Monday, 31 March 2008

"Sai yau levu na lotu keina lomavinaka..."

THE FERRY left behind the tiny, low-lying sand islands of Beachcomber and South Sea and took us towards Fijian paradise. Shortly, land appeared: the island of Waya Sewa, transparent turquoise seas giving way to white sands, lush green tropical vegetation — coconuts and pandanus palms — and there, penetrating the centre, a sort of Pride Rock, an enormous mountainous granite outcrop dominating the landscape and providing an immense backdrop for the village below. It was absolutely beautiful. We weren't stopping here for now, but in a few days this would be our home.

When that time came, we jumped off the ferry into our transfer speedboat, the choppy seas guaranteeing a bumpy ride. On the beach the resort staff grabbed our bags and led the way between the houses through the village, my bare feet in quite some discomfort on the fine stony ground. The village was a mixture of concrete and wooden bungalows, appearing more prosperous than might have been expected. Cats, dogs and cockerels wandered freely around, and the men at the boat shed gave us a cheery wave as we all passed.

The Waya Lailai resort sits adjacent to the village on two tiers directly below the mountain and its forested fringe. Residents sleep in thatched bures and dine overlooking the Pacific Ocean and beyond. Unlike many of the resorts in the Yasawa island chain, the resort is owned by the neighbouring village itself. All profits are returned to the village community and the villagers act as the staff. As a result, the village is more open to travellers than elsewhere. Where other villages might expect a gift for the right to visit, visitors to Waya Lailai can enter freely — within reason of course: your receipt from the resort is not a ticket to invade people's houses or offend the villager's sensitivities.

In search of adventure, we went straight to the beach, where some of the village wives were selling jewelery and teaching people how to weave palm leaves. I would return later to weave a bracelet for myself (much to the amusement of the ladies), but for now I left Jeannette behind and walked with sand between my toes, into the sun and toward the village.

Almost immediately I found about twenty villagers sat around a big mat on the floor, eating and drinking.

I offered a polite hello: "Bula!"

"Bula my friend! Come and join us!"

I hesitated, but then they offered me tea. Since I find tea very difficult to turn down, and because I was now presented with a perfect opportunity to get a feel for traditional village life, something I had been keen to observe, I accepted. They sat me centrally and handed me a mug of a pale brown liquid which tasted very much unlike tea. In fact, it was quite revolting, but I smiled nonetheless. Then they handed me cake, which did the trick.

In front of me a man introduced himself as Moss. He explained, with the assistance of the gentleman to my right, that they were taking a break from building a new house for the chief. To my left was the house itself, at present a big framework of wood and logs, a sturdy structure at the base of the ubiquitous mountain. Construction would continue for another month. Moss said that they take breaks at 10am and 4pm daily to relax from the tough construction work. I looked at my watch. It was twenty past six and the sun was beginning to set. Moss giggled nervously.

"Look at this guy!" said one of the builders suddenly about a fellow villager.
"He is a girl. A girl with man bits! A boy–girl. Half man, half girl!"

This went on for quite some time. At first I just smiled and nodded, in the way that embarrassed Englishmen do. What was I to say? Was I to join in and agree with him? No, no, better to keep grinning until he changes the subject.

He didn't change the subject.

"Which part is which?" I enquired.
This seemed to break the ice, as the men roared with laughter. To this day, I'm not quite sure why.

We started to talk about the village, and what it was like to live here. Conversation eventually steered toward the church, a quite wonderful white wooden building in the very centre of the settlement. Unadorned but bigger than all of the houses, it was a statement of wealth and faith more powerful than I had predicted of an unassuming village beside the beach.

One of the builders, an energetic and friendly man named Sau, stood up and offered to show me around. Sau became a good friend over the next few days. Everytime I went on a walk along the beach he would be there to say hello and take me to see something new. When a man named Jesse took us on an impromptu trek through the forest for a few hours to the building site of a new resort, Sau was already there, waiting with his friendly smile and wave. Sau even took me into a lady's house, confident in his assumption that as an Englishman I would be able to fix her "English-made phone charger". With interior design yet to take off in Fiji, her living room contained an old brown sofa, which clashed with the drapes on the concrete walls, an old television and two posters of Jesus and Father Christmas. When the "English-made phone charger" was handed to me, however, I had to admit defeat, on the grounds that it was actually a sealed, Korean-made power transformer for a portable DVD player. Where the portable DVD player had come from, I do not know.

On this first afternoon at Waya Lailai, Sau took me to see the church. He stood outside with his friend Seya as I entered. The church inside, as out, was immaculate, and a real haven of peace. I could just imagine the wooden pews packed on a Sunday with worshippers singing their hearts out in praise. On the pulpit sat two Bibles, one in English and one in Fijian. Above the altar was a tapestry of the Last Supper, above which a sign read "Sai Yau levu na LOTU Keina LOMAVINAKA..." I do not know what it means, but I know that I like it.

Outside, Sau walked with me back to the resort. He explained that the major form of Christianity in Fiji is Methodism, based on Church of England orthodoxy.

"Is Christianity strong in Fiji?" I asked.

"Yes," he replied.

But then he stopped walking and turned to me smiling.

"Actually no. Jesus is strong in Fiji."

I love Waya Lailai.

More photos from Waya Lailai and Fiji here.

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