Rationally, I knew cannibals no longer waged brutal, blood-thirsty warfare in these parts. Still, I experienced a brief flicker of doubt as we were escorted into the presence of a rather sinister-looking chief in a remote village called Ravitaki on one of the less-traveled of the Fiji archipelago's 350 inhabited islands. Sure, the natives at the Sheraton on the main island were friendly, but who really knew what these folks had planned for dinner?
My overactive imagination aside, it wasn't the first time I had faced danger that first official day of our seven-day expedition to a South Pacific locale. The 16-seater prop plane that flew us from Fiji's main island of Viti Levu to the island of Kadavu appeared to be in good shape, but the pot-holed dirt road they called a runway did not. As we banked over the brilliant, kaleidoscopic, coral-rich waters that are Fiji's trademark, our pilot turned and flashed us a wicked grin as he aimed for the spit of land in front of the plane and prepared to land. After a hard brake and a few neck-jarring bounces we were down, and I joined the seven other relieved passengers in spontaneous applause, hoping to bring feeling back into my whitened knuckles. In our excitement, we almost missed the tiny, one-room, clapboard-style Vunisea airport.
I had joined several couples on a first-time expedition by a new kayak touring company. We loaded our kayaks and gear into the back of a truck and, as we careened along a run-down farm track, we quickly learned that the runway on which we'd just landed constituted the only paved road of any substance on Kadavu. Over an hour later, we finally stopped when the road deteriorated at the village of Ravitaki. Several muscular local men met us there. Having heard our truck arriving above their village, they came to see what was going on, and helped us unload, tossing heavy supply bags over their shoulders as if they contained nothing more than Styrofoam. They showed us the way down a winding path of overgrown, primeval-looking vegetation to the village of Ravitaki, in a clearing.
We might just as well have been on a long-overdue National Geographic expedition. As we entered Ravitaki, the excitement of the inhabitants was palpable: children scurried behind bushes to play peek-a-boo with us; wide-eyed adults surveyed us surreptitiously from the motley collection of huts made of bamboo, wood, corrugated tin or thatch. We were the first group ever to kayak these waters. As we were led through the village, a few Fijians cautiously joined our procession, obviously curious about this crazy group of kai valagis (roughly, "people from the outside") who planned to boat around their island in funny little canoes and, like fools, camp out on the beaches.
After being requested to take off our shoes, we were beckoned inside a simple wood-frame house that looked remarkably like the airport terminal. There was little furniture to speak of. A huge, finely-woven mat covered the floor, and a wizened, elderly man of noble bearing sat at the far end of the mat: Chief Save, called Ratu Save. He had earlier given his stamp of approval for our group's kayaking trip, but a face-to-face ceremony was required to make it official. Deep, dark creases lined his baked brown forehead and became more pronounced when he frowned. Remembering our cultural briefing from earlier that day, we all sat down quickly in the cross-legged lotus position, as it is tabu for any commoner to have his head higher than the chief's or to allow the balls of his feet to point toward him.
The village elders entered after us and sat at each side of the chief and our group leader, Michael. A lengthy ceremony ensued during which Michael introduced the six of us and our mission. The elders responded in long, drawn-out Fijian soliloquies. Ratu Save sat silently, still frowning. Called a sevusevu, this ritual of getting to know outsiders is ancient, harkening back to tribal war days when a visitor from another village or island was as likely to get a swift blow from a massive, thorny club as he was an amicable chat.
Michael produced our gift to the chief, which by tradition consisted of a bundle of knobby pepper-plant roots, called yaqona, which are later sun-dried, ground into powder and used to produce a slightly narcotic ceremonial drink called kava. If the chief accepts this gift, he essentially gives his blessing to the presenter of the gift. During cannibal times, before westerners arrived in Fiji in the late 1800s, this was the village chief's promise of protectionСthe visitor would not be killed while in his domain. Finally, after a few silent moments, Ratu Save made a short ceremonial speech in Fijian, grabbed the yaqona, then broke out into the widest smile I had ever seen.
This encounter taught me that the rather stern look of the locals masks some of the friendliest, most charming people on earth. Yet it was also exceptionally clear that the Fijians did not take lightly their traditions or their age-old tribal rituals. Thanks to Wesleyan missionaries and British administrators, cannibalism died out in the last century, but the indigenous people still cling proudly to their heritage. The fact that they still seriously evaluate outsiders who wish to make use of their land and waters (especially in this world of rapidly disintegrating native cultures and ecological sell-outs) earned my respect.
The atmosphere inside the house relaxed considerably as a huge wooden bowl appeared for mixing kava with water. A drinking ritual between our leader and the village leader sealed the welcome pact. Then each of us was allowed to participate in the drinking of the kava. The coconut bowls full of murky liquid tasted a bit like dirt with the kick of Novocain, but it is a grave insult not to drink down the entire bowl in one gulp, and each of us did.
Outside, after the ceremony was completed and our "safety" was assured, we made our way to the beach, where our kayaks were waiting. The villagers were much bolder now, coming up to us, introducing themselves, asking us questions, even handing us gifts of a hand-woven fan and shells. A big-hipped, huge-breasted woman who identified herself as the chief's sister shook each of our hands so vigorously that one man in our group almost toppled to the ground, and the woman giggled endlessly as we introduced ourselves. Such heart-felt hospitality and generosity among a people whose tongue-twisting names we had a hard time pronouncing, let alone recalling, momentarily stunned me.
Someone in our group unearthed a cigar and handed it to an old village man who was following us to the shore. As if on cue, the wrinkled man pulled a wooden match from behind his ear, lit the cigar, then puffed and grinned from ear to ear. After three puffs, he passed the stogie to some of his fellow villagers, eager to share his largesse. To this day, I have visions of the tattered, minuscule cigar stump being passed around the village.
By noon the tide was at its lowest point, about seven feet. We bid farewell to the villagers and carried our kayaks to the water, slogging our way through soft dark sand. As we walked, I was hypnotized by the thunderous sound and sight of the relentless waves crashing against the edge of the massive barrier reef a half-mile off shore. With each tidal surge, white, frothy billows of sea spray flew into the air for as far as the eye could see.
Launching on our sit-on-top kayaks, the crystal clear water was stunning, tinted like a patchwork quilt in every conceivable shade of blue, from turquoise to royal blue. Each time my paddle blade dipped into the shimmering water, my kayak eased forward as if floating on a cloud. We were surrounded by the salty smells of the ocean and the balmy sea breezes. Schools of flying fish took flight in front of us, skimming the surface of the water as they raced away from us.
Paddling to the edge of the lagoon's reef, I looked over the side of the kayak. I had the uncanny feeling that I was scuba diving. Acres of staghorn coral reached for the surface like millions of deer antlers; countless tiny, florescent blue and green fish darted among the antlers. Scores of purple-blue starfish lay like a handful of jewels strewn across the sandy bottom. A large school of flying fish whisked past. We lazily passed a few tiny, deserted islands ringed with powdery white sand beaches and coconut-laden palms. I would given anything to set up house on one of them.
Moments later, as I was meandering slowly, watching the underwater scenery, I felt a sudden jolt of impact and felt a rush of adrenalin. My kayak had been rammed at full speed by something that was very large. Terrified, I imagined a shark circling back around, opening its giant jaws. In a matter of seconds, I saw my attacker: a five-foot wahoo (a kind of mackerel) in pursuit of small-fry. I started breathing again.
The lagoon was as flat as glass, and for three hours we took our time paddling the four miles to a brilliant little island with a long stretch of sandСYanuyanulevu, our destination for the day. Our escort boat was waiting for us there. We landed our kayaks and immediately went exploring. We soon found a deserted thatched bure (hut) not too far away, with a garden surrounding it. Apparently, this little bungalow was used by the locals when they came this way to fish. My fantasy revived: I could live here forever, just like the Fijians, living on fish, papaya, mango, coconut and wild citrus.
We quickly changed into bathing suits, gathered our snorkeling gear and waded out into the Yanuyanulevu lagoon. It was the temperature of bath water, and being immersed in it was like being in a gigantic spa. As I inched into the water, the stress of my "other" life melted away. One of my companions said, "This is why I came to Fiji."
After a while, we exchanged snorkel gear for kayaks and started exploring a bit farther from camp. We found a shipwreck, an old fishing vessel held together by rust and decaying wooden beams. Schools of yellow tangs and black trigger fish called it home now.
We returned from our outing for dinner, a traditional Fijian meal including dalo (taro root); palasami (taro leaves cooked in coconut milk); sautЋed reef fish; and stuffed chicken. For a nightcap, we all shared a bowl of kava with our Fijian guides. Even here, tradition dictated that we follow the proper etiquette of kava drinking: clapping once before the bowl was presented, throwing the head back to down the liquid at once, then clapping three times after the empty bowl was handed back.
As the sun set behind the rain forest mountain on Kadavu, splashes of radiant red and orange filled the sky and were reflected in the turquoise blue lagoon. The shadows of the palms lengthened on the white sand and the first evening stars began to sparkle. Our crew sang Fijian songs to usСsome more akin to chants. Retiring to my "moon roof" tent under the twinkling stars, I drifted off to sleep to the sound of melodic voices and soft guitar.
As our circumnavigation of Kadavu continued, we explored beaches and villages. Life is simple here, consisting of daily, early morning treks to the fields to harvest food, and afternoon or evening fishing trips, depending on the tides. Each of the six villages we encountered, whether briefly as a rest stop, or as a place for spending the night, had distinct differences.
Muaninuku has a mangrove river bordering one side. Visibly less prosperous, the people seemed a bit more laid back than in Ravitiki. A picture-perfect thatched bure with graceful palm trees next to it at the water's edge showed that this village was less affected by modernizationСfinding a well-kept thatched structure is a rarity these days. Daviqele, one of Kadavu's largest villages, sat at the base of Mount Nabukulevuira, framed by jungle and flowering trees and plants. The stucco homes, in vibrant jewel tones of blues, greens and reds, were nestled into the rich greens of the foliage. Yards were manicured, and a large public green in the center of town was the site of their soccer field. The people seemed inquisitive, and were eager to share their ideas about how to start new businesses. Nabukelevu sits on a hilltop where cool breezes seem to create a sense of a mountain village. This was one of the most industrious villages we encountered. Every day the men went together to work the fields, and the village seemed to work like clockwork. Natokalau was by far the friendliest village we encountered. Probably the poorest village in terms of income, it was the richest in character. Ukulele and guitar music and singing resonated throughout the village, men wore flowers behind their ears and women laughed easily. Nearly all of the villagers came to meet us, and the children weren't shy in interacting with us. We could feel pure joy emanating from this village.
The hazard in being surrounded by so much beauty and so relaxed is that you start to reevaluate career pursuits and hectic lifestyles back home. It didn't help to compare myself and my list of neuroses to the good-hearted, joyful Fijians we met.
Kayaking seemed almost effortless, with a calm sea and hardly a hint of wind. We stopped frequently to swim, to cool ourselves in the deeper and cooler waters of blue lagoons that we passed. It was easy to snorkel and pull my kayak behind me with a bow line. The ease with which we could get off and on the sit-on-top kayaks made it possible to spend a lot of time in the water watching tiny turquoise fish maneuver between antler coral, and green-and-pink parrot fish pecking at the coral, feeding. Sea anemones were guarded by diligent clown fish, tending their eggs in its folds.
On the beaches, shell seeking became an obsession. On one beach we found a giant clam shell, about three feet across, and sun-bleached white. Cowries and cones littered the beaches at a few of our stops. The largest cone I saw was three inches long, white with a symmetrical pattern of brown splotches. The cowries came in colors from white to butterscotch, brown and gold. While some were shiney and smooth, others had little bumps all over them. Nearly every beach we stopped at was devoid of footprints in the sand when we arrived, lending a feeling that we were the only ones in the area.
On the third day, as we paddled along what appeared to be just another stretch of deserted beach, 30 or so children clad in tidy green school uniforms burst through the jungle growth and onto the beach, waving their arms at us, laughing, and shouting "Bula, bula!" (Greetings!) Informed of our trip somehow via the island's grapevine, the children had been waiting for hours to welcome the kai valagis passing by.
We paddled to the shoreline to meet them. When we pulled out our cameras, the children's excitement grew to the breaking point. Kids crowded together to pose for one picture after another. Every child wanted his or her picture taken. A pleasant woman who introduced herself as the head teacher explained that photos in these remote parts were prized possessionsСthe number of camera-equipped passersby being somewhat limited here. The photos that the kai valagis send back to the island are displayed in homes like priceless works of art, adorned with handmade shell leis or other ornaments.
On our way again, we waved enthusiastically to our new little friends. When we were less than a minute away, the angelic sound of children singing reached our ears. No fewer than three of my traveling companions had tears in their eyes. Our guides explained that the school children were singing the traditional Fijian good-bye song, called "Isa Lei," which essentially bids a friend a fond farewell, "'til we meet again."
Sunday is the high point of the week on Kadavu: time for church (in these parts, church is almost unanimously Methodist). In the village of Devegali, hollow wooden drums called lali, which once were beat to signify attack or danger, now resounded throughout the quiet village to call worshipers to service. We joined villagers in churchСa large, concrete structure with windows on all four sides. In one direction you could the jungle and flowering tropical bushes; windows on the other side looked out to a serene bay. Village men had donned their finest: white shirts, plain dark ties, dark suit jackets and matching sulus (wrap-around skirts); the women wore colorful calf-length "missionary" dresses with brilliantly-colored sulus underneath.
The singing was a cappella, with layers of song by men and women joining in perfect harmony. Everyone in the church sang with great enthusiasm. The full, rich sound was so stirring that I sprouted goose bumps.
Because of its remoteness, Kadavu has escaped the onslaught of the 20th century. Most areas are accessible only by boat. There are only three tiny resorts on the whole island; the absence of mass tourism means the islanders are truly enthused and grateful for the few visitors they get. Here on Kadavu, village life has remained far more intact than on some of the larger Fijian islands. Its ancient chain of respect for their chief and tribal traditions have been unbroken on Kadavu.
Wherever we went, the villagers were as curious about our way of life as we were about theirs. They were especially curious about our children, since most Fijians have large families and act as loving caregivers to any and all children in the village, in keeping with their communal ways. A Fijian woman told me, "We are a poor people, because we have no money. But we have all that we need. If we want fish, we go into the ocean and catch fish. If we want fruit, we pick it from the trees. We are happy."
We spent our final night in the village of Natokalau. Villagers prepared us a lovo (feast) featuring foods cooked on hot rocks in an earthen oven. Whole walu fish, chicken, curried prawns, raw fish salad and root crops made for a sumptuous feast. We found only one of the local delicacies hard to get down: the sea slug, with its slimy texture, was nearly impossible to eat. As I enjoyed by meal, I noticed that none of the villagers were eating. I realized then that the people of Natokalau were getting pleasure merely from seeing their visitors enjoy themselves. We were strangers to them, but that night they were like doting grandparents to us. In the course of seven days I had gone from slight apprehensionСand a bit of tongue-in-cheek "cannibal" humorСto profound respect for the Fijians.
After dinner, we enjoyed a meke (singing and dancing celebration). We clapped in time to the music and tried our hand at dancing their traditional dance. One of our paddlers made a lasting impression when his sulu came untied and hit the dirt. Taking a cue on how to laugh from the locals, we rolled on the ground and howled, though the local women pretended to shield their eyes.
While our kayak trip to Kadavu had started with the anticipation of paddling over Fiji's reefs to see firsthand the rainbow-colored fish and corals, our orientation to the trip changed that first day in Ravitaki village when we first met the locals. The scenery and colorful fish and reefs were incredible. But what really touched our spirits were the Fijian people themselves, and the chance to experience a bit of a culture that is so totally different from our own.
The Fijian people welcomed us into their lives with open arms, warm smiles, food and gifts. After I returned home, I realized that I may never act on my fantasy of living on a remote South Pacific island, but I still find peace of mind knowing that such a place as Kadavu exists, and that there is a place in the world where my fantasy could be made real.
Isa lei, Fiji, we will meet again. . .