“…where an invitation to dinner may once have been, “Come and be the main course””
When we sailed into Suva, the capital city of the Republic of Fiji, I knew I had to build on my sketchy knowledge about the country and its people, most of which I had acquired from having watched them play some very energetic rugby. Fiji is actually made up of (currently) 322 islands, only 110 of which are inhabited. The total number of islands is often an approximation as it would appear that every time there is an earthquake somewhere in the world, a new atoll springs up out of the sea to add yet another island to Fiji’s collection.
Our quayside greeting was extremely loud at about 6.30 am and I stepped onto my balcony to look down on something reminiscent of an “Oompah Band”. Then came the drummers beating out their complex rhythms whilst some pounded the floor with their large bamboo sticks and finally the grass-skirted warriors with their painted faces and bodies performed a war dance. Then I remembered a long forgotten geography lesson; these people were cannibals at one time. I think it was the white missionaries that went into the pot but based on the fact that these guys looked well fed, I felt reasonably safe. But would I ever get any half decent photographs? The minute I stepped out of the air conditioning into the open air, my camera lens misted over and resolutely refused to clear. The humidity here was incredible and like walking through fog.
As hundreds of passengers poured off the ship to go on various excursions, the free newspapers we were given carried a banner headline “Cyclone arrives tomorrow”. The ship’s captain had warned us that the bridge was monitoring a massive deep depression coming towards Fiji and hoped that we would be unaffected today. The locals seemed unperturbed…it’s the cyclone season in this part of the world, no problem!
“We had been warned about the Kava tradition”
My tour was going deep into the countryside to experience life in a Fijian village. The welcome we received was exceptional and was in no way dampened by the monsoon which arrived at the village with us. They sang their welcomes to us and the village ladies performed gentle swaying dances. We had been warned about the Kava tradition (a local drink which should in no way be confused with the sparkling Cava). There was a ceremony by the local warriors (who in their spare time play for the local rugby team!) for the preparations to share the drink. This drink, which I can best describe as looking like muddy water, is made from crushed and ground roots of the pepper plant and is, allegedly, lethal. I got the impression it had the same sort of effect as LSD and even though women are now allowed to drink it, I thought sitting this one out was the way to go. Then it was off for a walking tour of the village…that’s right, in the monsoon. The umbrella I had acquired in Buenos Aries was once again put into service but the local lady who was showing us around had the best idea – go barefoot, forget the umbrella and totally ignore the deluge. Back at the primitive village hall after a 15 minute wander, it was possible to wring water out of our clothing but it was hot and steamy anyway so no-one was going to suffer.
The village communities are amazing places. Everything is shared, everyone is provided with any help that is needed, they keep communal livestock and grow all their own fruit and vegetables. Everyone is expected to work in some way. They also sell anything not required by the village which enables them to buy salt, sugar, tea, material for clothing and, most importantly, stationery and books for their children’s schooling. Education is free but not the books. The villagers build their own houses, many of which are “work in progress”. It can take several years to acquire sufficient money for building materials and several more for the basic furniture and creature comforts. Only a few have flushing toilets! No-one is denied shelter and new homebuilders are willingly accommodated until buildings are ready. The ladies make handicrafts and jewellery to sell in the markets and the profits support the village It really is a co-operative society and the smiles said it all.
Back in the city it still took me by surprise to see very smartly dressed gentlemen in jackets, shirts, ties…and skirts! They may be called sarongs but they are definitely skirts. So all the men wear skirts and the warriors wear grass ones. And why not? The city gents strode through the puddles whilst those of us in long trousers tip-toed around the edges, although there was a very good reason for the ship’s population being all covered. We had been warned about mosquitos which carry Dengue Fever and the fact that it is rife in Fiji. Therefore most of us had gone for maximum cover, trailing behind us the rather unattractive aroma of DEET as a result of zealous spraying of the repellant.
Once on board again, I can feel the ship swaying in spite of its moorings. Time to go and, hopefully, get ahead of the cyclone as we head out to Noumea in New Caledonia.