Barefoot Beachcombing in the Yasawas, Fiji
I love to go on holidays, but as enticing as lazy days and barefoot beachcombing might sound, I much prefer to unwind with something a little more adventurous. Lying on a palm fringed, sandy beach is not appealing when the destination begs exploring. Fiji is one of those places.
Our hotel in Nadi was designed in typical Fijian style. Hand carved wooden figures stood at the entrance and grimacing, wooden masks glared down from the walls. Plaited mats were thrown haphazardly over the cool marble floors and tall, scented candles flickered in the breeze. Frogs croaked and the sweet, tropical scent of frangipani wafted through the airy foyer. In the evening dusk, with the backdrop a silent, peaceful Pacific, ‘authentic’ thatched roofed bures resembled a genuine Fijian village.
To shiny smiles and hearty welcoming cries of ‘Bula, Bula’, and a traditional offering of kava (an acquired taste), we checked in, found our room and headed off to look around.
Fiji Kava ceremony - photo copyright Tourism Fiji
Having read about Fiji’s ‘breathtaking’ beaches I was bemused to discover that the sand on the beach outside our hotel had been imported to replace the naturally black volcanic sand peculiar to this particular area. However, I had no urge to spread myself on a towel and bake under the Fijian sun on this holiday. I was looking forward to visiting the exotic islands of the Yasawa region further north and swimming in the limestone caves of Sawa-i-Lau, made famous in the romantic, adventure movie Blue Lagoon and where Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins frolicked and skinny-dipped over 30 years ago.
The following day we boarded a cruise ship and sailed through the clear, tropical waters to the Yasawas. It was Sunday morning and it was sizzling hot when we finally dropped anchor off Waya Island. The islanders were busily preparing for church. The women were immaculately dressed in long white skirts and loose-fitting tops and the children were in their best outfits, laughing mischievously as they were scolded for skylarking on the beach in their good clothes. The whole village looked meticulously clean and fresh. The Methodist minister wore a dark suit and tie, quite inappropriate for the weather, and he sweated profusely in the stillness of the 36˚ temperature. We took a seat at the back of the church and listened as the congregation began to sing. Fijians love to sing and heart and soul were put into a stirring rendition of Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above.
The minister delivered a sermon befitting his now rather wet and wild appearance, his booming voice preaching hell-fire and brimstone, devils and damnation, clenched fists pounding on the lectern. No-one stirred. There was more singing and after everyone stood for the Eucharist and sipped the Communion wine, the congregation filed outside, where the atmosphere immediately changed into one of hustle and bustle as good clothes were quickly traded for comfortable sulus and t-shirts and grass skirts over boardshorts for some of the men. We sat in a circle for the ‘Qaloqalov’ or traditional welcome ceremony, the highlight of which is the preparation of ‘yaquona’ or kava which was passed around the circle in a coconut cup. After the formalities everyone relaxed and we chatted with the villagers and swam in the warm water playing games with the children, and wandered barefoot along the beach looking for shells. Later we bought sulus, bark paintings and shell necklaces at the ‘instant’ village market. There were no stalls or stands to erect. The women spread their goods on sheets of batik and sat cross legged as we tourists browsed. They chatted and laughed and no one seemed in any way anxious to make a sale.
We boarded the boat once more for the trip out to the nearby Blue Lagoon caves. It was quite a thrill to climb up to the entrance to the cave, pick my way down rocky steps and plunge a couple of metres into the pleasantly cool water. The cave is accessed by a narrow tunnel and I swam under a torch-lit, rocky ledge, elegantly and Brooke Shields like, I am sure (though skinny dipping is definitely out) and on through the short, narrow passage to reach ‘the’ cave. I fully satisfied my curiosity as I splashed about in the turquoise waters of the surprisingly large, light filled limestone cave, treading water and listening to our echoing voices fade away in the distance, as a handsome Fijian minder watched over us. Strangely the water became cold quite quickly, so I took a deep breath and made my way back through the tunnel, up the rock steps and down again to the beach. Here we browsed at the shell market set up by women of the nearby Nabukeru fishing village, and later took a closer look at the huge limestone pinnacles peculiar to this area.
Fijian clothes dryer. Photo copyright Tourism Fiji
Back on board with a cold bottle of Fiji Bitter in hand, we swapped stories as we sailed through the calm, turquoise waters and back to Waya Island. The villagers were preparing a lovo feast, where the food is carefully wrapped in leaves and placed in an underground cooking pit, and covered. After the unveiling of the lovo we feasted on dalo, cassava, sweet potato, fish, chicken, rice and (more) small bottles of Fiji Bitter. Soon it was time for the meke, or traditional Fijian dancing. Guitars and ukuleles miraculously appeared and after a while everyone joined in the fun, dancing on the sand and cavorting to a hilarious Fijian version of Chubby Checkers’ Limbo Rock.
Fiji - Lovo Oven Feast.
And then, too soon came the long goodbye. Even though we had only been on Waya for a few short hours it was though we had known the islanders forever. We were sad to leave and as we climbed back on board the boat, the entire island population stood on the beach, slowly clapping hands and singing Isa Lei, the beautiful Fijian song of thanks and farewell. To the fading, melodious voices of the island choir we headed out into the ocean, and back to the 21st century.
It crossed my mind that barefoot beachcombing is something I might very well get used to!
Listen here: youtube.com/watch?v=88hkZB0XwQo
English translation as follows:
Isa, Isa you are my only treasure
Must you leave me, so lonely and forsaken?
As the roses will miss the sun at dawning,
Every moment my heart for you is yearning
Isa Lei, the purple shadow falling,
Sad the morrow will dawn upon my sorrow;
O forget not, when you're far away,
Precious moments at Suva Bay
Isa, Isa my heart was filled with pleasure,
From the moment I heard your tender greeting;
Mid the sunshine, we spent the hours together,
Now so swiftly those happy hours are fleeting
O'er the ocean your island home is calling,
Happy country where roses bloom in splendour;
O if I could but journey there beside you
Then forever my heart would sing in rapture
Trish Clark is author of Good Night and God Bless: A Guide to Convent and Monastery Accommodation in Europe, Vols I and II, both published by Hidden Spring, an imprint of Paulist Press NJ. We've interviewed Trish about Good Night and God Bless. She writes a monthly column for Wandering Educators as the Travel with a Spiritual Twist Editor.
You can find her at http://goodnightandgodbless.com/
All photos courtesy and copyright Tourism Fiji