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Hitting the village trail on Fiji’s smaller islands


Right now, I am in an internet cafe in Suva, Fiji…  I am wearing Teva sandals, a paper thin, light blues sundress with one torn strap, and a paper-thin orangy-red long sleeve top.  I feel dehydrated, exhausted, sun-kissed, sun-burnt, and I have not had a shower in the past 5 days, even though the past 5 days have been full of sweating, mosquito bites, humidity, hiking, dirt, barefeet, bush-walking, salt-water swimming, insect repellent, lotion, and then sweating again on top of that… all over again.  I am dirty, and although my sister, Angeline, knows that I don’t particularily like to shower daily… this time I really had no choice.
 
Before arriving in Fiji, I was in New Zealand, and when a friend and I went on an 8 hour hike up to the Rob Roy Glacier, passing by chalky blue waters, rainforest, up rocks, and eventually to a view of the glacier.  When we were there, we met a very lovely, young, travelled, adventurous couple from Seattle, Washington (US) and started talking to them about where we had been and where we were going… so, I mentioned Fiji, and the man, told me how he had done the Peace Corps in Fiji… so, naturally, I got very excited and asked for some recommendations about where to go, and told him I was looking for a fully-submerged cultural experience.  So, he said “Go to Beqa (pronounced Benga) you get there by boat from Navua, and ask for Baylana*… everyone knows him.”  It stuck in my head.  Yup, I’m going to go to that place in Fiji.. I don’t really know what it is, where it is, but I’m going to go there.
 
A couple days before going to Fiji, Sarah and I were at a hostel and ran into a guy, Mike, from Wisconsin in the elevator…  It was the “hey, how ya going? how long ya been here?  going anywhere after?”  He was wearing an Aussie outback, brown leather hat, carrying the top part of his pack, long, brown hair that curled a little bit, and a big smile.  He mentioned going to Fiji, and I said how I was as well, and said I was going to a place called Beqa… and his eyes get all big with surprise and disbelief, and there’s a big smile… No way!  he says… someone told him to go there as well.  So, we switch emails, and kind of leave it at that.  If we met up, then we do.  If we don’t, then we don’t.  But, regardless, it was still Beqa, Beqa, Beqa in my head.<!–page–>
 
I ended up getting to Nadi (pronounced Nandi), Fiji late at night, and wasn’t sure where I was staying, where I was going, or anything.  I wasn’t worried at all, but just know things will work out, and they do.  Fiji has 3 main cultures… Hindi, Fijian, and Cantonese.  I happened to meet a Hindi woman, Renu, (this name – and all that follow – have been changed for privacy) who was visiting her family in Tamavua… passing through Navua, and offered to drop me off there… one step closer to my known, yet unknown destination of Beqa.  Sweet… yes, I’d love a ride!  But, she couldn’t get a rental car, so we ended up splitting a cab fare to Tamavua, 3 hours away, and she invited me to stay with her family there until I could figure out my plans. 

A few Lalati houses

I have never really spent time in a Hindi home, and it was definitely an experience.  When we got there, I felt somewhat uncomfortable since they had a rather large family, it was dark outside already, and only a faint light on the porch accompanied by the light beams of the taxi were lighting my view.  Renu had not seen her family for 2 years and was making a surprise visit… note to self… next time, in order to spare uncomfortable feelings, just stay at a hotel.  We arrived around midnight, but nonetheless, there was a girl in the kitchen making naan, tea was boiling, and men were sitting on the floor drinking kava.  Kava is something I know very well now, and my journal actually smells like pounded kava at the moment because I am bringing some home in a little paper bag.  To drink kava, you sit on the mat on the floor, and there is someone with a big bowl in front of them, using a coconut bowl, or other bowl to scoop the kava mix (pounded kava and water) from the bottom and pour back out so that the powder continues to mix, and does not settle on the bottom.  If someone offers you kava, you clap once, and then say “bula” and in one gulp, take the entire drink, finishing with 3 claps.  I will go into further explanation of kava later though because my experience of the drink at the Hindi family was only a glimpse of what I experienced every night at Lalati Village.
 
The next day, I went into Suva, and was playing email tag with Mike, but found out that he was making his way from Pacific Harbour to Suva in hopes that we could meet up and go to this infamous (hardly) Beqa.  Mike is a travel agent, so got us a flash place to crash in for free called Raintree Lodge.  Ahhhh…  a real shower, a clean chair, drinking tea, and talking about our near-future adventures to Beqa, hearing stories of his Chilean girlfriend, exchanging travel stories, sharing photos, trust, friends, and really just figuring out more about this 20 year old, 3rd year Uni, smiley, chill Mike.  The name Mike in Fijian is Mikaili, and Anne is changed in Anna or Annie.  I noticed right away that whenever I introduced myself to a Fijian as Anne, it was as if they imagined I said Anna because without fail, that ended up being what everybody here calls me.  So, to fit in a little bit more, I started calling myself Anna.
 
The next day, we went on a small hike to natural springs and waterfalls in an area called The Forest.  It was not touristy at all, and in fact, we were really the only people there with numerous waterfalls, swimming holes, stones leading pathways over creeks, and hiking around through what I now consider a buffer to what was to come.<!–page–>
 
We took a bus down to the bus stop, bought a few groceries:  loafs of bread, mangoes, crackers, dried peas, cheese bread, and water for our trip over to Beqa.  We took a rickety bus to Navua about 45 minutes away from Suva, and on the way observed a straw hut village alongside the road, mangrove waterways, and eventually arriving in Navua around 4pm.  I was talking to the woman, named Dela*, in front of me, asking where to get off in order to get to Beqa, and she just said “I am going there too… I will show you.” 

Beqa home

She had a motherly feel about her, a very sweet voice, and that look in her eye of “I will take care of you, don’t worry.”  We got off at the dusty road semi-circle in town, and walked across the street to where the boats were.  When the New Zealand traveler told me to take the boats, I imagined a large harbour with commercial lines running to and from the island and maybe individual people going over there as well.  But, there were only 2 boats left at the dock.  She asked where we were going, so I said “I am supposed to find a man named Baylana.”  “Ah… I know Baylana… he lives in Rocua Village… the black black, skinny man… How do you know Baylana?”  So, I go on to explain the story of meeting the hiker in New Zealand, and I could see thoughts going through Dela’s head.  “Your boat has already left… there is not another one until tomorrow morning”  A pause.  “OK” she says.  “You can just come with me to my village and stay at my house until you want to go to Baylana.”  Mike and I didn’t understand at first because of her meek invite, and because of her accent.  She kind of looked as if she were really hoping that we would go with her, and was worried we might say no… but, then I put on a big smile, and just said “really?!?!”  Dela says, “ok, let’s do our shopping… the boat leaves at 4:30…”  Just before 4:30, Mike and I were talking to her about what her village was like, and figured out that we had to buy some Kava root to present to the chief of her village/tribe when we would ask permission later that night to stay in the village until we wanted to.  She kind of hectically said, “you can just buy one-half kilo… it is F$10.”  I think she thought we would for some reason know that we are supposed to present kava to the chief, so it was quite an experience.  So, I go off to buy the kava roots with Dela, and they wrap it up in newspaper on the larger bottom, and tie it up to the narrow top with a white, plastic string in a candy-cane design.  We’re ready, and go with Dela to put our belongings into the boat, take off our sandals, and sit while waiting for the rest of the people coming in the boat to place their belongings as well.  The boat was a long, fairly narrow, wooden boat about 40 feet long I’m guessing, and painted yellows, blues, and reds.  It was somewhat wobbly, and there were wooden beams going across in a few spots so that people could sit on them, and all of the bags, boxes of food, and other goods were places in the middle of the boat and covered with a bright yellow tarp.  Using a large stick that looked like a pole, the man at the bow of the boat pushed us away from the dock until the outboard could be turned on, and away we were through the mangrove-lined river, with views of tropical mountains gradually disappearing from sight as we go into the ocean water.  Once we get past the mouth of the river and into the ocean, the villagers start covering themselves, and a few umbrellas go up facing the wind as we rock up and down the choppy waters, getting sprayed by the waters as we cut through them.  Mikaili and I just look at each other and think… this is pretty sweet, and think how unbelievable it is to be where we are, and to be the only foreigners on the boat, and later to realize, we are the only foreigners in the village.<!–page–>
 
After about a 45 minute boat ride, we arrive at Lalati Village, and you can see little barefoot, Fijian children waiting on the rock wall that lines the shore of their village… they run along with the boat as we make it closer and closer, and then more people from the village come up and help us bring the boat close to the rock wall, and unload everything while we pile out of the boat.  My first thought when I saw the village was ” I have never experienced anything like this in my life… this is amazing… where are we…  and…” I am speechless.  I see smiling Fijian faces.  “BULA!”  “BULA!” 

Interior

Bula means hello, welcome, cheers, and a few more things as well.  This is such a change of instant feeling from when I was staying in Tamavua, and now this completely unexpected village of Lalati, where all the houses are just about 10 feet tall, the people are all smiling and have the most beautiful smiles, there is smoke coming from a few various locations where they are cooking on a fire, and more and more villagers are approaching to help us carry our bags to Dela’s house.  We walk barefoot in the dried mud, and then onto the grass, onto a very slender pathway, passing by her brother’s house… “Bula!”  then, a few more feet, another house, all the doors are open on every house, “Bula!”  and a few more “Bula!”  and to Dela’s wonderful house at the end.  Dela’s house is smaller than my bedroom at home, and you crossed a small wooden plank of wood to get to 2 stairs that were really just a couple rocks placed unevenly, but enough so that you could walk up and then bend your head down to get into Dela’s house.  The outside was covered with straw, so that it had a very tropical feel to it, and inside the house, the mats on the floor were made of coconut leaves that Dela had weaved together in just 1.5 days… looked like they must have taken months!  There are two beds, both with mosquito nets tied in knots above them, and there are two small windows properly cut into the walls, and two doors as well so that air can flow rather well through the home.
 
Dela sits down on the floor and invites us to do the same.  “Okay” she says, “We will just have tea, and then you can change, and then we bring the kava to the chief, and you ask for permission to stay at the village.”  We nod and smile in accordance.  None of the houses have chairs or tables… it’s just beds, and then floor mats that have been weaved.  So, we sit on the mats and she starts teaching us a little bit about her culture, and introduces us to her 12 year old son, Kuli*, who is quite strong for such a young boy.  He smiles.  So, we learn that in her village, the men are allowed to wear whatever they want, but the women cannot wear shorts or trousers, and I should wear something that covers my shoulders.  I get concerned right away since I am wearing exactly what I’m wearing right now, actually, and she shows me how to tie my sarong properly so that it is very comfortable to sit because they always sit on the ground in the houses.  After tea, I make sure that I have a sarong tied on, and a long-sleeve shirt, and Mikaili and I get the kava we bought in Navua and go with Dela to meet Uncle Benny*, and then he takes us to the chief.  The chief’s house is very dark inside, but with a large straw-mat covered floor area for sitting that is lit up by the warily, glowing light in one corner.  “Come.”  We (Dela, Makaili, Uncle Benny, Chief, and I) sit down in a circle, some distances from each other, and Uncle Benny begins.  He says some words in Fijian, and all we can make out is a “Mikaili” and an “Anna” every once in a while.  Then, the chief, with the kava in front of him, starts talking in Fijian, motioning to possibly a God? that we have presented kava and then saying more words, and eventually the 3 from the village start saying words in Fijian, and then clap, clap, clap.  When the ceremony was finished, we said “Ve naca vaca levu” to the chief, saying “Thank you very much.”  We go back to Dela’s and about 4 children from the village come into her small house and lay on their bellies while Mikaili and I get our notpads out, and sit down and learn Fijian from the children while Dela is cooking on the portable stove in the corner of her house.  Dela puts out a table-like cloth, only it is put on the floor, and she puts out the food.  “Cana! (Eat)”  It is custom in Lalati that the guests eat first… so, only Mikaili and I ate, and then Dela and her son ate afterwards, and we drank tea again after dinner.  Dela and her family, and the entire village were so incredibly hospitable, giving, and always smiling, making us feel very comfortable.  For only 4 days in the village, I felt that the people became my family, and in a village of 200, everywhere we walked the people would say “Bula Anna!” or “Bula Mikaili!”  Everyone.<!–page–>
 

Onto Stum Island

The next day, we gave money to Uncle Yaku*, the owner of the boat, so that he would have someone take us and whoever else could fit in the boat, to an island in the middle of the bay, called Stum Island.  We arrived in the morning, and first thing, unloaded everything into the shade.  The men (Mikaili went too) went off to climb palm trees, and to cut the palms from the top, and create an area for all of us to sit.  The women (I went with them) walked around the entire island (fairly small) and gathered firewood, and all met back.  Dela started making the fire, and got some breadfruit, and tossed it immediately into the fire.  The next task was to go get some fish.  So, even though it wasn’t a woman’s role, I decided that I wanted to go with Bin* (the hunter of the village), Kuli (who swam with a bottle, string, and needle for tying up fish), and Mikaili into the reef to go spear fish.  We were out off the island for about an hour and a half or two, and Bin caught enough fish for everyone to have one!  Bin is only 17, and is a master fish-spearer, wild-pig hunter, and pretty much a tough as Rambo.  I snorkeled back to shore before the men, and tried to catch fish the way the people who stayed on land were doing… just with a string, plastic bottle, hook, and then hermit crabs on the end.  I pulled one in!  Yeeee!!!  I watched as they gutted the fish, and then we tossed them directly onto the fire.  We swam with the children, ran around, chopped open cocounts, peeled and ate mangos, and had our lunch sitting on the mat made of cocunut leaves.  We were back in Lalati by early afternoon, and sat down for tea, met more people from the village, and talked about how wonderful the day had been.  We had dinner with Dela’s Auntie’s house, and watched as the children piled rice onto their plates (more rice than I could eat, and I even have a separate stomach for rice!), then in a bowl, they would make a mixture of either tea, milk, and sugar, or coffee, milk, and sugar, and then put all of the rice into the bowl.  There was breadfruit at every meal, and we always sat in the same places on the floor.  We kept on trying to offer help here and there, to wash dishes, to cook, to anything really, and Dela and her entire family would resist and just say “No, you just relax.”  The children were fascinated by our digital cameras, and would look at photos of themselves and smile so big and do a big of a screeching laugh of disbelief.  Mikaili and I were definitely novelties at this village… we were so foreign to some of the children that were one or younger, and some that were even 2, that at the site of us (“our light skin”) would make their faces curl into a grimace like we were the most disgusting, strangest thing they had every seen, and they would let out a wail of a cry.  We kept on asking why, and for some of the younger children, they had never seen a white person or an Asian person before, so they really could not understand what we were.
 
Later in the day, we were able to rinse our bodies in the “shower”… there really is just one for the entire village, and they have to fill it everyday, so I turned it on for one second, and just splashed it on my body, then turned it off because I felt too bad using their scarce water.  There was no permanently running water, no electricity except for when the generator (like on a boat) was turned on between sunset and 9:30pm, there were 2 toilets for the entire village… one that would flush when there was water (so, in the morning after the 10 trips made by 3-4 people from the well to the tank was made).  Otherwise, there was a toilet that was really just an elevated hole shaped like a toilet, but because of coming from a completely developed place, it made me squeamish.  I just tried to use the toilet as infrequently as possible, and was probably so dehydrated that it was easier.  We kept on drinking so much tea or coffee or kava, but not much water, and yesterday during the day, Mikaili and I both practically crashed/passed out from dehydration/exhaustion that we slept much of the afternoon away.  <!–page–>
 
The next day, we went with Bin for a bushwalk to go look for wild pigs.  He has a special clicking noise he makes, along with a whistle that sounds strikingly familiar to a dreamlike recorder.  The 4 dogs respond to his call, and it is amazing how obedient they are.  The “head dog” was scratched up all over his face from a fight it went into with a wild pig.  At the beginning of the hike, we went alongside the beach coast, and then up into thick, but soft, greens that we had to sway aside with our hands.  We came across Thach Thangu*, Dela’s husband, and he was sitting down eating a coconut with another man, and a boy.  We kept on going up, passing fields of cassava (starch) that the villagers used, then sugar cane that Bin hacked down with his machete, and then shaved it so that we could chew the sugar cane and spit out the fibers.  We continued straight up to the view of the island, and relaxed for a little bit, munching on sugar cane, while Bin climbed right up into a tree and just sat.  Bin and Mikaili both hiked in front since, the women don’t go hiking or hunting like that either, and both of the guys had machetes to hack the entire way through.  We passed a PauPau tree, and Bin sliced open for us to fuel up again, then into the thick we went.  Whack!  one branch.  Whack!  another.  Whack!  all the way through, and creating a new pathway, chopping vines down, and clearing the way.  Bin went down to collect some cassava root, and created a contraption from the wood of a specific tree, and made backpack straps with the large bulbs of the cassava root hanging down on the back. 

One kava night…

He macheted a stick down, and then with precision aimed it up into a tree knocking down a fruit called “Cavica” that we munched on throughout as well.  There were points where the grasses were taller than me, and we were foraging our way through… points where I was happy I put on my palm tree pants to keep my legs from rubbing up against random types of plants.  We got to a point where there was a view of Lalati Village, and relaxed before making our way down… the weather got even hotter, and we were sweating through the non-shaded areas of rolling and towering greens… lots of green colour, and when we returned to the village, again, I had to put on my long-sleeved top, and sarong over my pants… I was so hot as it was, and exhausted that I put them back on, and sweated my way into dizziness feeling, and HAD to jump in the water, or at least get some of the clothing off.  So, bathing suits on (sarong and shirt until the waterfront) we jumped into the water off the rock wall on the shoreline, and could feel the super-soft, almost mushy sand on the bottom, and swam across the waterway leading to even more exhaustion, but worth it.  Bin came after us clad with makeshift surfboard and swimming in his jeans (haha)… good thing too because when we got across, the winds picked up, the current was strong, we were tired, and we used the surfboard kind of like a kickboard while Bin in his very Survivor like manner grabbed a large hollowed out trunk of bamboo or something, and used that as a float.  After lunch of rice and bread again (it was practically rice and bread for every meal), we napped until early evening.  I awoke to that wonderful sunlight of the hour-pre sunset to find many people just a stone’s throw from Dela’s house… some were sitting down peeling Tarot root, Kuli was chopping open coconuts and then scraping them into a pot, Dela was slicing open a type of fruit so that we could eat the seed that tasted like a nut, another person was sitting on the grass peeling the cassava root, another cutting breadfruit, children walking around barefoot calling my and Mikaili’s names, and so much more.  We grabbed more kava that we had brought with intention of bringing it to Baylana’s Cheif, and since we didn’t make it to Rocua, we pounded the rest of it…  using a big iron rod that went into a big iron type of narrow pot (like a garlic crusher, but huge) and then pounded it down into a powder.  We sat and had kava with everyone at night… high tide (strong) or low tide (weak) or tsunami (a completely full bowl to the rim).  We celebrated the experience, and left the following morning after saying “Bula!” and “Ve naca vaca levu!”

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