My tongue has gone numb and I feel the room shift slightly as I taste my second cup of kava blessed by the bete, the village priest.
“BULA!” the bete greets me as he stands over me, a great man with a beatific smile. “Vinaka, vinaka,” I thank him, not entirely persuaded my words and lips are syncing, before clapping three times as instructed and gulping down the full cup in one. I’m not drunk — it’s non-alcoholic — but I am a little bit euphoric.
Yaqona, known often as kava, is an earthy mixture made from the pounded root of a pepper plant species, known for its mildly intoxicating effect. Kava’s a big part of Fijian culture during ceremonial occasions such as the sevusevu: a traditional gift offering to the bete for his blessing. I’m here for approval to enter the village’s Naihehe Cave.
The journey here took us through the lush Sigatoka Valley, known as the ‘Salad Bowl’ for its abundance of fruit and vegetable crops. The crew guiding us are a fun bunch and rib each other with nicknames such as Nicki Minaj and Rihanna.
‘Nicki’ points out the mighty, winding Sigatoka River below us as we come to a stop on the side of a dirt track. “We’ll have to cross here to meet the bete,” she says portentously. We’re transported over the river with little fuss on a bilibili raft. I look up at the surrounding hills, a spectacular range in dusty ochre and red descending to rich, bright green coverings in the fields.
We pass through small villages where excited children shout “Bula!” — the one catch-all greeting in Fiji — as they give us high fives. At a small river, we stop for a while where proud kids show me their catch of fish and crabs.
The bete ushers us in from the strong sun to the room and I sit cross-legged on the mat. Nicki prepares the kava in front of us in a mixing bowl with the other elders. “It’s the first time she’s done this,” laughs the bete, watching her attentively. I’m marked with greyish powder stripes on my face as the ceremony begins. The kava’s coarse but not unpleasant with a distinctive taste and pungent aroma.
Having consumed my kava, I’m granted access to the cave. “You’re welcome here and to discover our people, you’ll learn about how we used to live long ago,” says the bete.
I walk through the dense tropical forest to the Naihehe Cave. It was home to the Sautabu people during Fiji’s tribal warfare days, a refuge to hide from their enemies. I put on my headlamp and enter the cave, where the water soon rises up to my thighs. I duck under a long underhang and look up to see a massive chamber with sparkling stalactites, glistening stalagmites and glossy flowstones.
“And this is the cannibal oven,” Nicki gestures casually. I should feel panic. I’m suddenly immersed into a world of cannibalism, but I feel very calm. The kava has done its job.