Fiji by Irene Butler –
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A fine start is settling into our clean, cozy room in New Town on Vita Levu (the largest of the Fiji’s 333 islands). This is to be our home base for the month. After a refreshing dip in the hotel’s pool, we walk a block to Wailoaloa Beach to begin our bronzing with a long walk alongside the shimmering bright blue Pacific and to contemplate life with a cappuccino at one of the cafes that dot the shore. The other decisions are whether to spend the day around our hood or to head out to some other island niche. This leisurely existence readily becomes a delightful routine. We are quick to adopt a snail’s pace in the sauna-like 33°C temperature. Even the locals comment, “hot day”, and we are loving it.
Several times a week we hop the bus to Nadi (pronounced Nandi) 5 km away. With Christmas fast approaching the whole town is like a bubbling caldron of sights, sounds and scents. Villagers arrive in droves to purchase food-stuffs and gifts. Competition for sales is fierce, such as Rups Big Bear’s in-store specials blaring over a microphone,” This pot usually sells for $5, now get 2 for $5!” The sizable open-air Municipal Market overflows with vendors sitting on mats displaying every veggie and fruit imaginable; taro bound in bunches, and cassava, potatoes and onions piled in pyramid shapes, mountains of pineapple, tree-ripened papaya and mangos. An unmistakable odour leads us to the fish market, even though it is in an enclosed section. Another large segment of the market is reserved for kava (yaqona) in all its forms, from tangled stems, to roots, to packages of crushed kava powder.
Kava is a drink made from a type of pepper plant known for its mildly sedative properties. Traditionally used in ritualistic village ceremonies, the contemporary use also includes social get-togethers. On our first day in Nadi a colourful Fijian character who calls himself “Stan the Man”, invites us into a shop for a kava welcoming ceremony. Sitting around on a mat we watch Stan mix kava powder with water (purified for our benefit) and strain the mix through a cloth. Half coconut shells are our drinking vessels, with the correct number of claps before and after tipping the kava back. After only one shell full our tongues are numbed, and one drink suits us fine without having an acquired taste for the earthy tasting brew. Stan left us chuckling with his long string of humorous quips, one being, “Fiji stands for ‘fun in jungle islands’” – so apropos.
Two major cultures co-exist in Fiji. Out of a population of 837,271 (2007 Census) half are indigenous Fijians and the other half are Indo-Fijian who are descendants of Indian workers indentured by the British for the sugar cane industry between 1879 and 1920. Indian traditions and beliefs play a intrical part in the cultural mix. Away from Nadi’s main drag is the Hindu Temple with the hefty name, Sri Siva Subramaniya Swami Temple. The frescos of startlingly vivid colours look fantastic against the clear blue sky. It is one of the only temples outside of India with traditional Dravidian architecture.
Our “Lovo” Christmas!
A traditional “lovo” (earth oven) banquet is the result of much preparation.
On Christmas morning we watch the staff dig a pit in the ground, whereupon stones are heated by a layer of wood below and above. Once the stones have absorbed the heat, they are covered a stainless steel grate. Whole peeled Taro are set on the grate, along with a multitude of envelopes fashioned out of heavy layered tin foil holding good things (traditionally these envelopes would be of banana leaves). A thick layer of banana leaves are places on top of the envelopes, then burlap topped with earth…..and the wait begins.
We sit around visiting with the hotel owners, Farid and Selima, their staff and family friends, and other guests who are spending this joyous day at the Jetset. The men idle away the time playing a few hands of cards, except Rick who is in with us chatting ladies. In about an hour-and-a-half we are salivating from the delectable scents pouring from the covered pit.
IT IS TIME! A reverse operation releases the packages of food; the men hustle to get the steaming foil envelopes into huge containers that no doubt cost them a few scorched fingers. Selima and the local ladies take over and open the packages and heap some of each concoction onto plates.
Chicken, marinated in soya sauce, garlic, ginger and onions, falls off the bone. Mutton with the above ingredients, as well as lemon juice and chili is a simmering sensation. And oh my, the fish, with a mix of spices cooked in fresh coconut milk. A spinach-like dish called ‘palusami” is a mouthwatering blend of taro leaves, chunks of tomato, slivered carrots, onion, garlic, ginger, and salted tinned meat. Thick slices of baked taro and cole slaw round out the entrée….and then the dessert appeared! The Fiji favourite called Vudi (pronounced vundi) is scrumptious boiled banana-like plantain swimming in a choice of fresh coconut milk or sweet condensed milk…ohhhhh, to have more room for just another mouthful.
More visiting with so many great people made for a memorable Christmas, and many warm thoughts of all our family back home who will be feasting with family and friends tomorrow – being that it is a whole day earlier in Fiji than in Canada.
Savouring Sultry Suva
It was then on to the capital city of Suva (Soo-va), a 4 ½ hour bus ride on the Queens Road from Nadi along the beautiful Coral Coast sided by lush jungle, swaying sugar cane, villages and resorts. With nearly 200,000 citizens, Suva is the largest city in the South Pacific, and is the heart of Fiji being home to half of the countries urban population. Our is a wise choice for its central location, full kitchen facilities, and pool (a life-saver to cool down in after an excursion), plus a great balcony view of the ocean.
Early the next morning we begin a walking tour that sweeps us back in time to the city’s British colonial times. On Victoria Parade the Fintel building constructed in 1926 and the Old Town Hall dating back to 1940 are now home to offices and several restaurants. Nearby the 1909 Suva City Library stands like sentinel. Further along the vast expanse of lawn is presided over by the impressive Parliament Buildings. Out front are statues of Ratu Cakobau (the great cannibal King of Bau who converted to Christianity in 1854 and created a united Fijian Kingdom in 1871) and Ratu Sukuna (known as the national father of modern Fiji).
Albert Park (named after Queen Victoria’s husband) was once the scene of a thrilling spectacle. Trees were cleared to make the park into a makeshift landing strip for the first flight to cross the Pacific with aviator Charles Kingford Smith in a Fokker trimotor plane on 6th of June, 1928. The flight was from California to Australia, and this landing in Fiji to refuel was after the longest leg from Hawaii.
Church bells from colonial times still ring. St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church with white siding gleams under the brilliant sun, but the winner for grandiosity is the sandstone Roman Catholic Cathedral.
We stand transfixed before the boarded-up Grand Pacific Hotel with its prized sea-side location. Erected in 1914, this “Grand Lady of Suva” has been closed for a couple of decades. Although its once white exterior and balustrades surrounding the lofty balcony are now chipped and grimy, it is easy to imagine the gala events once held in its ballrooms and the dignitaries who took lodging, including Queen Elizabeth II. A sign outside a wire fence announces a restoration and expansion of this incredible landmark, but the project is still in its infancy.
It is onto Thurston Gardens named after its creator botanist Sir John Bates Thurston in the early 1900’s. Rounding the path by the Botanic Gardens Clock Tower we reach our day’s destination – the Fiji Museum. The chronology of the country’s history is well documented and displayed in artifacts. It is believed that the earliest inhabitants of the islands were Austronesians circa 1200 BC, who disappeared from the islands for a time. Their descendents later returned mixed with people from a certain part of Melanesia. Around 500 BC these coastal dwellers began permanent settlements. An influx of arrivals from elsewhere in Melanesia lead to intertribal feuding and cannibalism, as eating the defeated foe was the ultimate in humiliation. Tongan and Samoan warriors began a series of invasions around 1000 AD causing increased warlike lifestyles in Fiji.
Enter the Europeans; first with some explorers (which were minimal with reports of treacherous reefs and cannibalism) and then missionaries to bring “the word” to Fijian souls. Soles of another sort lie behind glass; the shoe soles that once belonged to Rev. Thomas Baker who came to dinner at a Nubutautau village – but not in a good way. In July 1867 he was killed and eaten for insulting the chief by holding a tabau (whale’s tooth) sacred ceremony in a location that did not follow ancient tribal protocol, according to the museum write-up. Other sources say the great faux-pas involved this Methodist minister pulling out a comb from the chief’s voluminous hairdo, unaware that touching a chief’s head is the highest insult and must command the worst consequences. No amount of boiling made the soles of the Reverend’s shoes consumable, hence they were put aside as a trophy. In 2003 the great-grandson of Reverend Baker met with dignitaries and villagers in Nabutautau for a ceremonial apology for this misdeed, wherein the Baker family was presented with the esteemed gift of a whale’s tooth.
Queen Victoria pronounced Fiji a British Colony in 1874. The colonial government protected Fijian land rights, which ensured indigenous Fijians ownership of 83% of the land to this day. The Brits developed a plan to capitalize on the demand for sugar cane, which grew readily in the tropical climate. Indentured workers brought from India were committed to a 5-year term to work the fields, with promise of food, lodging and a paltry wage per annum. After 5 years they were free, but many stayed (which was no doubt influenced by the cost of return passage not being included in their agreement, unless they committed to another 5 years for their passage back). The free farmers began leasing land from the Fijians and continued to supply sugar cane to world markets or went into various service industries, such as shop-owners, trades, finances, etc. After 96 years of colonial rule, Fiji became independent in 1970.
In our estimation the indigenous Fijians and Indo-Fijians live in harmony, with some controversy about whose concerns are addressed more with tax dollars. Poverty is apparent; locals say it is easy to live in Fiji, but hard to make a living. Since 1987 the country has seen a number of coups and currently there is a military government with the aim of a democratic election by 2014.
Ringing in the New Year!
On December 30 we crossed the causeway that joins Viti Levu to Denarau Island.
The prominent feature on Denarau is that the battle with the jungle for its unruly encroachment on anything man-made has been won by the 5-star resorts. The landscaping is impeccable with precision coiffed lawns and flowering bushes grouped in complimentary colours, tall palms whose coconut growth is monitored to avoid the mishap of ripe ones landing on a visitor’s head. The golf course is picture-perfect. Workers abound snipping, pulling, sheering, chopping, tugging and removing anything that has dared supersede its boundaries.
The crème-de-la-crème of resorts is our choice – the Sofitel Resort. We have a need for pampering, ringing in the New Year in our traditional splurge of luxury, as well as celebrating Rick’s Birthday!
After a dip in the gigantic undulating pool and a glorious walk on the beach, it is time to gussy-up for Rick’s B’day supper. The ocean view from the Sofitel’s Salt Restaurant is breathtaking, with the added spectacle of a rainbow appearing after a short sun-shower drummed against our protective umbrella. We feast on grilled yellow fin, creamed corn, poached tomato, roquette with fresh lemon. My desert choice is mango bavoir with coconut dacquoise, raspberry jelly and tropical glaze. Rick’s “cake” is in the form of a chocolate pots de crème with orange hazelnut biscotti edged by chocolate script wishing him a Happy 62nd Birthday. Unexpectedly the staff hovers around singing the usual Happy Birthday song, then continue the melody in the Fiji rendition of “Happy long life to you….”
Two days celebration in a row….we can handle it! Although a gala Cabaret evening is happening at the Sofitel to ring in the New Year, we stick to our tradition of a movie-fest enjoyed with a stock-pile of Fiji Gold Beer, fine wine, our favourite savory snack foods, and an inordinate amount of rich chocolate treats. Superb!
Having been enticed by a sign on the hotel’s Mandara Spa “Disappear for an hour” we go for broke and after a leisurely morning and afternoon on New Year’s Day we indulge in a sunset 2 ½ hour Couples Retreat Ritual. After slipping into comfy robes we are led to a room with twin massage tables parallel to each other. An exquisite bowl of fragrant Frangipani flowers are in our field of vision while Ane and Elenoa start from my and Rick’s head respectively for a massage, after which not a single cell remains tense. I am then treated to an Elemis Visible Brilliance Facial leaving my skin dewy and satiny, while Rick’s Elemis Urban Facial Cleanse blasts pollutants from every layer of his macho hide. A together-dip in a private outdoor tub filled with flower petals is the ultimate end to a sensational weekend.
It is back to the Jetset from which to launch our bus excursions to interesting places, such as Lautoka, known as “Sugar City” referring, of course, to sugar cane being the major industry here. A historic tidbit is that William Bligh (Mutiny on the Bounty) is credited with being the first European to sight Lautoka when he chartered Fiji’s shores in 1789-92. Milling around the small town we are drawn into a Methodist Church by the enrapturing a cappella singing by the whole congregation.
(For more on Fiji check out our other stories on the firewalkers, and additional Fiji adventures. Just click on the Fiji tab on our menu bar)
Fiji proved to be just the place to lay-back with its sun, sand and surf. Its vibrant cultures and great hospitality made it an over the top festive season. We bid Fiji a heartfelt farewell as we board the plane for New Zealand.