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Oceania Kava Taboo Travel

Cannibal Isles

This story of cannibal islands and the kava circle is part 2 of an ongoing series on my cruise to nowhere. See Part 1 here: Cruisenecks


A few days at sea take us away from Australia into the open ocean and the cannibal islands. It is beautiful. I visit it as often as I can. Watch the shifts in light.

Speaking of shifts, ports are still shifting. The daily newspaper we receive in our stateroom lists updates, but there are no other references to previous changes. Can’t quite tell whether I’m crazy or whether the cruise I bought is not the one I am on or whether we’ve taken a left turn through the Bermuda Triangle.

We do stop, though. Our first stop in the cannibal islands is New Caledonia.

nighttime view of cannibal islands

We get a few hours in Noumea on our own. Walk the city. Go to the cultural center.

It all seems very odd. My first taste of true Melanesian culture. It reminds me a bit of Hawaii… and it’s very colonized. Just like Hawaii. Segregated, diverse populations living on a small island is creepy.

New Caledonia is Kanak (indigenous), French (of various eras and sorts), Polynesian (they get around), Southeast Asian, and a few scattered North Africans mostly originally brought there by the French as labor. I find it profoundly uncomfortable. A living, breathing remnant of colonialism. Island colonialism, as I’ve said – creepy af.

My parents lived on Maui for fifteen years and I visited them once a year. I cannot count the number of times I have been to Maui. I’ve only a few times been to the other Hawaiian islands. Over the years, I learned a thing or two about Hawaiian and Polynesian culture.

Not my favorite, Polynesian culture.

The strict gender and class roles chafe me wrong. However, I have made space in my life for Polynesians, and for kava. I went through a few years of fun with it, seeking it out, preparing it, learning it. By the time we’re ready for our second stop in Fiji, I haven’t drank kava in almost a decade. I’m pretty sure I won’t, not interested in the high.

However, it doesn’t take long for me to find myself in a kava circle in Fiji. It’s the first day of our disembark in Lautoka.

I’m excited to get off at this point. I tried to make it through terrible ship entertainment the night before and had to leave. I’ve not yet written off all the special talent, but have noted that the house band is the best of them.

I’m looking to walk on ground that is more varied than that of the ship. I take walks around the ship on deck 7, which has an uninterrupted outdoor deck and is the place for walkers. There’s also deck 12, which has the same, but isn’t specifically designed for walking, and a shorter track within half of it that people run. Walking the ship makes me feel like a hamster, so I’m grateful to get out and feel sand and roots and grass and even cement under my feet.

I have no idea that Fiji is as much Indian as it is Fijian until landing there and seeing it with my own eyes. It’s not the first place in the world that I’ve seen that has imported a labor force from somewhere else at some point, only to have them stay and make up a large portion of the population that no one talks about. 

This is common in the Middle East. It’s more expat than it is Arab, and yet we still call it “The Arab World”. 

Indo-Fijians make up almost half the population of Fiji, and in the cities this is pronounced. Lautoka is a city established to serve the sugar industry, and certainly Indian labor was used to do so. Other than the airport on a stopover on the way to New Zealand many years ago, it’s my first glimpse of Fiji. 

And it’s a Sunday, which is an odd time to visit a primarily Methodist place, and even further selects for a street population that is Hindu and Muslim

Yet still somehow I end up with a couple of Fijians who drag me to their shop for kava. I buy a small wooden turtle as a token. They tell me it’s for protection, especially protection of women.  

I remember their hands in the kava bowl.

Kava Circle

I remember staring at it. We all knew that the virus was taking over the world, and that we were only getting to share this way for being in the middle of the ocean in the corner of the world.

The simple joy of breaking bread or sharing drink with random strangers. The milk-coffee color of the kava as it streamed off of the mahogany backs of Fijian hands. As he hands me a half-shell full of the bitter liquid our hands touch and the energy of skin, nerves, bone, and neurology passes between us. Aware of this already as a rarity even though it is not yet. I register it. I register it all.

And here as I drink kava with Fijians on Fiji I remember that this is the Cannibal Isles and these are cannibal islands, and that these here strangers that I am sharing body and thirst with didst once practice an even more intimate sharing ritual.

Cannibal fork from cannibal islands
Cannibal Fork said to have been used in eating missionary Thomas Baker

How judgment changes the mores of the day. No longer do we live in a world where it is okay to share kava ungloved with strangers. No longer do we live in a world where it is okay to eat people. Bula!

The word taboo comes to mind, as do all the cultural ingredients we use to define it. After all, it is a Polynesian word. It is here, on Fiji, high on kava that Fijians have given me, that I deepen into the meaning of Kapu as a code of conduct. We all have cultural codes of conduct, but not all of us list, codify, and name them. 

These change like the sea. They seem so everlasting and prohibitive, yet really they are made up of billions of ripples of human patterning. Shift in taboo is probably the hardest part about the virus for most people. 

The kava is good. I instantly feel euphoric and happy. The Fijians invite me to their farm. I smile, sweetly. 

“Next time.” I say, sadly.

Kava-strengthened, I ask the Indian merchant I buy yet more kava from about weed. He calls a guy for me.

Guy’s name is Bob. He’s Fijian. He sells me some crappy, dry weed full of seeds and stems for $10. I now have three kinds of weed on board.

South Pacific panorama

Every day starts with an announcement over the intercom from “Cruise Director Dan” for events and entertainment and then sometimes the captain for navigation, weather, and operational information. Today Cruise Director Dan mentions all the chances to win free shit on board.

My partner wants to go to one of the raffles. They’re giving away free tickets at the duty free shop. I begrudgingly acquiesce and then allow him to manage my allotment of tickets. Lo and behold, we win a captain’s hat.

My partner and I take turns wearing it around the ship. It’s the perfect icebreaker, not that that’s a term you want to use as one when on a ship.

A few days later they are offering photo ops with the captain. Shake his hand for free. Get the photo for $25. My partner dresses in khakis and a white dress shirt, dons his captain’s hat, and shakes the hand of the actual captain of the ship.

Meanwhile I hide out on the deck above the stairway to the atrium where it all happens and snap some of my own, free photos.

Our next stop after Lautoka is Dravuni, which is a tiny island of Fiji, less than one square mile, population 125, all dressed in their island finest.

No Indo-Fijians here. Straight Fijian dynasty. They have sold themselves out to cruise ships as a way to make money. I cannot imagine what it’s like for them to have hundreds of fat, white people flood off of the boat, spend a bunch of money, and leave. Wonder just how often this happens as I see their island listed as a destination on multiple cruise lines.

I wonder what happened to them once the virus stopped the cruises.

This is a “Tender Port”, which means that small boats take us from the big boat to the island, because there is no room for a hulking cruise ship close to the island. I’m more fascinated with the technology and engineering involved in the tender operation than I am being a passenger.

I peer around every crew door wanting to see how it all works from the inside. It’s the mechanical functioning of the boat that fascinates me most. With partner dressed as captain, we don’t miss a chance to visit the bridge, or as close to it as we can get. I take photos of him looking like he is captain of the ship. 

I learn about the function of the ship through a small display set in the viewing room just outside the bridge. I’m struck by the size of the two propellers that power the ship, twenty feet in diameter! I snap a photo of the photo of one of them.

Azipod, Azimuth thruster pod used to make the cruise ship go

And so after this fascinating tender operation I find myself standing on the dock at Dravuni. I don’t usually do villages, let alone small islands. I try not to think about cannibals.

They sell boating, snorkeling, food, drinks, all manner of beachy stuff, and massage. I’m not buying any of it.

Cruise Director Dan is there to greet us on said dock and introduces all the above booty on repeat with a smile. He also says that we can join the kava circle with the chief and elders and points behind himself to a large palapa.

I’m baffled as to why anyone would do anything else, and while pretty much everyone else spends the afternoon skittering about the island as a playground, I sit asking questions of the chief and elders and not ever getting kava high because they have brewed basically water for the tourists and even after shell after shell I can’t feel it at all. Not stupid men in this kava circle.

Kava Circle

Here they are serving it with gloves. Already. The before times have ended. Taboo has changed.

But I’m still in the middle of the South Pacific where the most likely thing to bring a virus to this isolated island is us, the ship full ‘o’ foreigners from whitey mcwhiteville.

Through some stroke of luck, we do not murder any cannibal islands with a deadly virus. On the tender boat back to the ship I see a sea turtle. 

We have one more stop in Fiji. Finally, the capital of Suva. Yet it is the only place in Fiji where I do not end up in a kava circle.

However, in Suva, I buy more kava. I wander around looking for someone to ask about buying weed, but nothing seems safe. Perhaps this is because I see someone from the cruise ship, an older woman, on the ground. She’s fallen and she’s bleeding and she’s definitely taken care of and they’re getting her help and I don’t want to know more and scurry away. Everything seems dangerous after this.

cannibal forks from cannibal islands

I consider buying a cannibal fork.

cannibal forks from cannibal islands

Hard not to notice these as cannibal islands when these are sold as tourist trinkets everywhere, even toy sized on a keychain. Particularly amusing is the story of the missionary Thomas Baker, whose things are displayed in the Fiji Museum in Suva.

cannibal forks from cannibal islands

I end up deciding against it the cannibal forks from cannibal islands. My wooden turtle is the only keepsake from this journey. It still rides with me today.

As we pull away from Suva a storm is brewing. It’s the closest we get to a storm at sea. For an hour as we slowly pick up speed I watch the lightning bolts against the purple sky that fades into the ink of the nighttime ocean.

I’m standing on deck 7, watching the sky and the sea and the islands drifting away into smaller versions of themselves, and using the last of internet connection to text with DH. Here I realize he’s been making ridiculous choices about money and food which have led to true starvation. He sends me a photo of himself and he is skin and bones. He bases some of this insanity on saving me money.

There’s nothing I can do but yell at him. 

He has no idea how much these blows to his health will end up costing. I yell at him about that, and about the virus, about which we know nothing yet. What if he catches it? How could he survive? 

He promises to eat as I lose reception.

Little do I know this is the last I’ll see of land for a while…

To be continued: The Doldrums


This is Part Two of my cruise of the cannibal islands. Part One:

How I joined the Mile High Club flying to Hawaii:

The Tasmanian Whisky I drank soon before leaving on this cruise:


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