Yesterday was a perfectly typical island Saturday. I woke up about an hour before sunrise to the sound of roosters crowing and tropical birds chirping. The morning air was cool enough to fog the glass window luvers and the waning crescent moon was still glowing mid sky. I love the quiet solitude of the early morning, before the village begins to buzz and the sun burns up evening’s blanket of fog.
I enjoyed a slow morning of yoga, writing and sipping green tea while a pile of laundry soaked. The easy flow of village Saturdays is natural to me now; by about 10am lunch is on the cooking fire and house work has begun in most households. The smell of smoke and the rush of water pipes fill the air. Children zip around the village one after another like train cars, dragging make shift wagons and snacking on root vegetables.
I spent my morning scrubbing the dust, sweat and chicken poop out of my clothes. Scrubscrub-scrubbb, scrubscrub-scrubbb; there’s a musical quality to the washing rhythm. What was once a dreaded chore is just another daily task of living, like brushing my teeth or sweeping. Laundry machines and their rumored existence in far off lands aren’t a thought. I let Saturday be a meditative practice of cleansing my environment before the sabbath day of rest. (If I didn’t think this way, I might go mad!) Kids filter in and out through the day, trading out story books, offering to sweep the sitting room, and mostly getting in the way; tangling themselves around me, eager and goofy. They’re all my little siblings and cousins now. “Go play outside, it’s nice out!” “Josese, wipe Juniors nose please!” “Eremasi, stop hitting Sia or I’m getting your grandmother!” “You want another cup of water? When’s the last time you drank?!” Saturday’s are sweet and silly, one long stream of memories that I’ll recall warmly when I’ve left my village.
My house work is done by noon, and the tide has begun to go out. Time to hit the sea! I gobble down a hunk of va’lavalava (cassava cake) as a lazy lunch, while chopping up a bowl of bright orange pumpkin for dinner’s curry. I cover the sweet smelling cubes and a mortar of mashed spices with a dish towel and scurry over to Na’s, knife and plastic bag stuffed in my shorts. We’re heading out to the “cakau” (reef) to collect giant sea snails, one of my favorite pastimes (leading later to a favorite meal!). I’ll store my harvest in a makeshift pouch created by a sulu around my waste, but my supplementary tools are to “caka lumi” (collect sea weed) on the return to shore. Tomorrow is Sunday, we’ve got I to eat well! On my way over to Na’s I pass by a few friends mid-chore. “Let me guess, you’re off to the reef?” “You know it!” I feel a sense of pride that this important aspect of Fijian life and culture has become a part of my life, too. Gone are the days of, “Isa, you’re going to the reef?! But you’ll get sun burnt! Or drown!” Now people just smile and laugh, happy to see this funny “Kaivalagi” (foreigner) turned Kaiviti (Fijian) villager.
It was a beautiful day in the reef, the kind where the sun makes the deep water glow and the gently rippling waves sparkle. While floating about, another wave of understanding hit me, the way the sunset did the other day–who knows how many visits I have left to this reef that has become so important to me?
The sea in New England is different, tumbling with sand and sea weed as waves crash into the shore. The “waitui” (shallow sea near the land) in Fiji stretches out past where I’ve ever been. It’s unlike the Atlantic I’m familiar with, which drops off into the abyss after a few strokes out! The waters here are shallow, clear and gentle. And the waitui is a workplace. Out there I feel a sense of purpose and gratitude; I’m reaping from natures’ abundance to feed myself and my family. I’m working for my keep. After two years of this, this span of reef at the north-western corner of Koro Island is like my back yard. I recognize the underwater landscape there like familiar wooded paths back in South Coast MA. The dips and crevice passages between mountains of reef lead me to well known coral landmarks.
The snorkel that I took with me turned out to be cracked (that was an uncomfortable lesson to learn). So after about an hour of trying (unsuccessfully) to snorkel sans snorkel, I decided I’d be of more use collecting seaweed. I snuck up behind Na as she hunted down a fat grouper, fishing my knife and bag out of the floating, repurposed yellow tub tethered to her waist. She turned around surprised, “Where are you going?!” She’s always the one telling me: time to go in, enough for today! I explained the snorkel situation and that I’d take the lead to land. I half expected her to urge me to wait rather than take off on my own. “Okay, good idea, make sure that bag is FULL.”
Even several months ago she may have said, “Ehh, how about I go back with you?” Or, “You just head in and I’ll collect the lumi.” But today I’m just another member of the family out to work. This strong Fijian woman who has taught me most of what I know about surviving here believes I’m useful and capable! Hooray! Moments like that glitter in my memory of Peace Corps like stars.
I’ve learned more than I think I’ll ever really comprehend in Fiji; from how to collect seaweed and hand wash laundry, to facilitating community workshops and project development. From my Na and neighbors, to the teachers and the district nurse, I’m grateful for the humble, intelligent people here who have trusted me enough to let me into their world. Because of them I’ve spent the past two years continually learning and growing in surprising ways. And now just two more weeks of this wonderful village life until this chapter closes and the next begins… Isa lei…