Fiji For Beginners: A Visitor's Guide

This article has been updated and moved to Rapid Pulse Blog.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

just another day for you and me in "paradise"

When I tell people about my Fiji adventures, I always talk about the day I was chased by thugs through the jungle and the time I walked into my house while it was being burglarized and, subsequently, had a knife pulled on me (the burglar was so taken aback by my rage at his having broken in, though, that he dropped the knife and ran off). It's not that I want to give a bad impression of Fiji, a country I love. I just want them to know that the image they have of Fiji-the-pacific-paradise is just that--an image which doesn't necessarily capture the country as it really is.

Still, I can't deny that most of my "adventures" were really of the kind one is expected to have in country spread over more than 300 islands, only a hundred or so of which are inhabited. Swimming at the ultra-white-sand Natadola beach, spearfishing with my friend Yalimailakeba for nine-hours straight along a reef several miles from shore, scaling the sheer rock summit of the highest peak of Naviti island (the worst part was getting back down), getting lost on the grassy slopes of the Sigatoka valley as the sun sank--a myriad of small-scale "adventures" that made my two years in Fiji a blast. If you like diving, snorkeling, boating, fishing, hiking, climbing, or just lazing around on a beach, Fiji has all of that AND MORE. And it's possible to do everything more than once (except, maybe, dive) on a limited budget, providing you steer clear of the resort scene.

the extents--and limits--of hospitality

Buy any tour guide of Fiji and you will read over and over again of "Fijian hospitality". It may sound too good to be true but, for the most part, it is. When I go back to Fiji I don't bother write and inform people that I'm coming. I just show up. And I'm always taken in and treated like a family member who's come home for a visit. This may sound rude to some Westerners, but it's perfectly acceptable in Fiji.

For instance, I've been back to visit Fiji twice since my departure, and both times I've trekked to a small village I like on the Coral Coast, the sandy-beach side of Viti Levu, called Naidiri, where I stay with the family of a former student of mine. It doesn't bother them at all that I just show up on their doorstep unannounced. Besides, I come prepared, bearing rice, bread, flour, milk, and a half-kilo of waka (more on this vital item shortly). Were I to inform them ahead of time of my intended visit, it's likely they would make a special trip to town and spend money they may not have buying food they think a kaivalagi might like.

Fijians are not unique in their hospitality, however. I've actually been formally inducted into a Rotuman family I visited once in Savusavu. And I've stayed with Indian friends and their families many times. Indians, in fact, can match Fijians in the hospitality arts, as far as I'm concerned. In fact, I always look forward to staying with the Janardhan family, former neighbors, when I go back to Fiji. They have great senses of humor. Their son, "Sonny," whether he wants to or not, usually surrenders his bed so that I may have a place to sleep while there. As a symbol of my appreciation, I sabotage his room with joke-items brought from Jack's Joke Shop in Boston--real-appearing rubber cockroaches under his pillow, a fake smouldering cigarette butt on his school work, a pile of plastic dog shit on one of his new soccer sneakers. Everyone--mother, father, sister, brother-in-law--gets a good laugh out of these tricks.

Unfortunately, there are limits to hospitality in Fiji. Fijians and Indians live side-by-side rather precariously. Ethnic prejudice is strong there. Basically, the Fijians run the country because they run the government and control the military. The Indians run the economy--they are the largest taxpayers--and resent the preferences shown to Fijians in public assistance, the blind-eye police have given crime since the Fijians took power following two coups in the early eighties, and the general indifference shown their interests as a diasporic culture. Rotumans and other Pacific Islanders live in Fiji under the protective wing of indigenous Fijians who, like Pacific Islanders everywhere, recognize a strong political and cultural tie with other nations in the region. The Chinese and "Others" live in the shadows of the Fijians and Indians, whose interests dominate and prevail (the Indians constitute only a little less than half the population made up mostly of Fijians). None of the groups really click except when they have to. It's a shame but that's the aftermath of the British colonial enterprise.

Hospitality may also be a disguise worn by those seeking to exploit unsuspecting tourists. There are some locals whose eyes light up with $$ when they encounter tourists. These people can be pushy but may be dealt with politely. Some actually "work" the tourists. In Nadi, and even in Suva, smiling hustlers--"swordsellers"-- exclaiming "Bula!" (Hi!) will approach tourists on the street and, after snagging them in garrulous conversation, carve out their names on a wooden sword the moment after a befuddled tourist reveals it. The customized sword is then presented to the tourist, the proud engraver expecting a hefty price for his work. I was approached by these guys many times, even when I had no travel bags or cameras, was wearing a bula shirt and a kilt-like sulu, and accompanied by local friends! I simply returned the greeting with a big smile and walked by, ignoring their attempts to engage me in a conversation in English.

Visitors to Fiji will encounter all of this. Those who tend to stay in the city and town areas will get a lot of it. But those who visit the interior of the two large islands, or travel to some of the smaller islands, will no doubt encounter the genuine hospitality that makes Fiji such a great place to stay and hang out.

the village life in Fiji

Central to Fijian culture is the village. The village, or koro, is the wellspring of each Fijian man and woman's mental life. All Fijians have a koro. Even Fijians born and brought up in the capital city, Suva, have a koro even if they've never seen it (their father's or their mother's koro is their koro). On more than one occasion I've ended up in conversations with Fijians who've described their villages in great detail, then later surprise me by admitting they've never even been there! This is especially true of Fijians whose parents came to Viti Levu from the remote islands of the Lau group and never went back. Their children grow up hearing stories of "their village." They have this really intricate picture of it in their minds and can describe it to anyone who asks with all the love and tenderness of one reminiscing aloud of home-sweet- home.

Although there are no two Fijian villages that are alike, they all do share similarities. Almost every Fijian village has a Christian church, which is usually the nicest, most well-kept building around. Most villages also have a meeting house (vale-i-sogo), many of which are built in traditional Fijian style (bures) with thatched roofs. Chickens, pigs, goats, dogs, and cats roam around freely in villages. Showers are often public and, hence, not to be taken in the buff. Many bathe in nearby rivers and streams. The villagers themselves are generally very friendly, calling out invitations to people passing by to join them for tea and bread or, if meal's on, boiled cassava or dalo or fish or freshwater clams called "kai."

Drop-by visitors to Fijian villages are rarely turned away. In fact, I've often heard Fijians complain about how tourists "always" go to the resorts but "never" come to the villages. If you want to have a village experience, do this: Bring some staple foodstuff and a half-kilo or so of waka (more on this in a sec) and, upon entering the village, ask someone nearby if you may see the chief, or the turaga ni koro. You'll be brought either to him or to the next in line. Offer him the waka, ask if you may stay for a day or two in his fine village, and, well--that's it! They'll take care of the rest. A family will be found to take you in (give the foodstuff to the lady of the household) and all you need to do is be a good guest, which means being on center-stage for much of your time there.

Don't be afraid to talk--and talk in English. Everyone in Fiji understands English. What happens with a lot of visitors is they clam up in social situations because their Fijian hosts are all too willing to do the talking for them (this is partly cultural, partly ego on the part of the host). Although it's nice to be respectful, it's not necessary to be mum--especially in situations in which you are the center of conversation! Tell them about your family, your job, your hobbies...tell them anything and everything. The more stories you tell, the more interwoven you'll become with the social fabric of the village.

Stories and storytelling, by the way, permeate Fijian life, especially Fijian village life. Although the days are over when professional storytellers, like troubadors, traveled from village to village entertaining and inspiring one and all, storytelling remains an essential ingredient in social relations. I spent many long evening hours sitting around the grog bowl (more about this in just a second) in villages I was visiting listening to the men, and sometimes the women, talk and talk and talk. These are people who work side by side all day, sometimes even taking their meals together. And every night they meet either in small groups in an individual's home, or collectively in the village's vale ni sogo, and talk incessantly. After one particularly gregarious get-together one night, I asked my Fijian friend what it was the men were talking about. He said: "Oh, they were just telling stories as usual." When I asked if these stories were true or made-up, he said: "A little bit of both--mostly made up."

It's not only around the grog bowl where stories are shared. The women of the village, and the children, have cultivated similar such spaces. Unfortunately, being male, I only caught fleeting glimpses of these while passing by the open doors of homes on my way with the men to where the grog was. But they exist, and they are vibrant places where strong social relations are continuously nurtured.

What's this thing called "grog"? Anyone who has been to Fiji will know what grog is. It's the national drink shared by both Fijians and Indo-Fijians. Actually, "grog" is English slang for yaqona the Fijian term for the plant kava (yes, this is the origin of the trendy new herbal relaxant Kavakava). The root (waka) of this plant is cultivated for several years, then dried in the sun and pounded into a fine powder. This powder is then mixed with water to create "grog," a drink that tastes like dirty-water (if you've never tasted dirty water before, go to Fiji and drink grog) and has a narcotic effect that numbs the lips and tongue and, if drunk in large amounts as it is by most men in Fiji, will make you feel groggy.

You can get "drunk" on grog, but it's not like getting drunk on alcohol. It's also not like getting high on marijuana. It numbs. For people who like to party hardy, grog would prove a poor stimulant. For those seeking new ways to transcend mundane reality and experience euphoria, grog is the last thing they want to take. But grog's effect has a certain (for want of a better word) charm. It relaxes, and in drawing out whatever little tensions may keep one feeling a bit on edge--as village life can sometimes cause nonFijian visitors--grog can rejuvenate, especially through its ability to evoke deep, dreamless sleep in those who've had numerous bilos of it.

And what's a "bilo"? A bilo is the shorn half-shell of a coconut that is the only-- repeat, ONLY--thing grog can be drunk from (although many Indians drink use bilo-sized bowls). Grog is never drunk from a glass or thermos or any other container. That would be tabu ("taboo"). Because of grog's enormous symbolic implications, there are many taboos associated with the drinking of it, especially in the villages and certainly when the chief or a member of the chief's mataqali (inadequate translation: "tribe") is present.

Although it varies from village to village and province to province, the yaqona ceremony is a ritualized service accompanying events like marriages, funerals, holidays, or the visitation of guests who themselves bring a bundle of waka (their gift, or sevusevu). The chief sits apart from the villagers, usually accompanied by his mata- ni-vanua (his "spokeman" and "Master of Ceremonies"), the heads of his village's mataqali , and any important guests. In front of him is the village's tanoa, a handcarved basin into which the yaqona is poured by the mixers. After a series of stylized gestures and chants, the grog is poured from one bilo into another, then carried by one of the mixers to each important person (beginning with the paramount chief) to be drunk. Before accepting the bilo with both hands, an individual claps once; while drinking, the mixer will sit crosslegged sideways before the drinker and loudly clap his hands; after returning the bilo to the mixer, the drinker will then clap, loudly, three times. When the ceremony is over, everyone claps simultaneously three times. (For a much more extensive description of the yaqona ceremony, see David Stanley's excellent guide Fiji Islands Handbook, Moon Publications)

Even when drinking grog casually with Fijians (less so with Indians), the basic ritual--clap hands once before drinking, clap thrice after drinking while exclaming "Maca!" (pronounced maatha, "Empty!")--is always followed. Indians usually don't follow this ritual, unless there are Fijians present, to whom they are quite used to deferring.

It's important never to underestimate the symbolic importance of yaqona to Fijian culture. If one visits a Fijian village and brings a week's worth supply of canned goods, rice, flour, and other staple foodstuffs, they will be warmly accepted. But if one brings a kilo of waka as well, they may actually end up being adopted by the village--an adoption, incidentally, that can last for one's entire life! Even if you yourself hate the drink, you'll love what it can do for you.

the indians of fiji

A little less than half of Fiji's population is comprised of Indians, the vast majority of whom are descended from indentured laborers shipped by the British from India to Fiji during the mid- to late-1800s to work on sugarcane plantations. Travel guide books, eager to depict Fiji as a purely "pacific" paradise, place little emphasis on the nonindigenous culture of Indians. Ironically, the resort-driven image of scantily-clad Fijians in grass skirts dancing traditional mekes in coconut groves bears no resemblance to actual Fijian village life--at least not any more, thanks to the missionaries (mostly Methodist) who helped colonize the country more than a hundred years ago. Indians, however, have successfully retained their rich and colorful culture. Anyone who wants to experience Fiji in its entirety should acquaint themselves with the country's Indian population.

Fiji's Indians (sometimes called Indo-Fijians, mostly by politically correct types) are a diverse people, much more so than Fijians. Some are very, very rich and others are dirt poor. Most are Hindus, some are Muslims, and a few are Christians. Many middle-class Indians spend a good deal of time scheming ways to escape Fiji for English-speaking countries like Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Political domination by Fijians and, most pressingly, crime are sources of anxiety for most professional Indians. Still, they make the best of it, working hard and bringing up families and trying their best to ignore the potentially hostile environment (now changing along with a new constitution) which few I've met are successfully inured from.

Indians have fewer taboos than do Fijians. Whenever I visit Fijian villages I'm careful not to stand while others are sitting, or wear my shoes inside a house, or linger too long in a doorway, or touch the head of young man, and so on. The list of taboos is long. It's much less stressful in Indian households. Indians, too, probably because of the seriousness with with many of them approach education (they believe that the better educated they are, the higher the chance of their "qualifying" for entry into one of the above-mentioned countries), tend to be more open-minded about things--not everything--than Fijians, who are more "set in their ways." This doesn't mean Indians are liberal; by most western standards, they are quite conservative, especially when it comes to courting and marriage and other gendered customs. But I'm always less timid about bringing up political or social "issues" with Indians than I am with Fijians, for whom it seems the political is personal and what is personal is none of my business.

Where Fijian cuisine tends to be on the bland side, Indian food is not. I learned about this the hard way one night not long after I initially arrived in Fiji. It was the first time I got "drunk" off grog. I was visiting a predominantly Indian secondary school in Naleba, deep in the rural interior of Fiji's second largest island, Vanua Levu. A fellow Peace Corps volunteer who taught there brought me to the home of one of his Indian colleagues one night. The man, his brother, and his elderly father pounded waka and mixed up a number of buckets of VERY strong grog. I can't remember much of what we talked about that night--in fact, I remember only two things. One was the swarming invasion of land-toads--they were everywhere around us--and how fascinated I was by how they swept up bugs with their lightning-fast tongues. The other was how hungry I felt most of the night, and how psyched I was when, at last, around midnight, the two men's wives (who had remained in the kitchen throughout the evening) brought forth plates heaped with rotis, chicken curry, tomato chutney, and rice.

I loaded my plate with food, totally unaware that the curry and chutney were themselves loaded--I mean LOADED!!--with chilis. The curry set fire to my palate. The chutney was so hot my eyes teared, my nose dripped, and I broke out in a sweat. When I asked for "pani," the word for water in Hindustani, one of the women brought me a dixie-cup of warm water--hardly what I had hoped for. But I made the best of it, which was all I could do.

The Indians have certainly made visible marks of their culture in Fiji. There are Hindu shrines and temples throughout Fiji, as well as a good number of Islamic mosques. One popular Hindu shrine I visited was in Vanua Levu, about a half-hour outside Labasa and not too far from Naleba. The shrine has been built around a large stone that rises up snakelike from a hill next to the road. Hindus believe that this stone is a physical manifestation of Shes Naag, one of their snake gods. Every time I've been there I've observed Hindus reverently decorating the base of this stone with flowers and colorful pictures of Hindu dieties. They light candles, incense, and leave fresh papayas and other foodstuff as offerings. If you look hard and long enough at this large rock from a certain angle you'll see its rough resemblance to a cobra... I guess....

On the whole, the Indians of Fiji are warm, kind-hearted, magnanimous people. Some can be a bit too kind at times--I've had my share of Indian cab drivers who, upon discovering I'm and unmarried American, put no small degree of pressure on me to visit their homes and meet their "beautiful" sisters and daughters--but it's easy to see through those whose primary interest in you is a possible family-ticket out of Fiji. It's sad, really, how so many hardworking, generally congenial people are so desperate to leave a country of such beauty and promise.

wrapping it up

On May 19, 2000, a group of far-right wing Fijians took over Parliament and, after a stand-off that lasted nearly three months, effectively deposed of the first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister and his Coalition Government. Doing so nullified the first truly democratic Constitution. Politics in Fiji are very, very sneaky--and very conspiratorial. No one really knows who was behind this civilian "coup" but they do know this: those powerful forces are still at large in the country, and they will stop at nothing to get what they want, which is absolute control by the indigenous population--with the power center being located on the eastern side of Viti Levu. At the time of this writing (January, 2000), the political and social turmoil in Fiji is still simmering. It's particularly bad for Indians and "others." Tourists so far have been pretty much unaffected, mostly because their money helps keep the faltering economy going.

Below are links to web sites concerning travel and culture in Fiji. I strongly suggest you investigate the situation there before going. In times of stability, Fiji can be one of the best of places to be; in times of instability, it can be one of the worst.

If the country is stable, or appears that way, and you decide to visit, here are some tips: If you are polite in demeanor, outgoing in personality, respectful of cultural mores, and willing to engage in minor traditional customs and activities, then you can swim in the same sea, snorkel the same reefs, and hang on the same beaches that the tourists around the bend pay between $300 and $500 a day for...at MUCH less expense. If you want to visit Fiji, do your homework well--and be prepared to deal with those who will befriend you solely for self-serving purposes. Ride along the coast or into the interior on local buses (real cheap fares) and talk to people, asking questions about the area, about the local culture. Along the way you'll see villages, or fields where men are playing rugby or soccer, or stores with people hanging out in front of them. Get off the bus and strike up conversations. Walk around. Stop by a house and ask if you could have a drink of water. It's very easy to meet people in Fiji. If they like you, you may be invited to stay, or directed to a family member's house, or brought to a nearby village or Indian settlement.

Don't go with the first person who invites you home, unless you feel comfortable with him or her. Rather, tell the individual you'd like to walk around and meet people first, then take down the name on a piece of paper and say you may drop by later. Don't get too chummy with younger (twenties and thirties) men who either (1) have many tattoos (from prison stays) or (2) seem all too willing to become your everlasting friend within five minutes of meeting you. Elders are pretty safe; some of them may actually have high ranks in their mataqali. If you decide to stay with someone, ask them to bring you to the local canteen (or shop) and buy some staple food products. Also, it would be very helpful if you had some little souvenirs from your own country to offer as gifts (bandanas, postcards, playing cards). If you stay longer than a day, you may wish to slip a twenty to the lady of the house as a gesture of your appreciation. Take lots of photos and make good on your promise to send them copies when they're developed. If you're invited to drink grog but don't like it very much, say "just a little, please." It's not the amount drunk but the fact that you drink it that's important, especially for Fijians. (Hint: If you REALLY can't stand grog, politely decline for "religious" reasons. I know of one village where grog is not drunk at all--openly, at least--because the chief is a Seventh Day Adventists.)

If you want to visit a village on an outer island, go to the fisherman's wharf in Lautoka during the morning or early afternoon and strike up conversations with some of the fishermen. Say you'd like to visit a village in the Yasawas or Manamuca island group--very beautiful places--and ask if there are any boats that will be going there soon. You may be directed to more than one boat. Introduce yourself to the captain and anyone else in the vicinity and ask them if they know of any villages on their island that would take you in for a few days. Have a bunch of waka and say you'll be willing to bring supplies for the family you stay with. You may very well be invited to the village that that boat belongs to. Ask how much for the boat ride. If they give you an outrageous price--say, $50 or higher--don't go. Also, be sure you're not on too tight of a schedule. Although you'll be able to get a safe ride back to the mainland, the exact date and time at which that will happen, in Fiji, is never written in stone.

Fiji is a great country with a lot to offer the world-traveler who travels light. For more information, check out the following web sites. Of click here to go Travel Logs at kevincassell.com.

The Fiji Village Online Center
David Stanley's "People and Customs of Fiji"
Fiji Islands Travel Information Service