It’s a number of years since I’ve stepped inside a church for a Sunday service. I’m wearing some rosary beads that were bought by a friend – an ironic gift to an atheist. Despite the heat, we are told to cover up out of respect for the locals. Noticing that I’m carelessly under-dressed, my tour guide rummages through the bus and finds me a sarong and an oversized T-shirt with ‘Fiji’ written on the front. It was conservative enough, even if I do appear to be styled by a church charity.

Inside the House of God, in the Nausori Village, about an hour’s bus ride from Suva, it’s not our clothing that attract stares. Rather, it’s the 12 of us, mostly faithless Westerners, in a remote Fijian village, crashing a Sunday church service that solicit constant attention.

The children can’t concentrate on the service, their eyes transfixed on the two rows of foreigners cooling themselves with woven raffia fans.

They whisper to each other, smile and giggle when we smile back. Intermittently, the all-female church choir, decked out in white dresses, breaks into song and the room fills with beautiful music. Putting my own reservations about organised religion aside, I am overcome with a heartwarming feeling, coupled with the last remnants of Catholic guilt.

The people in this village, who have no access to electricity are happier, more grounded and more enlightened than most Sydneysiders I know.

Finding my religion

After the church service we stand outside, greeting the congregation as they come through the doors. We form a line, shaking hands with each person, exchanging “bulas” and smiling from ear to ear. Some of the older ladies kiss us on the cheeks, touch our heads and treat us like they’ve known us their whole lives. Ordinarily, I’d find this confronting but their genuine warmth and excitement is infectious – I’ve even forgotten that I look like a castaway in oversized clothes.

One of the churchgoers who speaks English takes us on a tour of the local village. His name is Samuel and he’s one of the Christian missionaries. He wears a crisp white shirt, navy sulu – basically a man-skirt – and a very serious demeanor. This is in stark contrast to our Fijian guide, Jerry, who drinks beer with breakfast and tells us he falls in love with a new girl on every tour. Samuel shows us inside some of the houses, made mostly of tin. They’re humble and unadorned, with outdoor toilets and beds on the floor made from layers of pandanus leaf. We’re taken inside one of the houses to see a family of 11 eating their lunch.

Walking through the village, I hoist my sarong above my knees to avoid the mud from the morning’s rain. As it’s slippery, I hang onto the guy next to me to avoid going skidding down the path. Samuel looks at me with disdain – it must be my uncoordinated tiptoeing that has attracted his attention. It’s not. He pulls me aside.

“Miss, you must not wear your sarong like that,” he whispers. “You must not show your knees to the locals – it is very disrespectful.”

Ashamed, I quickly lower the length of my sarong, apologising for my ignorance. He returns to the front of the pack and directs us to the village chief’s bure, where we’ll be having lunch. En route, the guys from my tour make a bee-line for me and with mock disappointment, branding me the “village whore”.

The chief’s bure – a hut, essentially – is the village’s town hall. It’s the most impressive building there, made of bamboo and coconut tree materials. Entering, we are treated to more singing by the locals and a traditional kava ceremony.

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The Village People

Kava is special to the Fijian people. Sure, it looks like ditch water and has a strangely medicinal, dentist’s mouthwash taste, but it’s a special, ceremonial drink with natural calming effects. It is used for all occasions, from welcoming important guests to celebrating a child’s birth.

The village chief sits in front of us, wearing a three-piece suit and no shoes, but retains an aura that demands respect. Jerry, our guide, appoints a “chief” from our group who presents the village chief with a gift of Kava root. It’s very important to respect the village chief – if you show up emptyhanded you probably won’t be allowed to enter the building. It reinforces the story Jerry related earlier that morning on the bus.

“Back in the cannibalistic days, a reverend from England was killed and eaten for insulting a village when he touched the hair of the chief,” he says. We look shocked, quietly wondering how much of the cannibalism is exaggerated for the benefit of campfire ghost stories. “If you don’t believe me you can go to the museum in Suva and see the boiled sole of a shoe. It’s all that remains.”

We laugh dismissively but Jerry remains insistent, deadpan, continuing his grisly tale.

“The villagers didn’t know what shoes were, they thought they were part of a white man’s body,” he says. “So when they killed this reverend they tried to eat his shoes too.”

Sure enough, the legend appears to be true. A quick Google that evening of ‘cannibal’, ‘Fiji’ and ‘boiled shoe’ turns up the legend of Thomas Baker, the Methodist missionary who was eaten by Fijians in 1867. Thankfully, cannibalism has died out due to the acceptance of Christianity. But hey, there’s nothing like a tale of human flesh-eating to get you in the mood for lunch. Several bowls of kava later, we are presented with a smorgasbord of Fijian food. There’s an array of fruit, seafood, chicken and lots of taro on offer. Samuel tells us to get our cameras ready.

“Please, take photos, it shows your respect,” he says. “And show your friends at home all the wonderful food the ladies have prepared.”

They look so proud of their bounty of food, fanning it profusely to keep the flies away. After we sit on the floor to eat, we realise that no one else has helped themselves to food. Instead, the 30 or so villagers watch us with eager eyes as we dive into lunch. I cannot help but feel guilty as they smile, deriving such obvious pleasure from watching us eat.

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The root of evil

Unaware of what it is when first picking it up, I end up with exceedingly too much taro on my plate. It’s a root vegetable that’s tasteless and dry but I devour every piece of it with a smile on my face, not wanting to disrespect anyone – not after the sarong incident. After the girl next to me can’t get through her plate of food and puts it aside, I decide to finish hers off too. More smiles from the locals come my way. This time, my knees are well and truly covered.

Outside the chief’s bure, a woman gives me her address so I can send her the photos of the locals. She puts the piece of paper in my hand and wraps her hands around mine as I promise to fulfill her wish. “God bless you,” she says before I get back on the bus.

That evening, we stay at the four-star Uprising Beach Resort with traditional Fijian bures that have all the modern, luxurious finishes. We gather around the pool, wearing very little clothing and taking photos of each other jumping into the pool that overlooks the Pacific Harbour. Jerry has had a few too many beers and has just discovered planking. Although he’s a little behind the times, he’s hundreds of years ahead of the villagers. Jerry has Facebook and keeps pestering us to add him so we can upload the shots.

“There’s free Wifi here, do it now,” he begs. We order some more pineapple daiquiris and flick through our phones, enjoying the last light of the sun as it sets over the ocean.

Back in Australia it’s a few weeks before I manage to get the photos of the villagers printed and sent off to the Nausori Village. Unable to forget their warmth and hospitality, I hope the photos arrive but it soon dawns on me that I’ll never know either way. I suppose I’ll just have to have a little faith in the Fijian postal service.