Your fins, snorkel and goggles are ready. The water is a bit choppy, but we will go,” says my guide, Alice, as I feast on the tropical fruits in Matangi Island’s Oceanfront dining lounge. Then off we go, five diving and snorkelling enthusiasts from different parts of the world, for a 30-minute ride to the middle of the South Pacific.
“Oh, it’s absolutely fun and you will see some great coral and sharks don’t even bother you,” offers 16-year-old Molly Monohan, who has travelled all the way from Alaska for a diving adventure in the Fijian island.
Breathtakingly beautiful flora and fauna dot the island
I get ready, adjusting my snorkel, fins, mask and then jump into the Horseshoe Bay. Adventurers travel from afar to take a peek beneath the warm waters of this iconic destination, often featured on lists of places to go before you die. After a few minutes of discomfort, as I accustom myself to breathing through an external pipe, I start to enjoy the breathtaking beauty only a few feet below the surface of the water. The weather keeps changing, the sea becomes calmer and the corals become more visible. I remember Mrs Douglas at the resort saying, “Bright sunshine means bright coral viewing.”
Fiji boasts hundreds of reefs around its numerous islands. These vary in type from fringing reefs and barrier reefs to atolls. Home to more than 400 species of coral, Fiji’s waters also host a plethora of other marine life: more than a thousand species of fish, anemone and sea snakes. Fiji is determined to act as a responsible custodian to this ecosystem, and strictly monitors and manages its coastline.
Also See | Trip Planner/FIJI (PDF)
Half an hour passes as I marvel at the ocean valleys and the surrounding underwater mountains. My feeble attempt at picking up a blue starfish results in a mouthful of seawater, and I quickly readjust my snorkel mask.
Firewalkers perform a traditional dance
We go a little deeper and look at one of the shipwrecks and my thoughts go back to the movie Titanic. As I literally gasp at the colours of the ocean denizens, Alice pulls my leg and points to a fast-moving, stealth-like species closing in on us. SHARK! I freeze for a moment, just metres away from this magnificent creature. My instant panic is followed by thoughts of escape. Where can I go?
“Relax, they won’t come near you,” Alice says. Barely a minute later, another shark comes from behind us, and sails right between my floating tummy and the coral reef I had been admiring.
And lo, a third shark appears on the scene, directly in front of us, and we have three sharks circling barely 10ft away. My snorkelling partner says, with a calmness that belies the situation, “Look at that coral, it’s breathing fresh!” This at a moment when I’m not even sure that I’m breathing.
Kava, the social lubricant of Fijian life
Experiencing the ‘kava’ ceremony…
Later, on dry land, and safe from sharks, I visit a Fijian village. The village, or koro, is fundamental to Fijian culture. Christine at the Matangi resort tells me: “Village homes have no defined boundaries and doors are seldom closed. It is unusual to find a Fijian family living on land outside of a village.”
On an invitation from the village chief Tomolo, I visit Tomo, on the farthest corner of Fiji, the Taveuni Island. It is customary for guests to carry kava root, or Yaqona, a cousin of the pepper plant, and sold in the local markets as a gift for the village chief. Returning a garland made of local plant leaves, they welcome me to the village. I marvel at the painstaking attention with which the village is kept clean.
Tomolo, the village chief, gives us a tour of coconut trees, tropical flower plants and a 360-degree view of the bay, a picture-postcard setting. At the village, the women spend their day fishing, gathering firewood for cooking and doing laundry by hand, while the men work in the fields.
At night, if not at church, Fijians will be drinking Yaqona, discussing village affairs and playing guitars. Fijians walk everywhere—up into the hills to work their plantations, along the roads to gather bananas, mangoes and breadfruit, and from village to village for Saturday rugby games and night-time social gatherings.
Just as “Bula” is the traditional greeting, you won’t leave Fiji without experiencing a kava ceremony and getting the taste of kava. “Where there is a village, there is kava,” Mrs Douglas said across the dinner table that night. This elaborate ceremony is laden with rituals and occupies a central place in everyday life in Fiji. Looking like muddy water, a mild analgesic and a diuretic, it will make your body lethargic, tongue tingly, and leave you fuzzy-headed. Although non-alcoholic, it is the social lubricant, the deal sealer, the friend maker.
Kava drinkers don’t get rowdy, they just fall asleep.
Walking on hot stones…
On the other side of the Fiji landscape is the circular, forest-clad, mountainous Beqa (pronounced Benga) Island on the southern coast of Viti Levu. A massive fringing reef 30km wide, it is renowned for its shark-feeding and deep-sea game fishing. But more unique are the firewalkers from the surrounding villages of Rukua, Naceva and Dakuibeqa.
Dressed in traditional warrior grass skirts, the firewalkers step on heated rocks with ease and a radiant smile. “It’s a tradition passed on for generations and it doesn’t hurt,” says the tribal leader Waisake Ratuloaloa. Strange as it may be, the group of firewalkers has to abstain from sex and coconuts for two weeks before the ritual. While the stones are heated, the group chants and walks around the burning stones. In my curiosity, I check the feet of Ratuloaloa, and find no trace of blisters! The ceremony is performed purely for entertainment and, unlike its Indian counterpart, has no spiritual significance.
Fiji can be enjoyed only at the Fijian pace. As my bartender at the Bula Bar, Beqa Lagoon Resort, said: “We want you to relax and feel at home. For us, home is everywhere and belongs to everyone.” Indeed, Fiji is all about kava, coral and hammocks stretched under the bright orange lichen on the coconut trees.
Photographs by Bhaskar DK
Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
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