“It is easy enough to define what the Commonwealth is not. Indeed this
is quite a popular pastime.”
Each bay, its own wind. Robyn and I were back out at Nausori airport in the early afternoon next day. We had eaten lunch at Poon’s ‘Fully licensed wine and dine,’ and had acquired the same taxi driver that had brought us the nine kilometers, a day earlier. We checked in at the Sunflower Airlines Airline with a Heart desk, and were directed out onto the tarmac in the blazing sun, to wait for our pilot, beside the eight-seater matchbox toy Britten-Norman Islander. I asked the frizzy Fijian lady behind the counter if the flight was full.
“Only you two and the pilot.” She had said. As the sun began a descent past our 2:30 Flight 2S44 departure time, I wondered if there was only going to be the two of us when, loping out of the hanger, came a skinny white guy, tucking in his white shirt, and swearing a blue streak.
“G’day.” He said, unapologetically. “Bloody baboons. They could have bloody told me. Where are youse two from?”
“I’m from Canada.” I said. “And my wife is from New Zealand.”
“Yeah, well I’m from Australia.” He said. Not that there was much doubt.
“I guess we’re just one big happy Commonwealth family.” I said, trying to soften the edges.
“Don’t give me that shit, mate.” He said. “I’ve got no time for that bitch.” The Airline with a Heart. He went on to tell us that he was a ‘solid republican.’ I was hoping he was as solid a pilot.
“Hop in.” He said, like we were going for a spin. He pointed to Robyn. “You can sit up front with me.” He took off like a republican. I leaned over and asked him how he ended up flying for a small airline in Fiji.
“A man’s gotta eat.” He said, veering off to the right. A few minutes later, Robyn let out a giggle.
“Hey, hon.” She said. “I’m flying the plane.” I looked over the seat again, to find her clutching her wheel, and the Aussie looking out the window.
“Give it back.” I said. “Please.” It wasn’t but a few minutes later that the forested wasp-shaped form of Kandavu hove into view, and the pilot made his descent. I guess that’s what you could have called it, except for the fact that it was more like an abrupt nosedive, ten thousand feet straight down. He pulled out at the very last minute, hitting the muddy ground like he was landing an Aussie Rules football.
Out of the Britten-Norman, I put on my straw hat, and lit up my pipe. I looked up to find a tall striking older Fijian man, with a straw hat and a pipe.
“Humphrey.” He said. “Humphrey Bogart Reece. But you can call me Reece.” His handshake finished with the sweep of a large index finger.
“My boat is down that hill.” He said, pointing beyond the far end of the landing strip. “It will take us to Galoa Island later, but first we need to go to the village. Did you bring the yaqona?” I pulled the paper bag full of roots out of our daypack. He opened it and took a deep breath.
“Powerful.” He said. We got it right.
Past the volleyball net and the top-hinged shuttered open windows of the whitewashed school building, Reece and Robyn and I walked for several minutes out of Vunisea, to a small building, and a warm welcoming sevusevu ceremony from some mataqali village elders in sulus. We joined the large circle, already seated on woven rectangular pandanus mats, layered on the floor. They inquired after our health, and where we were from. We told them.
“Commonweath.” Murmered around the circle. God save the Queen.
With a nod from Reece, Robyn pulled the bag of roots out of the daypack, to expressions and mutterings of obvious admiration. Reece place the bundle in front of oldest one with the thickest glasses. He clapped his hands three times.
“Chief.” Reece whispered.
“Vinaka.” Said the deputy seated next to him. Thank you. And the Chief made a speech in Fijian, there was chanting, and then the herald clapped three more times when the monologue was finished.
“Tell them the purpose of your visit.” I had this one covered. Under no circumstances were we to consider this a material exchange. We had come to pay our respect to the village and its traditions. We were bringing, not taking. There was a slight vertical nodding of heads, definitely not side to side. The conversation shifted for good into Fijian and, except for the odd recognition of our names, Robyn and I were lost in the honorifics.
“You are now members of the village.” Said Reece. We sat a little taller on our mats.
A large old dark wooden tanoa appeared, without the salad greens. Its attached magimagi coconut fiber cord, adorned with cowrie shells, was extended out towards us.
“Grog bowl.” Said Reece. Three men closed in behind him, one to mix the yaqona, and two to serve. An ancient polished sperm whale tooth tabua was placed on the mat in front of him.
“Qai vakarau lose Saka Na Yaqona vaka Turaga.” Said the mixer. I will mix the Yaqona for the Chief with respect.
Upright and cross-legged, he pounded the kava quickly in a large stone with a small log, blended it with cold rainwater, and strained it through hibiscus fibers. In the old days, the yanqona roots would have been chewed by young girls and spat into the tanoa, for better extraction of its active ingredients, but the missionaries, who had brought the Fijians Mother Hubbards and the word of God, took away their saliva and their joy, in exchange.
The mixer filled a coconut shell bilo with the murky liquid, lifted it high, and poured it back into the tanoa, so the Chief’s herald could see its opacity.
“Wai.” He said. Too strong. More rainwater was added. Another stream careened through the air. I could sense the saliva, coming into mouths around me.
“Wai donu.” Said the herald. Just right. And the mixer circled the tanoa with his arms.
“Qai darama saka tu na Yaqona Vakaturaga.” He said. The chiefs yaqona is ready to drink with respect. He clapped his hands three times, and carefully took the Chief’s own full bilo to him. Cupping his hands, and clapping deep and dignified, the Chief took his first drink, as everyone clapped in slow cadence.
“Maca.” Said the herald, after the Chief had finished with a single flourish. Empty. Everyone clapped three times. Then it was the herald’s turn.
“Maca.” He said, again. Everyone in the circle clapped twice. The herald touched either side of the tanoa.
“Taki vakavo Na Yaqona vaka Turaga.” Now all may drink of the chiefs Yaqona. And he clapped twice.
Everyone else would drink from the same coconut cup as the herald had used. The bilo came around the circle clockwise, with much clapping and ceremony. It got to Robyn, and left with a grimace. By the time it got to me, it had left a trail of stories being told in Fijian. I looked down into the bowl. It looked and smelled like muddy water but, draining it in one long swallow, it tasted like muddy water, with a little pungent peppery wintergreen sawdust thrown in. I clapped three times, and then the novocaine hit. My lips and tongue were frozen for the next ten minutes. It was passed to the single toothed smile to my left.
“Fiji Bitter. “ He said. As a physician, I had read about this stuff. Sun-dried kava root is about fifteen per cent active kavalactones, water-insoluble compounds destroyed by heat, and producing a mild cheerful sedation, relaxed muscles, analgesia, talkativeness, and vivid dreams, through GABA neurotransmitters which increase dopamine and noradrenalin in the brain. The mechanistic theories always sound more scientific than they really are. What kava is definitely associated with, is liver damage, puffy faces, scaly yellow skin rashes, addiction, and lazy days. But in a culture where the principle preoccupation used to be cannibalism, kava was an excellent way to relieve short-term anxiety, and a peace pipe between quarrelling groups. Given a choice of conflict resolution methodologies between the collective effervescence of firewalking, or kava, kava wins, hands down.
The hands were down to indicate that the tanoa was empty, and another bowl of grog was mixed, and made the rounds. After it passed me the second time, I realized that my legs didn’t work. This was a potential life-threatening situation, as I was aware of the fact that kava ceremonies could continue on late into the next day. Earlier, I had received another warning from Reece.
“You may be asked to say a few words.” He had said. “We call it talanoa, shooting the breeze.” The breeze was about to become a gunshot fatality. I noticed the Chief waving his arm towards me.
“He wants to know about your travels.” Reece said. And I couldn’t move my legs, and my mouth wouldn’t work either. “But I told him we must go to our boat, before it gets too dark.” I managed to exhale, and told Humphrey Bogart Reece what his namesake had said. The problem with the world is that everybody is a few drinks behind.
Robyn and I thanked our hosts, swayed on our legs in gratitude, and followed Reece back through the village, and down to the long handmade hardwood skiff on the mud beach at the bottom of the hill. It was painted white and yellow, with red gunnels, and took but a single heave from our Fijian host, to launch us into Namalata Bay. The last of the daylight was almost gone, but we could see the northern tip of Galoa Island from our departure point, and it took but a few minutes to make the high-tide crossing. A hurricane lamp, suspended in the darkness on the other shore, nodded up and down, like the heads on our village hosts. Hovering just above it was Mona, Reece’s wife, a delightful charming Bacall for our Bogart. She welcomed us with happy Fijian enthusiasm, and brought us directly into the low ceiling of her kitchen, where we had the first of many home-cooked dinners of fried fish and casseroles, yams and potatoes, and pasta, rice and taro.
Reece’s Place was basic. There was no hot water, no telephone, no cold beer, no obvious maintenance, and electricity from a generator too expensive to run, except for the hour Mona needed it to prepare dinner each evening. Flat-wicked kerosene lamps provided light, and ambience. Our thatch bure, in a coconut grove under a large laden breadfruit tree, was decorated around its base with a continuous line of giant porcelain clam shells. The absence of mongooses on Galoa had ensured a ready supply of skinks inside our room, and a continually changing panoply of large moving head-height spider webs outside the square apertures that passed for windows. It was wonderful.