In the long fairway into the harbor of Suva City on Viti Levu, Fiji, the sharks play among the debris. Like the skiff drivers, they watch for the white of plastic bags that float beneath the surface, maybe hinting at food nearby. The harbor is polluted and the sharks feed on the scraps they can find. Being outwardly docile, they urge the smaller weaker fish to come nearer, that they may see the bounty or, as in some cases, be the bounty.

When you arrive in a new place as a drifter, sailor or otherwise as I have, the best way to proceed is to gather information, be it from someone you meet or simple observation. It’s best to approach a town slowly. If you’re walking, it’s best to stop now and then to observe the surroundings. This way you can see who is watching you as well.

There is no reason to rush to the town square or to the town market place either. Better to get to the outskirts of the action and sit and watch. This is how I approached Suva when I was chief cook on the Picton Castle working for Capt. Dan Moreland who I had met years before when I was the cook on the Shenandoah out of Vineyard Haven.

On that first day in town I set off searching for Camel straights, the brand of cigarette I prefer and hadn’t been able to find. I used this as a pretext to meet the big man who was in charge of a group of hardened men with tattoos on their hands, peeking out below their shirt sleeves and around their ankles. There was no pressing need that I meet these guys, except for curiosity. But I knew I would be coming back to do a fair bit of shopping as I was feeding a crew of 50 and I figured it might be a good thing to know some of the local boys.

The big guy said hello and I told him I was from the States, on a ship. I told him I was the Chief Cookah as they say around the Pacific. I asked his name; it was the same as mine.

“So to me you call yatha, it means namesake,” he said.

We made a sort of tentative friendship, both intrigued by the other. Our eyes met quite often. It is said when you encounter certain predators in the bush you shouldn’t look them straight in the eyes as it is a sign of aggression. But I have found with humans to humans it is more often than not disarming, or at least the precursor to an armistice. On the streets, looking someone in the eye can open up an unwanted contact, especially with small time scammers and bottom feeders. They see it as an acknowledgement that you want to be messed with. But face to face it can be different. The big man and his gang accepted me, and yes I’m afraid to say it really was a gang. Most of the guys were friends from prison.

When I was in town we talked story and drank beer in the Fiji style. One person pours for everyone else, using a small glass. The glass is passed back to the pourer and he continues around the circle. It comes from the way one drinks kava, a root that is crushed and washed through coconut husks and the water is consumed. For many it is a ghastly thing to drink because it has an earthy taste, quite like dirt in fact.

When I first went to town I would be accosted by all sorts trying to hustle me. As the days progressed, I noticed that I was no longer being hustled. I mentioned this to Joe, the head man. “I know, I told them 100 metres,” he said. “They stay away, you are my brother, I am taking care with you now.”

The final fresh shopping day for me is always hectic. I must get hundreds of kilos of fruit and vegetables bought and transported to the ship. It’s not like home where you can call the local produce guy. I have to go and buy the food, keep it somewhere and then arrange a truck to take it to the wharf.

In Fiji it was all different because of Joe and his band of ruffians. We found a spot near where the boys worked and he stationed the guys around to watch it. There was no one in Suva who was going to take anything from us — partly because the likely candidates were the ones watching the food.

Often one of the farmers or people in the market would come up to me and say, “Be careful, these men are very dangerous.” The only reply that I could come up with was, “I know, they are my friends.”

When it came time to move the goods we had a parade of all the hard-core guys from downtown Suva carrying baskets of food on their heads or over their shoulders. We brought the food to the fish dock where Mafi was waiting with his speed boat that we used to get the food to the ship. When we got on board even the crew was afraid of the boys.

“Joe, are these guys okay?” the second mate asked me.

“Don’t worry man, they’re my friends,” I said.

I have found that the old adage is pretty true: “Not all bad people are all bad, and not all good people are all good.”

In any case, I know that I will always have friends in Suva if I ever get back there. That is if they are not in jail.

Joe Keenan is a musician, writer, baker and roofer living in West Tisbury.