Our ambassador/ tour guide/ adopted father Koli.
Koli arrived in his little fishing boat (exactly like a Mexican panga) in the late afternoon. His boat planes surprisingly well with the little 15 horsepower engine it has on the stern, but there is always about 8 inches of water in the bottom of the boat because there are cracks in the hull. There is a palate in the bottom of the boat to sit on to stay relatively dry and long wooden sticks to push through the shallows, which also serve as fishing poles when a hand line won't do. This boat is one of three in the village and it is absolutely essential - as a means of transportation, for obtaining food and as a connection to the outside world in general. There are no cars on the island and one can only travel from village to village by these rickety boats through the inside reef passages.
As we are anchored right in front of Lomati village, our ride into shore was quick and easy. At high tide the water comes right up to the sea wall, and I can only imagine the havoc wreaked when cyclones come through here. The Lau group has not been hit by a cyclone in over two years so all the foliage is healthy and the water is clear, but it is not always so.
As we walked into the village Kevin and I were greeted by little kids who yelled Bula! and ran away shyly. Kevin was wearing the standard board shorts and t-shirt attire of a surfer/sailor but women in Fijian culture are very conservative with their dress, and so not to offend anybody I wore a sulu (also called a pareo, lava-lava or sarong) over my shorts. I forgot my flip flops so I felt like I fit right in walking around barefoot along with all the kids - minus their dark hair, eyes and skin.
Koli took Kevin and me to the "mayor's house" where we were asked to sit down on a woven panadus mat on the front porch of a small cinderblock house. There were a few men sitting in a circle and when we joined them, always sitting cross legged - sitting with your feet sticking out is considered rude - and Koli presented the chief with our kava. The chief was an old man wearing a white but very worn Manchester United football jersey and a sulu wrapped around his waist. For all intents and purposes he looked like a regular Fijian guy, but was obviously treated with esteem and respect by everybody in the village.
After chanting what I assumed to be a welcoming and thanking speech - I heard lots of "bula" and "vinaka" - we were served kava out of half shells of coconut. Some people say that kava is the most disgusting thing they have ever tasted, but I do not find it so bad. It has a bitter, earthy taste and instantly makes the tongue numb, but is not nearly as bad as the local Fijian rum, Bounty, which tastes like (and has similar effects of) an industrial carpet cleaner. Kava is a very mellow narcotic that gives one a sleepy, dreamy sensation if enough is consumed. The strengths of the root vary considerably, with Vanuatu's allegedly being the strongest, but the Fijian men drink it all day and all seem to be functional, although pretty chilled out. Nobody seems to drink alcohol around here. They say, "When you drink the alcohol you start off quiet and end up noisy. When you drink the kava you start out noisy and end up quiet. Which would you prefer?" They seemed to condemn alcohol so I didn't mention that I could really go for a beer right about now.
In reality it is beneficial to society that these Fijians are kavaholics rather than alcoholics, as I am sure it reduces the rate of abuse and domestic violence in this male dominated culture. One of things I dislike most about the kava ceremony is that women are almost totally excluded. As a Western woman I was invited to join and served kava, but Fijian women do not take part. To be honest it is a little intimidating sitting in a room with 10 to 20 men all drinking kava and smoking cigarettes without another woman to be seen. Don't get me wrong, I appreciate their willingness to include me in the ceremony and respect their traditions, but it would be nice to not be the only girl drinking kava. And whereas Fijian women are powerful in their own way, men tend to dominate society.
My young tour guides.
After drinking kava for a while I was taken on a tour of the village by a few kids. As we walked down the grassy lane between the houses we seemed to collect more, and before long I was being taken around by a gaggle of kids. They all loved getting their picture taken and showed me their houses, most of which are single room dwellings built on stilts. There is very little furniture in the houses, maybe a TV and a chair or two, but life is lived on the woven mats. All of the cooking is done in little huts outside the house. Many houses do not have electricity and those that do are usually lit by a single CFL lightbulb.
The village of Lomati is small so the tour was short, and I returned to the mayor's house to continue drinking kava with the men. I met most of the villagers, who are incredibly friendly. They all speak remarkably good English (considering their circumstances), introduced themselves, and seemed genuinely interested in our lives. As Fijian culture is very traditional, Kevin and I decided to tell people we were partners - I wanted to tell people we were married so as not to raise any eyebrows - but Kevin wasn't ready to make the commitment so we just decided to tell people we are planning to get married, even though our relationship is platonic. Needless to say we had a few awkward conversations, but everybody is so mellow and kind they just let it blow over.
After drinking kava and sitting cross-legged on the floor for hours, I was very ready to get back to the boat. The last thing I wanted to do was offend anybody, but Koli could see the exhaustion in my eyes and graciously took us back to the boat. He told us that he would pick us up at 9:00 AM to go to another village and watch rugby for the day. "Bring more kava for the sevu-sevu," he told us. Kava and rugby, I can't wait.