In all my thirty years I had never, until last week, set foot in any one of our Pacific Island nations. To me it was a world undiscovered, a world which despite our geographic proximity and our close connections, I had spent little time contemplating. Oh how quickly this all changed!
Last Saturday Mum and I boarded a plane for Fiji, our ultimate destination Taveuni, Fiji’s third largest island. With a population of twelve thousand, Taveuni Island measures a mere 11km in width and 35km in length and is affectionately known as Fiji’s garden island, untouched by major developments and glitzy tourist spots. We spent 7 nights in this pacific paradise during which time we took part in an aid project which saw us refurbish a kindergarten at the southern end of the island in a wee village called Vuna.
Vuna is a village very much devoid of the trappings of western life. Its potted dirt roads lead to homes whose walls form a tapestry of natural woven panels, corrugated iron and wooden planks. Outhouses billow smoke as daily meals are cooked over open fires around which chickens roam and children play.
Unperturbed by frequent torrential downpours our army of volunteers, flanked by a line-up of hard-working Fijian boys tasked to aid us in our endeavours, spent 5 days scrubbing, hammering, cutting, cleaning, building and painting with fervour until the kindergarten emerged anew. A vibrant space fit to stimulate learning and play in the lives of the beautiful little people of Vuna.
To fuel our efforts we were spoilt with offerings of pawpaw, pineapples and bananas picked fresh from fruit trees which dotted the landscape in abundance. The Indo-Fijian influence shone through in beautiful fish curries (the fish fresh from the sea which surrounds the village) and dhal which we ate perched atop paint buckets and saw-horses at lunchtime as the pre-school quickly transformed around us. We even ate cassava soaked in coconut milk and brown sugar and wrapped up beautifully in taro leaves. It had a sticky texture like glutenous rice and was rich and silky. What perhaps surprised me the most however was the baking which was generously offered forth on the morning of our last day. A distinct absence of ovens in the village did not stop the women of Vuna, and instead of baking cakes as we might they steamed and boiled and produced an impressive selection goodies (custard tarts, chocolates sponges) the most popular of which was a beautiful banana cake, lighter and more tasty than any I had ever had.
Not yet a week has passed since my return from Fiji and I find my thoughts often turn to my experience in Vuna and the people who we lived alongside over the course of the week. I have never before felt so warmly welcomed or so totally humbled by a place and its people. Though as a community, they have so little, they gave so much. Their smiling eyes reveal their kind hearts and they way they approach and live life taught me to slow down and remember what is truly important.
When life is at its busiest I will turn my thoughts to Taveuni, to the people of Vuna for whom life moves at a different, more thoughtful pace. I will picture them on their island covered in coconut palms, bananas and taro, under the Fiji sun, and I will remember to slow down, to stop, and to breath.
Taveuni, I will return.