A Traditional Fijian Kava Welcoming CeremonyPosted: February 21, 2017
After three days of being holed up in my hostel on the Fijian mainland due to a tropical storm, the bad weather finally subsided. The expat who I’d met at the bar on my first evening in the country, Andy Fritzl, may have given off vibes creepier than Hannibal Lecter, but I couldn’t comment negatively on the accuracy of his weather forecasting. He had been spot on in saying that we were going to be experiencing the worst storm in ten years that would not then turn into a cyclone. The flash flooding had been so bad that I would have needed a kayak just to get down the street to the local supermarket.
The cracks of blue sky that eventually appeared were much to the pleasure of Coral, the petite Israeli girl who had checked-in the day after myself. Upon arrival, she’d slept for near-enough sixteen hours straight, her mood pegged to the weather like an exchange rate. Even after this sleeping beauty eventually awoke from her slumber, however, every time I’d returned from the bar area to the sanctuary of our air-conditioned room she’d remained ever-present in bed, either dozing or flicking through Instagram on her smartphone.
“This weather is just so shit,” she’d grumbled after I’d asked her the previous day whether she ever planned on leaving the room or not. It was like she’d been placed under house arrest. Fortunately, there was only a wanky traveller bracelet around her ankle as opposed to a police tag. I couldn’t really blame her for the bad mood either, especially considering the conversation she’d just had to endure with the weird old Finnish guy who’d arrived in our room that morning. Plonking his wrinkly ass on my bed, he’d asked Coral where she was from and then proceeded to quiz her on middle-eastern Zionist politics and the deprived state of her homeland. When he’d bluntly stated that he though the stability of Israel was worse than the weather in Fiji, I was impressed that she’d managed to restrain herself from clocking him with a right hook. To make matters worse, he also smelled like he hadn’t had a wash since Benjamin Netanyahu had been re-appointed Prime Minister in 2009.
“It is monsoon season,” I’d reasoned with her, also peeved at the lack of sun but not taking it in the life or death manner that Coral had decided to adopt. “How long are you here for?”
“Five more days. My flight home is on Friday, but I don’t think I can survive in Nadi for that long.”
“Have you got any trips booked to the islands at all? I’ve got a four-day/five-night boat pass that’s scheduled to leave in a couple of days. From what I’ve gathered, it seems to be pretty unanimous among travellers that the Fijian mainland is a complete shithole.”
“Not yet. I’ve been looking but they all seem to be quite expensive.”
“Surely it’s better to spend the money and have fun on the islands, though, than stay here and remain miserable?”
“I suppose so.”
“Just think about it, that’s all I’m asking. In the meantime, I’m planning on going for a wander around the town centre tomorrow with Johanna, the Finnish girl from this room, and Connor, the English dude from the hostel down the street. You should join us.”
“Yeah, okay. That sounds good.”
After waiting an hour and fifteen minutes for a bus that never arrived, we eventually hopped on the next one that made its way past. There aren’t any apparent public transport timetables in Fiji and the big rusty purple things appear to just show up as and when they please. For $1 a ride, however, we couldn’t complain. And yes, I’m still taking about the busses here and not the local call girls. They are always on time. Or so I’ve heard.
Disembarking at the main bus terminal, the four of us pale tourists were immediately targeted by the locals. One guy started chatting to Connor about taking us on a personal tour of the town centre, and before I even had the chance to dismiss him we found ourselves following his cronies through a fruit market, down a grotty alleyway, up a rickety fire escape, and into a traditional handicrafts shop that looked more like a living room than a place of commerce. ‘Well, we’re here now,’ I thought to myself. ‘May as well see what this guy has to offer.’
Taking off our shoes at the entranceway, we formed a cross-legged circle on the woven rugs that covered the floor. The main guy who had stopped us squatted down and two of his friends sat down on either side.
“Greetings, friends,” he started, shaking all of our hands. “It is tradition for us in Fiji to welcome you to our beautiful country with a kava ceremony. Are you all happy to participate?”
“Cava?” I announced in disbelief. “We’re being welcomed into Fiji with Spain’s answer to champagne? If that’s the case then damn right I’m happy to participate. Bring it on.”
“No,” muttered Connor. Kava, spelt with a ‘k’, is a Fijian root which is ground down into a fine powder and then mixed with water. I had some last night.”
“Was it any good?”
“Even for a liquid that looks like it came from the rectum of someone with severe food poisoning, no, it was not.”
On cue, the guy brought out a large wooden bowl and started preparing the mystery potion. There was a long piece of woven rope attached to it with a shell knotted at the end.
“Who’s the oldest here?” he asked, glancing around the circle at the three fresh faces of my companions before resting his eyes on my scraggly, out-of-control, beard and laughter lines.
“That would be me,” I responded.
“As the oldest, you get to be the chief of the ceremony,” he smiled, offering the shell to me. “Having the shell placed in front of you signifies that you are in charge of the proceedings. Now, if you would like to copy me, we will recite some incantations and clap in unison.”
‘Well that that authority didn’t last long,’ I thought.
We tried to keep rhythm with our three hosts as they fished kava from the wooden bowl and made us take turns in gulping down cups of the mucky water. It tasted like feet which had recently trodden in a baby’s dirty diaper. Whilst I struggled to stomach the concoction, however, Connor appeared to be chowing it down; mesmerised by the guy’s chanting and conversation.
“So, you are going to take the Israeli girl back to England with you after this, yes?” he asked Connor casually, pointing at Coral.
“Not quite,” laughed Connor. “We only just met, actually.”
“Well, what about you,” he said, directing his attention towards me. “Are you going to take the Finnish girl back to Scotland with you?”
“Unfortunately not,” I blushed, taking another sip of kava. It’s not alcoholic in any way but does have properties of a depressant drug. This means that it slows down the messages travelling between the brain and the body, causing a numbing feeling around the mouth, lips, and tongue. Everyone started to laugh.
Once the bowl had been near-enough emptied, the guy brought out a tattered poly pocket folder filled with clippings and photographs. “Here comes the sales pitch,” I whispered to Coral.
“I’m assuming that you all heard about the horrific storm that came through here a few years ago and devastated my village?” he questioned, already reciting his spiel from memory.
“A few years ago?” I jibed. “What about the one that came through yesterday?”
“We are still trying to deal with all the wreckage caused,” he continued, not even missing a beat when choosing to ignore my comment. “Here are some photographs of the damage that was caused to our properties and the vein efforts of our tribe to try and repair them,” he said, leafing through the pages of the folder in an attempt sucker us in with empathy. “All of the ornaments and souvenirs that you can see in this place were done by these villagers,” he said, casting his arm around the living room. “The paintings were made by the local school children during their art classes and the carvings were all hand-made by the adults. Everything we make from the sale of these products goes back to funding our relief efforts. Don’t feel obliged to purchase anything, but please look around and see if anything takes your fancy. Everything has already been 100% approved by international customs and you can take it to any country in the world.”
With the closing of this epic speech, Johanna, Coral and I nodded our gratitude, slipped our shoes back on, and headed back out into the humid afternoon. “If I stayed in there any longer I’d have started questioning him as to why the locals decided to waste their time carving wooden elephants and doing finger painting as opposed to actually undertaking the much-needed repairs,” I yawned. “Anyone fancy going to get some food? I need to wash away the taste of that kava from my mouth.”
“For sure,” said Johanna. “We just have to wait for Connor. He’s still inside having a look around.”
Five minutes elapsed, in which we stood uncomfortably on the balcony staircase, before Connor re-appeared from the Aladdin’s Cave of tat. “Hi guys,” he smiled, stuffing a plastic bag into his rucksack upon exiting. “Cheers for waiting. That’s my mum’s birthday present sorted. Now, who fancies some food? I’m starving.”
I can’t believe you splashed out $45 on a wooden turtle with the word ‘mum’ carved into the bottom of it,” I scoffed whilst trying to keep down my chicken fried rice, “or believed the bullshit that he spat about the money going to rebuild his community.” We were sat in a bustling Chinese restaurant just around the corner from the scene of the crime, tucking into massive $5 portions of food.
“Well, ‘Melanie’ has more letters so would have been more expensive,” he reasoned in defence, trying to justify his purchase whilst poorly hiding the fact that he’d clearly spent way more than anticipated on the gift.
“It’s not a football top, I laughed. You don’t get charged by the letter.”
“Ah well, I think she’ll like it,” he said. “Oh, and that reminds me. I was planning on getting one of those Hawaiian shirts that all the Fijians seem to wear and making a short happy birthday for her. Would you guys like to be in it?”
“Absolutely,” we chimed in unison, finishing our food and paying the bill.
Heading back to the bus terminal, we swung by the Buddhist temple that sat proudly in the centre of the town. For the $5 entrance fee, however, I wished that I’d just had a second course at lunch. The guy who showed us around told us that it was the second largest temple of this religion in the Southern hemisphere and that it cost $15m to construct. My inner atheist boiled up at the thought of all that wasted money. There was a half-collapsed village around the corner that needed help for Christ’s sake. Even with backpackers like Connor spunking $45 a time on carved animals, it would take a hell of a long time to raise that much money.
“You look like a middle-aged American man about to take his kids on a forced and far too organised caravanning holiday,” laughed Johanna as I donned my new purchase on down on the beach that evening. Connor and I had snapped up a pair of red floral shirts for $20 a pop and were in the process of harmonising our voices for the rendition.
“You do as well,” nodded Connor. “You can’t deny it.”
“Do you want me to be in your video or not,” I retorted.
“Yeah, let’s get it done now whilst the sun sets.”
Giving his phone to one of the hostel staff members, who was randomly sitting on an upturned boat and gazing out to sea whilst holding two coconuts, we belted out a happy birthday to his mother whilst a pack of rabid dogs tried to drown us out. The video was a complete train wreck, but the vista behind us made up for the amateurish element of the content. After all, it’s the sentiment that counts. What you couldn’t tell from the video was the horrible stench that emanated from the beach and the piles of rotten driftwood and rubbish conveniently hidden off-camera.
Back in my dorm I ripped off my shirt and threw it in the bin. The next day I was going island hopping and, although sad to be leaving my new companions, quietly couldn’t wait to get away from that dirty seaport town.