A traditional kava ceremony at Korotoga village starts with mixing the brew, then giving the first cup to the male guest.

Kava ceremony leaves
lasting impression

Fiji: Bula!

By Tim Ryan

CORAL COAST, VITI LEVU, Fiji >> There comes a time in a traveler's adventures when the attitude of the locals becomes as important as the destination.

Sure, the rugged range of New Zealand's Southern Alps, the beautiful desolation of the Philippines' Mount Pinatubo and the grandeur of the Na Pali coast are inspiring, but the experiences are enhanced when you connect with genuinely friendly people.

My wife, Nancy, and I are at Korotoga village with some 75 villagers including elder Jowave Tuisowaga, who presides over a traditional kava ceremony.

Robert McConnell, general manager of the Outrigger Reef Fiji, wanted us to visit a village and mingle with the people.

It's dark and rainy as we pull off Queens Road over a wobbly bridge into the village. We're met by Ilaisa Cavu, a husky Fijian man who works at the Outrigger and is a liaison to several villages. Behind him I see a half-dozen men dressed in ceremonial attire including "masi," or tapa skirts, and ankle leis, with their faces made up in warrior paint. They're holding spears.

Yes, Fiji's ancient history of cannibalism flashed across my mind, but I kept telling myself it would be bad for tourism if they ate travel writers.

We're led to the community bure, where palm fronds lie across the entrance. We remove our shoes, shake hands with our hosts and are greeted by a chorus of "Bula," or hello. We respond by saying "Aloha."

The bure floor is covered with mats. We sit in the front of the room -- a location of honor -- with our legs folded.

Two men mix kava in a huge bowl. As a male guest, I'm offered the "bilo," or first cup of the intoxicating brew. Robert whispers that I need to finish the entire cup in one swallow. The liquid looks like dishwater, and every eye is staring at me.

"Tovolea mada" (Try please), Tuisowaga says, holding out the bilo.

I accept the cup with two hands, bring it to my lips and pour the kava down my throat.

The taste isn't unpleasant but does take getting used to. There's a tingle in my mouth, and my eyes water a bit. I hand the bowl back and clap three times as Robert instructs.

"Maca!" (the cup is empty), the elder tells the group, which erupts with applause. Several cups later, I'm requesting "high tide," which means, "Fill it to the brim, brah."

"Slow down," Robert warns with a smile.

In a formal ceremony, the authority to begin mixing the "yaqona," or kava, is normally granted by the matanivanua, or the herald, of the chief guest present. The mixer claps with cupped hands before and after the mixture has been prepared. The server or the cup-bearer will then carry the bilo to the chief guest, who must "cobo" (clap three times) before and after drinking. The bilo must be emptied and handed back to the cup-bearer, who again must clap to declare the cup has been emptied.

Four villagers start playing guitar and singing. Several women jump up to dance. A giggling woman pulls me up from my squatting position. She puts her hands on her hips, instructing me to do the same. Then she begins prancing around me.

Robert is laughing; Nancy is smiling, so I figure this doesn't constitute a marriage proposal. The villagers howl in delight; the elder claps to the beat.

Nancy is asked by a boy-warrior to dance. She springs to her feet. The crowd applauds this battle of dance couples.

When the song finally is over, we all hoot and hug, shake hands and laugh.

Tuisowaga squats in front of me, handing me something wrapped in masi. It's a "tabua," a sperm whale's tooth symbolic of old Fiji.

"These are presented as a 'sevusevu' (gift) from family to family, normally through chiefs, as a token of friendship and peace," says Cavu. "This is the most honored gesture in Fijian society."

I'm speechless. Tears fill my eyes. I worry how these men, once so feared, will react to my tears. Tuisowaga sees my distress, grips my hand, then wraps it around the tabua.

"I'm so moved by your aloha, your gift," I tell the group. "It has been a privilege for us to visit your village, meet you, dance, share the kava."

"You are always welcome in our village, our homes, with our families," Tuisowaga says. "You can come here anytime and feel welcome."

The group yells, "Bula!"

I put the heavy, worn tabua around my neck, thinking of the wondrous creature and how it ended up in this Fijian village.

Tuisowaga touches my shoulder. "Enjoy this moment," he says. "When you look at tabua, think of our village, think of Fiji."

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