Fiji is one of the those places you hear about but are never quite sure where in the Pacific Ocean it is or much about it beyond Fiji is supposed to be an island paradise. Well Fiji is about 3 and half hours north of Auckland, New Zealand and about 4 and half hours Northeast of Sydney, Australia. And misconception 1, Fiji is not just one island. Fiji is actually-300 separate islands. Some of the islands are populated by citizens of Fiji, some are owned privately by resorts and populated by tourists and service workers, others are uninhabited, and some are just barren volcanic rocks.
Misconception 2, the indigenous population has always been peaceful and welcoming to strangers. Today the native population is very peaceful and you can’t pass one by without a cheerful Bula (Hello or Welcome) and a toothy grin. But this was not always the case.
The fact is, just 200 years ago the greeting would have been something like Yummy Yummy get in my Tummy. The native Fijians were cannibals and they will proudly tell you they were the fiercest cannibals in all the South Pacific. My guide for a tour thru the Fiji Cultural Village let me know that they can still taste human flesh from down thru the ages although I’m pretty sure he was speaking figuratively.
Up until the British put a stop to it all the Fijian native population were incredibly blood thirsty man eaters. Since the day they arrived in Fiji in 1500bc the native population was in a continuous state of war with a free-for-all battle royal of tribes and villages constantly making war against their neighbors. And the cost of losing was unimaginable. If the members of the losing tribe were not killed in battle and eaten right away they were enslaved for later torment and death.
Slaves had many unpleasant fates including when a new temple was built – two slaves were buried alive strapped to the two center posts. Supposedly the dead spirits of the buried alive slaves allowed the priest to commune with the gods after he drank his Kava out of some poor schmuck’s skull. Kava. By the way, is a drink made from pulverizing some-kind-of-forest root into a powder then creating a grog like drink that makes you sort of numb and dumb. They have an entire ceremony for the drinking of the nasty tasting crap.
Also, anytime a new dugout canoe was ready to launch a slave was placed on the ground so that the heavy canoe (basically a tree trunk with the center burned out weighing hundreds of pounds) could be rolled over his body to the river. If he died or was critically injured he simply became that night’s dinner entrée.
The brain and heart always went to the king and priest with the rest of the tribe sharing everything else from a communal earthen oven or clay pot. Apparently even cannibals have some taboos – touching man steak with your hands was unforgivable and the offending party would be sent from the feast and shunned. They ate their victims with large wooden forks.
Before the British arrived the natives of Fiji still lived in the stone age. All their tools, weapons, household goods were stone, wooden, bones or made from plants. All the weapons were carved from wood, drinking and cooking vessels were made from uncured clay or wood, sleeping mats, fans, and fly swatters made from palm fronds and coconut byproducts, and what clothing they wore was made from the bark of a gum like tree and of course the priest’s cup was made from a human skull.
The women of Fiji had it pretty rough too. Seems the King was allowed as many wives as he wanted. Only the first wife had any status the rest were simply for his sexual pleasure. But being the first wife was no picnic. Seems if the king died the first wife was given a choice – she could agree to be clubbed to death and buried with the king or could be buried alive with the king. Talk about a Hobson’s Choice!
Misconception 3, Fiji is populated by Fiji’s indigenous population. Wrong! Only 35% of the country’s population is indigenous. Indians brought over by the British in the 1860s make up over 50% of the country’s population and control most of its wealth. The remaining 15% are scattered between Chinese, Caucasian, and other Polynesians.
And you might wonder – why bring Indians to Fiji? Simple, the natives were still living in the stone age and after 3300 years of killing and eating each other there weren’t that many left. So, the British needed a more advanced populous to build and operate the railroads, roads, bridges, towns, sugar plantations and ports. And that is why the Indian ethnic group is the majority and control most of the wealth.
But despite its dark history the Fiji of today is a paradise. Beautiful beaches, warm clean blue green coves and seas, lush tropical trees, ferns, and flowers, and an incredibly warm and welcoming people. Whether Indian or native Fijian everyone is unbelievably friendly and polite. Everyone greets you with a big hearty Bula, a Moce (good bye) when you leave, and Vinake (thank you) for the simplest things.
And while the natives were a pretty nasty bunch in what they refer to as Old Fiji they also had some amusing customs. For example, only women could wear a flower in their hair. Whether it was worn on the right or left side of the head had an important significance. A flower worn on the right meant the lady was married and hands off. The flower on the left meant she was single. Their saying was “Right is Cooking Left is Looking”.
Also according to my guide, everyone but the king slept in a communal house side-by-side with no privacy. When a couple decided they wanted to make a family they would go off into the woods for two months and live alone and do what couples have been doing since Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden. I do have a hard time believing sex was limited to those two months though.
And there were no beds. Just woven mats and a strange looking wooden pillow (photo provided)
And just to piss off all my women’s rights friends-men had an interesting way of keeping their wives in line. It was a big 30inch long 2inch diameter carved club (photo provided for any man crazy enough to carve himself one) used to whack unruly wives. I took a few practice swings and the damn thing was heavy enough to break bones or skulls. I let my guide know that the wife beater would never work in America today. I’m guessing the club would quickly become a husband beater.
There was a definite hierarchy in the tribe. The king’s bloodline always provided that the king’s eldest son would become the next king. The king, of course had his own house and it was required by custom to be built at a higher elevation than any other structure in the village. The house (called a Bure) would also be divided into thirds. Only the king was allowed in the first third. The second third with entrances to the left and right was reserved for the nobles and the final third with the entrance in the rear was
reserved for the common folk.
By now you have figured out I was fascinated by how they lived in “Old Fiji” and I am attaching a lot of photos from my morning in the village. The photos are of the Priest’s House (The Tall House with the two thick tall center posts buried deep with live slaves), The King’s House (with wife beater and wooden pillow), communal sleeping house, the Cooking House (with Food Safer, Takona (wooden vessel for making a popular dessert of root crop and coconut milk), clay cooking pot that could cook meat in 20 minutes).
The Boat Builder’s Bure (with a demonstration of starting a fire to burn out the tree trunk), Clay PotMaker’s Bure, Story Telling Bure, a demonstration ofarticles made with parts of the coconut (fly swatter, rope, belt, drinking bowls, fans, and a broom)
Wood Carver’s Bure with a demonstration of weapons of stone age warfare and fork for eating your former neighbor.
Fisherman’s Bure with photos of a turtle net, crab trap, fish trap, fisherman’s raft, creel for carrying today’s catch and spears for fishing.
Fisherman’s house, turtle net, crab trap, fish trap, creel, Spears for fishing and raft
And finally, two photos of an “Old Fiji” Barb-B-Que of vanquished enemy in a ground oven.
Now that I’ve shared the Ugly of “Old Fiji” let me share a little of the beauty of modern day Fiji. In addition to some awesome sunrises, sunsets, and beach time I spent a few hours in the most incredible tropical version of Eden. The site is called the Garden of the Sleeping Giant and rather than explain the place with words I will just attach some photos of the jungle. Flowers of every color and size, stands of bamboo as thick as my thigh, palms reaching to the heavens and just to show you that the man eaters of Fiji have developed a sense of irony a couple of photos of tree huggers (a little creepy but still funny to look at).
Finally, I would like to mention Fiji Gold is a Great Beer!!! And the way I found out that Indians were the dominate ethnic group in Fiji was that I asked my server at dinner my first night to recommend a Fijian dish from the menu. She suggested Prawns Vakaviti, sautéed prawns with diced tomatoes & onions folded in fresh coconut cream with steamed rice. (photo attached) I was a little skeptical about the dish but when in Rome… So I tried it and it was delicious.
Next day, I was bragging about the dish to my driver (Ravin), an Indian. And he informed me Prawns Vakaviti is not a true Fijian dish rather it is Indian. That is when I learned three things: a true Fiji dish would have been Human Rump Roast, Vakaviti is considered a Fiji dish because Indians have been the majority population in Fiji for over a century, and three my server was probably an Indian woman not a true indigenous Fijian.
That is when I had to ask… how the hell do I tell you guys apart – you’re all dark skinned. He told me to always check the hair. A Fiji native will always have kinky hair and the Indian’s hair will always be straight. Which seemed to work well as a rule of thumb until the last afternoon while having lunch a friend of Ravin’s came over to our table with no hair. And the two of them had fun making me guess his ethnicity. Turns out he was result of a Scottish Seaman who washed up on the shore of Vita Levu island in the 18th century and instead of becoming dinner married one of the women of the tribe.
One last interesting activity to mention is the Sabeto Mud Bath, Hot Springs, and Massage. Ravin took me to a place up in the foothills where you cover yourself with mud from buckets of muck, let it dry, rinse off in the mud pool (you sink about a foot in the muck before hitting bottom) and the water coming up from the hot springs is a nice hot 101degrees.
Once most of the mud is rinsed off you proceed to three more springs the first is hot, the next is cold then the final one is hottest of all four springs. After the four soaks it is into the Bure for a massage. I had this mental image of a young very pretty but shy native girl in a grass skirt, a coconut bra and no shoes tenderly massaging and caressing my aches and pains away while singing softly to me. Man was I ever off on that image.
The only thing I got right was native and she was bare footed. But Big Bertha was probably in her 50’s, weighed as much or more than I do with huge flat feet with toes pointing in all directions, thankfully she was wearing a sarong and I don’t think they make coconuts big enough for her and she didn’t sing only grunted a lot.
But I have to admit she gave a very good massage.
One last disconcerting thing about the place. Before I left I had to visit the rest room. Turns out it was very near the mud pool and the buckets of mud. Rest room is generous it was actually a cinderblock privy and the odor inside smelled suspiciously like the mud buckets. I’m sure it was just my imagination but one has to wonder if this is “Old Fiji’s” screw you to the White Christians that made them give up their cannibal ways.
And now I’m off to Sydney to see an Opera House, the Blue Mountains, Sydney Harbor and tour the historic pubs of the Rocks’ Historical District.