5 July 2015
There's a lot more to Fiji than turquoise waves and beautiful sunsets, writes Tatyana Leonov.
Fijian kids sing differently to Australian children. Singing, in fact, is the wrong word. The Bukama village schoolchildren fiercely bellow out song after song, clapping their hands thunderously and considerably faster than the beat.
The smallest kids are seated in the front row and some of them are straining their little bodies so hard they need to pause every few seconds and catch their breath. It’s hard not to smile.
Fiji is home to about 881,000 people. More than half are indigenous Fijian while about 45 per cent are of Indian descent.
Life for most indigenous Fijians goes on as it has for centuries, with the addition of a few modern amenities and improved housing. They live in clans on land controlled by a chief. The head of each family usually liaises with the village chief on communal matters such farming, schooling and healthcare.
Visiting such a village is a cultural highlight so I head to Bukama village on Yasawa Island, the biggest island in the Yasawa group.
Bukama is the easiest to visit and like most guests here I’m staying at the plush Yasawa Island Resort and Spa. Yasawa Island’s only resort is built on land belonging to the Bukama people and nearly all of its employees come from the village.
Donning a bright, patterned shirt and a pearly-white smile, the resort spokesperson, Manasa, a respected member of Bukama village, tells me about his friend Norm Bolitho, who he met in the early 1980s while working at another resort.
Bolitho dreamed of building a resort in Fiji and Manasa helped him get there. The duo journeyed to Bukama to ask the chief and village elders for permission to lease the land, with the objective of building a resort that would benefit the village.
It took some time because Bolitho and Manasa had to obtain permission from every chief in every village across the island chain. Finally, the resort was opened in 1991 – but most things in Fiji take time.
Bukama is one of my Fiji highlights. Apart from watching the schoolchildren perform, I wander around and immerse myself in village life. I visit the chief who invites me into his home for a kava ceremony, I chat to women selling handmade jewellery and knick-knacks, and I pause and watch three young men going about their day-to-day business. One is giving Nirvana the acoustic treatment on his guitar while his mate cautiously shaves the third guy using the sharpened blade from a pair of scissors. Life is relaxed and the atmosphere friendly and welcoming.
A week later in bustling Nadi, while waiting for an Indian thali at the famous Tata’s Restaurant, I meet a young girl with ruffled hair and dancing eyes. She shows me a fan she has weaved out of local tree branches and loops around me waving it to cool us both down.
Another day while waiting for the local bus, I sit beside a man with an intricate map of wrinkles on his face who casually strums his beat-up guitar and hoarsely croons a folk song.
Just waiting in Fiji plunges the visitor into the relaxed ways of the local culture and I stop checking my watch from that moment on.
One day I visit a tiny village as part of a cave tour to Sigatoka Valley. I opt for this excursion particularly because of the effort required to get there.
Not far from Sigatoka Valley we park the four-wheel-drive on the mud-spattered riverbank and use a billi billi (a traditional Fijian bamboo raft meaning push, push) to row across the river.
“Sometimes you go with the flow and sing a song, other times you push,” my guide, Waqa, explains. “And still sing a song,” he adds, laughing.
We take a half-hour stroll through dense bush as birds chatter overhead and Waqa recounts stories of bush life.
He tells me Fijians use mahogany to craft musical instruments; he explains that crops are typically communally owned and says that most farmers still use animals to plough the land. He even cleans his ears with a purple wildflower, demonstrating the niftiness of bush shrubs. We reach the village with clean ears and carrying yaqona, or kava root. It’s courteous to bring the root (it’s easy to buy at markets or, if touring, it will usually be organised for you) for the customary kava ceremony.
Historically, kava ceremonies were held when dignified guests visited a village, however today anyone visiting will usually be accorded the honour.
As in Bukama, I put on a sulu (a traditional sarong) and join the family sitting on the ground. I try to clap at the right time and sip the kava when it’s my turn. I get the timings wrong, but it’s not a big deal.
Fijian culture isn’t about getting it right or being on time. It’s simply about being – with the people, in the moment and always smiling. Bula to that!
When to go: May to October is pleasant but it rarely gets higher than 31°C year round. The wet season is from November to April and cyclones may occur then.
Where to stay: The Yasawa Island Resort and Spa (yasawa.com) offers island luxury. Closer to Nadi, Denarau Island is a hotel hub. Sofitel Fiji Resort and Spa (sofitel.com) and Sheraton Fiji Resort (sheratonfiji.com) are options.
What to do: Visit villages, swim, snorkel and eat.
What to wear: Dress modestly for village visits.
What to eat: Lovo – meat, fish and vegetables cooked slowly in an underground oven.
More information: fiji.travel.