Saturday, 18 January 2014

Me and the chief got soul to soul - Chapter 10

As the plane came to a bumpy halt on the runway at Nadi (pronounced Nandi) airport I had no idea what to expect of the next few weeks. My sister had visited Fiji a little over a year earlier but I hadn't had a chance to speak to her properly about it because our trips had overlapped. All I knew was that it had the most amazing beaches that she had ever seen and that Fijian men had great legs. I must admit I was much more eager to verify her first observation than her second.

Ian and I booked into a hostel in Nadi and immediately went out to explore. Our first impressions of the place were not too favourable. It seemed a bit of a dump if the truth be known. We'd heard so much positive feedback about the country though that we pretended to like it for a short while. Eventually we conceded to the truth.

"It's a fucking dump", I said to Ian, "where's the white sandy beaches and hula girls?"

Ian acquiesced "Yeah, it's not what I was expecting I must admit".

Oh well, I thought, this is the first day maybe we'd just set our expectations too high.

Fortunately for us our perceptions of the country were soon to be herbally modified. We'd been on the island for less than an hour when we were beckoned over by a group of Fijians and invited to drink kava with them. Naturally I had no idea what they were talking about but my curious mind wasn't going to turn down an opportunity to find out. You see, in Fiji it is hard to walk anywhere without finding a bunch of intoxicated Fijians sat around a large container of what looks like dirty water. In their hands they'll be holding a half coconut shell and their eyes will be totally blood shot. Oh, and don't expect them to do anything in a hurry. But what is this curious potion you may ask? Well let me tell you.
Kava (the drink) is the ground up root of the kava plant. The word actually means intoxicant in Greek and looking at the guys eyes it was not hard to see why. These guys were fried out of their minds. As a direct consequence of their kava drinking habits the pace of life amongst the Fijians at least is incredibly relaxed. Things will get done but only in Fiji time. This basically means whenever the kava runs out (not that it ever does). 
As we entered their kava circle I made a quick observation that these guys indeed had strong legs (I said strong not great). The Fijian guys could not have been more welcoming I felt as though I was intoxicated on their smiles alone. I was immediately offered a coconut shell of kava which had just been filled from the large container. Their ritual determined that the rest of my kava buddies clapped three times before I could down it. The third clap was still ringing in the air as I swallowed the liquid down. The taste was not as bad as I imagined it would be, although the flavour was just as it looked - like dirty water. It left a strange numbing sensation in the back of my throat and my surroundings suddenly seem a lot nicer.

After Ian had been kava initiated we made our excuses and left. This was much to the disappointment of our new kava buddies who showed no shame in their determination to keep us there. If it was up to them we'd probably still be there now and this all took place over 20 years ago. Ian and I were both pretty sure that this would not be our last experience with kava. We were not wrong.

The rest of our first day in Fiji was spent walking around Nadi taking in all the new sights, smells, tastes, sounds and feelings that a new place brings. As dusk fell, all of the aforementioned senses were tested to the full when I rather foolishly decided to pick up an enormous toad which immediately secreted an incredibly viscous liquid into my face. I quickly washed the secretion off in a stream but this did not stop me from wondering whether I was going to either hallucinate or die over the next few hours. I wasn't actually too worried about the hallucinations because I'd read about a colony of hippies that spent their lives licking toads and tripping. It didn't sound like a bad life to me. Needless to say I didn't die, nor did I trip.

As we are wandering around Nadi the next day were approached by an elderly Fijian guy with trademark bloodshot eyes. He pulled out a folder and started to show us photos of some of the trips that he was offering. The guys name was Penny and I later found out that it was the same guy that my sister had bumped into a year or so earlier. She also went on one of the trips that we were about to sign up for. He could see that we were interested so he asked us if we wanted to follow him to the comfort of his office where we could drink tea and relax a little. I thought about telling him that he'd probably sell more trips if he offered kava instead of tea but I was too afraid that he'd take us up on it. Anyway, to cut a short story ever shorter we signed up for a trip to his family’s village in the mountains somewhere. That the village had no proper sanitation and no electricity supply was its key selling point. Strangely enough this excited us. We signed on the dotted line and agreed a meeting point for the next day.

True to his word Penny picked us up the next morning and we jumped in the back of his utility wagon. Our excitement was out of control as we headed for the mountains, passing through many small villages of waving locals. The landscape quickly became very lush and the back of the wagon afforded us many photo opportunities. The drive took around three hours and by the time we reached the village my legs were craving circulation.

Our arrival in the village was met by much curiosity and excitement. The locals could not be more welcoming, their faces alive with pleasure at the sight of some new foreigners in town. The village was cut off from all communication and the locals seemed happier for it. These smiles were genuine not the smiles of people that only saw the tourist dollar. I often wonder how the village would be these days now that it has inevitably been poisoned by mass communication.

Our vehicle drew to a halt and we were shown to our accommodation which came in the form of a straw hut or bure (pronounced buray) as the Fijians call them. Our bure was around the size of a small garden shed and there was barely enough space to store our rucksacks. To me this was perfect. Penny headed off in the direction of the village and told us that he would be back at dinner time. Ian and I promptly fell into a deep sleep.

A few hours later we were awoken from our slumber by a tapping on the bure door. It took us a little time to work out what was happening and where the fuck we were. Outside it was pitch dark. I literally couldn't see my hand even though it was directly in front of my face. "What time is it?" I shouted to Penny and he responded with "Five thirty pm". "Bloody hell, it gets dark early around these parts", I exclaimed. It felt like the middle of the night.

"You've been invited to share kava with the chief", Penny informed us, followed by "come quickly he is waiting for you".

We certainly weren't going to turn this opportunity down so we hastily got ready and joined Penny outside the bure. These are the moments that make travelling so fantastic. I mean, how often do you get the opportunity to share an intoxicant with the chief of a village? These things certainly don't happen to you when you are sat at home watching the telly.

The village was located on a tier system. Our bure was at the bottom of the tier and the chief's home was at the very top of the tier. We followed Penny up through the village our excitement increasing by the second. Within five minutes we were entering the chief’s front door where we were welcomingly embraced by him. I noticed that his eyes were glazed over and I assumed that he had been on the kava already. Inside the house a group of people were seated around a giant cauldron of kava which took pride of place in the middle of the room. I noted that among the other guest there were three foreigners. One of them saw me looking over and nodded to me with a friendly smile on his face. Ian and I were then ushered to our seats. It was time for our experience to begin.

Before the kava consumption began the chief gave a short speech which appeared to be focussed around some bones that were hanging on the wall. As he delivered his speech his face was alive with pride and his smile seemed to stretch every contour of his countenance. Penny translated the chief's words and told us that the bones were from a shark which the chief had caught with his own hands. Since the village was in the middle of the mountains some distance from the ocean I had my doubts to the validity of this claim.

We were offered some food which we politely accepted but deep down I felt like we were all secretly waiting for the kava session to begin. My assumptions were later confirmed when I got a chance to speak to the other foreigners in the room. The smiles on their faces when the chief pointed to the kava cauldron did not go unnoticed by me. We all eagerly got up and got in position around our liquid dessert.

The chief was first up. He took his half coconut shell, dipped it in the kava and held it to the heavens. The group watched on and dutifully clapped three times. The chief gave us a big smile and then downed it in one. He must have done this a thousand times before but he still maintained the enthusiasm of a teenager undoing his first bra strap. One by one the group took their turns in drinking the kava while I sat there eagerly awaiting my own turn. In my head I had a plan, and that plan involved pushing my consumption of Fiji's favourite drug to the limit. My turn soon came and I hastily knocked my poison back. One look at the other foreigners faces told me that they were not up for as big a night as I was. I wasn't wrong before the hour was up they had all gone to bed, including Ian. From here on in it was just me and the Fijians.

Within two hours there were only four of us left. I calculated that I'd consumed ten rounds of kava and I must admit that I was feeling rather proud of myself. My mood had increased to one of mild euphoria and I had formed a bond with my four new mates. We'd learned over the past few days that Fijians had a special sense that they referred to as Fiji speak. This was apparently the power to communicate without words. A sort of telepathy of thoughts that transcended language. Before this night I was sceptical but the more kava that we consumed the more apparent it became that we were indeed sharing a universal consciousness. The chief looked at me and smiled as though he knew that I was witnessing Fiji speak. This was confirmed when I opened my mouth to speak and the chief looked at me and put his finger to his lips to silence me. It was as if the kava had opened a portal to another world.

A short while later the other two Fijians also went to bed which meant that I was left alone with the chief. By this time I was feeling wasted but in a really nice way. All I could think about was the Happy Monday's song God's Cop. In this song there is a lyric which goes "Me and the chief got slowly stoned, me and the chief got soul to soul". This lyric perfectly fitted my situation and the lyric wouldn't go away. I started to hum the tune out loud and the chief's head nodded along to my mumblings. At least I think it did, by that point I wasn't sure about what was real and was not. I seemed to have had a telepathy and kava overload. Suddenly I was hit by the absolute absurdity of my situation and I started to laugh uncontrollably.

The laughter started as an inward laugh but I couldn't contain it for long and it soon worked its way to the surface. When it eventually emerged it was so deep that I felt that my head was going to explode. I grabbed my sides and bit down hard on the inside of my cheeks in an attempt to try and control it but my efforts were futile. I was utterly consumed by my own laughter and so as it turned out, was the chief. He started to laugh with an intensity that was equal if not deeper than my own. Together we howled with laughter and then in one beautiful moment we grabbed hold of each other and began to hug. We remained like this for at least two minutes while our bodies shook uncontrollably.

Eventually our laughter subsided and I knew it was time for me to leave. The chief escorted me to the door of his house and I was amazed to see that it was daylight. God knows how I would have got home had it still been dark. I took a few steps forward before turning around to say one last farewell to the chief. As our eyes met we stood in silence for a few moments before he eventually waved at me and went back into his home. That moment was captured forever on my mental camera.

When I arrived back at the bure Ian woke up and asked me what time it was. I had no idea nor did I care. For the past hours I had transcended both time and language. Ian then asked me what I had been doing since he left, once again I had no idea how to put this into words. I crawled up in my sleeping bag and went to sleep. In the village the cock had already crowed and a new day had begun.

Over our next four days in the village we were to experience the way that the locals lived. Among the highlights were a visit to the church. I am not a religious person by any stretch of the imagination but experiencing their happy sermon was a sight to behold. So much better than my own young religious experiences. We were also taken spear fishing one afternoon but despite our better efforts we managed to catch the sum total of zero fish. Even our teacher seemed to be pretty inept at his trade though so we weren't exactly filled with confidence.

Nothing was going to compare to the time that I had shared getting wired with the chief, although a horse trek through the mountains and overnight camp at a waterfall was to come a close second. It was on this trip that we were to meet Moo, a very funny Japanese guy. As our group of five horses and a dog were ascending the first mountain of the day Moo's saddle slipped from his horse and he ended up hanging upside down underneath his steed. This was and still is one of the funniest things that I have ever witnessed. His face displayed a look of sheer horror and yet he laughed all the way through the whole charade. I instantly felt a bond with him.
That night we camped out under the stars. Our guide was a lady called Wonga who seemed intent on shagging us all. Her every conversation was littered with innuendo. Along with Wonga a young boy called Abo rode with us. One of his eyes appeared to be missing although I never did get to the bottom of what had happened to it. Our camp was by a beautiful waterfall surrounded by a fairly large pool. We spent the late afternoon bathing in the pool whilst showering under the falls. It seemed that life could not be any more perfect. We made a fire and Wonga cooked as darkness fell upon us. Abo retreated to the perimeter of the camp where he slept with the dogs and the horses. I had to wonder if this was under Wonga's orders so that she could try to seduce her guests. A cauldron of kava would probably have been a better tactic.

When we eventually left the village I felt a great sadness to be leaving the peace and tranquillity behind. In the village they had practically nothing in terms of material wealth but the people were happy in their ignorance of the world beyond their boundaries. I've never really been a material person and staying in the village was to reinforce my thoughts on this. Travelling was helping me to fully understand how little we need in this world. In the village there was no television, computers, blenders, ice cream makers, electric carving knives or any of that other rubbish that we can all live without, indeed they didn't even have electricity. But what they gained by not having these possessions was a powerful sense of community and a happiness that I had rarely witnessed, certainly not in England. I knew that I would miss staying in a place that was governed more by the sunset and sunrise than anything else. And I was right. Over the past two decades my thoughts have often returned to the time I spent there.

Our stay in Fiji just so happened to coincide with Diwalli, the Indian festival of lights. Until 1970 Fiji was a British colony after nearly a century of rule. During their rule in the 19th Century the British brought contract workers from the Indian subcontinent for cheap labour. In 1987 there was a military coup because it was perceived that the government was dominated by the Indian community. After the coup a large percentage of the Indian community returned to the Indian sub continent. From my own observations it seemed as though the hard working and industrious Indian population of Fiji owned all the businesses while the Fijians lay around drinking kava and complaining about the Indians.

Ian, Moo and I visited the cinema during Diwalli, more as an attempt to get out of the way of the fireworks than a desire to watch a movie. For five days the streets resembled a battle zone as the Indians relentlessly set off fireworks. If we thought that the cinema would offer us sanctuary though we had another thing coming. Inside the cinema was more of a war zone than the streets. People were literally throwing rockets across the theatre. It was quite a remarkable and hair raising scene.

After the stress of Diwalli we decided to head to a deserted island somewhere off the North coast of the Fijian mainland. A small catamaran took us out there, a journey of around an hour. As we approached the absolutely stunning island we dangled our feet in the water. The water was the most turquoise water that I had ever seen and a multitude of fish of all colours shapes and sizes swam inches from my toes. Rumour had it that we were going to the island where they filmed the 1980 film the Blue Lagoon although this was never fully confirmed.

Once we were on the island we were shown to a very basic straw hut which housed 2 hard beds and a small bedside table. I guess that's what you can expect when you only pay a few dollars a night. What we didn't expect was to see giant rats running around the rafters in our room. Nor did we expect to get sick but we both did. My entire time on this absolute paradise island was spent with swollen glands and a banging headache. Ian also got sick and even returned to the mainland to see a doctor. While the others on the island had fun dancing, drinking and barbequing, Ian and I lay on our hard beds feeling incredibly sorry for ourselves with only the rats for company. One photo that was taken at the time perfectly sums up our experience there. In the photo we are both sporting big white garlands of flowers which are casually hanging around our necks whilst our faces look a picture of misery. By the time we got back to the Fijian mainland we were ready to move on to the next place - New Zealand.

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