July 31, 1989 12:00 PM

It’s the morning of his first day in New York and Malé Varawa, a 28-year-old fisherman from Fiji, faces a panhandler’s sidewalk plea. “No money, go away!” he shouts, his muscular body tensing. Fortunately, Malé’s freckle-faced American wife, Joana—at 58, thirty years his senior—intervenes and offers up a few coins, explaining that she carries the couple’s money. Malé, whose only taste of America until now was a visit to Hawaii, then embraces the shabby, and surprised, beggar. “Before I met Joana,” Malé explains in broken English, “I pop this man in face, I fight him. But Joana teach me keep cool, be mellow.” So much for the gentle manners of the South Pacific.

Actually, the swapping of cultural dos and don’ts has been a constant in this odd couple’s three-year marriage from the very beginning. It was not a case of being swept away by romance under the swaying palms, says Joana (changed from Joan for easier Fijian pronunciation), a California-born environmentalist who visited Galoa, Malé’s tiny, coral-laced Fijian island, for five weeks in 1985. “Love in Fijian fishing villages is more practical,” she says. “They assumed I was rich because I was an outsider. But I was looking for a dream of happiness that had been building up for years, driving me west from California to Hawaii and finally to Fiji. When a Fijian girl asked me if I’d marry a Fijian man, I rather innocently answered, ‘Why not?’ I didn’t come to find a man, but I was bored with myself and felt I was getting old. Who would want me?” After the girl introduced Joana to Malé, he proposed marriage, Joana says, “because his father told him to—an arranged deal, as far as he was concerned. The family thought I had money and would settle him down. I found him charming, so we lived together for a while, got married, and gradually came to love each other.”

A vital, energetic woman, Varawa says, “I traded the time-focused, youth-obsessed life of the West for the timeless, seductive rhythms of Fiji, although I’ve had my moments trying to be a Fijian wife.” Now Joana has chronicled that difficult transition from American professional to traditional island spouse in her book Changes in Latitude: An Uncommon Anthropology. It describes her long wedding feast on June 7, 1986, and the frustrations of adjusting to life without electricity or running water, and learning the local dialect of the Fijian language, which she still hasn’t mastered. “I was treated like a baby. They thought I was stupid,” she says of her first months on Galoa, which has a population of 150. “I was lost. I cried a lot, but I was resolved to endure it. I was there to learn their way, not to teach them mine.” Says Malé: “I teach her to get firewood in the bush, how to fish with a net, how to carry big cans of water from well on her shoulders. No, Joana not strong like Fijian women, but she is good wife.”

Although Malé likes children, he seems untroubled by Joana’s age and is content in the marriage. “At first Joana was just a wife,” he says. “Now I’m happy we’re together.” Joana has a son Malé’s age from an earlier marriage to Donald McIntyre, a boat builder in San Francisco. Ian, a yacht skipper for hire in Hawaii, is “great friends with Malé,” she says. And though her unsentimental education in Fijian ways was sometimes harsh, “my reward was the embrace of Malé’s family and friends,” Varawa says, “of enjoying time with one another, of living within the rhythms of nature. For me, the change came at the right time in my life.”

A Los Angeles native with a B.A. in anthropology from Berkeley, Varawa by 1984 had begun to feel worn down and dispirited by a life of environmental activism. She had been a public-affairs radio producer in Berkeley, fought against the wearing of endangered-animal furs, founded a whale advocacy group called Project Jonah and written two books: Mind in the Wafers and The Delicate Art of Whale Watching. Most recently, she had worked as a harbormaster in Hawaii, where her son still maintains her 30-foot sailboat and a small house.

Now, supported by the proceeds from the sale of a Jeep and her income from writing, Varawa has moved with Malé to a nearby 40-acre island called Vedrala. There she spends her days helping Malé spearfish off the reef, tend the garden next to their thatched hut and feed 30 or so pigs. “You don’t spend much, except on basics like gas for the boat,” she explains, then wistfully concludes, “Maybe my life looks hard, but I do love it there, and I love Malé.”

Which may be why—the whirlwind of talk shows and promotional lunches completed—Joana has forgone the diverse pleasures of New York to sit with her husband on the floor of their hotel room, drinking yaqona, a brew Malé has just made with a bagful of a powdered root and tap water. The couple wear colorful wraparound skirts—common in Fiji for both sexes—listen to taped Fijian music and occasionally clap their hands in a solemn rite of respect.

“I’m happy and pretty much at peace with myself,” says Joana, taking another swallow of yaqona from a coconut shell. Under the soothing influence of the drink, Malé begins to recover from the city’s “noise and too many people walking at the bottom of deep canyons with very little sky.” Of his unlikely marriage, he says, “We have a good life together.” Then he loudly claps his hands with just a trace of a smile.

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