Fijian traditions live on, under thatched roofs and jungle palms
The modern world has left its mark on Fiji. From the malls of Nadi and Suva, to the cruise ship terminals, to the throngs of Australian tourists, sometimes it can be hard to remember you’re in Fiji at all.
But the real Fiji is still out there, too. You can find it on the far-flung smaller islands, of course – if you’ve got a lot of time and money to spend island-hopping. But there’s an undiluted dose of Fiji at its most pure right on the main island of Viti Levu. The village of Navala nestles in the mountains just three hours outside of Nadi in space, and at least a century back in time.
Jewel of the Ba Highlands
The first thing you’ll notice on your trip to Navala is the spectacular landscape. Climbing up from the coast, you’ll ascend among lush hillsides in every shade of green. Soaring peaks strain for the heavens, while shadowed valleys hint at their own little paradises. You’ll swear you can taste the sweetness of the sugar cane plantations on the breeze.
After you pass through the bustling farm town of Ba, with its heavy Indo-Fijian influence, you’ll say goodbye to civilisation. The emerald hills go on and on, more verdant by the second, lulling you into a pleasant daze, the sense that you’re a million miles from anywhere…
Suddenly, there it is! A cluster of thatched roofs sits in the bend of a river. You see virtually none of the ubiquitous concrete blocks and steel beams of rural Fijian towns today. The people of Navala made the decision in 1950 to preserve their traditional bure houses, laid out in neat rows along grassy avenues. Your first sight of the village, much as it must have looked when the first Europeans stumbled ashore in Fiji, will give you the deliciously disorienting feeling that you’ve somehow stepped directly into the past.
Sevusevu: The Sacred Kava Ceremony
Your first stop in Navala should be the turaga-ni-koro, or headman, a representative of the chief. Ask around: in a village this small, everyone will know where to find him. The turaga-ni-koro will collect your US$15 entry fee in return for permission to visit the village and take photos.
In most Fijian villages, visitors are expected to bring a gift of waka, a root of the kava plant used in the sevusevu ceremony. The entry fee takes the place of this gift in Navala. But the turaga-ni-koro may still invite you to take part in a sevusevu ceremony, drinking kava with the chief and other villagers. If so, don’t pass it up!
Sevusevu is at the heart of Fijian culture. While many visitors say that kava is an acquired taste, it does deliver a pleasant low-level intoxication, less powerful but more relaxing than alcohol. After the initial ceremony, the mood will turn convivial and relaxed. Be ready to share some stories about your travels.
It Takes a Village
The most fascinating thing about your visit to Navala will be the people, living in ways that have all but disappeared from most of the world. The villagers tend crops like cassava, yams, and papaya in fields just outside Navala, which is also where they keep their goats and cattle. The village men hunt wild pigs in the surrounding forest. All that food is cooked in separate communal kitchen bure houses. Every few years, each bure must be rebuilt every few years, an effort in which the whole village pitches in. The coming of electricity and literacy have done little to change the ancient patterns of life in Navala.
If any fact sums up Navala, it’s this: unlike almost any other city or town you’ve ever seen, all the houses here are all the same size. No mansions, no castles, no shacks. When people live this close to the land and to each other, nobody climbs too far above or sinks too far below their neighbours. Navala is that rare place where the inhabitants can say, honestly, “We’re all in this together.” Perhaps it’s that sense of community that has given the villagers of Navala the strength to preserve their traditional lifestyle for centuries, and for centuries to come.