I don’t mean to brag, but apparently, I am the greatest non-Fijian kava drinker any of these people have ever seen. I do not come to this conclusion lightly.


Kava, as many of you may know, is a ceremonial drink derived from the root of the kava plant, which grows here in abundance. Like wine, the older the plant the better: most plants are culled at two years, and it is said that seven-year plants are the best. But those are now almost impossible to find: kava was originally used only for special occasions, but is now consumed everywhere, even in restaurants in the cities, as a mild social lubricant. The pressure to harvest is preventing the growth of the best kava across Fiji, a development lamented among its aficionados.



Its appearance is light brown, like a bowl of sandy water, and its taste is grainy, earthy. Its effects vary, like any intoxicant. For the most part it serves as a very mild depressant; it certainly aids sleep, and requires frequent bathroom visitation. Overuse can cause liver damage, which is why kava was outlawed in Australia, and perhaps why there was an effort to illegalize it in America. Still, kava consumption is mostly a nightly occurrence where there is any true appreciation for it.



Our inaugural kava experience (in Fiji) came in the Yasawas our first week in the islands, but that was clearly and somewhat disappointingly tailored for the tourists. Our second night in Taveuni, however, we drank kava at the invitation of Anna and her husband, Lavena’s acting chief, and that’s when I began to suspect that I am, indeed, something of a kava-quaffing superman.



My suspicions were reinforced two nights later in Vidawa, during the sevusevu ceremony with that village’s chief and elders. The kava was strong – Taveuni is acknowledged by all islanders to boast the best kava, probably because of the superiority of its soil – and the bowls (cured coconut shells) of it came fast and full: “high tide.” But the effect on me was something akin to a nice satisfying meal at the end of a long day: a soft-edged feeling of tranquility, nothing more.



Needless to say, I was beginning to be very impressed with my kava prowess. I was not alone. On our last night in Taveuni, we stayed in a new place on the western shore, Waimakare Camping Ground – highly recommended – and were invited to have kava that night with the manager, Semi, and his cousin, Pedro. Pedro wore a jacket and long pants because, he said, he felt chilled when the weather dipped to a mere 70 degrees. The three of us (Lisa retired early) finished an entire tanoa (large wooden ceremonial bowl) going exclusively the “high tide” route, and while my two hosts were giddy with the stuff, I was more or less completely unaffected. Superman. The two veterans appraised the rookie with hearty familial respect.



“High Tide” Marc moved on the next morning, bound for Suva, just a little drowsy after his prodigious imbibing. But his legend lives on.





Leaving Taveuni, we hopped on a boat bound for Suva, Fiji’s capital, and the final leg of our three-week tour. Once in town we settled in at the South Seas Hotel, formerly a girls’ dormitory where, it is said, amorous young men used to break in through the floorboards. Most buildings, including almost all domiciles, are built on stilts in Fiji, and this architectural quirk – along with the maddening concentration of so much girlhood – must have offered too much temptation to determined suitors.



Now the place – high ceilings, whitewashed walls, polished wood floors – is just a decent backpackers’ hostel. (When it isn’t home to a rancorous horde of unruly rugby players. Who have an unhealthy obsession with Celine Dion music.)



On our way into Suva we noticed a McDonald’s. Whatever else you may think of McDonald’s – and we certainly have a very low regard for it – it’s pretty amazing how they’ve been able to create a uniform cuisine the world over. For a variety of high-minded reasons, none of which I will divulge here, we popped into this location early in our visit to Suva.



Okay – it was my idea. Lisa hates McDonald’s, like white bread, with animal ferocity. But after nearly three weeks of sweaty jungle hikes and hit-and-miss Fijian food I was eager for a little taste of America, so in we went. And now I can report that a Big Mac and fries tastes exactly as it does in Riverdale, Maryland – or Dublin, Ireland, for that matter.



“Crappy,” Lisa observed. “How can you eat that stuff?”



“Shut up,” I explained, expectorating fries all over the table.



Once sated by our Value Meals (they had a veggie option to satisfy poor Lisa), we checked out the city. Suva, unlike Nadi, actually has the look (tall buildings) and feel (bustling markets) of a big city. Suva is immeasurably more comfortable and cosmopolitan. There are sketchy neighborhoods, of course, but they lie chiefly in the north part of town and are easily skirted. Restaurant and bar options are more varied, and shopping – especially if you’re looking for a hard-to-find electronic doo-dad without which none of your gear will function – is infinitely more tolerable. If you like that sort of thing, Suva has a couple modern malls (arcades, they’re called) seamlessly woven into the more classic downtown architecture.



Furthermore, Suva lacked two things Nadi had in abundance: business owners all but wrestling you into their stores, and shifty dudes trying to sell you cocaine and/or marijuana every five paces. It was a nice change.



There is a highly regarded museum and a beautifully designed Parliament, whose image adorns the $20 bill. And there are green spaces: parks, yes, and rugby pitches and bowling lawns. They actually worked trees into the landscape. And Suva is directly on the beach, not tucked behind a mangrove forest and flanked by moats and ditches. Suva, unlike its cousin to the northwest, feels like a city some thought went into.



So, naturally, we were desperate to get the hell out of there. Why? Fiji was starting to wear on us a little. Constant vigilance against the unknown is very tiring. Also it rained our last three days in country, a hard, cold rain out of a sullen skyline, driving down our frame of mind. Plus there’s only so much Celine Dion one can take.



We wanted to get to a new place. New Zealand was always supposed to be the start of this trip, and for two-and-a-half weeks Fiji was a pleasant pause before that start. Once we left Taveuni, though, it felt like we were just biding our time.


We boarded a bus for the three-hour trip back to Nadi, spent one last night sipping Fiji Bitter in a hostel bar, and headed for the airport in the morning. And that was that.