I never intended to do a strip tease in front of the Fijian village chief. Honest! I fully intended to keep my knees and shoulders covered and my head and feet bare, as prescribed, while inside the Mavua village’s community hall.
So, yes, blame it on the kava --a ritualistic potion of the South Pacific islands.
This wasn’t my first meke --the name for a Fiji village meet-and-greet celebration that inevitably involves song, dance, food. And kava.
The making and sharing of kava typically begins the meke.
Murky as the water of the Sigatoka River we’d travel upstream that morning to reach the village, kava is made by the villagers, who grind and strain the root of a local plant known for its sedative properties.
Most of the village of about 200 turned out to greet our tour group on the river banks that morning, among them a dozen or so children in their grey school uniforms, big smiles, and bigger bulas.
Bula, the exuberant greeting Fijians thrust at visitors, is usually accompanied by vigorous two-hand, overhead waving and smiles that are the very definition of welcoming. The word can mean hello, bless you, much or very, and life.
This particular meke took place on the main island of Viti Levu, Viti meaning “Fiji” in Fijian, levu meaning “big.”
I should have been an expert on village etiquette by then. My first visit came on an earlier Captain Cook adventure cruise to some of the more remote, outer islands, in the village of Naselesele on an island named Taveuni that surely belonged on a Hollywood set.
We received strict instructions from our cruise hospitality director, Florian Haber, on village protocol.
The visitors – men and women alike – wrapped sulus (sarongs) to cover our knees and show respect for the chief. Hats, bare shoulders, and sunglasses are taboo.
We were attending a lovo feast unearthed from an underground oven. But first comes the kava ceremony, during which no one speaks, stands, or moves around.
After a quarter of an hour of what appeared to be the wringing of water from straw (actually kava bark), the presentation of the – okay I can go ahead and say it now – dishwater brown liquid began.
A young warrior in a grass skirt presents the coconut shell vessel, one at a time, to partakers. Each claps once before taking the cup, pronounces bula, drinks it down in one gulp, claps three times, then says vinaka (thank you).
As well as one can say vinaka with the lips, tongue, and throat gone numb. Then wakeful relaxation sets in.
One quickly learns Fijians are some of the most welcoming and beautiful (inside and out) people, but they have mastered the art of enjoying life, ignoring clocks, celebrating family, living in the moment, and embracing their heritage.
They have always held their culture dear, no matter that their past smacks of cannibalism and violence against early European explorers.
They devoured their victims usually in circumstances where outcast men crossed their path. Because they did not wish to touch the flesh of their evil dinner entrees, they invented cannibal forks of carved wood with which they ate their brains.
Cannibal forks remain one of the most popular souvenirs in Fiji, whether or not you choose to use them for brain food.
Other shopping buys include sulus, replicas of the wooden axes once used by ancient warriors, and the grass skirts the men also wore.
The grass skirts and cannibalism took a turn for obsolete with the arrival of missionaries. Keen to introduce table utensils to the “savages,” they were somewhat deflated to find them already using their own peculiar style of fork.
Nonetheless, when we visited the village of Mavua aboard Sigatoka River Safari, we used our fingers to feed ourselves on the exotic dishes spread on a floor cloth. Of the four village mekes I had attended, this one struck my heart most deeply.
The people in all the villages seemed eager to make friends. After moving speeches from everyone from a school boy to the chief and our village guide Gus, after the magnificent spread of food and exchanged recipes with the townswomen, after an incredible two hours in the village, we gave small gifts to the students and community. (Tipping is not an accepted practice in Fiji.)
When I presented Gus with a shirt I had brought along, he immediately donned it over top of the one he was wearing and asked me to dance.
During our square dance-like stepping, he asked if I would also like to give someone my sulu. I said sure, but then I would have to bare my knees. (I wore shorts underneath.) He assured me that was okay, and led me to one of the elders in the group.
Just then the music stopped and suddenly the group’s eyes were upon me as I – in appearance to them – unwrapped my skirt in front of the chief and his elders.
There were some drawn breaths until the entire room realized I was making a gift of the sulu and not flashing our hosts as my gift to them.
Then there was laughter, a traditional goodbye song that sounds like a blessing, and the vinakas of new friends.
As we pulled away from the village landing, the villagers followed us with their wildly waving arms. For me specially, Gus threw a two handed kiss.
The best kind of bula.