Welcome to Fiji
By Doreen Kerby
Scattered across 518,000 square kilometers of the South Pacific lie 333 islands called Fiji. This beautiful country is known the world over for its white sandy beaches, clear blue water, and welcoming people.
Bula is the word Fijians use to greet visitors. I had never heard the word before but dozens of times a day it was used to make me feel welcomed and I found myself replying bula with the same warmth it had been given to me. Nowhere else on earth will travelers find such friendly people.
This welcome is made official with a kava ceremony. It is known as Yaqona, a tranquilizing nonalcoholic drink that numbs the tongue and lips. It is made from the pounded dried root of the pepper plant and the ceremony is performed with utmost gravity to mark births, marriages, official visits and the installation of a new chief.
One of our lecturers, a young lad about twenty, told us he had drunk 20 cups of
kava the night before. When I asked him how he felt he said,” I wove my way home;
I missed breakfast; I missed lunch; I think I‘ll make it to supper.”
The kava ceremony is performed for high chiefs but lesser versions are enacted for tourists visiting local villages. Mats are spread on the floor and a large, hand-carved wooden bowl is put in place. The person serving the kava is dressed in traditional clothing made with tapa cloth. His torso is smeared with coconut oil and his face is blackened or decorated with paint.
The guests present a bundle of kava to the host with a short speech to explain their visit. It is acknowledged with a speech of acceptance. The beaten pulp is put in a cloth bag in the wooden bowl and water is added. When it is approved by the chief as being the right strength, the server says, “The kava is ready my chief.” Then he claps three times. He fills a half coconut shell and presents it to the guest of honor who claps once, drinks it all and claps three times.
The same is repeated until all the men are served followed by the women. Clap once when the cupbearer offers you the kava. Take it with both hands and say bula. Drink it all even though it is unpleasant and clap three times. Everyone remains quietly in place until the ceremony is over. This is the official welcome.
Another pleasant experience was the quality of our accommodations. My hotel on Viti Levu was the Outrigger on the Lagoon. It is a South Pacific dream in a lush 40-acre garden on the Queen’s Highway. This five-star hotel is built like a traditional Fijian village with attractive, air-conditioned guestrooms and complimentary drinks. Each afternoon, champagne with canapés were delivered to the room and chocolates with a liqueur arrived at bedtime. Recommended tours and activities were provided every day as well as the weather forecast. Butlers were available to unpack and press guest’s clothing. Resort amenities included a large swimming pool, a fitness center, a golf training facility, a breathtaking spa, and award-winning restaurants. The traditional Fijian fire walking ceremony was performed on-site, once a week and we were lucky enough to be there for this spectacular event.
Only members of the Sawau tribe from Beqa Island are firewalkers. The men are not permitted to have sex or to eat coconut for two weeks prior to a performance. In a circular pit about three metres across, stones are heated with a wood fire until they are white-hot. The wood is removed and then branches from banana trees thrown on the fire, burst into flames. Seven men, shouting and chanting, walked around the fire many times. One at a time they walked slowly across the stones, not once but many times. The crowd that had gathered was silent, respectful and in awe.
When they were finished I asked the chief, Waisake Ratuloaloa, if I could feel the bottom of his foot. It was smooth and cool and there were no calluses or burns. Legend says the Sawau tribe has been given the gift of fire! Some say it is just mind over matter. One explanation was that the ash on the coals is much cooler than the glowing embers. That may be true but when the performance was over, green branches thrown on the coals burst into flames. It was certainly an experience I will never forget.
For more information on Fiji check out www.fijime.com
Air Pacific- from Los Angeles to Nadi is 10 hours and 40 minutes.
English is the official language and Queen Elizabeth II is on the Fijian currency.