Acting upon the voiced needs of Nakavika

Acting upon the voiced needs of Nakavika

Returning to Nakavika gave me a chance to see what developed without support from the outside, especially since a big income-generating business left the area. The students had the same lack of confidence in their English skills. The youth group was still in the planning stage of the same Internet center. Vita's daughter wasn't in school for nursing, as was the plan when I left, and was instead living in Suva with a family friend, working to earn money for her entire family.

These weren't just my silent observations but points many people pulled me aside to make.

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An emotional, highly anticipated return to Nakavika

An emotional, highly anticipated return to Nakavika

Returning to my first lemon leaf tea in five years, I happily settled on the grass mat with a Christmas mug. I was nearly out of the emotional woods with this favorite, sweet elixir and a few cold pancakes. I sighed and scanned the room, finally noticing two photos taped to the wall, one of my mother in the snow and another of my grandmother holding my baby niece. I should have just accepted that a breakdown was inevitable.

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Reunited with the Fiji of my dreams in the markets of Suva

Reunited with the Fiji of my dreams in the markets of Suva

I reacted in amazement before the information reached my brain: Siteri was standing in front of me...at the market in Suva...spotted me the moment I arrived with no other knowledge than my flight time. I guess I could have anticipated this crossing of paths in retrospect, because we had been connecting on Facebook, little blue lines coming onto my screen from a dream I once had. Regardless of the plausibility of the chance encounter, I was now face-to-face with tangible evidence of my long and confusing stint in Fiji, a time I still chew on in my mind for more clarity and takeaways. Her name is Siteri, and she is my umbilical cord to Nakavika.

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Six months later: the status of The Nakavika Project

Six months later: the status of The Nakavika Project

I managed to do it. After six months of experiencing, scribing, and mulling over the occurrences of my winter in Fiji, I have finally documented in true form the adventures we had in that dreamlike state of displacement. Post-vacation in the Yasawas, I took my final shower, had my final (and best) meal, and flew home to writhe until I could put it all into words. For those of you who write or express, you know it's painful to have moments go unsaid, life-changing morsels of time without a timeless matter to back them up. I can finally sleep soundly knowing it is all down on "paper," not to mention the project molded into its final form.

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Back to being just a tourist: Day 74

Back to being just a tourist: Day 74

Gasping for relief and peace after leaving all of Nakavika in my wake, I finally turned to my taxi driver, a middle-aged, toothless Indo-Fijian with a cheeky grin ready to start some chit-chat. Once again, I had a conversation with a local that scored me points for America in their eyes, and knowing the consequences of getting too invested and connected, I refrained from supplying him with my phone number, which he requested. I remained kind but cold, occasionally hyperventilating from a hard cry long gone. It was a sunny day on the Coral Coast. I made my way to The Uprising and straight to the bar.

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Standing on shipwrecks and witnessing another: Day 69

Standing on shipwrecks and witnessing another: Day 69

Tears spewed out of everyone's eyes, some came twice to say heartfelt goodbyes, and Abel was left standing on the sidewalk crying, watching my taxi pull away. Our project represented a lot for him, but unfortunately the collaboration couldn't be as we all wanted it to be. Instead we implored him to do what he felt was right, to continue helping the children by leading by example. While I watched him in the side mirror growing smaller, it was evident he didn't believe he could be the man he wanted to be without a little help from those who expected his best.

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Instant withdrawal from the kids: Day 63

Instant withdrawal from the kids: Day 63

One side of the sky was navy blue and brilliant with stars and a succulent moon; the other side hinted at the curvature of the globe with shades of pink. The dew making my feet squeak in my flip-flops mirrored the moisture on my eyelids. There wasn't a wavering thought in our minds about returning to the village, so this morning absolutely marked an end. Knocking on a few doors at dawn, we came across the home where little Weiss was sleeping. It would have been impossible to take our final carrier ride without saying goodbye to our dear friend and favored student of 2.5 months. We hugged him and asked him to tell the other kids we say goodbye and will miss them. He nodded his heavy head, instantly taking the form of an older, mature being with wise eyes that see the realities of a world he can't change.

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The danger of not processing the bad: Day 55

The danger of not processing the bad: Day 55

We all shake our heads at the shoulder-patting, "aww gee"-inspiring cliches from the psychology world, but there's no doubt they come from a necessary concept. When the traumatic, the all-of-a-sudden, the shocking occurs, our heads are wired to be in denial but eventually come to terms with that which changes irrevocably, and death is certainly in that category of things in desperate need of processing.

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The flow of a Fijian funeral: Day 52

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It didn't matter how many times people clarified the schedule for the funeral arrangements, they never began at the designated time. It wasn't about timing, though. It was about flow. Only when one group assembled could they continue with the next event, and with weather that echoed the widow's eyes, every moment was contingent on the skies. Being three foreign individuals unfamiliar with "the flow," we had to shuffle and scurry across the village to capture the sudden moments that would unfold in front of our eyes.

The funeral days commenced, and the village became a complete organism that moved in harmony with all elements. All we could do was observe and document.

My Bovine Faux Pas

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The day Elias returned to the village, the clouds released their girdles and let it all hang out, much like the post-cyclone days of '09. The boys of the village prepared to help truck loads of relatives traverse Namado's cavern, which was slowly being covered with dirt in the first step of building the new bridge. I'm guessing this isn't often said: the Fijian government had good timing in starting this project.

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I was rushed to the scene with camera in hand, having been told Elias was approaching and I needed to capture his coffin coming over the dirt bridge. The crowds coagulated on both sides. The dirt turned to mud. Insects feasted on our waterlogged feet. An hour passed, and the only news I heard hinted the truck carrying his body hadn't even made it past the first bridge on its inland journey.

Desperately grasping for timeliness rather than flow, I left the dripping spectators for my weekly call with home. I dangled my feet out of the doorway, phone to ear:

Mom, there is a cow staring at me right now. She's huge and black and standing in the rain. I think she's about to meet her maker. They already killed one cow today. I taped the whole thing. It was thoroughly disturbing.

...I think she knows I'm talking about her. She looks worried.

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Having already witnessed one cow's demise that day, I couldn't have been paid to observe the second. Those twenty-five minutes of bone crunching and joint popping made me wonder, "When on Earth would I ever need all this raw footage of a cow slaughtering?"

The children crowded around the camera, one holding an umbrella to cover its weather-weary body and all filling my headphones with snickering and foreign whispers. I'm not sure what I was trying to accomplish by putting a wireless mic on a guy doing the killing. The sounds were beyond the worst from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The most upsetting moment came a few hours later, when I was told to join Garrett in the community hall for a communal meal. As I stood at the threshold, slipping off my flip-flops, Garrett tried to get my attention and persuade me subtly to not enter the room. He knew I would have some hesitation with the meal of cow innards he was working on. Confused, I motioned I'd see what Jackie is doing, but the surrounding boys knew what I was trying to avoid.

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We offended them. Abel came running outside to see why I didn't join them, and when he realized what Garrett had hinted, he was thoroughly ashamed. The stress on Abel's shoulders melted into his words, and I felt like the worst guest in the world. Our maneuver wasn't blatant, but the boys knew us well enough by then. I walked away crying, knowing I had let my hosts down in the worst way on the worst day for errors.

I'm no Bourdain or Zimmern. I am far from possessing a truly adventurous palate. To err in this way is among my biggest travel fears.

Elias' Last Hours in the Sun

The village illuminated the Highlands that night. Few eyes rested, as it is tradition to stay awake on the last night with the deceased. I was milked by the day and collapsed in my room to the sounds of singing and bugs buzzing around the lights, while the rest of the community continued to move their minds past shock to acceptance.

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In the morning, Abel brought us to the hall again for a communal breakfast of tea and crackers. I sensed some action afoot, grabbed the camera, and poised myself outside the neighbor's house along with everyone else, just in time to see the casket emerged from its woven bamboo walls. Six of our friends hoisted it into the air, grabbing hold by the mat that cradled the entire vessel.

Stopping their procession in the middle of the village, the pallbearers lifted Elias above their heads, and his family and mourners began to bawl, passing under him in what was surely a monumental moment in the entire process.

Something caught in my throat, from behind the camera. I was witnessing a distant culture reveal itself in raw form. The ladies howled, hands atop their fluffed hair, and I shivered under the sweat coating my body. Wow.

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The service was long, set to the sounds of belted harmony. A ribbon of people followed the casket from the church to the cemetery. Standing in a cathedral of leaves, we watched the widow and her eight children part with their father, many of their cries hitting high decibels.

Vittorina's body heaved and shook against my legs, as she stepped back and sat, watching her cousins, sons, and nephews lower her husband's body into the ground. Feeling her crouching frame against mine, it was unbearable to imagine the pain encapsulated within the adjacent skin. I cried for her pain, for the unfelt sorrow of her youngest children, and the next funeral I know I'd be soon attending.

And with that, it was over. People left the grave-peppered jungle floor to down more kava.

WARNING: Disturbing visuals of a cow slaughter from 1:39 - 2:15.

Any comments, questions, or anecdotes to share about any experience like this, your's or our's? Please let us know.

Hushed voices, broken bones, loud squeals: Day 51

Hushed voices, broken bones, loud squeals: Day 51

I tried to clear it and ended up falling dramatically, my tumble only to be halted by Abel's quick save. My pants ripped, my clothes muddied, and my second toe folded in half under the weight of my falling body. It grew incredibly numb. I cursed the dark skies, but Abel's concern and kind words made me think, "I don't have to get pissed right now if I don't want to." I hobbled the rest of the day, in utter pain, but continued to smile.

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When in Raki, dive like the locals dive: Day 31

When in Raki, dive like the locals dive: Day 31

I had never loved baked beans more than at breakfast that morning. Along with my scrambled eggs and tomatoes, everything tasted beyond satisfying. I was floating. I couldn't even eat the entire plate because my stomach had shrunk to the size of a guava. Ordering water, I received a sweating 1.5 liter of Fiji, no floaties, no mysterious colors, no hurricane residue. I sunk into the plush leather chair, admiring every smooth square inch, until we went for the beach.

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Where Fiji meets ocean [VIDEO]

Where Fiji meets ocean [VIDEO]

The final Fiji experience: a week crisping the skin and exfoliating the feet on Waya Island in the Yasawa chain. Since Garrett had to head home early, I went on my own to relax, do a little Fijian research, and eventually find the best meal I had in three months - at a hostel in Nadi pre-flight home.

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Fiji water [VIDEO]

Fiji water [VIDEO]

When I think of Fiji water, I don't think of rectangular bottles with untouched, artisan liquid inside. I think of the teal waters draped with vines and littered with bamboo shoots weaving through the interior of Viti Levu. We always found new ways to appreciate the water, and playing on this vine swing and wading in the hot springs were no exceptions.

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