Fiji: Ep. 1: Comings and Goings
“... soon all fear and anxiety was lifted from their minds. The future, good or ill, was not forgotten, but ceased to have any power over the present. Health and hope grew strong in them, and they were content with each good day as it came, taking pleasure in every meal, and in every word and song.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
It’s about 9:30 AM on Friday, August 17. I’m sitting alone at a small table outside a restaurant in Denarau, Fiji. The sunlight feels burning hot on the tops of my feet. In front of me is an expansive wooden marina, with sailboats and yachts docked on the still water. The air is hot and calm, and the crowds of tourists, too, have subsided, almost seeming to have left entirely. Although many of the remaining people milling about Denarau look and talk like me—people from New Zealand, Australia, and the United States—I feel the most alone I’ve ever felt.
Denarau is the westernized, developed hub of tourist boating activities on the resort-filled western side of Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest island. It’s a far cry and a short drive from the nearby town Nadi (pronounced nan-dee), where the international airport I arrived at is located and where I just purchased groceries. Nadi is safe and cleaning up their town in an effort to be registered as one of Fiji’s cities, but it is far less developed than what I am used to at home, or the super-fancy tourist port Denarau where I now sit.
I was dropped off here about two hours ago by a taxi driver named Imroz. A friend of Fabio Maia, the student missions coordinator at Pacific Union College (PUC), Imroz had been at the airport that morning at 6:00 AM to pick me up, then take me to a supermarket and get me to the port. I realized as I hesitantly selected cans of beans from brands I didn’t recognize that there was nothing I could do to shake the appearance that I was a young, seemingly spoiled American being dropped bluntly and alone into a completely new world and didn’t really know what I was doing, but aside from explaining that living in Fiji would be different than the ease I was used to at home, Imroz didn’t harp on this. When we got to Denarau, he helped me purchase the right ticket to get to Mana Island and gave me his phone number, offering to help me out or let him stay with him if I needed. His kindness gave me peace of mind when I was tired and dazed from travel and being alone in a foreign place.
Now, two hours later, I think about Imroz as I board a large catamaran-style ferry that will transport me and my luggage to Mana Island. Imroz recommended that I go to the top deck of the ship for a good view, and his recommendation has proven sound. The view is good. I relax a little. I was able to use some paid WiFi at Denarau to exchange a few messages with my family, my sister Shelby assuring me that they would know everything was fine even though they wouldn’t hear from me for several days. Assured in the support of my family, I smile as I sit alone on the top deck of the ship and it pulls away from the dock, Mana-bound.
It’s about 2:00 PM on Tuesday, August 21. I’m in my new house on Mana Island, which I’ve spent four days in now, cleaning it and growing accustomed to it. In front of me are three people I have just met: Sydney, Rafe, and Ethan Foliente. I was expecting visitors tomorrow, but find myself pleasantly surprised to see them today. They’re three siblings who attend PUC and will be part of the school’s annual week-long mission trip to Mana. Sydney lived on Mana for ten months last year, one of three student missionaries sent by PUC to work as teachers at the Mana Seventh-day Adventist School. Today is the first time I’ve met her in person, but she has been hugely helpful in answering my questions and helping me get to Fiji. Rafe, her older brother, was a student missionary in Cosrae, Micronesia last year, and Ethan, her younger brother, will be starting his freshman year at PUC this year. With them is Gilda, an older Brazilian woman who has already started making herself at home in the small kitchen area, arranging a heap of groceries and supplies she has brought for the trip.
I try to explain to them how good it is to meet them all, or to see anyone in general. The last few days I have been fairly alone at the house. With winter holiday still going on, the school has been quiet. I’ve kept busy cleaning the house, which was pretty grimy, and exploring the island a little, but for the past four days I haven’t had any contact with anyone at home and little interaction with the local community. Without gas for the stove, I’ve been eating scanty meals (dry Weet-Bix, some almonds, a few apples, carrots, and cucumbers). It’s a huge relief to welcome these four, and their groceries, into the house.
It’s about 8:30 AM on Wednesday, September 5. I’ve been in Fiji for about three weeks now. I’m sitting at a picnic table on the porch of a small church in Nadi (on Viti Levu, the main island) with several other people. Four of the people I have come to know from my previous trip to Viti Levu: Jerry, Sam, Joeli, and Manasa, friends of Sydney and other past student missionaries. They are Fijian church members who have shown shown me hospitality I’ve only experienced in Fiji. The other people gathered around the table are people I’ve been looking forward to meeting for a while now: Lindsay, Taliah, and Daniela, incoming student missionaries from PUC who will be joining me on Mana. My four new Fijian friends and I just picked them up from the airport, and they seem grateful for the hospitality the guys are already showing them. Jerry picked up some Hot Bread (a local Fijian favorite) on the way to the church, and now he’s cut the warm coconut buns into perfect servings sizes, laid out the hot chicken and beef pies, and is brewing hot tea and coffee.
The girls talk about their flight and ask questions about Fiji, and remark several times at how good the coconut buns are. I assure them that there are many more good tastes to come. We’re supposed to get groceries, exchange money, and set the girls up with internet before we meet the van that will take us to the boat in one hour. I’m a little worried about our timeframe, but Jerry tells me to relax, we’ll be fine. I know he’s right. I take another coconut bun and start to just enjoy being together with good company.
The large catamaran-style ferry pulls up to a long dock at Mana Island. Minutes later I meet the first three of many people on Mana: Sti, a young man wearing a Surviror baseball cap; Adi (pronounced Andy), Sti’s mother and a prominent church member; and Dali, midway through her eight-grade year at the Mana SDA School; three ambassadors of my upcoming community: the youth on the island I will come to call friends, the church that will support me, and the school I will become a part of.
Sti tells me with a cool nod that he’ll make sure my luggage gets from the dock to the school, and Adi and Dali walk me down the long dock, along the beach, and through a narrow passage between a large chainlink fence on the left and a set of yellow buildings on the right: the Mana Island Resort, restricted and exclusive, bordering the Ratu Kini Backpackers Resort, ramshackle and sprawling in its bounds from the beach to the fence to the school. We make our way to the school, situated inland a bit and backed up against a tall hill. The welcome party leaves me at my new house. I settle in, alone.
The Foliente siblings have been on the island for about 24 hours now, giving us enough time this morning to take a long walk over the western end—an activity I had done alone shortly before they arrived yesterday. As we approach the school, we see a group of Americans walking through the compound: Fabio and the rest of the mission trip group from PUC.
I’m glad to finally meet Fabio, another person who helped me get to Mana. I quickly realize there is more to him than I expected. He is good at making friends and getting things to happen (“It’s all about relationships, man,” he says), but he does so sincerely, by telling people about his work and mission, never schmoozing. He tells us a little about his family, his dad mentality sometimes all too clear. When Sydney asks him which rooms he’s reserved at Ratu Kini for the PUC group, he explains, “I put the guys on the left and the girls on the right.” Then, looking up at Sydney with a serious look: “Because you guys are always right.” His expression breaks into an earnest smile. Sydney and I laugh.
Other people in the group, too, start bringing levity to mealtimes we share in the house. Patrick, a recent Walla Walla graduate, unassumingly uses his keen wit during post-meal games of Uno and spoons, making the group’s laughter transform the small house into something more resembling a home. Ericka, Patrick’s wife, and Sean, Patrick’s brother, take turns rolling their eyes or twisting his one-liners back on him. Ericka and Patrick share stories from the hospital they work at in Portland, and Sean recounts stories from his time in Nicaragua studying international rescue and relief through Union College. Sydney, Rafe, Ethan, and I don’t tell exciting stories, but we do make some pretty good Spongebob references. Over the course of the week I’ve had some really good time with the siblings; I think we’re actually friends now. I almost wish they attended Walla Walla, so we could keep developing our friendship there. But that doesn’t matter. For now, good times, together.
Full from Hot Bread and hot tea, the group sets off from the church and down the street, toward a section of Nadi called Namaka. We stop first at the outdoor market I first came to the morning I arrived, where I bought carrots and apples and cucumbers. Taliah peers at the plates of fresh tomatoes ($1FJ [= $0.48US]) and decides she can make some fresh salsa when we get to Mana. We all think that sounds great. Jerry helps us cross the busy street to Vodafone, the local phone and internet provider we use. The supermarket is next, a wild scramble to get what we need. It’s the first time we’re grocery shopping for our shared meals, so I relax even though this grocery run is less structured than I usually like.
We miss our meeting time with the van by a good half hour, but as we load our groceries into the back the drivers don’t seem to mind very much. We’re riding with Nazil for the first time today, someone Sydney had warned me makes 9:00 AM van rides more like 12:00 AM party bus rides by playing loud music and activating flashing LED lights embedded around the interior. She was right. Nazil is a character—at times even a cartoon. Like some Fijians, he clearly has heavy Indian heritage. Through his thick accent his high-pitched voice purrs funny quips and questions to the four of us. He milks his accent and odd charm, a caricature of his own making that he uses to great effect—the girls laugh at everything he says and are clearly enjoying the fact that at 9:00 AM, on their third hour in Fiji, they have found themselves in a van with flashing lights and loud party tunes. It’s not my kind of thing, but it is funny, and I’m glad the girls’ first few hours have been lighter and more fun for them than my first few lonely hours in Fiji. Mostly, I’m just glad to have them here, finally. They don’t seem too bad.
Maybe Nazil senses I don’t know the songs the girls sing along to or I just want to get back to Mana as soon as possible. “Looooo-gan,” he swoons, elongating every vowel and tightly rolling the Rs, “we are just getting staaaarted.” Eventually we reach our destination: a small boat operated by the Ratu Kini backpackers resort that will take us to Mana, our final destination. Although… we are just getting started.
On the fifth day alone in my new house on Mana Island, I decide it’s time to explore the island a little. Yesterday, I ventured up the path near the village to the highest point on the island (a walk I will come to love), then met a group of children who invited me to the north shore, where I experienced Dream Beach and a flat rocky area perfect for jumping into the cool water. Today I set off alone, walking along the south beach, clockwise around the island until I reach Dream Beach, where I cut south on the path that leads back to the school. All told, the walk covers a little over half of the island’s perimeter and takes over an hour and a half.
In my empty house, I snack on a Weet-Bix. I would love a good meal right now. I’m becoming anxious for the group from PUC to arrive, tomorrow, I think. I hope they let me eat meals with them—I assume they will have some sort of organized meals together? I also wonder how many people will come, and if I’ll become friends with any of them. I can only hope for the best. There are many unknowns. I begin to write about them in my notebook.
Outside, a commotion interrupts me—laughs of young children, surprised and delighted. I open the house and see a girl my age walking through the school compound, flanked by children, laughing and smiling and following her every move, clearly admirers reunited with an old friend. Two guys about my age walk up from the beach carrying groceries. I realize what’s happening: a surprise arrival. I walk up and introduce myself, hoping for the best—maybe we’ll be friends.
The Folientes, Fabio, and the rest of the PUC group are gone, despite my request that they stay for several months. Now, after nine more days alone in the house, it’s up to me to greet the three incoming student missionaries from PUC. Their flight into Nadi gets in early—6:00 AM—but this morning I have some local help in the form of Jerry, Joeli, Sam, and Manasa. We’re at the airport. As I walk into the air-conditioned terminal I wonder what my new housemates will be like. I hope we get along. I hope they like Fiji. I hope we can become friends. I spot three girls in a breakfast restaurant waving at our group. That must be them, I think. I walk in to meet them, hoping for the best.
I sit together on a pew in the church with Lindsay, Taliah, and Daniela. In front of us, some of the schoolchildren we’ve been getting to know—those that attend the SDA church and are involved in Pathfinders; Adventurers, the youngest age group. They’re giving a special program at the morning and afternoon services. Their faces beam. Their singing is a true gift. I look at my neighbors. The girls are enjoying it. We’re all happy to be there, to be together. We’ve already had a lot of laughs while we eat and get to know one another, and now, listening to the children sing, we know we’ll be okay. After all… we are just getting started.
Thanks for reading everyone. I had a good time writing about and reflecting on the people and places I've encountered so far. I appreciate you reading it, I know it was a long read. I wanted to do something akin to the way Christopher Nolan plays with timelines in his movies (especially Dunkirk), and it just kept expanding. In my next post, I'll try to just give the facts of what it's like to live here, how the island is laid out, and what I do every day (inspired by Henry David Thoreau's Walden). It should have more photos too. Hope you come back and read that one too.