Living with The Firewalkers of Fiji

That Time I Made Fijian Children Cry

D’Tui and her village friends wasted no time paddling out in the water on a handmade raft. They giggled and squealed and splashed water on each other. The village goat brayed pleadingly, wanting them to come back and play. He circled the bush he was tied to in frustration.

village-children-on-raft

I watched them from the porch. We’d had lunch and settled in. Now I was itching to explore the village. I found Mereani and Sala in the kitchen. “Ro Mereani, may I take a walk around?”

“Take Sala with you,” she said. “Until the chiefs have welcomed and accepted you at the kava ceremony tonight you have not officially been invited. You’ll need a village escort wherever you go so as not to offend anyone.”

My stomach tightened at the mention of the kava ceremony. I had been to many a grog session in Suva, but these were different chiefs and different customs. I wasn’t sure what to expect and could only hope it would go well. After all, if it went poorly I didn’t know what I would do. It was a three-hour boat ride back to Suva and the village boats didn’t leave until the villagers wanted it to.

With my luck I’d be sleeping outside with the goat.

Sala led me out of the house and away from my anxiety. We made our way past the church and to the village homes.

dakuimbeqa-village

It wasn’t long before we had a trail of curious village children following us like ducklings. Some of the older children whispered to each other, reaching out longingly to touch my hair. “It’s okay,” I said, smiling.

Two of the girls exchanged looks and grabbed strands, rubbing them against their cheeks. They grinned and chattered with each other. They ran their fingertips over my arms, trying to rub the white off my skin. Sala laughed as they talked to her.

“What are they saying?” I asked.

She smiled. “They want to know how your hair is so gold and soft.”

I looked back at them lovingly, reaching for the taller girl’s hair. “I want dark hair like yours, pretty girl.” She giggled and grabbed my hand, swinging it back and forth as we kept walking.

I drank in the drastic differences between the houses. Some were made of cinderblocks; others of tin. Each family had their piles of trash burning outside their houses. I was fascinated by the laundry hanging on the lines.

fiji-village-laundry

“You sure do like how we dry our laundry,” Sala observed with a laugh.

I laughed with her. “I can’t help it. The clothes are always just so colorful. It’s like functional art. I think it’s beautiful.”

Villagers stood in their doorways, asking questions about me. “They keep asking who the new girl is with the pretty hair,” Sala explained. “And then I say back to them, ‘Who, me?'” She threw her hip out and posed, flashing her brilliant smile.

I laughed. The more time I spent with Sala the more I adored her. I wanted to travel with her everywhere and keep her vivacious spirit close by.

“It’s funny,” I started, as we walked down the dirt path, “The longer I’m here, the more I wish I looked like you.”

“Oh no,” Sala said. “I wish I looked like you.”

If only she knew how pretty I thought she was. Or how beautiful I thought the Fijians were. It’s funny how you want what you can’t have.

A woman and her toddler came up to greet us. The little girl hid behind her mother’s legs, regarding me cautiously. I leaned over and smiled at her. “Well, hi there!”

Then something unexpected happened. Loudly and without warning, the girl broke into hysterics. She wailed and screamed, crocodile tears running down her cheeks. I took a step back, unsure what had just happened.

fiji-village-children

Then, a chorus of cries erupted from surrounding youngsters. In unison they expressed their distress. “What’s going on? What’s wrong?” I asked Sala anxiously.

“It’s nothing,” She reassured. “They’ve just never seen a white girl before. They’re afraid of you.”

“WHAT?!” I couldn’t hide my surprise.

Sala shrugged and stood there matter-of-factly. The choir of screams continued around us. She laughed. I wanted to cry myself.

I couldn’t believe this was actually happening. And regardless how much I smiled or how much their mothers cooed, there was no appeasing these horrified children. I was their walking nightmare.

They didn’t understand why a ghost was here. And unlike the older children who reacted with curiosity, they reacted with fear. I have never made a child cry before because they disliked the color of my skin. Let me tell you, it’s quite a strange feeling.

And believe it or not, I continued to make these youngsters cry for the remainder of my stay.

I guess it’s time to call me Beetlejuice. Or Frankenstein’s monster. Or Ghost of American Girl Present?

fiji-village-goat

But seriously… I was the first caucasian woman these children had met. How often do you suppose THAT happens to someone?

31 Comments

  • Reply

    comicsmaniac

    February 21, 2013

    I feel like, in America, we almost take our country’s diversity for granted! My high school was very diverse, so I was horrified when my college friends would tell me about their schools with only, you know, one Asian kid and two African-Americans. Then I went to Japan, where foreigners are treated like curosities. (Girls would often ask our Caucasian students how they could get pale skin too!) I definitely appreciate the fact that I grew up in a place where I could be exposed to so many cultures at once.

    Making children cry is definitely disconcerting, though. I’ve never heard of such a strong reaction to the color of someone’s skin! That’s a culture shock for sure. :O

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      February 21, 2013

      Yeah, there are a lot of things I’m learning to be thankful for that I never thought about before… The right to free speech, freedom of choice, freedom of career path and sexual orientation. Diversity and inclusion are just a few of things we take for granted for sure. I definitely had some interesting experiences being the minority in Fiji. I feel like I have a better understanding of all people and myself.

      Culture shock but in a good way. =) Sounds like you witnessed some pretty interesting cultural values as well! I’ve heard that the Japanese culture is very focused on becoming more ‘American’ or ‘white’ for lack of a better term. I’ve had friends say they almost felt like celebrities walking around having people ask for their picture.

  • Reply

    El Guapo

    February 21, 2013

    So once youe were accepted into the village, were they still scared?
    And did any of the small children have the courage to come up to you?

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      February 21, 2013

      The toddlers were very wary of me. Eventually ran out of tears, but I think that was more from exhaustion and less from the fact that they got used to me.

      The older children loved me. They wanted to play and mimicked me all the time. I had a trail of ducklings following me everywhere I went. It was incredibly special. =)

  • Reply

    Jconowitch

    February 21, 2013

    Oh Ghost of American Girl Present you make me laugh! You have quite the way of bringing us into your story! Love it! Keep it going girl! Joe

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      February 21, 2013

      Thanks, Joe! I’m so glad you liked it. =)

      I doubt I will EVER forget this moment. Like never ever. Sing it Taylor Swift…

  • Reply

    gene3067

    February 21, 2013

    Don’t feel bad. The youngsters might’ve cried and been wary your time there, but will always remember the time when the golden haired lady came to visit.

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      February 25, 2013

      Haha! I never thought of it like that… Who knows? Maybe my story will go down in history one day. Lady Godiva will have nothing on me… Maybe ;)

      • Reply

        gene3067

        February 25, 2013

        That’s right. You’re “folk-lore” now. :)

        • Reply

          Hilary Billings

          February 27, 2013

          Haha! Wouldn’t that be something? Only in my dreams, I fear. ;)

          • gene3067

            February 27, 2013

            Don’t underestimate yourself.

            Quick, do this easy psych test. Go to a still pool and throw in the tinies pebble you can find. Notice the ripples? It’s a large effect from a tiny pebble, isn’t it?

          • Hilary Billings

            March 3, 2013

            =) Thanks for the faith in me. Sometimes it’s hard to see the affect of what I’m doing, especially through the cyber world. So thanks for continually pointing it out and pushing me to keep going.

  • Reply

    gallivance.net

    February 22, 2013

    Great post, Hilary! We had a similar experience when we moved to Khartoum, Sudan several years ago. When we went to the local zoo and were watching the antics of the monkeys, we realized that everyone else had their eyes glued on us … we were the oddity. But fortunately no one was crying! All the best, Terri

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      February 25, 2013

      Thanks so much for commenting, Terri! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. =)

      What an amazing experience! I know, it’s interesting to live in a fish bowl. Makes you look at the world differently. What a surreal experience! Did you ever acclimate to them watching you?

      • Reply

        gallivance.net

        February 25, 2013

        Sure, because the Sudanese people are very kind and gentle. Although I have dark hair, it was a different texture from theirs, and they always wanted to touch it and make ponytails, etc. It actually became a great icebreaker! Did the kids on Fiji change their behavior after they got to know you?

        • Reply

          Hilary Billings

          February 25, 2013

          The younger ones were very wary of me for the rest of my stay. The older children LOVED me, especially the young girls. They followed me everywhere. And same thing, they wanted to play with my hair constantly.

          That does sound like such a great icebreaker! What a cool experience. Are you still there? Would you go back?

          • gallivance.net

            February 25, 2013

            No, we’re not there now. It became politically unsafe for US citizens after the coup and influx of terrorist activity and training by outside forces. A trip back now would definitely be interesting. We went there straight from corporate careers – and it humbled us, open our eyes, and changed us – hopefully for the better! We owe Sudan a lot!

          • Hilary Billings

            February 27, 2013

            I can imagine! What an amazing opportunity! And I bet extremely humbling. I wouldn’t even know how to handle such an experience, I don’t think. Thank you so much for sharing. =)

  • Reply

    Erica

    February 22, 2013

    Awwww the poor little kids! Too much confusion for them to handle! (Also, kind of super precious)

    And who knows, maybe in a few years they will change “ghost” to “angel.”

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      February 25, 2013

      I know. It was adorable in its own weird way. Those children have my heart.

      And you never know! I’m hoping the next time I go back it won’t be nearly as scary for them. I would PERSONALLY prefer the ‘angel’ title, but ghosts aren’t necessarily a bad thing in their culture. But I like the way you think, lady. =)

      • Reply

        Erica

        February 25, 2013

        True, I was thinking about that while I was trying to phrase my comment. But really. Let’s go with angel. You know you’re going to have to take a harp next time you go now, right?

        • Reply

          Hilary Billings

          February 27, 2013

          Haha! I love it. I should also only wear white. Maybe even bring some angel wings ;)

          • Erica

            February 27, 2013

            White and gold. There should be plenty of angel wings and halos for sale around Halloween… or I wouldn’t be surprised if they are available all year round in Vegas. Stereotype?

          • Hilary Billings

            March 3, 2013

            Not a stereotype. Totally true. We’ve got some very large costume shops (that also cater to the pole dancing/showgirl/gogo dancing/outrageous Vegas party communities. We get more that pop up in October, but if you want a GOOD costume, you go to one of the year-round shops.

            We also have your fair share of adult and fetish shops. Another spot-on stereotype. Sigh.

  • Reply

    Dakota Adelphia

    February 25, 2013

    Such a sweet story, it brought a smile to my face, although those poor little children….being scared because of your white skin?! So sweet though, your little guide Sala sounds like quite the character. Maybe I’ll make it to Fiji sometime…that would be a lot of fun.

    What did they eat? What was the most interesting thing you tried while in the village?

    My parents often tell the story of when I was about two with white blond hair, and they took me to a border town in Mexico (much safer then) and people were coming up to touch my hair. Their guide told them that most of them had only seen white hair on television, if that! My mom was probably freaking out at first!
    ~Dakota

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      February 27, 2013

      Oh man! I bet that would freak your mom out! What a story. I had a friend with white hair when she was young. Her hair is still this unthinkable bleach blonde. Everyone thinks she dyes it but she’s really just naturally so fair. She always gets strange looks. I think it’s awesome.

      And thank you! I’m glad you liked the post. =) More interesting Dakuimbeqa tales to come! I’m sure you would love Fiji… the people are so welcoming and lovely. Sala was a peach! All of my Fijian friends were.

      Interestingly enough, the diet wasn’t what I was expecting. Since the East Indian influence, a lot of families eat curries on a regular basis. There’s a lot of sugar and breads. Lots of coconuts, fish, and fruit. Vegetables and healthier options like eggs are rather expensive. Sugar cane grows wild on the islands so they eat a lot of that. There are very high rates of diabetes and amputations due to their dieting options. For special occasions they’ll cook pigs in the ground. That was probably the most shocking thing… meeting the pigs that were going to become dinner. Too bad I’d already named them all, haha!

      • Reply

        fourtheroad

        February 27, 2013

        Ha, sadly my hair has turned a ‘mud’ brown…I didn’t stay blonde for long. :) That is awesome, I’ve only met one or two people who have white-blond hair, you usually grow out of it.

        You’re welcome! So, how did the travel bug come about? I read your ‘about’ page…definitely an inspiring story! Now I’m interested to know what made you want to leave the celeb scene and go for a life of schooling, career, and (the best way to learn!) travelling!?

        I can imagine how high the diabetes rates are…especially if sugar cane is a staple! I’m sure they don’t have the best of treatments to aid with diabetes and bad diet. American’s have awful diets too (at least a lot of us!) but at least we can easily get prescriptions to help with high cholesterol and things of that nature, and insulin to help diabetes.
        Oh my goodness, that is so funny…I can’t even imagine meeting the animal that’s about to be my meal. That just isn’t normal unless you live on a farm! At least not here! =)

        It’s been great talking to you! =)
        ~Dakota

        • Reply

          Hilary Billings

          March 3, 2013

          Haha! I’m sure your hair is beautiful now, probably even more so than it was before. Funny thing about perspective. I have a friend with the prettiest golden brown eyes. He calls them ‘dirt brown’ and hates them. No matter how much I like them, he thinks they’re crappy. Interesting how that works. =)

          Thanks so much for checking my ‘about’ page out! Travel started from a happy accident when I took my first trip. You can read about it on my very first post that I wrote many moons ago: http://nomadgrad.com/2011/06/27/it-begins-with-rejection/

          Yeah, unfortunately because they are a third world country, it’s a major problem. Most diabetics in FIji end up needing to have some sort of amputation. Once they have an amputated limb, they have a very short life span. It’s crazy. Luckily, there are non-profits working on preventative measures for them =).

          And yeah! I’ve heard its very common in some Asian countries as well. We’re pretty far removed from our food here in America in comparison, haha!

          Been lovely talking to to you! I hope you’ll stay in touch! Find me on my Facebook page and on Twitter. =) Would love to stay connected!

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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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