Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Bula, Fiji!

Wild welcome in Suva, Fiji!
Bula is an all-purpose Fijian word, much like Aloha or Namaste, used to express hello, goodbye, and cheers -- it literally means life or health.  Everywhere you go on Fiji, “bulas” fill the air when you encounter one of the local denizens! 

When we disembarked from the ship in the city of Suva on Fiji, we were met with quite a welcome: “warriors” (natives in full costume) greeted us and a band played lively island music. Outside the terminal, we were overwhelmed by locals yelling bula and trying to sell us their tours.  Luckily, we had already arranged a tour and eventually found our tour guide whose name was Mala.
Lush villlage compound near Suva, Fiji
Mala’s tour company is actually a whole village of about 150 people who put together what they call the “Jewels of Fiji Tour” that included a boat trek up the Navua River, waterfall swim, raft ride, and traditional island meal.  About a half hour west of the capital city of Suva, we pulled into a village compound with beautiful tropical foliage and many charming buildings each designed for a specific use: a kitchen building, meeting house, sleeping quarters, etc.  Mala described this as an idyllic life with lots of playmates for the kids and plenty of adults to take care of household work and wage earning.
Ready to board the long boat for our river cruise
Almost immediately, we were escorted down to the river, where we donned life preservers and hopped into a wooden longboat with our river guide Jack.  The longboat was just that – an old-ish open boat, with an inch of river water in the bottom of the ribbed hull; the sleek but decrepit, long and narrow wooden craft sported a new 25 horsepower Yamaha outboard motor fastened to the transom.  At the back of the boat, Captain Thai was busy bailing out the water from the bottom of the boat with a makeshift scoop (not confidence inspiring), as we boarded the shaky vehicle with nervous trepidation. 

Captain Thai and our river guide Jack
In spite of our initial reservations, the longboat adventure up the Navua River was absolutely awesome with so many shades of green in the lush landscape on either side of us.  The movie “Anaconda” was filmed on this river, and Jack eagerly pointed out one of the waterfalls used in the film; it formerly had a lengthy Fijian name, but now they call it “Anaconda Waterfall.” 

Captain Thai was a bit of a hotdog as he steered our longboat along, but he did a great job of avoiding river hazards as we sped along in the shallow river rapids.  Boulders, tree trunks, stony shoals, and even hunks of unexplained metal (probably from the nearby quarrying operations along the river) were protruding from the river bottom, but our young 25-year old captain skillfully dodged the potentially damaging obstacles.  Our trusty boat even skipped very nimbly over some pretty choppy white water rapids!
Running the rapids in our trusty longboat
Eventually, Captain Thai pulled over to shore where we all disembarked and hiked off the main river back into an innocuous-looking hidden alcove where a gorgeous waterfall revealed itself to us.  And best of all, we had the place all to ourselves. 
Hiking up to the waterfall
The basin of spring water below the falls was cold, but Anne was undaunted and took a quick dip (more like a wade).  Just like Hedy Lamarr as Tondelayo, Anne has acquired bragging rights for swimming in the jungles on Fiji.  What an incredible South Pacific adventure!
At our "secret" waterfall
On the ride back, we traded our longboat for a bamboo raft.  Jack guided our simple craft with a long bamboo pole for the true traditional experience showing us how the indigenous peoples operated on the river before the invention of the Yamaha. 
Rafting the river, the old-fashioned way
We wondered how the raft would handle the rapids, but Jack assured us that we would return to the longboat well before we encountered any rapids.  As we floated along the river, Jack told us some great cannibal stories.
Jack tells us cannibal stories as we float down the river
Years ago, some missionary met a local chief who sported a full Afro with a big comb sticking out of the top of his head.  For some reason, this foolish missionary pulled the comb out of the chief’s hair.  Here is a cardinal rule to remember in the South Pacific: never touch someone on the head.  The head is considered sacred, and touching it is a major faux pas.  

As punishment for this transgression, the tribe roasted the missionary in an underground pit/oven and ate him from head to toe.  They even tried to eat his shoes thinking they were part of his body.  Jack told us that a museum in Suva displays all that was left of the missionary -- a Bible and one shoe sole (with teeth marks)!
Jack explained that cannibalism did not result from food shortages, but because the chiefs believed that eating people would make them more powerful.  A chief had a fishing tribe to fish for him, a warrior tribe to fight for him, a farming tribe to grow produce, and a food tribe.  Anne thought the food tribe prepared the food, but Jack told us that the food tribe was the food!  If you were born into the food tribe, you knew that you would eventually be eaten, and it was considered a great honor to be eaten by the chief.  Older people in the food tribe were considered to provide the most power when eaten, so at least you got to live for a number of years before you became the chief’s main course!
Villagers prepare to share the kava ceremony with us
Back at the village, we removed our shoes and entered the meeting house for a meal with members of the village.  At this point, we were joined by about 50 or so other people from the ship who were on the group version of this tour (we were so glad that we got the private one). 
Preparing the kava
Our meal began with the sacred kava ceremony which is the traditional Fijian welcome.  Kava is a favorite Fijian drink made from the roots of a type of pepper plant.  The drink contains no alcohol, but it is a mild narcotic that gives you numb lips and a fuzzy tongue.  Jack loves the stuff – in fact, he told us he drank 56 cups of kava the night before (and slept really well).  He also told us that after many cups, your entire body becomes numb!  Needless to say, we were a little concerned that our well-being had been in the hands of a 23-year old who could down that much kava and still function!!   

Serving the kava
That issue aside, back to the kava ceremony.  A quantity of pulverized kava powder was placed in a 2-foot diameter bowl on the floor in the center of the meeting room, and water was poured from an elaborately decorated bamboo pole into the bowl.  Next, the kava and water combo was hand-mixed to a muddy brown appearance, and strained with a cloth.  Some words of mumbo jumbo were chanted, after which each visitor was handed a coconut cup of kava to drink.  When the brew was consumed (preferably in one gulp), the villagers would clap sequentially 3 times. 

Drinking the kava
In case you want to know, the taste of kava to the Supsics was nothing very special or desirable; it was actually kind of bitter and unappealing, but we did get the numb tongue and lips for a few minutes.  It felt like a shot of dentist’s Novocain. It also reminded us a lot of the cocoa tea that we drank in Peru a few years back, designed to alleviate the effects of altitude sickness.  A very similar flavor and effect as this kava. 

Frank’s only question was “where did they get the water to prep this stuff?”  This remote village has no freshwater wells that we know of, and no bottled water containers that we saw; but it does have a big ol’ river that runs right thru the village.  Hmmmmm…
What a feast!
Next, the women of the village put out a remarkable spread including green curry chicken, a beef noodle dish, taro, fresh fruits, desserts, and soda or water to drink. 
Our cannibal fork!
After the lunch, the women displayed their handiwork for sale.  Anne bought a bookmark and a cannibal fork, a cool wooden 4-pronged gadget designed to push into the victim’s chest and pull out his heart (couldn’t pass that up).

Mala with his little boy
This was one of our best days on the cruise, giving us tremendous insight into life on these remote South Pacific islands.  Our new Fijian friends will be remembered fondly for a long time to come.

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