Living with The Firewalkers of Fiji

Journey to Beqa- Land of the Firewalkers

boat-and-beqa-village

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.

village market

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.

fijigroceries1

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? 

salasleepingboat

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.

dakuimbeqa

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.

Wading through the water

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.

cheifly-house

27 Comments

  • Reply

    Say Gudday

    February 13, 2013

    Reblogged this on Say Gudday.

  • Reply

    gene3067

    February 13, 2013

    There is no way I could sleep on the boat either.

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      February 14, 2013

      Haha! It wasn’t exactly a cushy boat either. But I have to tell you… Fiji has really expanded my comfort zone! Who knows… maybe one day you’ll see me sleeping in the subway. And if I’m lucky, you won’t think I’m homeless. =)

  • Reply

    comicsmaniac

    February 14, 2013

    All your photos look gorgeous! I hope you found closure in the village. This is definitely an experience you can’t find in a guidebook!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      February 14, 2013

      Thank you! I ended up taking Talei’s camera with me because her battery life lasted longer. It was a little strange having it, but man did the photos come out beautiful! I can’t wait to share the rest of the adventure with you! And who knows? Maybe one day Lonely Planet will be asking me to write for them about it. =)

  • Reply

    Jconowitch

    February 14, 2013

    What a beautiful spot, thanks so much for sharing Hilary! Can’t wait for the rest of the story girl!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      February 14, 2013

      Thank you so much, friend! I appreciate you being patient with me while I’ve been writing it. =) I will try not to make you worry again. But seriously, how lucky am I to have such nice readers like you?

  • Reply

    Erica

    February 16, 2013

    Absolutely beautiful. This is such a unique and special experience and feel very fortunate that you’re sharing this with us. <3

    Sleeping in all modes of transportation is a skill I acquired in Tokyo, and one that I'm trying to rid myself of on the NYC subway.

  • Reply

    Hilary Billings

    February 18, 2013

    Thank you so much, Erica! I am fortunate that you are following the journey and willing to read about my experience. Lots of love to you!

    And that made me laugh. I can see why that would be a concern! I was so tired once I fell asleep in an art gallery on a sofa. My friend scared the crap out of me when he woke me up. But at least he was a familiar creeper and not a creepy stranger ;)

    • Reply

      Erica

      February 18, 2013

      I’ve also already had past experiences of falling asleep on the bus in Seattle and having to walk a good mile because of it… yet I continue to pass out the second I board any mode of transportation. Except when I’m driving. I power through that.

      • Reply

        Hilary Billings

        February 20, 2013

        Haha! Happy to hear you’re not asleep at the wheel. =)

        But I totally understand. Sometimes it’s a pain to fly with friends because they want to chat and my body is trained to sleep once we take off. I end up coming off rude. Thanks, classical conditioning.

        • Reply

          Erica

          February 22, 2013

          Haha yeah I’ve had that happen a couple times, though now I just make sure to warn my flying buddies that a fastened seat belt = pass out for me.
          I also sat next to this guy once who I chatted with a little bit when we first sat down. He then proceeded to talk to me every time one of my eyes looked even remotely opened. Deeeefinitely had to feign sleep on that flight.

          • Hilary Billings

            February 25, 2013

            Ugh, that’s the WORST thing about being forced to sit next to someone. I don’t mind talking but I feel like there’s a time and a place. Just because I HAVE to sit next to you for fourteen hours doesn’t mean I want to spend it talking to you… But it’s your fault for being pretty. He probably just wanted to flirt. ;)

          • Erica

            February 25, 2013

            Exactly, precisely the first and last 5 minutes of a flight, unless said neighbor is very interesting. Like that time I sat next to a pilot and kept begging for more stories.

            You’re too nice. Let’s go with the more believable he was bored and chatty.

          • Hilary Billings

            February 27, 2013

            Haha! If you say so… I still say it’s your own fault. ;)

            But yes, I agree! The five minute grace period is acceptable. Maybe I should write a ‘how to behave on a flight’ post… It makes me sad that people need coaching on this, but maybe it’ll help?

          • Erica

            February 27, 2013

            I was drafting one after my last flight of death, though I feel like I have plenty of passive aggressive posts on my blog as it is. Perhaps if I give it some time… heh.

            Maybe we could make a compilation post? One tip from a handful of travel bloggers?

          • Hilary Billings

            March 3, 2013

            Heck yes! E-mail me!

  • Reply

    youngjeninspats

    February 21, 2013

    beautiful! Are you still in Fiji or posting these after the fact?

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      February 21, 2013

      Thank you so much! I am onto the next adventure, but still have much to share. =)

      • Reply

        youngjeninspats

        February 22, 2013

        Where to next?

        • Reply

          Hilary Billings

          February 25, 2013

          It’s up in the air. Potentially South East Asia. China in particular. I’ve got to contact some sponsors and see what we can arrange. Why, did you have anything in mind? =)

          • youngjeninspats

            February 27, 2013

            Tokyo. If you go somewhere crazy remote, though, let me know. I’m taking my little nephew’s stuffed dog around the world and started a blog he can read of the adventures (it’s a good excuse for me to do something cool for him and to get posting again…I’ve been to 7 countries since I last blogged. god.) Anyhow, if you end up somewhere super remote, I might ask you to take a photo of him there (the dog, not the nephew :-)). I’d get him to you by post. I figure between me, my friends and my contacts, we can get him to most of the world. You don’t need to promise anything though!

          • Hilary Billings

            February 27, 2013

            I would LOVE to do that with you! Let’s make it happen! I’ll let you know when I figure out my travel plans. I’ve got tons of blogger friends who would love to help with this mission. Reminds me of the traveling teddy story from a few years back… a young girl with cancer couldn’t travel so she had her bear go from friend to friend to friend and get mailed back to her after a certain amount of time. I love that kind of stuff. =)

            And make sure to send me the blog info! I’d love to read it!

          • youngjeninspats

            February 28, 2013

            awesome! I’d ideally like to do most of the traveling myself, but there are so many remote places (or places I just really don’t want to visit) that I’ll need to enlist some help :-) THANK YOU! the blog is http://www.travellingteddybear.wordpress.com . It’s brand new, so there’s only one real post so far (my brother took a pic for me in NYC before sending him on to me…first big one will be end of the month when I go to Geneva if the post office gets it here on time).

          • Hilary Billings

            March 3, 2013

            Yeah! And let me know if you want him to come to Vegas. =)

            Checking it out now!

  • Reply

    […] the other boat that left for Beqa the same day we did?” I nodded, remembering very well our journey to the island. We’d seen a tiny boat overloaded with supplies and people. “It’s gone […]

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About Me

Hey fellow adventurers, my name is Hilary! After being rejected from grad school, I took off on a solo journey around the world. Now I constantly challenge myself to take on new experiences. This blog documents my journeys from Europe to Fiji, swimming with sharks and living with tribes, to becoming an accidental beauty queen and working for one of the top national media outlets. If you like what you're reading, please subscribe! Here's to the next great adventure!

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