At 7:00am, the sun summoned me before it heated the mist to the ground. I watched Samu, Paterecio, and Paulo have breakfast before school: deep-fried pancakes and heavily-sugared tea. The air was brisk enough to merit a jacket, so I layered it over my sulu and headed toward the rugby pitch.
All as it once was
Kids pushed through the mist to school, toothbrushes in hand for the mandatory brushing session. I wandered with iPhone in hand, looking for service, searching for ways to verbalize my thoughts.
After a round of yadra’s (Fijian for good morning) and smiles to those starting their day, I found a little palm tree without dangerous dropping coconuts to lean on while I watched the school children line up. I felt a couple eyes on my back, young men observing a girl writing in her notebook at dawn.
When I returned to the house, Vita was ready with breakfast, tablecloth splayed and spotted with her Christmas-themed cups and plates with donuts and cassava fritters. I found it mysterious that the tea in her plastic pitcher could remain scalding hot long after breakfast finished. Vilive and friends decided to take us for a swim to Wainevesa waterfall and the Namado gorge, a place I hadn’t seen in its true form since the cyclone.
The gravel crunched under my flip-flops, and I remembered the time I broke my toe on this road, rushing to the carrier before dawn, hurdling over road apples. Elias came out of the bushes to join us, too shy to stand close or respond to me with more than a smile.
I missed these kids, the ones that made me laugh everyday in class and took Garrett and I on little adventures to enjoy their home.
We walked past many memories in speckled silence before we reached a little waterfall where an old man was bathing. I hadn’t been to this one before. Elias, now a mature athlete, started planking across the slippery underbelly of the waterfall while other boys crawled to the top for a big jump into the center of the pool.
My heart filled up the moment I turned around to see that Waisale and Petero had joined us. These now high schoolers still wanted to join in the youthful merriment and help me relive my dreams of waterfall and gorge-filled afternoons. Waisale’s voice was much lower, but he still had the same spirit I remember. Petero reserved himself in our presence before, but it was clear he was now a humble academic and athlete who was comfortable in both the village and the city (where he went to secondary school).
I was excited to see Namado as I first experienced it: teal waters, deep for jumping, and gorge walls striped with white rock that glowed at noon. Some of us walked down to wade the river and set our bags on the sand bar. The rest of the adventurers walked to a precipice to jump into the gorge with a flourish.
“This is for you, Lindsay.” Waisale stood at the top of one rock wall, arms folded, and stepped forward into the air. I photographed his rapid descent and felt my stomach uncurl of worry. Before, I feared that suddenly departing their lives without explanation would sever ties or permanently damage our connection to the kids. These fears dissolved by the time Waisale resurfaced from the bottom of the gorge.
Keeping up with the Fijians
After everyone jumped into the depths of Namado, four boys took off on a mad swimming dash for the innards of the gorge, where I once saw thundering rain water crack bamboo effortlessly after the cyclone. I threw my camera back into the dry bag and dove in after them.
Within a few strokes, I could see them again, dominating the pointy rocks in the middle of a teal and white cathedral. I always wanted to be able to keep up with the Fijian boys, but that was never the case before and certainly wouldn’t be now. They swim fast, climb with swiftness, and always try to one-up each other through challenging dares. I can’t pretend to be a Fijian boy; I would surely break a tooth. I gladly accepted every extended hand and followed only where they encouraged me to go. I still screamed at every leap of faith and stalled big jumps in favor of theatrics.
The boys kept swimming further into the gorge, navigating the currents like seasoned pros, until we reached a whirlpool and a powerful waterfall that closed off the cavern with a challenge. The setting was special, most certainly because of the company and circumstances as well as the enviable power of nature. The water surrounding us churned, bubbled, and sparkled with flecks of gold, all while remaining crystal clear.
When the boys realized I left the camera back at the cliff jump, Vilive and Elias raced back to gather it, motivated to have cool photos of themselves but more importantly to enable my continued documentation of dream-like experiences. They know how amazing their home is. Some of the boys went on to tackle the waterfall with Chaney while I stayed back with Bethany to share more stories from our last trip. One story reminded me of the cute song all Fijian boys know:
You may go, go, go You may go, may God bless you You may go forever you may be If you wonder to say I love you because you’ll never find a Fijian boy like me.
Waisale knew this song was a sweet spot for me; he found some driftwood to drum. This was what I pined for since February 2010, that beautiful connection to this natural paradise and its inhabitants, these kids I adored. I had no interest in moving from that spot but only in splashing the clear water, giggling a little, and seeing if they still remembered any of those times we spent together, what I treasured.
My camera could barely capture Chaney and his new friends as they tried to scale the rocks of the waterfall. My focal length couldn’t get the details of boy holding boy pulling Chaney with his foot. Once they succeeded, their hoots reverberated through the gorge.
The trend of attachment
When we finally decided to move on from the magical innards of Namado, four of the boys offered to entertain us with a side trip to a hot spring for some sulfuric face-painting and rock skipping. A lot of hand holding happens when you try to keep up with Fijians, so it felt quite normal to me to pair up with one of them as we traversed the challenging terrain. Near the end of the day’s outing, one of the guys (a 26 year-old who was away at school on my last trip to Nakavika) found a moment alone with me to ask:
Can I ask you a personal question? Can we be friends? Like a girlfriend?
I gave a clear, unemotional no as I washed my feet off in the river.
I had to laugh at his immediate acceptance of rejection, at his use of an exclamation they often pair with tying a successful knot or finishing a sandwich. The laugh also rose from a sudden realization about Fijian men and their impulses. I no longer had to regard this, or any kind of romantic admission in Fiji, as such a complication to be delicately navigated. I don't even think he knew my name.
I washed my feet (and finally my mind) clean and rejoined the pack.
Continue reading about the final days of this emotional trip.