It seemed the 10 hour plane ride from Honolulu would never end. My legs cramped, my stomach rumbled and my head ached. Through the fog of exhaustion, I heard the Air Pacific announcement, “Bula Ladies and Gentlemen! Welcome to Fiji, the Isles of Smiles!”
Staggering off the plane into stifling heat, I felt like I’d been hit in the head with a coconut. Ignoring souvenir hawkers, I went through Immigration and boarded my flight to Savusavu, known as Fiji’s Hidden Paradise. Through the plane window, lush, green sugarcane quickly turned into turquoise water, and I could see smaller islands in the distance. Forty-five minutes later, the plane dipped and landed on a small airstrip in the middle of a rainforest of fragrant flowers and coconut palms.
I hired a taxi for USD $25.00 and settled back to enjoy the ½ hour drive to Naweni Village, located right on the sea, on the southern coast of Fiji’s second largest island, Vanua Levu. The village consists of around 20 brightly painted, small, wooden homes and a few traditionally thatched bures or bamboo huts.
Upon arrival, visitors and guests are required to seek permission to enter the village by presenting a small gift of kava, (a root ground into a beverage used in ceremonial gatherings,) to the turaga ni koro, or village head-man. Fortunately for me, my taxi driver was prepared and we were soon sitting cross-legged under a gigantic mokosoi,or ilang ilang tree, sipping tea made from wild lime leaves and nibbling toasted coconut.
After being serenaded by a group of smiling women, my driver said we were going to visit a famous spring where rare red prawns, or urabuta could be found. We were accompanied by the women who were now clapping and waving fans made of grass. After hiking more than an hour through a cocoa plantation, (where we sated our thirst with the delicious meat of a raw cocoa pod,) we came to a small, insignificant looking patch of swampy ground. The women moved the grass aside to reveal a small pond about 4 feet across. We sat down and a young girl began to sing a haunting melody. As she sang, the older women waved their fans and hummed along until suddenly, the water in the pond began to move and the women all dropped to their knees and clapped. Motioning me forward, they pointed out 12 or 13 small prawns that, rather than being the typical grayish brown color of uncooked freshwater prawns, were actually bright red, as if they had been cooked! Later, I was told there are just two places in the world where these red prawns can be found, and both are in Fiji. The people of Naweni refuse to eat any shrimp or freshwater prawns as they are tabu or sacred.
The Naweni villagers made my stay as comfortable as it was informative, and I spent the next week eating fresh caught lobster and snapper, snorkeling in the crystal waters of the Koro Sea, fishing, hiking and learning how to make a mat woven from long razor grass. Evenings were spent sleeping on a soft mat under a star-filled sky.
I wouldn’t trade that mat under the stars for the finest 5-Star resort. Someday, I hope to return to that village by the sea, where young girls sing and red prawns dance, and where guests are treated like family, and I will take my smile with me, because Fiji truly is, the Isles of Smiles.
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