AN almost four-hour flight from Melbourne to Nadi, pronounced Nandi, took me from the cold climate of 16 degrees Celsius to the sun drenched islands of Fiji.
A welcome troupe in the airport’s arrival hall played folk music that sounded vaguely Polynesian music, which of course it was, making the waiting for custom clearance a bit more pleasant.
I learned a new word almost at once: Bula, people kept saying, as soon as they had laid eyes on us. Within a few instances of it being repeated, I started to notice all the different tonal variations of the word.
Bula is Fijian for hello.
The different tones are like saying, hey or hi or hoi or hello. Rather interesting to hear all these different sound variations in a single expression and I could not help think that some say it because they are most likely grumpy, others say it in a way that makes you think that they are happy and still others seem to utter it because it seems to be the thing to do, with all the various mood variations in between.
The one other word to use every now and then is Vinaka, which means you are welcome. This word did not seem to be used as much as Bula, but I am sure I probably did not deserve to hear the word as often as I would have liked to hear it.
I was met by an old friend who had rented a chauffeur-driven car at my request for the three-hour-plus drive to the capital city of Suva. I could have flown the distance, but I wanted to see the countryside and the lush forests as I remembered from an earlier visit some 30-odd years ago. A road well-travelled indeed. Not very busy, but so well travelled that there are potholes aplenty to be avoided – although during the daytime you can see them coming in advance.
Amazing colours and greenery everywhere, as close to my idea of paradise as I have seen. These colourful flowers have not made their way to the dining tables of five-star hotel properties elsewhere in the world or to the world flower auction market in The Netherlands.
My friend who had picked me up from the airport tells me that no islander need ever have to go hungry, as fruits and vegetables grow in the wild if not cultivated in their own gardens and so much fish is available that all you have to do is just wade into the crystal clear waters and catch whatever you can.
Maybe this explains why the Fijians are so laidback, and in my eyes, perhaps a little too rotond?
Running almost parallel to the main road was a miniature railway, with the trains being used to transport, not people, but sugarcane.
Sugarcane is the islands’ largest export product and is a thriving industry. Surprising, then, at a five-star resort, to find a packet of sugar imported from Australia and produced by a Dutch company.
Is this the route Fijian cane sugar is making to end up on the Fijian hotel tables?
Another product for which Fiji has become known for is bottled water, competing with the international luxury brands. But it did confirm to me that the name Fiji has not been claimed by the Fijian government as a brand name, leaving it available for use by anyone who so chooses to do on any product.
The city of Suva seemed to be steeped in a time warp, a city where most buildings appear to have been built in the last 50 years of the last century, with little sign of construction – quite a relief from Dubai! Colourful, British-style colonial buildings are to be seen on almost every street corner, providing a lovely olde-worlde charme.
Suva must have one of the smallest Chinatowns I have ever seen, but yes there is a Chinatown and it does have the feel of being in a town in China. Surrounded by small shops, one window or one shutter and mainly owned and operated by the Indo-Fijian population.
The bus station was equally old – indeed, it looked like it had been standing just so for the last 50 years, and like the fruit, fish, flower and vegetable markets, did not seem to have succumbed to time. What a wonderful experience to see the hustle and bustle, while coming from everywhere I kept hearing the word Bula.
The buses in Fiji, like in most developing countries, date from the 1960s, and as a special feature in order to have an alternative to a modern-day air-conditioned bus, the windows are removed. Perfect for a nice and sunny day, less so if the tropical rains lash down on you. But of course, a plastic curtain will keep you relatively sheltered during the journey.
As a tropical country, Fiji is so laidback that, at a formal business meeting or lunching at an upscale hotel alike, you cannot fail to notice the relaxed attitude.
Is it poverty? I don’t think so at all. The houses I have seen are immaculately kept, gardens are maintained, people are happy and content and most beautiful of all, there are no department stores bearing the brands that are everywhere in the Gulf. Fashion in Fiji follows its own rules, dictated not by fashion designers, but by the climate and tradition.