A Marvelous Trance in the Highlands of Fiji
By Bruce Northam

On the other side of fear is freedom…and a wonderful kava buzz.

Sometimes we must slap ourselves off the tourist treadmill. 100 of Fiji's 322 islands are "inhabited," and visitors rarely get to know more than a few after landing on Viti Levu. From Nadi, site of the international airport, all roads lead to Suva, the capital and major port located on the southeast coast. Intimidating peaks, languid, strolling locals, and sugar cane or coconut plantations dominate the landscape. However, visitors are more likely to then head offshore to the smaller islands embodying the quintessential South Pacific tropical scenery and a few predictable, sappy resorts.

Rambler instinct usually necessitates fleeing the "busy island," e.g. Hawaii's Oahu, in search of adventure. Neglecting that impulse, I confided in the mother island, ascending into Viti Levu's craggy mountain interior. I traversed the length of the entire island via the spine of its peaks. The untamed, cloud–misted highlands are an epoch detached from the sea–level resort buffets.

Vitu levi
Flickr photo by Imaxandco

A steady ascent on Viti Levu, availing a medley of buses, taxis, injured pickups and footwork, leaves the sunblock flock behind. Obtainable though not guaranteed, an invitation from village chiefs is required to enter most native Fijian villages—perhaps akin to asking to swim in an unknown person's pool and receiving a smiling yes.

After climbing Tomanivi, I pulled off my mud–caked boots – twice their original weight – and was greeted on the matted floor of the town meeting hall by the chief and his entourage for a customary sevu sevu greeting. This warm acceptance–welcome ceremony defines omnipotent Fijian communal pride—profound, since residing under a corrugated steel U.S. roof challenges one's honor. Pity.

The sweet garden settlement of Navai naps at the base of Fiji's zenith, 4,341' Mount Tomanivi (1324 meters). The British named it Mount Victoria, though it is doubtful that any Queen scaled the peak—Fijians overlook that royal reference. The microclimate of long–needle pines and towering palms loom over traditional grass–domed, wooden bure homes, along with a few proudly maintained corrugated steel box abodes. (Hurricane relief introduced corrugated steel shacks, which caught on). Flanked by a river and surrounded by misty mountains, twas communal peace defined. And, like most remote Fijian Island locales, no hint of litter.

Two–hundred fifty residents live in 75 homes just electrified this past decade, a mix of bures and steel. Hydroelectric power wired Navai in 1999, eliminating the need for kerosene lighting and disposable radio batteries; the lone fluorescent bulb and listen–to–rugby–on–the–radio bill runs about two bucks a month. They still cook over wood fires.

An apparently universal, mountain dweller maxim emerges: simplicity's dependable link to familial content. Their delight in family life radiates; a reason to contemplate the price myriad western families pay running the rat–race.

The friendliness of Fiji stems from tribal custom. Family and friends—old and new, often one in the same—are life's greatest gifts. Every child is taught four essential aspects of "chiefly behavior": respect, deference, attentiveness and humility. A well–rounded person, say the Fijians, behaves as if everyone is of interest and importance.

Crime and violence is rare in rural areas (though blatant, talent–less pickpockets crawl Suva's nightlife scene). Anger and hatred are considered ruinous to village or communal living. To be part of a crime is to bring shame on one's entire family and village. The communal life style creates a sense of extended family for Fijians where no one is left without love or the necessities of life.

Flickr photo by Controvento

Gather 'Round the Kava Bowl
Cool dusk set in. The rite commenced with a prayer–like communiqué and interpretation of my journalistic curiosity that segued into a kava drinking session; a chief's council bread breaking. Kava is the opiate of a substantial sector of Fiji's 900,000 inhabitants (well, most of the guys anyway). The kava bowl, the tanoa, is given an honored place. The tanoa is a block of wood with legs and a bowl carved into its midst. Some bowls sport intricate carvings; others merely serve the purpose of holding the beloved extract (I later celebrated with a bunch of guys in the airport, swigging from a big blue bucket).

Villagers sit cross–legged, shoes off, facing the chief. Primo Kava is made from the long, dried root of a pepper plant (Piper Methysticum). After grinding the root into a white, flaky powder, they hand–squeeze the granules within a large, teabag–like pouch that's submerged in the hardwood bowl holding a gallon of rainwater. The pouch is wrung and redunked until the concoction fogs to brown.

The murky grog cocktail was systematically distributed in a coconut half shell around the semicircle of six seated men. The group ceremoniously claps once—loudly, with hands cupped—to summon a persons' six–ounce gulp, then acknowledges the quaff by clapping again three times. The grog tastes like faintly bitter, muddy Hudson River water and eventually imparts a fine scotch–contemplative, euphoric grin. This tranquilizer first numbs your lips and tongue, then everything else. The buzz recalls a sort of earthy codeine canapé or a Native American mushroom blessing. The grin widens as the relaxation ritual endures.

My hyperactivity accepted recess. English–speaking, often literate, low–key Fijians speak in soft tones, switching between English and their native language (which reminded me of serene Italian). They remain calm even when exalting a subject of worship, like rugby.

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