Living with The Firewalkers of Fiji

The Firewalkers, a Ceremony, and an Unexpected Guest

We walked into the elders’ house. I was sweating. Like everywhere.

The men were already gathered around the the tanoa, discussing news from the main island. The bundle of waka roots felt heavy in my hands. I knew it had more to do with its symbolic weight than its actual consistency (after all, it was just a plant).

Then seated villagers craned their necks to look at me and I froze.

chietan-ceremony

Holy hell, why couldn’t I stop sweating?

Even though villagers had smiled and greeted me all day, I only had one chance to be welcomed by The Firewalker Elders. When I presented my gift (known to the Fijians as sevu sevu) they could accept it, bless it, and agree on behalf of the tribe and their departed ancestors to watch over me on my visit. OR, if they weren’t satisfied with my gift, they could turn me away and hex me.

I know. Sounds like a game show, huh?

But it wasn’t. Voodoo and witchcraft had long since died in popularity in the South Pacific, but it was still prevalent in the smaller villages and considered every bit as dangerous as it was before the pre-Christian movement. So much for lifelines. Where was Regis Philbin when I needed him?

Firewalkers

It would be especially unfortunate to be turned away now. It was a three-hour boat ride back to the main harbor and the next boat wouldn’t leave until the boat owners wanted it to.

There was no such thing as a ferry schedule in this part of the world.

I beat back worrisome thoughts and took a seat in the back of the room near the other women. Ro Mereani sat by the tanoa, declaring her status.

I did the math in my head, calculating the probability that I would be welcomed into this exclusive South Pacific club. I figured my odds were good (since I had been invited out by the sister of the Chief), but the elders that ran this village were different from the ones I’d grown accustomed to in Suva. These people did not see white girls very often. So rarely were we visitors, I made children cry upon my arrival. So yeah, while my odds were decent, there were no guarantees.

I rested my sevu sevu gingerly in my lap, not daring to say a word. The kava ceremony began, commencing the traditional gathering and welcoming of Fijian visitors (i.e. me). The chief bowed his head, speaking to his dead ancestors in ancient tongues. The elders and male villagers took part in a call-and-response, bringing me back to my days of Catholic school mass. But there was something about this exchange that seemed graver. Heavier. Mystical. The responders took their answers more seriously than my plaid skirt pupils and I had taken ours.

Firewalkers 2

Ro Mereani met my gaze with her golden eyes and gave a curt nod. This signaled my time to crawl over and present my sevu sevu to the chief. I had learned through weeks of practice that you never made yourself higher than the elders during ceremonies. I bowed to the chief and turned to inch my way back to the corner.

“No,” the chief said, patting the seat next to him. “You stay here.”

My eyes widened. He wanted me to sit next to him and the elders? At the highest point of the wooden bowl, showing the others that I was of importance?

Not going to lie. I was kinda ecstatic about this. I forced myself to keep my cool, pretending like little American me gets invited to sit beside chieftains everyday (you know, typical Tuesday). I tried not to wiggle like an excited puppy. Ro Mereani winked at me.

The chief raised up my sevu sevu, welcoming me to Dakuimbeqa (meaning ‘Little Beqa’). I only recognized a few words that followed such as, “America”, “bula” (welcome), and “vinaka” (thank you). At the end the men all clapped and gave a resounding, “Bula, bula!”

I almost yelled it back, unable to contain myself. I’d passed the first and most crucial test of my stay in the village. Score!

The elders regarded me in amusement. One of them leaned over and touched my leg. “What is your name?”

Before I had time to answer, another elder gave a bellowing laugh and replied, “Tinker Bell.” He gave me a toothy grin as the rest of the congregation burst into fits of laughter.

“It’s Hilary,” I said softly. “But I can go by Tinker Bell!” The group laughed again.

After my welcome and blessing, the gathering turned informal. Ro Mereani had brought packs of cigarettes over from the main island. The villagers passed them around, placing packs in-between their toes and using large clamshells as ashtrays.

After initial introductions, questions poured in about my visit. Where was I from? Were all Americans as fair skinned as I was? What did I think of Fiji? Had I ever met Justin Timberlake? Why didn’t I have a nice husband to care for me and raise pigs to slaughter?

Village pigs

I was doing my best to answer the questions in an appropriate manner— I was from Las Vegas, Nevada. No, I was pretty much a vampire by society’s standards. I loved Fiji and its beautiful scenery. No, I had never met JT. And I guess I just always wanted to slaughter my own pigs— when new guests arrived at the elder’s house. A gust of wind shook the gossamer curtains. No one else seemed to notice its timing but me.

“Those are the schoolteachers,” Ro Mereani whispered. “It’s surprising they are here. They don’t often attend gatherings because they have early mornings at school.”

One of the teachers sat next to me, saying nothing. I could feel his eyes on me as I accepted a bowl of kava and clapped the required three times after finishing it. When I handed the bowl back to the server, he spoke. “For someone so foreign, you handle yourself like one of us.”

I thanked him and nodded toward Ro Mereani. “I’ve had a great teacher.”

He nodded, accepting a bowl of grog from the server. After finishing his drink he turned back to me. “You must be a friend of Talei’s.”

My chest contracted, yearning to push out a sob. I nodded, gulping down my grief. “Yes. I knew her daughter. But I only met her right before she died. I wish I had known her longer.” I blinked a hundred times to keep myself from crying.

I don’t know why this shook me up so much. The question was bound to come up at some point.

I thought back to earlier that day when I’d visited her grave with Sala and Mereani. We’d decorated her memorial on the beach with exotic flowers and cloth. After they left I sat there and stared at her grave, craving the advice she had giving me on that Nicaraguan beach many moons before.

“Why did you choose me, Talei? Why did you bring me here? It’s all wrong.” I’d waited, getting no response except a bray from the goat. So I’d cried. I’d cried for her, for me, for the whole screwed up situation.

Hilary at Taleis Grave

“She is missed terribly,” he said quietly. “Did you have a chance to meet David?”

I took a deep breath and nodded. Why was he asking me all the hard questions? Why couldn’t he just ask me why I wasn’t married like everybody else? Damn teachers and their need for knowledge…

The teacher cleared his throat and I snapped out of my thoughts. I stumbled over my words, “Yes. Yes, I did have a chance to meet him.” The server handed me a bowl of kava and I drank the muddy water, feeling disoriented.

I doubt it had much to do with the drink.

I took another deep breath, turning back to the schoolteacher. “Have you always taught here in the Dakuimbeqa village?”

“No,” he replied, meeting my gaze with his soulful eyes. “I used to teach on Viti Levu, the main island. I’ve only been out here a few months.”

His eyes reminded me of Talei’s. My mind fought against images of her smiling at me. I couldn’t deal with the mental memorial going on in my head so I scrambled to think of a distracting question. “What’s the biggest difference between teaching here versus teaching on the mainland?”

The schoolteacher thought for a moment stroking his chin. He finally spoke. “Well, we only have a photocopier here. Every quarter I have to print up my tests for the students. So I take the three-hour boat ride, paying my own fare, to Suva city. Once I get there, I type up my tests and print them off. Then I take the boat back and make copies. When I was in the city I didn’t have to take a weekend off to do that.”

Village boat travelers

I stared at him, mouth agape. The boat fare was 15 Fijian Dollars each way. The minimum wage in Fiji was 75 cents an hour. My mouth blurted out the words I probably shouldn’t have said. “SIX hours of travel time? On your day off? Are you KIDDING?”

The room fell quiet. All eyes were on us. He cleared his throat again. “It’s not so bad. Some villages are on islands so far away they travel three or four days by boat. We are lucky.”

I couldn’t hide my shock. I couldn’t think of any teacher in America who was willing to make that kind of sacrifice. All I could squeak out was, “Lucky?”

“Yes,” he confirmed. “Lucky.” He smiled.

I sat in silence, processing. I thought about every moment I had ever been ungrateful, every day I’d freaked out because I had absolutely nothing to wear, and every time I’d complained about driving thirty minutes across town to meet someone. In fact, just last month I’d cursed at my computer when it took too long to upload a photo to Pinterest.

I was disgusted with myself. I needed to rescue kittens or something. Immediately.

“Why don’t you come by the school tomorrow morning?” The teacher suggested, pulling me out of my mental self-flagellation.

The idea alarmed me. “What?”

“Come by the classroom. Meet the students. They’ve never met a girl from America. It would be a good learning experience.”

Village children

“But what would I tell them?” My brain suddenly contained no knowledge of my homeland. Where did I live? Who was the president? Was Canada above or below us?

“It doesn’t matter,” he assured me. “Just getting exposure to you and your culture will be wonderful. We don’t have many opportunities for guest speakers.”

I nodded, in a daze.

It was time to leave. I said my goodbye to the schoolteacher and bowed to the elders.

“Goodbye, Tinker Bell!” The toothy man said. The room erupted with laughter as we made our exit.

As we walked back to her house, I told Ro Mereani about my conversation with the schoolteacher. I got that breathy run-on sentence voice a child does when they have something important to share. I huffed and slurred my words and hopped from one foot to the other. “And— And— He wants me to go to school tomorrow to speak to the children.”

She raised her eyebrow. “Hmm. Very interesting.”

“What? What’s interesting?” I repeated, my body twitched nervously.

She smiled in that all-knowing way her daughter had. “Nothing really. Just that teaching the children was going to be Talei’s job once she got home.”

Say whaaaatttt?

She faced me, her eyes glowing in the moonlight. “I think Talei did a good job picking you.”

Say what whaaaattt?

I opened my mouth to say something but nothing came out.

“Well, goodnight. I’ll be interested in hearing how it goes tomorrow!” She disappeared into her house.

I stood frozen for a long time, listening to the waves crash out on the coral.

Finally, I said to no-one in particular, “Yeah, me too.”

Dakuimbeqa stream

41 Comments

  • Reply

    pagingdrallie

    March 4, 2013

    I love this post! You are awesome, Hilary! Can’t wait to see how your day at the school went!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      March 4, 2013

      Awww, thank you so much, Allie! You are so sweet. =) I am so glad you liked it!

      How are you doing? Thanks so much for commenting!

      • Reply

        pagingdrallie

        March 4, 2013

        I am doing very well, thank you! Planning our next trip for this summer. Happy adventuring! Do you have your next trip planned?

        • Reply

          Hilary Billings

          March 4, 2013

          Whoohoo! Where are you going?

          No, I don’t have it planned yet. I have a lot of balls up in the air, but I’m hoping to have it figured out soon! Working on a website redesign right now, so once that’s finished I’ll have time to dedicate to getting on a plane. Got a BUNCH of great giveaways coming up soon to celebrate the launch as well =).

          • pagingdrallie

            March 4, 2013

            Oh sweet! That is awesome! Sounds like you’ve been extremely busy!

            Our next trip is a two-week road trip, hitting Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone National Park, and Glacier National Park. I am so excited!

          • Hilary Billings

            March 5, 2013

            Yes, busy would be the word. I don’t know how productive or efficient I’ve been necessarily, but boy have I learned a lot!

            WOW, what a fun trip! I would be super excited too! I’m sure you guys will have an AMAZING time! When will you leave?

          • pagingdrallie

            March 6, 2013

            We are looking at going the first two weeks of July. Once I get back, I’ll have two weeks left of work until I move for medical school. It’s going to be a hectic summer, but I am really looking forward to it!

          • Hilary Billings

            March 6, 2013

            Yeah! Sounds like a lot of great transitions for you! How exciting! =)

  • Reply

    A Gracious Life

    March 4, 2013

    I missed you here but this single post made me remember how awesome you are! I found this funny, touching and so sincere. Wll await the next post. Take care!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      March 4, 2013

      Thank you so much for commenting and sharing such kind words with me. Really, means so much to me. =)

      I can’t wait to share! Same to you!

  • Reply

    Jconowitch

    March 4, 2013

    Another awesome segment of your life for us to partake of! Can’t wait for the rest of the story as Paul Harvey would say! Keep it going Hilary!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      March 5, 2013

      Thanks, Joe! I’m so thankful you’re sharing in this with me. =)

      More good things to come I hope!

  • Reply

    gene3067

    March 4, 2013

    I love how Karma works for you. I can’t wait to read what you told the school children. (You do know that you family will be calling you “Tinker Bell” from now on, right?)

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      March 5, 2013

      Ooh, interesting concept. I hadn’t really thought about it. How do you think Karma works for me?

      And yes, I know. It’ll be the ‘never never land’ ending joke, if you will. There are worse things I could be called. ;)

      • Reply

        gene3067

        March 5, 2013

        I think Karma works very well for you. You’ve been a teacher for some time now. First with your blog, then with your interviews, videos, and your one on one interactions.

        Your honest and open approach to life also creates Karmic goodwill.

        Oh, and “Tink” fits. she has wings to let her fly where ever she wishes to go.

        Think happy thoughts. :)

        • Reply

          Hilary Billings

          March 6, 2013

          Haha! All it takes is faith and trust… =)

          And thank you for the perspective. I’ve never really thought of it that way. But I’m happy to hear that Karmic goodwill is abound. Better than it being the opposite, that’s for sure! =)

  • Reply

    Jo

    March 4, 2013

    Who is Talei to you?

    This post made me rerealize how lucky I have it in life. I would love to be able to travel to not only see and experience new things but grow culturally and mentally. Thank you for writing this.

    And congratulations on being accepted by the tribe! I would have been just as terrified!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      March 5, 2013

      Hi Jo,

      Talei was a friend, motivator, inspiration, and sweet friend. I met her while I was in Nicaragua. You can learn more about why I decided to take this trip here:

      http://nomadgrad.com/2012/09/17/the-journey-to-suva/

      And you’re very welcome! Thank you so much for reading and allowing me to share it with you. =)

      It was a very nerve wracking experience! But the Fijians are a wonderful people.

  • Reply

    comicsmaniac

    March 5, 2013

    That’s amazing! As always, your posts are funny, touching, and completely sincere. I can’t wait to read about your trip to the school!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      March 5, 2013

      Thanks so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed it. I can’t wait to share the rest of the story with you!

  • Reply

    Andrea

    March 5, 2013

    Wow, what an amazing experience this must have all been! How cool that you got to really live like a Fijian and see so many of their customs up close. You’re a great storyteller–keep it up! :)

  • Reply

    journeycount

    March 5, 2013

    This is the most incredible story. You have made me laugh, made me close to tears and made me absolutely NEED to peruse your archives all in one post!

    I am so glad I stumbled across your blog. Although it could be bad for my uni work…

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      March 5, 2013

      Oh my gosh, what a sweet compliment! I am touched by your sweet words. Thank you so much for sharing this with me. =)

      And I’m so glad you stumbled across it, too! I’m looking forward to being in touch!

      Do you work or study at uni?

      • Reply

        journeycount

        March 6, 2013

        I am in my third and final year studying psychology! Although I love it, I am excited to graduate!

  • Reply

    Great post Hillary. You’re a great storyteller. :)

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      March 6, 2013

      Thanks so much, Bethaney! I’m so glad you enjoyed it! I need to work on being a ‘shorter’ story-teller ;) But I’m happy to hear it was well-received!

  • Reply

    Erica

    March 6, 2013

    I really wish I could have shown this to the teachers I used to work with who would complain about other people not making copies for the fast enough.

    Also that pig is so adorable!! Did you get to see any piglets?

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      March 7, 2013

      Haha! I know! All I could think of was all of the complaining I see from local Las Vegas teachers about how poor the education system is and how hard they work. Not saying they don’t, because I KNOW they do. But it is amazing what other societies consider acceptable standards and how ours measures up.

      Yes, he IS adorable! I named him Wilbur. I saw MANY piglets (more photos to come =) but I was told not to get too attached. They don’t keep any animals as ‘pets’ =(

      • Reply

        Erica

        March 12, 2013

        I was seriously tempted to forward this to certain individuals at my old job so they can weep for their own laziness. It’s also very inspirational that someone believes so strongly in their job that they would be willing to go through all of that.
        Aw Wilbur!!!! Regardless, I’d probably get super attached anyway. :/ One of my favorite memories of NZ was stopping on the side of the road to chat and hang out with a man who let us hold one of his piglets! Can’t wait for those pictures. Seriously. Can’t wait. Get on that. ;)

        • Reply

          Hilary Billings

          March 16, 2013

          Hahaha! Yes sir, Erica, sir!

          You have to imagine me saying that while saluting you like I was in the army. Otherwise it’s not as funny. =)

          • Erica

            March 17, 2013

            haha already had before reading the second half of this! :)

          • Hilary Billings

            March 18, 2013

            See? It’s like we’re in each other’s minds… Kind of creepy but awesome. =)

          • Erica

            March 22, 2013

            haha yes!

          • Hilary Billings

            March 25, 2013

            =)

  • Reply

    Kate @ 30Traveler

    March 8, 2013

    Sounds like you had a cool experience of local culture!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      March 10, 2013

      I did, thanks Kate! Do you have a favorite memory of experiencing local culture?

  • Reply

    Libby

    March 11, 2013

    Great post Hilary! Experiencing a different culture makes you more appreciative of what you have I’ve found when traveling over the years. I hope you keep a great memory/scrap book of your photos and experiences to remember for years to come.

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      March 16, 2013

      Thank you so much, Libby!

      Yes, I am finding out more all the time how lucky and good I have it. I hope I can continue to grow more appreciative everyday!

      I kind of consider this blog to be like a scrap book. I used to do scrapbooks of my adventures, but I’ve never been good at that sort of thing. Too many horror stories of hot gluing my fingers together. ;)

      Do you have a travel moment where you experienced appreciation for your life?

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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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