Fiji’s Marvelous Trance


Playing catch with a machete?

I’m on a classic Fijian bamboo bilibili raft after a fat rain riding a raging river. Imagine balancing on water upon a long floating ski, rather, surfing that tippy bamboo toboggan through a whitewater maze flanked by unforgiving, vertical stone canyon walls. Five 2’x25’ bamboo trunks lashed together by twine underfoot and a ten-foot bamboo guiding pole in my hand that seems to only bother fish. The sun stands noon-high between the walls; there is no turning back.

imageThe three local guys showing off their mode of transport scratched their heads when we encounter a massive palm tree that had fallen across the canyon creating an impassable dam. Their emergency portage solution would impress a knife juggler. Fretless, they separate to opposite banks; one takes a machete swipe at the base of a 40-ft rubber tree, the high end falling next to the guy on the opposing bank. Upriver, holding the rafts close to a vine, I watch them share the machete—to cut long strips of bark—by hurling the hulky knife back and forth to each other across the raging 30’ wide river. They casually huck the glistening machete back and forth like playground pals tossing a tennis ball, systematically cutting enough peels of bark to bind one long piece of forest twine that’s used to guide the rafts over the tree.

I’m a long way from the poolside tourons. How did I get here?

Sometimes we must slap ourselves off the tourist treadmill. 100 or so of Fiji’s estimated 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.

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.

imageAfter 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 sevusevu greeting. This warm acceptance/welcome ceremony defines omnipotent Fijian communal pride—profound, since residing under a corrugated steel US roof challenges one’s honor. Pity.

The sweet garden settlement of Navai naps at the base of Fiji’s zenith, 4,341’ Mount Tomanivi. 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 are rare in rural areas (though blatant, talentless 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 lifestyle creates a sense of extended family for Fijians where no one is left without love or the necessities of life.

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.

imageFijians 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.
It was time to talk.

“You live in New York City?” the Chief inquired.

“I do.”

“Many people,” he nodded.

“Too many,” I agreed, 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.

imageLeaving 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 sevusevu 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 sevusevu “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 Grogger’s 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. The FDA can’t play catch with a machete.

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.”

bruce northam

Bruce Northam is the award-winning journalist and author of The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons, Globetrotter Dogma, In Search of Adventure, and The Frugal Globetrotter. He also created “American Detour,” a show revealing the travel writer’s journey. His keynote speech, Directions to Your Destination, reveals the many shades of the travel industry and how to entice travelers. Northam’s other live presentation, Street Anthropology, is an ode to freestyle wandering. Visit