GOING PLACES

You Can Still Find Beautiful People (If You Hurry To Fiji)

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN February 1 1971
GOING PLACES

You Can Still Find Beautiful People (If You Hurry To Fiji)

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN February 1 1971

FIJI IS A LAST CHANCE to get a look at the vanishing world of the South Seas. It has more than 800 islands, only 100 of them inhabited, ranging from a patch of coral with a tuft of coconut palms to the main island of Viti Levu, which appears out of the Pacific like a mirage 3,200 miles southwest of Honolulu, its blue mountains draped in clouds. As the CP Air DC8 starts to weave into its approach pattern to Nadi Airport, you look down on a tapestry of hedged farmlands, then coral reefs like stains of rust and verdigris green in water so clear you don’t know you’re looking through it.

My wife and I made a hundred-mile shore hop on a stubby Fiji Airways DC3 to Suva, the capital, and arrived in time for part of the Independence celebrations in Albert Park. It would have taken a determined cynic not to feel stirrings of emotion that afternoon, in the mellow, yellow light, with the clouds rolling in off the Pacific and the same breeze that blew Captain Bligh between the islands bending the coconut palms; eight hundred Fijian school kids dressed in green leaves doing a war dance; and four RAF paratroopers, black specks in the sky, dropping like stones trailing red smoke, and the crowd surging, pointing up and shouting, “There! There! Don’t you see them!” Their plane had disappeared long before, and after their redwhite-and-blue parachutes opened they landed in the middle of Albert Park as if they’d jumped in off a cloud. Then Prince Charles, who had been sitting there just looking pink and noncommittal, turned on a burst of charm with beautiful timing. It was like watching a running cheetah when it really starts to go, as if this is what running is all about. Charles came down from the stands, got into a kind of upholstered pickup truck and circled the field while the crowd roared and the Fijian Police Band in those white midi-skirts with saw-toothed edges played God Bless The Prince Of Wales, and a couple of officers who had been standing with their hands crossed behind their backs slapping their calves with swagger sticks jumped as Charles got down and disappeared into the crowd. Then he was back and being driven out of the park. The crowd left. Fiji probably won’t be the way it is now for more than a generation or two. Tourism is already the second largest industry, next to sugar. Beer tins are going over the gunwales of cruise ships; native crews, doubling as musicians on homemade instruments, are playing Love, Love, Love, egged on by professionally bluff and salty captains. An American company plans a million-dollar resort with air-conditioned native huts. Holiday Inns are moving in. Domco-Coronet of Canada recently promoted carpets in “Fiji” colors with a tangled weave of commercial tie-ins, and what they described as “thrilling television commercials,” and prize trips to Fiji. Peter Munk, the Canadian whose company went broke making Clairtone TVs in Nova Scotia, has 7,400 acres there ready for a development which, his literature says, will be “recreation oriented” and make “imaginative use of land.” An ominous white earth mover sits there in the jungle, no farther than the sound of a diesel engine from where I saw an Indian plowing a rice field with a team of oxen.

Still, Fiji is for the most part unchanged. I spent an hour in the market place of Suva without seeing one other tourist (I include myself in the tourist threat to Fiji) and downtown is made up of rambling old wooden buildings, with sidewalk pillars wrapped in coconut fronds and the sidewalks running under hotel balconies where you expect to see a planter waiting for sundown to have his first gin sling. There was a pleasant and encouraging scene the day I was there — a nicely dressed Fijian housewife face down and sound asleep on the grass in a park, her shopping bag and her purse lying beside her. The Travelodge where my wife and I stayed on Victoria Parade, one of the main boulevards, is, except for barefooted waitresses, like any comfortable motel in Ottawa or Vancouver, but outside on the street and in the grounds of the government buildings, people promenaded in a soft evening light that filtered down through a kind of trellis formed by the branches of big winding fig trees and banyan trees that send roots down from their branches like stalactites. The feeling of the evening was utterly strange and exotic, largely because, I realized, I was listening to the sounds of a big crowd of gentle people — individual sounds of a sandal scuffing, a girl laughing, someone calling softly. There were faces so beautiful that I, for one, stopped in my tracks to stare — an Indian girl with a smile like a jewel, her black face framed in a lime-green scarf; a brown-faced Fijian woman with a smile and expression that came up from depths of composed friendliness — tall, ample, barefooted and high breasted, with a halo of soft black hair as thick as a brush. The children are a delight. Their voices are soft and husky and they speak in a low pitch as if trying not to wake a sleeper about 10 feet away. They knock mangoes from the trees on their way from school and use hibiscus blossoms in something the same way Canadian kids stick maple seeds on their noses. A Fijian youngster standing beneath a rain tree waiting for a bus at the head of some lush, misty valley, or walking in a strong warm breeze past a sunny cane field, will put a hibiscus behind each ear, one in his hair, and hold another in his mouth, and stand looking at the oncoming traffic, a strange little figure with a face made up of four red splotches. I met some of the youngsters at Lami Fijian school, a group of frame buildings around a muddy field near Suva, who were in the spear dance. They included an 11-year-old boy named Moape Seru, whose mother made his warrior’s outfit and whose father works in a powerhouse in Suva. A girl from Ottawa named Mary Spreckley, who is so fascinated by the friendliness of Fiji that she works there for a quarter the pay that she could make teaching in Canada, told me that the kids arrived in the school yard for rehearsals for two weeks, and that it was a fascinating sight to see them appearing over the hills from all directions, carrying their spears and war outfits.

About 215,000 of the people are Fijian, and 256,000 Indians, descendants of laborers brought out by the English in the late 1800s and early part of this century to work in the sugarcane fields. The remaining 41,000 are Chinese and odds and ends such as Canadians, English, Australians and New Zealanders who are lumped together in statistics as “general.” By and large, the small storekeepers, farmers and cabbies are Indians, and every Indian I spoke to appeared to be genuinely fond of the Fijians but without exception said the Fijians were unambitious in the ordinary sense of looking to the future and making money. All said they wanted nothing to do with Fijians when they’d been drinking. As all nature people do Fijians like to get plastered. They get tight very fast and often spectacularly, and are apt to take long taxi rides and then, when they can’t pay the fare, punch the driver; Most cabbies in Suva won’t work after midnight for this reason. Even if they’re spending an evening with close, longtime Fijian friends, they make a point of saying goodnight and calling an end to the evening when the Fijians have had two or three drinks.

Some Fijians in Suva live in crowded low-price housing developments where they pay three dollars a week for an apartment, and some live in ordinary bungalow-type homes. But the great majority live in their villages, many in remote spots, on the outer islands, coming into Suva now and then by cargo ship, or in the interior of Viti Levu, which is rugged and mountainous, with hot, high grassy plateaus and canyons, accessible only on foot or on horseback. Yet these villages aren’t isolated sociological relics. Many are close to town and as much a part of the city life as a suburb of Toronto or Montreal. There are some taboos. Anyone touching a Fijian on top of the head is in danger of finding himself looking up at him from the ground, and nobody is allowed to touch the chief’s children, and, particularly in outlying villages, it’s downright bad judgment to just go barging into a village for a visit. It’s customary to present the chief with a whale’s tooth ahead of time and arrange things formally. All the men wear skirts with pockets called sulus, many carry umbrellas, and a few Fijian men still wear their hair in the old, high style. One tall and stately man, a former inspector of police named George Suguturaga, who took special police training in London, England, and now works with a New Zealander named David Wilson in Mitchell’s Pacific Tours, told me he combs his hair upward with a kind of big wooden fork, and covers it at night with a scarf to keep it from getting flattened, but he said not many Fijians do this any more. In fact, he said, young Fijian people today are just too lazy to have long hair.

We were shown through a village by a young Fijian named Rusiate Komaitai, who is with the Fiji Visitors’ Bureau, and it was hard to get the feeling that the customs and taboos were any more part of real daily life than, say, our habit of shaking hands with the right hand. Fijians joke about their ancestors’ notorious cannibalism. A woman might say to some wisecracking white friend, or to her own son who is giving too much lip, that he’s lucky he was born after the missionaries arrived or he’d be eaten. When I was with Komaitai, we passed a big rusty pot and when I asked him what it was he said, “It’s probably a stew pot,” and burst out laughing, at a time when, after those airplane meals, I was feeling particularly plump. A husky young man, a close relative of the chief, greeted us with the manner of a young gym instructor in Canada showing parents through a boys’ summer camp — with slight amusement at our interest. Both men showed an easy sense of social grace. When I was sitting cross-legged on the springy, slippery floor mat of woven bamboo in a Fijian hut — a cool, shadowy, restful place of reed and bamboo, with colored pictures of Queen Elizabeth and photographs of football teams on the wall — I suddenly realized I’d walked right over the mat in my T. Eaton Co. brogues, while my hosts had taken their sandals off. When I mentioned it, Komaitai said quickly, “The custom isn’t strictly observed,” and added deftly, “Anyway, it means you’ll have to come back so that you can do it properly.”

One of the simplest ways to see Viti Levu is to hire a cab. A winding, narrow gravel road goes right around the island, through tropical forests and grassy hills and patches of farmlands and plantations. You can drive half way around the island for $17. My wife and I got an Indian named Shiu Prasad (if you’re there, and want a good man, his address is 32 Disraeli Road, phone 23480). He was a textbook on crops, trees and the people of the islands, and he drove us through some beautiful countryside. He asked one old Fijian working in a garden up on a hill to show us some tapioca plants and the man disappeared over the hill with what I thought was annoyance, but he came back with about 12 smiling Fijians of all ages — men, women and children — one woman with a plate of cooked tapioca root for us to taste. There was a beautiful scene with distant figures of women in colored saris coming down a green mountain. A Fijian and his wife and children were in a coconut grove beside the road. Prasad spoke to him and told him I’d like to taste some coconut milk, and the Fijian, with a kind of touching eagerness, picked one and speared it on the tines of a pitchfork, which his son held upright for him, leaned on the coconut and pried the fibre loose, pared the coconut down with a machete, lopped off the top and gave it to his little girl to hand to me. She came up to me clearly divided between nervousness and fascination at anyone so unlike what, to her, fathers look like. It couldn’t have been much different from many scenes that took place when Fiji was discovered, shortly after Canada.

The Fiji Islands were among the last South Pacific islands to be explored. Abel Tasman, the Dutch East India Company navigator, who in 1643 had found Tasmania and New Zealand (he missed Australia), was the first to see them. He had been caught in a hurricane in a maze of coral reefs and afterward glimpsed a few headlands through the rain and mist. Nearly a century and a half later, Captain Cook touched on a tiny island at the far south of the group and saw a few natives disappearing into the bush. But the man who got the first really good look at the islands was the British navy captain William Bligh. When his men put him and 18 officers overboard, and set them adrift in an open boat, he passed between Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, managing to outrun a Fijian war canoe, and survived to come back and take a better look at the islands. The traders, who began to come to Fiji for sandalwood and an edible sea slug called Bêche-de-Mer, were the shoddiest group in Fijian history, demonstrating the miraculous power of guns by shooting naked spearmen and generally creating so much trouble that the Fijians appealed to the British to take them into the empire. They became a Crown Colony on October 10, 1874.

There are posh, sprawling, one and two-story beach hotels sparsely scattered along the shore of Viti Levu in patches of well-kept jungle. We stayed one night at Korolevu Beach Hotel, with the waves of the Pacific coming in over the coral reefs at our back door. In the evening, sitting around a swimming pool at tables lit by oil lamps, we watched a group of Fijian men and women dance and sing, and I found it a little sad, watching the disciplined, stylized, contained shoulder movements and intricate gestures of hands, and listening to those sincere, heartfelt voices, while the tourists looked amused. I got the awful feeling that we were all giving them that final lethal label of “quaint and interesting people.” I felt better a couple of nights later in Suva when I wandered down to a place called The Golden Dragon and watched Fijian girls dance the way Canadian girls dance — as if trying to slip a disc — to electrified guitar music as awful and as loud as any I’ve ever heard — while someone flogged a drum with something that made a noise like rhythmic cannon shots. The proprietor, a Chinese named Harry James, invited me to have a drink and stay to watch Irene the Hula dancer, and a plump and pleasant Fijian prostitute came over and stood loyally by my side and wouldn’t leave me. It was all noisy, ear-splitting, up to date and talentless — but it had something important going for it. It wasn’t quaint.

My wife and I also stayed at the Mocambo Hotel in Nadi, an enormous place with 119 rooms and a staff of 184, and at the Skylodge, not so comfortable and roomy but with the best food, as far as I'm concerned, in Fiji. We also took a cruise to a small island called Etai and had a look at some beautiful coral life through a glass-bottomed boat, but anyone planning to get away from the world by escaping to a south sea island should spend a day on one first. I found it close and stifling. The sun came down like fine buckshot, and I spent a lot of time thinking about sitting on top of some frosty hill in Alberta. Not that anyone really could hide away on a south sea island. As one Fiji pamphlet points out, “He would find he was trespassing on somebody’s land.”

The evening before our flight left for Canada I went into the town of Nadi. An Indian cabbie called out to me and I went over to his cab. When I told him I was from Canada he made the strange remark, “That’s where all the rich and gentle people come from.” Ironically, this was at a time when Fiji had accomplished her independence with dancing, football and skyrockets, while the only violence in the Fiji Times was the news from Canada.

I got out in town and began to walk. Someone called, “Hey, chief, shine your shoes?” I passed an Indian girl in a flaming red dress in a dirty doorway, and an old turbaned Indian in white pyjamas. An Australian was looking into a window telling a friend that some bloody thing wouldn’t work. N. Narottam, General Merchant, was putting up blue shutters. An Indian called, “Hello, Mac. Haircut?” A little Indian boy was ironing a shirt behind a table in the Modern Pacific Laundry. I passed a sign that said Nadi Hopes To See You Again. A rooster crowed. I walked back through town and came to a bridge over a valley that was vivid green right to the banks of a river. A girl of about 12 was sitting in the river, in her dress, doing the family washing. I went down and spoke to her. She gave me a smile about five inches wide, every inch sincere, as if she could have sat there smiling for ever just with the pleasure of my company. She said she knew where Canada was and liked swimming and rolled back lazily and disappeared underwater, then reappeared about 15 feet upstream, and rolled around like a seal. Sometimes just her feet were visible sticking up out of the river, then just her bottom, then her face, stomach and toes.

Three women came down to the river and walked past her into the water carrying loads of firewood. They didn’t hike their dresses or change their pace. They just walked through the river to the other side, came up on the green bank and disappeared slowly down the valley toward some blue mountains that were caught in swirls of clouds. Behind me a Fijian boy was lazily trying to lasso a brown calf, which kept trying to hide behind its mother. An old Indian led a cow past on a rope, stopped, scolded her, flipped his jacket at her and shooed her into a yard. An Indian boy passed with a cow and a heifer. A Brahma bull downstream looked at me languidly, as if he knew bulls were supposed to be ferocious, but he just couldn't be bothered.

The girl’s head emerged from the river. She smiled and waved. I thought of something David Low, the Chinese manager of the Skylodge Hotel, had told me. Somebody, getting overly enthusiastic about tourist potential, had designed a poster showing a smiling Fijian and carrying the message “Keep Smiling.” It appeared in a few places, but then disappeared, and Low was probably partly responsible. He was still indignant when he told me what he had said to the right people. “What the hell you talking about? They’ve always been smiling.” I asked him who had designed the poster. “Some smart guy,” he said. As I waited for CP Air to rocket me up over the Pacific Ocean for home I made my final wish for the people of Fiji—that they not be discovered by too many smart guys.