We sat in a circle with the village elders and the chief. As the only foreigners in the circle we were greeted by smiles and reverent nods. A quiet “bula” was spoken and we sat. No rush. Just a moment to sit and breathe. A small package of kava root wrapped in paper and tied with twine was passed around to the one who would speak first. He knelt. Addressed the elders directly. He spoke with clear intent and purpose. It did not matter that he spoke in the native tongue. The soul and sincerity of his words transcended language, particularly at each pause as the elders would nod and utter a sound of agreement. Still, a translation at the end confirmed for us the intent of the words — to grant us permission to come to the island and join with the locals for a few days to do our work. Further they asked the elders forgiveness in advance for any offense we may create and ended with a final and simple “the island is yours.”

It was a moment of gratitude and one we will not soon forget. We were 8,000 miles away from home on Malake — a little fishing village on the shores of a remote island off the coast of Fiji. Home to three clans with hundreds of families living in 120 simple tin-roof homesteads, two churches, one primary school, a community center, some chickens, a few dogs and cats, native grasses, trees and a view that trumps most five-star resorts … and we had just been given the island for our visit here. What a gift.

There were many more gifts over the coming days. An outstretched hand of a child helping us climb their steep hills, a spread of locally caught and prepared fish for an exquisite island lunch on handmade floor mats, beautiful songs prepared for our arrival and farewell, handmade leis from local leaves and flowers.

The culture of Fiji is beautiful and welcoming. We were amazed by the simplicity of life in this small island and the simplicity of the homes and people there. The differences were clear: as we struggled for breath and footing hiking up their steep mountain side, they tread lightly, hopping, even running barefoot up the steep and rocky slopes; as we sat hiding in the shade eating our packed sandwiches, they cooked fish fireside in a wooden oven in the sun. But the similarities were also obvious: they sang the Fiji Anthem and other traditional songs with pride, and we returned the gesture with You are my Sunshine and Michael Row the Boat Ashore; they smiled and giggled at our silly faces and games and we smiled and shed tears of wonderment at their culture. Mostly we were amazed by the joy and happiness that resides there. A communal culture, one in which there is no mine or yours … only ours.

The work was hard but rewarding — planting nearly 4,000 trees on the steep terrain above the island, installing solar power on the hot tin roofs, teaching the children for an afternoon, cleaning up litter-ridden beaches, and delivering small solar kits to each and every homeowner. And every step of the way as we tried our hardest to give something to this island, we continued to take more than we gave. We took their joy, their smiles, their sharing, their respect and their gratitude. Fortunately, these are multiplying gifts and ones that can remain once taken.

Perhaps the Sherman brothers, Walt Disneys composers, had been to Malake island near Rakiraki in Fiji when they coined the iconic lyrics to what is now one of the most translated songs of all time. “Its a world of laughter, a world of tears. Its a world of hopes and a world of fears.” And as our boat pulled away from this little spot in the world that is so different from our own, we truly knew, “Theres so much that we share that its time were aware, its a small world after all.”

Indeed, the island was ours for a time. And though we occupied this little island for a few days, the people there and their small gifts will occupy our hearts forever.