Story and Photos by Helen Hewetson
“Bula, families!!” Was the enthusiastic – and loud — greeting sputtering out of the van’s loudspeaker; “Buuuuulaaaaaaaaaa!”
Nobody is surprised when it isn’t loud enough, and we all play along and try again. After all, even if it is before 9am (and some of us are still clutching coffee), this brand of earnest happiness is impossible to ignore. For everyone, that is, except the determinedly sulky teenager sitting in the corner of the van, rolling her eyes. She is having none of it.
“BULAAAAAAAAAAAAA Inia”. We yell again. Finally, after several tries, we satisfy our host and we’re on our way.
We are a full 22-person van, a motley group of all ages: families, couples old and young, and the occasional single (i.e., me), on holiday in Fiji. There are a few American and Canadian accents, but, thanks to proximity and flight availability, Australians and Kiwis are the majority.
We’ve all been collected from different resorts and hotels by the tour company’s many reps, most of us drawn to the jet boat river tour for a chance to get to some of the smaller villages we wouldn’t otherwise see; some of us, like the very excited five year old behind me, are all about the Jet Boat ride we’re taking to get there.
Inia (who tells us we can call him SpongeBob if we prefer), keeps the van ride to the boat launch interesting – and full of groan-worthy g-rated jokes. He’s knowledgeable and easily answers anything we come up with, including how papaya trees are grown crooked on purpose, (to reduce bruising when the fruit falls); how the mongoose has become a national pest; and how three major religions (and several others) get along just fine here of course – because, it’s Fiji.
Before long, we’re at the launch collecting our lifejackets, lining up to head off on the bright red Jet Boats – which are incongruously lounging at the muddy riverside, surrounded by dark green jungle, bright orange tourists, and not much else. We appear to be in the middle of nowhere.
The story goes that Jay Whyte, the company’s owner, came to Fiji in 1991 on a family holiday from Australia when he was 13. Unlike the teenager on our trip, he found the country fascinating, and jumped at the chance for his family to visit an inland village with a new local Fijian friend, Pita. They all swam in the river, ate with the villagers and experienced true Fijian hospitality – and the idea for the company was born.
Fifteen years later, Jay and Pita launched Sigatoka River Safari with a new partner, Josh. Their goal is to take people inland, away from the resorts, to see how life is really lived in rural Fiji. The best way to get there on these shallow rivers is on these super-fast, custom-built Jet Boats – which of course, add a bit of a thrill. I love the speed, but I’m not sure whether Josh, a.k.a., Captain Jack is being serious when he whispers, “You have the wettest seat on the boat” before plonking down beside me and starting the boat up with a roar.
We make several stops en route, to learn about the river, how people use it, and the incredible geography around us. Apparently the region is rich with valuable minerals, and the local people are being careful not to allow their land to be exploited.
Whenever we see someone on the river – washing clothes, fishing, walking horses, or swimming, they wave and smile, and often yell “Bula!” – just as fascinated by us as we are by them.
Today we’re heading to Rarabahaga village. It’s the first time they’ve had a group visit in six months and apparently they’ve been looking forward to it. Frankly, the sight of our sweaty, pink group, hardly visible for hats and sunscreen and sunglasses and cameras, might make me run in the opposite direction, but I suppose we must be an amusing distraction.
Before we get to the village proper, we (the ladies) are asked to put on a (provided) sarong to cover our legs, in keeping with the local custom. We learn that special provision has been made for us wearing hats (normally not done) because it’s an exceptionally hot day. Everyone looks relieved.
After walking along a dusty road, past chickens and goats, and what appears to be much of the village, we arrive at the community hall: a large, basic, rectangular room with lots of windows but no decoration. This, we’re told, is where all community meetings take place.
Right now, the room is half full of rows of men, mostly wearing Hawaiian-style shirts, sitting cross-legged on the floor. The man in the centre is sitting in front of a giant bowl of what I now know to be kava, but at first glance looks like muddy water straight from the river.
Our village guide introduces us, and we present a gift to the chief before being given a traditional welcome; the kava ceremony. Our hosts give each of us a cup of the bitter liquid – sold in North America as an herbal anti-anxiety medication or relaxant. Several people pass, but I don’t dislike the taste that much, so I drink mine for the team.
As we go around introducing ourselves, the villagers look interested – and we’re all smiling and keen to be polite – everyone, that is, except for our surly teenager. She mumbles something incomprehensible before rolling her eyes and shuddering a little. It’s almost comical to us North Americans; she’s a caricature of the pop culture teenager. To the Fijians, though, she’s a total mystery. I can see them glancing at one other quizzically, not understanding what could possibly be wrong with this unfriendly girl.
The rest of the visit has us exploring the village; saying a giggly “Bula!!” to the adorable kids, dodging colourful washing lines, cuddling a new litter of puppies, taking refuge from the heat inside the pretty village church (most rural Fijians are fiercely Christian, thanks to missionary work in the mid-19th Century), and generally seeing how people live their very different lives here.
After this, we are invited back inside the community hall for lunch – the village women put on an enormous spread for us of all their favourite dishes. These include curried potato, fried eggplant (with an egg on top!), beefy chow mein noodles, eggplant roti, doughnuts, fresh cassava and all sorts of fruit. We feel totally spoiled.
When we can hardly move from our huge lunch, our smiling hosts treat us to several traditional Fijian songs. The sound of voices raised together is always beautiful, but here, the shared experience is greatly enhanced by our humble surroundings. I feel a deep contentment and happiness as we listen, watching the children dance and clap along – the whole village participates joyfully.
Some members of our group have brought along gifts for the children – felt-tip markers, soccer balls, crayons, school bags – and these are very gratefully received. The Safari company does contribute to the village in very real ways; infrastructure and restoration projects – such as community spaces, schools, clean water access etc., are all funded by the tour group visits. But, sweets and colourful pens are more fun, and we’re all glad they were so thoughtful.
Soon, we are all given a pretty neck garland of flowers, and the children grab our sweaty hands and lead us up to dance along. Anything goes – we are all full, hot, barefoot, and dancing with little people, to unfamiliar songs – but we’re all thrilled to be there and happy to share the experience.
Before long, we’re back in the Jet Boats, zooming down the river, enjoying the restorative breeze, doing “three-sixties” whenever there’s a big enough space – this is where I learn that Captain Jack was indeed kidding. I have the driest seat on the boat, and now I’m a little jealous. I turn around to see what’s happening behind me, just in time to hear the squeals of glee as a massive wave sprays everyone down.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see it: for one split second, our miserable teenager cracks a small smile. Proof positive that it really is impossible to be unhappy in Fiji.
IF YOU GO:
Sigatoka River Safari, Viti Levu, Fiji
There are two tours daily and they offer packages that include return transfers from the resorts on the Coral Coast, Nadi and Denarau region.