FIJI In between many fills of kava — the heady drink for ‘every occasion', SHONALI MUTHALALY gets to listen to tales on the country's traditional and spiritual side. And, on cannibalism!

I kick off my stilettos and sit cross-legged between two sleekly-muscled men in grass skirts. Champagne corks pop at the party raging next door. But, we're busy concentrating on the tanoa: a hand-carved wooden bowl filled with water into which the two men — Mojee and Hanfiro — are wringing a muslin bag of pounded kava.

In the heart of the Pacific, the Republic of the Fiji Islands is remote enough to have dodged the juggernaut of cookie-cutter commercialism despite waves of invaders.

There's profound reverence for legend, tradition and faith here. It flourishes right beside the Fijian ambition to be global-chic, while keeping up with the Joneses: Hawaii, Samoa, French Polynesia.

In the villages, bright children chatter away fluently in English as they sell us coconut shell necklaces. Yet, as our boat approaches them, we're instructed to take off our caps, since only the chief can wear headgear. “And, cover your legs, ladies,” hoots the boatman. “Or, be prepared to stay back and marry a local boy.”

Customs aren't adhered to just for shutterbug tourists. Although traditional Meke (storytelling though song and dance), fire walking and kava ceremonies are routinely trotted out at plush resorts, they're performed with respect — to give outsiders a view of Fiji's spiritual life rather than provide Facebook photo ops.

A drink and dreams...

The most popular is kava, a crop of the Western Pacific. It's made into a calming drink by mixing the pounded roots with water. Participants in a kava ceremony sit in a circle and pass around a bilo (half a coconut shell) of the drink, which tastes of the earth, fresh grass and pepper. A mild sedative, it makes your mouth tingle and takes about 30 minutes to kick in. Results, felt for hours, include muscle relaxation, a heady sense of wellbeing and vivid dreams.

This is the drink for every occasion in Fiji — welcomes and goodbyes, weddings and funerals, arguments and reconciliations. The young are as enthusiastic about kava as their grandparents. After all, as Hanfiro explains, 20 Fiji dollars (roughly Rs. 500) worth of kava gets five people sufficiently buzzed to get a party going. A fraction of what a night of tequila would cost. With no hangovers.

We're so cheerfully animated after our third round of kava, we find ourselves discussing grass skirts with ferocious enthusiasm. Mojee confidentially informs us they're worn over shorts (“because they're… um.. rather ventilated”) after which we collectively admire Hanfiro's tattoos, etched with bamboo. And, of course we discuss the cannibals.

In 1643, when Fiji was discovered by Abel Tasman's ship, he did not come on shore fearing cannibalism. “When they killed a victim, the chief got the head. They believed it made him clever,” says Hanfiro. Mojee adds: “The arms and legs belonged to the warriors; women got the rest.”

The last act of cannibalism was in 1867, when Reverend Thomas Baker and his group of eight Fijian helpers trekked to the isolated village of Nabutautau, only to be eaten. His tough leather shoes were all they left.

By 1879, the fist indentured labourer arrived from Calcutta by ship. Almost 90 vessels followed from India, providing the British colonisers workers for their sugarcane plantations. Today the Indians, inextricably blended with the locals, speak a musical Fijian Hindi.

Despite a string of coups, the latest of which was in December 2006, the country seems stable, tended to by a revered Great Council of Chiefs that advises the government. Dapper Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum, Attorney-General and Minister for Justice, Tourism and Industry (among other portfolios) joins us for dinner in a traditional sulu skirt paired with tie. He talks of how about 90 per cent of Fiji's land is native-owned. Under the present government, he says, resorts leasing land (for up to 99 years), pay the villages, which share the rent.

Since only 100 of Fiji's 330 islands are inhabited, it's the ideal place to live out Robinson Crusoe fantasies. We're on an adventure kick, however, and Adrenalin Fiji takes us on a James Bond-style jet boat chase, after which we head to the sprawling Sofitel Hotel for an afternoon of languid parasailing.

Our eyes are still smarting from seawater when we reach the Sheraton resort for an afternoon with the firewalkers.

The Sawau tribe from the island of Beqa has the unique ability to walk on white-hot stones. As legend goes, a Beqa warrior named Tui-na-Iviqalita, caught an eel in a mountain stream only to discover it was a Spirit God. In exchange for his life, the Spirit God offered to give Tui and his descendants power over fire, and a deal was struck.

The story's told beside a scorching pit of fire set on smooth river stones. As haunting music, tattooed with heady percussion, rises from the bushes, the high priest appears. He's followed by the firewalkers, muscles rippling like jungle cats. They lithely leap on the white hot stones, and pose — show us their leathery, but unharmed, soles.

Then it's time for another round of kava.

(The writer was in Fiji on the invitation of Tourism Fiji. Visit Log onto www.fijime.com for more on this destination)

Keywords: Fiji tourism