Ro Mereani paid the cab driver. I stepped out of the vehicle and stretched. It took longer than expected to get to the village of Vanua— the port for all the boats leaving to Beqa— but we had finally arrived. We were one step closer to our destination, to the home of Talei’s people, and her final resting place.
I looked out past the shoreline to the ocean. There, only a few miles offshore lay Beqa- the island shaped like a sleeping dragon. Even on a sunny day like today it stood shrouded in mist. I had to laugh at nature’s ability to make its own metaphors.
I breathed in the salty air and turned to examine the village market sitting in front of us. It was rustic in comparison to the market back in Suva. Barefoot villagers gave me funny looks as we walked by. White girls didn’t often journey this way. Lucky for me, I’d become an expert in making locals uncomfortable. I smiled and greeted them in Fijian. I then stepped in stride behind Mereani, not waiting for a reaction. I already knew I’d made them do a double-take. I couldn’t help but smile.
I had to give myself props. I was getting better with the language and even more comfortable with the customs. And since I was feeling sure-footed, I took to venturing out on my own more often. I noticed myself mentally challenging each hustler or vendor sizing up my fair complexion on the street. Felix had taught me how to yell at them in Fijian and I was DYING to try my new skills out on someone soon. So far no takers. It was only mildly disappointing.
But that was Suva. The rural villages were different. Each village had laws unto itself. Plus, they weren’t nearly as accustomed to tourists as the capital. Beqa even less so. As far as I could tell, visitors may take a boat out to Beqa to visit the hotel (that actually stood on land owned by Ro Mereani’s family) but they never ventured farther than that.
Ro Merani made quick work navigating through the market and out to the paved road. Across the way stood a supermarket and a furniture store. I followed her into the QuickMart.
“They don’t have much in the village so we need to bring all of our own food and supplies, as well as our gifts to the villagers. Since we are chiefly blood, they expect us to bring them things. Kind of like camping, eh?” She winked at me and we shuffled through the aisles, stacking heaps of cans and carbs into our cart.
Once we paid for our groceries we headed down to the docks. D’Tui, Sala, and Ro Mereani’s nephews were already there. They took our bags and luggage and loaded them into the belly of the village boat. The boat resembled more of a giant canoe than a traditional boat. Sala’s mother and Talei’s grandmother sat on the dock with D’Tui. Sala’s mother smiled warmly at me. “Are you excited to finally visit the village, Hilary?”
I smiled politely and nodded. “Absolutely.”
But the truth was I didn’t know if excited was the right word. Relieved would probably be better. After all, visiting the village of Dakuimbeqa on Beqa Island had been the initial reason for my visit. I wanted to go see Talei. I wanted to see her home. I wanted closure.
I hadn’t been sure it would actually happen. After all, this trip had taken quite a turn with the funeral of her father. But we were doing it. We would spend the next few nights in the tiny village home of the Firewalkers. I didn’t know what to expect (the guidebooks didn’t have much to say about it- I’m guessing Lonely Planet never got an invitation), but whatever it was would surely be memorable.
It was time to go. We piled one-by-one into the village boat. The locals kept their balance gracefully as they stepped into our rickety vessel. I, of course, was less nimble. I stumbled onto a bench, smiling sheepishly at the village woman sitting next to me.
Across from us, another village boat loaded with a smaller group of passengers. Their boat was motorized and made of plexi glass. I was a little jealous of their set-up. Mereani leaned over and whispered to me. “They have too many supplies with them. Their boat is going to take on water.”
I shrugged. “It looks like they know what they’re doing.”
She gave me a look but didn’t say anything else. The motor revved on our own village boat, drowning out any conversations the locals were having. We putted our way out of the canal toward the ocean.
I bounced in my seat for awhile, watching the shoreline speed past us, anxious to arrive at our destination. The villagers all settled in around their possessions, curling up to take an afternoon snooze. How could they sleep at a time like this?
It took me about two hours to figure it out.
Turns out, just because you can see your destination, doesn’t mean you’ll get there any faster than you’re moving. We were so close and yet so far away all at the same time. Rate is equal to distance over time… and our resulting speed was turtle slow. But that’s island transportation for you.
The boat curved along the island, heading West into a cove. Just to our left I could see waves breaking on what must’ve been a coral reef.
Ahead of us lie the village, the church as prominent as I had imagined, with sunlight glittering off the top of the trees. My heartbeat quickened.
Sala pulled out her braid in her hair, letting it fall to her shoulders. She did the same to D’Tui’s hair. “Women are not allowed to wear their hair up in the village,” she explained.
I had a feeling I was about to get a big culture shock but couldn’t be sure. After all, I’d been in a similar environment for awhile, right?
The boat owner cut the engine, letting us float toward the beach. Villagers hopped out, swimming alongside the boat, guiding it in closer. I was instructed to stay inside. I couldn’t believe what I was watching. Villagers, now completely soaked, pulled and pushed the boat to anchor a few hundred feet from shore.
“Okay,” Ro Mereani said, spryly leaping out of the boat and into the shallow water. “Now your turn. Grab your things and put on that sulu. Time to wade in.”
And so we did. Carrying my bags and gifts for the villagers, adorned in my village sarong and hair down and long, I waded with the others to shore.
There was something very purifying and ritualistic about this act. It felt like the island was asking for its own offering… If you wanted access you had to be ready to work for it. No visitor could enter without getting a little wet.
I dropped my bags on the sand. My legs dripped with salt water. The material of the sulu twisted uncomfortably around my body, clinging to me with its wet fabric. A breeze fluttered my hair and I closed my eyes. I heard the waves crashing out on the coral. The church bell tolled. A neighborly goat brayed for someone to feed it. D’Tui cried and giggled as she introduced herself to the village children. The air smelled sweet.
I opened my eyes and looked around. Even though I’d just arrived (in a fashion that I was all but used to), it felt like home. This felt right. And for the first time in weeks I sighed out my fears.
I didn’t know why Talei had brought me here, or what she had in store. But whatever it was, I knew it would be memorable.
Sala called out to me, waving for me to come to the house. I smiled to myself, picked up my bags, and opened the door.