When most people think of Fiji what first comes to mind are coastal wonders—white sandy beaches, crystal clear water, vibrant corals, and maybe Fiji water, one of the more premium bottled water brands. While these elements are indeed true and a good representation of Fiji, this country also has other gems on offer. For a full cultural journey, make your way into inland Viti Levu, the main and biggest island of Fiji, where you’ll find ancient Fijian tribes nestled within some of these rugged mountains. We went on a cultural immersion tour of Navala village, the last remaining traditional village in Fiji, to learn more about their fast-disappearing way of life and traditions.
Navala village is Fiji’s last traditional village located in the Ba Highlands on the main island of Viti Levu. The entire village is still made up of traditional architecture, constructed using straw and similar materials. The bures, Fijian for wood-and-straw huts, are still fully functional. The traditional infrastructure surrounded by mountains and ridges makes the setting seem almost unreal. Spend a full day cultural trip exploring the village and sampling the traditional cuisine.
To get a sense of how you’ll make your way to Navala, it is north of Nadi, the town closest to the airport. From Nadi, you’ll have to drive through Lautoka then to Ba. Ba is a predominantly Indo-Fijian town which is also worth a pit stop on your journey to Navala. Ba will enable you to see for yourself how and where Indian and Fijian culture intersect. Explore the town’s market for some snacks and fresh food, located in its fairly bustling yet rural centre. From Ba, it is just a 44-minute drive until you reach your final destination.
Once you step foot onto Navala territory, you’ll be officially greeted through a welcome ritual called the Kava ceremony. Kava culture is the religious and cultural tradition of western Oceania. The Kava ceremony differs slightly with each tribe and village. However here in Navala, the Chief—your official host who granted permission for you to enter—will present you with the “kava” drink, which is the crushed root of the kava plant. The drink is brownish in colour and essentially tastes like dirt water. It isn’t the most appetising, but it would be disrespectful to turn the offer down, so drink up! You’ll sit around the kava bowl where the drink will be scooped and served right in front of you, and every guest will have the chance to get a sip of the drink.
Once the ceremony has ended, your cultural tour will officially begin.
Before the tour begins, you will have to put together your own traditional Fijian outfit. Both men and women will be given some tapa cloth to wrap around their waist. This is to give you a sense of how Fijians dress but also, to be respectful to the local culture by dressing appropriately. Don’t be surprised if the children in the village get curious—foreigners are well, pretty foreign to them, so just make sure to flash them a smile! They love any attention they can get and love getting their pictures taken.
We walked around the entire village, observing how the local people live their rural lives and peeked into their local elementary school and boarding house. As you walk around you’ll notice that their bures are all the same size. This is symbolic of Navala’s values on equality. Make sure to look out for the bures with a metal post also known as a bou—that means it's the chief’s house.
Lunch was held in one of the bures, where you will be granted permission and the honour of being one of the family’s guests. We were spoiled with a wide variety of traditional Fijian cuisine, our favourites definitely being the chicken lovo and bamboo rice. Lovo stands for an underground oven which is made by digging a pit into the ground and placing hot coals inside. The food will then be roasted as it is wrapped in banana leaves and then covered by more dirt, keeping the pit hot.
Lovo is mainly served during special occasions in the Navala village and is fundamental to the local culinary arts. Hence, as a guest, this dish will most definitely be prepared for you, a guest of honour. It takes around fours hours for the lovo to cook the main dish, so even if you're hungry, patience is key. The bamboo rice is glutinous rice stuffed in bamboo stalks, roasted over a fire. We had a lot of fun eating it straight from the bamboo. As Fijian cooking has a lot of Indian influences, we also had some curries and roti.