Fijians begin drinking kava no earlier than sixteen years old. The kava–drinking floor seating arrangement is predetermined by tribal seniority and rank and the imbibing order heeds unspoken pecking orders. The guest, me, sat before the kava mixologist, who was centered behind the bowl. The elderly chief sat to my left. Each of us consumed a six–ounce bowl every ten minutes, happy hour endured four hours. An archetypal story time, certainly casual and more interactive than barking at Monday night football. These gatherings combine calling card, telegraph, telephone, television, newspaper, internet, and gossip column; typifying community before electricity.
These are people who have preserved themselves secretly like members of a lodge who are not allowed to give away the untold handshake—a Kava ritual unveils the secret.
Flickr photo by SmoovP
It was time to talk.
"You live in New York City?" the Chief inquired.
"Many people," he nodded.
"Too many," I agreed, then confessing that I often encounter a thousand people in a day, speaking to no one but myself.
That's when I think they prayed for me.
During a pee break, I reveled in the cool fog and full moon rising while two grinning children hid behind a colorful home, encouraging a game of hide–and–seek. To the south an isolated storm cloud steamed over a mountain, a communion of grey–white clouds flaring the high jungle sky with lightning and trailing drapes of rain. Divine.
Kava talo (again). Thought: do they really need tourism up here? Travel writing schizophrenia. The Kava session waxed pensive, contemplative, then sleepy. The women and children, who later blended in, sat on the sidelines, beaming. I was asked to dance by one of the women on the sideline and my smile was transfixed.
My enchantment became official when an oratory attempt while snacking resulted in a spatter akin to implanting a banana into a fan. After a very sound sleep I woke on a matted floor, without a hint of a hangover, to the smell of breakfast being cooked by a mom.
Contentedness, what all the ages have struggled for.
Fiji Grog in the Highlands, Part 2
Leaving Navai, I ricocheted across Viti Levu's aerial backbone in a paint–shaker pickup to another highland settlement, Naitauvoli. En route, wild horses and pigs moseyed about the wet, dark green–mulch cloud forest of billowing bamboo tree clumps, rain trees and rugged mountains. Severo, the Fijian cowboy driver, used both of his wide–splay bare feet on the pedals to navigate the savage Monasavu Dam road—using the term "road" advisedly. Hooting and banging down cliff–edged hairpin turns, I inquired, "Ever had a wheel fall off?" then, "Trucks ever tumble off cliffs?" After a skidding pivot he smiled two yeses, leaving big space for imagination.
That night, Naitauvoli's formal sevu sevu welcome ceremony prompted another seated tribal ring. I was now on a full–blown cupped–hand–clapping, buzz–seeking around the grog pot, binge. Several members of the Waiqa River band were in attendance, men who periodically floated to the lowlands to play festivals. The River band enhanced the sevu sevu "anthem," Fiji's reflective, tradition–steeped chant, with plenty of banter about rain, fruit and family.
They paused before answering questions. I sat before the patient, nonjudgmental board on a big mat, another human half–circle using the kava bowl as locus. Occasionally, the thoughtful pauses between dialogue were silently checked by youngsters naughtily peering in. There is a don't–speak–unless–spoken–to respect for elders. Experiencing collective pride, respect, politeness and esteem for elders —in what would be considered a clapboard shanty by the evening news—would be a valuable lesson for the fractured families living on Fifth Avenue.
This go–round of Kava hypnosis first approximated the persisting initial flash of tequila delirium, my head welling with the "what–me–worry?" vibe. This Kava mixer is another serious cat, but younger than the rest. Outside the hut, I stared at the moon lingering next to a pine tree…beginning coordination leeriness. Back in the hut a few men have nodded out. I thanked them for making a stranger feel so at home. A senior slowly assured me, "You are no stranger here Bruce." Another tablecloth–upon–the–earth dinner before bed.
As I made my way along Viti Levu's meandering highland vertebrae, several of the doorways I peered into during my trip revealed groups of men seemingly drinking grog all day, and night. The only side–effect of long–term grogging appears to be dry skin—perhaps Groggers Anonymous waits in the wings. The FDA has banned Kava as an antidepressant in the United States: the drug companies can't profit from natural remedies easily extracted.
iStock photo by from Tammy616
Pikiniki on Taveuni Island
My Kava–repose walkabout concluded on Taveuni Island, where the implausible hospitality endured. Rejoining a trail back to my final campsite, fatigue was setting in when I encountered a sixtyish man standing in the middle of the path, clutching a machete. At first I thought he glanced at me in a fairly conspiratorial way, asking if I needed anything from the market back in town. Realizing that I never consulted with the chief before entering this village, I guardedly reasoned that I didn't need any supplies. Silence. Though famished, I was simply too exhausted to backtrack.
Eroni Tabua, eldest son of Navakawau's Chief, asked if I'd like to have lunch. Again, I explained that if I was to make it back to camp by dusk I needed to move on. He then insisted that I take a five minute detour off the trail. I followed the machete man into the thicket, slightly paranoid.
Eroni stopped and shook a few trees and plants, caught a few falling objects with one hand and began craftily machete–hacking me up a very timely fresh coconut, copra and papaya variety plate. He tossed each fruit into the air a few times, whacking it rapidly with knife in mid air, catching the slices and handing them to me.
His family owned the plantation where I had lunch. There in the heart of it, Eroni's soft spoken voice carried the kindness torch for the world, as pleasant and intelligent as any thoughtful professor of the humanities.
I opened my Fijian phrase book to derive another word for thanks. Instead, the knowing farmer took the book, opened it and randomly found pikiniki… definition: picnic!
Having a sea–level character machete–hack a fruit plate while you stand in the midst of his plantation discussing tarot farming explains some things, like peace. Eroni then contemplated my inevitable return to Fiji and said, "Next time, come home straight away."
Story by Bruce Northam, photo credits as indicated.
Bruce Northam is the author of Globetrotter Dogma. His new show, American Detour, is on www.americandetour.com.
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Other South Pacific travel stories from the archives
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