The way Fijians greet you is in such a warm, lilting voice that you find yourself hearing their welcome “Bula!” long after you’ve left the islands. So often it’s the local people who influence our feelings about the countries we visit; which is why when I travel I love to spend my time in the villages as much as possible. It not only shapes your experience but it’s the embodiment of all that we learn when we’re abroad and reminds me constantly why travelling is so good for the soul. In Fiji, the broad grinning faces and the echo of distant singing is like a homecoming. The children are forever smiling, watched by their grandmothers who sit beneath the canopy of beachside palms chatting and stuffing wedges of freshly picked coconuts into their grandkids’ mouths. Fiji is natural and native and though it’s easy to lose yourself for a day in a luxury beachside resort, I couldn’t wait to explore the hinterland. I wanted to see the mountains and valleys shrouded in tropical forests and meet the nurturing, god-fearing and benevolent people of the islands.
We arrived at Biausevu Village mid-morning when the sun was rising through the mist warming the curve of the hills. In a small run down assembly hall, the elders of the village sat in a line facing us and began singing and chanting their welcome. They clasped our hands and with warm smiles offered us a coconut shell filled with the murky brown Kava drink. We sipped, gulped, clapped our hands once traditionally to honour them in return and started our walk around the village. As we took the winding incline to the house where the village chief still resides, we heard women clattering pans cooking lunch, chatting softly and we peeked through the open windows to see them thread the colourful beads that we tourists are so fond of. Against the backdrop of the hillside, the village of small weatherboard homes stood quietly. Their walls painted in turquoise and the colour of fresh cut papaya popped against the overgrowing green jungle leaves and I wondered how hard it would it be for us to live like this; so openly and honestly, with everyone knowing each other’s lives with such intimacy. There is little room for ego and a collective consensus for harmony. I guess it’s this kind of generosity and simplicity that holds the village together.
At the heart of the village was the local pre-school and when we walked in, the kids gathered around us singing nursery rhymes and pushing books in front of us to read. They were all wearing their red and white checkered uniforms, though the fabrics all differed slightly. I think the last time I saw so many cheerful, jubilant faces was in a village in India and yet here again, in a one room school, with only the floor for sitting and books laying haphazardly about, I could feel the energy that their happiness brings. One by one kids started jumping in our laps, folding over one another with enthusiasm to show the English words they could read. We hugged them in return, laughed along with their giggles and left. Theirs is such a simple school day, such a simple life, but the way their deep brown eyes sparkle you can see they’re not missing out on anything in our cluttered world.
Beyond the village was a waterfall where our guide offered to take us by horseback or foot. I love being barefoot, especially when I travel. There’s something about feeling the earth connect to my feet, so I quickly slung off my sandals and started the steep walk towards the pinnacle of the hill. We were told it was a brisk 30-minute walk, brisk perhaps for the villagers who no doubt make the climb as frequently as we run down the shop to buy milk. But for us it was more of an amble, a slow breathing in of crisp air, deliciously filling our lungs and adding a rosy pink to our already hot cheeks. We walked through fresh clear streams, gingerly stepping over the sharper pebbles. By the time we reached the waterfall and the pale green pool of water we jumped in, the cool biting at our sweaty skin and washing away the grime and heat.
By late afternoon we headed back towards the hotel and watched the colours shift from the emerald of the jungle to the azure of the coral reef. We found a fabulous Eco-cafe with a thatched roof and bamboo floor, perched on stilts with palm fronds swishing in and out of the open window frames. We savoured our coffees, soaking in the quiet before heading back to our resort. The long stretch of hotel beach had families, kids and couples jumping and diving in and out of the water, snorkeling, kayaking and paddle boarding. I’m sure it’s entirely possible to spend your holiday in Fiji within the grounds of a five-star resort where every holiday dream is catered for. But for what you’ll make up for in rest and relaxation, there is so much of island culture and life that you’ll unwittingly forgo. After all, the only way to really understand and absorb a country is to get out of your comfort zone and into someone else’s. That’s why spending time barefoot in the jungle, reading with the preschoolers and drinking kava at our welcome ceremony was so meaningful; because for a brief moment, a circle of strangers let us step out of our world and into theirs.