It was with some trepidation, I admit, that I led a motley bunch of international visitors—men first, followed by women—into the function room of the Koroua village, in Fiji. Our travel guide had selected me, the oldest male in the group, as the chief of the visiting party. I had an important task to perform: to greet the village chief.
We had cruised upstream on a jetboat on the longest Fijian river, Sigatoka, for this trip. The captain clipped at some 70 kilometres per hour and performed a few dizzying 360-degree turns en route, causing the entire group to shriek—initially in terror, and then with delight. Village lads welcomed us on the riverbank and off we marched to the village. No headwear was permitted so caps and hats were taken off, and women covered their legs with sulus (sarongs) handed out by the tour guide.
The welcoming party of the villagers was already seated on mats in the room. We sat across from them cross-legged so that our feet were not pointed towards them. I offered the gift of kava to the chief. The chief spoke—in Fijian—sitting on his knees with his arms folded back, with the others intoning in deep voices and clapping rhythmically. Ground kava root was mixed with water in a conical basin standing centre stage. The mix was filtered through a cloth, the residue discarded and then, our drink was ready for consumption. It was offered to me first, in a dried half coconut shell. I had already been coached on the kava drinking etiquette. Stand up, say bula (hello), clap once, receive the bowl, drink in one gulp, clap thrice and say vinaka (thank you). The same bowl was dipped into the kava basin and offered to the chief. Thereafter, all the men got their share, followed by the women.
Kava (called yaqona in Fijian) is the dried root of the kava plant. The drink is muddy in colour, and well, tastes like ditch water. It is an acquired taste, I’m told. It is a narcotic and anaesthetic. Although I did not have enough of it to vouch for this, kava has a strong social and cultural significance which is not to be trifled with.
Sevusevu, or the Kava ceremony done, we were now a part of the Koroua village community, always welcome to come back. Young girls placed the lei or salusalu around our necks and smeared our cheeks with white baby powder, implying we are as precious as babies and welcomed with love.
An elaborate Fijian lunch was followed by vigorous dancing set to pulsating music, our hosts playing guitars and clapping with gusto. Each guest was respectfully brought on to the floor. My partner gently whispered to me, “Wouldn’t you dance with me, sir?”
We were given an emotional farewell, our hosts waving goodbye and singing the Fijian farewell song ‘Isa Lei’—must you leave me sad and forsaken!
Fiji is an archipelago with a population of just under 9,00,000. It lies far east on the map, so seriously east that the number one English daily of Fiji—The Fiji Times—claims on its masthead, ‘The First Newspaper Published in the World Every Day’. Two-thirds of the population lives on the biggest island Viti Levu, which has the capital city Suva and Nadi (pronounced Nandi). Nadi also has Fiji’s only international airport.Nearly all tourists head out towards the hundreds of resorts along the coast. We were the exceptions, staying in Nadi, a small town with a population of under 50,000, in an Airbnb with the most welcoming Sharma family. It was part of our plan to interact with the Indian diaspora there.
Fiji was a colony of Great Britain until 1970. The British introduced workers from India to work in the sugar plantations—initially from eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and then from Tamil Nadu. The first batch landed about 140 years ago. These indentured labourers were covered under an ‘agreement’ whereby they would work in Fiji for a set number of years and then be ‘free’ to return—at their own expense. The word ‘agreement’ was corrupted to ‘girmit’ by the rural Indians who were soon called girmitiyas (The Caribbean, Suriname and Mauritius are some other places you would find the girmitiyas). Many stayed back in Fiji and took to farming. With hard work they prospered enough to acquire properties and businesses.
Indians constitute about 36 per cent of the population, 80 per cent being Hindu. Proud of their Indian heritage, virtually all the Hindu households have the triangular red flag of Hanuman fluttering atop their roofs. Food, festivals and clothes remain true to Indian tradition.
They speak a mix of dialects from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Yet, not many expressed a keen interest in visiting India. Perhaps it is a lack of family, geographical distance or merely the cost of travel.
Sri Siva Subramaniya temple at Nadi, built in the Dravidian style, is hugely popular with both locals and tourists. A smaller old temple existed at this site. The apex body of South Indian diaspora decided to build a bigger temple. The new temple was consecrated 25 years ago. Besides this temple, there are scores of other Hindu temples across the villages and towns.
Port Denarau Marina, a 20-minute drive from Nadi, bustles with activity in the morning. Hordes of tourists mill around and countless cruise vessels heading for multiple destinations dot the waters. We had chosen the ‘Authentic Fijian Day Cruise’ operated by Cruisin Fiji to take us to Monuriki Island. Captain Akuila sailed the boat past the Mamanuca group of islands, stopping at Mana Sands Island and Monu Island for snorkelling and swimming in the clear lagoons. My wife and I are both aquatically challenged, but that did not deter Henry, the boat’s friendly hand, to encourage us to float on the water, initially on flotation tubes and then, as we gained confidence, using ‘noodles’.
We then sailed to our destination, Monuriki, the place where a large section of Tom Hanks’ movie Cast Away was shot. Monuriki, also called Modriki, is uninhabited. The Captain took us on a short trip around the island, pointing out some of the locales—the peak where Chuck Noland (Hanks’ character) contemplates suicide, the beach where he scrawls “HELP” on the sandy beach. To provide an Insta-worthy photo-prop, our tour agency had carried a similar basketball, Wilson, Chuck’s only companion during his four-year isolation on the island.
A lovo lunch completed our experience at the island. Lovo is a Fijian barbecue—a meal cooked in an underground oven with meats, veggies, and taro wrapped in leaves, slow cooked for a few hours on hot stones. This is served with bread and makes for a truly delicious meal.
An ATV from the banks of the Sigatoka River took us through the famous ‘salad bowl’ of Fiji—large tracts of land planted with vegetables, fruits, and tobacco. We were headed to the Naihehe caves. Our first stop was Priest Joe, the custodian of the caves. It is said that without his permission, one would get lost inside. (Naihehe in Fijian means “a place to get lost”). We were granted access after the kava ceremony.
Donning headlamps, we made our way through the low entrance into the cave. It took us some body contortions to do so. Inside we were confronted by an even lower entrance popularly known as the ‘pregnancy gap’. It is so low that pregnant women are not expected to bend enough to clear this gap. With some effort, we all could get in and entered a huge hall full of stalactites and stalagmites. This cave was used by the Sautabu tribe during inter-tribal wars. Hundreds of them would stay in the cave for months with the pregnancy gap preventing any mass attacks. Food was aplenty thanks to the fish in the rivulets in the cave. There were secret exits in the roof through which men would clamber out and fetch vegetables and other provisions.
Cannibalism in Fiji is thousands of years old. The tribes that owned the Naihehe caves were the last of the cannibals. One macabre sight was the furnace where hapless victims were roasted before they were eaten. Cannibalism ended with the advent of Christianity in Fiji. Ironically, the last victim of this gory practice was a Methodist missionary, Rev Thomas Baker, who made the mistake of touching a chief’s head, a singular insult. The chief promptly ordered the priest and his team to be slaughtered and eaten. The only portion of the priest they could not eat were the shoe soles, which are now displayed at the Fiji Museum in Suva.
Garden of the Sleeping Giant at Waikolo Road is nestled in a mountain valley, a short drive away from Nadi town. The mountain, from a distance, looks like a supine giant with a big belly, hence the name. The garden itself has a mammoth collection of orchids of all sizes and colours set among lily ponds and manicured lawns. We spent the morning here and then drove a couple of kilometres to the Sabeto hot springs and a mud bath.
At the entrance, a bucketload of thick black mud awaits you. You slather it on all over your body and allow it to dry. You then enter the first pool, which is really muddy. You wash the dried mud off your body as thoroughly as you can and enter the next three pools in succession. These pools are filled with hot water coming from underground volcanic activity. In each of the pools the water gets progressively cleaner but increasingly hotter. Pool three is nearly 60°C! You scamper out, dry yourself and if you wish, head into the massage parlour for a coconut oil massage. The mix of pool therapy and massage made me really drowsy, and I fell asleep on the massage table only to be woken up when the masseuse asked me to turn over. I obliged, and promptly went back to sleep.
On the flight back to India, I recalled the ocean and the river, kava and cannibals, food and the friendly folk, and so more. And we still had not covered an ounce of what this lovely little nation has to offer. Return to Fiji we will, and maybe stay as guests of the Koroua village chief, the village which has permanently accepted us as one of their own.
Nadi, the only international airport in Fiji, has no direct flights from India. Cathay Pacific offers flights to Hong Kong and then on to Nadi on Fiji Airways. Indian passport holders get visa on arrival for a four-month stay without any fee.
WHERE TO STAY
Fiji has a large range of resorts at various price points across many of its islands.
>Bamboo Travellers is a good dormitory style budget option (from INR 585; bambootravellers.com)
>Smugglers Cove has mid-range suites as well as dormitories for women (from $245; smugglerscove.com.fj)
>Try the Ramada Suites for a luxurious stay (from $390; ramadawailoaloafiji.com)
>There are also numerous Airbnb options available in Nadi, and across the different islands.
WHAT TO SEE & DO
>You can visit Fiji anytime but the best window is May to October with July to September being the high season.
>Fiji has a number of cruises, watersports, adventure sports like zip-lining and quad bikes available and all can be booked online prior to the trip (advisable). >Authentic Fijian Day Cruise (cruisinfiji.com), Jet Boat Sigatoka River Safari combined with village experience (sigatokariver.com). The same company offers an ATV ride into the Sigatoka Valley with a trip to Naihehe Caves (discounted rate on booking both). Garden of Sleeping Giant (gsgfiji.com) and Sabeto Hot Spring and Mud Bath do not need advance booking.
>Try the local seafood, a Lovo lunch, and maybe even a homecooked meal with a local Indian family.