Friday, December 4, 2009
It's all in the Kava Kava!!!!
The country of Fiji, despite the masses of wealthy tourists eager to experience the thrills of surfing intense reef breaks in crystal blue water or enjoy a dive or snorkel on one of many easily accessible and diverse reefs, is actually a culturally diverse country with a beautiful interior. Beyond the Nadi city limits, the large island of Viti Levu expands into a mountainous terrain spotted with small agrarian, culturally and spiritually diverse villages.
After five days of pampering at the stunning Liku-Liku Lagoon Resort, my travel partner and I returned to the mainland seeking adventure. We explained to a kind woman at the tourist desk of the Fiji Westin of our desire to see the country’s interior. Without hesitation she suggested a one-day trek to the Nausori Highland.
This trek would begin atop one of Fiji’s finest vistas and proceed through a canyon and to a tropical river where we would arrive at a Fijian Village. Once there, we would participate in a traditional Fijian ceremony, enjoy an authentic Fijian meal and have an afternoon to enjoy a swim in one of several local rivers or to simply wander the beautiful town. The idea of exploring such diverse terrain and to end with such a beautiful cultural experience sounded perfect.
We woke up early, put on suitable hiking clothes; shorts, tee shirt and footwear and headed to the lobby. Once there, a van driven by our guide Daniel waited to pick us up. He, like most Fijians, was a man of big smiles and few teeth. He pulled out indifferently yet perilously fast into traffic, all the while looking at us in the backseat. Thus began our trek.
Given the lack of government funding for well-paved roads in addition to our van’s lack of shocks, the van ride was more than a little bumpy. Daniel, who immediately proved to be a wealth of information on topics ranging from the Fijian political situation to the many religions that co-existed on the island, informed us that the road was about to get a little rough. When it came to his suggestion that we strap on our seatbelts, we were already several steps ahead of him.
As the van pulled onto an almost non-existent dirt road, my partner and I shared a concerned glance. Daniel informed us, as the car began to shake uncontrollably, that we were to spend about forty-five minutes on this road and then the adventure would begin. Given the already rocky road trip, I already found comfort in the thought of the hot Fijian meal waiting for us at the day’s end.
We wound our way up a large mountain past many small farming communities. Daniel explained to us that some communities were all Muslim and others were Christian, but that there was little conflict between the two. After an hour climb, on top of a mountain in the middle of nowhere, he stopped the van on the side of the road. He looked at us with a toothless smile and said, “Let’s begin.”
The narrow dirt road was surrounded on either side by four foot tall, golden grass that waved peacefully from a delicate ocean breeze. Daniel wore only a worn pair of rubber flip-flops and short shorts. The bottoms of his feet however were as thick as shoe soles. Without warning, he said “this way,” and disappeared into the tall grass.
We hurried to catch up with him as he pushed his way down a trail that was little more than a thin tire tread that could have easily been created hours before by a motorcycle. This was our path, he told us, through the Fijian highlands to the village of Veranasu.
Though the tall, wispy grass wreaked havoc on our legs, such discomfort was of little note given the expansive view upon the summit of this mountain. In front of us, we looked out onto the port of Nadi and into the South Pacific where chains of islands rose serenely like the humps of beautiful whales against a misty blue sky. Behind us, were riverbeds with foliage growing along the banks and smokestacks indicating villages in the hillsides. Daniel pointed to a smokestack in the distance. That was our destination.
The grassy path gave way to an easily discernable but rocky one as we made our gradual descent toward a riverbed several miles in the distance. Daniel impressed us with his botanical knowledge, stopping at various plants to describe their nutritional or medicinal value.
His primary focus was a small fruit called “noni.” This plant thrives in shady areas on volcanic terrain. Its green bulbous fruit is used to treat just about any ailment, according to the Fijians. Reading my skepticism in such herbal remedies, Daniel was quick to point out that despite the lack of any medical facilities, the average age of villagers in this particular area is seventy years old.
We continued down the path into a stunning bamboo forest. Walking through these bamboo thickets was like being in a maze of geometric wonders. The bamboo’s limited amount of foliage created a profound sense of depth that was then countered by thousands of shapes created by the crisscross stalks of this amazing plant.
We plunged deeper into the ravine of the canyon beyond the bamboo forest and as we did, the climate rapidly and drastically changed. As it did, we became aware of the sound of a river. Now humid, the chirps of brush birds were replaced with throatier cries of tropical ones as we entered the rainforest. The dirt path turned to rich dark soil as we approached a waterfall collecting in a pool in this paradise.
Daniel suggested we stop and refresh ourselves with a drink from the fresh, cascading water. At first nervous, I proceeded to take a sip and as the clear, cool spring liquid ran down my throat, I felt revitalized. As we rested, he showed us schools of prawn swimming from rock to rock at the river’s base until we felt ready to push on to where our restful afternoon awaited us.
Only a few minutes later, we could smell smoke and livestock through the beautiful clean scent of the flora and flowing water. A rooster crowed, announcing our arrival to Veranasu.
When we had heard the term “village,” we envisioned a small road lined with vendors selling fruits and souvenirs. A schoolhouse where kids kicked a soccer ball on a dirt field while parents gathered at small cafes. Veranasu was nothing like this.
We paused outside a clearing in the forest. From our vantage point, a fence of barbed wire ran around several windowless “houses” made up of aluminum and wood nestled in a circle. Clusters of naked children and chickens collected underneath cattle and goats that roamed freely throughout the small “village.” Beyond the village ran a river where villagers both bathed and fished.
As we made our way into the village, everything stopped and all heads turned towards us. The stares, though menacing at first, quickly turned to welcoming grins. There were no sidewalks so we quickly weaved our way through cows to our host’s house where our host eagerly awaited us.
He was a toothless man of great energy and love and welcomed us with the traditional greeting of “Bula, bula,” an enthusiastic term I had come to embrace since arriving on the island. We returned the greeting as he hugged us and welcomed us into his home.
He spoke no English but that didn’t stop him from carrying on to us in his Fijian dialect, one of many on the island. His wife, a busty woman with sprouts of chin hair, an impressive set of fingernails and a perpetual frown, propped herself up on the floor of their unfurnished living room. We sat on the thatched rug where our host began the Kava Kava ceremony.
Kava Kava is a root plant as well as an opiate and the equivalent of alcohol in Fiji. The ceremony began with our host putting this dirt-clad root into what looked like a sock. He then laid it on a small wooden table and with a rusted metal mallet, began to smash it furiously.
We watched nervously as his wife brought in a bucket of water, presumably from the river that ran around the town’s perimeter. She set the water down, then grabbed an old tire. The old man then reaches behind him and pulls out a metal tub that could have easily come from a prehistoric dig.
Our host muttered blessings as he dumped the brown-tinted water into the tub, then with his massive hands dipped the root, now in the sock into the water and began to squeeze it. He squeezed for an uncomfortably long period of time and then his wife brought him three coconuts. Having heard the pounding of a mallet, another villager enters the house. As I looked up to greet him as he entered, I also noticed that observing us with its head inside the window was a cow.
Our host looked at us with deep gentle eyes and said an emotional prayer. “The village began as simply an extended family in the seventeenth century,” Daniel explained “and each visitor that participates in this Kava Kava ceremony becomes a part of that extended family.”
With a tear and a smile, he dipped the dirty coconut into the filthy water and asked me how I wanted it. “Low tide?” he asked. Then more mischievously “or high tide.” As the room cheered, despite my inclination to ere on the side of caution, I took high tide. The room, wife included erupted in cheer.
He then chanted something else and clapped three times, my queue to drink. I took a deep breath, held my nose and swallowed. The Kava Kava tasted like dirty, metallic water with a hint of licorice. After a few moments, my body began to tingle and my gums went harmlessly numb. Despite the foul taste, I couldn’t help but smile.
I had hoped this would be the end of the Kava Kava ceremony, but it wasn’t until three full cups later that it came to an end. While the meal was prepared, we were encouraged to go for a swim in the river
As we swam in the muddy-bottomed river, Daniel explained how the river provided everything from drinking to bathing water. Food to waste removal. I couldn’t believe that these people lived to be seventy. Fijian boasted to being the happiest people on earth. Perhaps happiness and the “Noni” plant was the secret to life after all.
We returned to the house for a meal of river fish, spinach in coconut milk and a root plant that tasted like a potato. After our meal, our hosts encouraged us to take a nap in one of the bunks in the only other room in the house. Another family member snored away in one of them, so we declined.
Our host showed us their humble but quaint church and talked to us, via Daniel, about the importance of faith as a chicken walked over the small alter. Despite the strange meal and the fact that my lips were still numb from the Kava Kava, I felt at home with this man. We learned a bit more about what was now our village until it was time for us to return to our pick up point.
We waited, us in our shoes, and Daniel in his flip-flops in the Fijian sun, chewing on sugar cane for hydration until another equally bumpy van picked us up. Though not the beautiful day I had anticipated it had been far greater and more memorable as it had unfolded.