We had weathered the heavy rains and muddy patches of the island's eastern slope. We continued on the winding Kings Road, in a north and north still humid and luxuriant but already much more sunny and welcoming.
Few visitors go there and the natives are enthusiastic about the ephemeral passage of unexpected explorers.
We are astonished at the extra attention they pay us in these parts of Viti Levu, compared to the somewhat indifferent treatment accorded by the population on the opposite coast.
Even more so with the gradual simplification of the curious and rhythmic names of the villages we had left behind: Rakiraki, Lomolomo, Kulukulu, Sanasana, Malolo, Malololailai, Namuamua, Tabutautau and others equally musical but not so easy to pronounce, cases of Nabukelevu, Korovisilou and Tilivalevu.
We cross Tavua and the coastline of the Vatia Point peninsula leads us to a place that we can finally say in one breath and without babbling like newborn babies.
There are few reasons to linger in this unpretentious city located by the mouth of a river of the same name. We found out that the residents are crazy about football and that the local team often wins the national championships.
At the same time, Ba has the best horse racing track in Fiji and revels in equestrian events.
None of the competitions would take place in those days.
The Rough and Winding Path Between Ba and Navala
As such, we stock up on fruit at the market shared by native Melanesians and Indo-Fijians, we check into a humble hostel and make plans for the next day.
The road to Navala started from there but, worse than many goat paths, we could never get there in the fragile FIAT Tipo that we had rented in a small family rent-a-car in Nadi.
We awoke in a resplendent dawn. We shave refreshing pineapple skewers when the guide who will take us to the village surprises us from inside an all-terrain mini-bus: “Go with us to Navala, won't you? Come in and get installed! From here we go there.”
The tour guide introduces himself again as Kali and to the passengers already on board, two Australian couples trying to add some excitement to their bathing holiday.
Afterwards, the vehicle leaves the plain on which Ba sits.
It climbs slowly to the high domain of the Nausori range along those rough paths that had discouraged us.
In a short time, we find ourselves surrounded by sugarcane plantations and Kali unwinds data that we filter as much as possible: that Fiji has a complex administrative division made up of 14 provinces each with districts, these, with cities and villages that group together clans, sub-clans and finally families.
That despite being strongly multicultural, the various ethnic and religious groups in the nation have learned to respect each other and conflicts are infrequent.
Sweet Tourists, Indo-Fijians and Melanesians
As we pass an old distillery, related humorous information catches passengers off guard and arouses little contained laughter: “as you can see, sugar was for a long time the great export and wealth of Fiji but, with the advent of tourism, you, my friends, became much sweeter than sugar.”
We continue to climb along a wide path of beaten earth that breaks through vast areas of sugarcane as far as the eye can see.
From the top of one of the first slopes of the Nausori Mountains, a panoramic view finally opens and we stop to admire the jagged vastness of the cultivated fields between the foothills and the far South Pacific.
Nearby, we found three young Indo-Fijian brothers who were preparing to return home after a morning of harvest at a nearby plantation.
In our conversation with Atish, Radhika and Joythisma, we confirmed what we had already noticed.
That most of these inhabitants displaced by the British settlers who hired them centuries before and brought them without return from the sub-continent because they needed skilled labor had lost track of their true ethnic origin.
The image we get of the three of them, lined up against sugarcane plants nearly twice their height, perfectly mirrors the way in which Fiji and Viti Levu, in particular, abruptly imposed themselves on the fate of their own ancestors, in cannibal times.
How they continued to subject their descendants to a kind of inherited exile.
The Harmonious Nasala, Embedded in the Vastness of Nausori
Some additional curves, counter-curves and bumps and we entered one of the first valleys of the mountain range, even greener than the scenery behind.
In the distance, nestled between graceful slopes, we glimpse a large nucleus of huts distributed among coconut trees with a refined geometry.
Kali announces: “There she is, the famous Navala. Another five minutes and we cross a river that must be full of kids playing, the village starts right on the other side.”
When we cross the bridge, the river kids rush to abandon it and follow the minibus until it comes to a standstill.
They surround us and welcome us with endless smiles and questions in the English they have only just begun to master.
A Ceremony of Bereaved Kava
Kali rescues us from her siege and leads us to the chief's bure and the main protocol obligation of the village. The interior of that upper cabin is large but dreary and uncomfortable.
Kali makes us sit on the mat that covers the floor and waits for the old man and his family to position themselves on the other half of the circumference.
We felt a heavy atmosphere in the air and the guide soon noticed it.
He explains to us that a very dear person had died and that the village was in mourning, which is why we could not walk freely between the houses as on a normal day and we would have to be restrained with photographs.
Then he introduces us as the outsiders that we are and begins a long exchange of phrases in which the term “naka” – the diminutive of the Fijian word for thank you “vinaka” – is repeated over and over again.
When the dialogue ends, the chief places a large coop (carved wooden container) in front of him and squeezes out roots of kava (a plant from the region) making the homonymous drink that has long intoxicated the men of the Melanesia and from Fiji.
When the broth is ready, a bowl is passed to each of the visitors. Two of the Australians refuse to drink it. They disappoint Kali and the hosts who, in spite of everything, have gone through this undone several times.
us and the other two aussies we make ourselves strong and we afflict ourselves with the strange minty earthy flavor of the mistela but soon we thank with our own “bedside” and we clapped our hands twice, as the guide had instructed us.
We drink just enough to respect the ceremony and don't feel like repeating it. It is safe from unwanted tropical drunkenness that we leave the chief to the grieving family.
We go out into the fresh but humid air outside, happy to be able to explore a little more of the village.
Navala's Ecological Urbanism
There are more than two hundred bures of Navala, arranged according to criteria that the chiefs study stipulate and enforce to provide the approximately 800 subjects with an organized and functional life.
Around 1950, at a time when Fiji was home to the first luxury hotels and resorts, many of them in cement, the Navala community chose to reject modern materials – with the exception of the school and, for safety reasons, some structures that house generators.
The native youth were encouraged to learn the art of secular construction from the huts in which they had grown up. As a result, 60 years later, Navala is today the last of the large villages in Fiji built using wood, hut and dry clay alone.
His images appear in guides, books and postcards and dazzle virtually every visitor to Viti Levu. Fortunately for the natives, most attend Fiji only as a bathing retreat.
Until a few years ago, access to the valley in which it is located was much more complicated and, even if they wanted to, almost no foreigner could discover it.
Times have changed. Navala had to give in, at least in part.
Today, voluntarily or by force – we couldn't find out – Navala has a Facebook page filled in Fijian dialect and, the date of creation of this text, with 12 “likes” conquered.
It welcomes outsiders who, like us, arrive as best they can without neglecting the protection of its inhabitants from the harm of intrusion.
Meanwhile, the men of the village gather under a large communal structure and prepare a sacred funeral ritual that forces us to leave.
When we leave her back to Ba, the younger ones do as their young age advises them. They ignore the loss of their counterpart.
They say goodbye in the same way they had welcomed us, with frantic running after the mini-bus, waving, grimacing and the excitement of those who share life in a tribe that has long protected its traditions and knows how to value itself.