2009-12-17: Paopao

Paopao in Tuvaulan is canoe. They are legendary on the island as this is one of the last places in Fiji, if not the last in the world, where villagers still carve canoes from a single tree trunk. The tree most often used is the softwood vilivili tree. This is a lightweight and easily workable wood that if maintained properly can last a good 10-15 years in the water.

Canoes are used daily and fishermen prefer these to outboards. Fishermen are often spotted well out into open waters and often fish around Taveuni, a good distance south of us. Sails made from tarps are often used to assist in high winds. The fishermen are master of the tides and currents and are known throughout Fiji for their craft, much aided by the nimble outrigger canoes.

Since we’ve arrived I’ve been fascinated by these simple works of art and have often asked for some brave sole to let me take their prized vessel out for a go. For some reason they just joke when I ask and want to know if I would like to go fishing. They laugh again when I eagerly say yes, and then say someday we’ll go out. I frankly got tired of someday and decided, as any normal Texan would, to take matters into my own hands.

So I’m building a canoe. Well, I’m not really building it. I’ve hired Papa to build one for me and I am his assistant. O.k., I’m not even that. Vavasasa is his assistant, I’m just the pulagi getting in the way. Regardless, the last two days have been awesome watching the skilled craftsman display his artful skills.

It started yesterday when we took a 15 minute fibre boat ride to Papa’s block. He had already cut the Vilivili tree and quickly sized up the section for the canoe after arriving at the spot. He measured a couple of arm lengths along the massive trunk and then began lightly outlining the chainsaw cuts with his cane knife.

After quick work with the chain saw the length was cut and the sides where then shaven to form a rough box. This is when the touch came into play as he worked the massive logger’s chainsaw like a butter knife through the wood. The front and back where carefully carved and then the bottom. After the hull was finished the harder work of carving out the top was started.

A few deep cuts where made with the chain saw and then large chunks of wood where pried out with a sharpened spade. The spade proved very useful as the guts of the canoe where basically shoveled out piece by piece. After this arduous task was complete we had to get the 150lbs beast down to the beach through thick bush and steep inclines. Papa and Vasa made quick work of this task and had it to the water in no time.

It is the holiday season and people are flocking to the island like homing pigeons. Therefore, there weren’t any boats available to pick us and our new cargo up. We waited around for a couple of hours cutting fire wood and collecting mature coconut. Finally, Vovo showed up with the boat and we were soon off with the paopao safely loaded.

The pulagi making a paopao news has spread like wild fire and Kelly said I was the talk of the village while out cutting the canoe. It appears they think Mataio is crazy because he wants a paopao. I keep telling them I’m building it so I can share their ancient skill with others by documenting the process and sharing it with the world on kioaisland.org. I don’t think they realize how unique this part of their culture it is. Papa has grown weary of this question as well and is now telling everyone it is so I can go fishing. That seems to register well with inquisitive islanders so that’s the story we’re sticking with.

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