Living with The Firewalkers of Fiji

When Everything Changed

I let the luke warm water wash over my body, sighing out my stress. Even though hot water was practically non-existent in Fiji, I felt grateful. I was excited just to have running water in Suva (that had been an uncertainty). Plus the cool liquid helped to quell the squelching humidity of the morning. I soaped myself with satisfaction.

It was a few days into my Fijian journey and I finally felt like I was hitting my stride. I was learning the language (albeit slowly). I had adopted the traditional garb of wearing a sulu (or sarong) when in the company of the elders and had tasted my first bowl of grog (kava). It had tasted like pepper water, which as it turns out is a pretty accurate description (kava is made from the root of the pepper plant). Yes, it had the desired effect of making my tongue numb. No, I wasn’t really interested in experiencing more. But it wasn’t bad.

I was also adjusting to the communal lifestyle. There were five people living in this three-bedroom flat, but there were many more that passed through daily. The Fijians were a happy and welcoming people and even though I was used to being on my own, I was beginning to appreciate the family. I didn’t even mind the three-year old tailing me constantly. She reminded me of my niece. And I loved her curiosity.

Ro Mereani, Talei’s mother had greeted me with open arms. She laughed at my sevu sevu, asking why Felix insisted that I get her one. “She said she wanted to experience the true life of Fiji,” he responded. He was right. I did want to experience the local life. And I was already learning so much.

Ro Mereani was the daughter of a cheiftan, one of the three main chieftain families in Fiji. While Mereani was her name, Ro is her surname and title of rank (meaning Queen). Fijian families retained a sense of clanship and responsibility rarely seen elsewhere in the world these days. Each clan or lineage was responsible for certain tasks. If the crops were failing, the Priests of Food would be called in to fix it. There were clans for agriculture, fishing, and even ones that deal specifically with deaths.

Ro Mereani was everything I had expected from the daughter of a chieftain (and the mother of such a beautiful spirit). I could finally see where Talei got her smarts, independence and desire for knowledge. Talei’s father, David, was every bit as charming and inspiring as his wife. He was a European man, a world traveler (having been to all but eight countries), and a speaker of over 14 languages. He had met Ro Mereani while teaching at the Fijian University. He was a painter and painted every day, even though he suffered from Parkinson’s. He was warm and sweet and together they made an excellent pairing.

I toweled off and thought some more. This sudden calm had been all the more welcome from the ups-and-downs experienced upon my arrival. It had been a rough few days. There had been a lot of talk of Talei, the circumstances surrounding her death, and how the family was dealing with the loss of their loved one. My heart ached to support them. I felt awkward that I didn’t have more stories to offer since I’d only known her for such a short time. I felt like I needed to do more.

To add to the adjustment awkwardness, the circumstances made me miss my own family. I was a twenty-three year-old homesick girl (which of course, really helps my self-confidence). The more I learned about Talei, the more I realize how similar we were. Talei’s mother has even let me borrow her laptop. We liked the same music, down to the same Fleetwood Mac tracks. And that made it all the more unbearable.

I know I’ve said it before, but it could just as easily have been me in that car. She and her father were very close and according to her mother, David had taken it the hardest when she died. I thought of my own friendship with my father and imagined what it might be like for him to get than phone call in the middle of the night.

All I wanted to do for the first three days in Fiji was go home and hug my parents and kiss my sisters. I guess it took traveling over 10,000 miles to really appreciate my family, but now I just wanted to spend time. It had been awhile since I’d been home and the more I witness and hear about her family missing her, the more I missed mine.

I remembered the first time I Skyped with my parents upon arriving. I had only spoken on the phone with them while I was in Australia a few times and we had gone a many days without contact as I made my journey from Brisbane to Suva. I saw their fuzzy images come across the screen of Talei’s computer and burst into tears. It wasn’t so humiliating because they did, too. I’m sure we’re all just big babies, but it felt nice to share that moment.

But now things were better. I was beginning to view this family as an extension of my own and I could feel the love reciprocated. In the mornings Ro Mereani and I would share instant coffee and discuss the news in the paper. She would do the crossword with her husband’s help. Felix and I had nightly talks on the porch about our futures while he smoked and I enjoyed a cup of tea. The little one was even calling me ‘Auntie.’

Yes, I thought, combing my hair. The ease of this leg is finally coming. I smiled at my reflection and opened the bathroom door. I almost ran poor Mereani over. She was headed to her husband’s room.

“Oh Hilary,” she said casually, “Just so you know, David died this morning.” She placed her hand on my arm and gave me a grim smile. I froze, head overly cocked to one side, with one hand mid-air to brush at a stray hair. I stared at her blankly, my mind reeling.

Was this some kind of Fijian joke? Was I being punk’d? I glanced behind her to see the living room filled with relatives that hadn’t been there before I got in my shower. Were they in on this too? Were they all trying to give the American girl a heart attack?

I opened my mouth to form some snide reply, obviously catching her in her prank. But then I watched the nurse walk briskly into David’s room. My head followed her, my eyes widening at the sight in the room. My head whipped in the other direction at the sound of a police car pulling up in the driveway.

This was definitely not a prank.

I took a deep breath.

Oh holy shit balls. What the hell just happened?

27 Comments

  • Reply

    lynnschriner

    October 3, 2012

    Wow my sweet friend! Thats a painful and amazing story about the unexpected days of mankind.I am so sad for your family in Fiji… truly alot to lose! God Bless themI will continue the story when you finish itXOLynn

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      October 3, 2012

      Thank you. It’s amazing how fleeting time and life is. I greatly appreciate your support and love!

  • Reply

    October 3, 2012

    SKYPE US RIGHT NOW GIRLIE….. Mom & Dad!

  • Reply

    Browsing the Atlas

    October 3, 2012

    Oh my gosh. I’m afraid to hear what happened. :(

  • Reply

    Ingrid

    October 3, 2012

    Wow…..at a loss for words!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      October 3, 2012

      I feel the same, Ingrid. I will update you guys when I can! Lots of love to you and your families.

  • Reply

    ReidIvinsMedia

    October 3, 2012

    A sad story. My condolences

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      October 3, 2012

      Thank you. A sad story indeed. This family has been through so much already. But they are such a strong and wonderful group. They all seem optimistic and at peace with it.

  • Reply

    gene3067

    October 3, 2012

    I can’t imagine a bigger shock. To get so close to someone and then lose them so abrubtly is truly horrendous. As strange as this might sound I am glad you are there to be with them in this hard time. Your time of happiness with them will give them another reminder of the positive influence David has had on peole’s lives.

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      October 3, 2012

      To be honest, I’m not sure what one is supposed to do in this type of situation. But I’m glad to hear that you feel I can be of use. Thank you for your support and guidance. Your love and encouragement is greatly appreciated, as always. =)

  • Reply

    Kaleena's Kaleidoscope

    October 3, 2012

    Holy shitballs, indeed! What a shock! I can’t help but think the timing is more than a coincidence… Perhaps your presence gave David some sort of closure about his daughter that he was seeking before his body gave out to the Parkinsons. Or maybe you were meant to be there to help the family in their grieving and healing process? Who knows. The world works in strange and mysterious ways, but try to have faith that everything happens for a reason, though we may not understand it right now. Best wishes on your continued journey. xo

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      October 4, 2012

      Hey girly,

      Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot of the same thoughts and apparently so has the family. And thank you so much for your kindness and positive vibes. Lots of love and thanks to you!

  • Reply

    Les Petits Pas de Juls

    October 4, 2012

    Oh noooooo I’m so sorry to hear that… for you, for your friends and “new” family. Like Kaleena, I think things happen for a reason and you might have helped David say goodbye to his daughter the way he needed to. Take care of yourself and talk to your parents often. When we’re away, we truly realize whom are very very close to our hearts and they are always first. Never forget to tell them how you feel.
    Be well, my friend. Our thoughts are with you.
    Jul’

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      October 4, 2012

      Thank you so much, Jul! It’s amazing how grateful and blessed I feel for being part of such a supportive and loving blogging community. I’ll be thinking of you!

  • Reply

    Brenda

    October 5, 2012

    My thoughts and prayers are with you everyday. You have a beautiful spirit, Hilary and I know your experiences have purpose. Take care, be strong and know that you have touched so many lives. Love You, Sweet Girl!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      October 5, 2012

      Thank you so much, Brenda! I’ve been thinking about you a lot recently and am so glad to receive your comment today. Lots of love to you and your family! Love you too!

  • Reply

    Morgan

    October 5, 2012

    Oh, Hilary! You have such a beautiful way with words … and I’m not just talking about “holy shit balls.” I am so sorry to read about such unexpected loses. My heart sank a little for a family I’ve never met. Take care out there, fellow traveler.

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      October 5, 2012

      Hey Morgan!

      Thank you so much. Really, this made me laugh and I am so grateful for that. I’m sure the family will appreciate your condolences. Lots of love, travel friend!

  • Reply

    A Gracious Life

    October 5, 2012

    You’re having a beautiful experience. The past months have been a world tour of emotions for you! Sadness, loss and grief — unfortunately, it’s part of it all but it’s what makes us learn and e better in tackling life’s hurdles. Am anticipating your next post, I hope it isn’t too bad. But nice to know, you feel “at home” where you are now.

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      November 7, 2012

      Ack- I don’t know why WP didn’t tell me I had this comment!

      Thank you so much for commenting. And yes, it is quite a beautiful experience. =)

  • Reply

    clisanti

    October 6, 2012

    That’s heavy, but maybe your presence there will be a blessing to the family in this time of crisis. Between your kindness and warm heart it seems tome you are the perfect person to offer consolation in the situation. Good luck with everything and sorry for the loss.

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      October 7, 2012

      Thanks so much for all the kind words. I hope my presence is comforting for them. I’ll be sure to let you know how things progress!

  • Reply

    travellingmo

    October 7, 2012

    Oh my dear girl, that is. . . beyond words. I hope everyone is healing and doing ok. I’m sure that while you came as practically a stranger, you will be a comfort to them.

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      October 9, 2012

      Thank you so much, fellow traveler. I appreciate your love and support so much. And I hope to be so! Regardless, it’s an experience!

  • Reply

    […] I’d adopted (or was working on) a new attitude. After getting past the initial shock of my situation, I decided to take on an anthropological approach to the experience. After all, I was getting an […]

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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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