An evening of tremendous generosity and heart-felt gratitude took place at the University of La Verne’s 2014 Scholarship Gala on Saturday, March 1, 2014. Hosted at the Sheraton Fairplex Conference...
Professor of Communications experiences an emotional reunion with friends made in South Pacific 30 years earlier.
After finishing graduate school in Hawaii, now La Verne professor Don Pollock sold all of his worldly belongings and headed for the South Pacific.
After teaching high school in American Samoa, Pollock traveled to Western Samoa, Tonga and Fiji. While in Fiji Pollock had some memorable adventures—floating down the Navua River early one Sunday morning and catching fish with nearly every cast. While travelling to the more remote island of Vanua Levu Pollock met a young man, who, impressed with Pollock’s fishing prowess, invited Pollock to his remote village.
“It was like going back in time,” Pollock recalls. “About 25 thatched huts on the top of a mountain. People were growing root crops and hunting wild boar with small dogs and spears. We hunted prawns in the stream at night with machetes and lanterns. I shared my tent with my hosts. It was the first time they had slept in a tent and, they later admitted, the first time they had seen a spinning rod.”
Pollock spent a week in the village. He took a bunch of pictures and promised to send them back to the villagers.
By the time Pollock got back to Hawaii he had lost the address. “I always felt bad about that. Visiting in that village was one of the great experiences of my life,” Pollock recalled.
Flash forward. Pollock moved to Los Angeles and became a filmmaker and eventually a professor at the University of La Verne. In 2009 Pollock realized that it was the 30th anniversary of his visit to the remote Fijian village. Wouldn’t it be fun, he wondered, to go back to Fiji and try and find the villages and people and deliver the pictures to them in person.
The University of La Verne agreed and gave Pollock research funds to make a documentary film about his return to Fiji.
In January of 2010 Pollock and his cameraman, Yesel “Yak” Manrique (BA 2007) got on a plane for Fiji.
“Within a few hours of landing we were at the mouth of the Navua River. One of the villages I visited 30 years ago was an hour boat ride up the river. Yak and I went to where the water taxi drivers hung out. We showed them a small photo album of pictures from 30 years earlier. The men started pointing and laughing at the pictures.” Pollock smiled too. “I think we’re on to something,” he told Manrique.
The men acknowledged that they knew the people in the pictures. In fact, one of the men said, “The man you stayed with is married to my sister. And I am the mayor of the village.” With this Andre hustled Pollock and Manrique into his long boat for the bumpy, hour-long trip up the river to Namuamua. When the group arrived in Namuamua Pollock’s old hosts, Josefa and Maria were not home, but two of their younger sons were. Pollock pulled out the photo album. The young men silently flipped through the album. The young men were in their 20s. They noted, “When you came here before we weren’t born yet. You have pictures of our grandfather. We have never seen him before.” It was a powerful moment.
After a couple of days visiting with Josefa and his family Pollock and Manrique headed for the city of Suva, where they met up with the faculty in the media program at the University of the South Pacific.
After a few days in the city it was time to try and find Pollock’s old friends on Vanua Levu. After a 3½ hour bus ride and a 5-hour boat ride, Pollock and Manrique landed on Vanua Levu. They got on a bus headed east. On the bus they passed around a different photo album. A man on the bus did a double, then a triple take. With excitement he yelled “Toni,” which was what they called Pollock in Fiji. The man, said “Don’t you remember me? You stayed at my house 30 years ago. You caught a big fish.”
This was Jone. He invited Yak and Pollock to stay with him in the village of Daria. Things had changed quite a bit since Pollock’s previous visit. There was a new post office. The road and bus actually made it to village, people cut the village grass with weed whips not machetes and the thatched huts were gone, replaced with simple wooden structures. And nearly everyone had a cell phone.
After a few days, Jone hired a four-wheel drive vehicle to take Pollock and Manrique to the village, Congea, where Pollock’s old friend, Joeli Wakalala was living with his family. This was a far cry from thirty years ago when the only ways to Congea where by foot or horseback. The reunion of the old friends was more emotional than Pollock imagined. “I couldn’t stop crying,” Pollock said. Joeli and Pollock held each other for a long time remembering the time they spent together when they were young men. Joeli then led the men on a stroll through the village as they talked about the changes the village and the country had seen.
Manrique caught all of the action on video.
After a brief visit with Joeli, Pollock and Manrique headed off for new adventures.
“Vanua Levu is home to Natewa Bay, the largest Bay in the South Pacific. I’d always wanted to visit there,” Pollock said. “Yak and I picked a village on the map and hopped on a bus.”
Getting off the bus in Nabawalu, armed only with the name of someone they met on the bus’ uncle, and their backpacks, Pollock and Manrique strolled into the village. They were greeted warmly and spent several days in the village swimming, hiking, and drinking kava with the locals.
Manrique said, “It was an amazing experience. It really opened my eyes to the way people live. I’d love to go back.”
“A lot has changed since I was there before,” Pollock said. “But, that’s what the video is about. Change… how places can change… but also how they can change you. And the importance of travel to shaping who we are. I’m not sure if the video can answer the question of “Can you go back (home) again?”
One of the big changes? Pollock didn’t catch a single fish on this trip.
Pollock and Manrique are currently editing the video.