Nakavika

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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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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They aren't just for kids, part 1

They aren't just for kids, part 1

I'm not talking about Trix cereal. I'm talking about the Nakavika Project classes we've been conducting here in Fiji. Within the first week of teaching the children about English and hygiene/health, the young men of the village expressed their interest in learning what we have to teach. Classes with these boys began immediately and covered such things as vocabulary expansion through spelling tests, explanations of concepts and grammar, the encouragement of personal reading and even explanations on how to manage money wisely. Some of these guys have spent far too much time buying Fiji Bitters for withering stares in Suva.

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The addition and subtraction of lives: Day 46

The addition and subtraction of lives: Day 46

It was odd seeing Garrett in such sour spirits on the road. The intense foot infection he contracted sapped him of his usual energy. I had no idea how to make him feel better. He needed a breather from the project and to relax in Suva for the days between doctor's visits, but meanwhile, the kids were looking forward to more innovation and games in the afternoons. I returned from our medical trip to Suva (where I learned I had at least two bacterial infections battling my body, as well), the same day we left the village, to a very empty house.

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Independence in a Communal Society: Day 39

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Returning after our holiday, we had not only our backpacks but boxes worth of books, school supplies, and ingredients for a week of comforting menu items. Fane gave us no hint as to when she would return to the village, and we were given permission to run her household to our liking, to cook and clean for ourselves. After being dependent on others for a month, we came back with something to prove to the village.

Making the Exotic Familiar

Ten days of tourist comfort reminded Garrett and me how much we yearned for the familiar: reasonably pure water, meals with lots of protein, comfort foods, and clothing that had even the slightest resemblance to clean. Instead of being reluctant to return to the adventure, we decided to find a new comfort with what Fiji provided; however, this also meant we took a turn for the debatably worse. Thankfully we didn't let the others closely witness the change, but we took it...there.

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We became 'Mericans. Throwing our backs into the job of tidying the house, we scrubbed nature raw, paving paradise...in the 'Merican way. Taking the pure produce of the Highlands and frying it into submission, we cooked with Fijian ingredients...in the 'Merican way. Positioning our laptops near our work stations, we performed household duties while bouncing around in shorts listening to Lil' Wayne embrace obscenity...just like the 'Merican way prescribes.

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Occasionally, we had a visiting mother come see what we were up to, curious as to why every piece of flatware spread across towels to dry in the hesitant breeze. The kids were ever-inquisitive, asking to play cards in our main room or shoot pool just to be in the presence of the beats. Most of the villagers found it surprising that we cared enough to scrub the walls and floors until the original colors were visible. It did seem a bit odd to make viciously clean what was nearly submerged in pure nature, but we were tired of being told not to do what seemed natural to us.

We wanted to feel comfortable, like ourselves, and because we had each other, we found an excuse to escape from the Fijian experience in our own American oasis.

Walking a Fragile Cultural Line

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In the mornings, we were summoned by the neighbor children to come have breakfasts of scones, crackers, and tea. Though the fluffy scones in coconut cream were our favorite, we often wanted to experience our own breakfast routine (and infuse secret peanut butter into the menu).

Careful to not be offensive, we often explained that we'd already begun preparations of our own breakfasts of beans or oatmeal, sure to express our gratitude for the offer. The mothers always seemed pensive but understanding of our independence - we hoped our wild excitement for Fijian jobs well done would be endearing to them - but we soon felt them pull away and leave us alone for good.

Coming from a culture that encourages independence, we had trouble understanding why they didn't find our domestic attempts flattering. We mimicked their cleaning patterns and adopted the motherly civilities, like acknowledging everyone by name as they strolled by the house. The 'Merican oasis soon withered and became something akin to a typical household, as my sulu returned and Garrett took up manly duties.

When someone asked for help or a tool, we supplied them with what they wanted. And we continued to eat one or so meals a day at another person's house, in order to be social and imply our continued need and appreciation for their hospitality. We still had a desire to be a part of the communal atmosphere.

However, after a couple days of exercising our domestic capabilities, it felt as though we couldn't win both battles of comfort and acceptance. Our attempts to be comfortable while still submerged in another world were not universally well-received.

The Bi-Weekly Seminars

Even if our Martha Stewart tendencies didn't merit praise, we still thought our new adult classes would give us brownie points. We appointed Wednesday and Saturday nights as class nights, careful to swerve around rugby practices, processionals, committee meetings, and days when people typically went to the city.

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That first Wednesday, we spread the word: Tonight is Q&A Night! We were teaching their children throughout those summer days, and yet most of the parents didn't really know why we were there or what topics we discussed. Additionally, people always seemed to have questions on health, hygiene, money management, and so on.

9pm came and went, and not one adult showed up, even after we confirmed the event with many of the main figureheads in the community. We sat in Fane's freshly cleaned common room, thumbing the little pieces of paper and freshly sharpened pencils we had prepared for the onslaught of questions and opinions. A couple friends stopped by to see what we were doing. "We're waiting for some of the adults to show for our Question and Answer session." The boys suggested we invite ourselves to a kava session, or we wouldn't be speaking to anyone that night.

The adults were busy with kava, as they were most nights. There was no special occasion, simply the occurrence of dusk. We became an afterthought, and though we knew no one meant offense by their absence, we couldn't help but take some. Sick of the grog and its apparently necessary presence at every social gathering, we were not about to speak over the din of a kava party about matters of health.

We went to bed defeated, hopeful for success next time, and comforted by a spoonful of peanut butter in a spotless room.

Urgency in health and a broken hip: Day 36

Urgency in health and a broken hip: Day 36

Even if the only information one is exposed to is from cable TV and the local newspaper, Americans know what makes them unhealthy, and many continue to live as though they don't. 34% of us are obese, so to travel globally and point fingers at people's awareness of their own health seems little hypocritical. However, these informational resources offer very current facts streaming in from the source of the new data. I don't think Garrett and I found a science or health book in the village that wasn't printed in the 1970s or a poster that wasn't peppered with indecipherable vocabulary from a medical dictionary.

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Breaking away to Rakiraki: Day 26

Breaking away to Rakiraki: Day 26

We time traveled. Teleportation was on our wish lists for Santa, but alas, the highlanders don't have conventional chimneys. Instead, Garrett and I teamed up to form our own family unit this holiday season. In desperate need of R&R, we decided to see the side of Fiji that makes people drool: the beaches.

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And a flying fox in a palm tree: Day 25

And a flying fox in a palm tree: Day 25

Our rosy-nose expectations of the twelve days of Christmas made the final week leading up to the big day a little anticlimactic. How do we prepare for the event? What's going to happen? The rest of the villagers were jolly as ranchers but had no advice for us on how to infuse ourselves in the mix...aside from purchasing four sugar sweets and three Fijian hens for every child in town. We learned quickly that the children didn't know of Santa, nor did they receive presents for the occasion.

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Breaking up 2009: Day 17

Breaking up 2009: Day 17

Traditional Fiji is all about formalities, paperwork, and figurative curtseys. Sitting next to the Turaga ni Koro (village spokesman) one rainy afternoon, he invited us to come to the youth break-up party on Friday evening. The official invite came one hour later in the hands of one of his children. On a sheet of college-ruled paper, fit with addresses (and the village homes don't have addresses), full names, and dainty language, he asked us to be "honored guests" at the annual event where the youth members talk about their accomplishments and downfalls.

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Wai wai everywhere: Day 16

Wai wai everywhere: Day 16

The aftermath of Cyclone Mick kept the skies gray and misty for the following three days. Nearby villages sent word of their damages; Nakavika was one of the luckier communities, thanks to their relocation. For decades, Nakavika sat in a nook of a river bend, level with the mighty Luva, until the mid 1950s when a massive storm flooded the entire inhabited plain. The new location had me feeling quite safe - surrounded by the cover of mountains, sitting above the ravines, and relatively out of the bush. Normally Nakavika was a sunny, colorful paradise (forget the swarms of flies), but this week, it presented its difficulties by the bucket load.

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