Living with The Firewalkers of Fiji

Suva City and First Impressions

“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.

28 Comments

  • Reply

    makkosadventures

    September 26, 2012

    Another gorgeous piece. More! :D Visit the Philippines next time.

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      September 27, 2012

      Thank you so much! More to come, I promise!

      And so funny you should mention the Philippines. I was just talking to someone about how I need to get there. I keep hearing such wonderful things. Hopefully sometime soon!!

  • Reply

    youngjeninspats

    September 26, 2012

    Don’t stress it! you will mess up and do something stupid, we all do (I have PLENTY of times) :-) if and when it happens, just say sorry, smile and move on. People get that foreigners can’t know all their customs. Can’t wait to hear more about Fiji!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      September 27, 2012

      I know; I think I just put a lot of pressure on myself (but then again, don’t we all?) Just have to go with the flow… I know I’m going to learn a lot!

  • Reply

    A Gracious Life

    September 26, 2012

    Well, you certainly sound better now, Hillary! => Hope all is well and I wish you a fulfilling journey to unfold in fabulous Fiji! Stay safe, stay calm and have fun!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      September 27, 2012

      Thank you so much! I know it’s going to be a crazy adventure! Can’t wait to share more with you! Lots of love~

  • Reply

    lysalice

    September 27, 2012

    It’s always stressful and difficult to get to know a different culture and try not to offend the people letting us in their lifes! Be yourself: brave, open-minded, funny and smart and everything will go smoothly! :D Hope you enjoy your time in Fiji and can’t wait to here more about it!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      September 27, 2012

      Thank you for the great advice and for believing in me! I agree; it’s all about keeping the humor and trying to stay open-minded.

      I can’t wait to share more with you! And again, thanks so much for the support and encouragement! I certainly need it! =)

  • Reply

    Browsing the Atlas

    September 27, 2012

    I can’t wait to read more. You sound very brave, and I’m sure Talei’s family was gracious. What an experience!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      September 27, 2012

      Thank you so much! I can’t wait to share more!!

      I don’t know if I’m brave, but I’m very grateful to have been invited to stay with such a wonderful family. An experience it is for sure! =)

  • Reply

    ashoklaughswithlife

    September 27, 2012

    Whenever i come to your post, i feel like i’m there doing all that thinking, walking, talking, and all that stuff. Only thing that i wanna say is that you’re leading a wonderful life (and, on your terms). Just keep it up:) wonderful post.

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      September 27, 2012

      Wow, thank you so much! That’s such a great compliment; I don’t think writers ever get tired of hearing it. =)

      And thank you! Sometimes I forget how blessed I am. It’s always nice to be reminded. Looking forward to sharing more!

  • Reply

    Les Petits Pas de Juls

    September 27, 2012

    I know you did well! What a beautiful adventure you got yourself into!
    Be well and enjoy every moment! Thanks for this great post, again.
    Cheers!
    Jul’

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      September 27, 2012

      Thanks so much Jul! Can’t wait to share more with you! I am always so grateful for your support =).

  • Reply

    comixmaniac

    September 27, 2012

    Ahhh! You always leave it at cliffhangers! I can’t wait to see your next post! :D

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      September 27, 2012

      Haha! I swear it’s only partially intentional. Most of the time I sit to write a post it seems short and succinct. But I always end up writing so much more than I planned and I always end up cutting it off because I think, “No-one wants to read a blog post that’s this long! WTF is your problem Hilary? Why can’t you just write a typical 500 word post like a normal person?” Superfluous wording is my sickness lol. I swear I cut it off for your benefit!! =)

  • Reply

    larkycanuck

    September 27, 2012

    Felix is demanding! Period.

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      September 28, 2012

      Haha, I wouldn’t say that. But I do appreciate you looking out for me. =)

  • Reply

    Sumithra Sriram

    September 28, 2012

    Lovely city, and a very happening post too!! I would like to nominate you for the Super-Sweet blogging award!!
    Here’s the link!! http://hearingwiththeeye.wordpress.com/2012/09/28/another-award/
    Hugs,
    Sumithra.

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      September 28, 2012

      Hi Sumithra! Thank you so much! That is so nice of you to do! =)

      And I’m so happy to hear you enjoyed the post! Lots of love to you!

  • Reply

    futuredoll

    October 1, 2012

    You ALWAYS write fabulous pieces, your style of writing is very engaging. I can’t wait for your next installment. What a unique adventure!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      October 1, 2012

      Thank you so much! I am so happy to hear you enjoyed it! I can’t wait to share more. Update to come shortly! =)

  • Reply

    travellingmo

    October 2, 2012

    Oh my god! You had me on the edge of my seat. Fiji sounds incredible and so far from anything I’ve ever known. I can’t wait for more!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      October 2, 2012

      It’s certainly unlike anything I’ve ever known, that’s for sure. But I guess that what makes it so special. I obviously have lots to learn from such a unique place.

      Can’t wait to share more! New post coming shortly, I promise. =)

  • Reply

    Martin Waqanivalu

    January 25, 2013

    hi Hilary,
    I am also a Fijian and reading what you wrote, just like someone mentioned before.. Like I was just walking, talking and having what you were thinking at that time you were there. Lovely blog.. Yes Fiji is a Beautiful Place, I always say to my friends when going to Fiji visit the Outer Islands, You will know the Real Fiji..

    You have learned some Fijians and its Cultures, thanks for visiting my Country.. Looking forward to your next one..

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      January 25, 2013

      Bula Martin!

      Thank you so much for taking the time to read about my adventures! I am so happy you liked my story.

      It’s such a beautiful locale. And even more beautiful people. I can’t wait to come back and spend more time. Hoping to meet you next time around!

      Vinaka vaka levu for commenting! Loloma!

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About Me

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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