An emotional, highly anticipated return to Nakavika

Bethany meets the children (Nakavika, Fiji)

Buzzing bodies danced and tackled each other at sunset, as we watched the rugby boys rip their weathered jerseys over a try. Little Daiana sat next to me with the same cheeky adorable grin she had at 2 but a very different vocabulary. I sat stunned by the environment I was in.

Finally reentering the dream

Hours earlier, after a sunny and smooth carrier ride, we arrived at the most colorful, secluded place I’ve ever known. So many kids and their mothers stood at the carrier drop-off point, peering in through the legs. I sighed and gathered myself behind sunglasses. I have never felt so grateful to be welcome, so appreciative that others accepted my presence.

Immediately Vita came into view, and my mouth fell open. She was the first to opt out of the handshake/cheek press combo and embrace me wholeheartedly. Then came into sight my first Fijian sister, Bui. I pointed at her reserved grin, which exploded when acknowledged. Every kid’s face around her looked familiar but was now paired with a significantly taller body.

Weiss stood with arms crossed near the edge of the crowd; the last time I saw him was not under pleasant circumstances, tense arguments about rent. I closed the last remaining gap between us with a step and an outstretched hand. He was cordial, though I still couldn’t read how he felt five years later.

A new addition to the beautiful landscape (Nakavika, Fiji)

So many little faces-now-full looked on, fluffy heads-now-firm, that all I could do was look them knowingly and smile. I started to feel the bottlenecking of emotions, an accumulating volume that did not feel manageable for long. Vita led us down the footpath to her home under the piercing sun. So far, we had successfully re-entered the dream world I was still only half-convinced really exists.

Buckling under emotional pressure

Tea materialized at the perfect time, right when I was really starting to get the lip shakes, overwhelmed with the sightings of dear Samu, Vita's son we most often schooled, Paterecio, the 3 year-old we used to watch action movies with, and little Paulo, Garrett's namesake born the year after we left. First, Vita's family members lined the wall and quietly hosted us. Then, other kids would slowly pass by the doorway; they would heard my calls and peeked inside. “I have a photo of you,” became my opening line to all these shy kids. I couldn’t lunge for a hug or try much harder than that; my wiggling chin was getting worse.

Before the pancakes and tea could settle my growing instability, I wandered into the grass and wiped a rogue tear. Almost reaching sanctuary in the town hall, I heard a call by an unknown voice, though clearly I was familiar to him. I wiped my tears aside and shook some more hands. Shake, pull, snap: the Fijian way.

The community hall (Nakavika, Fiji)

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.

I lost my composure and made apparent my inability to cope with the memories this return prompted. A room full of teenage boys looked on as I unsuccessfully tried to wrangle five years of pent-up worries and frustrations. I choked back sobs, held up a finger to excuse myself, and found myself on the rugby field, trying to release the pressure valve, which was hard to do with any privacy. The last time I was here, I witnessed the most incredible sky of my life while crying for a crumbling project. I added to the history of tears in my sulu.

Five years ago, Grandma was sick, and I was here trying to control something. Five years later, my mother’s theatrical pose against a mound of freshly-shoveled snow is still covering a section of Vita’s wall in a community that I had to leave so abruptly. There was a pregnant space I couldn’t handle, where I felt the need to clarify our departure to every kid, to explain my lasting opinions about the project to the village head, to connect with everyone present in town today and let them know I had come back to enjoy their company and revive the connection. What this place inspired in me was complex.

The most beautiful sky sits over this village (Nakavika, Fiji)

Knowing the impact of the media

Semi-puffy eyes returned to finish a much-anticipated cup of tea, and instead of masking the evidence, I just accepted that this village has seen me at my most vulnerable. As I quickly learned, there aren't a lot of well-kept secrets anymore. Bethany and Chaney had finished their tea and were tossing new rugby balls around the room. More and more kids piled in, the students from my pictures. I introduced the iPad to them, with all its swipe-tactic, PhotoBoothing magic, and they giggled at their old selves.

Louie popped into the door frame, an old neighbor and a comforting presence as always, even when surrounded by friends. His stint overseas in the Army clearly made him more confident in his English and more global in his thinking. While serving as a soldier in Egypt, he used The Nakavika Project videos to transport himself back home. Anytime he missed the village life, he would watch the one about farming, swimming, and rugby, featuring his friend that passed away since we've been gone.

It was really moving to know that some of the most frequent consumers of that media are the Nakavika people themselves. It made me want to put more effort into the website's layout. It made me consider how I could further benefit them with the strength of that SEO.

Jumping back into traditions

After washing up before dinner, we walked through twilight to the headman’s house near the edge of the village. For some reason, this was a ritual I remembered well: a donation of kava and a blessing for our time in the village.

Paulo has watched his dad at the tanoa (Nakavika, Fiji)

I forgot how a sevusevu worked: the man of the house manning the tanoa; claps and exclamations in order of guests, elders, and men; coconut halves of either "high tide or low tide" narcotics; and sleepy participants ducking out of succession by laying down with a bunched pillow. It was such a warm welcome ceremony led by Vita’s husband, Josateki, a silent but powerful presence in the house whose attention always felt special and earned. Sleepy men of all ages filled the room, legs wrapped in sulus. Vita took a high tide gulp in our honor.

Before I fell into a deep, narcotic-induced sleep, I returned to my bedroom and tucked the hole-speckled mosquito net under the grass mat bed. My head lamp illuminated the sides of the net, the chunky embroidered pillow, the flowing curtains, and the names of little boys etched with pencil into the wooden walls. I accepted sleep and any inevitable dream, knowing nothing could match the surrealism of returning to Nakavika and being here again under the glowing mosquito net.

Continue reading about the adventures of the next day.