I clamber off the plane like a zombie, fatigued is an understatement. Back in my element, a temperature closer to 32C, landing in Nadi has me in rare form. I manage to be pleasant to those around me despite my grumpy-ish attitude. I’m greeted by Fijian musicians strumming ukuleles, swaying to the melliferous beat and presented with a shell lei accompanied by a loud BULA, which means welcome in Fijian. I’ve got two hours to clear customs, baggage claim, register for a local sim and grab some local currency from the ATM before my tour starts; my usual routine, the life of a permanent tourist.
A forty-minute van ride plus twenty more minutes by boat delivers the small tour group I’ve joined to the twenty-five-acre coral island of Robinson Crusoe. Quick history recap for you: Robinson Crusoe was a European who sailed for land as an ocean explorer ahead of his time. He ran into the Fijian islands along the way, met the indigenous inhabitants, befriended them—one, in particular, so nicknamed Friday—and went on to have dozens upon dozens of sea explorations. The island is quiet in anticipation for the last tour group to arrive ahead of the scheduled performance of Polynesian inspired fire dances, games, and the lovo; Fijian style of BBQ where fish (or other meats) are wrapped in banana leaves and steamed underground.
I’m the rarely encountered introverted version of myself on this leg of my journey. I’m hormonal, I’m emotional and what’s worse, overly tired. I remind myself how close I am to my independence—just two tours and three and a half weeks into the future— in my own space and a bed fashioned for an adult. I keep trying to snap myself out of it and interact with the other guests staying at the resort, but I relent and take a stroll on the opposite side, alone. My mother’s laugh is on repeat in my head along with the vocal reactions I know she’d be having if she was physically here with me. She loved island life as much as, if not more than, me.
Perched on a tree stump I watch the tide slowly roll in as the cool salty water collides with my bare toes. I wiggle down the side of the dead piece of a tree protruding from the white sand to make hypothetical space for her spirit and for the first time in too long I talk to her out loud. I tell her about my recent successes and ask rhetorical questions in the direction of the rising sea. I dig my toes deeper into the sand and wait for the inevitable pull of the impatient waves to sink them even further. My phone dings having picked up a signal, breaking my solemn mindset as sporadic messages flash on my screen.
Back on the “mainland” of Nadi today and the designated route requires we travel from the West side of the island to the East. The itinerary promises a handful of cross-cultural activities, but all I can focus on is my jubilance at the thought of the drive providing me much needed time to sleep. In and out of deep sleep my head bobs in half circles as the bus takes bumps head-on with poor shocks. I grab eyefuls of thriving jungle with raised houses made of wood and tin dotting the horizon. Villages here are referred to as communities each with a designated Chief. The freshly hung laundry billowing in the breeze is littered with contrasting patterns holding my attention as the various pieces dangle on the line against the bright blue or red hue of the homes just behind them.
Every face we pass is smiling and waving, yelling BULA (welcome) and wondering where I’m from. Not satisfied with my answer, California, they press me for the “truth” and I’m reminded of how frustrating this line of questioning is from my time spent in Eastern Europe. I explain that I’ve only recently stepped foot on the African continent and that natural hairstyles are popular amongst Black people around the world. The women smile, the men stare, and I nod as I keep moving through the produce shop. We’re to meet the chief of Nasautoka Village for a proper kava ceremony known as Sevusevu. Both men and women must cover their shoulders and legs yet it’s men who run the ceremony itself. Gender-specific roles are still widely accepted and supported on the islands and the Sevusevu is no exception as one of the most sacred traditions of the culture.
Only males can mix and serve the kava to guests. Women can do so only when there’s no male present in the tribal circle. Women accept smaller portions of the chalky beverage presented in a coconut shell and must not drink from the same shell as the men. Hypersensitive to the gender division in the room I observe the change of kava cup as it’s presented to the men in our group then switched out for a different shell for the women, but say nothing. I’m grateful for the cultural exchange, understanding that these divisions in gender are indeed cultural here and are respected as such even in this day and age, all the while making silent prayers of hope for the progression of equality on a global scale.
Nautical now and serenaded by Roo Panes in my earbuds, I feel my mind relax. Construction workers wave from the mainland as the vessel ferries me to Bounty Island; one of the dozens in the Mamanuca string of islands off the coast of Nadi. I walk the perimeter of the island when I arrive seeking silence and nature and am rewarded with bloodthirsty swarms of mosquitos that force me to quicken my step as they attack in pairs of four or five. Protection or no, these insects never hesitate to attach themselves to my person leaving my skin swollen and itchy.
Storm clouds sit low above the ocean threatening a downpour, metaphoric for the storm brewing in my heart. Disappointing the better part of my judgment I give power to an emotion I thought I’d wrangled into the dark corners of my mind long ago and paralyze my enjoyment as a consequence. With tired eyes, I lay indoors—the cool air offering the only reprieve from the constant biting of mosquitos—when three dorm mates approach, introduce themselves and insist I join them for dinner being served in ten minutes. I hesitate, but relent and become the fourth in their entourage.
We are a mixed salad of diversity representing Italy, the U.K., Belgium and the U.S. We share the definitions of our tattoos and travel routes we’ve taken through the islands over pineapple flavored Fanta, an island favorite, before joining the staff for kava in the bar. Outwardly, I appear to be enjoying myself—a coping mechanism or a victor at masquerading, can’t tell which. I’m an emotional mess trapped in an internal argument, once again, about what’s lacking and my purpose. I’m reaching for my Mother’s advice and guidance and fighting back tears. I look away from the group in anticipation of the tears threatening to spill over and a rainbow appears out over the ocean in my line of sight. I gasp at the timing, pause, and hiccup as the tears fall. I see her smiling face in the arched color display and feel an immediate calm, an understanding that it will all be okay. That I will be okay.
Conversation creating instant friendships as the group mingles with the local staff discussing the relevance of consuming, the challenges of a backpacker’s life, how little the employees of these resort islands get to see their families and the plans for this island to be renovated into a four-star resort next year. With each new bowl of kava, I release my tension, giving it away generously while caught in this cross-cultural experience. Empathetic to my mood and the excitement of the group, the kava bowl, known as a vesi, is filled with fresh water. The kava root, crushed into a powder, is poured into a numinous sack, which we’ve taken to calling the kava sock, submerged and rung out repeatedly in the water until it turns a dirty brown. I’m served the first cup and I return the gesture with a smile. I take the cup, down it, smile again and say BULA (customary) before handing it over to be refilled and given to the next person. He holds my gaze a moment then nods smiling with his whole face. This unspoken exchange is an invitation to my soul to let go. To enjoy this moment, to be fully present, to be here now.