Fiji’s Yasawas Islands Offer Kava, Lovo and the Friendliest of Welcomes

The Yasawas Islands offer stunning scenery, fascinating customs and some of the friendliest locals in the world

Credit: Diane Selkirk

With crystal blue ocean and sandy beaches, it’s hard to imagine a more beauitful place than Fiji’s Yasawas Islands

The Yasawas islands in Fiji offer the opportunity to join a village and experience local cuisine

The Yasawas are a dazzling group of 20 or so islands that stretch away from the civilization of Fiji’s two big islands of Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. These isles offer up great diving, hiking and fishing, and feature traditional villages without electricity (or roads, or cars, or stores, or banks), as well as dozens of backpacker hostels, eco resorts and a few newer high-end hotels.

My husband Evan, daughter Maia and I were threading our way through the reef-strewn waters, admiring white sand beaches and village-filled coves, and imagining what it must have been like for Captain Bligh when he sailed through these same waters after the mutiny in 1789. He must have looked hopefully at those same coves – where there was sure to be water and fresh food – then despaired when two war canoes filled with cannibals gave him the chase of his life.

Bligh almost ended up in a cooking pot, although it’s hard to imagine it now. Fiji is easily the friendliest place I’ve travelled and if ever there were a quintessential South Seas escape, visiting the villages of the Yasawas would be it.

Being Welcomed into Fijian Culture

Giving sevusevu is the traditional custom of requesting permission to enter a village. Not giving sevusevu, basically not showing respect, can lead to bad things: like being bitten by a shark, according to the gruesomely specific example we were given.

Not wanting to get intimate with the toothy end of a shark, we decked ourselves out in appropriate duds (a sula and bula shirt for Evan and long skirts and covered shoulders for Maia and I), gathered up our big bouquet of kava root and headed into the village to find the turaga-ni-koro: the chief.

When we reached the chief’s bure (home) we called the traditional greeting (instead of knocking) and slipped off our shoes and entered when we heard the response. Sitting on the floor in a circle we began the ceremony – telling the story of our travels, learning the names of our hosts and clapping on cue as our story was repeated in English and Fijian. Despite making a few errors here and there, our kava was accepted and we were welcomed into the village. We were now brothers and sisters and Maia was a daughter.

Sampling the Local Kava

Fiji Kava

The locals prepare the potent kava mixture (Image: Diane Selkirk)

After taking a few photos of our new family, we were invited to return in the evening for kava. I’d heard a lot about kava, mostly that it tastes like dishwater, or a slightly peppery mud puddle. To me, it tasted like yerba mate. But perhaps the fact the room was filled with rather attractive rugby players who were busy explaining the benefits of kava (all natural, no side effects, only a little hangover which can quickly be solved by a swim and more kava) distracted me and made the kava seem more palatable.

We drank four bowls each, which seemed to worry our friendly new brothers. After each bowl they checked to see that we were still doing well (I noticed my tongue was numb and each story seemed funnier than the last). But eventually, as Maia snuggled against me and her eyes began to close, we decided it was time to leave the kava to the locals.

Feasting in Fiji

Fiji Lovo
Fijian locals prepare the lovo, a feast for special occassions (Image: Diane Selkirk)

A lovo is a special meal in Fiji that is used for weddings, birthdays, fundraisers and other special gatherings. And the lovo we attended was to help raise money for the local elementary school. When we arrived the men were digging up an earthen oven where they pulled bundles of chicken and fish, white yam and stuffed pumpkin from the steaming pit. Then one of the women placed salusalus (leis) around our necks and we were guided to the feast area where we were seated on the mat around a long, laden tablecloth.

After explaining the food – the fish was caught by that uncle, the breadfruit cooked by that aunt, the pulusami (stuffed taro leaves) made by that sister – the women who made the meal scolded us into filling our plates. As we ate the starchy dalo (taro), tavikoa (cassava) and fish in miti sauce (thick coconut cream combined with onions, chillies, lemon juice, salt and pepper) we complimented the amazing cooks, talked, joked, and ate some more.

Saying Goodbye to Fiji

On our final walk through the village I was amazed by what a big place in my heart had been given over to it in such a very short time. We said goodbye at the school where Maia had been welcomed and shown classes and schoolwork. Then we stopped for final hugs at homes we’d been invited into for lessons, visits and meals. From here we were headed back to a resort: diving, hiking and long beach walks were still to come.