Five minutes into the safety presentation, my only thought was this: “I’m a dead man.”
We were standing on the banks of the Wainikoroiluva river, inflatable kayaks at our feet, well-used life-preservers strapped tightly to our persons, helmets crammed onto our heads. One of the Rivers Fiji guides was standing in the ankle deep water, which was rushing around his legs and heading about 100 yards downstream where it frothed up around a series of boulders that looked much larger than the ones in the brochure.
But it wasn’t the rocks I was afraid of. I was scared Cara was going to kill me. After the hour-and-a-half slightly bumpy ride from Outrigger to Pacific Harbor where Rivers Fiji was located, she seemed still in good spirits. And the hour-and-a-half up and down teeth-rattling gravel roads seemed not to dampen her spirits. Aside from the lack of guard rails and the elevation, the roads weren’t any worse than some of those in Louisiana – or, now that I think about it, the stretch of Long Island Expressway running through Queens.
Of course, the scenery helped take our minds off fear of heights or, more accurately, fear of a driver misjudging the edge of the road and taking us to our deaths. Jungle-covered mountains and valleys folded and unfolded along either side of us, the foliage becoming an almost blinding emerald green when the sun broke through the clouds. Every so often, we’d come across a handful of cows standing on the side of the road chewing thoughtfully on their mountain grass, as if to ask, “How the hell did I get up on the side of a jungle mountain.”
We stopped halfway up to take photos, eat a bit of banana bread and have some “juice,” which might be more accurately described as the orange cousin of “grape drink.” Whatever the case, it was delicious. There was one other couple on our trip, from China, and the woman grabbed a roll of toilet paper and walked off down the road and into the jungle.
“Nuh-uh,” Cara said.
That nuh-uh was reinforced by the series of spider webs she noted strung between the grass immediately off the road. A jumbled mess that covered about five feet of ground, it had the arachnophobe in me convinced there was a two-and-a-half foot spider crouched in the bushes, readying itself for a launch directly at my face. But it was only a group of normal sized spiders living in a little Fijian spider village.
David, the main guide, reassured me that Fiji spiders “were the friendliest on earth.” Maybe. But I’m not sure the bugs wrapped up in the web felt the same way. He then went on to explain that Fiji had no dangerous land or river animals. No snakes (or very few at any rate), no poisonous spiders, no alligators or crocodiles, or lions, tigers or bears. All the action is in the ocean with the sharks and the sea snakes (one of which we may have seen, but I’m still trying to get an identification on the suspect).
So we had no reason to fear the animals. Just the roads. And maybe later the rocks.
Eventually, we began to see people walking the roads and later a few Fijian villages, clusters of 20 to 30 houses tucked high in the mountains. Our road trip ended at one such village, Nakavika village in the Namosi highlands, where we had to present the village chief with an offering, ask his permission to use the river and perform a kava ceremony.
The houses of the village are laid out around a long rectangular courtyard of sorts, which itself is divided in two halves by a church. While Fiji hosts thriving Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities, the majority of Fijians are Christian. All of these religious are undoubtedly mixed with a healthy dose of animism or whatever preceded their arrival on these shores. The church didn’t have a sign and the cross didn’t indicate much. Inside were no pews or stained glass or statues. Floor mats through most of it and a slightly raised altar at one end. David told us it was a Roman Catholic village.
At which point, genius here decides to pipe up with, “Where we’re from it’s mostly Catholic as well.”
Which can only be followed up by one question. “Oh, your are Catholic?”
We didn’t even have to think about that one. “Yeah. Kind of.”
“You are married?”
So here he had to faithless, ex-Catholics traveling the world in sin. But he didn’t seem to mind very much. Besides, that Chinese couple was probably communist anyway!
As we walked toward the chief’s hut, we encountered children too young for school coming out to tell us “Bula.” Their parents did as well. Chickens and roosters traversed the property. Birds flew overhead. Smoke from a cook fire built in a tin shed drifted by.
Between the chickens and the smoke and some of the ramshackle buildings, I was put in mind of my grandmother’s house, one of those visceral memories ingrained in the system that, under the right circumstances, you can see and smell and feel even though the last actual instance of it is almost 30 years in the past. Mawmaw’s house, though, was set on a piece of property that was mostly dirt.
The yards we played in didn’t support grass as lush. And I bet she’d have practically died over the flowers. Someone had even gone and planted rose bushes among the other native species blooming on either side of the courtyard.
If I’d had any expectations of a chief, they were of a 50-year-old man, slightly heavier than the other folks who lived in the village. A smiley chap, perhaps a bit of a blowhard.
We were greeted instead by an elderly man, seated on the floor, folded awkwardly over and under a low-slung table. His feet and hands jutted out at impossible angles and he seemed to have trouble holding his head up. Chief Leo wasn’t born a cripple; this isn’t a case of a tribe building up a superstition around a handicap. In fact, he was a police officer for some 20 years. His origami body is the result of a rugby injury that destroyed his spine. I didn’t want to think at all about what went through his head all day. As the other men of the village were either working in a coastal town or farming kava and taro in the mountains, he sat here waiting for tourists to come along and drink kava with him.
Indeed, he didn’t drink kava while we were there because he wasn’t feeling that well and he apparently has to do the ceremony once daily in the latter half of the week as the tour groups come through.
The kava ceremony is something offered to the Fijian tourist at every bend in the road, it seems. Yet, we’d been in the country for days and had managed to miss it. The hotel offers a kava ceremony ever night at 7 p.m. But as this coincides with happy hour at Le Café just on the other side of the fence, we’d been too busy downing alcohol to show up to drink narcotics.
Kava is made from a root plant and is used by Fijians in a ceremonial manner and by Fijian Indians in – well, I don’t know. But they’re the ones who buy most of it. And in some of towns near the mouth of the river, it wasn’t uncommon to see signs that read something along the lines of “Mr. Patel’s 24 Hour Kava Shack.” The guidebooks will tell you that it tastes like muddy water and can produce a mild buzz. In fact, foreigners relating the event put a lot of emphasis on the muddy water taste of it.
So our loins, as they say, were girded. We were ready.
David sat us in a row perpendicular to the chief. (I hadn’t sat cross-legged on a floor in forever. Between old age and my bad back, my feet went numb immediately.) Cara was closest to the chief and the Chinese gentleman farthest. David dumped water into the ceremonial bowl, dumped ground kava into a rag and soaked it, squeezed it and, in general, turned the water a pleasant muddy color.
Another guide, Pedro, showed up to lead us in the ceremony. He joked that he’d had a full night of drinking Cava the night before – and it showed. Since the chief wasn’t drinking, we had to determine who the elder visitor was, which caused some confusion as, we discovered, the Chinese couple spoke almost no English. We determined that the Chinese man was, indeed, older so he went first. David asked us if we wanted low-tide or high-tide. A half cup or a full cup.
“Does a drunk want a full beer or a half a beer, David?” is something I did not say to him.
But I said high tide. As did Cara.
Reader, kava does not taste nearly as bad as they make it out to taste. A little gritty, yes. And it smells just faintly of dirt. But it tasted mostly like slightly chalky water. After finishing off a full cup, my lips went immediately numb. And that was pretty much the extent of it. We were all offered another round. The Chinese demurred. Cara and I both raised our hands.
“Of course,” David laughed. “Americans.”
Of course, I wanted to point out, Pedro over there looks like he’d be happy to down the entire thing if you’d let him. I liked Pedro.
They cut us off after the second round. Neither of us felt anything at all, but probably better to be safe considering we were about to embark on a sport that involved fast moving water, big rocks and little plastic helmets.
Before we departed, we were given a chance to ask the chief questions. The Chinese couple remained silent. No one there to translate. Cara is naturally shy in new situations. So that left me. I asked a few questions. The chief answered. At first I was expecting David to translate, but then it occurred to me that the chief was speaking English and I couldn’t understand. I’m bad with accented English on a good day and while the chief started out a sentence strong, his voice would peter out by the end, no doubt a result of lungs with diminished capacity. (Later, I realized that he spoke much like I do, drifting off into mumbles that infuriate girlfriends and parents). So I couldn’t understand much of what he said. Still, he kept eye contact and smiled as if willing us to understand—which practically broke my damn heart.
* * *
And then we were off for the river. After being burdened with life jackets, paddles, helmets and our gear, we were marched down a steep, muddy, wet decline to the river bank, where we found another guide, Toby, waiting to instruct us in the perils of kayaking.
The trip is safe for beginners. It is. That I’m typing this now is testament to that. Still, I couldn’t take my eyes off the pile of rocks jutting out of the river just downstream. I can’t even imagine what was going through the Chinese couple’s minds as they could understand nothing of what Toby was saying and could only watch as he acted out things like what to do if your boat gets smashed against a rock or how to avoid floating pieces of bamboo from gouging your eyes out – oh, and if you were to end up in the water, try not to open your mouth because of all the cows and horses along the banks. (Toby should come try out an American river, flowing as they are with equal parts farm fertilizer, sewer run off and water.)
He kept using the phrase, “if you are a swimmer.” Meaning that if you had the fun, life-affirming experience of being dumped out of your kayak.
And that’s what prompted me to think I was a dead man. I had a very clear vision of Cara hitting that first rapid, bouncing off a rock and going in. She’d grab onto a branch a little down stream, spitting the water out of her mouth and give me the old Evil Eye. And then we’d have another two hours on the river. There might even be some crying.
I agreed to go through the first rapids first. But once all the kayaks were in the water, the current had its way and Cara was leading edge of our party, just behind the guide. The rapids grabbed her kayak and through she went, safe and sound. Then I followed. There was some delighted screaming behind me from the wife of the Chinese couple.
“You go first through the next one,” Cara said.
So I did.
I headed into the second set of rapids. Ahead of me was a very large rock. We had been told that if it looked like were going to hit a rock, to hit it head on so that the boat would glance off to the side. Is this what I did? No. I did what any sane person would do and tried to paddle away from the damn thing, which put me sideways. So the river slammed me sideways into the rock. There’s a precise motion you’re supposed to do with your body to remedy the situation. It involves leaning toward the rock – which is not the natural thing to do. I leaned away from the rock.
Of Cara and me, only one of us would be a “swimmer” that day. It would be me.
The kayak rolled over and I rolled out. I did remember to get onto my back, my feet in front of me. I was shocked at how much faster the river moved when you were directly in it. I was also shocked that I was still holding onto the kayak – and heading for a rock even bigger than the one that knocked me out of the boat. I let go of the kayak and kept a grip on the paddle, braced myself and bounced off the rock – probably the only textbook maneuver I was to pull all day. Something popped up alongside of me. My water bottle! What were the chances? I grabbed it. I might have lost all dignity, but I wasn’t going to lose my damn water.
The guide waiting at the end of the rapids directed me to swim to shore and unceremoniously handed me the kayak. As I was told later, it’s not really kayaking unless you’ve gone for a swim. I bet they say that to all the idiots.
It turned out that aside from my dignity, I’d also lost a contact. So for the rest of the day, it was old One-eyed Wheaton paddling the river. Thankfully, I didn’t go under again. Cara never did. It’s a little frustrating to look at the photos. She might be terrified, but she’s smiling the entire time. I might be having fun, but I look like I’m in the midst of a fit or spasm. Cara’s one instance of banging into a large rock didn’t knock her out of her kayak, but it did come with a bonus — a shower of crickets.
At least neither of us was as hopeless as the Chinese couple, who seemed to think kayaking involved boat bumping as well. The wife got stuck on a rock at one point—and was eventually dislodged when her husband ran right into her. This was one of the more challenging rapids and they were both tangled up at the key turn. I’d made it through first and was quite proud that I’d made that turn. I was watching, terrified that Cara wasn’t going to be able to avoid the traffic jam in front of her, but she skirted them easily. On the last rapid of the day, the husband was to lose his boat completely and end up practically in a tree.
Despite all that, they seemed to be, as the Chinese say, enjoying the hell out of themselves. They smiled in all of their photos, too, leaving me the only one to look like the “special” one in the bunch.
But before it was all over, we had a brief encounter with a waterfall.
A few years ago, while in Maui, I decided to drive the road to Hana. I took the back way. It was a long, slow drive, but at the end would be waterfalls and pools to swim in. No waterfalls. No pools. Maui was experiencing a drought.
On this trip, the guides had mentioned waterfalls a couple of times, but I kept my expectations down. Just after lunch on a little beach, we paddled through a canyon that had sheets of water raining off either side. If these were the waterfalls, it would be satisfaction enough for me. But a little later, we pulled into another beach.
“Want to go swim in the waterfall,” David asked?
I’d caught a glimpse of it already. And I could hear the thing, pounding away in the distance.
“Shit yeah,” I might have said.
We walked a bit down a path, passing a few banana trees, a plot of planted taro, some prickly shrubs that made blackberry brambles look like sissies. And there it was. A giant of a waterfall. In Hawaii, you were only allowed to get so close to the waterfall, even in its drought-diminished state. Here, were encouraged to go right up to it. Or as close as we could. I figured a waterfall would create current, but didn’t realize that it would generate wind. We crawled our way into the pool and shouted to be heard. The water was cold, so Cara swam back to the bank while I tried to get up close and personal. Hopefully, we have a photo of that on one of the waterproof disposable cameras, but even if we don’t, it doesn’t matter.
We rode up a scary mountain pass, shared kava with the chief of Nakavika village, survived the rapids of the lower ‘Luva river, saw the mountains and valleys – and even a few little nekkid river babies – from water lever — and got to swim in the pool of a waterfall. In Fiji.
Sure, it wasn’t the same as lounging by the pool sipping on umbrella drinks.
It was a hell of a lot better.