The small island of Waya lai-lai is situated at the very south of the wonderful string of islands called the Yasawa's, north-west of Vitu Levu in Fiji. The Yasawa's are, with their rocky peaks over lush rainforests, their coconut lined white beaches and their turquoise coral waters, the quintessence of the South Pacific. They are the image we have carried since we were young - from films, stories and television, and the image the travel brochures try to catch our attention with. It's there. It's real.
At Waya lai-lai the people also live up to our somewhat romantic view of the easy living, easy going Polynesians - the smiles, the music and the apparent abundance of time. I know they have their problems and their struggles, of course, but the mellow pace and the mood they transmit to us visitors is truly medicine to a refugee from the urban, hectic rat race of the West.
The village of Waya lai-lai is divided in two, with the biggest half at the northern end by the sand bridge leading over to the bigger island of Waya. The smaller part is on the southern beach where the church is, and close to the resort. Many Fiji resorts are run by wealthy main islanders and foreigners, but this one is run all together by the locals. The only foreigner is the employed dive instructor Ben, a Welshman, so the local flavour of the place is thus a very true one.
As a tourist you hang around the resort and let the villagers live their lives without unnecessary intrusions, but I got a few authentic glimpses. When I walked across the island to the sand bridge with Barry, coming down the path across the high ridge, through the gardens and down to the picturesque village with its pastel houses, green lawns, mango and frangipani trees, we stopped by some of his friends and relatives on the way. Friendly chatting, curious kids and a lunch of bread fruit, bananas and some bread on a bamboo platform in the shade behind the beach. The people here are both interesting and interested - lovely chats.
The visit to Sunday mass in the little church was one of the high lights of my stay. While the congregation was gathering and slowly finding their places- all dressed in their Sunday best - the kids had got together on the front rows and were singing their favourite psalms with great enthusiasm. A curly head popped up just in front of me: a four-year- old girl in a white, lacy dress who was more interested in us blue-eyed, blonde strangers. When the service started the whole congregation started singing with full voices - sopranos, altos, tenors and some wonderful basses filled the small church and probably the whole island and the whole Pacific. Everyone sang and it was fantastic. Rich, clear and joyous.
The staff at the resort gathered every evening around their kava bowl, and once or twice a week the guests were invited to take part. The coconut shell was dipped into the big bowl, and we took our turn with the muddy kava drink. The slight buzz it gives just seems to underline the laid back friendliness of the place. When the bowl was empty the guitars soon came out, opening up for more singing, chatting and joking. The "practicals" - the girls from the tourism school on the main island - always got their share of the attention, and giggling and laughing filled the room.
In the midst of all this sunshine and joy there was Gerald. You do run into many different kinds of people when you're on the road, and some stick out as special and extraordinary, and in Gerald's case these adjectives must be understood in the most negative possible way. He was a sad case - for himself, but even more so for the unfortunates that crossed his path and had to relate to him. He was a true pain in the arse!
He stayed in bure no 3 - one of the grass shack bungalows - where he spent most of his days, inside or sitting in the shade on his small terrace. I first encountered him at dinner on my first day at Waya lai-lai. His appearance was impossible not to notice, since he never wore a shirt and his 150+ kilos of pale, pinkish flesh shone like a lantern in the Pacific evening. Shouldn't he at least have worn a bra, in all decency? He was about 55, I would guess, his hair was grey and tied back in a pony tail, he had a fat lower lip and his breathing was heavy and wheezing, which strongly emphasized the total absence of charm. He sat down next to the two young German girls. His attention was clearly focused on the younger of the two, while she in return showed obvious signs of unease and disgust. The girls soon moved to another table.
When I asked around about his character I was told that he was Australian, that he had been here for more than a week, and that the manager was worried about the validity of his credit cards. When I had a bit of a chat with Gerald myself a couple of evenings later, he told me stories about how he hadn't always been this overweight - it was the result of a fairly recent illness; stories of his contacts in the film industry, and of how he was going to make big bucks starting a flower decoration business in New York City - a project well on its way. He was a notorious liar! The contradictions and exaggerations became just too obvious early in the conversation. Who was he fooling?
When I moved over to the big table he followed me, to continue the conversation he said. The conversation was forgotten immediately, however, when another twenty-year-old girl, Swedish this time, captured his attention. He didn't speak to her directly, only mumbled some with no real address in between his heavy panting, but again his focus was obvious. She endured his presence for one or two minutes before she politely "remembered" something she had to get in the dorm house.
The next day there was a bit of commotion at the resort. Bill, the manager, was back, and the police had stopped by: it was now clear that Gerald's credit cards were no good, and I picked up that this was not the first place where he had tried his stunt. Contact had been made with the Australian High Commissioner, and while awaiting further development the big man was grounded to his bure - the staff would bring food down to him.
This stale mate was still the situation when I left a few days on, but I heard later that he was finally taken from the island and back to Vitu Levu. For some reason his insolvency was not a strong enough reason to kick him out of the country, so for all that I know he might just have continued to another island, bound to cause more irritation and trouble, and having more jokes and remarks coming down behind his back. He was the ultimate haemorrhoid in Paradise.
I should end this story by saying something about all the great guests at Waya lai-lai. A wonderful place like this naturally attracts wonderful people. Since it's not a luxury resort, and not a place known for wild back-packer gatherings, Waya lai-lai hosts a great variety of people: mostly young travellers, some older, some families, some couples - all in for a good relaxing time. To doze in a hammock with a book, to take walks to the top and around the island, to snorkel and dive and to enjoy the company of great people, both native and foreign. The kava, the sea, the singing - the Pacific.