“Bula vinaka, Hilary. Welcome to Fiji. Is this your bag?” Before I could answer, Felix had swung my thirty-some pound backpack on his shoulders. I opened my mouth to protest but decided against it. My body was weary from the day’s travels and the humidity made my clothes cling to my skin. If he wanted to haul my baggage (pun intended) he could go for it. I stuffed my sweater in purse and followed his quick steps toward the center of town.
We had barely walked a block when buzzing thoughts took over my brain, whizzing in-and-out of my conscience a million miles a minute. What was I supposed to say to this man? I’d barely said a hello and thanked him for his welcome before we took off in the direction of what I think is our next leg of transportation. Were we supposed to talk about Talei? Were we supposed to be old friends? We had shared many an e-mail or ‘like’ on Facebook, but I think this made us far from chummy. What did he think of me? I had traveled 8,000 miles on my own dime here to meet the family of a woman I barely knew, so clearly he must see me as a loyal person. And why did his thoughts of me matter so much anyway?
I looked around at the unrecognizable faces passing me by, bumping into my shoulder and giving me suspicious stares. I walked a little closer to Felix.
But I didn’t feel the same ease I felt around Talei the first night I’d met her back in Nicaragua. Then again, we had been in neutral territory. I had never experienced a mosquito bite before (buggers can’t survive in the desert heat) and was inspecting the welts on my leg with all the drama of a city girl. Talei laughed at me and my concern and then taught me a ‘slap and flip’ technique. Plus she had just been so easy to laugh with. Her constantly shifting British/Australian/Fijian/Canadian accent made her sound like the world’s worst actress, but the truth was she was just a product of her many environments.
Felix’s voice wasn’t nearly as eclectic but he retained the same level of regality she’d had in hers. Felix was taller than Talei but not by much. He looked younger than I thought he’d be (I couldn’t begin to tell you why I’d previously pictured him sitting on a porch in a rocker smoking a pipe. He was only thirty, for goodness sakes). His hair was the same tight curly consistency and he shared Talei’s stunning espresso complexion. I wondered what Talei’s personality was like when she was around family. Did they fight? Did they laugh? Did they play mean practical jokes on each other? Had they been close? I felt a pang of guilt that I was here but knew none of these answers.
The thoughts were fluid but the questions sat motionless in my mouth. Luckily there was no need for me to force them out; Felix was oblivious to the waterfall of curiosity going on in my brain and was happily filling the space with his own commentary. “So this is Suva… it’s not much to look at but it’s home.” My gaze drifted at the surrounding buildings and up the side of the hill where houses sat stacked on top of each other like Legos. “This is the largest city in Fiji with a population of about 100,000.”
I shook my head in disbelief. Suva was the largest city in Fiji? By American standards this barely constituted a town. Las Vegas alone was home to more than twice the population of all 333 Fijian islands. Australia had been a little sweeter in warming me up to the change but it was clear now I was not in Kansas anymore.
A man far behind us started shouting at me. “Miss! American Miss!” I turned to watch him run at me. “Where are you going, miss?” He asked breathlessly. I gave him a confused look. Felix turned and yelled something at him in Fijian, shooing him away with his hands. They argued briefly and the local turned away defeated.
Felix shook his head in annoyance. “You’ll have to watch out for those guys. They’ll try to haggle every dime out of you since you’re clearly not from around here.” I looked at the pale pigment of my palms reflecting the sunlight and started comparing it to the darker and smoother complexions of those that passed us by. If this was Munchkin Land I was Dorothy. My physical features alone were enough to scream, ‘Intruder!’ What would this mean for my time here? As if reading my mind, Felix offered a simple solution. “Just don’t make eye contact and pretend like you know where you’re going.” I nodded, trying to wipe the dazed and confused look off my face.
“So we’re going back downtown through the market to catch the bus home but we have to make one stop first.” I nodded again, trying to make sense of my surroundings. There were just so many people. So much noise from the cars and cabs honking; buses giving off noxious fumes and dark clouds of smoke. Women dressed in traditional Indian saris walked among Fijians wearing sarongs and t-shirts. “We have a large East Indian population here,” Felix explained.
Felix walked quickly. I was surprised at his agility while carrying my pack, feeling jealous that he had so much energy. Up ahead I saw rows and rows of fruit stands, flowers and vegetables. “This is the local market, one of the main sights of the city.” And it was a sight to behold. Local farmers and villagers swarmed the stands, haggling deals and trading goods. I’d never seen so many bananas readily available in my life. Once again, I had people calling at me, eyeing me with suspicion. I gulped, realizing this might become a ‘thing’.
I followed Felix upstairs to the herb and spice floor. The combination of all the fresh greens made for a musky smell. Roots dangled from the ceiling. Salesman measured out spices carefully with traditional scales and traded colorful money for small paper sacks of goods. I tried not to get lost as Felix wove in-and-out of the tables with precision. He finally stopped at a stand labeled only with the word, ‘waka’. I looked around, seeing similar signs propped all around us. I didn’t know what made this one so special, but the keeper gave a friendly toothless smile and immediately went to work on measuring and mixing fine grey powders.
Felix turned to me. “He’s the only guy in town who makes the grog strong enough.”
I was finally able to muster up more than a head gesture. “The what?”
“You’ve never heard of grog? Kava? It’s made from waka- the root of the pepper plant. You mix it water to make a common celebratory drink here in Fiji. You are going to present this as your sevu-sevu to my mother.”
Now I was really lost. “My what?”
Felix gave a hint of a smile out of the corner of his mouth, pleased to share this teachable moment with me. “Your sevu-sevu. It’s a way of saying thank-you for her allowing you to stay with us. If she accepts it, then you are welcome. If she doesn’t, then you are not. It’s a customary Fijian thing.”
My mind went into catasrophizing mode: Say what? She may not accept it?! Oh God… I came all this way… What if I didn’t buy enough? What if she didn’t like me and my reflective complexion? What if-?
I paid the man for my sevu-sevu. Felix led me back down the stairs, out past the mango stands and to the bus station. Hundreds of buses of every color loaded and unloaded swarms of people. Music blared from random stereos, either slung over someone’s shoulder or mounted on the ceiling of the bus. He weaved his way through the extra long parking spaces until we arrived at one that would supposedly hold the bus taking us to our destination. “If you’re ever in town alone and need to get home, make sure you come to this stop. This bus is the only one that will get you there.” I looked around for any signage but there was nothing that differentiated this parking space from the rest of them. And the overhangs went on for rows and rows and rows. How would I ever find this spot on my own?
Our bus arrived, as noisy and brightly painted as the rest of them. Felix led me to the back where we squeezed onto a metal seat. The buses here reminded me of the ones used at public schools back home, except this one didn’t have window panes and was a softer shade of yellow. I tried to get comfortable as we started our journey up the hillside.
I was still at a loss for how to begin conversation with this man. While my favorite and unoriginal Joey impression, “How you doing’,” was my go-to in moments like this, it also seemed wildly inappropriate for the circumstances. Luckily Felix was warm and chatty, pointing out notable monuments as we passed by.
“Fiji is a beautiful place,” he said happily. “I’ve lived all over the world but prefer it here. The people are friendly and welcoming.” He gave that wry smile again. “Well, unless you offend them. Then they’ll most likely do some voodoo and try to run you out-of-town. You have to watch out for that.”
I gulped. I had heard Fijians were an especially spiritual group. I hadn’t expected to have to worry about offending them. Crap. This was on-the-job training. Except this time if I messed up, I might get hexed. I felt more nervous than ever.
Felix brought me out of my thoughts. “So when you meet my mother, be sure to tell her that you are very thankful for her allowing you to come here and to present your sevu-sevu. The gift is kind of meant as a peace-offering. If she accepts it, she’s giving you a blessing. By doing so, all of our ancestors and those that have passed on are agreeing to watch over and protect you from any harm on your journey.” I listened intently, wondering if I should take notes, fearing improvisation. He paused for a moment as if pondering something before muttering, “I suppose that would include Talei too, now.”
My heart lodged in my throat and it took visible effort to calm myself. As frightened and overwhelmed as I was, I couldn’t imagine what this family had been through over the past few months. The loss of a daughter, a sister, an aunt. The youngest of their family. The only girl. A woman who had barely turned 25. A well-educated, beautiful, and kind woman at that. I tried to mouth the words, “I’m sorry,” but I couldn’t get them out. I felt sick.
Our bus wound up the side of the large hill, stopping momentarily to let off passengers and take on new ones. I tried to get some geographical bearings on my location but with every twist and turn, I was getting more confused. How would I ever learn to navigate my way around?
After about thirty minutes, we got off the bus. “Our house is just down this way,” Felix said started to head down a slope then stopping abruptly. “But wait, did you bring something for my daughter?”
“Uh,” I felt my voice shaking. The short answer was no. I knew Felix had a three year-old girl but I had only brought a photo album to share. I had been backpacking for weeks; I hadn’t thought to bring much extra baggage.
He smiled. “Not to worry. We’ll stop by the store to get her some chocolates. She’ll warm up to you sooner if you have chocolate.”
Right, I thought to myself. Because if she doesn’t she might hex me, too. I have a three year-old niece and knew that they could be tricky. I was never a fan of buying affection, but when in Rome… better do as the Romans do.
We walked up the road to a tiny standalone shop. I guess it would be called a convenience store by Fijian standards, but it resembled more of a 14 square foot box. Shelves sat stacked precariously with products to the ceiling. Interestingly everything in the shop was kept behind bars and only a small space was available for customers to wait in line to get help from the woman at the cashier. The teller at the window asked what we needed and picked out our items for us. They must have a high theft rate, I thought.
After investing in some penny chocolates, we made our final descent down the hill to a lush neighborhood with large houses. I watched dozens of feral dogs dig through piles of trash on the street and wondered if they had homes. Back in Nicaragua most feral dogs had owners, but they weren’t considered pets. They were given a house to sleep in but never a meal. Those were too hard to come by for the families as it was.
We turned into a culdesac and walked all the way to the end of the road where a large white three-story house stood.
“Oye! Mother!” Felix called.
A melodic songbird voice answered from within, “Io!” (Later I would find out that this was Fijian word for, ‘yes’).
“Our guest has arrived,” Felix said, starting up the stairs to the second floor of the home. I followed soundlessly, realizing that this three-story home had been turned into three separate flats. Felix’s family lived on the second floor.
“Of course she has, Felix. Otherwise you wouldn’t be home, eh?” I heard her chuckle and open the door. I couldn’t see her from my vantage point but her voice sounded so English, so melodic… Like Talei’s, I thought, feeling my heart twist again.
I mimicked Felix and took off my shoes. I stopped only momentarily to take a breath. I sure hope you know what you’re doing, Hilary, I thought to myself.
And with that, I entered Talei’s home. Putting on a brave smile, I carried my sevu-sevu inside to present to her mother. Ready or not, I was going to meet those who had been so close to a woman I had barely known, but who had inspired and affected me deeply.
I was unsure of anything except that I had finally arrived and the journey started here.