More Culture than a Biology Lab

My mom expected two weeks of sundowners on beautiful beaches, gourmet dinners at resorts, and plenty of snorkeling. We convinced her that she actually wanted long passages and culture. She didn’t and neither did we, but we did it anyway.

We made our way from the gorgeous, rugged Viani Bay to lush Taveuni because we were running low on food. Unfortunately, it was Sunday so only one store was open and the supply boat had a labor dispute so they hadn’t restocked the island for two weeks. Pickings were slim but we managed to get a few necessities and enough protein for three creative dinners. After briefly provisioning, we set sail northwest to Kioa Island.

We arrived in the anchorage around 3pm and read that we had to present kava to the chief. Kava is dried pepper root that Fijians mash and strain to make a beverage with mild narcotic effects. We also packaged some basic foodstuffs, flour, sugar, and two minute noodles to present to the village chief a gift to get permission to use his waters. Apparently, whoever wrote that was having a laugh because the chief looked at us like we were crazy when we presented it, or he was laughing at our skirts.

The family in traditional Fiji dress, ready for the “Sevusevu” ceremony that never happened. Notice the Kava in my hand.

Then he said, “You must present it in the traditional Fijian way.”

We asked, “What is that?”

He replied, “I don’t know, we are not Fijian.”

We knew that going in, the Kioa Island settlers came from an island 800 miles north that flooded due to rising sea levels. They settled on Kioa but brought their unique culture with them. However, our chart said we still had to present kava, and we really wanted to try it. We chatted with the chief a few minutes longer, but his English was not excellent so we left the gifts with him and returned to the boat for the night.

Since my mom and I had little luck provisioning on Taveuni, we decided to try to trade with the locals the next morning. We wanted fruit, eggs, and fish. Once again I packed flour, sugar, rice, some money and a couple of fish hooks. We set off for the shore. As we beached the dinghy, we spotted some women in a beautiful hall with colorful tapestries hanging from the ceiling and hand crafted baskets covered in beads everywhere. We asked them if they knew where we could buy fruit and the chase began. This town only had 300 inhabitants, and we met many of them. The women directed us to the administrator, who introduced us to our unofficial tour guide, Mateo.

We walked to several houses, inquiring at each about fruits or vegetables for sale with no luck. Mateo told us the island was divided into 100 equal plots, with each family owning one. They had their own plantations on their plots, so whenever they wanted fruit, they walked across the island and picked it from their trees. Nobody sold it because everyone grew their own. His plantation was only a 15 minute walk away, but he did not offer to take us.

Next, he took us to the “store” to get eggs. The store is a room in someone’s house with chicken coup wire with a hole cut in it above a counter. I don’t think they had more than ten items for sale, but they did have eggs. We were making progress and we were starting to get a feel for the community. My mom asked him what all of the women were doing since they all seemed to be walking the same direction with baskets. He told us that all of the young men in the village worked on community projects on specified days, and the women are responsible for feeding them while they work. I couldn’t imagine a system like that being accepted in America but on an island with limited job prospects, few resources, and no cars, everyone seemed happy to help.

Next, our guide pointed out the “fish store”, which was a shack with what I imagine is a refrigerator and not much else in it. We started walking towards it when a woman approached us and asked if we still were looking for fruit. We were, so she took us through the village to her home in the interior of the island. There, she presented three large papayas, and when we said we only wanted one, she insisted we take all three. I have not done much trading so I emptied my backpack. Flour, sugar and instant noodles. She still looked disappointed. Then, she perked up when I mentioned fish hooks since fishing gear is hard to get and their culture relies on it for sustenance. We threw those in too and left with our prizes.

After the detour through the village, we made our way back to the fish store. We asked some islanders standing outside what the prices were and what kind of fish, and they said $6.50 Fiji per kg for trevally, which is $3.25US for 2.2 lbs. That is cheap. Unfortunately, we were out of funds from the eggs, so we hurried back to the boat to get money and my dad, because we were having a great time and wanted to share the experience with him.

We beached the dinghy and a five year old jumped on (and later untied our gas can and bow line). We asked his mom if he could lead us to the school and she said yes, likely happy to get him out of her hair. Our conversation made me realize that his vocabulary was limited.

Us: “What grade are you in?”

Him: “Yes.”

Us: “How many brothers and sisters do you have?”

Him: “School, yes.”

Us: “How old are you?”

Him: *holds up five fingers*

At least he had one answer that made sense.

We walked around the four school buildings, peering into each classroom. The children invited us in and there were no teachers around. The kids were excited, waving and trying out their English, which was being taught along with math in a few classrooms. We were a welcomed distraction from their lessons, and enjoyed learning about their school.

We finally walked back to the dinghy and returned to the boat satisfied, knowing that we finally properly experienced a place instead of just the pretty anchorage. We met some of the people, learned the history, and shopped where they shopped. It was truly rewarding.

Kioa sunset with the village in the foreground.

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