I just spent 10 days in Fiji and didn’t go snorkeling once. It was, as vacations go, I bit of a disappointment—it rained, hard, almost the entire time. The trip was saved by the good humor and camaraderie of my traveling companions and by glimpses into Fijian life and culture. I, of course, saw them through the eyes of one with a long interest in Hawaiian culture. There were many similarities and also some telling contrasts.
It was my first trip to a Third World country. As our group grappled with issues ranging from the lack of washcloths and reading lights to mildewed bed sheets and brown tap water, we kept reminding ourselves that these were “first-world problems,” “small lumps in the oatmeal” compared to what Fijians deal with every day.
We stayed in three different resorts. As we drove between them, or between the cities of Suva and Nadi, we saw how most Fijians live, and in our hotels we learned more from friendly staff. For example, a cleaner in our hotel on Tavenui, Fiji’s “Garden Island,” is the mother of eight, the youngest only six months old. Her home blew away in Severe Tropical Cyclone Winston in February (44 casualties, $1 billion USD in damage). Her family (fortunately elsewhere during the storm) is living at her sister’s house. This woman mops and makes beds all day, is the resort’s massage therapist, and then walks several miles home each afternoon—all in rubber slippers.
Most of the houses we saw in the countryside would not qualify for that name in the U.S. In our world, they might make a good garden shed, small boxes of wood, or often, corrugated iron for siding and roof. These, my Fiji-born sister-in-law said, had in her lifetime replaced the traditional high-roofed thatched bures. Perhaps the boxes stand up better to hurricanes.
When we visited one of the larger village houses (home of the village chief) for a cultural experience offered by the hotel, we were greeted by a lively young woman named Josie. She’s the youngest of seven children, who gathered along with other family members to show us their still-sharp ancestral skills. They whipped up a palm-frond basket (strong enough to hold Josie with two brothers lifting her off the ground) and showed us how to prepare pandanus (hala) leaves to weave mats (like the ones we see here in Hawai`i). They beat mulberry bark to make tapa, gave us kava from a bowl that looked nearly as ancient as the kava ceremony, performed a traditional dance and then got us on our feet to dance with them. Throughout, a baby climbed from lap to lap, loved and cuddled by all, absorbing her traditional culture as her elders must have done. One of the brothers kept a cell phone next to him; it’s the 21st century, even in a traditional Fijian village.
As I learned Fijian words, I found many related to Hawaiian. Kava is awa in Hawaiian. Wai (water) is wai in both languages; niu (coconut) is niu; mele (song) is meke in Fijian; kalo (taro) is dalo and i`a (fish) is ika, the “K” having become an `okina over many centuries and miles of Polynesian voyaging.
Perhaps the most striking difference was the Fijian relationship to the land. They still live on it, growing much of their own food, under a system in which most of the land is “Native Land,” belonging to village groups. Fijians’ little houses are scattered all over the mountain sides, as well as stretching along the main roads, each with its surrounding gardens of dalo and cassava, an assortment of vegetables and kava grown as a cash crop.
And the water flows free. Rather more of it than anyone wanted during the days we were there, actually. Streams rushed everywhere, puddles gathered on the roads where culverts were not yet clear after the cyclone. There was plenty of mud. The areas we stayed were on the windward side, with landscaping and vegetation very much like that between Ha`iku and Kipahulu, lush with plants I recognized, including lots of coconut trees, the source of many of the resources the Fijians use in their traditional lifestyle. Here and there, a coco palm had fallen alongside the corpses of forest giants upended by the storm, but there was plenty of jungle left, nourished by all that water .
If East Maui’s water had not been captured and channeled for sugar, would it flow like that? Fiji has actual rivers, plus many streams of all sizes, and perhaps has more of a water supply to begin with. As the streams are freed along the Hana Highway, it will be interesting to see how the land changes to accommodate their flow.
The sun appeared on our final day, too late to venture off to the Bali Hai–like islands on the horizon with their white sand beaches and fabulous reefs. We flew over sun-struck clouds, over tiny islands with a few structures and a pier and big islands with mountains and valleys covered as if by green velvet and fleece. Approaching the Nadi airport, from which we would depart, I recognized sugarcane, the crop that brought my sister-in-law’s ancestors here generations ago. With so much rain, I wondered, did this cane ever need to be irrigated? I saw no signs of an irrigation system, at least nothing like that on East Maui. The people of Fiji might be poor in Western material wealth, but in addition to their physical beauty, warm personalities, large families, cultural continuity and connection to the land, they have what Hawaiians call “waiwai“—double water—true wealth.