Sailing in Fiji is an adventure. The reefs are not as well charted, or marked, as we might like and the guide books are either old or out of date, or focused on just a tiny portion of this vast country. When S/V Quest recently went up on the reef near Savu Savu—everyone remarked that the fact the lighthouse light had burnt out some time ago must have been a factor. A factor that everyone in town was aware of but that hadn't made it out into general maritime knowledge.
But in the sunshine and in a trade wind breeze winding through Fiji's coral reefs is a lovely way to spend the day—we see dolphins and turtles, the fishermen smile and wave and the water is blue and inviting. And at the end of the day—and usually not that long of one—there is a quiet anchorage to pull into.
Yesterday it was the anchorage off of Nabouwala village.
“Do you think this is a sevusevu village?” Was the question we had when we arrived and gazed at the sprawling village on shore. Giving sevusevu is the traditional custom of requesting permission to enter a village, or anchor in its waters. It has died out in some villages and has been replaced with an anchoring fee, while in others the tradition is strictly adhered to. Not giving sevusevu, basically not showing respect, can lead to bad things: Like being bitten by a shark—according to the gruesomely specific example we were given.
Not wanting to get intimate with the sharp end of a shark we decided to error on the side on good manners and decked ourselves out in appropriate duds (sulas and bula shirts for the boys, long skirts and covered shoulders for the women) and gathered up our big bouquet of kava root and headed ashore. Then we walked down the village pier, feeling faintly silly as we asked how to find the turaga-ni-koro—or chief.
When you ask a Fijian for directions it seems you obligate them to get you to where you are going. And in what felt like a game of 'pass the parcel' we were walked down dusty roads, past tin shacks, subsistence gardens, and impromptu games of rugby and were passed from one person to the next, each increasing up in rank until Waisea, the headman, claimed us as his responsibility and walked us up a steep hill to an ancient marae-like site where the chief's mataqali lived (extended family). He finally told us that yes, we were in a traditional village and the chief—an elderly woman of 97 would receive our sevusevu. But first he needed to don his own sula and give notice to the chief’s family so they could prepare her for our visit.
Waisea tutored us on the protocol of giving sevusevu, but as he tried to teach Evan the long string of Fijian he needed say to make our offering it was decided that Waisea should probably say it for us. So we called the traditional greeting outside the chief's bure (instead of knocking) and slipped off our shoes and entered when we heard the response.
Andisolmbe is one of the few female chiefs in Fiji and she's thought to be the oldest. Her territory includes not only the village itself but several off-lying islands. Despite her age she seemed delighted by our visit and she smiled happily through the long ceremony—where our story was repeated around the circle--and we clapped on cue and tried to say the right things in the right moments. Despite making a few errors here and there, our kava was accepted and we were welcomed into the village. We were now brothers and sisters and Maia was a daughter.
After taking a few photos of our new family we were invited to return in the evening for tea with the chief's family and the kava with Waisea. Invitations that trumped our plan to spend the evening bar-b-queing and playing board games aboard...
Our first—more formal visit—was with Lute and Wati, the chief's nephew and wife. They gave us a lemon tea and a pancake-like pastry and as we ate they peppered us with questions—asking our ages, how much the boat cost, how people spend the evenings in Canada, what snow feels like…
Then Waisea took us to another bure (home) for a bowl of grog (kava). I'd heard a lot about Kava—that it tastes like dishwater, or a slightly peppery mud puddle. To me though it tasted like yerba mate—but perhaps the fact the room was filled with rather attractive rugby players who were busy explaining the benefits of kava (all natural, not side effects, only a little hangover which can quickly be solved by a swim and more kava—all said with charming smiles) distracted me and made the kava seem more likable.
We drank four bowls each—which seemed to worry our friendly new brothers. They checked after each bowl that we were still doing well (I noticed my tongue was numb and each story seemed to get funnier) but we told them we didn't seem to be feeling much effect. But eventually, as Maia snuggled against me and her eyes began to close, we decided it was time to head back to the boat.
We were presented with gifts of kava to take home--part of the sevusevu that a visiting rugby team had presented to our host during our visit—and a plate of food. And then we wished our family a goodnight.
And sailed off.