Growing Roots

“Welcome home ‘lewa!” Tai calls, returning from church in his pocket sulu and patterned Sunday tie. We meet at the steps of my host family’s house as I’m pulled in for a universal grandpa squeeze. “Au misstaki iko! The whole family has.”

The sparkle in Tai’s eye melts away any anxiety that I’d felt about returning to my host village in an instant. There are no parades and fire works announcing the return of the kaivalaqis. I’m not the fuss-worthy Peace Corps Volunteer coming to visit, just big sister returned from a long trip.

Mai!” Mom calls from the kitchen, setting a stack of plates on the counter. “You set the mat and we’ll have lunch.” I dodge three of my little brothers as I make my way to the kitchen, hiding their treats out of reach on the way. If they catch sight of peanut butter and crackers they’ll never eat lunch. “Kua ni tara!” I affectionately warn them, my heart welling up with the warm comfort of familiarity.

At the sound of my voice dad arises from his post-shift nap. “There’s the island girl! Did my police friend ever send you my regards?” More often than not, any police man I meet knows my Ta, a well-respected officer and a returned UN Peace Keeper. Even on Koro I was known before I arrived—anonymity is non-existent in Fiji!

We all take our place cross legged around the floor mat, decorated with Sunday favorites: ika vakalolo, dalo vavi, bele. Before we masu, Nei pops her head in the open front door. “Carissa! Sa dede sara! Kemu paulusami.” I hop up and exchange a hug for my favorite Fijian dish, coconut-milk soaked dalo leaves, fresh out of the earthen oven. Lovo is usually reserved for special occasions, but nearly every Sunday I’m home momo makes me paulusami. I suspect it’s because they hope I’ll stuff myself enough to replace a few missing pounds.

Sa lutu o iko, Carissa,” Tai declares in a concerned voice. “Iko dau kana cava, ika ga? Tereni veisiqa?” My farmer grandfather, stronger at 70 than I am at 23, drops another hunk of just harvested dalo on my plate. In pre-service training this insistence may have irked me. Today, there’s nothing more uplifting than a lovingly resolute grandparent insisting on seconds. I’m reminded of my own Portuguese upbringing, of Vovo insisting that I’m too “skin” as she pours a third serving of her sopa caldo verde.

Following lunch mom and I fall naturally into our usual routine: talanoa while she washes dishes and I rinse. “Tai is worried that you must not eat some days out on the island. You should leave me a list of what you need so I can send it to you.” I chuckle to myself at the excessive concern of my host family over a healthy loss of a few kg that I had packed on during my PST stay with them. I appease her concern, promising to take back a giant bucket of crackers.

Mom and I finish the dishes in record time, shifting to the kitchen table for tea. The rest of the family is gone to afternoon service, and it’s just us girls. “Just last week he was climbing the moli tree, trying call you!” My host mom laughs as she spreads peanut butter on a fine fare breakfast biscuit; her favorite snack that I made sure to bring for Sunday tea. I shake my head in amused disapproval, echoing her laugh between sips of tea. “That lasutaka told everyone in the koro that you were his girlfriend… Oi lei, kua ni leqa, he sure had a talking to from your Dad after that!” A few more breakfast crackers find their way into Mom’s tea and she pushes an earth oven bun wrapped in a banana leaf beside my bilo. She knows how much I love her baking, especially when it involves coconut.

After worrying for weeks that going back to my host village might be overwhelming, my visit could not have been more the contrary. Coming back home to where my journey in Fiji began was encouraging; a confirmation that I have grown and learned a great deal in the last four months. Village life is becoming second nature, and relaxing into Fijian culture less of an effort. I was back in the same home where I’d first awoken to the chirp of geckos, feeling like a fish out of water under my mosquito net—more confident, assured, content.

The following week I left Viti Levu for my current home in Fiji, Koro Island. Yet again my travels were met with some apprehension. Traveling around from the big city of Suva, to my more modern host village, and back to Nabasovi creates small bouts of culture shock. Challenging as this may be, I think of each readjustment as life struggle immunizations. Pretty soon I don’t think much will phase me!

I found in my return to Nabasovi what I found in my return to Vanuadina: stronger roots. Familiar faces broadcasted bright smiles and extended warm embraces. It seems that each time I leave my new home, I return with a heightened sense of belonging. Time to stretch my legs away from site gives me the liberty to return and choose to sink my roots deeper in this fertile island land I now call home.

My garden too has grown in my stead—a pledge that together we will grow and thrive in this place. My pumpkin plant, wilting at my departure, is now a vibrant looping vine. My tomatoes bend heavy with new yellow-flowered branches, nodding at the verdant shoots of marigold. Even my fence is sprouting!

As I tend to my garden in the cool of the this slow morning, my feet sink into the rain-soaked earth. I sense a tremble of affinity for my barely-new home as my roots take hold and shoots of peace and promise bud within.

Leaving home with treats as any good Fijian child should :)
Spoiled by our village moms, we’re always send home with goodies!
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