July 30, 2018.
I am still not even sure I’m ready for this. We’ve been in Australia for 2 weeks now but I don’t think I’ve fully left Fiji, in my heart. I think there will always be a part of me, and all of us, in Vorovoro.
Let me try to capture our experience arriving in Fiji…
We boarded our plane in LAX late Thursday night for our long overnight flight. We flew on Fiji Airways and the crew of the plane were all Fijian, wearing a beautiful, colorful print on their uniform and the women wore exquisite flowers behind their ears. The pink and purple lights meant to mimic a sunset were low, and immediately there was a sense of the magic that awaited us in Fiji. There were 2 meals on the plane, movies and games on everyone’s individual screen, the kids all slept, I… attempted to sleep, and when we woke up it was Saturday morning in Fiji. Our 11 hour flight took us 33 hours into the future as we crossed the international dateline! Out the window there was lots of green and brown, there were mountains, palm trees, dirt roads, and there was ocean. When we stepped off the plane we were wrapped in the warm, fresh air. Not hot, or cold, humid or dry, just beautiful. Perfect.
We cleared customs and went to look for breakfast… and found a Burger King. I’m ashamed to say that our first meal in Fiji was at a Burger King… but 4 hungry little bellies needed those hotcakes, and we had a few hours until our next flight would take us north to Labasa. We ate, the kids played on their devices, I napped on a comfy leather chair, and when the time finally came to board the small 40 seater propellor Fiji Link flight we walked out on the tarmac and climbed the stairs into our last plane of the journey to Vorovoro!
Nadi, the international airport we first landed in, was a small airport in our experience. We were not in any way prepared for Labasa! Labasa… was a SMALL airport. The size of… our favorite local Mexican restaurant? A single room, open air little cinderblock building. We stepped into the crowded room, and were greeted with a Bula! (hello) from Mama Jenny, the director of Bridge The Gap program in Vorovoro, and our hostess for the week. Jenny is from Indianapolis and has partnered with the Mali tribe after she brought her family to Vorovoro 15 years ago and fell in love. Along with her was Wati, a Vorovoro local, and Jenny’s business partner in the BTG program. Everyone’s luggage arrives in a glorified wheelbarrow that is pushed into the building for everyone to fish through. Jenny and Wati gather our luggage with us and take us outside where they’ve got 2 taxis waiting for us. We split up and take off down the red dirt roads through 3rd world Fiji, where carseats are not a thought. The cab driver is Indian and explains how the Indians were brought to Fiji by the English in the mid 1800’s to farm sugar cane. They are still, to this day, not considered citizens, cannot own land, yet they make up roughly 50% of the population there. The driving was a little wild, but nothing that scared us too bad so it must not have been much crazier than mama’s Atlanta Mario-Kart driving.
We pulled into a parking lot area behind a grocery store and I’m trying to take in what’s going on, but we get out, Mama Jenny pays the cabs, and we’re standing there surrounded by dirty old cars with people staring at us.
It’s starting to rain, there’s an old broken down boat with a tarp tied to it and women are selling fresh fish under it. The fish are bright colors; beautiful, really. A woman walks her crying child past me with a blanket over his head to protect him from the rain, but other than that nobody seems to even notice the rain.
Finn asks where he can use the bathroom and when I ask Mama Jenny she takes a deep breath and says, “…um, ok! Wati can take you.” So we follow Wati past the makeshift fish market, through a fence and across another parking lot into an open air market. People selling fruits and vegetables, many of which I didn’t recognize, but the colors and smells and the faces of the curious Fijians we walked past immediately captivated me. I was in love already. In the back of the market there was a ticket booth looking stall and Wati paid the attendant some small coins for us to be able to use the bathroom. There was no toilet paper, and no soap, and a rough looking cement basin to wash your hands in. I don’t know why I didn’t put together that Fiji was a third world country, probably because all I’d ever seen of Fiji was the postcard perfect tourist beaches. This was not tourist Fiji. This was every day, real life, third world Fiji. And I was all about it. I knew right there that we were going to have exactly the experience I was hoping for in choosing to come here!
We got back from the bathroom break and the boys were climbing in a boat just 10 feet from the parking lot, down a short dirt path, littered with empty bottles and trash, parked next to a ramshackle fishing boat with several men sleeping or smoking under the tarp hanging from its window.
Our luggage was all loaded in and covered with a tarp and we are introduced to our captain, Api.
Api is quiet but gentle and he drives us away from the town, under low bridges that we almost have to duck under, and about half and hour out a river into the open sea to Vorovoro, our island home for the week.
I can’t stop smiling and waving at every little fishing boat we pass, at every person out the back of their house hanging up the wash. [And they all waved back.]
I am enamored.
I can’t believe what an amazing cultural experience it’s been already and we haven’t even gotten to Vorovoro!
We have to drive around to the ocean facing side of the island, and as we turn the last corner to the village side of the island a long sandy beach sprawls out the length of the bay formed by the gentle curve of the island. 2 girls bounce happily along the beach, waving a warm welcome, eagerly awaiting our arrival. We slowly motor our way up to shore, passing a woman out snorkeling around the bay who pops her head up to welcome us. Api tosses a rope to the girls and their dad and they pull the boat to shore. The kids jump out and that’s the last I see of them for a little while– they were so excited to find instant friends with Imogen “Immi” and Iona, from the UK, and Monte, Venianna, Leon and Joshua– the local kids.
A handful of people help us grab our bags and walk us to our vale– a beachfront, open air hut, that they had finished constructing just in time for our arrival! It had a bunk bed, 2 singles, and a king bed for Evan and I. It was simple and amazing and beautiful!
We are introduced to Max, a fellow visitor to Vorovoro, just backpacking his way around Fiji a bit while waiting for his semester in northern Australia to start. To Gemma, the snorkeler who greeted us from the boat, Imogen and Iona’s mother, and Mike, her husband. They are a fellow Worldschooling family from the UK! They’ve been traveling full time for a year now, and were just the best kind of people. The very best. Cream of the earth type people. We’re introduced to Sibley, Clare and Sydney, Auburn students/grads who have been involved with Bridge the Gap and are back in Vorovoro preparing programming such as this first opportunity for families to visit the island since Bridge the Gap was founded. We’re introduced to Misi, the island chef, to Nemani, Mateo and Becky the rescued fruit bat.
Becky is a boy, but they didn’t discover that until after he was named.
Nemani takes us into the Grand Bure, the largest building in the center of the tiny village where guests to the island stay, and teaches us how to present a Sevusevu to the chief of the Mali tribe- or Tui Mali, as he is called. A Sevusevu is a gift of what looks like a bouquet of dried kava wrapped in newspaper that you present to the chief or the head of the village when you would like to ask permission to visit. Sevusevu means to open or start, so we are taught how Evan is to present the kava to Tui Mali in a very reverent, important ceremony that will take place shortly after our little course. We are given Sulus, floral printed fabric that we wrap like a bath towel around our waist whenever Tui Mali is around or for any special occasion.
We get a quick tour of the island as the sun began to set and the giant fruit bats began to come out. We learned of the compost toilets that we flush by dumping 2 coconuts full of wood shavings down the hole. The showers that you pull a bucket half full of water up on the pulley and hook a loop in the rope to hold it over your head while you rinse in the open air shower and clean with eco friendly shampoos in the trickle of cool rain water. The kitchen, the dining area, the different vales where everyone sleeps, all in a circle around the grand bure, and right on the water. It was so picturesque. So beautiful. So free.
A handpainted sign on repurposed wood nailed to a coconut tree read, “Vorovoro: Hard on the feet, soft on the heart.” Nobody wore shoes.
Everyone wore their sulus to the Sevusevu ceremony, except 3 of the men who wore grass skirts, no shirts, coconut husks on their arms, and black paint smeared on their cheeks and foreheads. They brought the Tanoa, a large wooden bowl used to mix the kava drink in to the center of the hand woven mat, and placed it about 10 feet directly in front of Tui Mali. They sat around the bowl and mixed up some kava in a very ceremonial manner, washing the bowl with coconut husks, ringing the water out of the coconut husks, and we all sat with our legs crossed, silent. Our feet were never to face the chief. They served Tui Mali kava in a half coconut shell. Next they served the wingman, then Evan and I. You clap, or cobo (“thombo”), once to receive a cup of kava, and then three times after you’ve handed back the communal coconut shell cup. Evan crawled out in front of Tui Mali and laid the bouquet of dried kava before him and told him how grateful we were to be guests on his island, and sat back down on the right hand of Tui Mali. Tui Mali then spoke from his heart in Fijian of how grateful he was to have us and the sevusevu ceremony came to a close. From that moment we were officially family. We were one with the Mali people, with the visitors to the island, with Tui Mali and his family. Vorovoro was officially our island home, from then until forever. We are always welcome, and without a doubt, a piece of our hearts will always be in Vorovoro where 1+1=1.
The last thing we did before putting the kids to bed and returning to the kava mat with the adults, was go to the beach with our Worldschooling friends and stand in complete awe at the greatest display of stars we’ve ever seen. On a tiny island out in the middle of the ocean, with no electricity for miles. And not only that, but we were now in the southern hemisphere so it’s a totally new set of stars! The big dipper was tipped on it’s side and we couldn’t even see the North star. We saw the southern cross, the Milky Way was extremely well defined, and the moon didn’t come up until much later in the night. It was just phenomenal. Pure magic.
The kids welcomed sleep with open arms, as soon as they hit the pillow. They had a long day of travel, capped off with running wild on the beach, climbing trees and swinging in hammocks.