Kava Ceremony

Saturday, May 22, 2004

At anchor, Suva Harbor, Fiji

Map of Fiji

Dear friends and family –

Ordinarily, it seems pretty easy to say "at anchor…" But this time it was pretty difficult. Suva is a dirty harbor, almost to rival Pago Pago in American Samoa. Yesterday evening, it took four tries to get the anchor to hold. It seemed to have nothing to dig into. When we pulled the anchor up the first time, it was dangling a shirt and several plastic bags. I guess a good layer of plastic bags is essentially "nothing" to dig into.

When I was a child, we treasured plastic bags. My mother washed them out and hung them above the sink to dry, then to be stuffed into a drawer for later re-use. Third world countries had no plastic bags at all, and you needed to go the market equipped with your own carriers. Today at the market in Suva, they couldn’t stop giving away plastic bags. Even when they see we have nylon carry bags ready: "Here, let me put your peppers in a plastic bag. Oh you want some carrots, they’re already in plastic bags, but here’s another to hold both packages." And so on. Some segment of society is obviously disposing of their multitudinous plastic bags in the harbor. Perhaps they’re breeding down there.  
Since I last wrote, we’ve had an eventful few days. After we had completed all the customs and immigration formalities, and reprovisioned at the market, we motored five hours to the Beqa (pronounced "Mbenga") Lagoon. It seemed to be the nearest spot with clear water and good snorkeling possibilities. We wanted Joe to have at least a taste of that before he left us on the 17th. We found the lovely Dakuni Bay on Beqa Island, and the snorkeling was as promised. Because we were only there overnight, we decided not to unsling the dinghy. Accordingly we could not make the necessary visit to Dakuni Village to present the obligatory gift of yaqona (kava). This was noticed by the village (see below).

We were visited by two young boys – Maciu (Matthew), aged perhaps 14, and Beniamini (Ben), aged about 10. They wanted to see the inside of our boat, and they gladly accepted an offer of lemonade. Maciu told us about his ambitions to be a teacher. Ben just sat there and grinned from ear to ear. They were pleased as punch to be sitting in our cockpit, and would not take any subtle hints that it was time to leave. Craig and Joe went swimming, but I waited, knowing how tabu it was for women to show any skin between neck and knees. Finally we told them directly that it was time to go. They climbed reluctantly back onto their bamboo rafts and drifted downwind until they reached the shallows and could pole their way back to the village.

Joe departed last Monday, returning to New Zealand by plane ("seven days up; three hours back") to visit relatives before going back to Canada. A few days before he left, he received an email from his cousin, Cheryl, announcing that she was coming to Fiji. As it happens she showed up only a few hours before Joe left. We managed to have dinner together.

Sometime this week we were expecting Craig’s cousin, Gail, who will be with us for a few weeks. I told Cheryl that she could stay with us "a few days, or until Gail shows up." About ten minutes after we had that conversation, the RSYC (our shore contact) called on the radio to announce that Gail had arrived and was waiting for a dinghy ride out to the boat. We quickly decided that it would probably work for Cheryl to sleep in the main cabin, and so we invited her for a few days. It was just long enough for us to make another trip to the Beqa Lagoon. This time, we made it a point to visit the village as soon as we arrived.

We have read in the tour books, and have been told by government officials, that all the waters in Fiji belong to the adjacent village. You are not supposed to anchor, or fish, or go ashore without asking permission from the chief of that village. Asking permission includes making a gift of kava in a precise, ceremonial way. We had purchased some kava roots at the Suva market, and the vendor tied them up into half kilo pyramids. One of these pyramids is said to be the right gift.


A large group of men greeted us at the shoreline and helped us disembark from the dinghy. Each called out "bula!" and we responded "bula!" and they said "Bula binaca." They knew we wanted to visit the chief, and they took us to his house. It was a concrete block structure, with more than half devoted to the greeting room. It was covered with woven mats. We took off our shoes and sat on the floor. The chief – a pleasant and authoritative man – came in and greeted us. He learned our names much faster than we did his. We met and shook hands with him and about ten other men, including the son of the chief (who was the best dressed person there). They engaged in polite conversation, commenting on the fact that we had been in the harbor on Saturday and Sunday, and hadn’t come in. They would like to have seen us at church. (Maciu told us that church lasts from 7 am to 4 pm, with breaks for meals).

The chief accepted the gift of kava with a recitation, handclapping, and what seemed to be a prayer in Fijian. Everyone bent over the kava, swaying a bit. There were references to "America" and I believe it was a prayer that our friends and family back home would be well and blessed. The chief officially gave us permission to be there. Then the chief invited us to stay for kava drinking. Another man unwrapped the package and took it out to be pounded into powdery dust. We didn’t observe that, but part of the noise involved a bell-like sound. The chief told us that the men of the village know it’s time to come in when they hear that sound.

The big wooden kava bowl – sporting four legs and a triangular piece like a head – appeared next, and was washed out carefully and then filled part way with water. Then some of the dust was put into a cloth bag, and squished around in the water. The resulting mix looked pretty much like dirty dishwater. Coconut shells were used for drinking – the same shell for everyone. One man filled the shell, handed it to the chief’s son, and he handed it to the drinker – one at a time. There were obligatory exclamations of "Bula!" and lots of handclapping. The chief was first, then Craig, and so on, with the women (only Cheryl, Gail and me – no native women) near the end. The kava tasted slightly bitter, but had no particular taste beyond that. Immediately, I noticed my tongue and lips were slightly numb, and a mildly intoxicating feeling followed. We stayed for perhaps 45 minutes before it seemed politic to get up and leave.

Since that time, Gail, and to a lesser extent , Craig, have had the "turista" – who knows whether it’s the kava, the water it was made with, or instead the abundance of fresh tropical fruit we’ve been consuming.

These are certainly interesting times. Cheryl departed yesterday, and tomorrow we plan to head north to other interesting places. The boat does seem bigger with just three of us.

Best wishes to all our friends and family –

Craig & Barbara

S/V Sequoia

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