One of our guests in January had a particularly interesting story. It was a true case of a journey across the ocean to find long-lost family. Bill is a charming, gentle American with a lively and endearing interest in the life of Fiji and the foibles of Savusavu. We were fascinated by his quest and keen to hear hs news as the story unfolded over the days he stayed with us. It’s quite a long story, but I enjoyed it so much that I’ve put it all up!
Here I am, sitting in a sleazy little internet café in Savusavu, Fiji. I never thought I’d need to spend so many days of my vacation writing what was quickly becoming the start of a book but then, I never thought I’d have so much to say about my experiences in Fiji.
I had come here with my mom Susie and brother Steve, in part to see if I could track down my uncle.
Uncle Bruce had disappeared from our family’s radar in recent years and I figured he had finally escaped to Fiji . To me he had always been like my older brother — the cool teenager who surfed and skated before it became popular and who introduced me to KISS when I was six, changing my life forever. In 1999, Bruce married a Fijian woman, Anna. I hoped to visit Fiji someday, especially as I heard of Bruce’s plans to retire there to build a bure on the beach, surf, tend a garden and live a simpler life.
“Don’t be surprised if you see me walking up the beach someday,” I would say to him. I’m sure he figured I’d never actually show up. Life is what happens while you’re busy making plans and as the years passed, my uncle’s retirement had been delayed. Also, a family feud had erupted and the family wasn’t talking. To make matters worse, he had separated from Anna at some point. We fell out of touch during these years. His phone had been disconnected, his street address was unknown, and no one knew for sure where he was…
* * * *
Fast forward to January 2010. I hadn’t heard a thing from my uncle for quite a while and wondered if he’d finally disappeared to Fiji. My cousin Brooke and I, probably his closest remaining relatives, talked it out over beers one night and concluded that he had to have left. How could he fly under the radar in the States otherwise? Either way, I was going to find out — flying over the vast Pacific, I was determined to track down Anna’s small village and see if they had started living their dream.
Stepping off the plane and onto the tarmac of Savusavu Airport, there was a small open-air building serving as the terminal and a cow was grazing near the runway. Almost immediately, a smiling ex-patriot in a pink polo shirt walked up and introduced himself — it was JJ, our host at the resort, and we quickly jumped into his sedan for the fast ride through town to Daku Resort.
JJ endeared himself to me immediately with his quick wit and relaxed demeanor — it was a combination I found to be unique and refreshing. We soon arrived at his spread, a lovely compound of traditional small Fijian houses positioned above a pristine cove not far from my aunt’s village.
I wasted no time telling my story to JJ, who was greatly amused by the mystery I was trying to unravel. “Do you know where in the village they live?” he asked.
I explained that I knew nothing, that I didn’t have their address or phone number, that basically I was coming in blind. “Well, you don’t want to show up at the village with just a smile, do you now!”
He had an idea of what to do and invited me over to his office, from which he made a call to the nearby Cousteau Resort. “Most of the employees are from your uncle’s village so I’m sure someone there will know him. There aren’t many kaivalagi [the Fijian word for foreigner] living in the village, so I’m sure someone will have seen him if he’s been living in the village…”
As he picked up the phone and dialed, I waited in anticipation and watched his expression for signs of progress. The first person we reached, the receptionist, didn’t know… We were transferred to another employee who lived in the village and as JJ mentioned my aunt’s and uncle’s names, my hopes sank as he looked over at me and shook his head. We were transferred to someone else.
Three’s a charm, I thought, and as JJ explained our unique story once more, I had a flash of brilliance. There was a secret about my aunt that I wasn’t expecting to have to use but as our third conversation appeared to be going nowhere, I quickly mimed a boxer’s punches and shouted “JJ, tell them Anna’s ex-husband Joe was a professional boxer, Fiji’s champion boxer!” Surprisingly, that did the trick — JJ gave me a thumbs up and my spirits soared. Maybe I was actually going to pull this off…
“OK so he can just show up at the village and he should be able to find her then? Great, thank you.” He hung up the phone and exclaimed “Well young man, it appears you’ve found your aunt!”
* * * *
JJ called a taxi for me and, faster than I expected, I was sitting in a green hot rod cab on my way to the village. It was a long, bumpy ride and I was beginning to get nervous… What will happen? Were they still together? If not, would I be persona non grata and get chased out of the village?!
I told Jack the taxi driver about my adventure and, as we quickly approached the village, he stopped alongside two men walking to the village and asked them in Fijian if they knew my aunt.
“Yes, I am her uncle!” said one of them and put his hand out to mine. “Bula! I’m Ellya.”
Either I’m lucky or this is one small town! I thought.
I thanked Jack, gave him a generous tip and walked alongside Ellya toward the village. My first visit into the village was intense. To me, it felt very foreign as we hiked single-file down a small pathway surrounded by homes and shacks of all colors and types. No fences anywhere, this was an immediate impression. And there were was laundry drying on lines in front of every house. Also, lots of chickens running loose.
Anna’s uncle looked over a few times as we walked, quietly checking me out. We got deeper into the village and my heart thumped as faces seemed to peer out of darkened doorways and windows. Would Anna be there? If so, would she remember me? How would she react to seeing me out of the blue like this?
We reached the front porch of a modest bure and Ellya began speaking some Fijian through the open window, “Bula! Daru lululu mada. O yau o,” then “Beely Book!” A woman soon appeared on the front porch.
“Anna?” I blurted out immediately because she looked familiar but she just cocked her head and looked at me quizzically. She and Ellya spoke more Fijian. All is lost, I thought.
Suddenly, I heard my aunt’s voice bellow from behind the drapes. “BEEEL! Oh wow!” And suddenly there was Anna racing out of the front door with a big smile and wide eyes.
People began pouring onto the front porch, many children of all ages, and Anna gave me a hug. She introduced me to the other woman, who was her sister Beretta (of course, that’s why she looked familiar). They invited me into the house and I turned to thank Uncle Ellya, who smiled and shook my hand, continuing into the village.
In rapid succession, I was introduced to her large family and Anna kept turning to me with wide eyes, nudging me as if to help her realize I was actually standing in her living room. Her hair was shorter but still bushy, as I remembered it. I also recalled her big black eyes. Anna’s mom and aunt were seated at the kitchen table and I warmly greeted them as the children kept gathering closer and closer. Every few moments, I would feel a gaze from a different direction and would look over to see a cute little face with wide gazing eyes sizing me up. They would come up close to get a good look, then smile, laugh and rush off. I could tell there was a great warmth and intelligence inherent in these kids. I’m sure they were perplexed as I have quite a resemblance to Bruce!
I was invited to sit down on a lounge chair in the living room and the children gathered around, jockeying for position. Anna handed me a fan and insisted on hearing the story: How did I find her? How did I make it to the village? She especially liked the part where I had to mention her ex-husband Joe the Boxer. Every once in a while, she would provide Fijian translation for the family, then turn back to me and say, “I can’t believe you’re here!”
“You know this is your home now,” she said rather seriously. “Come and go as you wish, stay here, whatever you want.” One of the kids positioned an electric fan across the room, turned it on and aimed it for me. Every so often, someone would walk over and fan me for a while. I was amazed at the unity and generosity of the family: they were insistent on making sure I would be a comfortable guest.
It started raining lightly outside with a cool tropical breeze billowing through the open windows and as I looked around the room, I began feeling like this was my long-lost family…
* * * *
“Your uncle just called an hour ago!” Anna exclaimed.
My uncle! I had almost forgotten about Uncle Bruce in all this excitement.
“Where is he anyway?” I asked, figuring he had gone across the island for some reason and was calling to check in with his wife.
“He just went back a few weeks ago — he’s in California.”
“What?! I just missed him?? I can’t believe it…”
“Yes, he was just here. He’ll be back next month though.”
“You want to come with us to the beach? We’re going to do some fishing and the kids can play in the water, you can come hang out with us.”
The whole brood was soon heading out the side door and walking down a narrow trail through the lush grass of the village. As we passed the village chief’s house, Anna reminded me to remove my hat, a long-standing tradition in Fijian villages. After a short walk, a huge expanse of white sand beach unfolded all around us, with distant waves breaking on the edge of a reef that was barely visible on the horizon. One of the kids took my hand as we walked toward a shady spot beneath some coconut palms. We began setting up a “temporary camp” as her mom headed down the beach to her favorite fishing hole with a Coke bottle and fishing line.
Anna began giving the kids different tasks so we had more time to catch up on things. “Hey, go find us some papayas!” she screamed to a few of the older more rambunctious kids and they happily scampered off into the jungle with a machete. The younger ones jumped into the nearby water, which was shallow and devoid of waves for a long stretch out to the reef.
A slow but steady stream of villagers passed by on their way somewhere, in no hurry. Fijian words were exchanged that went something like “Where you going?” “Pick some coconuts.” “Ahh!”
A few kids walk by with some stalks of freshly harvested sugar cane and Anna commandeers a few wedges for us to eat. Someone else brings some steamed plantains to share. The village life truly has a communal basis and this impresses me to no end. Almost every person has a smile, joke, gift or good-natured greeting to share. “Bula!” one woman says to me. “Shake her hand,” Anna instructs as she comes over to talk for a while.
Finally, the kids are back with some papaya and the eldest girl slices one in half, rinses it off in the seawater, hands it to me with a smile, and sits beside me. The machete somehow gets into the wrong hands, one of the younger children, and Anna has to scream at them “Hey! Put that down!”
OK, there are universal traits of kids everywhere — some like to get into mischief. But overall, I am struck with how much these kids, especially the older ones, come across as attentive, alert and relatively quiet. This is in contrast to a friend of mine’s brood back in the States who, when not engaged in mobile entertainment devices or TV, seemed to be doing everything but minding their parents or paying attention to the world around them.
Now there was a lobbying session going on and I was the target: three of the older kids wanted me to take them out swimming to the reef. It was a long way and I had reservations but Anna reassured me they’d be OK. I quickly caved in to the pleading and soon all three of them were covering my back with sunscreen — now that was an enterprising gang, six hands at once was the way to expedite things!
We were soon wading out into the calm water with a few snorkels and masks, small colorful fish swimming around our legs. The day couldn’t have been more beautiful, with small puffs of tropical clouds lining the horizon and a calm breeze from the north. Soon it was too deep for them to keep walking and our arrangement changed as the youngest, Ulalia, suddenly jumped on my back. The other two started explaining in broken English that she hadn’t yet learned to swim! Pretty sneaky, I thought. OK, so I was providing the dolphin rides today…
I realized that Ulalia’s dad (Anna’s brother-in-law) hadn’t been around much and, at seven years-old, she probably wasn’t getting the help she needed with things like learning to swim – around here that was a mandatory skill. So I began using our time to help her start learning the basics of swimming. They laughed as I floated her near the surface and instructed her to kick her feet and make broad strokes with her arms. She was a natural and in minutes was almost swimming on her own. She still kept ending up on my back though and I was starting to swallow some seawater.
We soon found an elevated area halfway out to the reef and rested, standing on a nice little sand mound. I began beat-boxing for their entertainment and they laughed, quickly cupping hands to mouth trying to replicate my technique. It was a timeless moment, four children of nature floating in the cool water, smiling and enjoying the day. For me, it was a welcoming ceremony as we turned back to look at the shore, the endless beach, and their village elegantly hidden in the lush palms.
* * * *
Anna’s sister Beretta met us on the beach. “My mom caught a good fish and they’re going to start making lunch back at the house, are you ready to go?” The children lined up for the walk back to the village and, after we cleaned up, we all reconvened in the living room.
It turns out my uncle had called while we were gone and Anna’s brother (who hadn’t met me) said “She’s at the beach with a guy.” This provided great entertainment for Anna and her sister who kept laughing about it.
The beat boxing game had spread like wildfire. Kids were coming by to test their skills out on me, trying not to drown each other out. Ulalia had some obvious rhythm, a groovy soul beat, rather than the run-of-the-mill variety of rap. I encouraged them but Grandma didn’t seem too keen on all these mini-rappers walking around the house. I looked around and noticed a few things I hadn’t before. Various tribal patterns adorned the walls and a small plastic Christmas tree still stood there from a few weeks ago. “I brought that from the U.S. ” said Anna.
Her mom emerged from the kitchen and smiled as she showed off an incredible fish on a dish. Anna explained that her mom had to dive into a tide pool to capture the fish – it was so large, it had gotten away with the lure (a hermit crab) and fled deep under a rock. I was speechless.
The five of us adults sat around the table for lunch, and the kids spread out on a mat on the floor. Lunch was cassava, plantains, some other vegetables and the fish… I marvelled at the fact that all of our lunch was gathered locally. It can still be done! I thought. “We really just need to buy milk and rice,” explained Beretta. “Everything else we gather. A lot can grow here easily!”
We had a nice conversation over lunch about a lot of things. Smiles and laughs all around.
Then! The phone rang and Anna got up expectantly as the whole house came to a standstill. This was probably Bruce, everyone had to be thinking. All eyes were on Anna as she answered.
“Hello? Oh, hey Bruce! How are you? OK… Hey, there’s someone here that wants to talk to you…”
I’d wanted to play a trick on him, but not like this. Twelve sets of eyes stared at me and I had to jettison my initial idea to sing lyrics from a racey KISS song that I knew would surprise Bruce. I chose a different song and clumsily began singing the lyrics, sure it would remind him of the old days. I chose too obscure a song however, as there was silence on the other end. Now I felt like a real goofball. The family didn’t quite know what to do either as a few of the kids giggled. I tried another hint to see if he had any idea who was on the phone. He was stumped.
Finally, I just came out and told him this was his long lost nephew who had come across the ocean 6,000 miles to visit him and here I was sitting in Anna’s living room.
“BILL?! I don’t believe it. I can’t believe you made it there.”
“I figured you’d be here, uncle. What are you doing back in the States anyway?”
“I’m stuck here for a while. Jeez, you really made it! I wish I was there…”
We caught up on a few other topics and then it was time to say goodbye. He was calling on a phone card with limited minutes so we made plans to debrief at some point soon back in the States.
I handed the phone back to Anna. It’s a funny world, I thought, as I sat down to get to know my new found family…