Making the traditional drink Kava. (Picture by Chris McLennan)
Fiji hut in Navala village, one of the last remaining traditional village.

“Sometimes I’m overcome thinking about, Making love in the green grass, Behind the stadium. With youuu, my brown-eyed girl... Youuu, my brown-eyed girllllll...” La la la...

THE heady mix of the Kava (a local drink made from the roots of the Piper methysticum plant) which I’d enthusiastically downed after a hefty farewell seafood dinner coupled with the moonlit serenade of this Van Morrison classic by a trio of Fijian buskers looking like a bunch of rugby players in their light blue jerseys have certainly induced a state of happy high in me. Not THAT kind of high but one that Fijians, as a people, seem to exude.

You don‘t even have to stay here too long before you realise that the people of Fiji are generally a happy lot. They laugh with abandon. They break into songs at the slightest chance. And with a life mantra that seems to excuse any form of urgency — ‘it’s Fiji time!’ — it’s no wonder that the kind of stresses that are the bane of our daily existence appear to escape them.


Navala Village children.

Fiji, a country in the South Pacific, and an archipelago of more than 300 islands, has been voted as one of the happiest countries in the world. Or at least according to one independent market research firm in its WIN-Gallup survey, which showed that 89 per cent of Fijians report that they’re happy.

Although caught up in the revelry of this final night in the land of smiles, I can‘t help feeling a little downcast at the thought that my island bliss will soon be over as I return to the humdrum of reality and smack into the rat race.

It seems like only yesterday that I was bouncing excitedly on my seat, preparing for departure in the contemporary confines of a Fiji Airways plane, gawking at the matronly stewardesses with their hibiscus tucked behind their ears, and looking forward to a trip I never knew I’d ever make.

Fast forward six days later and here I am at Nadina, a restau¬rant among many located at the bustling Port Denarau Retail and Commercial area, that boasts authentic Fijian fare (fish and root vegetables make up a significant portion of the local diet), tucking into some of the freshest seafood I’ve ever tasted, enjoying the melodious singing of the talented buskers and being lulled into a state of bliss by the caress of the balmy evening breeze.


Hotel staff serenading guests a la the Fiji way.

As the sun begins to set in the distance, transforming the hitherto azure blue canvas into one of shimmering gold, I couldn‘t help but chuckle at the thought that barely a week ago, Fiji was just like the Moon. I had no idea where it was!

Suffice to say, prior to the trip, my geography — at least when it comes to Fiji — was rather dodgy. When the invitation arrived to explore this country, famed for its rugged landscape, palm-fringed beaches and breathtaking coral reefs with crystal-clear lagoons, I’d thought I was headed somewhere near the Maldives.Or maybe Hawaii?

But I take comfort in the fact that I’m not alone. Ask the average Malaysian where they think Fiji is, and watch them fumble for an answer. “Somewhere near Hawaii?” “It’s a Polynesian island?” “Ooo the men there wear grass skirts!” Well, ‘Polynesian’, ‘grass skirts’ et al, I duly discover, are certainly in the picture, but Fiji and its people are definitely so much more.

intanm@nst.com.my

FIJI IN A CAPSULE

THE ISLANDS

THE multi-cultural town of Nadi is home to Fiji‘s international airport, and the gateway into the country. Most of Fiji‘s populace inhabit its two major islands — Viti Levu and Vanua Levu. The former, where the bustling tourist town of Nadi is located, is home to the capital Suva, a port city peppered with plenty of charming British colonial architecture.

Nadi, located close to Denarau Island, a small private island famous for its upscale resorts and 18-hole golf course, is the ideal base from where to begin exploring the rest of Fiji. Just to the west of Nadi lies Fiji‘s most popular group of islands, the picture-perfect Mamanuca Islands, a volcanic archipelago and a top tourist destination.

With its fine white sand beaches, inviting turquoise waters and picturesque swaying palm trees, most of Fiji‘s exclusive resorts are located here. Meanwhile, some of the uninhabited islands can still be accessed by boat for a day trip. The islands are perfect if you‘re looking to while the time away swimming, snorkelling, diving, surfing and just enjoying island idyll.

Aside from boats, you can also get to the Mamanucas by seaplanes. Which might bring to mind that TV series that aired in the late 70s and early 80s called Fantasy Island with the famous opening catchphrase “De plane, de plane!”. Remember those iconic words uttered by the diminutive Tattoo at the beginning of each episode to signal the arrival of a new set of guests to the island? Well, you might get a bit of that ‘Fantasy Island‘ feel when you descend from the seaplane and your feet touches powdery fine sand, AND you have a whole island to yourself.

Comprising about 20 islands, of which seven are covered by the Pacific Ocean when the tide is high, the Mamanucas’ more recent claim to fame is that it was featured as the backdrop to the 2001 movie, Cast Away starring Tom Hanks and during the 14th season of the American reality TV series, Survivor: Fiji.

THE CULTURE

THE Fijian culture is a veritable tapestry, made up not only of the indigenous culture — comprising a blend of Melanesian and Polynesian backgrounds — but also the cultures of the Chinese, Indian, European as well as the South Pacific cultures of Rotuman and Tongan. Modern day Fijians are of indigenous Fijian background, as well as of Indian, Chinese and European ancestry. Unlike some countries in the world where traditional culture and practices seem to be disappearing with the onset of modernity, here it remains an active and living part of everyday life for the people.

THE SOCIETY

DESPITE the tide of modernity, the indigenous society continues to be very communal. The family unit, the village and the land, or vanua, remain important. In the villages, obligations and rewards of community life are shared.

Much like the gotong royong (communal) spirit of traditional Malay society, villagers would come together to prepare for feasts, help each other in communal activities such as building of homes, maintenance of the village green and they even go out to fish together. The catch they return home with will always be divided amongst each other.

Meanwhile, the villages, clans and tribes are presided over by a hierarchy of chiefs. This is very much like the Polynesian system where chiefly positions are hereditary. A deceased chief would be followed by a kinsman or kinswoman, but not necessarily his son or daughter. This arrangement is unlike other Melanesian societies where chiefs are generally appointed on merit.

THE RELIGION

EN route to Nadi, I spotted a smattering of lovely churches, an impressive-looking mosque and a Hindu temple or two. Everyone in Fiji belongs to some type of organised religion, with Christianity, Hinduism and Islam being the main religions here.

According to statistics, more than half of the population are Christians, followed by Hindus (40 per cent) and Muslims (eight per cent). The majority of Fijians from the Christian faith are Methodists.

THE CUISINE


Kokoda

FIJIANS will tell you that they have the best food when it comes to this part of the world, i.e. South Pacific. They attribute this to the fact that their cuisine is infused with many influences — Indian, Southeast Asian and Chinese in addition to the Melanesian staples, that include taro, tropical fruits, coconut, pork and seafood.

As it‘s expensive to import food items, you‘ll find that restaurants serve up pretty much what‘s found in the country — fresh seafood, fruits and root crops.

A must-try is the national starter known as Kokoda, a refreshing fish dish comprising raw fish with coconut cream marinated in lemon or lime juice, served in a coconut shell. What’s interesting is that the lemon or lime juice ‘cooks’ the raw fish so it‘s not so ‘icky’ to eat. You‘ll be served this literally everywhere you go!

Another ‘item’ that will be an ubiquitous component of your experience in Fiji is the kava or yaqona. Its equivalent would be a beer in another country.

A ceremonial narcotic, it seems to be everybody’s favourite drink. And should you be offered a bowl — it’s usually served in a coconut bowl — then accept, as it’s impolite to refuse.

Clap your hands once and say bula (meaning hello, love, and more) before downing it (ideally) in one gulp. Don’t make a face when the taste of muddy water accosts your tongue — just grin and bear it and maybe politely decline a second! Too much of this will make your mouth feel a little numb. But the upside? You‘d definitely feel at peace with the world. Zen!

THE MEKE

YOU‘LL be enchanted by the boisterousness of the Meke, a communal dance/theatre that combines singing, chanting and drumming. In the villages, it’s performed on special occasions, especially when there are important visitors. These days, you can catch a Meke being performed at hotels for the benefit of tourists.

The Meke isn’t just some mindless colourful dance performed purely for entertainment. The locals will tell you that it’s a medium of transmission. Stories, legends, historical events, and culture are told via the Meke so they can be passed down from one generation to the next.

THE ATTIRE

TRADITIONALLY, men wore loin cloths, and women, grass skirts. Single women would wear the short skirts, while the long ones would be worn by married women. The modern Fiji national dress is called the Sulu, which resembles a skirt and is worn by both men and women.

One type that’s worn by both is the ‘Sulu vaka Toga‘ — a wrap-around piece of rectangular material, elaborately decorated with patterns and designs of varying styles. This is considered casual wear and worn during informal occasions.

There’s also something called the ‘Sulu vaka taga’ for the men, especially in urban areas, which is a tailored sulu. It can be worn with a shirt with a western-style collar, tie, and jacket, and sandals on the feet.

Getting there

• The fastest way to Fiji from Malaysia is via Singapore where Fiji Airways flies direct to Fiji. Fiji Airways offers a third-weekly service between Nadi (NAN) and Singapore (SIN) during peak travel periods.

• Fiji Airways appointed award-winning Kiwi chef, Robert Oliver, to develop menu for customers to enjoy on-board (Economy and Business class).

• Fiji Airways has a ‘resort check-in’ feature across selected resorts, such as Sofitel on Denarau Island. Guests (from the hotel and otherwise) can simply get to the resort lobby and check themselves and their bags in for their Fiji Airways flights.

Boarding passes and tags are issued to the guests at the resort lobby itself and all bags are transferred to Nadi International Airport and loaded on the guests‘ respective flights. This means that guests don‘t have to carry their bags around and can enjoy Fiji for a few more hours before making their way straight to the airport.

Visit www.fijiairways.com for more information.

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