Kava, Coconuts and Cannibals

Welcome to the Fiji Islands!

I never intended do a strip tease in front of the Fijian village chief. Honest! I fully intended to keep my knees and shoulders covered and my head and feet bare, as prescribed, whilst inside the Mavua village’s community hall.

So blame it on the kava.

This wasn’t my first meke after all. The name for a village meet-and-greet celebration, it inevitably involves song, dance, food. And kava.

Pacific Potion

The making and sharing of kava, a ritualistic potion of the South Pacific islands, typically begins the meke.

Drinking kava in Mavua

Murky as the water of the Sigatoka River we’d travel upstream that morning to reach the village, kava is made by the villagers, who grind and strain the root of a local plant known for its sedative properties.

Most of the village of about 200 turned out to greet our tour group on the river banks that morning, among them a dozen or so children in their grey uniforms, big smiles, and bigger bulas.

Bula, the exuberant greeting Fijians thrust at visitors, is usually accompanied by vigorous two-hand, overhead waving and smiles that are the very definition of welcoming. The word itself can mean hello, bless you (when you sneeze), much or very, and life.

“A real bula is big, loud, and strong,” one Fijian man told me. “The stronger you say it, the longer you live.” 

This particular meke took place on the main island of Viti Levu, Viti meaning “Fiji” in Fijian, levu meaning “big.”

Cruising the Outer Islands

I should have been an expert on village etiquette by then. My first visit came on an earlier Captain Cook adventure cruise to some of the more remote, outer islands, in the village of Naselesele on an island named Taveuni that surely belonged on a Hollywood set.

The cruise takes you to “places without postcards,” but places that nonetheless look like postcards with their rugged mountains, waterfalls, vegetation congestion, and coral ringed seas. The full cruise lasts seven nights, but you can, as our group of colleagues did,  join it midway (or depart midway).

We received strict instructions from our cruise hospitality director, Florian Haber, on village protocol.

We – men and women alike – wrapped sulus (sarongs) to cover our knees and show respect for the ratu, the chief. Hats, bare shoulders, and sunglasses are taboo.

We were attending a lovo feast unearthed from an underground oven. But first comes the kava ceremony, during which no one speaks, stands, or moves around. Florian made our gift of kava bark to the chief in our behalf to gain admission into the village.

After a quarter of an hour of what appeared to be the wringing of water from straw (actually kava bark), the presentation of the – okay I can go ahead I can say it now – dishwater brown liquid began.

A young warrior in a grass skirt presents the coconut shell vessel one at a time to partakers. Each claps once before taking the cup, pronounces bula, drinks it down in one gulp (holding the breath helps), returns the cup to the bearer, claps three times, then says vinaka (thank you).

The lips, tongue, and throat go numb the first few times you try. Then wakeful relaxation sets in.

So they say. I was already plenty relaxed having been lulled by the M/V Endeavour in harbor. Jet lag also lingered to alter my awareness.

The 10-hour plane ride from L.A. not only delivers you to a different time zone, but to another day entirely. Having departed on Thursday, I crossed the international date line just before arriving to Fiji and Saturday. Had my birthday been on Friday, I’m told, I’d be immortal.

As a mere mortal, however, I began my first day with a baptism in the picture-perfect Boumi waterfall. Not the now-famous bottled kind, but Fiji water at its purest, most show-off.

The next day, we sat in on a Catholic Church service in the village of Wairiki. Cross-legged on the floor beneath a vaulted wood ceiling, the resounding chorus of the Fijian choir and Mass in the local dialect enveloped us. The Fijians sing exactly like angels – often, a capello, in hymnal tones, and well-orchestrated soprano, alto, and bass.

From there we made the leap of time at the true 180th meridian. Seems the greed of early British planters effected the dateline’s move to the outskirts of Fiji when they took to cheating their workers out of their Sunday off by sending them to the other side of their plantations that lay in Monday.

The Captain Cook Cruise makes a perfect introduction for “Fiji virgins,” whose only sacrifice is the rush and trivialities of life left behind in yesterday.

Fijian Culture

One quickly learns that not only are Fijians some of the most welcoming and beautiful (inside and out) people, but they have mastered the art of enjoying life, ignoring clocks, celebrating family, living in the moment, and embracing their heritage.

Different from other tropical islands that they resemble in climate, geography, and environment, the Fiji islands showcase their culture not in a frantic effort to regain what has been lost. They have always held it dear, no matter that their past smacks of cannibalism and acts of violence against early European explorers.

They devoured their victims usually in circumstances where outcast men crossed their path. Because they did not wish to touch the flesh of their evil dinner entrees, they invented cannibal forks of carved wood with which they ate their brains. Cannibal forks remain one of the most popular souvenirs in Fiji, whether or not you choose to use them for brain food.

Other shopping buys include sulus, jewelry from local cultured pearls, decorative and utilitarian works from certain pottery villages, brightly flowered shirts and dresses, masi art drawn pen-and-ink on bark paper, replicas of the wooden axes once used by ancient warriors, and the grass skirts the men also wore.

The grass skirts and cannibalism took a turn for obsolete with the arrival of Methodist and Catholic missionaries.

Keen to introduce table utensils to the “savages,” they were somewhat deflated to find them already using their own peculiar style of fork.

Nonetheless, when we visited the village of Mavua, we used our fingers to feed ourselves on the papaya, fried eggplant, roasted chicken, taro greens, cassava bread, roti, bread, yams, and other exotic dishes spread on a cloth on the floor.

Fiji food intermingles the native dishes of Melanesian tribes and the roti, curries, naam, tandoori, and dahl of the Indian contingency that makes us 45 percent of the population.

The British imported them in colonial days as indentured servants to work the sugar plantations. Once a major money-maker, sugar and all other farming has taken a back seat to tourism these days, yet resort areas remain low-key and culture relatively unspoiled by the known spoiler.

Fiji’s Coral Coast

On the Coral Coast, one of Viti Levu’s main resort areas, you can board an old rustic sugar railway car near Shangri-La Fijian Resort, one of the island’s biggest, to chug through sugar fields.

The tour makes a stop at a village and a cannibal cave, where the guide points out the chief’s throne and the execution stone.

Our tour ended at the beach at Intercontinental Hotel, the newest of the region’s high end resorts. Others such as the Outrigger, Naviti, and Warwick cater to mostly Australians plus a brisk convention clientele.

I stayed in the midst of the others at Fiji Hideaway, more intimate at only 100 rooms, yet still family friendly and full service with a pool slide, spa, and sauna.

The town of Sigotoka is the hub of the Coral Coast and manages to be thoroughly Fijian while catering to resort shoppers with a bustling market, local handicraft shops, fabric stores, supermarkets, bread shops that scent the street, Indie takeaway stands, and two popular tourist department stores named Jack’s Fiji and Tappoo.

Here’s also headquarters for the Sigatoka River Safari that jet-boated us to the Mavua village meke. Of the four village mekes I had attended, this one struck my heart most deeply.

My Last Meke

The people in all the villages seem eager to make friends and touch hearts. After moving speeches from everyone from a school boy to the chief and our village guide Gus, after the magnificent spread of food and exchanged recipes with the townswomen, after an incredible two hours in the village, we made small gifts to the students and community. (Tipping is not an accepted practice in Fiji.)

When I presented Gus with a shirt I had brought along, he immediately donned it over top of the one he was wearing and asked me to dance.

During our square dance-like stepping, he asked if I would also like to give someone my sulu. I said sure, but then I would have to bare my knees. (I wore shorts underneath.) He assured me that was okay, and led me to one of the elders in the group.

Just then the music stopped and suddenly the group’s eyes were upon me as I – in appearance to them – unwrapped my skirt in front of the chief and his elders. There were some drawn breaths until the entire room realized I was making a gift of the sulu and not flashing our hosts as my gift to them.

Then there was laughter, a traditional goodbye song that sounds like a blessing, and the vinakas of new friends.

As we pulled away from the village landing, the villagers followed us with their wildly waving arms. For me specially, Gus threw a two handed kiss. The best kind of bula.

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