Fiji


I visited Fiji a few years ago and met Isoa, who worked at a backpacker's lodge.  He told me, "Next time you come to Fiji, you'll stay with me in the village."  So that was the plan.  I enjoyed my stay in Navola and for a few weeks, lived as they do.  I think the Fijians are among the nicest people in the whole.  If you read on, maybe you'll understand why.


November 2
I arrived at Fiji’s airport in Nadi at six in the morning.  Customs was ever so laid back and I was greeted in the airport lobby by all the touts trying to get me to stay at their hotel.  When I told them I was staying with a friend, they said, “No you’re not.”  One tout, a bit more resourceful than the others said, “I’ll be your friend if you stay with me.”  Well, at least she gets credit for trying hard.  I walked out past the airport gate, sat down at the bus stop across the street and waited for a bus to bring me into Nadi.

I watched people go by and even sitting at the bus stop, gave me that Fiji “feel."  It struck me on the bus into town  how much English there was, even on local businesses.  Fijian and Hindi were almost non-existent.  It might be that English is a compromise between the two populations.  Fiji’s population is about 50% Fijian and 45% ethnic Indian (who came as indentured servants in the 1900’s).  There really seems to be a genuine split between the two populations.  I didn’t see many people from the two groups mixing.  It’s part of this divide that would lead to a coup in the following year.  I walked around the downtown and then caught a bus to the village of Navola, where my friend Isoa lived.  Just riding down what is known as the Coral Coast brought back many memories.

I got off at The Beachhouse, a backpacking lodge where Isoa worked, and found him outside working in the yard.  I was a bit nervous about seeing him, as I wasn’t sure how it would go.  When I talked to Isoa on the phone a few months ago, he didn’t seem that interested in seeing me.  He wasn’t unfriendly to me, but he didn’t seem to care either way.  However, as soon as he saw me he said, “Bula!”  It was as if we hadn’t even been apart, maybe he was just in a hurry when I talked to him last.  “Bula” is a Fijian greeting, a way of saying, “Hello, glad to see you!”  If you go to Fiji and only learn one word, this is the one to know.  Say it with a smile and it will always suffice.

PlaytimeWe walked to his village of Navola and he brought me to his house.  It was a simple one-room hut made of corrugated metal without electricity or running water.  Nothing fancy, but it was his home and for now, it was mine.  He introduced me to his wife, Sai, and his one year old daughter, Tarisi, as well as some of the other people in the village.  He had to go back to work but he knew that I would be well taken care of.  The kids in the village made sure that I wouldn’t be lonely.  They insisted that I come out to play and go swimming with them.  They didn’t have much, just a ball and a pair of swim trunks, but it was all we needed.  Navola is a pretty simple place where no one has a lot, but no one is starving either.  People seem to be pretty happy to be there. It has about 150 residents, a village chief, a preacher and church, a community house, and about 30 modest homes.  It sits right on the Pacific Ocean, where people find sustenance from the waters and in the hills just inland.  It’s a very pleasant place that is 500 meters away from the backpackers, but feels 500 years away in time.

When Isoa returned from work, we had a simple meal of rice and coconuts.  In Navola, there are always plenty of coconuts and I would eat one every day.  He decided that I needed to go local so he gave me a brightly colored sulu (a long skirt that is a traditional piece of Fijian clothing).  Yeah, I guess I could get used to wearing one plus I look pretty good in a skirt.  I spent the evening catching up with him.  We sat on the floor in the house and talked of what we had been up to since we last crossed paths in 1997.  I mentioned that I had a flight scheduled for four days later to leave Fiji.  I was a little iffy about how long I should be staying. He was offended at this, saying, “Four days!?  That’s not long enough.  You must stay longer.”

They held a kava ceremony for me.  Kava is a traditional Fijian drink made from a plant root which is dried, crushed, and mixed in water.  The best description for it is that it looks and tastes like you have washed your socks in it.  How it became a traditional drink that is used for pleasure I don’t know, but then again I don’t drink and can’t imagine people drinking beer for pleasure either.  Well, whatever the taste, we shared a bowl of kava. 

Kava is mixed in a large wooden bowl called a yaquona and one drinks it out of an aged coconut shell.  When you are given a coconut shell of kava, you clap your hands three times and drink it in one gulp.  After you complete the shell, you clap your hands once and say “Bula!”  Then you pass the shell to the next person and they drink their kava.  It goes around the circle until the yaquona has been emptied.  You can then drink another yaquona bowl if you choose.  Once you start a bowl, you have to keep drinking until it’s finished.  Isoa and Sai took it easy on me and didn’t make me drink the whole yaquona with them, which I certainly appreciated.  It’s certainly not the tastiest drink.  Isoa told me that when you sit in someone’s house for kava like this, it means that you’ve been accepted into their family.  All doubts that I had about how much he wanted to see me had been completely erased.

Isoa’s house has two single beds.  He slept with Sai and Tarisi in one of the beds.  I thought that was much too crowded and I volunteered to sleep on the floor.  I tried to tell them I liked to sleep on the floor, but they didn’t even consider it.  As long as I was here, I would be treated like a king.

November 3-4
It was a quiet day, as are most days in Navola.  We had coconuts for breakfast before Isoa went to work.  I put on my sulu and spent part of the day reading in the shade.  In the afternoon, the kids grabbed me by the arms and pulled me out to play.  Some of the women would also play and I noticed that taking care of the children was very much something that the women did.  The men seemed to be pretty much out of the scene.  The kids played a version of dodgeball.  Sometimes they ganged up on me and managed to get me out and other times I targeted two kids who had a slight attitude.  They would turn around and wag their butts at me, daring me to get them.  I would hold the ball up in one hand and with the other hand point at them.  Eventually I’d get them out.  The next round they would come out and wag their butts again.

I was brought to the village school that was run by missionaries.  I met Tony who helped with teaching the kids about computers and the Internet.  When I was in Fiji in 1997, the only Internet access was at the state telecom company in the capital.  I had to go through several locked doors to get access, but here it was a few years later and a village of 150 people had it.  Things do change. 

Today, I met Darlene, a pretty, young, single woman.  I know she was single as she said she was going to marry me.  Later on I went to the Beachhouse to see Isoa.  Two women there called me a “burro.”  I have to say that I wasn’t terribly impressed being called a donkey.  Turns out that they were actually calling me “urro,” which means sexy.  I really do look good in a skirt!

Some Of The FolksI was introduced to a number of people in the village.  One of them was Andreo.  He was the church minister and quite a character.  When he found out that I was a computer programmer, he started calling me “Bill Gates.”  Most of the time, calling a technical person “Bill Gates” is an insult, but coming from Andreo I took it as a complement.  That night Isoa and I sat outside and looked up at the stars.  We started talking about the universe.  He asked me many questions about the stars.  I told him about some of the current scientific theories of how the universe was created and how it might end.  I told him about the end of everything at the center of a black hole.  He thought it was among the coolest things he’s heard in a long time.  I have a strong background in science and he knows what he sees more by instinct, but we both like what is in the skies above.  The air is clear and the night sky is dark, so the stars in Navola are brilliant.

Later that night I went looking for Darlene, but couldn’t find her.  On the way over, I heard some singing. A number of men from a village up in the hills had come to Navola.  They gathered with the men from Navola and shared kava and sang songs.  You know, sort of a South Pacific version of Male Bonding.  I listened to them sing.  I don’t know how to describe what I heard, soulful is the only word that I can possibly come up with, but whatever it was, it was as beautiful as music gets.  The music was just so otherworldly.  Isoa said that I would be welcome to go there, but I didn’t want to.  I told him about a scientific concept called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.  This deals with quantum mechanics and how the very act of observing a system, changes the behavior of the system.  It usually applies to sub-atomic particles, but sometimes it also applies to people.  I told him that by going over there, it might change things.  I thought the music was so nice that it was best to just listen to them sing while I sat in the middle of Navola under the nighttime sky.  I walked back to the house and from some unknown place in the dark, I heard a voice, “Bill Gates!  Bill Gates!”

November 5-6
In the mornings, Sai usually cooked breakfast over a fire of burning coconut husks.  Not the sort of thing that I would have thought of, but it worked well.  They have plenty of coconuts around, so it seemed to make a lot of sense to use them this way.  I went to Korolevu with Darlene to pick up some bread.  We talked over a drink and waited for the bakery to finish with the bread.  It’s nice to get hot bread, just out of the oven.  Just outside of Korolevu is a group of five houses that I encountered when I was here three years ago.  Back then everyone there would enthusiastically yell “Bula!  Bula!” to me as I passed by.  People would even come out from inside the houses to greet me.  They didn’t disappoint me as everyone yelled, “Bula!  Bula!  Bula!” to us.  Once again, people even came out from inside the houses to greet us.  It's nice to know that some things don’t change.

That evening, Isoa and I caught a bus to the capital of Suva, about 2   hours to the east.  We arrived in the city after dark and tried to catch a taxi to his parent’s house.  Taxi after taxi passed us by.  Isoa told me that since it was a weekend night, many taxi drivers were reluctant to pick up men.  So he ended up highlighting me to the taxi driver, essentially saying, “Look, I have a white guy!”  Once he started doing this, it wasn’t long until we were able to get a taxi to his parent’s house.  His family was very welcoming to me.  Isoa asked me, “Can you tell them about the black holes?”  Rugby was on TV that evening and guest or not, first things first.  Fiji is pretty casual about most things; rugby is not one of them.

I spent the morning with Isoa’s father talking about religion and politics, both of which he takes seriously.  I find that most Fijians view religion this way and it’s not just a Sunday thing.  So we talked of Heaven and Earth and things in between.  Before returning to Navola, we stopped at the large indoor market.  I was kind of overwhelmed by it.  It was chaotic, noisy, with strange (in many cases unpleasant) smells.  However, it is something that I had better get used to as I’m going to be spending time in Asia.  I guess it takes some time to ease into that sort of environment, but Isoa seemed perfectly at home (he was at home after all).

I had been reading a large book on botany for the last week and showed Isoa the venus fly trap (a plant that eats insects).  I turned the page of the book and saw something called sensitive plant.  It’s a plant that has leaves like a fern, which will close up when touched.  Isoa said, “Hey, we’ve got that here!”  He walked to the next house and found it growing.  He showed me how to make it close up its leaves.  I had never seen anything like it.  It grows all over in Fiji and for the whole next week, I would play with it, making it close time and time again.  I guess I entertain easily, but it’s neat to see a plant react to your touch.

November 7-8
After ChurchIt was Sunday morning and I went to church wearing Isoa’s dress sulu.  Andreo was the church’s preacher and I got to sit in front with the village elders.  He was speaking in Fijian so I couldn’t understand, but he sure did preach up a storm.  I was the guest of honor that day and was asked to speak a bit to the congregation.  I told them how nice it was to be here and to be the honored guest.  After church I really didn’t do much for the rest of the day or for the next day.  I played ball with the kids and went for a swim.  It’s kind of the rhythm of the village to take things slow and as they come.  It was nice to do that.  It’s not a hard way of life to fall into.

Every so often you experience something that perfectly captures the feel of a place.  For me, this occurred walking past the bus shelter.  The buses run 5-6 times a day according to a schedule.  However, you shouldn't take the timetable seriously, as any bus actually arriving on time is entirely coincidental (or it might be the last bus running two hours late).  The shelter was made of logs and boards tied together in every which way.  There were half a dozen men sitting in the shelter’s shade.  They invited me to sit with them.  That’s all they did was sit.  Periodically, someone would say a few words, but for the most part, the men just let the day pass by.  Some of them were sleeping, some were lounging.  It seems that just about anywhere else the men would have been making more noise and poking fun at each other, but not them.  They just…sat.

I spent the afternoon playing ball with the kids and hanging around.  Even though I hadn't been here very long, I was free to go wherever I wanted.  Actually, everyone seemed pretty free to wander into other’s house.  They didn’t have the notion of calling before dropping by.  People would often come to the house and talk for a bit, sometimes even falling asleep and nobody seemed too concerned about it.

That night I sat on the beach.  Listening to the water softly lap against the shore, looking at the stars, and feeling a warm, gentle breeze.  Navola is a pleasantly quiet place.  Some people have electricity, most don’t.  It’s nice to be somewhere that isn’t always lit up by the harsh glare of electric lights.  One thing I miss in the cities of home is the dark sky of the night, but that isn’t a problem here.  I looked up at the sky and thought pleasant thoughts and experienced time passing.  I sat for quite a while and then headed back to the house.  I heard a bit of laughter and a hidden voice, “Bill Gates!  Bill Gates!”

As we were getting ready for bed, a truck pulled up to the house.  Isoa motioned for me to come outside.  The truck was delivering a television.  He was quite excited about this.  I thought, “A TV, how evil!”  I tried to tell Isoa of the horrors of TV.  I mentioned the movie, “The Gods Must Be Crazy.”.  It’s a movie where a primitive tribe in Africa finds a Coke bottle.  They have never seen one before and everybody is fascinated by it.  Eventually they start fighting over the Coke bottle and for the first time they know strife, Paradise is lost.  The whole tribe is going down the toilet because of a Coke bottle.  I told him that TV was far more evil than even the Coke bottle and doom was upon him.  He didn’t seem to listen to me.  I did, however, ask him how he was going to be using the TV as I pointed out that he didn’t have electricity.  That didn’t seem to dampen his enthusiasm in the slightest.  He did ask, “You aren’t going to write about this in your travel stories are you?”  I said, “Oh yeah!”

November 9-10
We followed our normal morning routine of breakfast cooked over a coconut shell fire and Isoa went off to work.  I spent part of the morning relaxing and reading.  People would come over and say, “I heard that Isoa got a TV.  Is that true?”  I would ask, “Would you like to see it?”  They would come inside and have a look at it.  They too didn’t seem to be too concerned about the electricity thing either.

I took a walk about 6 km. down the road.  I had to keep exercising as I was going to be doing a lot of hiking in the coming weeks.  I walked through several villages.  As I passed by everyone said, “Bula!” to me.  People would invite me to stop and chat.  I couldn’t get enough exercise as people were asking me to stop and have tea.  I find that the people here are among the nicest in the world.  Just about everywhere in Fiji, people are nice without expecting anything in return.  One thing that I had taken to doing if I wanted to get some serious exercise was to run up a trail into the hills where there were no people.  The only time I stopped was when I ran across a huge patch of sensitive plant.  I touched a hundred of them, watching them all close up.

Making MatsWhile I was in the forest running, some of the women were out in the hills gathering leaves in order to weave floor mats  They were stripping thorns from the edges of the long, narrow leaves.  They showed me how to do it, but I never seemed to get the hang of it.  For every one leaf that I stripped, they did ten.  It was a constant “ouch…ooh…ouch” as I kept running afoul of the sharp thorns.  They seemed to get a kick out of my (lack of) performance and at a certain point you realize it’s best if you just watch them do it.  While the job is about making a mat, it seems to be more important for the people to socialize.  Maybe there is a place in Fiji where people take work really seriously, but I haven’t found it yet.

I walked 7 km. into Korolevu to post some mail and buy some bread.  I met an Australian guy in town.  I told him how I was staying in Navola, “Going native.” I said.  He said, “You’ll never fit in with them.  You’re too excitable.”  He made mention of my sulu and I asked him why he wasn’t wearing one.  He said, “I’m not going to wear a dress.  I ain’t no girl.”  I may be too excitable, but at least I’m not a complete idiot.  I fit in just fine.  It was a long, hot walk and I stopped by one of those large, all-inclusive (read “expensive”) resorts for some water.  The doorman brought me into the pool area, gave me a seat, the bartender brought me some water and invited me to take a swim.  The Fijians are nice to everyone.  I saw they had a bar built into the side of the pool so that you didn’t even have to get out of the pool to get a drink.  That’s something I hadn’t ever seen before.  Quite different than the style of how I was spending time in Fiji.  I think I’ll stay with the way I am, thank you very much.

Just A prettyI wanted to bring some bread to Darlene, but she wasn’t in.  Her sister Helena was filling in for her that day.  I laughed out loud when she to me about Fijian men.  She said, “They are so lazy.”  Based on everything I’ve seen of them, I guess I’d have to say that they aren’t lazy, but to be nice about it, they like to relax.  I don’t mean to make Navola sound like paradise.  It does have its problems.  People there will gossip about each other (including gossiping about me) just like anywhere else among other things.  I suspect that the first time that humans came down from the trees and walked on land, someone said, “She is such a showoff, strutting on the ground instead of sitting on a branch like a respectable Australopithecus should.”  However, all in all, it’s quite pleasant.  The men later brought me over to the schoolyard  to watch the local rugby team practice.  They were quite proud that the team had one of the players of the national team.  We all watched as they carried out their drills.  They did one practice exercise where it looked like they were trying to pull each other’s pants down and there was another where I thought they were gathering for a scrum (a rugby play where people gather in a circle to get control of the ball), but no, they were just hugging each other.

We returned to the house and Isoa, Sai, and I spent the evening laughing and relaxing.  I always enjoyed the time that we were together.  I met Isoa’s friend Carl.  He said, “Make sure to tell him about the black holes, ok?”  Later Helena joined us.  She talked with us for a while and then she fell asleep on the floor and slept there for most of the evening.  Kind of nice, isn’t it?

November 11
In the evening, the men from the neighboring village came to Navola again.  They met in the community house and sang songs and shared kava.  This time Isoa and I joined them.  Before we went, Isoa said that it’s the custom to bring some kava and he would have to get some from a neighbor.  It was late at night and most people were asleep.  I told him that I would rather skip the singing than wake someone up.  He said that it wouldn't be a problem.  So he went around knocking on doors when people were sleeping, looking for kava.  No one was fussed about this at all.  Can you imagine how most of your friends would react if you woke them up late at night looking for some tea?

Isoa said that the men were impressed that I knew the kava ritual.  They would sing songs, then drink some kava, and then sing some more songs.  Isoa said to me, “Tell them about the black holes.”  So there I was telling them about what it is believed to be like at the center of a black hole, the end of space and time.  Based on their questions, I could tell that they were getting it.  They listened in wide-eyed amazement.  Then it was back to singing more songs.  The chief told me how happy he was that I was there.  He must have liked me as he offered to let me ride his horse, which he described as “spirited.”  I thanked him, but declined.  I wasn’t even going to attempt to ride a “spirited” horse bareback.  Then it was time for more kava.  They have what is called high tide and low tide, which correspond to the big and little coconut shells that can be used for drinking.  Luckily they always gave me a low tide.  You know, it’s good to experience local customs, but it was enough kava.  On the way back to the hut I heard, “Bill Gates!  Bill Gates!” I looked around, but had no idea where it was coming from.

November 12-13
Once again, it was another lazy day.  The kids wanted to play all day, but I told them I wanted to relax today.  I don’t think they (or any kids their age) understood. I did go up into the hills to get some exercise, but for the rest of the day I took it easy.  While I was exercising, I found a Coke bottle.  I brought it back and hid it in the TV box, so the next time Isoa got a look at his TV, he would find it.  Snicker, snicker.

This day was very hard on me.  I was leaving for New Zealand the following day.  I was genuinely looking forward to it, but a part of me desperately wanted to stay and Isoa was happy for me to stay longer.  I guess it really doesn’t matter what I felt, I was leaving the next day, but I was still confused about what I wanted.  I saw Sai making something in the yard.  She had her back turned to me, so I couldn’t tell what it was.  So I just let the day pass and enjoyed it.  When Isoa came back from work I found out what Sai was working on.  It was a beautiful bua (flower necklace) made of frangipani flowers, hundreds of them.  The bua was a goodbye gift for me.  It was thick with flowers and when I put it on, it reached down to my waist.  Frangipani is a delicate white flower with a yellow center that grows by the thousands on a tree.  It has what is quite possibly, the most pleasant smell in nature.  When I wore the bua, I was surrounded by a wonderful fragrance.  I couldn’t imagine a nicer goodbye gift.

Isoa, Sai, and Tarisi sat with me at the house for a few hours.  I could have caught a bus to the airport the following morning, but the timing would have been pretty tight.  If there is one thing that I have learned about Fiji is that schedules are only guidelines and may or may not have any correlation with reality.  A few women heard that I was leaving and stopped by to say goodbye.  Isoa apologized to me and said how sorry he was about how I was eating.  He said, “I know that you’re used to eating better than you did here.  I’m sorry that we don’t have much.”  All I could do was shake my head and tell him how grateful I was to be here.  “I know that you don’t have much compared to what I have back home, but what you do have, you share.  If you had overspent to provide for me resulting in hardship for you in the coming weeks, now that would have offended me.  I couldn’t have asked for more from you.”  I mentioned earlier that I was treated like a king, I really meant that.

My friends, Moosey, and the BuaI really think a lot of Isoa and Sai.  They couldn’t have treated me better.  I enjoyed spending time every evening with those two.  I relished sitting with Isoa at night and talking about life and all sorts of things.  When I was with them, I always felt important and well cared for.  They are going to be building a small house of their own in the coming years.  Isoa told me that they would name one of the rooms the Mr. Moose Room and I would be invited to stay in it whenever I wanted.  How can you find anyone kinder than them?

Eventually someone told us that it was time and we went out to the bus shelter.  Earlier I mentioned that I had ambivalent feelings about going to NZ.  Now I had no ambivalence whatsoever, I wanted to stay.  The bus came and I reluctantly got on.  I said goodbye to all my friends.  One of the women grabbed my hand through the window, said goodbye to me, and gave me her address.  Sheesh, I meet more women in two weeks in Fiji than I meet back home in…in…ah…well, let’s just say a long time.  I probably should have stayed longer!  I can still picture all my friends as the bus drove away to Nadi.

I sat quietly on the bus as the sun went down.  Upon arriving, I found a room and went out to eat.  People complimented me on my bua and invited me to share their table.  I went back to my room and tried to sleep, but I had too much on my mind.  I really wanted to be back in Navola.  I went to the rooftop deck to sit where I met two other travellers.  They really liked the stories of Navola and we talked very late into the night.  I noticed that my watch was one hour slow.  It turns out that the whole world had switched to daylight savings time a few days ago and Navola didn’t even seem to notice or care.

By the morning, my bua had wilted, but it still smelled beautiful.  I took a bus to the airport and prepared to leave for New Zealand. I missed being in Navola and being with Isoa and his family.  I liked it when Andreo called me “Bill Gates.”  I missed Helena and Darlene, I liked sitting by the ocean and looking at the stars.  I missed all of it and all of them.  The jet took off towards Te Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud.  As I flew away over the Pacific Ocean I thought back to being on the bus last night.  A woman said to me, “That’s a beautiful bua.  Someone must like you very much.”  I replied, “Yes they do.

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