General

Back from the Fiji Islands

As with Tahiti, I had no intention of setting foot on Fiji either. It is too close to the equator and the indigenous people there don’t wear too much clothes. Besides, I don’t play rugby; I watch Rugby Sevens though and promoted it in my last job.

But as with Tahiti, I found myself there; and more important, I had a great time together with Su in both places. These are times that we believe would last a long time, a point I first made to Su shortly after we met when she asked me to show her the pictures I took in the Antarctica. I told her at the time that they were mainly postcard type pictures, comprising at least 300 shots of icebergs with hardly any recognizable life on them and many others on sunrises and sunsets. They could have been taken by anyone; and I had taken them because I was there. It follows that they would hardly become a lasting memory of the Antarctica trip; unlike some old and faded photographs taken on celluloid on some other trips with people who were dear and near to me.

Back to Fiji, I remember the time when I used to joke about being finance minister of Fiji which became independent in 1970. My opening line to members of the parliament would be something like, “The estimates of revenue and expenditure for the ensuing year for Fiji is 125 million coconuts.”

Of course, coconuts were never the principal exports, probably because they are too perishable and heavy for exporting and because many other islands are producing them; but coconuts sounded good. Cane sugar indeed was the principal money earner, until it was taken over by tourism.

One of the tour guides told us that tourism now accounted for over half the republic’s revenue, followed by cane sugar. An experienced tour guide now makes $70 to $150 Fijian Dollars a week, depending on their proficiency in English and probably on their EQ, which is good money when many graduates are still jobless five or six years after leaving the university.

There are two universities in Fiji, covering nearly all disciplines, including medical doctors. Unfortunately, their graduates don’t earn too much – their average salaries were $70,000 a year – and most left for Australia or New Zealand after three years or the minimum period they are required to stay for reading a degree through scholarships. Graduates of other disciplines earn less, if at all.

Interestingly, there are students from Japan coming to Fiji to learn English, because it is much cheaper than going to Australia or New Zealand. I met a couple of young girls, rather good looking ones, on a snorkeling day trip to some island – actually called South Sea Island – and managed to strike up a conversation with them while we were scanning some underwater life in a “yellow submarine” which is a glorified name for a shallow flat bottomed boat with glass sides. I also learnt that they had 10% discount because they were full time students.

Before you ask where Su was, I would tell you that she was scuba diving nearby when I was snorkeling with the girls. She had four dives altogether in Fiji; and I had as many snorkeling trips, some more challenging or enjoyable than others; and Su broke the housing of her camera which was thus flooded as a result on her third dive during which she also got bitten by a trigger fish which left its teeth marks on one of her fins. Otherwise, we were fine, and indeed couldn’t be better.

We ate well, slept well and played hard. We had a good supply of Black Label which could have helped fuel the series of dreams I had. Nearly every member of my family – dead or alive – had treaded into my dreams. I would consult my Buddhist teacher Venerable Hung Si about dreams someday. He has a fond story about one of his dreams which he had before an important and serious dharma talk in his early monastic career. In this dream, he saw himself walking up to the screen to talk to a character in celluloid.

Back to Fiji again, Asian visitors are predominantly Japanese and Koreans; Chinese are few and far between; which means that we had often been mistaken to be Japanese. We met a couple from Gold Coast, Queensland and became rather friendly with each other. The husband is the son of a rather dedicated Rotarian who told his son that he had received the highest award from Rotary, but the son could not relate exactly what it was. So I gave him my Rotary card so that he could show it to his father back home. Father and son live on a 120-acre estate which also makes a convenient venue for the regular club activities.

Then we met a Michael Jackson impersonator at breakfast. This MJ-lookalike had a typical MJ outfit and was checking up on a fellow Californian whom he knew from his Harvard days. She is a singer-actress and was here for the promotion of a tennis classic match held at the golf club next door. Su found her quite pretty and took some pictures with her and the MJ-lookalike. At the airport lounge on the way back, we saw her pictures on Fiji Star.

I have yet to tell you what I planned to say from the start, which is to give you a hearty Bula. If you have read Lonely Planet or any guide book, you would know that Bula is the first word that greets every visitor to Fiji. Bula means hello, cheers, welcome and so on. We are greeted with Bula wherever we go and there are locals whose principal job could be making the loudest or biggest Bula. It is great fun.

Fijians are very friendly. Considering that this is a place which used to practice serious cannibalism until only a century or two ago, it is quite a big change. English is the principal spoken language, a legacy of the colonial British. Fijians have a sense of humor too. When people turn up late, they would say that they are on Fijian time. Nobody seems to be in a hurry to do anything. As a writer of Lonely Planet says, his decision of the day for a period of time was picking the palm tree under which to lay his towel on which he would lie for the morning or afternoon – a big decision indeed.

We visited a village called Viseisei (pronounced vee-say-say) the chief of which was the just retired Fijian President. No hats were allowed in villages and the guide who was a local lady talked in an as-a-matter-of-fact manner that Fijians had abandoned cannibalism after being told by Christian missionaries that eating people was wrong.

We find the Fiji Islands much cleaner and more hospitable than the Tahiti, based on experience from the few of the 330 islands of Fiji we have covered. It appears to be a cheaper bargain between the two, though it could be that we have come at the low season. Then again, it would all depend in the end on the circumstances against which and the people with whom the trip is taken. Next time, we might try the Madagascar; Su has been to the Maldives.

Talk to you later.

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