Bula! A smiling man named Peter meets our car and extends his hand in greeting. “Bula,” we repeat as we introduce ourselves to this muscular guy in a bright turquoise blue and black shirt. A black sarong covers his thighs, similar to the brown ones worn by the male employees at the resort. We’re on top of the table mountain that seemed so far away earlier.
We’ve traveled for an hour, up a curvy, narrow road. Up and up and up, steep drop-offs lining one side and then the other. The views astound us; we try not to look down. Our driver Mala seems unconcerned, having driven this road many times in the same four-wheel drive Ford, but he does admit that a small car would never make it up this unpaved, bumpy road.
We pull over for photos, and again, when Mala spots wild guava, ready for picking.
Electric light poles end a third of the way, the residents of inland mountain villages must rely on kerosene lanterns for light, wood fires for cooking. We’re told that when Fiji was playing rugby in the Olympics, villagers went to the only home that owned a generator, and others crowded at the windows, in order to watch the television inside.
Mala pulls two sarongs from the car. Anita and I are wearing capris but Mala says we will be sitting on the floor and he wants us to be more proper, to show respect. He ties a sarong (“apple green,” my favorite) at my waist, and fixes a pink print on Anita.
We take our shoes off to enter Peter’s living room, and step on a dirty rag-rug mat inside the doorway. The floor itself is covered in two different grass cloths, torn in places. Neither of the grass mats look real clean, although Mala says we take our shoes off because people sleep on the floor. A curtained off partition may contain a mattress or other sleeping surface, but I don’t peek past the bright colored fabric. I suspect it’s the kids who sleep on the living room floor.
Our visit to this village begins with the requisite kava ceremony. We four sit in a semicircle in front of Peter’s kava bowl, shaped like an inverted turtle shell with the animal’s head pointed toward Irving, who Peter declares is our chief. Mala sits to the side and clarifies that Bob was chosen as our chief on the way up. “OK,” Peter says to Irving, “you will be the ‘speaking chief’.” (It would be more appropriate the way Peter had it first, but this is a serious ceremony and we can’t joke about which husband talks the most.) Peter’s kava bowl holds clear, cold water. He holds up a patterned cloth. “It’s clean muslin.” We take his word for it.
He places some powder in the cloth and starts dipping then squeezing it in the water, until the bowl contains a milky brown liquid resembling muddy creek water. He tells us we must clap once, drink the kava, then clap three times. No words are to be spoken for this solemn sharing of kava. He hands a coconut shell containing kava to Bob, who’s not wearing his hearing aids. The others of us repeat, “You have to clap once.” Bob claps twice, drinks some of the liquid, and claps four times. Peter ignores our mistakes and serves Anita, then Irving (who is offered more in his coconut shell than the rest of us put together) and me, and Mala too, before taking of the kava himself. It is supposed to relax a person, mellow one out, but we don’t feel anything. Then again, cleanliness seems less of a concern now, and the trip back down the mountain later is much less harrowing than the ride up.
We walk around the peaceful, quiet village. The only sounds are children playing and laughing.
One bashful boy cowers beside a stroller, and Peter speaks sharply to him before striding ahead of us, across the grassy field. Kids run around and tease each other, but are respectful and quiet when Peter approaches. Peter is the village warrior, the enforcer, the policeman. It is Peter who will go first to tell the chief of a problem. For example, if a villager brings alcohol into the village, three people––the chief, the speaking chief, and the warrior––will talk to the errant villager, and conduct a trial of sorts. The chief will advise, but it is the warrior who will carry out the lashings if that is ordered as punishment. Peter inherited his warrior status from his father, returning home from his job at Nadi-town to carry on the family job of warrior and village host when his father died. Even the small children know of the warrior’s power.
As we walk toward one family’s garden, we see a boy in a tree, picking tangerines that he holds in his T-shirt. He tosses one down to Peter who peels it and hands each of us a juicy section or two.
We are told that roots of the kava plants are harvested only after three or four years, then dried and ground fine to make the powder that we drank, the best quality. Kava powders found in the markets are likely to include powder of less mature root or even of bark and twigs.
Peter points to a grove of pine trees on a distant hill, where he climbs a tree every day in order to get a strong enough signal to call and ask if there are any tours coming up. Then he invites us to come into his kitchen to help cook our lunch. His sister, Lydia, introduces herself and welcomes us as she passes through to an adjacent outside work area to finish lunch preparations.
I have a nagging impression that it is an effort to keep things clean. The kids’ clothes look like they always look when children play outside in the dirt; most homes have laundry drying on a line. Plates are a shiny white and we see no evidence of bugs or insects. The village seems to have plenty of water, even a flush toilet in the outhouse, which we will each use just before leaving. It’s clean enough, I tell myself.
A shelf covered with a bright cloth holds plates of food that Lydia has prepared: eggplant lightly battered and fried with onions and an assortment of sliced fruit with bananas and papayas and Mala’s guava. Peter asks Anita to chop a plated, cooked vegetable that he calls spinach, but is actually cooked taro leaves. (In Africa, too, all dark green vegetables are called spinach––I’m not sure that other languages realize we have a specific vegetable called spinach.) At the patio tap, Peter washes watercress from the creek, then directs me to drop it in boiling water, while Irv shreds coconut with a sharp implement attached to a low bench.
Peter finishes the job and gets the coconut down to the hard brown shell. Then, before we sit down to partake of these delicacies, Peter takes a big handful of shredded coconut meat and squeezes the white milk onto the plates of watercress and spinach. With his bare hands.
We again sit in a semicircle on the floor in his living room. The plates of food are arranged on a red-checkered cloth that has been laid out on top of the grass mats.
A few children file in and, at Peter’s command, entertain us by singing Christian hymns and childhood songs. I recognize Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Wanting to join in the fun, other kids, two or three at a time, slip through the open door. “My favorite is the eggplant,” I say as I take a second helping for myself and Irv; Lydia mouths a thank you. When we finish eating, 18 kids are singing for us, the six littlest also dancing.Lydia moves a donation box to the middle of the floor. On our way out, Irv puts a Fijian bill in the box. Bob, not wanting to part with his lucky $7 note (link) and having no other Fijian money, hands Peter a $20US, worth about $40 Fijian. The day was worth it.
We drive down the mountain at dusk, past cows meandering their way along the road to their sleeping spot on the mountain. The day was wananavu (awesome).
Vinaka (thank you), Lydia and Peter, for the tour and excellent lunch.
Vinaka, Mala for driving safely.
No one gets sick.
Date of travel: May 2018
Resort: Wyndham Denarau Island
Highlands Tour through Nautilus Adventure Tours Fiji.