Published in the Fiji Times, "Off the Wall with Padre James Bhagwan," Wednesday, July 28, 2010
As a talatala (minister of religion), I often find myself in interesting situations in the performance of my spiritual duties.
Case in point: last Saturday's Business House Outrigger Canoe Regatta. According to the Fiji Outrigger website, ‘The Bring it on Business House Regattas offer a great opportunity for businesses to get their staff out of the office and into a competitive team."
Fiji Outrigger has been running these annual events since 2004 as a way to promote the positive benefits to both individuals and business of having fit, healthy and united staff.
The chief guest for the occasion was Colin Philp, a veteran (25 years) outrigger paddler and more recently the Sail Master for the Uto Ni Yalo. In fact, while Colin was the one forced to make the speech, the entire crew of the Uto ni Yalo and the vaka (double-hulled sailing canoe) itself were the stars for the morning, with the crew performing the bole (challenge) and the Uto ni Yalo receiving visitors whose interest had been piqued by the reports filed by Colin and the crew during their memorable voyage covering 7000 nautical miles, three months and seven Pacific island nations, as well as the current documentary series of the voyage on Mai TV.
I was invited to lead the devotion and offer a prayer seeking God's blessings on the day's events, the paddlers and, of course, the canoes. However this was not your ordinary turn up to the USP Foreshore, say a masu (prayer), and head home again. The organisers thought it would be interesting if "the Padre" would arrive with the chief guest(s).
It made sense to me as I consider myself the unofficial chaplain of the Fiji Islands Voyaging Society, having lead the devotions at the launching of the vaka , as well as at the beginning of their epic journey.
And so early Saturday morning, I found myself wearing my Fiji Islands Voyaging Society uniform and being ferried out to the Uto Ni Yalo as she lay anchored in Lami's Bay of Islands, with skipper Jonathan Smith.
As the early morning sun broke through the clouds and the crew prepared to hoist anchor to sail to Suva Point, I was honoured to witness and participate in an intimate and deeply spiritual moment as the crew huddled together, as they have done each time before setting sail, to seek God's blessings on their voyage.
It was wonderful to witness the camaraderie of the crew, having spent a quarter of the year together, who knew each other and their tasks so well. The usual Fiji humour and respondent laughter floated over the waters as we moved out towards our destination. As we made our way to the USP Foreshore, I was able to chat with Colin and Jonathan (a childhood friend from Lautoka) and seek a reflection from them on their experience.
The immediate response was that they were still trying to settle in to life on land after such a long time away.
We approached and berthed at the USP jetty and settled into our roles for the morning. It was a beautiful start to the day.
After the opening ceremony and a delicious breakfast, I found myself aboard the vaka once again, only this time it was to sail out further into the harbour as the tide was quickly going out.
Only when the anchor had been dropped did I realise that I would now be onboard until the tide turned or a passing boat offered me a ride to shore!
With nothing to do but wait for the tide to turn, the crew put up the awning and decided to sevusevu the chief guest (Colin) for his speech and the talatala for not preaching for too long.
The comments were in jest but the opportunity to spend time sitting on the Uto Ni Yalo with the waves lapping on the hull as the crew played their guitars and Tahitian ukulele and sang songs as they had done during their journey was a blessing.
As the kava flowed and the crew took turns telling me stories of their experience, the jokes that they had shared, I was offered a glimpse into the life-changing event these men and women had experience.
Crew member Carson Young shared with me the spiritual experience of sitting in silence and listening to the ocean at night with stars overhead or early morning with the sun rising.
We talked about how the ancestors of almost every group of people who call Fiji home arrived here by some sort of ocean-going vessel. We shared our thoughts of bringing swimming, outrigger paddling, sailing and other marine activities out of the sub-culture and making it a prominent part of Fiji-Island culture.
Then the kava finished, a boat was available to take me back to shore as the Uto Ni Yalo made its way back to Lami and the unexpected adventure came to an end. The thought of the ocean, the experience of the crew of the Uto Ni Yalo remained in my mind as I drove home.
However, I was in for a shock on my return home as I checked my emails. Some of the crew had been sharing with me about their sadness when they approached Suva and saw the number of floating plastic bags and Styrofoam food containers in the harbour.
I opened an email to read about "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" or "trash vortex", with an estimated 100 million tons of flotsam are circulating in the region.
The "Patch" is growing at an alarming rate and now covers an area twice the size of the continental United States, scientists have said.
The vast expanse of debris - in effect the world's largest rubbish dump - is held in place by swirling underwater currents. This drifting "soup" stretches from about 500 nautical miles off the Californian coast, across the northern Pacific, past Hawaii and almost as far as Japan.
It is refered to as a ‘soup' rather than an ‘island' by some because instead of a big mass of floating plastic bottles and trash, it is actually more like a plastic soup, constantly moving just below the surface of the water.
This is why there are no real pictures of the island and you can't see it on Google Earth, or in satellite images.
Without pictures of a so-called ‘trash island', people are less likely to believe in its existence and the media has no stimulating images or graphics to catch our attention with.
Each plastic bag, bottle, plate, container that is discarded into the sea, off seawalls or left on the shore to blow into the ocean or be taken out with the tide from our islands, most likely will find its way there.
The ocean is the source of life, for not just the creatures of the sea, but we who live off the sea. The ocean is what binds the Pacific Islands together - hence the name "Oceania". We are not just custodians of the land; we are also stewards of the ocean, our mother.
"Be still, stand in love, pay attention."
* Reverend J.S. Bhagwan is a member of the Faculty at Davuilevu Theological College and the Associate Minister of Dudley Methodist Circuit in Suva. This article is the sole opinion of Rev. J.S. Bhagwan and not of this newspaper or any organisation that he is affiliated with. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org