Thursday, 2 September 2010

Me and the chief got soul to soul

I arrive in Nadi, Fiji in October 1992, approximately two years after my sister had visited this beautiful country and provided me with positive feedback. At this point in my travels I am fairly green and eager to follow the path that she had already trodden. As it turns out, and quite by chance, I end up following the her path with microscopic precision.

Ian, my travel partner and I are out sightseeing on our first day in Nadi, when we have a chance encounter with a guy who is intent on selling us a guided trip to his village in the mountains. The guys name is Pende, a name that will be forever etched in my memory for reasons that I am soon to reveal. We are taken to a nearby cafe, where we are treated to tea and biscuits whilst Pende shows us a little brochure that he has made. In the brochure are pictures of his isolated village, which is without proper sanitation, and has no electricity or gas supply. Now, this may not seem such an attractive proposition to many people but to Ian and I it sounds wonderful. With great excitement we sign on the dotted line and arrange for Pende to meet us the following day to transport us to the village.

We spend the rest of the day walking around Nadi and breathing in the culture. To me, this is what travelling is about. Just walking down the normal streets and seeing what's going on. It's all too easy for people to go on holiday or travelling and live their everyday lives in another country. There are precious few places in the world that are untouched by the polluted hand of mass tourism but it is possible to absorb other cultures anywhere if you just care to step off the beaten path. The beaten path is often only a hundred yards from the tourist super highway. The back streets where the old lady hangs out her washing, the young boy watches his dad fixing his car, the corner where the local youth have gathered, the bench where the 2 old guys complain about their wife's, all places where real life can be truly captured.

In Fiji it's hard to walk anywhere without finding a group of Fijian guys sat around a large container of what looks like dirty water, with a half coconut shell in their hands and totally bloodshot eyes. It was not long before we were beckoned over and asked to join them in their strange pursuits. Of course we were delighted. It turns out that this is kava, the ground up root of the kava plant. Kava actually means intoxicant in Greek and it's not difficult to see why. Consequently, the pace of life in the Fijian half of Fiji is extremely chilled out and they live in a totally manjana society. Their reluctance to do anything at pace is referred to as Fiji time and this is a very worthy definition. I say, the Fijian half of Fiji because there are almost half as many Indian's populating the country as Fijians. Not surprisingly given Britain's colonial past, Fiji was colonised by the Brit's who brought the Indian's over as slaves. The Indians being industrious have dominated the commercial market and are busy making money whilst the the Fijian's sit around drinking Kava and generally chilling out.

Ian and I are welcomed with open arms and although only one of the ten or so guys speaks English to any degree, there does not seem to be any problem communicating. As we are to find out later, the Fijian's are famed for their telepathic abilities, possibly down to the amount of kava they consume. They refer to this is Fiji speak. The ritual surrounding the kava goes as follows; a half coconut shell is immersed in the container of kava by the person about to consume. The rest of the gathering then clap 3 times and watch as the holder of the coconut shell necks the kava down in one. He then passes it to the next person in a clockwise fashion. We wait for our turn, full of curiosity and trepidation. Finally the coconut shell arrives in my possession and I adhere to the ritual. I report that the administered juice neither taste disgusting or nice. In fact it tastes like dirty water which is exactly how it looks. It does however give a strange numbing sensation to the back of the throat. Ian takes his dose and then we elect to leave, much to the disappointment of our new friends, who would quite willingly allow us to stay for the rest of our life's getting stoned with them.

The next morning we're up early and wait for Pende to arrive at the designated spot. He is true to his word and thankfully not running on Fiji time. We jump in the back of his utility wagon and we're off into the distant mountains, feeling free as eagles and excited at the thought of the forthcoming five days. Once we are well into the mountains a few hours from Nadi, Pende stops the vehicle and lets us stretch our legs. We stand and admire the beautiful island which is far greener than we both expected. I sense that this is going to be an everlasting memory in the making.

Our arrival in the village is met with much curiosity and excitement. As we drive by, the villagers come out to wave at us from the front of their wooden, straw roofed houses. They wear magnificent smiles upon their faces and look genuinely happy to receive us into their village. As always in these places of little wealth or communication with the outside world, the people are blissfully happy in their ignorance of other cultures. They are content with what little they have and they want for nothing (It would be interesting to return there in this age of information to see if they are still so happy). The truck eventually comes to a standstill and we jump off the back. We are shown to a little straw hut which are called bure's in Fiji. Our bure is about the size of a garden hut and just about fits our mattresses and rucksacks in it. I am thrilled with it and set about laying out my things. Pende says that he will come to pick us up later to take us for dinner.

We are awoken from out short nap by a tapping on the door. As is often the case when I am travelling it takes me a little while to work out where I actually am. Waking up in a bure, in an isolated mountain village, somewhere in the middle of Fiji can do strange things to a man's head. I open the door and am confronted by Pende who has come to get us for dinner. Outside it is absolutely pitch black. Remember, this village has no electricity supply and although it is only 5.30 pm it is completely dark already. I only know that it is Pende at the door because he illuminates his own face with a torch. Ian and I quickly get ready and follow Pende through the village. He casually informs us that we have been invited to eat dinner with the chief of the village. I am so excited at this prospect that I can't contain my conversation which ejaculates out of my mouth even faster than it normally does. I'm thinking, wow this is why I travel, going to have dinner with the chief of the village, it does not get much better than this.

The village is set out in a tier system with the chief living at the top of the tier. We eventually make it to his house and are welcomed by the chief into his humble abode. His eyes are glazed and it is apparent that he has been on the kava already. Inside there are a number of people gathered, mainly Fijian but also a German couple and a Japanese guy. To one side of the room is a large, low table which is laden with food. Taking pride of place in the middle of the room is a large cauldron of kava. The chief has an extremely friendly face which is honoured by a permanent smile. He proudly points out a sharks jaw and teeth which are hanging on his wall. Pende explains to us that the chief caught the shark himself and is very proud of his kill.

We eat dinner and make polite conversation with the other travellers in the room but in the back of my mind I am eager to have a proper session on the kava. I don't have to wait long. With the formality of dinner out of the way, the chief is eager to entertain his guests with a few coconut shells of his favourite poison. We form a circle of around ten people, which includes the German's and the Japanese guy plus a select group of Fijian's including the chief and Pende. The cauldron of kava sits in the middle of us and is calling out our names. I have decided that I am going to push the limits tonight and see how far this intoxicant can take me. Let the ceremony begin.

The chief is first up, he must have done this a million times but he maintains the enthusiasm of a teenager unhinging his first bra strap. The coconut shell is dipped into the cauldron, we all clap three times and the kava is downed in one. The chief seems proud of his achievement and looks to us for encouragement. I return his smile and I feel that he can sense my eagerness to join him in his intoxicating pursuits. However, I am fifth in line and have to wait until my fellow travellers have grimaced through their doses first. I can tell by the reaction of the others that this is going to be a short night for them. I am happy about this because it means that my turn will come more quickly. My turn comes and I knock the kava back with passion of a Jack Russel on heat. As I mentioned earlier, the taste is not unpleasant although I would not choose to drink it if it did not have a mind altering effect.

Within the hour the group has diminished to four people. All the backpackers have gone to bed including Ian. I am drinking with the hardcore kava drinkers now and I am determined to keep up with them. I estimate that we've have had up to ten rounds and I am feeling mildly euphoric. My band of kava brothers and I have a strong bond by now and it's all getting a bit touchy feely. The more kava we drink, the stronger this unspoken bond becomes. It is all very strange yet all very natural. I look into the eyes of my compadre's and I am filled with a deep sense of knowing. At one point I attempt to speak and the chief raises his finger to his lips. I instantly know what he means. There is no need for words, what we are experiencing here transcends language. This is Fiji speak, a telepathic form of communication. Drinking vast amounts of kava has opened a portal to another world. By the time that I have reached this level I am in a profoundly euphoric state.

The other two Fijians eventually leave and I am left alone with the chief. I am feeling utterly wasted but in a really, really nice way. My mind is filled with the Happy Monday's lyric, "Me and the chief got slowly stoned, me and the chief got soul to soul". The song won't got way, it circulates my mind with increasing intensity. I start to hum the tune and the chief listens and nods his head to my mumblings. At least I think he does but by this point I am not sure of anything. I have had a communication overload. Suddenly I am hit by the absurdity of the whole situation and I start to laugh. This starts as an inward laugh but I cannot contain it for long. The laughter is so deep that I feel as though my head is going to explode. I grab my sides to try and control it but my efforts are futile. I am utterly consumed by my own laughter and nothing is going to stop it. The laughter is contageous and before I know it the chief is also laughing. In a truly fantastic moment, the chief and I grab hold of each other, our eyes filled with joyful tears and our bodies shaking uncontrollably. We are literally howling with laughter and unable to do anything about it. Eventually, the laughter ends and it is time for me to leave. I attempt to stand up but this is not an easy task, my equilibrium in tatters. The chief helps me to my feet the best he can and I stagger for the door. When I open the door I am both amazed and jubilant that it is light. I had not considered the consequences of staggering back through the village to my bure in the darkness. As I stumble out of the door, I turn back and look at the chief. He looks me in the eye and waves, a moment engraved into my mind forever.

I arrive back at the bure and Ian awakes. He asks me what time it is but I have no clue or concern. For the past ten hours, time has been irrelevant, I have transcended both time and language. He asks me what I have been up to but I have no answer.

A week later I ring my sister to inform her of my adventure. She listens with interest before asking me the name of the guy who sold us the trip. I tell her Pende's name and she is in disbelief that she has coincidentally been to the same place and had a similar experience. However, she did not push the limits like I did and therefore had no clue of the power of Fiji speak.

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