Nonetheless, since coming to Fiji I have had few opportunities (at least not as much as I would like) to get out on the water and fish for a number of reasons. First of all, Peace Corps is not just hanging out on a remote island, going fishing, and drinking grog with the locals. We actually work on a daily basis, which sometimes includes working all day, or at least through the best tides. Second, the high chief for our region closed off the fishing area immediately adjacent to our village, forcing me and the rest of the village fishermen to walk more than a half mile in either direction down the beach to reach the nearest open areas…which aren’t necessarily the best areas. Lastly, when you’re limited to wade fishing in shark infested waters, you generally have less motivation to slosh around waist deep while chasing skittish fish that tend to struggle and bleed a lot when you hook them.
"Thaht's mah boaht..." Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump
I will say that building a bilibili is more complicated and labor intensive than you might imagine. You would think that simply lashing bamboo together would be as simple as tying a few knots around some pool noodles. Oh, but you would be wrong. I had no idea what I was in for building a bilibili, but I was determined to have a watercraft to get beyond the outer reef where the possibility of Spanish mackerel, wahoo, and dogtooth tuna become a reality.
We had been in the village for over 10 months before I finally convinced one of the locals, Tevita Beka, to secure permission for me to harvest some bamboo from one of the local stands near the Nasekawa River. It turns out that it is much easier to build a bilibili on the river where you can lash the bamboo together in the water without worrying about being constantly pounded by the waves in the surf. Unfortunately, the river is about 2 miles away from our village. But, beggars can’t be choosers, so I asked our friend Tevita to guide me to the bamboo stand and assist me in building the bilibili.
The day started on a Saturday at 8AM when I walked down the beach to the neighboring village of Dreketi to meet Tevita. Tevita was waiting, cane knife in hand, ready to go and assist his vulagi friend in building a marvel of Fijian engineering. Ten minutes later we were traipsing through the jungle, ostensibly toward an unseen stand of bamboo. I was dressed in my standard Fiji attire of shorts, a t-shirt, and flip-flops. I also had a backpack containing my cane knife, a saw, about 100 feet of nylon rope, and a 1 liter bottle of water...I should’ve brought a gallon.
It was an evil kind of hot…the kind of hot where you are really more chewing and swallowing the air than breathing it. Moreover, there was not a breath of wind inside the jungle. The air was just freakin’ heavy. As we traversed the jungle to the bamboo stand I was dripping in sweat and so hot I thought I was going to pass out. This was a hot like I’d never experienced before, and I know hot. Between two-a-day football practices in mid-August Texas heat and the nuclear plant of a U.S. warship in the Persian Gulf, I thought I’d seen and felt the worst given that either of those two instances I was sure were second only to hell itself. But this heat was like doing aerobics in a sauna while wearing sweater, pants, and a knit cap, which were all made of wool and soaked with hot water. I began to think that no project was worth this kind of punishment.
We finally came to the edge of the jungle where a large stand of bamboo rose above the jungle canopy. Bamboo is amazing stuff. In some cases, it grows literally feet a day and is so strong that in China they still use it as scaffolding when building high rise buildings. It happens to be great for a bilibili material not only because of its strength, but because it is chambered. So if one chamber splits and floods you literally still have dozens of chambers remaining to keep you afloat. Thus, while it may not be a Boston Whaler, a bilibili is a pretty safe watercraft for the expense!
My admiration of the superior building material quickly faded as we began to cut select pieces of bamboo with our cane knives. A cane knife is a pretty effective tool…fairly light, sharp, balanced with an easy swing…so you would think that it wouldn’t take much effort to cut down a hollow piece of wood. Again, you would be wrong. After cutting just 2 lengths of bamboo that were about 8 inches in diameter at the base and 20 feet long, I thought I was going to vomit as that imaginary sweater and knit cap seemed to enhance gravity as well as temperature. But, being a man, I was not going to let Tevita see me sweat…or at least hurl up my breakfast. So, I swallowed my pride…and vomit…and kept hacking away at the bamboo. Ten lengths later, we had the base materials for making the bilibili.
After trimming all the branches from the bamboo we dragged them down to the river and lined them up in the shallow water. Tevita then disappeared into the bush to return a few moments later with three pieces of hardwood that would form the perpendicular structural support for the craft. We then cut notches in opposing sides of the first and largest chamber of each piece of bamboo where one of the pieces of hardwood would pass through and form the primary support for the bilibili. The other two pieces would be lashed on top of the bamboo further back and would help cinch the lengths together. Thus, in the shallow water and gooey mud of the Nasekawa River, the keel of the F/V Mi-SEA-chelle was laid.
Tevita had said that this would be the “easy part.” I can’t say it was easier, but at least it was cooler standing in the river and out of the oppressive heat of the jungle. It took both of us tying knots, pulling, looping, holding, and bracing our feet against the bamboo to pull everything together. After about two hours of rope burns, splinters, and an advancing sunburn, we had successfully cinched the raft together.
After a handshake and a hearty “vinaka vakalevu”, Tevita handed me a slender, 10-foot long piece of bamboo and like a modern day Tom Sawyer I started poling downstream. It was one of the moments in Fiji that has really made me smile. As I poled downstream (with that Rush song stuck in my head) my heart swelled as I thought, “this is the adventure that I was looking for.” Then I got a dose of “be careful what you ask for” when I hit the swells at the mouth of the river and thought, “OK, this was a little more adventure than I wanted.” After struggling against the crashing waves and nearly being washed off the bilibili several times, I made it back to the shallow side of the reef edge and started poling toward home. At 4PM, I finally poled up in front of our beachside home.
Over the next week I would build an anchor and a platform like all the other bilibilis in the village, only my platform and anchor would be like no other. Anchors in the village basically consist of anything heavy…a cinder block, an old lawn mower engine, an old pedal sewing machine. Sure, they’ll hold the bilibili in place in even the roughest weather, but all of these anchors basically crush anything they land on when thrown into the water. So I made a coral anchor using some small gauge rebar, an old piece of 2 inch pipe, and some concrete mix, which is designed to cause less damage to the coral by hooking onto the coral substrate rather than crushing it. The Fijian’s thought I was crazy for putting so much work into an anchor, but someone has to set the example. My platform perplexed them even more. The Fijians basically use any combination of old lumber and bush wood that they can find in the village and secure with any combination of nails, wire, and rope. My platform was squared, nailed, and glued using appropriately sized lumber. Moreover, I am fairly certain that my bilibili is the only one in Fiji, if not the world, designed with oars. I am absolutely certain that my bilibili is the only one with rod holders.
On its inaugural sail, Lucas Nene, another Peace Corps Volunteer, joined me in christening the F/V Mi-SEA-chelle by catching a respectable juvenile giant trevally, which also happened to be the largest fish he’s ever caught. More importantly, we are now mobile, able to access and explore parts of the reef we had not been previously able. A “flats cat” or Glasply she is not, but the F/V Mi-SEA-chelle gives us a new freedom to explore even more of what Fiji has to offer.