Links from a theme: the most welcoming countries.

March 31st 2017
Published: April 1st 2017
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This entry was inspired by Golfkat’s recent blog Only the Best! that recounted his personal highs and lows of traveling. Thus Ali and I began compiling mental lists of our own and thinking about just how many of these we’d previously blogged about. Indeed within this community, scattered amidst our previous blogs, we must all have detailed many of our most visceral traveling passions, disappointments, frustrations, amazements or discoveries. However, unless you are an avid “follower” of a particular blogger such insights into an individual’s persona, or merely guidance towards a blog of theirs of potential interest, might well be missed. So here I propose a variant blog format, admittedly particularly suited to prolifics (not I) or verbose periodics (guilty): one that focuses on a specific topic and uses actual blog excerpts (and/or photos) with links to said blogs to illustrate your subject matter. In turn your selections will give personal insights into destinations and experiences whilst highlighting (self-publicising) specific submissions that others (might) subsequently want to investigate in their entirety… Well, there’s the idea….

So, by means of an example, how about a biggie: the most welcoming country we’ve experienced to date.

We have, without exception, met kind, helpful and generous individuals in every country we’ve ever visited. India, still our first love, is home to many dear friends, but we couldn’t honestly say that it is the most welcoming country, similarly other favourite destinations such as Australia, Peru, Argentina, China or France. To our minds Japan, Bangladesh, Sumatran Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and without a doubt Fiji would all be on the short list. Certainly no pattern there in terms of religion, these countries (or specific regions of) being predominantly, respectively: Atheist/Shinto, Muslim, Muslim, Buddhist and Christian. Nepal, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia are extremely traveler friendly and only just fail to make our arbitrary cut-off. Admirably, because it does seem to be relevant, Japan is the only country of notable wealth making our shortlist. For (relative) brevity I’ll attempt to keep my examples of their worthiness to a mere two…

Japan: Japan: the expats' utopia

“On such a night we were walking home along the convoluted lanes illuminated by the glow of lacquered red paper lanterns, under which scripted split-curtains concealed the entrances to cozy dens. Hungry, but oblivious to what the various establishments might sell (in fact the type of split-curtain often defines the nature of the restaurant, whilst the characters - if you can read them - provide confirmation), we parted one such curtain and slid open the wooden door. Ducking inside, the steamy yellow light revealed a 1950's US-style diner with the open kitchen encircled by a formica-topped counter at which sat a few couples amidst the predominantly old men and suited salarymen. The aged proprietor, with white tunic and matching pill-box hat, beckoned us enter (in the Asian manner, with fingers pointing downwards), accompanied with a cry of "Irashai" (come in). Tentatively we did so, noticing that the menu consisted of dozens of strips of paper hanging from the walls. We sat, glanced around the counter at the delicate tidbits set before the other patrons and then looked blankly at the lists on the walls. At this early stage our Japanese extended to little more than ordering a beer which we duly did: "bin biru, ni-hon kudasai" (two bottles of beer please). Fujio-san spoke to us in Japanese (he spoke no English) and, registering our complete lack of comprehension, simply set about serving us as he saw fit. Regardless, he periodically chatted to us (predominantly to Ali - with her innate ability to feign understanding) and, with us still being present at closing, he shed his work clothes and insisted we join him on a trip to his brother's... restaurant. Here he plied us with a further feast of sashimi before dragging us off to karaoke.

Fujio's would subsequently be visited at least once a week for the next two years. His seared bonito was to die for. He'd force vast quantities of steaming-hot saké - the glass tumbler filled until it overflowed into, and partially filled, it's wooden box holder - down my throat (Ali had already sworn off the devil's brew); we introduced the whole laboratory to his restaurant (and our great friend Hikima would later invite Fujio and his wife to his wedding); we celebrated numerous occasions in the (little used) upstairs tatami room overseen by a tiny, yet daunting, woman with a deep rasping whiskey voice; he entertained our visiting parents; hosted us during England's miraculous victory over the Argentinians in the 2002 world cup - making the costly error of offering free drinks to the house should England win; and we were forever to pester him into making batches of succulent "ebi dango" (deep-fried prawn cakes). Whilst sitting at the counter your bill would be updated in front of you with each successive order. This took the form of some strange tally system that we never quite comprehended and we were always amazed at how little our bills seemed to be. On each subsequent visit to Japan we'd return and note with sadness his increasing frailty; and now, with the cessation of New Year cards, I fear he has surely retired to the karaoke in the sky where he is, no doubt, still belting out Elvis's "Blue Hawaii". Both he and his wonderful, diminutive, gentle wife were very special people indeed.”

"What was rather beautiful though was the camaraderie that went with this stress. Admittedly I was only a "gaijin" (foreigner) and was almost expected to disappoint. Equally my career did not depend on the professor's view of me. Nevertheless, ultimately, I was thought to have behaved like a Japanese, and was, to a certain degree, respected as such. This is high praise indeed because no gaijin is ever truly considered as a Japanese, no matter who you might marry or sire, how long you might live there, how fluent your language ability or how learned your knowledge of Japanese culture and nuance (and of the latter three I was largely pants).

The working day began at 8 a.m. (check-in on the white board) and no-one should leave before all their superiors have departed: for a Masters' student that even equates to a fellow student who is older than themselves. Certainly they could never go home if a PhD. student were still in residence, much less if a post-doc (like myself) or, heavens forbid, the Prof (which he invariably was until 8 p.m.) were still in residence. However, as grim as this sounds, at 12 p.m. we would all go eat lunch together in the canteen and then play sport for an hour. Often this would be softball (so the girls could also partake - and we had the best team at the University), although, on my arrival, it increasingly became football (in which the girls could - though only a few did - also take part). And then, post-work, like at no other institution I have ever worked, we went out to really play; and how we played. Individuals passed-out at izakayas (bar/restaurants) through fatigue or drunkenness (only to be carried on to the next venue); whilst on leaving karaoke we were regularly disorientated to discover Tokyo in brilliant, dazzling, daylight. Often the switch between partying and work was so transient that the whiff of alcohol emanated from your neighbour’s breath rather than their DNA precipitation technique. We worked damned hard, but we played even harder. We aided and supported each other. We had a ball.

One thing Ali and I were told before I accepted the Japanese position was that you will be well received, but don't expect to make real, lasting friendships: almost twenty years on and two of my dearest friends in the world are from that laboratory."

“On that note, I am reminded of just how unique the Japanese are: the 2002 world cup. Matches would, often, finish after the trains - should - stop running: they didn't; they ran on. You came out of a stadium to be greeted by a column of English-speaking volunteers bearing free food and water, plus guidance – if required - as to where you needed to be. People who were feeling angry, maybe because their team had just been eliminated, couldn't help but be pacified. This wasn’t a charged world cup of huge passions. But it was one, like no other I have ever experienced, of friendship and companionship, without even a hint of potential nastiness. One day, between England games, we and our friends - clad in Japanese football shirts and rising-sun face paint – sought out a venue to watch the Japan match. We located a basement bar, more akin to a subterranean nightclub, that was packed with hundreds of passionate Japanese fans. We joined in the chanting of “Ni-pon, Ni-pon”, shared their agonies at near-misses and, ultimately, consoled those around us on the Japanese defeat. Without exception the local fans were delighted that we were there to support their team. We had swapped round-upon-round of drinks, handshakes and hugs. And then, bizarrely, after the climax, we were pushed forwards through the crowd and onto the stage before one of the giant screens. Rather dumb-struck we four westerners stood there, isolated, as the whole assembled crowd enveloped us and... applauded. Really, only in Japan…”

Bangladesh:"Exhibit A": us; the goldfish bowl that is Bangladesh

"The streets of Dhaka old town make Indian cities seem serene. It is electric, charged, and if you’re not alert you may well be, by a rickshaw. In a city of maybe twenty million, over 600,000 of the inhabitants work peddle rickshaws; they are everywhere, often in great interflowing streams, but more frequently static as tangled metallic chains. Delhi – with its multitude of motor rickshaws, motorbikes and cars - is now apparently more polluted than Beijing. Poor Dhaka (alas not pollution-free) has its rickshaw culture to thank on two counts: peddle power is as green as it gets, whilst they account for an awful lot of employment. They are also quite beautiful with hand painted panels and embroidered canopies. If they were Dhaka’s only endearing feature we’d like it very much, but its jewel are the people who are as welcoming, hospitable and generous as any we have ever encountered. Yes, here you might as well be marked “Exhibit A” because pause for a second and you will draw a crowd. But engage and the Bangladeshis will melt your heart. An average day will see you exchange something like several hundred passing greetings, maybe you’ll be stopped for thirty short conversations and shake at least twenty individual’s hands. As per many countries the number one question you’ll be asked is “what country?” Fortunately for us the answer “England” is always well received (almost every Bangladeshi has a family member, or knows of someone, who has or does live in the UK). The second question is typically “why are you here?” Answer “we’re just tourists” and your questioner’s beam will broaden. Of the few westerners Bangladeshis run into most are on business and the locals are both surprised and delighted that you would consider their humble country (as proud as they are of it) worthy of a visit by choice.

As I write this we have only been in Bangladesh for four days. We crossed over the border from Agartala in India’s Tripura to Akhaura and were immediately befriended by two young youths at the train station who insisted on escorting us onto the train: to ensure that we mounted the correct one and subsequently procured seats (via a little baksheesh to the bursar – the trains are mobbed). They then rode with us for several stops like some ceremonial guard. On arrival in Dhaka we headed on foot from Kamlapur station towards the Old Town area; predictably we were soon lost amongst the mayhem. A gentleman approached us and gave us directions, only to lead us through most of them, before placing us on a rickshaw that he insisted on paying for.

Most budget guesthouses do not accept foreigners although, fortunately, Hotel Al Razzaque International does. It is not glam nor particularly cheap but is clean, friendly and in a great location above a popular restaurant; plus it is close to both Sadarghat on the Bariganga River and the area known as Hindu Street. We checked in and then found a chai stall (called cha here in Bangladesh) at which to sit and watch the (crazy) world go by. A quiet cuppa on the street is never going to happen in Dhaka and we were soon surrounded by an intrigued crowd. On rising to leave we attempted to pay only to find that someone had already done so. It was also at this point that we were given our first luncheon invitation which, exhausted, we politely declined.

Wandering the next day, lost in the maze of tortuous backstreets en-route to Lalbagh fort, we chatted with a friendly gentleman, Shahjaham Sharif. Before we knew it we were headed with him back to his house to meet the family over lunch. His wife was not fazed in the least to be presented with two scruffy westerners and was soon dishing up some wonderful dishes as we relaxed and chatted with their lovely children. On departure the youngest son guided us to the fort and accompanied us around it; so escorted our number of photo-calls were mercifully reduced to single figures."

"And so, via Morrel Ganj, we arrived in Bagerhat - a (relatively) quiet little town, but one that will always remain close to our hearts. We stayed but three days and in that time made three sets of friends; on one of those days we also – bloatedly - ate with all three of them. Our very special thanks go to my brother Dat and our adoptive family, the poet Prantik and his beautiful gifted wife, and our guide and friend Raquib – meeting any of you would have made our visit to Bangladesh, meeting you all within the space of a day was mind-blowing. We are only disappointed that those dozen or so (that really is no exaggeration) other people who also invited us into their lives had to be declined because there simply wasn’t time. Many, many, thanks to the wonderful people of Bagerhat.

Particular mentions must go to Dat and family for inviting us to their niece’s wedding which was a truly unique and wonderful experience and to Prantik’s wife who rushed home from school (she’s a teacher) and made us fall in love with her in the mere minutes we shared together before we had to run off. Another extremely touching event happened – I believe – purely by chance: on leaving town very early in the morning we bumped into Raquib’s uncle on the street (a man whose name I’m ashamed to say that I do not know and who is unable to relate it himself: with learning difficulties he has extreme speech impediments). He simply recognized us, felt safe with us, picked up Ali’s day pack and walked the not inconsiderable distance to the bus station with us. On the way we stopped off for a couple of Lal chas (red teas) and at the bus station Raquib’s uncle simply waited, smiling, with us until our bus arrived. He then silently walked away and I actually had to run after him to thank him for his help and kindness. As the bus finally departed we passed a shack and there he was, watching out for us, waving vigorously. I don’t think I’ll ever forget his beautiful pegged-toothed smile – really, for us he summed up Bagerhat: unconditional friendship. That is one unique town."

Sumatra: "Hello Mister".... "or something like that"....

“Taxi, ferry, opulet (mini bus with facing bench seats), coach, becak (motor rickshaw with sidecar) and minibus saw us, 28 hours later, in Bukit Lawang: orangutan country. Eight of those 28 hours were spent, rather pleasantly, in the vicinity of Banda Aceh’s coach station. We’d read that the people of Banda were friendly and engaging and so it proved. We joined a crowd to watch Chelsea win the FA Cup, took on the locals at dominos (and, much to their amusement, lost repeatedly), ate some great nasi kampur, were plied with kretek (clove) cigarettes and Aceh coffee whilst chatting, played crib and scrabble amidst a three-deep huddle of on-lookers and shook hands/exchanged greetings with pretty much every soul who passed through the station.”

“Berastagi, home to several active volcanoes, is a charming town with a bustling day market, great street-side food vendors and a host of quaint coffee shops. The food vendors sell an array of fried snacks in the afternoon (rolled tubes of tofu packaging slivers of spicy vegetables and fried in a light batter are exquisite as is the tempe – derived from tofu – impregnated with nuts and fried as crispy yet soft-centered crackers) and barbequed lake fish/chicken at night. Some also make the strangest sweet folded pies that incorporate a creamed corn, condensed milk and chocolate flakes filling: we were not tempted. Here churches (mainly Adventists) are as equally numerous as mosques - which is reflected in the increase in the number of dogs. Whilst many locals here keep dogs as pets we were also informed by Papa Martina, the owner of our local coffee shop, that it is only ten minutes to the nearest restaurant where they feature on the menu. He, personally, had lost his taste for canine chops since the family has owned one as a pet.

Just as in Aceh the people are friendliness personified: shop keepers and street vendors greet you warmly; children’s calls of “Hello Mr” and “Hello sister” emanate from open houses, play grounds and passing cyclists; and without fail every adult proffers a beaming “Hello” or “Pagi” (‘morning). Sumatra really does turn the clock back to more gentle, less commercial, times and is rapidly becoming the highlight of our current trip thus far.

On our first morning in Berastagi we wandered into Cemara warung, the coffee house of the Miyu family. Mum ushered us to be seated and then disappeared to return with dad (papa Martina – the head of the family is often referred to as the father of his eldest child, in his case Martina) who in turn was closely followed by his two bright and engaging grown-up daughters, Martina (20) and Rita (17). With the exception of mum (who would often pose a question through one of the girls) and grandma (who generated a laugh from all assembled patrons when she announced in English “hello, I’m going to Kabanjahe”) the whole family speaks excellent English and we were to return there several times a day for delicious coffee and lengthy chats in their kind enquiring company. They also did an excellent breakfast and wonderful cakes.”

“From Berastagi we headed south to Danau Toba, the largest lake in South East Asia. Situated within the vast crater lake is Samosir Island that is actually as large as Singapore and protruding from its southern shore is a diminutive carbuncle (an hours walk around its periphery) known as Tuk Tuk. The lake and island are stunning; not surprisingly, given it is within the vent of a volcano, the lake is bloody deep: more than 300m at its’ deepest.

Here religion takes a complete flip and 99% of people are actually Christian. There were rumours that the Batak locals were partial to jungle-juice (palm wine: tapped straight from the tree with no additional fermentation and clocking in at about 10% alcohol/volume); there was, however, none in evidence around the plentiful eateries/bars. We put out some feelers and the next thing we knew the local long-haired wide-boys had assembled and we were being whisked away on motorbikes to a remote drinking establishment in the jungle (a shanty hut packed with drunken men of all ages and set up like a minor stage at a music festival – mics and guitars everywhere). Palm wine is an acquired taste: a milky yellow liquid served in half pint-sized glasses filled from communal multiple-litre jugs that, in turn, are filled from great dustbin-sized tubs. Initially the local lads were rather subdued (although one of the elders was already jigging around in a bizarre William-esque fashion, another was massaging tired shoulders and a third was expelled for leery behaviour, whilst the proprietors’ young son lazed on a motorcycle saddle eating rice)… that was until they’d downed a few glasses and belted out a few tunes. Then as the liquor continued to flow the musicianship just got better and better (honestly): “drink more, it makes you stronger”; and several hours later when four of the best were jamming instrumentally it really did seem as though you were privileged to be experiencing something rare. Then in the pitch dark we re-mounted the bikes and sped an exhilarating winding way back. Has to be said that it appeared we had paid pretty much for the whole bars’ consumption; but hell, it was dirt cheap and certainly an experience. Interestingly, our first urinations the next morning both looked and smelt identical to our consumptions the night before…”

Sri Lanka:Sri Lanka: small island, huge heart.

"One day Mr. Somasundaram was taking no more excuses and he insisted that we and Ryo (the young Japanese lad) come to his family’s (daughter’s) house for lunch. Actually, he and his wife live in a small, very basic dwelling whilst his daughter and her family (husband and four children) live in the more substantial building next door (given to them by Mr. S. as a dowry). Not sure of what to take as a suitable gift (toddy was a no-no: his daughter disapproves) we settled on food stuffs they would never normally buy for themselves. A kilo of huge grapes and a boxed cake proved to be excellent choices – the children were certainly won over. The youngest are twin two-year-old girls and both were suffering with heavy colds. At one stage Mr. S was carrying a twin and bowed his head as though to kiss her, however – astonishing to us – he placed his mouth over her nose, sucked and then spat: a novel approach to nasal decongestion. Lunch itself was prepared by his daughter with Ali helping out (Als was quick to tell us that she’d grated the coconut, using a wonderful grinding tool that would look fabulous in any western kitchen as it sat there gathering dust): a feast of curries and fried fish that she cooked on a single charcoal-fuelled crucible, and that were truly delicious.”

“Back in Colombo we opted to try couchsurfing – a first for us. Not surprisingly, for the man is a Sri Lankan, the hospitality shown to us was exemplary. How on earth have I reached my advanced years without ever hearing of the particular generosity and kindness of Sri Lankans? Many thanks again to “V” – I’m not going to mention his name as his family home already resembles a backpacker carousel. What I will say is that waffles with pol (coconut) sambal and dal make a very fine breakfast.

We were due to stay on this wonderful, passionate little island for 30 days – no longer – we rushed out and extended our visas for three months.”

“Our first night was spent in the tranquil haven of the Burmese Rest, a spotless but Spartan guesthouse run by monks and with a serious monastery feel. The Rest does however have a strict 10pm curfew and we did have cricket matches to watch/attend, the second game of the day often not even finishing until past this hour. Although the monk we dealt with did kindly offer to open up for us whatever the hour of our return – simply call him on his mobile… Monks with cell phones… It wasn’t going to be a one-off inconvenience so we sought an alternative room. Just up from the lake we chanced upon The Pink House, a real family-run guesthouse with three generations in residence. Grandma in particular was delightful with a wicked sense of humour and some amazing yarns to tell from her 40-odd years as a guesthouse proprietor – Tony Wheeler stayed here in the early (glory) days when he was still researching for LP.

It was about this time that I began to notice just how demonstrative the Sri Lankans are, even the sober ones. At the end of a chance meeting and chat you may well find the back of your hand – mid-shake – suddenly being pressed to your new friend’s forehead (a respectful Buddhist action) or lips. A lengthier chat, especially over a few beers, often culminates with arms around shoulders and – not infrequently – big smackers on cheeks. The latter come Ali’s way less often, with exuberance being tempered by respect for her sex. However, she has had her feet kissed and does seem particularly irresistible to drooling ancient toddy-heads, whilst Asian dogs (those in Sri Lanka appear incredibly inbred: uniform rust-coloured, foxlike beasts that mostly run wild, but are generally friendly) continue to seek her out (apparently aware of her new-found canine confidence) and demand attention.”

“Heading north to Jaffna we stopped off once again in Uppaveli, primarily to distribute a stack of photos taken of Mr. S and his fellow toddy drinkers. Inexplicably, this time, the beach was far less pristine. We checked-in at Regish and then called at Mr. S’s home for a cuppa with his wife and daughter, handed out some freebies from the cricket to his grandchildren before he dragged us off to the toddy shop.

With the emergence of the photographs we were enveloped in a scrum and had to take refuge behind the bar from where they were passed out with the toddy, each recipient sporting a huge smile and venturing inside to pump our hands. It was all rather heartwarming. We’d been sitting chatting with the staff over a jug or two when a regional boss appeared, closely followed by a police sergeant and then an inspector, who all disappeared into the rear of the hut with the boss. Shortly afterwards we were invited to join them for what turned into a lock-in with five bottles of arack, drunk from a single glass in shots. The sergeant’s wife teaches English and he was soon ringing her to chat to his new chums. Ali’s (prompted) comment of “he’s a very fine policeman” merited high-fives all round. At around the third bottle the police inspector was carried back to the long since closed front of the shop for a snooze, only to be replaced by the chief-of-police. We all rose – unsteadily – to show some respect, but we needn’t have worried overly as he rapidly polished off several shots and then ate the fish bones that were left on my plate. He was soon into his stride and proposed some singing and dancing (really, the rear of the hut is maybe ten feet square and much of that occupied with a bed): did we know any “Boney M”? Our medley of hits pleased him greatly. “I would like to invite you to my house for breakfast, lunch or dinner”. On eventually leaving – now on rather good terms with the local constabulary - we were persuaded to take a rickshaw which was extremely sensible given my unsteady state. For some reason the police were intent on providing us with an escort for the short journey – that was until they realized that they were unable to get on their motorbikes, let alone keep them upright… This reminds me of a recent article in a national newspaper that described new laws making it illegal to drive whilst drunk (at last) and indeed to even be driven if under the influence (bizarre). So, here we had Trincomalee’s finest encouraging us to break the law and then attempting to flaunt it themselves.”

OK, so I said India didn’t make the short list. But we really can’t talk friendship without mentioning Ashok and family…

India:To Nagaland and beyond...

"You often meet some seriously nice people on Indian trains, but on this Ajmer-Kolkata Express we met businessmen Ashok and Dilip who remade the mould: at every stop they’d disappear and return with some station-side fare; Ashok plied us with his wife’s delicious home-made delicacies (gondladoo: butter, nuts, milk and sugar confections to die for) and the most we could ever reciprocate was the odd chai and cigarette (the latter only for Dilip – in case Mrs. Jangid were ever to read this). On reaching Kolkata we arranged to meet again in a couple of days – something that both sides are usually happy to let ride. We didn’t, are delighted we didn’t, but have a huge debt of hospitality hanging over us: they treated us to a wonderful lunch at the renowned Royal India Hotel (where we feasted on the special of royal mutton chaap, chicken livers in a divine oily sauce and perfect rubbery chapattis), insisted on paying rapid visits to two famous sweet shops to experience Kolkata specialties including rasgulla (sweet fluffy balls of curd) and even more delicious, but unnamed, perfections. We discussed the possibility of starting a business venture together in the UK and will certainly research its validity on our return."

Thank you southern Asia...

"With ten days remaining before our flights back to the UK we had just enough time to make a bee-line to Bhilwara in Rajesthan and visit our friend Ashok whom we’d met some months before on our way to Kolkata. Luck was with us as there were five remaining berths on the train to Ajmer. The next day we were greeted by Ashok at Bhilwara bus station and were soon at his home and meeting his delightful family: Pinky his wife and Chinu and Monu, his sons. Although we had planned on staying for just one or two nights they would not hear of it and before we knew it the best part of a week had passed in their delightful company. We visited local temples, waterfalls and swimming holes, met the other members of the extended family, played cricket, frisbee and cards, took day trips including one to Bundi where we were reunited with Krishna the master chai-wallah, ate splendidly at the hands of Pinky, and tears were shed all-round when we really did have to leave. Their hospitality and generosity were beyond words. We really do have family now in India and cannot wait to host them back in Britain."

Fiji: Twenty two years ago this week: our brother Rusi. Its footnote position here necessitated due to photo download problems and hence links to those previously posted.

“As the rain finally stops so does the bus, just short of the village which is visible across a sturdy modern steel bridge spanning the broad, sluggish, orange-brown river; it is as beautiful as Rusi promised. Much of the village is built on reclaimed land and all buildings are raised on stilts. The Mataitoga family’s new house is on the near-side of the village, right on the river bank. It is larger than most but, like all its neighbours, single-storey and made entirely from unpainted wood with a corrugated iron roof. There is a veranda overhanging the river and from here you can gaze upstream to the mist-shrouded hills or downstream to its mouth as it empties muddily into the sea. Ahead, across the river, are dense trees. The windows are unglazed, protected by crude vertically hanging shutters now propped open with sticks. Inside there is a large barren reception room, two bedrooms with mosquito-netted mattresses on the floor, and the village’s first toilet that flushes - straight into the river.

Rusi’s father is away selling kava so Rusi’s younger brother Mosese performs the sevusevu ceremony in his place. In the absence of the head of the family this would normally fall to the oldest brother (Rusi), but as he brought us to the village he is barred from doing so. We sit on the naked boards of the reception room as Mosese officially welcomes us, saying how happy he is to be able to accommodate us, to look after us and that his house is our house. It feels very strange to arrive with a friend and yet need to pass these formalities. Throughout his speech Mosese cradles the bundle of kava that we had presented to him. If the kava had remained unhandled then that in it-self would have stated rejection and that we were unwelcome. I suspect it would also have been more than his life is worth at the hands of Rusi.

We meet the other family members: Rusi’s sister Viri, a onetime trainee nurse (prior to her two young twins) who is soon quizzing Ali about British medicine; his other brothers; a cheeky young nephew Bruce; and his mother who seems completely unfazed by us descending upon them unannounced. His mother is an exception to the Fijian rule of brash, plump, middle-aged women and is gracefully slender, quiet and thoughtful, but still engaging as she goes about preparing dinner. This was to be eaten in the old house situated behind the new building, a two roomed mere shack of a place. Here the kitchen is obviously the room for all occasions and everyone is soon sitting around a tablecloth on the floor as dishes begin to appear: fried whitebait in coconut juice; a boiled green leafy vegetable – taro; yellow fibrous-looking cassavas; and the white, dense, root of the taro plant – dalo. Prayers are said by Rusi. Again they are a lengthy affair giving thanks to god for the food provided, for placing us in their home, and for giving us all good health. Then the cross-legged assembly dig-in with fingers.

Tonight there is a grog party on the other side of the village. Descending from the hubbub of the kitchen into the still moonlit night the village exists only as silver and grey shadows. We follow the narrow paths that criss-cross the network of drainage ditches - flushed clean with each high tide. Most doors are still open to the balmy night and our path is periodically illuminated with shafts of lantern light, accompanied with sounds of family life from within. There are no walls or fences in the village. Rusi informs us that there should be no barriers between members of the village and that villagers should be able to wander freely into each other’s homes. Cooperation is central to village life: fortune and hardship alike are shared, with no one, not even the chief, having particularly more or less than their neighbour; there are few luxuries, but no one ever goes hungry. This familiarity and uniformity cements the village as one large extended family, giving each person a sense of belonging and identity. Indeed, tonight’s party is an example of this community…

There are about thirty people outside the house, mainly men but with a few women and children intermingled as well. A large awning slants down from roof level and underneath is an assemblage of woven mats. In the center of the sitting crowd is a large grog bowl in which float three coconut shells. To the side several men are playing guitars and singing Fijian songs, whilst behind them are two topless guys, one stabilising a vertical section of hollowed tree stump as the other rhythmically pounds half a car axel into its excavated end, sending up puffs of kava powder. The party is to raise funds for two men who are moving to work in Fiji’s capital Suva, back on Vitu Levu. It also serves as a going-away bash. A man walks among the gathering with a collection plate and someone begins by giving 10 cents to buy a friend a drink of grog. This is announced, the recipient receives his shell and either drinks alone or says “same boat” meaning that he’d like to buy one back for his friend and he then donates a further 10 cents himself and they drink together. And so it continues, essentially everyone buying each other a drink with all the money gathered going to the cause. Money is made as the donations far outweigh the value of the kava if it had been sold at market. The atmosphere is totally chilled. Ali and I chat to everyone in turn, buy large amounts of grog and let the numbing fluid do its worst. The humid night intensifies and breaks into a thunder storm but no one is worried; the music plays on and there’s much clumsy dancing. Tonight I’m the popular one being handed from one girl to the next. Finally the fund raising stops and a speech is made by an old man holding un-pounded kava. In this he thanks everyone for attending and for their generosity; he says that we are now all part of the two lads’ lives and that whenever possible they will, in turn, aid us. He has particular thanks for Ali and me, for allowing the village to look after us and to share their lives with us. The kava he holds is now pounded and prepared and we all drink together in a further bonding of friendships.”

“On arriving we meet Rusi’s father who has returned from his selling trip. He seems positively delighted to meet us and, despite speaking no English, welcomes us warmly with hearty handshakes and constant smiles. At dinner I say an epic grace which earned me a pat on the back from dad (even though he understood not a word of what I was saying) and (obviously in his good books) he was soon whisking us off for some grog. Not wanting to outstay our welcome we had intended to leave tomorrow, but when this was related to his father, and following Rusi’s gushing translation and his father’s eager nods, we were (easily) persuaded to reconsider until Monday at least.

At 1 a.m. Ali retired, but we three and several others (do people simply roam the village looking for an available bowl?) continued to sit out on the veranda as Rusi’s father ups the drinking rate with cries of “talo”, “talo”, “talo”… I gingerly asked Rusi why is it that he and his father seem to speak very little to each other? This I was informed is intimate Fijian etiquette: people who respect each other do not sit around chatting about trivial matters and indeed hardly acknowledge each other in social situations, any interactions being reserved for the asking of favours or maters of importance. At some stage I staggered, somewhat embarrassed at my lack of coordination, to the flushing toilet. I need not have worried as on my return Rusi’s father made the same trip… on his hands and knees. There is no shame in becoming intoxicated by yaqona, although the satanic alcohol is viewed very differently… by the elders at least.”

So, that’s my loose idea. Dancing Dave could give us his most spectacular portraits in a oner; Ed Vallance his most hard-core exploits, His Dudeness his hardest to-get-tos (or his least pleasant trials that made the trips possible), ya-de-ya. Regardless, I feel a "Most terrifying journeys", "Rip-offs we saw coming", "Best guest houses under $10", "Treks to die for"…. coming on….


3rd April 2017

What memories bring smiles
What a fabulous idea Andy & Ali...flashes of our travels or past blogs on a theme, not wishing to unduly summarise your idea. The Most welcoming Countries. Mmmm. Brings back so many memories of doors opening (and shutting), guardian angels and unexpected hospitality...what makes travel so addictive and enjoyable. Amazing what happens when one smiles. Your travels are truly epic so love your idea. Bring it on!
4th April 2017

This is the best!
Wow! I really enjoyed reading back on all your highlights! Can't wait for you to get travelling again, your world map looks enticing!

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