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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Blown Away


You're sitting in your home and the wind starts to pick up. 
It gets stronger. Stronger. Stronger still. 
Before you know what's happening, the whole house begins to tremble and your roof gets whisked away. You cluster together as a family and run to the neighbours, but their house isn't there anymore so you keep running. The community hall... 
You find solace for a second, but the concrete starts disintegrating so you huddle together again and run for your lives. The only protection you can find is a uprooted tree. With eight of you hiding in it's roots, you know your chances are slim...


You heard there was a storm coming, so you'd battened down the shutters... Three families sit inside sipping sugary tea and eating custard tart (a national pass time). The rain's bucketing down outside, but your house is strong. You think you're safe. In an instant water comes gushing through the living room and you're in it. Struggling for breath you follow the flood, fight the currents, even though you can't swim...   


The walls are shaking and you have no idea what to do and nowhere else to go. You sit and sing and pray. You've got all generations of the family in your house and you know that at any second you could all be face to face with Saint Peter or whoever it is that controls Heaven's admission list. For hours the wind pounds on the door and roof threatening to come in. When nobody answers, it leaves, only to return again with more force. When it's finally safe to peek outside, you find you're the only house left standing...


So there I stood in Fiji, eager to explore.  I had a vague notion that I'd be meandering through a cyclone and tourist destroyed, money expecting, land of smiles and tropical beaches.  I thought a week would suffice. With all my life belongings stuffed into my backpack, the infamous bear on my side, and a friend from New Zealand, we set off to see what Fiji was all about. 


A friendly lady on a bus told us to come and see her village. We had no idea where else to go, so we did. We adorned ourselves in sulus (sarong skirts), covered our shoulders and carried our bunch of dry kava roots to the chiefs house [as is custom] where a ceremony of clapping and mumbling ensued before our sevusevu (gift) was presented and we were welcomed as villagers. We ended up living with Sara and her family for three days, being fed and catered for and blessed with so much that we felt we had to leave - we'd arrived with bags of vegetables but they gave us everything they had and wouldn't accept a thing. I'm not very good accepting anything from anyone - so we fled Vatu Lele.



Not wanting us to go astray, our exceptional hosts called up their family near Labasa and told them we were coming. We arrived with even more vegetables, and a bigger bunch of kava. Malau was tucked away between an oil refinery and a sugar plant. The kids played with whatever they found washed up on the shores (crabs, syringes, diapers...). When we arrived we were immediately treated like royalty (only instead of a red carpet, we had to make do with mats). We were living amongst the poorest of the poor and here they were lavishing us with luxuries. It was impossible to do anything without having 7 or 19 children hanging off your arm. They all wanted to be your friend. They all wanted to bring you fresh coconuts off the highest palm trees. They all wanted to make sure your daily hug quota was filled. If I went to the bathroom, they would wait patiently outside; and when I braved the shower, they'd poke their eyes through every gap in the corrugated iron walls. In the morning I'd see their shadows lurking around my tent waiting for any sign of life. They had the most beautiful voices and, with a diet of mostly sugar, more energy than the power station down the road. Again the village gave us everything and took nothing in return. Again I felt like I had to flee - my heart would burst if I had to accept any more generosity!

We worked our way to the edge of Vanua Levu (The second biggest island in Fiji)  being given more than we bargained for every jolt of the way. We began to see more and more evidence of the cyclone as we traveled East - destroyed homes, derooted palm trees, road works... and, when we ferried over to Taveuni, it was even more blatant. 



We partnered up with another friend and were trying to work out how to avoid resorts and learn more about village life as a threesome, when some friendly ice-cream licking ladies invited us to follow them home. We followed them all the way to their family reunion on a neighbouring island and for days we were fed to the point we thought we may actually burst 
(Fijian facts:
There is no limit to the amount of food a human can consume.  
The average cup of tea must contain at least three heaped table spoons of sugar.
Oil is a food group. Sugar is another. All meals must contain a 50/50 balance of the two.)
Custard Tart: a normal dinner in Fiji

One of our seven daily feasts
Using Naselesele as a base, we ventured down South, stopping to climb a volcano (which, thanks to Winston, became a 14 hour machete-a-path expedition of epic proportions) and explore beaches; constantly growing our Fijian families with people taking us in for a couple of nights and spoiling us rotten, then crying when we left - begging us to stay longer.

Climbing to Lake Tagimaucea
Just a few of the kids in Navakawau
"Should we grab some groceries first?" I asked as we clambered on yet another bus. "Nah. everything we bring gets given back to us and I'm tired of having things go off in my pack. There'll be a shop anyway..." We weren't sure where we should be going, so we asked the bus. There was a unified agreement amongst the other passengers that we should be going to Navakawau. So we did.

We arrived in the dark, and Mella, who I'd sat next to on the bus, told me to follow her. We walked through a tented camp and into her brother's home - which was reconstructed from debris to a third of its original size - and now housed two families with nine children. "Winston stole our house" she laughed. They shared their evening meal with us and poured us tea. Apart from being the worst hit village on the island (25 of 135 houses were salvageable), the chief had just died; it appeared that our timing couldn't have been any worse. 

Sat in their China-Aid tent (they wouldn't let us pitch our own tents in the dark) we cried. Here we were in the worst of the worst disaster zone, and we'd arrived empty handed. We didn't know what to do, so we escaped into the land of books.

In the morning we were taken to the [former] chief's brothers to present our sevusevu and we felt seriously sheepish. With the death of the chief, others were lavishing the village with gifts of whale bone and pigs; and here we were with a measly bunch of dry smelly roots. They accepted us anyway. We wanted to run as far away as we could, but we didn't want to offend anyone, so we decided we'd stick around for a day.    


We stayed a week. We somehow managed to stop looking at what the Fijians didn't have and instead saw what they did have. Winston stole their roofs. Winston stole their houses. Winston stole their power, their water, their family heirlooms... but Winston left them with their lives, and they knew how lucky they really were. Watching how they worked together to constrct shelters and do food preparations for the ten day funeral made me realise that Winston had actually bought them closer together.

Preparing the lunch time Casava portions
It didn't take long for us to find roles in the village. There was always something to do (whether it be construction, vegetable chopping,  or making thousands of pancakes[which I did for three days straight]). In fact, I blended in so well that most of the funeral guests spoke Fijian to me. Everyone had stories [similar to the ones above] to tell about how they had survived the cyclone. You could see why they believed in God. Everyone had something to teach, and at the same time, everyone wanted to learn what they could from us.

Funeral clothes... looking more Fijian than ever!
I left not feeling like I'd pillaged the village, but with a renewed soul and a motivated outlook to give and lavish love and to do something meaningful. I carried this with me to further islands and back to Savusavu where I met up with another old friend who was sailing out to rebuild communities with Sea Mercy... Of course I wanted to join...

Above and below: Just some of the joys of off and on-loading building materials for very remote islands.

Before: The begins of salvage work on Makongai
After: The first of the rebuilt homes
Just a few of the Sea Mercy volunteers in Makogai
If you read my last blog, it was a tale about how I got lost in the world. Really I found myself in Fiji. The people are the friendliest I've ever met and the smiles are by far the biggest. The generosity of the villages has been unparalleled. But it's also been one of the most difficult countries to travel. Every stop I've made has made me look deep within and showed me things I didn't want to see. It's challenged me about my own motives. It made me learn how to accept things. It's a country that has wrestled with my heart and my soul and bought me out with a new outlook on what really is important in life.

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