusoe’s Retreat, claimed he was a dive instructor. At least they let him wear a T-shirt claiming such, and they let him drive the dive boat, despite an obvious fear of the water.
So I didn’t believe Bob was really a dive instructor, and I didn’t believe Bob was really a Bob.
I did believe Bob was a cannibal. And the only thing scarier than a cannibal is a fat cannibal.
He steered our puttering little boat into a tiny cleft in a mass of mangroves. They were tall and gnarled and dense, those mangroves. They defined the shore as a wall, flowered and green and pretty—and solid, but for that tiny cleft.
Inside, the water no longer shown blue. Here it was brown and murky, dotted by the yellow of sinking leaves. Beneath the surface snaked the tangled roots of the mangroves. The trunks themselves rose from the water, to overhead arc, twist, entangle. Their branches corkscrewed so tightly light itself was unable to wend its way through.
Our boat penetrated somewhat more successfully but was dependent upon the narrow, claustrophobic channel. Both sides were barred to us, at least as far as the dwindling light shone. As we delved deeper, our shadows preceded us. They grew longer and longer as we pushed further and further from light, from escape. And escape was the correct word, for trunks rising from the water looked nothing less than acres of prison bars.
The boat was long enough for half a dozen rows of benches, wide enough for them to be parted by an aisle, forming pairs of love seats. They were metal, those seats, as unappealing to gaze upon as they were to sit upon. The floor of the boat was of flat, gritty metal. It was splotchy from splashing waves and wet shoes, the latter of which also deposited dirt in tread-shaped whorls. Above us was a bright blue tarp, now no longer needed to ward off the sun. The poles that held it up were metal and fat and hollow. I knew they were hollow because of the sound they made when getting thumped by the branches of aggressive mangroves.
Fiji Bob led us deeper into the very dark, very wild jungle of the Cannibal Islands.
You see, Fiji was not always known as Fiji. Like so many places in the world it became ‘known’ only when it was recorded by a white man. Those first white men were big names in exploration: Dutchman Abel Tasman (of Tasmania fame), English sailing juggernaut Captain James Cook (after whom Star Trek’s Captain Kirk was modeled), and even Captain William Bligh (sailing through in an open boat after being evicted during the mutiny on the Bounty).
These white men took the liberty of naming the land, as they had all over the world: on the top of the globe Denali became Mt. McKinley, on the bottom Uluru became Ayers Rock. In both of those cases the name was to honor a notable figure of the white’s world. In the case of Fiji, however, the name was in fear of the notable behavior of the locals.
Cannibalism had been practiced by the Fijian locals for two-and-a-half millennia. As this began long before the onset of writing in Oceania, such claims were based on other evidence. Most definitive were the remains of humans replete with unmistakable signs of butchery.
Upon learning of this intriguing ‘first’ name, I thought of the proverbial white explorer in a pot. I always enjoyed cartoons depicting such things, which appealed to my sense of adventure and usually involved some ironic or pithy remark. But I also knew this was rarely based on reality, if ever. Was this the situation with the Cannibal Isles?
Not exactly. At least, not according to history.
In Fiji only one white man was ever ‘officially’ eaten. Apparently one can be eaten officially, or just eaten. I suspect it matters more to the eater than the eatee. It happened to the unfortunate Reverend Baker. (More on him later.) It happened on Viti Levu, the largest, main island of the Fiji group. That was the island we were on now. So was cannibalism really over and done with?
Not exactly. At least, not according to Bob.
Cannibalism is inherently fascinating.
100 years ago, in America, cannibals were in vogue. A new-fangled thing called a motion picture brought the wildest corners of the world to your neighborhood. Some of the biggest cannibal hits were Martin Johnson’s 1918 film Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Pacific and Universal Jewel’s 1920 Shipwrecked Among the Cannibals. The latter boasted critical raves such as “The pictures are exciting—and intensely interesting—and different.” (Bold text is original.) The former proudly boasted “6000 feet of thrilling adventure”, as if people knew what the hell that meant. (It means the movie was about an hour.) In 1930 Disney even made a cartoon called Cannibal Caper. Its depiction of natives was, to my mind at least, more horrific than the subject.
For some, the taboo of cannibalism is enough to scare them away from the topic at large. No details necessary, thank you. For others the taboo is the draw. For them it’s like scratching an itch. I know its wrong, thank you, but it’s just too good to pass up.
My fascination with cannibalism stems from a bit of both of those things. But really it’s my love for the age of exploration and the discovery of new places, of the discovery of alien cultures and the subsequent clashes thereof. Okay, okay, there’s also a healthy dose of appreciation for Hannibal Lecter. I would argue it wasn’t his penchant for liver and fava beans so much as his appreciation for the accompanying nice chianti. Hannibal was a sophisticate, which made his embrace of the taboo perhaps more surprising and, thusly, more intriguing.
And Bob? He merely stared at the uncompromising depths, equal in understanding as a cat at a calendar. We asked him questions about the profound foliage. He did not answer. He did not even shrug. He just sort of shrugged with his eyes. I don’t know how exactly one can shrug with only their eyes, but Bob did. Then he checked his cell phone.
By we, I mean my wife Aurelia and I, as well as a middle-aged couple from Newark. He was a slight man in tennis attire, lightly mustached, mute. His wife was much larger than he, of an agitated disposition. She also did not speak, but was far from mute. From her corner emanated a chorus of peeps and squeaks and other less-definable sounds. From the way she had stared down into the crystalline waters of Somosomo Bay, I suspected that she too had thought the fish to be toothy and mean. From the way she avoided looking at Bob now, I suspected that she too thought him to be a cannibal.
We suspected Fiji Bob had eaten human flesh because, after taking us into the dark recesses of the mangrove swamp, he admitted he had.
But cannibals weren’t the reason my wife and I came here. I should begin at the beginning...
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