Travel is often said to open your mind and broaden horizons. What is mind? If it opens, what does that mean? Does it happen often? What are the effects? It’s mind over matter, Descartes famously proclaimed. Our mind controls our matter, our substance, our self. I believe every single experience we encounter shapes our mind and makes us who we are. To have your mind opened suggests to me that things can enter or leave. Maybe a new experience will jolt it into a new way of looking at things; maybe an experience will cause fears and prejudices packed away at the back of our minds to uproot and leave. If our mind makes us who we are and is our sense of self, then our mind can be opened, and ultimately change who we are – forever.
My husband and I were on the first leg of a year-long honeymoon. Our first destination was Fiji. We were lured to the place by the climate and the diving, but once we had spent a day or two, we realised we were gaining so much more. For that we will always be grateful. The nature of the place was incredible. We spent our first week on a small eco friendly resort on Namenalala – a 110-acre island swathed in virgin forest with only one acre developed. Namenalala means "empty isle". Despite its isolation and seclusion, "empty isle" it was not. The place was full of laughter, smiles and warmth surrounded by the majesty of the island’s natural bounty. Wildlife was pristine on the land and under the sea.
On leaving the island, Bola, one of the divemasters from Namena, invited us to his home. We strolled around the humid streets of Savu Savu late Sunday afternoon, talking about the paradise of the previous seven days and feeling the sensations of Savu Savu – the water bubbling at the local hot spring, the bread baking, sounds of bangra from a few open shops, yachtsmen calling in the Copra Shed, children playing in the street and a congregation singing the most peaceful of songs, drifting through open church windows and accompanying us down the street.
A car pulled up by our side. It was Veejay, a Jack-of-All-trades from Namena, “Come to dinner with my family”. We drove up a twisting road and Veejay applied sheer brute force to the accelerator to save us from getting stuck in the mud after a recent heavy rainfall.
We arrived at his home, tucked away underneath the palms. His father said, "We don’t have much, we are very poor but we have each other and that makes us rich." I smiled.
I was with the women in the kitchen and Paul, my husband, was with the men in the lounge – drinking Kava.
I was accompanied by the gracious figure of Veejay’s mother, her three daughters, their grandmother and a few cats. Only the grandmother drank Kava. She offered me some. I accepted showing the Fijian manners I had been taught. She chuckled, as I knew what to do.
Veejay’s sisters were thoroughly disappointed that I did not live next door to Buckingham Palace, or that I did not know Prince William personally. We laughed about that. The women prepared a feast, curry with roti, rice and a delicious soup.
The girls’ eyes shone and the men were proud. We were welcomed so kindly and we enjoyed our time. They were a special family, proud to share their lives with us. We were humbled to have had such a wonderful evening in their home.
The next day we met Bola, as planned. He was looking forward to taking us to his home. He needed to get a few essentials for his family – toilet paper and bread. Paul wanted to buy a gift for the family. Bola suggested sweets for the children. I was bundled onto the local bus with our oversized rucksacks. As I looked out of the glass free windows, sitting alone, I thought, what would I do if the bus left now? I saw two women on the street talking to Bola. They looked over at me and waved. They introduced themselves as Bola’s sisters. I was so relieved to have their company – they knew where they were going. They sensed my relief, I am sure.
The bus was juddering, ready to go, crammed with people. Men and children were constantly at the window, selling their wares. The bus jolted forward just as I saw Paul starting to run for the bus. We were moving. Panic. Bola’s sisters cried out and pulled the string, which rang a bell above our heads. They gave me a reassuring look. Paul reached the bus, clambered on and took his seat next to the bags and me. Thank goodness – but still no Bola. The bus set off, despite bell ringing. The driver was done with waiting. Less than two minutes down the road, somehow, Bola appeared. He must have hitched a ride to catch up with the bus and then flagged the bus down. We relaxed. No more anxious sense of leaving; we were on our way.
We drove for over an hour through thick, green, lush forest – cutting through fields of taro and cassava and around narrow ledges overlooking panoramas of pure nature. Now and again the bell tinkled and the bus came to a stop to offload a few people who waved and then turned up to their homes near the roadside. At times a few people got off together, and I saw a cluster of homes facing each other, sharing lives.
“We’re here,” Bola said. "This is our stop”. He rang the bell.
Bola’s home had been prepared for our visit. I could tell that attention had been given to everything. There were beautiful flower arrangements with birds of paradise and the strangest but most wonderful array of trinkets pinned to the walls. We were moved and made to feel very special.
After meeting the family, Bola wanted us to see the chief and men of the village. We walked in the twilight. I saw a large heart faced owl swoop above. The chief and his men gave a traditional sevusevu ceremony to receive our gifts formerly. We sat and watched the group of men brought together specifically for this ritual at the end of a day's work. Paul spoke about rugby to the chief. Bola showed me the homes of other friends we had met in Namena.
It was dark by the time we set off for home. I took my sandals off, as it was easier to negotiate the mud barefoot. With every ginger step, I strained my eyes feeling the mud ooze through my toes. We were ok. We had Bola. I could not believe that neither Paul nor I fell over. We washed our feet under the family's tap, and then it was time for dinner. The whole family sat around a magnificent spread laid out on the floor – dalo, cassava, eggs, spinach, countless dishes – the land was their larder.
Bola's mother asked Paul to say grace, which he did, thanking God for the food and for the importance of family. An amazing family surrounded us – one in which generations sat and shared the feast spread out before them and us on this floor – a family who loved and respected one another. No translation was needed to understand the relationships between these people. Bola’s cousin, Linga, spoke English perfectly. He translated stories and questions, particularly those of the grandparents. I was in awe of the grandparents. The grandfather was strong and proud; the grandmother, warm and loving.
Linga had worked as a tourist guide. He was full of information and only too pleased to share it with us. But there seemed to be sadness about him. As much as he welcomed us and told us many stories, he appeared solemn.
Bola’s home was nearly 100 years old. The original wooden frame had been extended with rooms springing up on each side with a mix-match of materials. They had a toilet, a tap, electricity and a gas ring. They used and cared for every bit of land around them, to provide and feed their family.
Kinny, James, Weti, Wei and John were the life and soul of the family. The children aged between two and 11 years brought smiles to everyone’s face. We sat together after the meal eating the lollies we had bought and playing snap with a deck of playing cards. This was a new game for them, but it didn’t take long for them to work out how to cheat. The smiles and chuckles did not have to be translated.
One moment in particular will stay with me for a very long time. Whilst playing snap, Kinney, a seven-year old gorgeous little girl, was concentrating hard on her lolly and her cards. The game was getting faster and more was at stake. In a moment of pure excitement, she lost her focus, licked her card and put her lolly on the pile. Everyone laughed.
Bola gave us his bedroom and we slept under the mosquito net staring up at the children’s school uniforms, freshly washed and ironed, hanging on wire coat hangers from the wall.
The next day Bola and Linga took Paul and I on a walk to the beach and around the village. We visited their church, the school and homes. We watched people whose lives were so different from ours, yet, the same. There were many smiling and inquisitive children, fascinated by our digital camera, wanting to see the instant images of themselves.
The white beach was deserted save for the occasional woman bent over, hands in the surf collecting shells and food. One lady came over and introduced herself. Her eyes were full of laughter, she was the comedienne of the village.
The beach remained battered from a cyclone that had hit years before. Tall palm trees lay prostrate, showing their roots. Bola taught us songs and wrote the lyrics in the sand. We walked to the empty school, as it was the holidays, and we saw work in the classroom, as well as James’s report on the teacher’s desk. Spelling lists and readers were a match to those in the UK, but there were no desks or chairs – just the floor and a ledge that ran around each wall.
Linga pulled germinating palm trees out of the undergrowth and showed us weeping grass that shrivels on touch. Bola went on a mission to tether the familiy’s crazed horse, Saddam, to a new grazing spot. Bula Ray was called from houses and gardens to the four of us; girls watched and washed their faces under the family tap.
It was soon bathtime with the children in the local river. Bola and Paul joined in too. I sat on the side and watched, taking photos as James, Weti, Wei and Kinny enjoyed posing and then running to see themselves on the camera screen. Up the river we spotted Bola’s mum, bent over, hands in the water. She smiled and waved. "That’s for lunch," said Bola. Again there was a feast ready on our return with beautiful fresh prawns. This time I said grace.
As we prepared to leave, we were given jewellery, sulus, skirts, shirts and shells. In return we could just say thank you or vinaka vaka levu. I gave Bola’s sister some of my clothes in exchange for her gifts.
“Do you have any family photos?” Paul asked, “No photos”, said Bola. So Paul organised a family portrait on the steps of their home. They were keen, sitting proudly – grandparents on the top step, trickling down the ages and generations to meet the mischievous faces of Weti, Wei, Kinny, James and John on the bottom step. Faces of warmth, pride and welcome showed in the portrait. It was a fitting gift that reflected their union as a family. Hopefully, it will hang on their wall. We played tag on the front garden with the children whilst waiting for the bus, and then we exchanged hugs and farewells with everyone.
It rained on the bus journey back to Savu Savu. The tarpaulin sheets were pulled down over the glassless windows. It focused the senses on what was inside – noise of the engine, gears incessantly churning, talk between the passengers, smell of the sweat and the land through bags of taro and sweet potato that were clutched on people’s laps and on the overhead shelves.
We had been guests and friends in a special home and place. I welcomed the experience and I wanted to learn and absorb as much as I could. It was all new – the etiquette, traditions, lifestyle and culture, but what underlined everything, was shared humanity and strength of family.
Each family and person has a story; each is different and valuable. Bola’s family savours respect, love and peace. Their lives value and nurture each other, and the natural world in which they live.
Travel is often said to broaden your horizons and open your mind. This experience did something different. It didn’t broaden my view; it made me realise how narrow my experience was. It didn’t just open my mind; it planted something deep within it. The more I learn about any facet of life, the more I realise how little I know. This experience showed how we share a mind – a human mind that cares and wants to be cared for. Minds are strong and can achieve great things.