Saturday, March 23, 2013

On The Plane Home

23 March 2013 USA, 24 March Fiji
Leaving Fiji in our Shalu Shalu made by a dear friend in Taveuni
Well wishers at the Taveuni airport
We’re on a plane from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City and are to arrive at 9pm on this Saturday night.  Surreal.  24 hours ago, on our way from Ba to the airport in Nadi, we walked out of a little village home where we stopped to say goodbye to our dear friend and convert, 16 year-old Ana (baptized in Taveuni but now living in Lautoka).  It was raining and we barely got through the muddy little road to her home, so much so that we decided to walk in barefoot rather than, get our sandals wet and muddy for the trip home.  A happy smile, a tearful goodbye, and we were off – perhaps never to see her again or return to Fiji.

We had flown on Wednesday from Taveuni to Suva.  There we stayed with President and Sister Klingler for the night and then one day in Suva to do some errands and have dinner with them and some other couples.  We shared our testimonies, as did they, and then went to bed.  We arose Friday morning and zipped off to the airport for a short flight to Nadi.  There we had the joyous reunion with Jared Clavin, our son Matt’s best friend, and he joined us for the day as we drove to Ba and visited dear friends there (Jared had come to Fiji with his company on business/pleasure).  In some ways it was wonderful, as we visited Sister Matte, Ulamila, Miriama, the Nairoqos, Tuli and Olivia, the Ratu family, and the Tabualevu and Luveitasau families.  Here's some shots of our final reunions in Ba:
Ulamila's family

The Nairoqo Family

Tuliana and her sister Olivia's family

The Ratu Family

Part of the Matewai Family


Rafaeli's Family
Rafaeli's Family and home we helped build after the 2012 floods
By the end, we were more than ready to go home as the feeling of  “attachment and obligation” to Fiji was fleeting.  We noticed how tired we were of the heat, humidity, dirt, and sounds of Ba (Hindi music, chanting, barking dogs,etc.).  We longed for home.

After visiting Ana on the way from Ba to Nadi, we boarded a 10pm flight to LA and arrived safely 9 hours before we left!  We had a long layover during which we washed and rested up and had a nice meal of really delicious salad and a hearty soup.  In the washroom I noticed some mud between my toes and in my toenails and realized it had come from Ana’s home.  Now we were in LA with asphalt and cement and cars and modernity.  One day earlier, we had been walking barefoot in a poor little village where Ana’s auntie was cooking over an open fire and part of their roof had blown off in the recent cyclone.  I don’t know whether we’ll undergo some version of re-entry culture shock, but the differences are stark and difficult to even imagine – we have lived in a different world, an old world of simplicity and lack of modern development for the last 18 months (particularly in Taveuni).

In an hour, we will arrive in SLC to some sort of welcome that we imagine will include some portion of Leah, Matt, and Laura’s families and perhaps Luke.  We will then stay a few days at each of their homes, be in SLC for the General Conference, and afterward head to Washington to see Emily and Sara and families before getting back to Corvallis on April 17th.

What can I say to sum this all up?  We go home with a big mixture of feelings.  It was a hard mission, a wonderful mission, a refining and eye-opening mission.  We had moments of such deep and indescribable joy that we hope to never forget.  Our testimonies have grown and our dependence on, and love for the Lord have certainly become deeper.  We heard one missionary share his testimony upon departure, using an allusion to the Lord taking Peter, James, and John “a little further” into the garden of Gethsemane from the other 8 apostles so they could “watch” with Jesus as he suffered.  The missionary said that he felt his mission had taken him “a little further into the Garden.”  I loved that sentiment and feel just the same.

Our experience has sharpened awareness of poverty and all the scriptures that so repeatedly speak of the poor, the lost, the downtrodden and other's obligations towards them.  It has been striking to see how insistent the Lord is on true disciples becoming more aware of, and more helpful to the poor.  It’s a very tricky topic in some ways, and yet in others it is simple: those who have must share, and that includes our time and emotion and empathy and money.  The poor are, in Jesus’ words: “always with us.”  So why is this so tricky?  Because you really have to confront the fact that it is nice to help the poor and the socially outcast – but from an arms length.  However, the poor, and infirmed, and mentally ill, and emotionally broken need more than money – they need us.  And do I really want to give more of me?  That’s the struggle and I feel somewhat as the scripture states; “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”

As is the case with all spiritual things, the biggest struggle is not getting spiritual experiences, it is in deciding to give up the things that preclude them.  One retiring professor of religion at BYU commented to the faculty: “I have learned over the years that almost everyone wants God in their lives, they just don’t want too much of Him.”  That is a good summary of the human condition, particularly for every would-be disciple of Christ.  How much are we really willing and interested in giving, and giving up as we pursue a life of imitating the Good Shepherd who ministered so lovingly and consistently to the poor?  So all this weighs on my mind and I feel the inward struggle wondering if I’ll carry through with my hearts intent, or will these emotions get lost in the busyness of life when we settle back into friends, callings, home, and family.  Time will tell.

In any case, my heart is filled with gratitude for these past 18 months.  We were pushed to the edge of our faith and endurance, and true to Heavenly Father’s plan, we have been blessed and grew through it all in ways we perhaps could not have anticipated or experienced in any other way.  God surely knew where we should serve on this mission and sent us there.  It has been the perfect place at the perfect time, and hard as it was, I am filled with gratitude.

I know that God lives, that Jesus is our beloved Savior, and that they truly did appear to Joseph Smith and called him to the work of restoration in these latter days.  May we be as true to them, as they have been to us. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Along the Way

The uniqueness of life on Taveuni never seems to become commonplace to us so we keep camera in hand everywhere we go.  We don't feel like tourists but perhaps appear that way to our Fijian neighbors when we pause to snap a shot.

We recently took "the big boat" across the Somosomo Straits to Vanua Levu Island for a missionary conference:
We weren't the only ones on the boat, but gratefully we didn't travel tethered to a post!
Now that requires patience!
The deck on the "Stinky Sofi" smelled better than the gathering room so we stayed
out there most of the 5 hours playing Skip Bo ~ a fun game!
Apparently the young missionaries didn't get the word that we could travel in P-Day clothes,
or did we just make that up?
On another boat were our friends, the Batarua family who were headed to Suva to secure visa papers
for daughter, Lusi who just received her mission call to Ghana and was so excited!
Who needs the ferry when you've got bamboo!
Each day we see men and boys coming back from the hills where their farmland is located.  Always with a big cane knife (often the only tool they really own), they return carrying something for dinner when they arrive home.
Amazing how many coconuts this guy had ingeniously
threaded onto a stick for easier transport
Visiting the farms is so interesting.  The Ranama family are wonderful church leaders in Somosomo and work hard to grow dalo, cabbage, cucumber, tomatoes and other vegetables to sell at the local resorts.  Their farm is impeccably cared for and the little house is sufficient.  The farm produces enough to meet their needs and help pay for 3 of their kids who have, or are serving missions.

A creative "cucumber house"
Beautiful Cacao (= chocolate)
Our dear friend, Timoce was returning back from the farm when we passed him on the road.  We are constantly amazed at their ingenuity for carrying things. Here, he had woven a palm frawn basket to carry bananas wrapped in dalo leaves, and you just have to bring home some coconuts!  Son, Jone had more leaves, a mainstay for "green food" in their diets.  When cooked properly, the leaves are fairly tasty.  Not fully cooked, they cause an intense itching choke in your throat so we always hope the mother is not in a hurry when we come for dinner!
While the men were off working at the farm, Losana was in labor at the hospital and by the time they arrived she had already given birth.  On the day of our visit, we asked the baby's name.  Timoce indicated that his wife had chosen the first name of Saula.  He then motioned to Tom and asked; "What your name?"  "Tomasi", he replied.  "Then that will be his name, Saula Tomasi" -- pretty cool to have a namesake on Taveuni!  Annie already had a little girl named after her in Ba so now we are both represented in Fiji.
No matter where you live, clothes washing is a universal need so while the men are at the farm, women are often seen in the rivers brushing, scrubbing, and slapping the clothes on rocks or with sticks.  Water is always warm and pleasant so it's a great social time.

Trying to reach new heights in Vuna
This is the most lovely LDS chapel on Taveuni where the Somosomo Branch meets.  Because of it's size and central location in the village, it is a gathering spot for many happenings in the community and a place we have spent much time.
On this Saturday morning Annie met with the young women to teach them how to weave bracelets.  It was a simple craft and yet it worked with what supplies we have to work with here.  The next day at church their leaders told us they couldn't stop -- it's kind of like a disease once you get started.
On any given Sunday one never knows where you might be needed.  No Primary leaders came this week but just in case that should happen, we had prepared something.  The kids are starved for anything we might offer them and loved a few activities that went along with the teachings that day.  By the time Sacrament Meeting came along we had several new friends joining us on the pew.
Beautiful children that warm our hearts
Gathered together in celebration of the 171st birthday of the Relief Society (oldest women's organization) the women and young women
joined for the commemoration. 

We were honored that an aspiring chef/baker would volunteer his time to make this
special cake that served 32 appreciative partakers (including some wandering Primary children)
"What is this?", you might ask.  A pomelo of ginormous proportions.  Finally, the promised "grapefruit" of Taveuni was found!   

  With no small amount of effort, we worked our way through the burly peel,
and were rewarded with its citrus yumminess.  Paired with fresh avocado, the two make quite a duo.
In the absence of robins and sparrows, our papaya trees feed the local parrot population as well as the giant fruit bats.  Color is their forte, not their unpleasant squawking, but we wish you could see their iridescent blue wings as they dip and dive around the yard.

Beauty comes in so many different forms, from nature to the people who work, live, and play here.  Most any afternoon when we pass by the beautiful Catholic compound we see youth of all ages engaged in sports.  Never hearing what might be said, we are still struck by the symbol of unity in their circle.   

We feel the same way about our circle of friends in Taveuni.  Included among them are Sam and Ana from the nearby village of Soqulu.  Our first meeting was around the breadfruit tree as they visited and wondered if we had enough to share.  Over time we became friends and were especially humbled one day to find Ana on our deck when we returned home.  Seeing our clothes hung on the line, she feared someone might take them so she had spent the afternoon sleeping and waiting on the deck to protect them until our return.
Radiant Ana and husband Sam have known great sorrow when their oldest daughter at age 3 died from a boil on her foot.  Health care is so minimal on the island.  Sharing the Plan of Salvation with them was particularly meaningful.  On this night, little 2 year-old Lui, sat on the floor with his plate of casava and cup of water until full, then neatly put things away and crawled into daddy's lap for bed time.
Ana loved the skirt Annie gave her
Vuna members gathered in the "Relief Society" room (young Pai loved his guava so
much that he didn't want to give it up, even for the photograph)
Eight of the members pictured above have all been baptized since we arrived.  It's a joyful day every time we gather by the sea for another ceremony.  Sister Loma has been a long time member of the Church but her husband had been a Pentecostal minister and the kids followed his lead.  Blessings and divine timing finally came together recently as his heart changed and he was thrilled with the message of the restored gospel of Christ on the earth.
After a long wait and overcoming many challenges, Muri and Mele were also finally baptized.  Muri is an expert spear-fisherman and often provides the fish for branch celebrations.  We love it cooked in coconut milk (lolo)!

Dear friend, Ela
Along the way we've loved the sights of Fiji. Our minds have been captured by them and our time together with friends will forever be etched in our souls.  What a blessing.
"And all things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth . . . and also all the planets
which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator."

Journal Entry

This is Monday morning, and we leave Taveuni for the last time on Wednesday.  We will then spend a day in Suva, fly to Nadi and go to Ba for a couple days to visit friends there, and then return to the United States on Saturday, the 23rd.  In the amusing realm of artificial time markers and international datelines, we will leave Fiji at 10pm on the 23rd and arrive in Los Angeles at 1pm the same day (nine hours before we leave!).  After a 5-hour lay over, we will fly to SLC and arrive there at 9pm.  We trust the kids in Utah will be there to welcome us and we so look forward to it – we are ready to go home.  We will then spend several weeks visiting each of the kids in Utah and Washington before arriving back in Corvallis around the 17th of April to finally be home and be with Seth and Caroline, Tommy and Cali.  We can’t wait to drive down Crescent Valley Drive once again and to pull into our home we love so much.

How can I sum up all these months of hardship and frustration, challenge, sweat, bugs and critters – all at contrast with the intense feelings of love and gratitude we have developed for many people in Fiji?  Just can’t do it, such contrasts.  Perhaps like all missions, there has been in reality more difficult times than good ones.  But also like most missionaries, with time we hope to feel that the good experiences outweighed the bad.  This has been a hard mission.  The living has been difficult and that is combined with the frustration of trying to help Fijians who have accepted the gospel learn how to be participating members and leaders in the Church – oh, what challenges and barriers exist to administering the Church here!

Notwithstanding the difficulties, we have had moments of intense and eternal love with those we’ve taught and with whom we worked.  At those times, we realize the promise made to us in our call issued from President Monson’s desk that we would have joy beyond our previous experience, truly has been fulfilled.  It is impossible to adequately express in words the feelings we’ve had while sitting in little shacks, on the woven mats we enjoy so much and with wonderful friends, communing beyond our language capability the deep feelings made possible only through the Spirit.

Poverty and all it’s inevitable reach into every aspect of life is something we’ve never had a close experience with before.  It permeates everything from food availability, to possessions of convenience, to education, to health, to government services (or, complete lack thereof), to outlook and hope.  For the most part, these people simply have nothing, and there are not a handful of them who have a job from which they can earn cash.  When we bring a simple picture, or a video on our computer, people of every age begin to gather and light up.  Music! A picture!  Just to see one, to hold one, to imagine – something they have very little exposure to.  To see a picture of themselves that we’ve take and put on the computer has brought such pleasure to them.  I remember in Sister Mate’s home in Ba how a little piece of broken mirror and a hair pick were prized possessions and were lovingly placed on a piece of material draped over an ancient TV that may never have worked but made a good shelf and still sat in the corner (besides, she had no electricity!).  It was as though two treasures were being presented to view.  Not sure they ever used them, but there they were as if to say, “In this home, we have a mirror and comb!”

Poverty also has terrible and real consequence. It takes a grievous toll on health, on outlook for the future, on education, and on opportunity.  It’s not pretty and the down side is very real and pervasive. With few teeth, lots of daily struggles and disease, and a short life span, the people here move forward in a very stoic manner, not asking for attention or sympathy because everyone else is in the same boat. But still, as we’ve emphasized in our blog posts, you could not find a happier people.  Their simple life focuses on the joy of being together, of play, of joking and laughing, of bathing in the river and jumping in the ocean, of knocking down a mango or papaya to munch on, of running after each other, of the daily games of rugby, soccer, or volleyball with a ball half flat and cover torn off.  I laughed the other day to find a very large group of young adults gathered at our church to play volleyball and every few hits they ran to the sideline to inflate the ball with a cheap little pump we bought.  Barefoot and scantily clothed -- but oh how they laugh and joke with each other as though life had provided for them every needful thing.

Life matches and conforms to the poverty and the rhythms of nature.  You wake up to the light and the call of the rooster, you go to bed when there is no light left.  No money for shoes?  No problem, from the time you’re born you just run around barefoot and the soles of your feet harden like leather, so you don’t really need shoes do you?  No money for furnishings in your home?  No problem, the voi-voi plant is just outside and you can harvest, boil, dry, and weave a mat to sit on.  No need for chairs, or sofas – just sit on the floor with your family and friends and everything is fine.  No electricity?  Well, who needs computers and TV, and air conditioners, and the endless things that cost money anyway.  No refrigeration?  Then we’ll just raise food that doesn’t need it and eat what we harvest today, tomorrow will take care of itself, and Heavenly Father has provided most of what we need to eat anyway.  No stove? Well, we have sticks and people have cooked over open fires outside forever, what’s wrong with that?  No plumbing?  It’s Ok, we have the rain water and can dig a pit outside to use as a toilet.  It’s raining?  Then let’s all go out to play and take our “rain bath”!  It’s always warm in Fiji and the rain doesn’t make you cold, so what’s the problem?  We’ll take off our simple clothes (purchased second-hand, or given to them, or handed down), and wash them in the river and hang them out to dry.  But what if it is rainy and they don’t dry?  We’ll just wear them wet, it’s not cold anyway.  Need to go to town but have no money or car to get there?  Just walk!  We went to a meeting the other day on Rabi Island and a leader we asked to attend (though we had no idea where he actually lived), had walked 17 kilometers to be with us.  No complaint, no grudging attitude, no request for sympathy. He carried a pair of shoes with him and upon arrival he reverently put them on to enter the chapel.  When it was time to walk home, he removed them and left to walk back home with no complaint.

Still, the poverty keeps you down, the government doesn’t work, and the opportunities to change your circumstances are few.  As summarized by our good friend, Saimone Nairoqo, “Everything is broken in Fiji, even the weather.”  We’ve really experienced this and it is discouraging to live here and so hard to get anything done, with barriers to success being woven into every aspect of Fijian life.

One day, we will all be stripped of the possessions and materialistic trappings of life.  We’ll pass into the next world with just our character, our accumulation of thoughts and actions we chose to shape our mortal experience, and the friendships and loved ones we’ve nurtured and been blessed by.  Then, we’ll stand before the Lord just as we are – the person we’ve become.  All the inequities of this poor world will have faded away, been compensated for, and seem to be but a dream.  In that day, we hope to be worthy to stand with so many who have truly loved and sacrificed for those around them and made life better.  We will join arms and shed tears of joy to be forever with those who loved the Lord and righteousness and the children of God, and there will be no barriers that separate us.  Our mission has sharpened this focus and our appreciation for the Lord and His children throughout the world, whom we have come to love with all our hearts.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Journal Entry

We have 16 days left in Taveuni.  At this point in our mission experience, we feel we’ve accomplished about all we’re going to do.  We had hoped for one more baptism of a stellar 65 year-old woman  (Elena Maitatoga), but her husband is causing problems and for now her plans for joining the Church are on hold.  So we will teach another new-member lesson or two to Ela and Rosana, take one more trip to Rabi Island, have a couple more administrative meetings with the District Presidency, and then spend the rest of the time visiting our beloved members.  Hopefully, as a crowning event, we will participate in the organization of Vuna as a fully established branch and also see Somosomo get a new branch president (President Mohammed has moved south to Vuna).

Last night we met with the Ranama and Qima families (same house) in Somosomo village, and introduced them to the card game, Phase 10.  There is no electricity in most of Taveuni so we sat in the dark with a kerosene lantern on a beautiful big mat and played (with some assistance from a couple flashlights).  It was so fun and they have invited us up to their little farm shack where they normally live, to have dinner next Monday.  This Saturday we have a big going-away party in Vuna that we are really looking forward to, and Annie has traded her sandals to Sister Jale in return for her making two small mats for us to take home and place under a nativity set we plan to make from materials gathered here on the island. 

Living here has largely become an exercise in frustration and subsistence.  We have had it with “paradise.”  Last night we had a new infestation of rats in our kitchen, we are fighting off another infestation of scabies on both of us (origin unknown), insects are a constant irritant though we’ve both grown partially immune to the mosquitos, and there is little fresh food on the island just now so we’ve barely had any vegetables for a couple months.  We eat to live but often don’t enjoy it.  In these regards, we are more than ready to go home.

With regard to our efforts to help local leaders learn how to lead, and especially to learn how the sacred funds of the Church should be handled, we are leaving in significant defeat and discouragement.  The more we look into financial matters, the more frustrating it becomes and most leaders here would be released from their callings and likely have serious disciplinary action taken against them if they lived in the States.  They have never had money, don’t know how to manage it, and see the Church as an endless money tree for which they have a personal responsibility to distribute the perceived “unlimited” funds to any and everyone who asks – and for any reason.  Truly, money seems to somewhat ruin the church here, and in our opinion (and that of other missionary couples), they would have been much better off if they had simply had the Church and its programs brought to them with no money associated with it whatever.  Third-world people are ingenious at making do in life and getting their bare necessities through a hundred schemes and associations – even if some are deceitful. All this “skill” is transferred into Church leadership when they become members and seemingly without any conscience that certain behaviors are wrong (and prohibited), they proceed to become full-time distributors of Church money while making sure they get their share.  They do not see anything wrong with this and when we try to explain and train them differently, we fear they just bide their time ‘til we leave and a new uneducated couple comes who will not discover all these things for a few months.  It is more than discouraging.

But with all the frustration, these are beautiful people who have so many good things about them.  We love spending time with them in their simple ways of living and making do.  Village life has so many wonderful aspects and much from which our hectic and materialistic “first world” countries could learn from.  We will treasure these associations and always be grateful we had the opportunity to serve the Lord and loving the people of Fiji.