Friday night I had an extremely special experience when Isikelli one of the guys on my Fiji paint crew from Baobab Marine (left front behind Ruby in this photo) invited me to his home for a visit and some kava. Kava as you may know from my previous posts over the past two year’s I’ve been in Fiji, is the ceremonial drink here in Fiji and many of the other Southern Pacific islands.
This Kava drink is made from the dried and aged roots of the Kava tree which are then pounded or ground into a fine powder and mixed it with fresh water. Kava is part of a ceremony and historic cultural tradition called “Sevusevu” which is what I experience each time I first anchor off shore from one of the small inhabited islands here in Fiji.
As soon as I have my anchor down and inspected so I know Learnativity is secure, I put the dingy in the water and row ashore to meet with the chief and ask for his blessings and permission to be there. When I arrive ashore I am usually greeted by a gaggle of giggling children and seek out an adult to ask to take me to their chief. I bring with me about a pound or half kilo of kava roots which I have purchased previously in one of the bigger city vegetable markets and keep a stock of onboard. Usually my adult guide takes the kava from me and talks with me as we walk to get a bit of background on me, where I’m from, where I have just sailed from, how long in Fiji, and so on. They introduce me to the chief and give him a summary of from this conversation and I am then invited to sit across from the chief sitting on a large hand woven mat. I present the chief with the kava and he places it in front of him as we sit cross legged he then says a prayer in Fijian, we clap three times when he has done so and the then welcomes me to his island and we chat for a bit more before I take my leave and return to the boat. More informally, Kava is also the traditional drink that Fijian men usually have at the end of the day when they get home from work and is similar to having a beer or wine after work. Several times while anchored for longer times off one of these islands I've been invited ashore to join them which has been a great gift and treasured experience.
On Friday however I had a whole new and even more intense experience with kava and the Fijian people and their way of life when one of my regular Fijian paint crew and friend Isikeli invited me to join him at his home for such a drink of kava. I was not sure what I could bring as a gift of thanks and appreciation but I remembered that I had about 2lbs/1kg of kava root still on board in my stores from sailing here last year and so I wrapped this up with ribbon into a bouquet like form that is the tradition here and took that along with me. Moreover, he had expressly invited Ruby to come along as he had been telling his daughters about Ruby the Wonderdog for months and she is also a "gift" for most people we meet.
Isikeli lives with his two daughters Vani (2) and Marica (4) and his wife Salome who unfortunately was not able to join us as she works nights at the neighboring First Landing resort which is next to the Vuda Point Marina where I’ve been since September. They live only a kilometer or two away and he and his oldest daughter, Marica (Fijian for Martha), met me at the marina and we walked over to their home. They recently moved into a new rental property that is situated in the middle of a large set of sugar cane fields and it was a perfect evening and just starting to cool off as the sun was starting to set (about 6:30pm). Their home is an adjoining half of the landlord's home and he joined us for the last half of the walk to the house where Ruby and I were introduced to the kids playing in the houses and yard and Isikeli's sister in law.
The kava roots need to be pulverized into powder and they fetched a large tall cast iron or steel urn that they used for this purpose. It needed to be cleaned out of rust and water so they wiped it all out and then lit some newspaper on fire inside it to burn off the remainder, wiped it clean and it was ready to use. Isikeli, his older son and the man who owns the houses where they live all took turns in pounding the kava with a long heavy steel rod that was about 4cm in diameter and 2.5m long until the kava roots were transformed into a fine powder.
My offers to assist were politely declined as the men took turns raising the rod high overhead and then bringing it down as hard as possible onto the kava roots inside the urn. This process took quite some time, almost an hour or so by the time it was fully pulverized and was a significant and sweaty effort in the hot humid night air. All the while I was invited to sit on the woven grass mat, enjoy a tea and some biscuits as Ruby and I played with the 3 young girls who came and went from inside the house to the covered porch we were sitting on, and the yard.
As has been surprisingly common, the kids and even many adult men are quite fearful of Ruby at first as they have never seen anything like her. There are LOTS of dogs here but they are mostly roaming free and not in very good health as the concept of having domestic pets is not common in Fiji. With her strange curly black hair and small size many think she is some kind of wind up or electric toy! It took a while for the little girls to get closer and closer to Ruby, reach out and touch her and finally end up sitting with her, petting her and their initial wary squeals were transformed into that joyous giggling of little girls.
Kava has a very distinctive smell that is hard to describe but has a very earthy, spicy smell much like you might expect from a root. They were very pleased with the kava I brought as apparently it was very good quality and this was a very large quantity for them as it made enough kava powder for several months of drinking. Isikeli then brought out his kava bowl and his son put a few heaping tablespoons full of kava powder into a cloth bag which he then kneaded in the large bowl of fresh water. It is a bit like making drip coffee or tea in that you do not want the kava powder itself to be in the water you just want to extract all the flavour out of the powder into the water. Isikeli continued to knead the bag in the water for about 10 minutes to extract all the flavour from the powered kava.
Once it was all mixed to his satisfaction, Isikeli brought out the traditional kava “cups” which are hollowed out halves of a coconut shell and offered me the first drink. You accept the bowl with both hands and while the other guests toast you and clap three times you then drink the kava in one steady go and when you are done they all clap three more times and you pass the bowl back to the “chief” of the ceremony. In our case it was just Isikeli and myself and once we had both had a cup Isikeli would place the lid back on the big bowl and we would talk some more and then he would serve another round about every 15-20 minutes. Kava is apparently mildly intoxicating but I have never had enough to feel any such effect and it just makes your lips, tongue and throat a bit numb. The bowl is then filled and passed amongst all the guests and then you usually sit around, chat for a while, and then repeat the whole process. It is a very old tradition and very special to be a part of.
I had my pocket camera with me and the girls were all quite intrigued with it and wanting to see pictures of themselves so that along with Ruby provided lots of fun for all of us throughout the evening as the girls got closer and closer to Ruby, petted her and worked up their courage with this very strange creature.
Isikeli had even brought out a small can of tuna and some crackers for Ruby which Vani (the brave one of the two) served to her as you can see in this photo. I also used several bites of soda crackers to entice Ruby to perform her full repertoire of entertaining tricks like standing on her hind legs, sit, down, dancing and giving High Fives all the accompanying music of giggles and laughs from the girls.
And so this most wondrous and simple time passed with Isikeli and I talking, sometimes just the two of us, sometimes with his two girls and older son. Fijian families usually speak Fijian in their homes and with their kids and then they learn English “immersion” style once they start school, which is usually when they are about five years old and start half day Kindergarten classes. So the young girls don’t speak much English yet but as usual it was no problem to communicate these simple pleasures of looking at pictures and playing with Ruby. The time passed in that oxymoronic way where it is all luxuriously slow and peaceful and yet in the end seems to go by in a blink.
We stayed until almost 9 o’clock, which is quite late here, and then walked back to the boat. Isikeli and Marica walked us out to the end of the sugar cane fields and then Ruby and I walked the last km back to the boat under a beautiful starry sky. The moon is rising and setting very early now so it was not in the sky at all so the sky was even darker and the stars shining even brighter than usual. It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the darkness and find my way along the dirt roads but the road is quite wide and not a problem to walk along as we made our way back to our little nest in the trees. I was not sure if we would be eating as part of this visit and I had been so busy with all the painting that I had not eaten since breakfast so I made up a quick snack back on the boat and was soon nodding off on the settee as I was pooped from a hard hot week of painting. I awoke a few hours later and stumbled my way into the aft cabin and was soon fast asleep in bed with Ruby curled up at my side and we were off to dream land here in this magical land called Fiji.
While it fails miserably to capture the magic of the evening, I have done my best here to describe what this evening was like. As with all experiential learning, this is not something that can be explained well in words and as the saying goes, "You really had to be there". It may sound to many like a very simple and even "boring" evening where “nothing” happened. Yet for me it was truly magical and memorable time. To be invited into the home and lives of these simply beautiful people, to have even just a few hours to become part of this moment in time was such a deeply authentic and Oh so real moment for me. I seem to be blessed with gifts like these all the time out here on this grand sailing life adventure and you can see why I say that I lead a truly charmed life.
Many of you ask what the heck I do with all my time out here “doing nothing”. It is a very reasonable question and one can fully understand as I often wonder myself where all the time has gone. But as you read more and more of my stories perhaps you can begin to understand just how full my time “doing nothing” is! I’m actually fascinated by the whole concept of “nothingness” and is why I have been devouring books like Stephen Hawking’s “Universe in a Nutshell” and Lawrence Krauss’ “A Universe from Nothing” that I am reading now. Turns out that as best these physicists and cosmologists can figure out, everything from our very selves to the entire cosmos around us has been created from "nothing” and how over 90 percent of the energy in the cosmos exists in the “nothing” that is left when you remove every atom, electron, proton and quark of visible matter.
In a similar way, I live a life of profound joy that seems to be similarly created out of “nothingness” with the eclectic range of activities that include sailing from one magical destination to the next, experiencing the wonders of Mother Nature, endless boat repairs and maintenance juxtaposed between equally endless sunrises and sunsets, and then truly living IN life’s moments when snorkeling or laying under a full night sky or sitting with some of the local people I meet along the way. To badly paraphrase Al Green’s “Use me” song, If this is what it feels like to do nothing, then nothing me up please!