“Lesu mai Portukali? Sa yawa o iko!” This was the sample on repeat for the first days back on Koro following my much needed leave. Basically this means, “You’re coming back from a trip to Portugal? Well aren’t you fancy!” The phrase “sa yawa” can mean a few things. (So can most Fijian words, which can be terribly confusing or wonderfully enlightening depending on the context.) In this case it means something is really cool, surprising or fancy. “Sa yawa nona lorry vou, eh?” His new truck is pretty sweet huh? Fijians like to poke fun, so “sa yawa” is often used in a jesting manner. In english it’s comparison might be, “well well, look at you!”.
The other more literal translation of yawa is distant or far away. “Sa yawa mai Viti nomu vanua?” Is where you’re from very far from Fiji? Seems to me the very best translation of “sa yawa” would be one straight from the 70s… far out!
My village friends had a point; taking a mid-service trip to Portugal did feel pretty dang extravagant. And boy was I far out from Fiji, sa yawa mai Viti, while on leave. Physically and metaphorically speaking.
I began to feel my distance from my quaint island home when I settled into my comfy seat on the bottom floor of a double decker plane and turned on my personal in-flight television. Movies? TV shows? Games? I didn’t even have so many options in America… I didn’t even have cable in America! Then came my in-flight meal—baked fish with lemon tzatziki couscous and a glass of red wine, followed by chocolate mousse and French press coffee. As I happily cleaned my little plastic bowl of the last traces of velvety mousse the view from my window was usurped. An Ikea building that appeared to be at least twice the size of my village suddenly dominated the landscape, all cotton candy blue and metal amidst the dusty brown landscape. From there to Sydney the land was packed like a mall at Christmas time; neighborhoods of one massive home on top of the next. Yup, I sure was not in Fiji any more!
Six countries, five flights and about forty hours later I was cruising through Lisbon with my distant cousin Cesar, cursing myself for having forgotten so much Portuguese. “You understand?” he asked, after giving me a supersonic Portuguese play by play for the next week in Lisbon. “You’re grandmother told me you speak very well!” Well primo, that was before my brain was filled with a thousand permutations of vinaka vaka levu… At this point I probably know Fijian better, a language spoken by far fewer people than live in the state of Rhode Island.
Cousin Cesar dropped me off at what ended up being the wrong hotel. I crashed early for the night at my hotel, after a struggle involving phone volume and a hotel change resulted in my collapsing into tears. It was quite clear that I was culture shocked and exhausted by the number of languages I’d heard and miles I’d traversed in a matter of two days.
After a solid night of sleep on the comfiest mattress I’ve experienced in recent history, I was ready to enjoy vacation. The next two weeks in Portugal were filled with everything I’ve missed for the past year; hand in hand walks with my niece, late night talks with my sister, fresh baked pastries, journaling in the vibrant buzz of coffee shops, and of course plenty cheese and wine! I felt so grateful to have the means to take a vacation from Peace Corps service, half way around the world, where my family comes from. Connection with familiar faces and a familiar culture was just what I needed.
The days with my family were spent exploring my grandparents town of Linhares. Once a Lusitanian hillside fort it’s now an enchanting village situated on the Western slopes of the Serra de Estrela mountains. Here we got to know distant cousins over tiny cups of espresso at the foot of the old Parish. Under the shade of fig trees we tried my great-uncles moonshine as we listened to his stories of WWII and his magical birth-giving quartz. We spent an afternoon wandering through my grandfather’s farmland, which he currently rents for a couple bottles of olive oil and wine a year, eating blackberries and making up stories about our ancestors.
My time in Linhares was sandwiched between two brief solo stays in Lisbon. I much prefer the peace of a small town, but after a year of island life I enjoyed time in this beautiful city. I took great pleasure in the little things: rolling through Lisbon in a noisy old streetcar, side walk people watching while enjoying a fresh pastel de nata, reading in the warm afternoon sun by the ocean.
The ability of people to adapt never ceases to amaze me. It wasn’t long before I was speaking passable Portuguese with my great uncle Ti Moises and using the metro system like a regular city kid. This from the girl whose main transportation in the past year was muddy feet, and who sometimes doesn’t recognize her own given name (Keresi is really sticking). I settled back easily into life with my family in a “developed” country. Fresh bread and cheese for family breakfast in my Vova’s sparkling clean kitchen… had it really been over a year since this was my life? Suddenly I could access wifi at any corner, turn on a light when the sun went down, and put leftovers in the refrigerator!
I felt grateful, but I also totally jaded. How quickly things could go from miraculous to expected; a cold drink, a short wait, a hot shower.
Portugal was beautiful. The Moorish Castle in Sintra was nothing short of magical, the terracotta roofs and cobbled streets of Lisbon were lovely. Hearing Fado and having familiar foods was comforting and uplifting. Plus, seeing my sister and niece was exactly what I needed. Still, the modern world had me feeling totally satiated beyond necessity. The extravagance, luxury, excess, immediacy… is it really necessary? By my second pass through Lisbon I walked through shops stocked with clothes of every style and pattern, unease welling up—how I missed dressing up, feeling “pretty”! Then I’d think of Fiji, of my limited but perfectly sufficient wardrobe. I’d sit alone on a bench, missing the ability to recognize passing voices. I laid in my bed one hotel morning, shivering from the AC, and remembered that where I was coming from climate control is limited to the shade of mango trees.
It’s so easy to live a life of excess when that is what the world around you encourages. Why not grab that dress, you have a party this weekend! Go ahead and blast the AC, don’t want to get sweaty and smelly! Those who have such access are certainly blessed in way. But if I took anything from my leave, it was gratitude for experiencing life in Fiji. Back on Koro I don’t have electricity, so you best believe I appreciate every time I have access to an outlet. My house doesn’t have refrigeration; that means no ice cream, no cold beer, no dairy products. But boy do I sure value each refreshing sip of a Fiji bitter and every bite of a Magnum bar when I’m in Suva.
Of course, it’s easier for me to say this knowing that I’ll soon enough be back in a “modern” place with easy access to any comfort, if I so desire. Yet, sitting here, back home on Koro, hearing the roosters crow, waves crash and children shriek in the background, I can’t say I’d currently trade this life for one more “modern”. (My fellow villagers might disagree, but I speak only for myself 🙂 ) There’s a reason gluttony, greed and sloth are 3 of 7 deadly sins, echoed in the ethics of countless world traditions. I don’t think people are meant to have everything they want exactly when they want it. I’d argue that such a lifestyle contributes to many global problems we have today—climate change, depression, lack of community, deforestation, etc.
This isn’t to say there aren’t things here on Koro that my community truly need, such as reliable renewable energy, proper waste disposal, and consistently clean water. More traditional communities could also certainly benefit from “modern” values such as gender equality, freedom of expression, diversity, and access to educational media. I sure enjoyed this aspect of Portugal! What I mean to say is that as far as material goods go, there is merit in simply having “enough” in that one appreciates each thing they have. Going without some luxuries elucidates the major difference between needs and wants. Time away certainly brought me far out, thus giving me fresh perspective and a renewed appreciation for the lessons I’ve learned thus far in Fiji.