On July 2, 2014, a little Air Fiji Cessna airplane appears in the distance and then drops out of sight to the bottom of the grass strip to land uphill on the beautiful island of Vanua Balavu. Today is a special flight from Suva, the capital of Fiji. Out hop six passengers, four of whom are John, Camie, Blake, and Nolan Bentham from Victoria, BC – our family. They are carting their hand luggage, pillows (for sleeping on the plane), vegetables and fruit from the Suva farmer’s market, a load of fishing lures, and a fishing rod!
Whew, after traveling quite a distance, they have arrived safely from Canada to join Sea Whisper for two weeks in the Lau Island group. They’re here to visit Fiji’s wild frontier and to explore the remote villages of the northern Lau Island group, and the schools; to learn about the Fijian culture, to play rugby with the kids, to attend village feasts and have a lot of fun and just to hang out as they say! Add to the mix water sports, swimming, snorkeling, wakeboarding and fishing. The dance begins in the sunshine of the villages and the warm waters of the Lau!
Prior to their connecting flight to the Lau, the four of them had spent 1½ days in Suva, the multi-cultural capital of Fiji. There they were introduced to Fiji’s two cultures – Fijian and Indo-Fijian; the students from the University of the South Pacific (comprising twelve Pacific Nations); and the grand municipal market with all its cabbages and kava, among a ton of other farm-market produce.
‘Bula’ is the Fijian ‘hello’. It’s the best known word in the Fijian language.
For the next two weeks, Sea Whisper will be our family home together. We are excited to plan our days and pack them with culture and adventure. We will explore the hidden villages and, with the single word ‘bula’, be adopted by the locals. Soaking up the Fijian friendliness and affection and the scenery that surrounds us will be a world class experience. Let’s get started!
Dalaconi, a Remote Village in Northern Lau
We are off the tourist track! Among 330 islands, most Fijians live in villages with their extended family or clan and a hereditary chief. Blake and Nolan look around and soon realize that life is pretty simple here in the village of Dalaconi. There are no stores, no TV, or recreation centre, only a supply ship stopping once a month with supplies from Suva. These people have so few material things, but they are rich in other ways. In the small village of Dalaconi, everyone helps each other and they share what they have with friends and family.
They are sustained by food sources from the land and the sea, living the lifestyle that their ancestors lived. The men, women, and children are happy enjoying their freedom in this Pacific paradise. When we approach them, their faces are calm, wide, and plain with a wee bit of curiosity as they intently gaze at us. And now after meeting Lionel and me, the villagers are very keen to get to know the family. We are interested in them; they in us. We soon become friends. Today in this small hidden village of Dalaconi on Vanua Balavu Island, we will perform our ‘sevusevu’ and be accepted into their family.
We thought two boys, 11- and 13-years-old, would seem a bit shy and bewildered at the thought of wearing a wrap-around skirt, ‘sulu’, to meet the Chief and perform our ‘sevusevu’, the traditional ceremony for visitors to be accepted into a Fijian village. We give a little briefing on village protocol: no hats, sunglasses, never to touch a Fijian’s head, and sit with our legs crossed in front. We practice: ‘bula’ (hello), ‘vinaka’ (thank you), and ‘goodbye’ (moce).
Off we go with our bundle of ‘waka’ (kava) in hand. The Chief is delighted to meet two smart young lads from Canada. He places them on each side of him in a hearty, warm embrace. But before we begin, John is invited to the back garden to pound the kava with the big steel mallet. The kava root is pounded into a fine powder to be mixed with rainwater and squeezed through a silk cloth.
Back to the ceremony and the silence, sitting cross-legged – boys in their sulus, girls in their sarongs. How smart we all look. The ‘mixer’ of the kava circles, the Tanoa (kava bowl), with his hands indicates the kava is ready to drink. The chants begin and the Chief receives the first offering in his personal ‘bilo’ (drinking bowl made from the coconut shell). Then the bilos are passed around in silence and we all take our turn sipping the muddy, chalky substance. The silence is broken with the ‘cobo’ claps. Everyone is smiling and we now have completed an age-old tradition. We introduce ourselves and talk (talanoa) about our travels. We have enjoyed this uncommon experience. ‘Pa’, the Chief’s sister, magically prepares a luncheon spread of grilled fish, fish with coconut, yams, spinach, and cassava for all of us. We are one family.
We all walked to the school at the edge of the plantations. Here the boys found friendly teachers and the students in their crisp blue and white uniforms. I must say my grandsons also looked very smart in their sulus and Fijian shirts. This is a primary school – grades 1 to 7. Already we recognized Melanie from the village. She was smiling at us and welcomed us into her class. Melanie, who speaks impeccable English, is a very bright 12-year-old and wants to be a doctor someday.
The boys were eager to pass out the pencils, pens, flags, and Canada pins we had brought for the students, all 26 boys and girls. There were more boys than girls. Each student stood up from their simple wooden desk and bench-seat and told us their name and their age. Voila! We were making new friends and were told there would be rugby after school in the small field. Blake and Nolan chit-chatted with the students, making friendly connections. Kids of all ages played in the dirt, on a rough grass field, or the village beach. Even though life is different here, kids are kids and Blake and Nolan found out that there is a common bond between Fijian and Canadian kids.
Walking in the hot sun on the dirt road to the plantations, we notice a mass of vegetation. There are banana trees, coconut trees, papaya trees, mango trees, and lemons, limes, and oranges. The crops on the ground are casaba, yams, taro, and some spinach and pumpkin. And, of course, kava bushes.
Our eyes are dancing in all directions as we take it all in. All of us are genuinely curious about all that we see: The bare-footed male villagers, coming and going on the narrow dirt roads, brandishing their machetes, and the men and women packing large palm-grass baskets laden with fruits and vegetables that they will take back to their village. A horse passes by with the rider balancing a load of wood for the kitchen fires in the village. Our family is humbled by the everyday routine of gathering food from the land and the sea. An indescribable scene.
To be continued…