It’s the sweet irony of life that our weekend at an extravagant beach resort led us to a service project in a small, primitive village tucked within Fiji’s interior hill country. In just a few hours time, our family went from sitting in the lap of luxury with all the modern conveniences to sitting on the ground among dozens of Fijian villagers with a gift for singing. Both were beautiful experiences in very polar-opposite ways.
Our last evening at Volivoli resort we wound up talking to a family from New Zealand. Having heard their accents and guessing they were Kiwis, I kind of made an effort to strike up a conversation with them since I thought they might be able to offer some advice on our time in their country. (That doesn’t qualify as stalking, does it?) It turns out the Adams family is on a life-changing journey of their own.
Two months ago Jeremy and Truus made the decision to move with their three children, Isaac (11), Kaitlyn (9) and Hannah (4), to a rural Fijian village. Their goal was to simply bring assistance and additional helping hands to a tight-knit community of a hundred people who still live without electricity and, in most cases, indoor plumbing. The Adams children attend the village school while Jeremy and Truus work with locals on a number of improvement projects. They walked away from their life in Christchurch, New Zealand to make a difference in a remote part of the world very few people know about.
Hearing of the family’s service efforts, the New Zealand owners of Volivoli offered the Adams a space in the resort’s staff dormitories so the family can come periodically to recharge their batteries (both literal and figurative), use the internet to connect with family back home, and enjoy the beaches of Viti Levu island. We’d met the Adams during one of their monthly weekend retreats. As we cooled off in the pool, they shared a lot of great information about New Zealand and told us a little about their life in the village of Sawanivo, a place not found on most maps. The more we talked with them, the more we wanted to find a way to get to their village and help them in their work there.
Apparently, for a group of pragmatic Americans and New Zealanders, there’s no time like the present. The next day, instead of going back to Suva with our Fiji hosts, the Carisch family piled into the Adams’ SUV with them and set out for the village. Our first stop was the town of Rakiraki where we bought a few supplies, a box of bottled water (for those of us whose stomachs may not be prepared for the spring-fed water of the village), and a round of frozen treats from the town gas station. After turning off the main highway, we followed a dirt and gravel road for about 30 minutes, bouncing along as broad vistas of lush green hills rolled by the car windows.
Jeremy told us about a waterfall hike in the area he’d heard about but had yet to find. He thought it would be a fun walk for our families to do during our visit, so he stopped to ask a local boy standing on the side of the road if he happened to know where it was located. “Yes, I know the waterfall,” the boy replied, somewhat stone-faced.
“Great!” Jeremy said, leaning his head out the driver’s side window. “Would you mind showing us how to get there?” The boy climbed into the car with us, bringing the passenger count up to eleven. “Do you live near here?” Jeremy asked as he put the car into gear.
“Yes. Waterfall,” the boy replied.
Thinking he perhaps hadn’t understood the question Jeremy asked again. “No, I mean, where do you live?”
“The waterfall,” he repeated, pointing ahead. Although most young Fijians learn English in school, we began to think the young man might not know the language well and perhaps wasn’t really understanding anything we said.
After a couple minutes the boy indicated Jeremy should pull over and park. Soon the ten of us were following him down a hill heading toward what we hoped would be a waterfall, but given the apparent language barrier we weren’t entirely sure. When we approached a house on the path, a woman came out and began talking to the boy. As it turned out, he did live at the waterfall. It was just our good luck that the one person we had stopped to ask about the waterfall happened to live in the house closest to it. Our young tour guide took us down to the river and showed us the many jumping options the waterfall offered.
Shortly after our waterfall excursion, we arrived in the village of Sawanivo. Situated on a lush, green hill above a rain forest river, Sawanivo is a tidy collection of humble homes built from wood and sheet metal. As a youth pastor, Jeremy had visited here several times with his young parishioners from New Zealand. Their projects had been to construct sidewalks throughout various parts of the village, making it easier to walk during rainy periods when the sloping pathways would become saturated and slippery. Expanding on this network of sidewalks became part of the help Brian provided during our stay in the village.
As the sun set on Sawanivo, our families got ready to attend a combined service of the three churches in the village. Periodically, the members of the Methodist, Pentecostal and Seventh Day Adventist congregations come together for a community-wide service, leaving behind the differences of their religious beliefs and sharing in an evening of prayer and song. Brian donned the traditional sulu, a long wrap-around skirt commonly worn by the men of Fiji, and we walked through the darkness together to the village’s Methodist Church.
We sat on the floor of a little sanctuary dimly lit by a few solar lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Honestly, when the ceremony began I was miserable. The steamy, crowded room felt oppressively hot, and sweat dripped from every inch of my body making me look and feel like I’d just stepped out of a hot shower. I sat there wondering how on earth I would make it through this service without running outside and throwing myself into the nearby river. But then the congregation began singing their first Fijian hymn and something a little magical happened. As their strong voices belted out foreign words in unrehearsed, a capella, 8-part harmony, the room seemed to get suddenly cooler. I felt a comfortable, numb sensation settle over me as my ears absorbed a unique music they’d never heard before.
That night two of the villagers, Maciu (pronounced Matthew) and Adi (pronounced Andy), welcomed our family into their home. Exhausted from a long day, we used lanterns and headlamps to get situated for the night under mosquito nets. Although I initially thought the humid air and lack of fans might make it difficult to sleep, the next thing I knew I was opening my eyes to the gray light of dawn.
Our second day in Sawanivo began by waving the village children off to school, followed with a breakfast of jam and homemade roti, tortilla-like Fijian bread. While the sun burned off the morning fog, Brian and Jeremy worked hard to prep a field for planting. A team of oxen then dragged a plow through the soil, followed closely by a group of village chickens who were taking advantage of the freshly-turned earth to get an easy morning meal of worms and grubs. The next step involved digging holes and setting posts for the fence which would enclose the garden.
Of course, it couldn’t be all work and no play for our unruly crew of Yanks and Kiwis. Most of our time in the village was spent talking, laughing and swimming. The Adams even arranged for us to take bilibili rafts down the river. Millie, Wise, Chavvy and other residents spent four hours building these traditional flatboats made of natural materials, and then served as our guides during our float trip. It was a great way to spend a hot afternoon. As we made our way downstream, our Fijian drivers let us take the helm. By the time we floated into Sawanivo it seemed half the village had come out to join in our little swimming party. Ali was particularly committed to her position as a bilibili captain and wound up steering other children around the river.
Just as the river is a central part of life for the villagers of Sawanivo, it was also an important part of our family’s time there. Its cool waters served as a much needed reprieve in the heat of the day and became a catalyst for bringing our girls together with the local children. As I sat on the bank watching them all take huge leaps into the water, construct little dams across the shallows and build makeshift rafts from stalks of bamboo, I started thinking about the things we tend to devalue in our western lives. In our efforts to enrich our kids’ brains and bodies with everything from organized sports to music lessons, we allow less and less time for this – the sheer joy of doing nothing. Relaxing by that river I could see the immense value of being out in nature with no particular plans of any kind. Sitting, jumping, twirling, floating, building…in doing whatever they wanted those kids were still learning about the world and each other.
Back home in the U.S., our family put the majority of our time toward organized, scheduled activities. Work, school, practices and extra-curricular lessons took priority, while leisure time out in nature came less and less frequently. We seemed to have developed the mentality that for something to be worthwhile, it had to require orchestration and a fee. For example, take our approach to teaching our kids to swim. From the time they were two-years-old, Brian and I would pay the money to sign our girls up for lessons at the local pool. It usually took at least 3 or 4 of these expensive sessions before they were competent enough in their swimming skills to be in a body of water without an adult staying within two feet of them. Yet, watching Alison splash and jump into that river I was reminded that she’s essentially taught herself to swim over the last month. None of those lessons had worked for her. All she needed was time in a pool and some kids to play with her. That’s it. Sometimes we make things more organized and complicated than they really need to be, don’t we?
Before long, it was time for our family to leave Sawanivo and our new friends. As we got ready to pile into the Adams’ car for the drive to the bus station, Jeremy had an unfortunate realization. He’d last had the car keys when he drove our family and his wife and kids upriver for the bilibili float trip. After taking some photos of us when we were drifting back into Sawanivo, he’d put the keys in the waistband of his shorts. Then a little while later, forgetting about them, he joined us and the villagers for an impromptu swim. Whoops. The Adams’ only set of car keys was now somewhere at the bottom of the river. The situation would mean some extra time in Sawanivo for our family, which certainly wouldn’t have been so bad. However, much more serious was the fact that the Adams would have to find a way to get a new key made for their car – not an easy task in rural Fiji. Needless to say, it was not a good situation. However, a little Fijian girl was the hero of the day. Thanks to the amazing river-diving talent of Tavaita, the keys were miraculously recovered. Crisis averted.
Our stay in Sawanivo came to an end as we drove away from a crowd of waving, smiling Fijians and four of our new Kiwi friends. Jeremy got us to the bus just in time, and by that I mean he sped past the bus honking and flashing his lights until it pulled over onto the side of the highway and let us on. We scrambled out of the car and up the bus steps, ending our time in the hills of Fiji’s interior with a boisterous “BULA!” from our fellow bus passengers.
We’re so grateful we happened to meet the Adams family at Volivoli. See kids, sometimes stalking people pays off. We wish all the best to this amazingly generous and fun family. We know how lucky we are to have met them and their friends in Sawanivo.