Travel

By the rivers of Fiji

Nem Mani, a inmate inmate who doubles up as tour guide.

Nem Mani, a inmate inmate who doubles up as tour guide.   | Photo Credit: Sangeetha Devi Dundoo

On this island nation, get set for a smooth ride on a bamboo raft or an adrenaline-pumping jet boat journey and visit villages along the Navua and Sigatoka rivers

The best way to understand an island nation is to step out of resorts and get a peek into the lives of the locals. From the moment we land in Fiji, we hear chauffeurs and staff at resorts tell us about the villages they hail from.

The Jewel of Fiji tour and Sigatoka River Safari pack in bamboo rafting, 360-degree spins on jet boats and offer a touch of authenticity where tourists are invited into the homes of villages scattered along the Navua and Sigatoka (pronounced Singatoka) Rivers.

Somewhere on the upper Navua River, on Viti Levu island, our guide Nem Mani navigates the bamboo raft with all his might, interspersing the ride with nuggets of information he has gathered online. He’s a self-confessed Google addict. Nem hails from Koromakawa village and has been giving tourists a taste of bamboo rafting for a while now. “I don’t go to the gym. This is my workout,” he chuckles. He will tell us later that the strength of Fijians in villages comes from eating native produce and not “supermarket stuff”.

‘Anaconda’ waterfall

The brief ride on the raft, which is called a bilibili, punctuates the motor boat ride up the river. We also make a pit stop at Nakavika Falls, now popular as the location where Anaconda was shot. The story is that many children stopped swimming in the waterfall after the film released. It took some effort to get them back to their playful selves.

While on the raft, we hear nothing but the sounds emanating from the Namosi rainforest and the water. River Navua takes us to Koromakawa village, established by John Humphrey Danford in early 1800s.

Cannibalism is a thing of the past, but the guides don’t flinch from pulling a fast one on visitors, warning them of delicious meals that can be made out of them if they disobey village rules.

Follow the rules

As for the rules, you never enter a Fijian village wearing a hat or shorts. Trousers that cover your knee, and in some cases, sarongs for women are a must.

Apologetically, the guide states that women are to be seated behind the men folk. When you click photographs, kneel; but do not stand when the Yaqona or Kava ceremony is on, we were told.

By the time we reached the village, I forgot some of these guidelines, and standing up, moved to the front, only to be warned and quickly pulled back. Luckily, I was forgiven.

Not without kava

Fijians are inseparable from kava, a drink made from the powder of the Taro plant root. An estimated 250,000 drinkers consume three bags of kava a day. Kava is exported in the form of powders and capsules as stress relievers.

When the famed kava came my way, I was sceptical. Fellow travellers urged me to try it. “It makes your tongue a bit numb,” someone exclaimed. Will it make me tipsy? A choppy ride back to mainland on high tide waters after a new drink didn’t seem like a great idea. But apparently, kava gives you a buzz only if you have 20 to 25 glasses in a session. I gave in and had one. It was, well, tasteless.

The Kava ceremony is traditionally performed for special occasions, but is now also staged for tourists. Though the village visit and the customs are staged for tourists, both along the Navua and Sigatoka rivers, the experience is as authentic as it can get.

Each village is a large family. Inhabitants grow their own crops and build their own houses. “No one goes hungry; you can always borrow ingredients from the next house,” says one of our guides. The people live on a sparse income, risking the loss of crops to cyclones. The inflow of tourists helps them have an alternate trickle of income.

Snake dances (taralala and tuboto), a demonstration of traditional crafts such as Tapa Masi and mat weaving follow. A Fijian meal, cooked underground (lovo method, as they call it), is laid out. The food is simple and delicious.

360-degree spins

Along the Sigatoka, 15 villages have tied up with river safari operators. The villages are divided into two groups, each group playing hosts for six months a year. Each day, one village hosts a tourist group.

We experienced customs and food that were somewhat different from the village on Navua river. A generous amount of talcum powder was rubbed on our cheeks, and our guide told us in hushed tones not to rub it off, for it would amount to disrespecting our hosts.

The Sigatoka safari is a contrast to the leisurely bilibili ride. On our way back, the captain does dramatic hairpin turns, 360-degree spins and gleefully remarks that he’s helped us wash off all that talcum powder.

The ride leaves us drenched to the bone.

We step out beaming, with memories that will linger.

(The writer was in Fiji on invitation by Tourism Fiji )

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Printable version | May 25, 2020 5:33:01 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/travel/By-the-rivers-of-Fiji/article14644718.ece

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