After two nights waiting for cyclone Zena to pass over Nadi, we tentatively pulled open the curtains at dawn to assess our chances of making the long journey to Yalobi village in the Yasawa Islands. Luckily Zena’s damages hadn’t been as bad as feared; the flooding had subsided enough for the bus to take us round to Denarau port, and the Yasawa Flyer boat was running again. For us, this meant we didn’t have to change our travel plans after all, but for Fijians it meant they finally had some relief from a series of storms that had hit the islands since the destruction of Hurricane Winston which left 40% of people without houses.
After a 7 hour detoured route of the Yasawa islands, bouncing over rough seas and 3 metre swells, we finally arrived at Barefoot Kuata resort. Now only a 30 minute journey stood between us and Yalobi village. But, as the small, battered fibre boat pushed off from the shore, we realised how much better those 2 metre swells looked from the top deck of the catamaran. We were sharing the boat with some of Kuata’s staff who lived in a village across the bay from Yalobi, and had paid the captain to make a detour from his commute.
We were welcomed to shore by Epa, the uncle of Mereonnie – our host for the week – who showed us up to the house in the dark. We couldn’t make out much of the village, as the generator (that runs for 3 hours an evening, whenever someone brings a £2 fuel canister from the mainland) had been off for the past few days, but the house was lit by a solar-powered torch hung over the open doorway, and light from hundreds of stars in the first clear sky we’d had since arriving in Fiji.
We entered into the main room, decorated with photos of the family, and furniture – a single bed, two chairs and a mirrored cabinet – arranged against the walls. The house itself was a wooden bungalow, painted blue and white with a grey tin roof, and a corrugated tin kitchen extension. In the second room, we could hear Epa’s wife Vaci (pronounced ‘Vardy’) putting their son to sleep. The third room, with a double bed and mosquito net, was ours.
That evening, Mereonnie brought us dinner of freshly caught fish in a coconut cream curry, and we sat and talked on the veranda. She’d been running the homestay about a year and we were her ninth guests. The idea had come from her friend, the village nurse, who had shown her how to get set up online.
Our first morning in the village began the same way the next five would; an ear splitting cock-a-doodle-doo (actually, ‘oi oi oi oi‘, as it was a Fijian rooster), just inches from our heads on the other side of the thin walls. Along with 120 ‘Kai Yalobi’ (Yalobi-ans), Yalobi is home to about 40 chickens who have free range of the village. Everyone knows which are theirs, and watches for when the hens start roosting in the trees, so they can collect the eggs.
Our routine quickly adjusted to village time: We got up with the cockerels, went to bed when it was dark, watched people fish when the tide was right, and saw the children go to and from the school at the far end of the village. Our mornings began with the outdoor shower; an open-air tin cubicle with a barrel of fresh water from the spring, a bucket, and panoramic views of the hills behind.
Mereonnie prepared a different breakfast each day; pancakes, fresh fruit, vani ke ke (mini donuts – also called gula gula meaning ‘globes’), and fresh bread, baked in a tin pot heated on an open wood fire behind the house.
Everybody who walked past the veranda had a friendly “Bula!” for us, and Mereonnie seemed to be somehow related to all of them. The village is home to five clans (each made up of anywhere between five and fifteen families), and led by the village chief, whose father was chief before him, and his father before him. The houses were a mix of traditional straw bures, wooden, tin and a few concrete houses, each with their shower and toilet outhouses, set on a stretch of incredibly manicured grass, and two trodden paths leading between the school at one end and the church at the other.
Wandering around the village and along the beach, we watched daily life unfold. When the tide was out, women set off with buckets to collect shellfish, fish for bait, and sea grapes, or with fishing lines to fish from the shore. Men set off with snorkel masks and spears to free-dive in the hope of catching bigger fish. The chief’s grandson and a friend set off into the mountains to catch wild pigs, whilst others were replanting cassava – destroyed over and over by different storms and cyclones. We met a man grinding tree bark into a throat medicine for the pastor. Judging by the shouting, punctuated by coughs, coming from the pulpit, he was going to be kept very busy.
Other than the chief, the village nurse, and the pastor, nobody had a fixed job, instead everybody was a carpenter, farmer, butcher or fisherman as needed to support their family, their clan, and the whole village. Destruction from Hurricane Winston was visible at every turn, but so were the collective rebuilding efforts. The fallen trees and branches had been gathered into neat piles, or used to rebuild houses that had been blown apart in the storm, and temporary bures had been built for those left without a home.
The most important thing for us to do on our first day was to meet the village chief for ‘sevusevu’ – the custom of visitors presenting a gift to the elders. As thanks, he blesses the gift and the visitors, granting them protection during their stay. Traditional beliefs and customs are important; rumours of cruise ship passengers who had not done sevusevu with the chief, then suffered reef shark bites on the way back to their boat, were still talked about long afterwards. That evening, when the generator came on for the first time in several days, we saw that modern traditions are just as important as the old ones. As the power came on, the children ran out of their houses cheering, immediately wanting to find out which family had the Pitch Perfect DVD for them to watch for the 103rd time.
The next day, Saturday, was a day off from some of the usual tasks, but still full of activity. The three fibre boats were pulled out onto the water again (after being secured on shore during the storms) and one left to make the rough journey to the mainland for supplies. People set off in different directions, but everyone was planning to be back for Fiji’s first match in the Hong Kong Sevens – even in Yalobi, ‘island time’ is punctual when it comes to rugby.
Our plan was to see how far we could explore beyond the village. Not that far, it turned out; there’s one path up into the mountains which was blocked by fallen trees. Part of the way was still clear, so Mereonnie and some of her cousins showed us the pool tucked away amongst the rocks used for bathing, before climbing back down to the beach for a picnic. A picnic of bread, sausages and eggs for those over 10, and a picnic of dried instant noodles covered with orange-flavoured Tang powder for those under 10. After lunch and a game of beach chess, the tide had gone out enough to reveal almost all of the reef.
We walked out onto the rocks, between the blue, purple and orange patches of the live coral, and caught a big haul of small fish for Mereonnie’s aunts to use as bait. We followed her cousins’ technique of waiting for the fish to jump into the shallow pools of water amongst the coral, slam a well-aimed hand down and grab them! They were much more practiced and soon had a big heap squirming around on a sarong. After a few slippery escapees, we managed to add a few to the growing collection and carried them over to the fisherwoman in our picnic bag.
When the tide was on its way in again we cooled down in the sea, chucking a rugby ball around with Mereonnie, her cousins, a couple of off-duty teachers from the school and the American Peace Corps volunteer who’d been volunteering in the school for the last year. Then it was time for the real rugby, we all dripped back to the village and sat around Epa’s radio on the veranda to hear Fiji beat Canada and South Korea. The boat made it back just in time for the matches, too. The big haul of fresh kava roots was taken away to be pounded into powder by Bill and Moji, and, for one or two pounds of the deceptively heavy metal staff, also Timian.
After dinner on the veranda, we sat talking about Fijian life with Epa and Vaci, from their daughters studying on the mainland and other family members working at resorts on other islands, to Fijian wedding outfits and the New Year’s Eve tradition of trying to splash as many people as possible with sea water at midnight.
The methodist church, opposite Vaci and Epa’s house, was easily the biggest building in the village and had been donated, along with its solar panels, by an Australian visitor about 30 years ago. In front of the church was the Fijian equivalent to church bells – a hollowed out log drum under a thatched roof. All church services were announced by the pastor coming to beat the drum, which seemed very quaint at 10am, but more of a shock at 4am!
The house was also buzzing with prayers and hymns, as Epa ran a service for families who followed a different denomination than the main church. Our breakfast table was soon surrounded by escapees from the Sunday school, dressed, like everyone else, in the traditional sulu and sote clothing – a kind of sarong paired with a flowery shirt, patterned according to the person’s clan. This was not only a good opportunity for Timian to hone his origami skills making cranes and fortune tellers, but also for us to practice our Fijian counting with them.
After church, Kai Yalobi take their day of rest very seriously; even the rugby commentator on the radio knew everybody would be “settling in now, after the church service and a big Sunday lunch.” After a few hours of snoozing, we headed down to the beach to watch fibre boats returning children to their boarding school dorms after 3 weeks off; They’d been stranded on the mainland, along with some of their teachers, for an extra week after their usual 2 week holiday, as the huge swells from cyclone Zena made the crossing impossible for the small outboard motor boats. Snow-days in England seemed a walk in the park compared to cyclone-weeks here.
In the evening, the generator went on for an unprecedented 3rd day in a row. Not that surprising, as Fiji had reached the final of the rugby. The chief’s family own a television, which they moved outside the front of their house, hooked to a makeshift aerial precariously attached to a wooden ladder on their roof. The picture quality was more ‘no definition’ than high definition, and the colour stuttered between either all-green or all-red, but this didn’t stop the children recognising each of their heroes and screaming their names when they came on the screen.
England’s pitiful 5th place playoff came and went, and more and more people started to gather around the screen under the brightest display of stars and the Milky Way we’d seen on our whole trip. Blankets were brought out so that young and old could sleep through the play-off matches, whilst anticipation built and die-hard fans discussed tactics; even the team had been affected by Zena, having to wait an extra day for their kit to be flown out after all flights leaving Fiji were cancelled. At last, it was time for the final. A deflating first half saw favourites New Zealand take the lead; a dampened mood feels even quieter when all you can hear is the waves lapping on the shore and a few whispered prayers from the crowd. They were answered in the second half, however, as Fiji scored an equaliser followed by a last gasp conversion to seal the win after the buzzer. Cheers of ‘VINAKA!!!’ (thank you) and ‘Toso Viti!!!’ (come on Fiji) rang out as the generator went off right at the last whistle, and everyone went to bed with smiles on their faces. Not least us, after such an unforgettable evening.
On Monday, it was back to normal routine; fishing, farming, home repairs and laundry for the adults, and school for the kids and teachers. Just before lunch we walked around the school with Sai, the school manager, who showed us the dorms, classrooms, rugby pitch, teachers’ quarters, the library stocked with donated books, and the dining hall run on rotation by parents coming for a week at a time from surrounding villages to cook for the children. Sai explained all the restoration work he was about to start with grant money from the government, the priority being to replace a dorm roof that had blown off during Hurricane Winston.
In every classroom we were greeted with big smiles and friendly “Bula! What’s your name?” from the incredibly well behaved kids. Master Jacobs stopped to talk to us about the subjects they learn, when he wasn’t running across the grass between the two classes he was teaching that day, covering for his colleague who was sick. Leaving the kids to their lunch, we headed back to the village for ours with Mereonnie.
Hoping to finish our village life experience with an evening of kava drinking, we spent the afternoon trying to find somebody selling it. The roots that had come back from the mainland the other day had already been pounded and drunk, a family known to always have a good stock hadn’t begun pounding their roots yet. In the end, six year old Naomi lead us to the pastor’s house where he sold us five small bags. That evening, though, the pastor received a group of guests from churches in other island villages. They were here for the week; there would be many more church services and absolutely no kava or alcohol drinking during their visit. Their first service kicked off at 4:30am the day we left, and we were woken one last time with the roosters and village drum, each trying to drown the other out.