Living a Dream in the South Pacific – Fiji

Living a Dream in the South Pacific

Stumbling out of the plane after a ten-hour flight, I juggled the excitement of pending adventure with the discomfort of a sweat-soaked t-shirt. The humidity of Fiji at 5:30 am shocked my pores into releasing torrents of body moisture. When a gentle breeze passed through the open-air terminal, it brought both welcome respite from the heat and the aroma of fresh-baked bread.

Proclaimed by one visitor as
Proclaimed by one visitor as “the best beach in the world,” Leluvia Island can be reached from the former capital of Levuka on Ovalau Island
The sun peaked over the lush volcanic interior, unfolding before my eyes a paradise dyed in green. Mountains of volcanic rock were swallowed by a thickly carpeted jungle. An endless abundance of ferns, vines and thick undergrowth covered the land like a flood of emerald paint spilled over the vegetation. Tropical flowers grew like waves in a sea of jade and the scent of salt and sugar hung in the air.

The physical beauty of this South Pacific island is captivating, but the treasures of Fiji lie in the shining smiles of its people and their gracious hospitality. The Fijians welcomed me to their island with radiant smiles and the traditional Fijian greeting, “Bula!” Though I had over three hundred islands from which to choose, I wouldn’t have to venture more than twenty minutes from the airport in Nadi to experience traditional Fijian culture.

I found myself seeking directions from a 50-year old woman, and I was delighted when she invited me to her village. The community was situated on a riverbank swallowed by thick ferns and palm trees. I noticed a dilapidated bridge spanning the river and a bright yellow sign announcing the name of the village: “Semo.”

Immediately, exuberant children appeared to obtain a glimpse of the visitor. The faces of these precious children exemplified the satisfaction and affection that I would come to know in the Fijian people. Their lives are a testament to the boundless success that comes from community support, stress-free living and powerful faith.

My welcome to the village began with the traditional kava ceremony, a drink made from ground yaquona roots that promotes a feeling of relaxation and is enjoyed by most Fijians. Kava ceremonies are a very special time in Fiji. People laugh and joke and often sing or play instruments. Fijians are blessed with the beauty of song, especially the men, who despite their huge, muscular build and imposing strength, can produce some of the most melodic, wonderful sounds hitting even the highest notes.

During the kava ceremony the first night, the women instructed me, “You will not call her Joana anymore. You will say “Lewa” which is Fijian for mother, and we are all your brothers and sisters.”

Lewa responded saying, “You will pay no money when you stay here. You don’t stay in fancy hotels, don’t eat at expensive restaurants, don’t spend lots of money in Fiji. You stay in Semo [village], you go when you please, you stay when you want and as long as you want.”

And I did just that. For three weeks I stayed in Semo. I allowed the wonders of another culture to soak into my core, learning of true peacefulness and unconditional support. I saw a village of a few hundred people who existed in a special harmony with nature and God, flourishing despite poverty and lack of proper medical care. I saw a people who did not place value on money, but found wealth in generosity. I have never seen people so happy in all my life. They welcomed me whole-heartedly into Semo and I would come to call this village home during my stay in Fiji.

Friends and children in Semo village relaxing in the shade on a sunny afternoon
Friends and children in Semo village relaxing in the shade on a sunny afternoon
Each day in the village brought new and wonderful experiences. I joined the children’s Bible study in a neighbor’s home, my arrival shattering their quiet concentration. The teacher continued reading aloud and gradually the children began repeating the Bible verses in both English and Fijian. Pure, innocent beauty shone in their dark, supple skin and big, grinning smiles covered their faces like lighted billboards against a midnight sky. I struggled to focus on the repetition of Bible verses as a gathering of bright, eager eyes gazed upon me.

When the exercise was completed, I joined the children singing hymns. I fondly recall looking down upon fifteen beautiful children as they sang the lyrics to “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” laughing all the while as I struggled to pronounce the Fijian verses. When the children had exhausted their catalog of songs, prayers were begun in Fijian then repeated for me in English. Each person who prayed touched me with their gratitude for my arrival welcoming me into the village as part of the family. I struggled to compose myself as I uttered a sincere, heartfelt and completely inadequate thank-you. Through cascading tears I attempted to explain how impressed I was by the children, but my words hardly exemplified the profound emotion I was experiencing.

Kadavu Island is one of the more remote islands that is highly celebrated for its world-class diving
Kadavu Island is one of the more remote islands that is highly celebrated for its world-class diving
After a fabulous scuba diving trip off the island of Kadavu, a taxi delivered me to Semo village from the airport. Having anticipated my arrival, children came pouring from the homes. I dropped my bags just as my arms filled with the bodies of enthusiastic children endeavoring to capture my attention.

A parade followed me to Joana’s home where I was surprised to find Lewa bedridden, her leg bandaged from a broken bone she suffered during my absence. Unable to afford proper medical care, this 50-year old woman’s leg was put back in place by several men and then wrapped with a meager cloth. She suffered from excruciating pain but showed little sign of discomfort as she welcomed me back to Semo. Lewa raised herself onto a homemade crutch and struggled into the home’s common area, determined to prepare lunch for me. Despite my insistent pleading, my Fijian mother labored through the intense pain of a broken bone to fix me a meal.

After lunch, Lewa provided me with the clothes needed for church. Tevita, my brother, dressed me in a traditional blue sulu, white shirt and a blue tie. Lewa presented me with a King James Bible and asked that I go to church “as part of her family.” As I entered the village’s Methodist Church with Tevita and our younger brother Maccha, the entire congregation rotated in their pews to view the approaching spectacle. With Maccha’s hand clasped in mine and Tevita walking by my side, I joined the church as a member of the Nailesu family. The pastor began his sermon with a special welcoming. Thanking me for joining the service, he hoped that I would comprehend the message despite its being in Fijian. Through almost two hours of passionate, uninterrupted sermon, I struggled to stay attentive knowing that every eye in the room was fixed directly on me.

In conclusion to the service, the youth choir prepared to deliver a hymn to the fervent audience. The pastor asked that I join the rehearsal in a neighboring home. I listened attentively to the Fijian words and when time came for our big performance, I stood proudly at the back of the group and attempted to mimic the choir’s hymn. When I began to sing the chorus confidently, I caused the congregation to break into shrieks of laughter. Departing Semo’s Methodist Church, I found the congregation in a line, each awaiting their chance to shake hands with their American visitor.

With all that had occurred in just three weeks, leaving Fiji was more emotional than leaving home. As word spread among the local villages that my time for departure had arrived, friends and family came to join me in a ceremony to celebrate my farewell. When the last dinner was finished, villagers began to file into Joana’s home. Soon there was hardly any space left on the floor.

The ceremony began as Tevita prepared the kava. Instruments were brought out and as bowls of kava were passed around, so was the guitar. The men of the local villages took turns leading the group in song. I sat and listened, my eyes intently fixed on those that looked back at me. When each song was completed, I was given a brief explanation of its meaning, followed by a dedication of sorts. I lost count how many dedications were bestowed upon me that night. It seemed that each time a song was completed the guitar was passed along and a new dedication made before the singing continued.

Hearing the Fijians sing, I was immediately consumed with delight. The people of Fiji have been granted such beautiful voices as if one is beholding a chorus of angels. Though the language was foreign, the meaning was as clear as night and day. Their sentiment found words through song and I was mesmerized as their beauty of expression overwhelmed me. Gazing into their eyes as they sang, I felt as if we all might break into tears. Especially when the young men sang, I felt a common language pass between us. I understood their joy and sadness as if I comprehended the words that echoed in song.

I had promised to delay my departure until the children arrived home from school. After lunch my final bowl of kava was prepared. My friends arrived one by one, many of them bearing gifts. I was soon surrounded by my closest friends in Semo. Nita, my aunt, did not speak English so we had only communicated through smiles and gestures which made her gift of a beautiful new sulu, or sarong, so special. Her daughter explained that Nita was very old and would likely be gone when I visited Semo again so she wanted me to have something by which to remember here. Hugging the elderly woman giggle and hearing her giggle under my embrace, I felt a tinge of sadness knowing this would most likely be our last day together.

Miliana, my Fijian sister, was the next to offer a gift. I unwrapped the paper to find a small souvenir canoe, engraved with the word “Fiji.” The canoe was a familiar sight at tourist shops fetching several dollars for its basic design. I looked upon my sister with a mix of gratitude and hesitation. This is a family who could hardly afford sugar and diapers, yet their little bit of income had been spent on my gift. This is the type of unhindered generosity that impressed me so much about the Fijian people.

I could hear the cries of the children coming from afar as tiny legs carried the lively bodies closer to our farewell ceremony. The open door suddenly swelled shut as multiple children attempted to squeeze through the entranceway. Soon there was an assembly of young smiling faces at my feet and a final gift before me. I unwrapped the package to find three more sulus. “For your parents and your brother,” the children informed me. My gaze fell upon the big brown eyes of the children that brimmed with tears of glee and sadness. I held in my hands three new sulus that valued over thirty dollars. I looked upon the children’s parents who had no doubt provided them with the money to purchase the traditional clothing. In my heart I struggled to accept this prize, questioning my worth for such an exceptional gift, and attempting to supply the appropriate gratitude.

As the ceremony continued, another bowl of kava was prepared and my friend Iso arrived with a guitar. The atmosphere of the room was unlike any other gathering. The happiest people I have ever known were fighting looming sadness. I sat and listened to each song as I studied the faces of the family. Noticing a profound change, I realized how truly hard this goodbye was for them. My unexpected arrival had brought a new and wonderful light to the village and I could see that they felt that light was fading. I tried to smile reassuringly, but the sadness in my eyes spoke my true emotion. Looking back I don’t know how I suppressed a flood of tears during the farewell song.

I had heard the farewell song several times after three weeks in Fiji. Each time the song impressed me with its stirring chorus, poignant verses and infectious emotion. Though the words were Fijian, I felt a deeper understanding for them this time. I looked around the room full of family and friends and listened as the song resonated against the room’s concrete walls. My eyes fell upon each face in the room. As the tears began to fall like monsoon rains, I realized that I had come to Semo as a stranger, but I was leaving as family.

Fiji was like a dream for me. My experience not only exceeded my expectations; it filled my heart with love and brought about a wonderful change within me. My time in the islands was nothing short of a miracle. I was blessed each day with the magic of beauty and simple, genuine people. I had found a home on the other side of the world and experienced the unconditional kindness of strangers. Fiji was just the first stop on a six-month journey through the South Pacific, but it was the experience of a lifetime.

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