Hands-on Fiji

The period of British colonialism in Fiji is so long ago that few vestiges of those years remain. In Suva, the capital on the island of Viti Levu, only the Grand Pacific Hotel retains the memory. After the Second World War, in which Fijians also participated, Queen Elizabeth during an official visit, stayed here in a room which bears her name today.

A young maître d’hôtel takes me as his partner in crime as he guides me around the hotel and secretly allows me to see the Queen’s room along with the suite recently inhabited by Harry and Megan. He also leads me to the roof, a very forbidden place according to him, and so as not to be seen by the reception, he makes me hide on the balcony and run from one staircase to another. The motivation for this action, I believe, is the hope of being rewarded with a generous tip, which I would have gladly given him even without all this pantomime. Later on, I encounter him around the hotel and every time he winks at me as if we are now accomplices in who knows what stunts. This apparently insignificant episode lends itself to open the discussion on a widespread characteristic among the inhabitants of Fiji: a republic with a high level of corruption, governed by a president who obtained what was supposed to be an interim government by a military coup in 2006, but who is still in charge.

Hens for sale at the Suva market
Hens for sale at the Suva market

The population is divided between the indigenous population – which holds administrative power – and that of Indian descent, which holds the economic power. The Indians were brought here by the British in colonial times to work on sugar cane plantations, once the main product on the island. In fact, crossing the island there are sugar cane crops everywhere. But today this is an economy in its sunset, weakened by the more efficient productions in Australia and New Zealand. You often see along the country roads the old transport carriages for the cane abandoned and covered with weeds.

The interior of Viti Levu
The interior of Viti Levu

The fastest growing sector is tourism, now frozen by the outbreak of the pandemic. The government invites investment in Fiji which is aimed primarily at luxury tourism. Super yachts are welcomed with open arms for which access procedures are easier, while for sailing boats like ours it is not easy to enter Port Denarau – the mandatory marina for those coming from the sea. The government are promoting a campaign welcoming those who have a lot of money to spend and are awaiting the arrival of hundreds of luxury yachts, who according to the slogan wish to, ‘escape the pandemic to paradise’.

In this way, they are trying to relieve the economy from the lost profits of traditional tourism which have been felt by the large resorts located on the southern coast of Viti Levu, but above all on the islands of the archipelagos of Mamanuca and Yasawa. To give an example, Larry Page, the founder of Google, bought the island of Namotu (just a few miles in front of us), and arrived there by private jet to spend three months on vacation with 30 of his staff. Whilst they are here, some local suppliers and tourism service agencies will work almost exclusively for them – escapees from the pandemic who have landed in paradise.

A botanical garden in Nadi
A botanical garden in Nadi

Geopolitically, Australia and New Zealand are competing for interests in Fiji, but China’s investments are increasing and the future of these islands depends on who will win this game. But these are not the problems of ordinary people or even tourists, who rarely see the reality of this country, because they are transported directly from the Nadi airport to the resorts.

Viti Levu is a large island where most of the inhabitants of Fiji live. The south western part is where the tourists are located; the climate is better and the sun always shines. The western side where the major production sectors are located is instead more humid, it often rains and is exposed to strong southeast winds that create rough seas and bring bad weather. Here you find Suva, not an especially attractive city, which seems to have expanded over the years without any urban planning. The image of white beaches surrounded by coconut palms and lapped by turquoise waters is the tourist face of Fiji, that of uninhabited islands and that of resorts; but it is very different from the urban reality and the countryside of Viti Levu, where people live with little and whose homes are galvanised shacks along the coast road.

Adrian's cafe along the coast road
Adrian’s cafe along the coast road

In recent months, I have had the opportunity to visit some islands in the South Pacific, especially in Polynesia, and now Fiji, and the reality that I have seen is very different from the perception that we all have in Europe. Only in name Fiji, Bora Bora and Tahiti, arouses somewhat stereotypical dreamlike images, so that when you come here on vacation you want to live those same experiences, as in your dream; whether in Polynesia or the Maldives, little changes. But as soon as you move away from the designated tourist routes, then you are faced with real life, with all its contradictions, its problems, but also its true characteristics. In this period of time, it is easy to leave behind these preconceived ideas because there are no tourists here as incoming international flights have been suspended for months and the resorts are closed. Every morning I go for a run on a perfectly maintained 18-hole golf course: the greens cared for down to the millimetre, the raked sand banks, the golf carts arranged in a row in front of the closed golf club. I run to the sea without meeting anyone, everything is deserted, uninhabited, like a ghost town.

The golf course
The golf course

Days ago we rented a car to explore the island. Visiting an inland village is a demanding experience because the dirt roads are quite rough. However, we left for Navala early in the morning. On the way we stopped at the Ba market because they told us to bring some kava as a gift for the village chief. Kava is a local drug with relaxing effects, it is obtained from the processing of a root of the pepper plant family and is so widespread that each market has an entire section dedicated to sellers of this product. So we drove off to tackle the mountain roads, strengthened in our resolve by the gift we had with us. It took three hours of travel to reach the village, one of the most characteristic of the island, but when we arrived a lady stopped us at the entrance until someone arrived who she introduced as the head of the village: a robust young man who seemed afraid of our presence in case we were possible carriers of contagion. To reassure him we explained that we had taken a Covid test before entering Fiji. But he would not be convinced otherwise unless he received an excessive entry fee from each of us! We gave him the gift of kava and left desolate at being rejected.

The village of Navala
The village of Navala

Most likely, if this pandemic had not erupted, we too would have sailed only among islands of charm and dropped anchor in front of wonderful beaches. In this sense we can say that Covid-19 has opened our eyes and has given us the opportunity to see the true face of this part of the world. And now I find myself making reflections that have little to do with sailing or navigation, but which instead puts us in front of a harsh reality in which the fear of contagion is associated with the dynamics of societies that are less and less equal and more and more unjust. Milanto is experiencing an adventure in an adventure, trying to ask questions and move forward on this long return home.

‘Bula’, the Fijian greeting
‘Bula’, the Fijian greeting