Fiji: Karma Kruise
(First published in Esquire)
Surprising place, Fiji. The crabs are so big your golf balls will get lost down their burrow holes. Half the population is Indian, with a smattering of Chinese, so it's possible to wander into a laid-back looking diner and get sucked into an atmosphere of commerce so teeming that a sign announces POWER LUNCH. Raymond Burr selects this spot to grow orchids, Taj Mahal to stage a comeback. And something else you didn't know until you got here: despite the crablike bustle, Fiji may be the most hospitable place in the South Seas. The saying is, if you come for dinner and decline the invitation to stay the week on the grounds that there's no room, watch out. They'll whip out hammer and nails to build an addition on the spot.
But that's only the landlubber hospitality. To get a taste of the real treatment in this welcoming island paradise, you've got to put yourself in native hands for a cruise to the outer western islands of the Yasawa Group. (Yes, the ones where Brooke Shields filmed "The Blue Lagoon." Those islands. That water.) Here you'll witness the Fijian hospitality full-blown. It resides in their stately wave: they stick their arm out full-length and twist the palm like larger-than-life angels. It resides in the hearty way they say "bula": more full-throated than its equivalent greeting in Tonga, less stuck-up than its equivalent in Polynesia. But what really clinches your Blue Lagoon Cruise is the kava they dish out, the most hospitable drink ever devised by karma-koncious man. But hold, you're getting ahead of yourself.
Look around the boat. It's not particularly fancy or, for that matter, shipshape. The anchor looks like it may get stuck more than once (it will). The food looks like it won't be featured on the cover of "Gourmet" (it won't, but it's endearing: the luscious chocolate cake sits out with a sprig of parsley on top). The crew looks fearsome, with such heft and swagger, but they're island boys; for all their bulk they've got frangipana in their hair. Bill, the first mate -- in a manly blue skirt -- is liable to grab a guitar and break into song at any moment. By dessert the first night you've concluded that the entire passenger list is foreordained, the same way that people you might share a winning lottery number with are foreordained. They may seem a disparate bunch -- the Australian shoe salesman engaged to the lady preacher, the aristocratic poestess honeymooning with the Auschwitz survivor -- but in such cases of extreme good fortune, who you get is more than luck of the draw, it's karma-korrect. Which is to say, you like them all.
You'll be afloat either three or six nights, depending on how much you've shelled out (roughly one hundred dollars a night per person, twin berth). Four hours each day are spent cruising through the palm islets in water that is actually uncharted: the nautical charts actually reveal great tracts that say UNSURVEYED: MANY SUNKEN CORAL HEADS. The rest of the time you're at anchor, free to snorkel the gin-clear water or stroll the sandy beaches. A few of the islands you explore will manifest the Pepsi-in-Paradise phenomenon: soda bottles discarded on pristine ocean floors by natives innocent of how ugliness begins, how litter self- generates. But most are inhabited only by birds or wild boars. (If you meet up with the latter, your body will go into a caveman reflex: freezing instinctively, you'll tilt your shouders away in an attitude of fleeing. Such is your deep sense of leisure, however, that you suspect they had to audition for the part.) Wind will be the perfect temp, water will be the perfect color, clouds will come at exactly the right moment to ease the bite of the sun. Wildness will perfume the air. Sunsets will be patent pending. And when twilight arrives, you'll acknowledge that it, too, is uncharted. But to understand this, it is necessary at last to know kava.
To know kava you must understand it's not an "alcoholic." This the Fijians stress very proudly. No no, not an alcoholic at all. No, it's a drug. The perfect mood modifier for a karma kruise, kava is the crushed root of the pepper plant, wrung with a rag through water and ceremoniously drunk in half a coconut shell (or in a K Mart- type plastic-wood salad bowl, if they really put on the ritz). Sensation: numbing of tongue, tonsils, and tip of cerebellum, like the last ten minutes with the dentist. Stupor: strong enough to tag it the local birth control. Hangover: capable of making grown men go around for two days punching their foreheads.
But tonight, the last night of the kruise, the kava has run out! A krisis, a kalamity roughly equal to scraping the bottom of the punch bowl at a briss. Next thing you know, Bill has rounded you up for a kava run over the water to a nearby island where you score some pepper from the local chief. Who wants to come back to the boat with you. So there you are, the seventy-four-year-old chief and you in the stern of some water-logged dinghy -- he's wearing ancient Keds with no laces, he's wearing a ripped Rambo T-shirt (NO MAN, NO LAW, NO WAR CAN STOP HIM), he's got a bump on his stone-bald pate that's exactly the shape of a lizard, and he's so tanked you fear he's going to fall overboard and drown. Chief assassinated! International incident! "Shouldn't the Chief wear a life preserver?" you posit. With drunken dignity, the Chief ignores your impertinence as his lizard bump bobs with the current. "The Chief does not wear a life preserver," you are told.
Back on board the ship, the ceremony picks up steam. As round and round the kava bowl goes, it comes to you that Fiji is one of the last places on earth to give up eating human flesh. Maybe that's what their hospitality is all about, you think; they're kompensating for a heavy dose of bad karma. In any case, you and your ex-kannibal pals are going progressively limper, the ankor is stuck again, you're stranded in the middle of the South Pacific singing songs you wouldn't be kaught dead singing at home -- homesick songs that raise nostalgia to an art form. As one by one your friends drift off to uncharted regions of the night, you vow to write them all, to each and every one: at least to the Chief, but in your kava klairvoyance you know what will happen tomorrow, don't you? You'll lose his address! Or he'll have stolen your flashkubes! Or some other adventure will take place in this anything-kan-happen paradise, and on a whole new kruise you'll nearly lose your life in a schooner with Taj Mahal. But that, as they say, is a whole 'nother story.