We explore the sights and sounds of the island nation of Fiji with travel writer Adam Jacot de Boinod.
Isa Isa vulagi lasa dina(Isa, Isa you are my only treasure)Nomu lako au na rarawa kina(Must you leave me, so lonely and forsaken?)Cava beka ko a mai cakava(As the roses will miss the sun at dawn,)Nomu lako au na sega ni lasa.(Every moment my heart for you is yearning)These lyrics, sung to a beautiful, slightly ‘off-key’ tune, created sounds that greeted me on arriving in Fiji. It follows with an interchange of ‘bula’. Several countries have an all-purpose word to cover our basic daily forms of interaction. In Hawaii there’s ‘aloha’, in Costa Rica there’s ‘pura vida’, and in Fiji there’s ‘bula’, and it spans the entire spectrum of greeting and parting incorporating: ‘no worries’, ‘enjoy life’, ‘take it easy’, ‘good luck’, and ‘have a good day’. For I had come to tour the many islands that comprise Fiji. There are over 300 in all, but only 100 are inhabited. Many can only be reached by a boat of some size. I went first to the Yasawa and Mamanuca Islands with Blue Lagoon Cruises.Yes, this Yasawa Island group, around 20 in all and volcanic in origin, is properly remote, accessible only by a handful of options. It looks out over Bligh Water, named after William Bligh, Captain Cook’s first mate. It’s also famous as the location for the filming of both Blue Lagoon versions (the 1948 black and white one starring Jean Simmons and the more recent one with Brooke Shields). And yet, miraculously, they remain unspoilt and innocent.
English is their first language, taught ahead of their respective Fijian dialect. I met the English teacher at the village school at Yasawa. Alfred, perspiring from sporting his tie, also runs the library, which houses copies of Hamlet and Julius Caesar but no art books to show Paul Gauguin’s work, which is a much more vital and fitting connection between European and Oceanic values. The schools need assistance, hence the inspired charity called the Vinaka Fiji Trust, which also pushes an enlightened doctrine for marine conservation and sustainable crops.I went on a shorter four-night version of the seven-day tour. I stayed on afterwards to make more of my visit to Fiji. I went to visit the wonderful Matamanoa, a deluxe resort, perfect for honeymooners as soon became apparent. It offered a delightful aspect upon the nearby Modriki Island, the setting for Tom Hanks’ Castaway, with the hillock where he buried Wilson. I returned to the mainland to take in the breathtaking scents of the orchid gardens started by the late Raymond Burr of both Perry Mason and Ironside fame.
At last, I got a chance to recreate my own desert island experience. Like mad dogs and the Englishman I am, I walked around one island and swam the circle around another. I had the place to myself alongside a myriad of little creatures. Snorkelling is the best way to enjoy them especially in and amongst these renown soft coral spots. I had a hat and some water and of course underestimated the distance and the heat, but nothing that a drop of iodine and tea tree oil couldn’t restore.British Colonialism has left its mark with hymn and psalm plaques in the Methodist churches. I bought a copy of the Fijian to English dictionary. Cobo—to clap the hands crosswise, so as to make a hollow sound—was something I had witnessed as part of a ceremonial act. Tele—to paint with lime the eyes of a pig so as to blind it, preventing it thus from spoiling gardens—was luckily not.Robert Louis Stevenson, on his travels in the Pacific, hated the sea and liked islands. He wrote in 1888 that sailing the sea was “stupefying to the mind and poisonous to the temper... but you are amply repaid when you sight an island and drop anchor in a new world.”
I skipped happily from the delightful neighbouring island, the waterfalls and the magnificent ‘Garden of Fiji’ that is the blessed Taveuni, hardly believing my luck that my request to visit Laucala had been accepted. Laucala (pronounced Lauthala) has an extraordinary mystique not just amongst the truly well-heeled jet-setter clientele, but to the normal Fijian. They all see it as something special, unique actually. Malcolm Forbes bought it originally as a hideaway for his private interests, but on his death, it was sold to the Red Bull owner, Dietrich Mateschitz.
Fiji benefits from tourism, exporting sugar, tuna, and gold even, but is prey to Chinese commerce, which has plans to sleight the island with a casino, a neon-lit environment currently only seen at the airport and the Indian shops. The land is 10 percent freehold and 82 percent native land (ruled by the chiefs known as i Taukei). The remainder is owned by the state, formerly by the crown. Andrew, the hotel manager, summed it up: “During Colonial times when sugar was king, Fiji was governed by Britain, educated by New Zealanders and owned by Australians.” Andrew explained further about Fiji’s recent inheritance: “In 1970 Harold Wilson decided to get rid of the island, both from costs and left-wing sentiment towards independence. In 1993, television came in and was a positive influence as it meant people were more careful about saving up for things advertised.”
Fijians are stockily built, with a strong sense of identity, the village group more important than the individual. For a man coming back from abroad, it is the news of any children created that matters most. There is no word for stress in Fijian or for a sense of urgency. Likewise, they don’t worry about provisions: the land is so bountiful that the village chief simply summons one of his tribe to perform their fishing duties, if that is what’s wanted for their evening meal. Fijian villagers are self-sufficient; they need only import from overseas kerosene, outboard motors, corrugated iron roofs, fuel, and fish hooks.I shall at least dream forever of returning, boosted by being sent on my way by a flattering, humbling turn out of staff as they sang a personalized version of Isa Lei, the famous departure song.