Fiji: The men who stole my heart

By Faith Lee

When Faith Lee went looking for the real Fiji, she found it on beautiful friendly Vanua Levu ... and in two special people.

The generous and open hearts of the people are part of the off-the-beaten-track tour in Vanua Levu that takes visitors into some of Fiji's special places. Photo / Faith Lee
The generous and open hearts of the people are part of the off-the-beaten-track tour in Vanua Levu that takes visitors into some of Fiji's special places. Photo / Faith Lee

Aaaah ... Fijian men. Athletic and strong, smiling men with dancing feet. They welcome you like a lost lover, "bula, bula", and they smile your name.

There was Saimoni, the cruise ship's entertainer, who wooed the girls with his sugar-cane sweet voice; Ledua, the barman who gave me my Fijian name Vakabauta (meaning Faith) and made the best pina coladas this side of Nadi; Graham, my gentleman dance partner, who made sure I danced till I dropped as the music played into the still, warm nights.

The Captain Cook cruise ship Reef Endeavour was on its inaugural trip around Vanua Levu the smaller, less tourist-driven island north of Viti Levu.

We were in search of the real Fiji, the Fiji away from resorts and tourist-packed swimming pools.

But of all the men on that tropical cruise, the two who stole my heart were Peni and Rupeni.

Peni's village Salia nestles in the arms of palm trees on the island of Kioa, one of 330 that make up Fiji, but distinctive because it was settled by people from Tuvalu, 1000km north, after they were displaced by rising sea levels.

Outrigger canoes surge out to meet our ship in a flurry of colour, drumbeat and song. The postcard beach is long and white, blue and red fishing boats bob like coconuts in the harbour as the Reef Endeavour's tender boats arrive ashore.

The warm sun wraps around us in a welcoming blanket as we crunch into the sand and are greeted by a chorus of greetings, "talofa, talofa".

There are about 600 people in Salia, the only village on the island and it seems they are all here to welcome us, covering our heads with garlands of bright flowers.

We are ushered into a small meeting house where the village's animated smiling spokesman tells us the story of his people and beautiful dancers pulsate to the music. The girls' hips sway like palm trees and I can see why the ladies of Polynesia caused a mutiny on the Bounty; there was nearly a mutiny on the Reef Endeavour after the show.

That's when I see Peni; he sits quietly watching us, maybe bemused by us, or maybe more amused, when the village spokesman asks us to dance and "shake it baby, shake it".

Afterwards Peni's neat green shirt and shorts are crisp as wind-dried towels as he grabs my hand and leads me across the grassy field to the small school.

Children surround us, curious, smiling and exhausted from their energetic dances. They are all eager to see themselves in the screen of my camera as I take photos. When I show them, there are howls of delight.

Peni wants to be a priest. "That's a serious job" I say. He smiles and says: "I can be serious."

He shows me through the school. Neat white words sit on the blackboard, the sound of singing comes from a nearby classroom. All around the school are signs full of words of wisdom and encouragement. All around is joy and laughter and I feel the stress of life's hustle and bustle slip away.

Afterwards he takes my hand and walks me back as the ship is ready to go. I don't want to let go. He smiles again and I wave goodbye sadly.

But my aching heart is healed when I meet Rupeni later that week on Druadrua Island. His boyish good looks and shyness when I offer him a New Zealand flag are touching.

Young warriors with wooden weapons stand like statues as they guard the path up to the school where we are herded to a shelter to protect us from the 31C heat.

We are on Rupeni's island for a kava ceremony. On formal occasions like this, Fiji's national drink, yaqona or kava, is prepared and offered with elaborate ritual, served in a coconut shell cup called a bilo. The most important person in our group is served first and then down the order, acknowledged by handclaps, and drunk in one go.

Kava is a mild soporific and relaxant and was greatly enjoyed by the women in my group, one in particular who downed six in one sitting. But she is in good company as Queen Elizabeth II has drunk it more than once.

After the kava, the boys from Rupeni's school put on a fiery show, threatening and pounding towards us, thrusting their bright spears into the ground. To the crowd's delight, one little warrior struggles to pull his spear out of the soil; when he succeeds he gives the crowd a fearsome scowl.

Rupeni, face still covered in war paint, proudly shows me pictures of fish and vegetables he has drawn in the small school at the top of the hill.

The people of Druadrua and most of Fiji depend on the sea. Nearby Kia Island is surrounded by the world's third longest barrier reef, called the Great Sea Reef, covering an estimated area of around 202,700sq km, with vast numbers of brightly coloured fish. And the bonus is that the water temperature during winter doesn't usually get lower than 25C.

But it isn't the fish I remember. The boys who stole my heart were 13-year-old Peni and 9-year-old Rupeni.

They live a simple life with no hustle and no worries. They have a sense of belonging. Even though they lack many things, they are blessed with the fresh morning breeze, the ripples in the reefs and the dancing trees. But more than that they are blessed with the generous and open hearts of the people of Fiji. They are "the real Fiji".

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air Pacific flies daily from Auckland to Nadi (fares start at $588 return), once a week from Christchurch to Nadi and once a week from Auckland to Suva. Call 0800 800-178.

What to do: Visit places without postcards on a seven-night adventure with the Reef Endeavour as it journeys to the islands, rivers and rainforests of the remote north. Captain Cook Cruises' Discovery Cultural Cruise has three more departures this year, in August, October and December and six departures for next year. Early booking fares start from A$1399 ($1690) a person twin share including all meals, activities and accommodation.

Vakabauta travelled courtesy of Tourism Fiji, Captain Cook Cruises and Air Pacific. All on-land transfers were courtesy of Rosie Holidays.

- NZ Herald

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