Vern: Our short time at Bay of Plenty Lodge on Matacawalevu Island was like walking into in a character-driven sitcom set on a tropical cove. A speedboat fetched the two of us and a Spanish couple from the inter-island catamaran, ferried us across a wide bay and beached on a sand bank in front of the lodge. Once again the staff were lined up in bright floral silk shirts to give us a warm Fijian welcome. All two of them. "Ladies and Gentleman, welcome to Bay of Plenty." An effeminate man wearing pink nail-polish and a wrap-around skirt seemed genuinely ecstatic to see us (perhaps a bit surprised). He shook my hand and then maintained the grip and pulled me in enthusiastically for a hug, cheek to cheek. "Bula!" Then, a woman in the same outfit, shook my had and repeated the sneaky transition into an embrace. She seemed less enthusiastic and was carrying out this rehearsed welcome routine because it was in her job description. She introduced herself as Maria.
The lodge doesn't have it's own beach, the sea laps at its struts at high-tide and pulls back revealing soft muddy flats at low tide. The pair led us across the muddy shore to the steps of the covered wooden deck which was the restaurant and bar area. The bar is inventively named 'Bula Bar' or so says the cardboard sign flapping about in the wind, and the empty bar shelves are decorated each with a shimmery strip of Christmas tinsel. The man in the floral shirt announced once again, "Ladies and Gentleman, welcome to Bay of Plenty." "Thank you" we mumble. Again? And then a second round of welcome hugs. This time he introduced himself, "Hello I am ..ame.." I didn't catch what he said with his chin on my shoulder. "James?" I asked. "James" he repeated. After all four hugs were completed, "Ladies and Gentleman, please have a seat." As instructed we sat down on the garden furniture and then filled out the check-in paperwork while he served some delicious lemonade. He collected the forms and addressed us again, "Pablo, Lucia, Andrea and James: Do you have any food allergies or dietary needs?" Wait. What? Who? "Hang on. James? I thought you were James. I'm Vern." "No, I'm Dan. Hello Lerm." Close enough. We shook hands again. Luckily Dan didn't pull in for the hug, presumably because I was seated. Dan set the table. Plastic place mats and coasters. A little glass, knife, fork and side plate. "Ladies and Gentleman, lunch is served." Dan brought out four tuna salads and nothing that one might need a side plate for, and we tucked in. He filled up our glasses with refreshing ice-cold water then pulled back a few steps and circled the table like a shark easing in and out of my peripheral vision. Pablo took a cool swig of water, set his glass down and picked up his fork again. Suddenly and silently Dan swooped in topped the glass up to the brim, startling Pablo enough to make him clash his knife and fork against his plate. Dan retreated back into his orbit and continued replacing the sipped water until his jug was empty. I finished my lunch and water and leaned back in my chair. Glass empty, not a speck of salad left on my plate, the side plate unused. I felt a light-tapping on my left shoulder and rolled my head to the left. Nobody there. A childish trick? I spun my head right. There was Dan, bowing with one arm bent across his stomach and his other arm stretched behind my back. "Are you finished, sir?" Yes, obviously! "Yes thanks. It was delicious." "And how did you like your meal?" not willing to break from his script despite me having covered this. "Err..Very good thanks." He sidled up to my companions, cleared their plates and subjected them to same line of questioning. Then, apparently not happy with our individual opinions, he went for consensus, "Ladies and Gentleman, did you enjoy your meal?" We awkwardly answered in the affirmative all speaking over each other. "Then we should thank Steve the chef" and he led us in a round of applause. Two window-blinds popped open next to the bar and Steve, well-built and missing every other tooth, leant out of the kitchen smiling and raised an arm to take credit.
We followed a steep little sand path up to four bures (Fijian houses) on a mowed hilltop peering out across the big blue sea and the palm-tree covered islands dotted about in it. The dorm wasn't ready yet so we'd been upgraded to our own little house which was simply-kitted out but perfect. I initially turned up my nose at this funny little resort and the oddities of the lunch sitting. Our previous resort was a lot more polished. But then I kicked myself and gave way to Andrea's look-on-the-bright-side point of view. You are in a warm sunny tropical paradise. Bay of Plenty is a bargain and for three days you get to open your door to this million-dollar view. So what if the shower runs river water and the manager is a little offbeat. I smiled and swallowed up the salty air.
We changed into swimwear and ten minutes later we made our way back down to the bar area. Dan was waiting for us and greeted us beaming, "Hello. Nice to see you again." Nice to see you again too, Dan. We walked out to the little boat and boarded. Sam, the boat-driver sped us across the bay to a pretty arc of white sand with hook-shaped palm trees bending out from behind the high water line and stretching skyward. The sea was of course turquoise and clear. Apparently they filmed scenes here from the 80s Brooke Shields movie, Blue Lagoon. We baked on the beach and snorkeled until early evening when Sam took us back to Bay of Plenty.
The tide was all the way out and we ditched the boat far away from the resort and hopped, skipped and jumped across the muddy crab-world which had been revealed to get back, and then up the little hill to our bure. We showered and changed and, summoned by a beating drum, we went down for dinner.
Dan had changed into his evening attire, a black and white silk shirt and a name tag reading "Danny" just in case we'd forgotten. After the handshake and hug combo we sat down. The table had been set, side plates and all, and the serviettes were rolled and bent into a V with a hibiscus peeping out of the fold. Not content to let the flower speak for itself, Danny pointed it out. "Look, I placed flowers in the serviettes." Yes I see that. Very nice. "If you put it in your right ear, you are married or booked, and in your left ear if you are single." We smiled understandingly, presuming this was an interesting tit-bit of Fijian culture shared with us, but Danny stood there patiently and expectantly. Aha, it's an instruction - we tucked the flowers above our right ears so the evening could continue. Danny whipped the napkins off the table and rolled them out in each person's lap - each of us looked a little aghast as he patted these flat over our groins - and then bowed and announced, "Ladies and Gentleman, dinner is served." We enjoyed a veggie and noodle dish and traded island and backpacking stories with the Spaniards. No one found a use for the side plates. After dinner Danny fetched the activities board and hung it on the wall. He pointed to 'Night Time Activities!!!!' (four exclamation marks descending in size were a recurring design and were drawn next to all headings on the board). What would we like to do? We sat and scanned the list, each entry was followed with an ellipsis hinting at the excitement which might follow. Just some of the choices: 1. Fijian Dancing... 3. Crab Racing... 4. Limbo... 7. Short and Sweet... 8. Fijian Lesson... 10. International Night... 11. Storytelling..." "Crab racing. Can we race crabs?" asked Lucia. Danny considered the question, deliberated over whether or not he was willing to go out and catch four hermit crabs in the mud in the dark in his evening-wear and then reported that unfortunately this activity wasn't available. "What is 'Short and Sweet'?" Andrea asked. "That is where each person says their name and age and what country they are from?" So not really an activity then. A bit lucky for that one to get on the board actually. We agreed on Fijian Lesson. "Fijian lesson. Good. I think we should do Short and Sweet first though" said Danny. There were only four of us plus Danny and we'd been together all day. But why not eh? Let's start with Short and Sweet. Two for the price of one.
The lesson was brilliant and probably the funniest night I've had on this trip. Danny set out to teach us two pronunciation rules and ten words/phrases. Firstly, generally when you see a 'd' it's pronounced 'nd' so port town Nadi is pronounced "Nandi". Danny wrote "n-visible" on the board for us to remember. Secondly, the letter 'c' is pronounced 'th'. The words and phrases ranged from the useful...
1. Bula - Hi
2. Moce (pronounced ma-they) - Goodbye/goodnight
3. Vinaka - Thank you
4. Dua tale - One more
...to the hysterical:
8. uro uro - Well, at least I fancy you
We laughed hard that this great phrase had made the short-list. "Uh.. I'm not sure you've got the translation right. How do you use that in a sentence? In context?" asked Lucia. "When a person you think is attractive is walking down the street you say 'uro' or 'uro uro'" answered Danny. Fair enough. We practiced this one a lot. We'd completed running through the list twice and the laughing and talking had petered out. "Any questions so far?" asked Danny relishing his position as teacher and not willing to let the evening end. So after some silence, we started asking questions, probing the enigma that was Danny. He'd trained in a formal hospitality school and looked forward a career in a five-star hotel, but he's young--24--and had to start somewhere. Bay of Plenty was hiring so he'd come out to the island. The pieces fell into place. He's obviously a people-person and is naturally very touchy-feely with little concept of the need for personal space, and in all likelihood he ignored or has forgotten the lessons on aloof politeness and efficiency (top wait staff are friendly but curt, prompt but largely invisible) but has not forgotten a lot of the pomp around five star service - all the bowing, napkin-unfolding and Ladies-and-Gentleman greetings and lays it on thick despite the most laid back environment imaginable in this rustic lodge in the tropics.
This lead Danny on to telling us about the exclusive resort across the bay, Turtle Island ($3000 a night, 5 night minimum stay - gulp) and despite the transition to "Storytelling" Danny did not set the piece of chalk down. Instead it was used to stress arbitrary points in his tales. "In 2009"--he turned and scrawled '2009' on the board--"Britney Spears and her boyfriend Kevin went to the resort." "Two. Thousand. And. Nine" he repeated and pointed at each number, tapping the chalk on the board. Obviously the date is the key point in this story. (Though I'm not sure the celeb couple were even together then). "The owner. He is eighty-nine. An American. He is getting married to his sixth wife." He scratched a six into the chalkboard. "Sixth wife." He drew over the 6 for emphasis. "She is twenty-one." Finally, he'd run out of stories and the lesson was over. My stomach was sore from laughing and when we said goodnight I realized I was more than happy to hug the man, the legend. Andrea clearly felt the same way and her bear-hug almost knocked Danny off his feet. It was a fantastic night, and only our first at the resort!