3.18.13 - 3.19.13
After visiting Nadi, David and I left to take what would turn out to be a very rainy boat ride from Port Denarau to Botaira Resort on Naviti Island (Naviti Island is in the Yasawa group of Islands just northwest of Nadi, Viti Levu). Once we arrived at the resort, we slept most of the day, but only after meeting and saying hello to the staff.
Solo is one of the primary hosts for guests at Botaira, and he worked there when I visited three years ago. Mini is another host who worked at Botaira when I originally visited, and he works primarily at the bar. Both Solo and Mini, apart from one another, did a double take when they saw me. Both of them stopped, looked me in the eye and said, “I know your face.” Both seemed very happy I was revisiting.
Rainy boat ride to Naviti Island
I told Nowah (pronounced Now-wah), the receptionist, Solo and Mini that I planned to visit So So Village to see my host family: Kiti and Kelera. Solo organizes and leads day excursions, and he planned Tuesday to accommodate my request and offered a village tour that morning.
Instead of hiking, we took a boat around the south end of Naviti to circle back to So So Village. The rain from Monday made the trail less safe to walk. It’s a pretty long trek: forty-five minutes one-way. And it’s steep. By boat, it was only 20 minutes.
Before we arrived on shore, I thought about how I only spent 24 hours, if that, with Kiti and Kelera three years ago. And yet, I felt like I was reuniting with family. I was excited to give them the sevusevu I brought. Proud because I was prepared (thank you, Khan). And excited because I really felt the sentiment that the sevusevu represents. Even with such little time shared between us, I have a lot of love for Kiti and Kelera because of the love they showed me when I visited three years ago.
The University of Georgia has a study abroad program aptly named “Studies Abroad in the South Pacific.” You can choose to study in either Australia or New Zealand for four and a half weeks, and then you can choose whether or not to tack on a one-week trip to Fiji. I chose New Zealand (primarily for the glacier hike) and tacked on the one-week stay in Fiji.
My group visited Nadi and then stayed four or so nights at Botaira. We were welcomed with music, hibiscus flowers tied into lays and very happy faces. We learned about the marine protected area in front of the resort, the natural and societal histories of Fiji and native sea life. We also learned about the people.
Because UGA has a relationship with So So Village, each student gets to stay with a host family for one night. The families accept students into their homes, feed them, entertain them and make them feel welcome.
Uttiyo, our instructor who built these relationships with So So and Botaira, brought our traditional sevusevu: a very large bouquet of kava wrapped like we would wrap flowers. This was to ask permission from the chief for our visit. We participated in the formal sevusevu ceremony where the chief blessed the kava and gave his blessing for us to enter his home. We toured the village visiting homes, the community center and the school (which UGA helped to build years before we visited). We raced and jumped and played with the school children. The most memorable event for me, however, was dinner.
Kiti caught our dinner just hours before we arrived, and Kelera prepared the parrot fish fresh with side dishes. We were told not to accept more food than we could finish. In a place where food is scarce, not to finish your meal is rude.
My schoolmate and I finished our dinner and cleaned our plates. (Side note: I don’t like fish as a general rule, but this was absolutely amazing. Freshly caught and cooked just moments after. It was absolutely delicious). After we finished, there was conversation about the last piece of fish. I politely said I was full and didn’t need any additional food. Several minutes passed, and there was Fijian conversation between Kiti and Kelera. Then, Kelera meekly asked if I was going to eat the last piece of fish. I said no that I was full. Kelera asked, “If you aren’t going to eat it, can Kiti have it?”
That question moved me in a way that is hard to explain in words. I was taken completely by surprise. Kiti caught the fish. I was a guest in their home. I didn’t live there. I didn’t work there. I had done nothing to earn that type of respect or that type of offering. But in their minds, that fish was mine. Not theirs. Kiti caught that fish for me. And I had to give it to him for him to take it.
I don’t know if Kiti or Kelera remember that conversation. It probably isn’t memorable to them because they live their lives with that type of generosity. But, I will never forget it.
When I arrived on shore at So So Village this time, I was proud to show David where I had visited three years before. We had been in the village only a few minutes before I recognized Kiti walking several yards away. He and Solo exchanged Fijian words that I couldn’t understand. Solo told me that we would see Kiti later in the tour.
We toured the village seeing the homes and the community building. I pointed out the church to David noting it was Methodist. Solo said there was another church in the village, but it slipped my mind to ask the denomination and why there would be two churches with such a small population.
We ran into Kiti again, and Solo said more words in Fijian and Kiti’s gaze changed from Solo to me. He broke into a surprised, boisterous, giggling laughter. He put out his hand and shook mine laughing and looking at my face with an expression of surprise and disbelief. I was so excited that I offered my sevusevu and was ready to start the reunion right there. He asked if I wanted to wait for Kelera, and I said of course. Solo and Kiti decided for us to visit after we toured the school buildings, so we continued on our way. David leaned over to me as we walked and whispered, “He is very happy to see you.”
We continued on to see the school buildings. We visited the kindergarteners who didn’t say much since they typically learn English in older grades. I wanted to take a picture of the children and the schoolroom, but I was hesitant. Uttiyo asked us a question on the trip that has stuck with me: “How would you feel if people showed up at your home and took pictures of you?” That question gave me a lot of perspective. These are people. I am a guest. And in many cases, I’m only a tourist.
We stood in the schoolroom, a little awkwardly, and I noticed a sign on the board that I wanted to remember was there. So, I asked if I could take a picture. The teacher, who is the only kindergarten teacher in So So, said yes and told us all to feel free to take pictures. I moved toward the sign, and I saw a few children watching the camera. I saw the moment, and I took it.
I asked the kids if they wanted to have their picture taken. Of course, they don’t speak English; but body language goes a long way. I motioned for a smile. A few did. I took the picture and kneeled down turning the camera around so they could see themselves. Never have I heard such boisterous and happy laughter from 4 and 5 year olds. Each one crowded around the camera touching the screen with small fingers pointing out him or herself in the crowd. I stepped back to take a more inclusive picture, and repeated the process. Almost each child took a moment to find him or herself and laughed at the magic they had just witnessed. I crouched there, hoping that moment could somehow not end.
Kindergarteners at So So
We moved to the next schoolroom with older students. The one room was housing two grades around 1st to 3rd grade equivalents. These children were less boisterous but one student took the time to point out to his friend were he was in my picture. A kind gesture, I thought.
One child was writing notes from the black board: 3 + 8 = 11. He also wrote out the words: three plus eight equals eleven. On this same board were more notes “Things in America.” According to the blackboard, we have eagles, red Indians, the Statue of Liberty and spaceships.
What a privileged life I’ve lived to have these things. No, The United States isn’t perfect. No, I don’t enjoy politics. Yes, we are a young country. And who knows? America could be a spot in time on future generations’ histories. And how awful that would be. But it’s happened before. To many, in fact. But how blessed I have been to live in the time and in the place I have. Because, as Uttiyo educated us three years ago, the only difference between me, and anyone who lives in So So village, or anywhere else, is that I was born where I was born, and they were born where they were born. And that’s it.
Blackboard in the 1st-3rd graders' room
We left the school and walked along the pathway heading to the community building. I saw Kiti waiting ahead. Solo told us to meet him at the community building after visiting with Kiti and Kelera. I walked to Kiti, and he looked at me again with that happy, surprised, and disbelieving expression. I was grinning from ear to ear.
We walked to his home where Kelera looked at me the same way. I introduced David as my husband, and they both gasped with huge smiles and welcomed him. Kiti shook his hand. Kelera sat on floor, Kiti sat in a chair and David and I were led to a love seat opposite them. It is disrespectful to have your head above those of your hosts in a Fijian village, so for Kiti and Kelerea to direct us to sit above them was honorable, just as Khan said it would be.
I offered my sevusevu: the kava and the other grocery items not found on the island. Kiti began the traditional Fijian ceremony for the sevusevu, blessing the gift and us. We sat respectfully bowing our heads as they did. I wish with all of me that I knew exactly what Kiti said during that blessing.
We continued to talk for 10 or so minutes. They showed me where I had written my name down in the book they have for UGA students who stay with them. I rewrote my name with my email address per Kelera’s request. Kiti asked several questions that I remember thinking, “What a thoughtful question,” but there was so much going through my mind and body that I can’t for the life of me remember all that we talked about. I think there were several moments when we all just smiled and stared at one another in disbelief.
But the energy in the room, even without the words, I’ll always remember. Happiness, surprise, excitement, love. There was a lot of love. I may have only spent one night with Kiti and Kelera, but there was a lot of love for one another in that room.
David and I left their home, took pictures outside, said our goodbyes and walked towards the community building. Kelera shook my hand when I left and said, “Come back.” All I knew to say was “yes.”
Kelera and Kiti with grandson
View from boat on the way to So So. You can see the village if you look closely.
So So Village
This is the view from the village facing south
Quote I saw on the blackboard