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Report: #22
Date: 03/13/02
Location: Suva, Fiji Islands
Take Me To Your Chief

Ba; gateway to the Fijian highlands; "Don't go out after dark"-Ba.

Ba Hotel, staff bunk room. Slept in my mossie net. Inadequate fan. Constant covered by film of sweat. Troubled dreams. Woke at 6am. Someone tried to enter, but I had barricaded the unlockable door with a pipe.

Eggs on toast for breakfast; not enough so topped up with 90cent wheatgerm cookies. Chewy not crunchy. Got directions from receptionist, indicated from picture of Ba in 1947. "The roundabout wasn't there in 1947. Go straight ahead. You'll see the sugar mill. Take the "feeder road." Ask from there….

Through the town of surprisingly crammed-together shops; S.Kumar, Courts, Chand's Grant's, Billimoria, Shiu's….no indigenous Fijian names in sight…fastfood, clothes, wedding cards, bookmakers, sportswear, sarety equipment……..past an open cafe with a big concrete Adidas football with one door and no windows, closed; across a small tree-lined river, where I'd seen a kid fishing the evening before, past a big mosque financed by the Muslim league, out of the grasp of the shopping zone, past a monument of the globe (4ft. diameter) on a pair of hands, to "that" roundabout and across a sugar-train railway. "Don't cross the big river," I'd been instructed. So I didn't. I didn't actually see it. I did see the sugar mill and stopped to reconfirm the left turn with a friendly looking character. The only character in sight.

Along the young-sugar-lined strip of tarmac I spun, meeting only the occasional "carrier" (taxi pick-up with a usually-green canopy) or bus or car, until the tarmac gave up after 6Km. I then had to choose my line more carefully over rocks of varying sizes. So I was less able to heed the Mynah birds (often perched on cattle or goats), small green birds with scarlet beaks, white birds with crowns, and over-everything-see-everything kites.

I saw a mongoose streak across the road and dive in to the undergrowth and tehn dolphin-leap in and out of the grass beyond till hidden. It brought to mind snakes, but a football referee I met told me there were none here. Nor dangerous spiders. [More recently I learned that the mongooses (mongeese?), now very common, were introduced to do away with the snakes in the sugar fields.

I gingerly crossed two or three rickety bridges; sugar-railway in the middle and precarious wooden planks on either side with yawning, bike-wheel-gauge gaps between. And no barriers to prevent a plunge into cloudy water below, should I get snagged in a groove.

The gradient stayed friendly for a while. I created my own breeze and couldn't feel the heat of the day building. Skirting a patch of tennis-ball-grade stones, I swung to the edge of the road at one point and instantly a cloud of tiny, yellow butterflies took form around me, off the still-moist mud. I gave an involuntary exclamation something like a child does when watching fireworks.

A few undulations gave views over the tops of the sugar cane, and the odd rice paddy of peppermint green took part in the landscape. The land beyond was lumpy, with aggressive escarpments and formidable heights overlooking challenging slopes.

A fork in the road just after a police post was the signal to hang a right. The duty officer inside called out, and I stopped to pay my respects to an Indian-looking, young man in immaculate uniform. From a house behind came a guy with what looked like a Sheffield United football shirt (red & white stripes) on, and he beckoned me in to join him for a juice. Somebody stop me!! I took the shade, and the weight off my legs, on a bench under his carport outside his tin-roofed, concrete-block house. His father appeared, and they introduced themselves as the Singhs from Punjab, though both had been born in Fiji.

A cold jug of reconstituted orange juice loosened our tongues and I learned that footy-shirt Singh was a footy referee (yes, the one of the mongoose story) recently returned from a tournament in NSW, Australia. Indeed reffing had taken him to many countries, and many more were planned. He also told me about his sugar plantation and how a sizeable cyclone could third his yield (from 350tons to 100) because of flooding. Harvest would be in November, pesticide- and fertilizer-application was over and now just the growing was to be done. So not much work to do. Waving goodbye, I said hello to a road which was in a livelier mood as it lifted itself from the lowland and presented a view of the Pacific; a narrow line of blue. And of clouds threatening the tops over to left and right.

A horseman had to rein his horse hard to verge to prevent it spooking at my own little iron pony.

Then the road got downright angry and bared its teeth with some vicious ups. No zig-zag nonsense, just wall-like…er….walls. Fortunately most (though unfortunately not all) of the steeper bits were surfaced at least intermittently. And the heat struck. I dripped profusely, though I hardly noticed as I glued my attention onto picking the best line.

Another horseman did the same as the last, but reached out his hand to shake.

BULA! (Meaning Hello. Or literally; Life!)

Up and Down. Up and Down, etc etc. Fighting both. But there were plenty of kind bus-shelters or meeting-spot shade-trees to seek refuge from the high sun under.

In my hesitation to knuckle down to one scary climb and probably push due to loose surface, I was preyed upon by an unusually belligerent Indian guy and his obedient son, who commandeered me with the magic word, "Juice!" ordering his daughter into the bushes for guava fruit and his son up a palm for a coconut. There was no refusing his "offer" of a few paces on ride on his horse either. Neither for me nor for the bony horse. My tender bum bones rebelled, however, at the attempted separation by equine spine.

Growing gloom indicated a looming deluge and I had to cut short that encounter, or else be truly trapped. Mercifully only the fringes of a shower doused me. It cooled my overheating engine, but caused more rear-wheel slip and posed new problems in my struggle with the steering.

The meat of the storms clung to the lofty scalps of green topped rock which formed the arena for my unobserved, final battle of the day. White foam streamers unfurled down the vertical stone faces in the upper tiers, demanding that I elevate my gaze riskily from the road. Triumphantly rounding a bend and a summit, a sight greeted me, the likes of which must have struck the first occidental explorers with fear, trepidation, fascination, wonder and excitement. A village of neatly ordered, large, thatched huts with walls of woven panels, presented itself shyly from within a shield of steamy, forest vapours. Tantalising, half forboding, half inviting. Waiting, but unaware.

I observed from my vantage point and took time out to revel in my explorer's illusion. My only advantage was surprise.

But this village was distinctly on the map and described in the guide for the rough and lonely to the Centre of the Middle of Nowhere. And all I would need to prise open the gates and maraud about their doorsteps, would be F$15. Kind of takes the shine off the experience, but really I wouldn't swap centuries with my predecessors.


On the descent to the wide river that guarded the hill on which the village crouched, a horseman with an attention-grabbing machete, unsheathed and in hand, greeted me , coming towards me. But he paid me little more regard when I wouldn't wait for him to return from god-knows-where to guide me into Navala.

Navala has a wire (some of it barbed) fence surrounding it, and a main gate. Whether to keep people, horses and dogs in or out, I wasn't sure.

I shook hands with a few men who introduced themselves whilst passing through the gate, across a muddy track. Out of a very fastidiously maintained "bure" (traditional house), which seemed to be neither in nor outside the village, came a woman who promptly took control in an experienced manner.

After the "Where are you from?" the "Where did you come from today?" and astonishment at the how (most people with bikes have come up by carrier), my host-in-the-making moved on to establishing my credentials; "You have kava? You have $15 plus $15 village fee?...Then you will stay at our home. We have looked after people with bikes before. It'll be safe here. Take your bags off there. I'll help you carry them in. Then you can look around the village. Of course you have your camera with you, yes? My husband, Pio, is asleep right now. You'll drink grog with him later on…"

"What about meeting the chief?" I questioned, hopefully, trying my best to pronounce his Fijian title given in the guidebook. "We haven't had a chief for twelve years," she said, matter of factly.

"Why's that then?"

"We just haven't decided to."

I couldn't argue with that, however shot-down-in-flames I felt. I needed to save the argument for getting a shower before my tour, and for declining to take one of the "young, single and beautiful Navala girls," who I was told on the tour were in plentiful surplus.

But first for sweat-removal in the open air, open-for-viewing, cool, village shower, and a lie down on a good straw-mat floor.
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