October 23, 2002
Bula!” the friendly Fijian children on the beach cried out as we pulled Petit Bliss onto the sandy shore above the tide line. A hefty Fijian man called John soon arrived and walked alongside us on the beach.
“Where is the house of Tui Waya, the Chief?” Gunter asked him. “We want to pay our respects with a sevu sevu ceremony.”
“His brother, Navalu, is interim chief now, until the elections in 2004,” said John. “Tui Waya died in 1989. I will take you there.” (So much for the information we had gleamed from our Lonely Planet Guidebook!)
“Noqu sevu sevu gor. Nogu sevu sevu gor,” Gunter kept mumbling under his breath, practicing what to say while presenting the yaqui root used to make kava. John walked us through a little well-kept village toward the chief’s hut. We passed by a mix of woven and wooden structures, doorways artfully framed with colorful ti plants or flowering frangipani. The four of us trooped, single column, following John through the village’s “main street,” past a nondescript wooden church and an impressive monument. Everywhere, the towering dark green peaks formed a majestic backdrop to landscape photos that I could see in my mind, but dared not photograph, until we had presented our gift and had been welcomed into the village.
“After all, we could be rejected and asked to leave the village,” said Gunter as we trudged along, always ready to take the adversarial or “what-if” position of the scientist.
“I doubt that they kick us out!” I laughed, anticipating the interchange.
As it turned out, Gunter didn’t get to say the words he had so diligently practiced. John said it all for us in Fijian, as he directed us to sit cross-legged on the floor. Gunter had placed the root on the floor in front of the chief, where—after all the introductory talk—he could either accept it by picking it up or reject it by letting it set there. The speech was very long. John must have filled him in on our entire background.
Finally, it was the chief’s turn to talk. He turned to all of us, and in a low, clear voice, said a few sentences in Fijian that John translated for us: “You now have permission to go anywhere you want in the village.”
We all smiled. “Do I have permission to photograph children?” I asked. “I would like that.”
John talked with the chief in Fijian and then replied, “Yes, you have permission to photograph the chief, but he says, only with the men.” He had understood my request, but was already arranging Gunter and Toni on either side of the chief. Flustered, I unpacked my Nikon and quickly focused. I was fortunate that the one photo I took turned out!
Here sits the chief, with an opened blue checked shirt, a white scooped-neck
T-shirt underneath, and belted khaki shorts instead of the traditional
sulu. Gunter and Toni, in deference, are wearing colorful sulus Gunter
had purchased many years ago in Papua New Guinea.
We walked back with John through the village’s main street. The monument near the church, John explained, had been erected as a tribute to the village’s having been spared a measles epidemic that had devastated near-by islands. The entire village had prayed for mercy and their prayers, they believe, were answered.
John invited us to have a kava ceremony at 4:00 PM at his home. “Not Fijian time,” he confirmed as we left to explore on our own. “California time,” I committed, as he smiled and nodded.