People to People Connections
Today, I want to tell you about my experience in the village of Ravi Ravi on the island of Beqa off the coast of Fiji. I want to tell you about a humble, wonderful man who opened his heart and home to us.
We were there to check out a dive resort. We had not been to the island in about 12 years and were urged to go back by a friend who had told us about great updates to the resort. We agreed it was probably time to re-visit the island.
But we had another agenda as well. Our international mission for our non profit organization, Ocean of Hope is to assist school children in oceanside villages around the world in ocean conservation education. Part of this involves bringing educational materials to them to learn about the ocean around them. There is a small village we wanted to visit to see how we could assist them in this way and with basic infrastructure support as well. We came, armed with workbooks, to meet with the headmaster and teachers, the elders of the village, and the children themselves. We did not expect to be personally invited to dine with the village pastor. What a treat!
Meeting the Pastor
It is only about a 10 minute walk from the dive resort to the village but one of the young women, Annie, who works in the resort offered to lead us to the village and introduce us. She was a very kind woman and stayed with us throughout our meetings. Afterwards she gave us the full tour of the village and introduced us to her uncle, Siad, who was, in fact, the pastor of the village. He kindly asked us if we could return the next day to share a meal with him in his home, explaining that he would cook us traditional Fijian fare. We gratefully accepted his hospitality.
As I lay in bed that night, I began to think about what an enormous gesture he had made towards us. Here was a man who lived poorly and simply, reaching out to make a personal connection. It didn’t matter what he had or didn’t have, he wanted to share it with total strangers and he had no ulterior motive. I wondered how many times in my life, I had reached out in such a way, certainly not enough. I wondered what the world would be like if more people had such goodness in their hearts.
Dinner in the village of Ravi Ravi
The next day I asked his niece a few questions in order to be prepared. How long should we stay? Should we bring a gift? Is it the Fijian way to be on time? late? early? Any customs we should know? I didn’t want to learn about the culture by doing something inappropriate! The most important thing to understand was the ritual of the drinking of kava, which is the Fijian way to welcome. We had been exposed to this numerous times before so we were confident we wouldn’t embarrass anyone on this account!
When we arrived, Siad, greeted us and brought us into his small home. He had spent most of the day preparing for our visit. The day began by walking to his “farm” which he tends daily. In Fijian villages, these farms are more like large gardens where the villagers grow most of the food they eat. He harvested cassava, a potato like starch, breadfruit, taro leaves, and coconut. The onion he used was the only thing he had not grown himself. Then he built a “lovo” which is an earthen oven. In a small dirt pit, a fire is built, then the food is wrapped in leaves and cooked and the whole thing is covered in palm fronds, no pots and pans, no tin foil, nothing, all from the earth and recycled back into it. We have a lot to learn from the Fijians in this regard! Siad brought us into his home and then excused himself to uncover the lovo and bring in the meal. “Feel free to look around” he explained.
A typical Fijian village home
The home was one room with a partition in the back to separate a sleeping area. There was a small refrigerator and stove in the corner though he explained that they mostly cook outdoors. A bookshelf held a few pots and pans, a cup with some silverware, and some books. There was a small table as well along one of the walls. The building had a front and a back door that probably were never closed allowing for little distinction between indoors and out. No indoor plumbing or running water.
On the partition wall were a few faded photos and quotations about the merits of being children of God. The center of the room was vacant of furniture, the Fijians preferring woven mats of pandanus to sit on. It was simple, yet had all the things the family of four needed.
Siad came back into the house with the meal fresh out of the lovo. He proudly told us he had caught a wild dog the other day so we would have fresh meat. My throat tightened and I wondered how on earth I would be able to eat dog! Then he said, “Oh, excuse me I meant pig”. Whew! That was close!
He excused himself again to quickly bathe outside and put on a fresh shirt and skirt (skirts are traditional dress for Fijian men).
At this point, he pulled out the kava bowl and prepared the ritual welcome ceremony. Kava is a root from a pepper plant that is ground and then mixed with water in a large three legged bowl. It is mixed with a rag that looks like a dirty dish rag and then scooped into a communal half coconut shell. There is a series of ritual claps and spoken words that accompany the kava ceremony. Fijians LOVE their kava which has a mellowing effect, slightly narcotic and makes your lips numb and tingly if enough is consumed. I laughed inwardly as Siad gave us half bowls while he consumed brimming cups, referred to as high tide. Like I mentioned, Fijians LOVE their kava!
After the kava, he prepared the plates, freshly cooked wild pig (thank goodness!), taro leaves cooked in coconut water and onion (delicious!) and cassava. I’m not sure whatever happened to the breadfruit. He placed the plates before us on the floor, a virtual Fijian feast! It was wonderful. Siad, however, did not eat with us, he would wait until his wife came home. We chatted easily about many topics including the Fijian rugby team (a national source of pride), the recent hurricane the family rode out in this small hut, his duties within the village as pastor of the Methodist church and his family. His young son arrived and was sent as well to bathe and then he joined us. Siad sat and drank kava and smoked a cigarette while he used this other hand to brush away flies while we ate.
A Truly Local Experience
After the meal, he told us we should go as we were supposed to meet with the headmaster once again. It was the signal that we had stayed the appropriate length of time, about an hour and a half. He would stay and finish the kava. We thanked him for his hospitality and presented him a gift of a new rugby ball for his community team. I never did find out if this was appropriate or not, but it felt good to give something back.
It was an unforgettable experience to simply “be” with him and his son and experience day to day Fijian life in just this small way. Too many times as travelers, we see but don’t experience a place in the true way of the culture. To truly travel and understand a place, it is important to reach out to those who live within it. I will forever be grateful to Siad for his hospitality, his warmth and his desire to make a person to person connection.
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