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The Fiji Times Journal

From Wynn - 3 Amazing Days

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Wow, it’s been an amazing and intense last three days. After leaving Korelevu, we headed toward the capital, Suva. But we had to make an important couple of stops on the way. First, Jean wanted to find a small village called Lomeri, which she used to visit as a girl. We found the village, but when we drove in we could not find the old church that she remembered. Coming to the end of a dead-end road, we asked some people for help, and it turned out that they were all members of the Round family, who Jean knew, and who we had already come in contact with since arriving in Fiji. The dead-end of the road was actually the Round family homestead, and we talked to several members of their family. One man upon hearing Jean’s surname said that his dad had worked for Jean’s dad for 28 years. Also, Jean happened to mention to them that she used to go to a Chinese shop in the village to buy hot buns, and, lo and behold, they told her that the shop was still standing. They showed us the way and, amazingly, there it was, an abandoned shop in a small village in the middle of nowhere that was right out of Jean’s memories. Wow. (By the way, we shot the whole thing). Also, we found the church.

But, even more important than Lomeri was Deuba (“Deumba”), which was the large plantation that Jean’s mother’s family had owned near there. As we approached the area, Jean recognized the landscape and knew the exact place where the property came down to meet the sea. It was a beautiful bluff that jutted out to the ocean with a lovely beach in front of it. Jean was very emotional about returning there to walk on the beach one more time. But just as we were driving up, it began to pour rain. It was a true tropical rainstorm, and we couldn’t stop there to shoot or even visit. Jean was disappointed, but understanding of the fact that we would have to delay the visit to Deuba. We will return there later in the trip.

We continued to drive to Suva, and as we approached the capital city, Jean recognized that the city had changed dramatically from how it was in her memories. The small, tidy colonial town was now a large, dirty commercial center. She was especially dismayed to see the overgrown and unkempt cemetery (where her beloved grandparents are buried) as we drove into town. It was very emotional for Jean. We decided not to try to see much of Suva that evening, just to get dinner and go to bed. Going to dinner was an adventure in itself, but that’s another story. However, it is worth noting that upon coming home to our seedy hotel (which we have since changed) we met a lovely middle-aged Fijian couple who remembered a lot of the Fiji that Jean knew. We arranged to interview them in the morning.

The next day (yesterday), we interviewed them, and got some useful information. They told us that Bish Marine Engineering Limited, the company that Jean’s grandfather had started and that her father ran for many years, was now called International Marine Engineering Limited. Upon leaving the hotel, we headed down to the bay, and quickly found the place, right where Jean remembered it being. Sure enough, right across from the large IMEL buildings, was the modest original 1906 building that still says “Bish Limited” on the top. That building now houses a tugboat company, and we talked to some of the folks there. They showed Jean around the old building, and she again had some intense emotions. We also talked to some folks across the way at IMEL, and met one older man who had been there from the Bish Limited days. Very cool.

After that, we headed to the Royal Suva Yacht Club, which Jean’s uncle Basil had helped found 75 years before, and where her other uncle Alfred had been a commodore. The place hadn’t changed much physically over the years, but it had lost some of its grandeur. We were expecting to be able to have an elegant lunch there, but the only food on offer there was cheap, greasy Chinese food. We dined elsewhere. But returning after lunch, I asked around trying to find out information about the uncles. I was surprised to find out from an old yachtman that there was a Barry Lee in town (Jean’s mother’s surname) who was Alfred’s son. He’s Jean’s cousin! She hadn’t seen him since she was a late teen and he was a baby. She had not had any contact with him and didn’t know that he was still alive. We called him up and arranged to meet him the next day.

So this morning, after filming out by Suva point, a pretty part of the city that Jean has many fond memories of, we headed back to the Yacht Club. There, Jean was reunited with Barry and met his young Filipino bride. They shared family stories and agreed not to discuss politics when it became apparent that they were on opposite sides of the political spectrum. When Jean mentioned to Barry that she didn’t know exactly where her grandparent’s house was now since the city was built-up, he said that he knew where it was. So, after lunch, we followed his car out to the area and he pointed us up the hill. We drove up a narrow driveway, but the grandparent’s house was not on the top of the hill. Turning around, we got stuck in the mud and couldn’t get out. A Fijian man, George, who lived there helped us push it out, but we were both splattered in mud by the time we had done it. Talking to him and his family, we soon learned that while this was not the spot of the Bish grandparent’s home, it was the home of Jean’s uncle on the other side, Jack Bish. They let us walk around the house and Jean remembered it well. George told us that he could find the grandparent’s house, so we loaded him in the car and took a short drive down the road and up another driveway. But, alas, Jean could not find the house there that she remembered so well. She was disappointed and dejected. But then George told me that his 78-year old aunt lived in a house right there and that she remembered the Bish’s very well. Although Jean was exhausted at this point, she agreed to walk up the hill to meet this woman. The woman, named Litiana, greeted Jean with a big smile and said, “I know you, you’re Jean”. Jean was dumbfounded. Litiana remembered her well, saying how pretty Jean had been when she was young. She greeted us with joy and warmth, and it was amazing. We sat on a grass mat on the lawn, and George climbed a coconut tree, and got some coconuts for us. He skillfully opened them up with an axe and we drank fresh coconut water out of mugs on the grass with Litiana as she and Jean reminisced about the good old days. It’s all on tape. The best day yet!

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