TECHNO MOSES: Ben Keene, co-creator of Tribewanted.com, hopes to recruit 5,000 people to his Web tribe and turn it into a real one on Vorovoro, in Fiji.
WI L D I SLAN DS
What would happen if two entrepreneurs formed an online community and then whisked its members off to build paradise in the South Pacific? Let the experiment begin.
TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHY BY JAMES VLAHOS
On January 14, 2006, Ben Keene received an email that changed his life. The weather outside was rainy, windy, and freezing—typical for winter in Devon, England—and Keene was holed up in his loft office, the window fogged with mist. He had just taken a sip of hot tea when the message from his friend Mark James popped up, and Keene did a double take at the subject line: “A TRIBE IS WANTED.” Keene and James, both 26, had been brainstorming ideas for an Internet start-up, and Keene was used to receiving email messages full of improbable schemes from his friend. The business plan outlined in the current message didn’t disappoint: We will establish an online community and call it a tribe, James had written. Members will create profiles, post photos, and chat online—the usual stuff—and then do something with no known precedent in the history of the Internet: The virtual tribe will become a real one. We will travel to a desert island, James wrote, and form a partnership with an indigenous tribe. We will build an environmentally friendly tourist facility and show it off to the world as a model of low-impact development. We will be a 21st-century tribe, and you, Ben Keene, will be a chief. James’s inspiration had come in part from social-networking sites such as Friendster.com and MySpace.com, which were massively popular and attracted hundreds of millions of visitors a year. In his view, these sites were full of untapped potential for altruism. People spent countless hours online but did little more than swap mindless messages and bootleg MP3s. Participants on SecondLife.com even paid to develop island properties that would never exist outside of their computers. In the tribe that James envisioned, members would steer the development of a real island—making decisions about infrastructure, recreational facilities, rules, and more—
through discussions and online voting. Then, traveling in shifts, they would visit the island at a cost of a few hundred dollars a week to construct facilities with the locals. Members of the indigenous tribe would benefit economically; those in the Internet one would experience a tropical adventure that they could never get at a Club Med. Keene skimmed the email incredulously and then read its half dozen paragraphs more carefully. For the past couple of years he had worked
MAPS: STEVE WALKOWIAK (OPENING SPREAD); OLAF HAJEK (THIS PAGE)
for a company that took college students on extended trips pairing adventure travel with community development. James’s idea offered a similar payoff as well as additional benefits: The experience wouldn’t be limited to students, and it would last not just for weeks but, in theory, for years, via the Web involvement. Agreeing to move forward, he and James punched “private island” and “lease” into Google and started talking to the handful of brokers who dealt with such rarefied real estate. “We looked at islands all over,” Keene later recalled. “Some were just too expensive and others were cheap but in dangerous areas. Soon we discovered a South Pacific island in Fiji that looked perfect.”
Keene (fourth from left) poses with a few “First Footers.” From left: Warren Wright, Becky Hunter, Paul Ovenden, Doug Holt, and Ryan Smith.
Vorovoro was a made-to-order castaway isle: 200 acres, surrounded by reefs, fronted by goldensand beaches, and shrouded in jungle. It sat a short boat ride from world-class surf breaks and the Great Sea Reef, which covers 77,000 square miles and is reputedly the third largest reef system in the world. After several long discussions, Keene came to a decision: “We could either sit dreaming of the island or empty out our bank accounts and go for it.”
ON SEPTEMBER 1 TUI MALI STOOD
on the beach with his tribe gathered around and watched as an overloaded boat entered Vorovoro’s turquoise lagoon and eased to a stop with a crunch against the sand. The palangi, or whiteskinned people, clambered over the gunwales, and, carrying enormous backpacks, sacks of rice, and bags of produce, waded ashore. Since the spring launch of Tribewanted.com, 920 members from 25 countries had signed up—“this is the best thing since Woodstock,” one of them gushed—and the boat carried Keene and the 13 “First Footers” who had volunteered to be pioneering colonists. I was one of them, signing up for a two-week trip to the island. Half of the Footers were from England and the rest were from the United States and New Zealand; their ages ranged from 17 to 59. They were students, engineers, a machinist, a man who described himself as an “aging hippie,” and a transsexual woman. Most of the group had met in person for the first time only hours earlier. (Mark James, meanwhile, stayed home to run the site.) As the newcomers pressed forward to shake Tui Mali’s hand, the chief felt a surge of anticipation. “The world is coming to Vorovoro,” he thought. His tribe, or yavusa, was hosting a meke, an elaborate welcoming ceremony, and he had woken up at 4 a.m. to pray for good weather. Now, on a sunny afternoon, an important new phase was beginning in the history of his people.
Below, from left: Tui Mali, chief of the local yavusa (tribe), sits fireside at the welcoming ceremony; elected chief Wright, aka “Poques,” relaxes in camp.
On the main Fijian islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, communities were modernizing rapidly, but on the outlying ones where the yavusa lived, people practiced a subsistence lifestyle that had changed little in generations. Hints of the current era had surfaced among the tribe’s 400 members—a few carried cell phones, some had jobs at a lumber mill on Vanua Levu—but most lived in huts with no electricity or indoor plumbing and survived by catching fish, growing cassava, and collecting rainwater. Tui Mali, seeking jobs and income for his people, had decided to develop Vorovoro, the gem of his fiefdom, which was uninhabited save for the chief and a few relatives. (Everyone else resided on Mali, an island immediately to the east, or in a village on Vanua Levu.) In February 2006, with the help of a tech-savvy nephew, Tui Mali listed Vorovoro’s availability on the Web, and less than a month later, he heard from Keene and James. Charging flights on their credit cards, the Brits went to Fiji, where they soon learned that negotiations would involve more than a quick meeting and some paperwork. They hiked all over Vorovoro, conferred with the Native Land Trust Board (NLTB), and sat outdoors for dozens of hours drinking grog, a narcotic brew made from the kava plant. Most of all, they discussed the project with Tui Mali and his relatives. After five days, Keene and James reached an agreement with the chief and the NLTB: Tribewanted would pay $53,000 for a three-year lease and $26,500 in donations to the community; jobs were promised as well. Tribewanted’s small staff earned only modest salaries and the tourist facilities the tribe built would ultimately belong to the Fijians. “We are all excited about Tribewanted,” Tui Mali told a local newspaper reporter. “It will provide us with work for the next three years.” Tui Mali led the First Footers into a large clearing behind the beach and sat on the ground with his legs crossed. More than a hundred of the yavusa, dressed traditionally in palm-frond skirts and colorful bula shirts, gathered before him with the new tribe members. Gazing at the motley assembly, Tui Mali recalled how Keene had originally explained that an “online community” was similar—well, sort of—to the yavusa; both were networks of interconnected people. “The only difference is that our tribe is global and we communicate virtually as opposed to getting on a boat and going to the next village,” Keene had said. The young man knelt before Tui Mali now. With his freckles and reddish hair, Ben Keene could have been a Boy Scout
WI L D I SLAN DS WELCOME TO THE TRIBE
From left: Tribewanted members haul a log to the village construction site; First Footers gather around a fire near camp; the locals construct a bure, or central lodge; surveying Vorovoro from the island’s westernmost peak.
at his Eagle Court, but, as of today, he was “Chief Bengazi.” The new chief read a short statement in Fijian and extended his hands. Dangling from them on a length of cord was the most sacred of all traditional offerings: a tabua, or whale tooth. “I hope that you accept us into your community,” Bengazi said. Tui Mali’s reasons for saying yes weren’t purely financial. Though he had long wanted to attract tourists to Vorovoro, he wasn’t interested in having a massive resort occupy the island. Moreover, he believed that Keene and James would respect his culture and kin. In August, a representative for the reality-TV show Survivor had come to Tui Mali to discuss using Vorovoro, but the chief turned him down, a decision that was principled but costly: Survivor reportedly found a location on Vanua Levu and promised a payout that made Tribewanted’s look like loose change—$3.5 million, per the Fiji Times, in jobs and local spending. Tui Mali accepted the whale tooth and gave a short speech. Normally there is a line in the sand, he said, with tourists on one side and Fijians on the other, but not on Vorovoro. “From today forward we are one tribe,” he said. With that, the meke began. Shirtless men with painted faces chanted and clacked sticks rhythmically as women in turquoise skirts and leafy necklaces danced in long, swaying lines. The chief could smell the lovo, a traditional feast of roast pig, turtle, and fish, slow-cooking in an underground oven, and somebody passed him his first bowl of grog. Then everybody in the clearing, the yavusa and the First Footers alike, linked arms, formed a giant circle, and cheered.
THE PLAN ON VOROVORO WAS TO CREATE A
sort of Ewok Eden: a discreet complex of traditional-style huts that blended in under the palms, consumed a minimum of natural resources, and relied, where possible, on nonpolluting technologies such as solar power. Crops would be planted in the small valley behind the village,
The island was perfect and THE ISLAND WAS OURS. It seemed possible to know every last coconut and grain of sand.
and protein would come largely from fresh fish caught in local waters by the yavusa. On September 2 the festive ceremonial ground in the seaside clearing had become a cluttered construction site; nails, scraps of wood, and tools were everywhere. Two of the tribe’s younger members—Ryan Smith, 23, a toolmaker and avid backpacker from Crestline, California, and Raina Jensen, 23, who had just graduated from college in Vermont—hauled logs up from the beach with the Fijians. Tui Mali used a tape measure to gauge the dimensions for the great bure, an open-sided, thatchroof structure that had been approved—by a 96 percent “yes” vote online—as the new tribe’s central meeting place. Dixie Tanner, a 44-year-old reflexologist and the British version of a Sedona New Ager, and 24-year-old Becky Hunter, until recently a British soap opera star and now on staff as a Tribal TV presenter, both worked with Epeli. The elderly Fijian man was showing them how to weave palm fronds into walls for an outdoor shower. Into this scene calmly strode a tall man in a sweat-stained red shirt and a tan bush hat. He puffed at the soggy stub of a hand-rolled cigarette; smiled frequently, showing small, crooked teeth; and delivered orders to workers with the raspy voice of a late-night deejay: “Right, so you’ll get some sacks for the recycling. . . . We’ll need to rip up leaves and throw them in the composting bins. . . . There’s a little broken glass on the beach that somebody can pick up.” Warren Wright was a chief. The tribe would elect a different leader each month to serve alongside Keene and Tui Mali, and Wright had won the first election. A 45-year-old from Cornwall, England, he had drifted between
jobs—construction, catering, sales—before finding that he could make his living by playing poker online, earning him his nickname, “Poques.” He routinely won thousands of dollars in tournaments and once snagged a $12,000 prize. Divorced, he had left his only daughter in the care of her mother. With neither office job nor family to hold him back, Poques wanted to stay for years, not weeks, on Vorovoro, and planned to remake himself, by ditching vices such as smoking and drinking and accomplishing something meaningful. “I represent many people from around the world joined together to live in harmony with each other and the environment,” he told Tui Mali at the opening ceremony. Poques was coming my way now. I was standing in a clearing with a saw in hand and a less than glamorous task: fixing the bathroom, which had been built as a two-story structure with a wooden top level of three stalls and a cinder block lower level for waste collection. The steps to the top had been hurriedly constructed and the braces beneath them were too thin, so I was sawing new bolsters. “You’ll take the pieces of wood, right, and nail them under each of the stairs, right?” he said. “Gorgeous.” “Right,” I said uncertainly. “Brilliant.” He walked off. A few minutes later, Doug Holt, 59, a retiree from Arizona, walked up. Holt was a good-hearted guy but not gregarious like Poques; this was a man who spent a decade building an underground bunker home in the desert and who said that his dream job would be to work alone in a lighthouse. His version of the desert-island fantasy was the lonely one: not Swiss Family Robinson but Tom Hanks’s Cast Away. He glared at the blocks. “Why, why?” he asked. “Those stairs aren’t going anywhere. If you asked me, I wouldn’t do anything at all.” He shook his head and left. Holt had run for chief, too, but finished second, and there was friction between him and Poques even though Holt had been awarded the title of deputy chief. Not knowing who was correct, I decided to stick with the original plan. The Vorovoro wood, however, was only slightly softer than titanium, and when I tried to hammer the nails, the material mocked me, either splitting or causing the nails to bend. By the end of the day, I had a couple of blisters, a smashed thumb, and a net accomplishment of: absolutely nothing. I wondered how many of the other tribe members were similarly challenged. As a group, we were long on enthusiasm and short on practical know-how, and the annals of utopian history, I knew, were filled with tales of inept communities gone bust: hippie Valhallas that collapsed in piles of rotten timber and abandoned macramé; pioneer Promised Lands that became barren Starvation Camps. It was a good thing that here on Vorovoro we had the yavusa, who actually knew what they were doing, to provide a safety net. That evening, tired and frustrated, I went down
ALL HAIL THE VIRTUAL CHIEF!
YOUR GUIDE TO WINNING A VOROVORO ELECTION BY ANIKA GUPTA
Each month one member of Tribewanted.com is elected co-chief of Vorovoro Island and serves alongside Tui Mali, the ancestral head of the Fijian island’s yavusa (tribe), and Tribewanted founder Ben Keene. Like every other decision on the island—from outhouse selection to religious shrine construction— the election is a democratic process, and each of the 1,025 members can cast an online vote. But there’s more to winning the chiefdom than looking sleek in a sulu skirt. Here’s your guide to running a virtual campaign—with tips from successful candidates. KNOW THE JOB DESCRIPTION. According to Tribewanted.com, elected chiefs “manage an island development budget of $3,000 per month,” so build your campaign around good ideas of how to spend it. You’ll also have to “introduce [new tribe members] to cultural sensitivities and island living, update tribe members with news and blog, and take part in Tribal TV and a documentary.” SELL YOURSELF. To declare your candidacy, fill out Tribewanted’s detailed questionnaire. Tip: Play up your people skills and past accomplishments. Consider this statement from “Poques,” the September 2006 chief: “I have managed teams of up to 35 people in the fields of sales and construction. Also, I was in the Guinness World Records with the Bletchley Boys’ Brigade for peeling the most potatoes in an hour by hand.” WAX POETIC. Examine, once again, Poques: “I would like to leave my legacy in the hearts and souls of the members that follow me, with the belief that as a tribe we can and shall overcome problems collectively.” CONDUCT YOUR OWN OPINION POLL. Hundreds of tribe members log on every week to learn about and discuss everything from scuba diving to Tribewanted tattoo design. Scan the community forums to figure out what issues are foremost on members’ minds. BE A CHIEF OF THE PEOPLE. November winner “Swings From Trees,” championed an open in-box policy: “If there is anything that tribe members have a huge urgency for, or feel that the island development is missing something, then please email me direct.” BE HUMBLE IN VICTORY. If you win the chiefdom, celebrate like the public servant you now are. “I would like to open this up to all tribe members so that together as a tribe we can reach maximum potential in November,” posted Swings From Trees following his win. “I have already met some of the tribe members that will be on the island, and though we may be few, I can guarantee that we will do all we can.” BE STUBBORN IN DEFEAT. If you lose, don’t fret, there’s always next time. Chiefs hold office for only one month.
Get behind the scenes on Vorovoro with an island video tour and photo outtakes from Contributing Editor James Vlahos, at www.ngadventure.com.
WI L D I SLAN DS WELCOME TO THE TRIBE
a short trail behind the village to the outdoor shower, which was complete with a rope and pulley for hoisting the water pail overhead. Standing in the moonlit jungle, I twisted the valve and a refreshing drizzle came down from the showerhead. It was a nifty piece of tribal tech, and I swelled with pioneer pride. I was just reaching for the coconut soap when the rigging holding the pail ripped loose and the heavy bucket plummeted, guillotine style, nearly taking off my head.
came to believe, is not the sandy beaches or turquoise waters but rather the fact that the standard fantasy island is quite small. Like Vorovoro. The island was perfect and the island was ours—safe, familiar, and intimate in a way that the wider world never would be. It seemed possible to know every last coconut and grain of sand. One morning midway through the first week, I set out to discover more of our territory. From camp I hiked up a broad, golden beach until I reached the island’s wave-battered western tip. I had never before been past this point and rounded the corner to gaze down a wild, rocky coast backed by sheer bluffs. There were no people but abundant signs of life: Red crabs scuttled across the tidal flats; a black-and-white-striped sea snake wriggled up a nearby slab of rock. Looking at the serpent, I recalled our second day on the island, when Dan Keene, Ben’s younger brother, led a safety briefing and had a troubling exchange with a tribe member that went something like this: Tribe member: “Are there any dangerous animals on the island?” Keene: “No, none, don’t worry.” Tribe member: “Great, thanks.” Keene: “The only thing we have is sea snakes. Their bite is highly poisonous and there is no known antidote. Next?” I steered wide of the snake. Before long I came to the first of several sea caves. Island lore holds that these were once hideouts for pirates, and I crawled up one of the winding tubes until I reached a dead end jammed with driftwood. At the eastern end of the island, I entered into a maze of mangroves. After blundering about for 30 minutes, I emerged on an unfamiliar coast, then rounded a toothy peninsula, and voilà, was back to the village in time for lunch. Such is the pleasure of small-island exploration. My bond to the geography was growing—there was still the tangled, hilly interior to explore—and I was also feeling more connected to the people on the island. We had a beach bonfire every evening, and on the seventh night I sat down next to a middle-aged Fijian woman named Va, with whom I often worked in the camp kitchen. As we watched the flames dance against a backdrop of the ocean and starry sky, she asked about my job as a writer, and I trotted out some tales that I thought would impress her—climbing mountains, exploring caves. “Hmmm,” Va said after I’d rambled on for a while. “I have heard once about two travelers, a priest and a nun, who got lost while trying to cross the Sahara.” She launched into a long narrative about their travails—sandstorms, starvation, thirst—and minutes passed before I realized she was telling a joke. The punch line came, and it was exceptionally funny and exceptionally dirty, involving the priest,
THE PRIMARY ATTRACTION OF DESERT ISLAND LIFE, I
Below, from top: Snorkeling in Vorovoro’s lagoon; with bets placed, the new tribe and the yavusa cheer a crab race. Opposite: Keene surveys the virtual and the real.
the nun, a camel, and a sexual act that definitely isn’t referenced in the Good Book. Va was the island’s head cook, and I’d formed a vague impression of her as a mild, cheerful woman. Now we were getting to be buddies, and I detected a more mischievous personality. On Vorovoro the usual depressing wall between tourists and locals was noticeably low: digging postholes, shoveling compost, and washing dishes side by side draws people together. As we drank beer (lukewarm) and Fijian rum (high proof), the night got rowdier. Dan Keene hosted an island Olympics with contests in coconut hurling and crab racing; Poques broke out the cards for Texas Hold ’em; Suzi Scarborough, a 49-year-old woman from central Florida, appeared fireside in a black dominatrix getup complete with fishnet stockings and whip. “I like to keep things lively,” she said. Scarborough had undergone a sexchange operation only three years earlier. As an engineer working for a military systems contractor, Scarborough said she grew “tired of being held prisoner to everyone else’s expectations.” After the transition she embraced unconventional activities
(“I used to miss out on a lot”) such as going to Burning Man, dressing up as a pirate or Santa Claus—not on Halloween or Christmas, mind you—and most recently, joining an island tribe. It was at this point in the festivities when it became clear that Chief Bengazi—the Sergey Brin of the South Pacific—was drunk. He stumbled away from the crabracing table and began singing joyously and dancing spastically. It looked (Continued on page 87)
WELCOME TO THE TRIBE
(Continued from page 67)
as if his smile was going to split his face in two. All of us, to a certain degree, took it for granted that we were here on the island, getting to play tribe, but only Ben Keene had known the idea when it was just an email and a dream. forgotten island (witness the huge popularity of the TV show Lost), it is deemed inevitable that the settlers will struggle horrifically (ibid, Lost). Fictional books brim with examples, and before embarking for Fiji, Keene looked to them for real-world wisdom. His analysis of Lord of the Flies was that the characters wound up sharpening sticks and pushing chubby boys off of cliffs because they were trapped; on Vorovoro people would always be coming and going, so tensions wouldn’t build up and boil over. Plus, the tribe had a Web site where members aired thousands of opinions, so Keene hoped that “whatever conflict we have takes place virtually.” The backpackers in the film The Beach mistakenly believed they could divorce themselves from reality, while society on Vorovoro would remain healthy by staying economically and socially connected. “We never set out to shut ourselves off from the world,” Keene said. He and James, in fact, hoped to do the opposite. In classic utopian tradition, they wanted to stand far enough apart from society that they could create a new and better way of life, but not so far that they couldn’t show it off. Aided by a powerful public relations team, Tribewanted has been featured in newspapers on four continents and on the Today show and Good Morning America. Plans call for the island to be rigged for Internet access so that every day, members can post photos, blogs, podcasts, and episodes of Tribal TV. The purpose of all of the PR? “People can follow the story and see that simple living without lots of materialism is actually fantastic,” Keene said. Tribewanted’s challenge, however, was to develop paradise without destroying it, to be a financial success as well as an ideological one, and by the fall, the company was struggling. Neither blessed with independent wealth nor supported by venture capital, Keene and James were operating on a hand-to-mouth basis out of membership revenue, which they needed to increase. The original business plan called for 4,000 more members (for a total of 5,000), with up to a hundred on the island at a time, which, many of the First Footers believed, was too many given Vorovoro’s small size. A dozen visitors was paradise—eight times as many would be a zoo. One option was to have fewer people but to charge more. The current rate of $220 a week, including food and airport transportation, was cheap bordering on a steal. Keene considered himself a capitalist who needed to keep “money in the bank and gas in the boat” or all of the good intentions would be for naught; a realist who knew that Vorovoro was a real place, not a problem-free utopia. “This is an experiment,”
FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS PEOPLE
have yearned for mythically perfect places— “where every torrent flows with wine,” as the Greek poet Telecleides put it in the fifth century B.C.—and quite often, those places are envisioned as tropical islands in the South Seas. This makes practical sense. New societies need a blank canvas and breathing room, favorable weather and abundant natural resources, and if there’s anywhere on Earth where you could actually establish such a “fortunate isle”—in the parlance of utopian literature—the South Pacific is probably it. In real life, though, if you tell your friends that you’re heading off to create a happy new civilization among the palms, don’t expect them to rejoice—they’ll probably imagine Jonestown and warn you to steer clear of the Kool-Aid. Tell them about a visionary such as Keene and they’ll picture David Koresh. The modern view of utopian communities is a conflicted one, and while almost everybody fantasizes about jump-starting civilization on a
WELCOME TO THE TRIBE
he said toward the end of the first week. “If you ask me to judge the project right now, I’d say there will be some amazing things that come out of it—and some things that people, and even I, don’t think are very good.” Keene’s words proved prescient, but the trouble came sooner than he or anyone else expected. On September 9, several Internet tribe members were in a boat returning from Vanua Levu when they saw an alarming sight. Rising from the center of the island, dark and thick, was a column of smoke.
“THE ISLAND IS ON FIRE! THE
island is on fire!” People onshore were just finishing lunch when they heard the frantic calls from the boat. Becky Hunter dashed into the jungle, kicked through bushes and shin-slashing vines, reached a clearing, and looked up. A long, crackling line of flames was consuming a brushy hillside. From somewhere inside of the fire line, she could hear people shouting. We’ve got to get them out of there, Hunter thought. They don’t realize how big it is. She yelled as loudly as she could until, through the shimmering haze, Poques appeared atop the hill. “We can stop this thing!” he yelled. “Let’s get a bucket brigade going! Everybody can bloody well stand around watching, but I’m going to do something!” Hunter kept shouting, urging the Internet tribe members to retreat. Finally Poques returned to the beach with a few others. His sooty face was twisted with rage and he was shouting: The fire could be stopped, five of the yavusa were in the interior fighting it. What about everything that Tui Mali had said on September 1? “So much for the idea of one tribe,” Poques said bitterly. There was no time to dwell on his anger. Keene had left the island earlier to go scuba diving, and Sara-Jane Bowness, another Tribewanted staffer, was able to confer with him by cell phone. Now she and Hunter made an announcement: Grab a daypack and fill it with your essentials. Be aboard the boat in ten minutes. The Internet tribe is evacuating. I ran to my tent, threw a few items in a pack, and returned, but nobody seemed to be moving toward the boat. I stood around feeling impotent, and then, without making a conscious decision, wandered off into the trees. Dense green jungle ended abruptly and was replaced by acres of blackened earth. Smoke rose from the ground, and pockets of flames lapped at the edges of the burned area, which radiated intense heat like the coals of some giant barbecue. Through the smoke Va calmly strolled up. She had bare feet and was holding a giant banana leaf by its long stem. “Bula, James,” she
said as pleasantly as if she were greeting me at breakfast. She began swatting the hot spots with the leaf. Then after a couple of minutes: “Could you get me some water?” I ran out to the beach, found a bucket, and dunked it in the sea. When I turned around I saw Bowness. “The boat is leaving,” she said tensely. “You have to get off of the island. We have to go, now.” I thought of the fire and how we could stop it from inflicting more damage. I thought of Poques, of Va in her bare feet, of all of the palangi running away in the boat. “No, I’m not going,” I told Bowness. “I’m sorry.”
island-development budget of $3,000. It was passed by the tribe. Democracy had its limits on Vorovoro—the members could never take over and oust Keene and James, because the pair owned the company, held the lease, and had final say on all financial matters—but Poques proved that those limits could be expanded. He also triumphed when people voted to abolish a three-weeks-a-year cap on visits. “The whole adventure is far from over,” he said. “I want to see the project out from day one to the very end.”
ON MY LAST DAY ON THE ISLAND,
POQUES, HOLT, SCARBOROUGH,A
couple other insurgents, and I worked with the Fijians to battle the wildfire, sweating heavily to put out the last of the destructive flames. By late afternoon the situation was under control. The blaze had torched about 20 acres, nearly a tenth of the island, but the damage was largely limited to the undergrowth, with only a few trees significantly charred. Within a rainy season or two, Vorovoro will look as though nothing happened. The cause? One of the yavusa had been doing a controlled burn in a small plot of cassava when he was bitten by ants. He left to go rinse them off, forgot to extinguish the fire, and it went wild. Those of us who stayed behind jokingly called ourselves the “Vorovoro Volunteer Fire Department,” and, slightly more seriously, wondered if we would be expelled from the tribe when the others returned. For Poques the incident had exposed a critical rift: The tribe was an altruistic enterprise—people united to do good for the world—but it was also a business whose employees had to worry about legal liability and the bottom line. The fire also showed the tribe’s strength, though, as a substantial group had stuck around. Poques doubted that guests at a big resort would have done the same. When Keene returned with the evacuees late in the afternoon on the next day, he played the peacemaker. “We understand completely why you wanted to stay and help put out the fire,” he said. “And I’m sure you understand why we had to give people the option to evacuate.” It was an expert display of diplomacy. With a single rhetorical sweep he extinguished the insurgency—we weren’t rebels after all because management approved of our actions—and affirmed the project’s democratic ideals. Poques was mollified, and the incident that had temporarily pulled the tribe apart left us all feeling closer. Later Poques would use the issues raised by the fire to lobby Keene to transfer more power from the management to the members. Keene, convinced, floated a proposal to give each month’s elected chief an
I joined Dan Keene and Ryan Smith on a short boat ride to go snorkeling at the Great Sea Reef, known locally as Cakaulevu. Holding my breath, I dove to 25 feet along a coral wall patrolled by dozens of small yellow-and-purple fish. A larger one, multicolored like rainbow sherbet, caught my eye, and I tailed it until my air ran out. When I surfaced, Smith and Keene were laughing. “There was a big reef shark right behind you,” Keene said. The snorkeling trip was the farthest I’d strayed from the village in two weeks, and when I returned I was struck by how much we’d accomplished. The Fijians had made significant progress on the grand bure, and its log framework rose impressively into the sky. The clearing
had been enhanced by a long wooden dining table, a volleyball net rigged between two palms, coconut shells split for use as ashtrays around the campfire, and a hammock for beachside naps. The tribal tech, however charming, reminded me that eco-utopia was illusory. Our group had come to experience “primitive” living—to sleep under the stars, bathe with water from a bucket, look at the horizon without seeing a single building—while the yavusa hoped the revenue we brought would allow them to escape some of these very same things. The Internet had connected two disparate groups of people from opposite sides of the globe, but ultimately it would make us more alike. Keene knew it too and, believing that modernization was inevitable, thought that all the new tribe could do was try to steer development in a positive direction. The job was shared by all of us. We needed to build a jetty so that arriving boats wouldn’t damage the coral in the lagoon, to cap the number of visitors at any one time, to figure out what we could grow on the island so that supply runs from Vanua Levu could be reduced. A boat was coming soon to take me back to the mainland, and that was OK. I would make my opinions known to the rest of the tribe. I needed to get off the island and back online. ▲