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Where happiness finds you

Snorkelling, diving with bull and tiger sharks, zip-lining over rainforests or checking into a luxury resort on a tiny island accessible only by sea. These are some of the things you could do in Fiji. You may be able to do this at other island destinations as well. However, what sets Fiji apart is its people.

A day before we returned home, walking along a marketplace, I chanced upon signboards that described the island nation. ‘Fiji is where happiness finds you’ says one. ‘I’m on Fiji time’ says another, referring to the laid-back attitude with which the locals shrug ‘Fiji time’ if they turn up late. ‘Time moves when I move’ reads another signboard. All of these are true.

Bula!

Beyond that, Fijians are among the friendliest people one would come across. Not just those associated with hospitality and the tourism industries; even those in remote villages greet us with a hearty ‘Bula’. A Bula can come from someone along the walkway, or a school girl crossing the river to return home. Bula is hello, but also works for good morning, welcome and anything that’s cheery. Need help? A Bula with a smile will get you better assistance than a bland ‘excuse me’ or ‘hello’. At the entrance of Outrigger resort, ushers are employed in eight-hour shifts to do a sing-song Bula for each guest. On a quiet evening, we could hear the full-throated Bula song in our rooms, cutting across the vast space in between.

Sugarcane and tourism are major revenue earners and the ‘salad bowl’ Sigatoka is where the 333 islands get most of their fresh produce from. Oh well, only 100 islands are inhabited.

Fiji-Indians

Fiji-Indians account for 40 per cent of the population. We were in Fiji when Ganesh Utsav was on. They had an immersion procession as well, with clay idols not more than six feet tall. “We turn vegetarians during the festival,” says Aarthi Pillai, a chef at Flavours of Fiji Cooking School. Fijians celebrate Holi and Deepavali with mithai and fireworks.

The Fiji-India connect happened in the 19th Century, when the British took Indians as indentured labourers to work in sugarcane plantations. Beginning in 1879, nearly 90 ships made their way to Fiji from India with these labourers aboard.

Indenture labour ended in 1920, and the Indians had the option of returning home, at their own expense. Most of them stayed on, unable to afford a return journey and having no home or occupation to return to. Most Fiji-Indians are sixth or seventh-generation settlers. “We speak Hindi or Fiji Hindustani as we call it. Hindi films are popular and there are many Indian schools,” Vishal Venkatesh, general manager at a resort, shares. He has family in Pune and Orissa, but has never visited India. He hopes to visit Tirupati some day. Talking of schools, ever since education was made compulsory, the literacy rate has moved up to 90 per cent. English is a mandatory subject.

On a kayaking trip, I’m privy to some Hindi cinema chatter by Fijian sailor and guide — Mike. He studied at an Indian school and has seen films starring Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan.

The biggest surprise was when we chanced upon Mohan Chinnaswamy, who moved from Coimbatore to Australia in 1998, visited Fiji for a holiday, and decided to move bag and baggage to the island nation. Now working on an ambitious 60-million Fijian dollar beachfront resort called Nila, he says it wasn’t easy. “I bought the land 10 years ago and it took me seven years to get the required permissions,” he says, adding that he’s the first Indian (as opposed to Fiji-Indian) to own a resort here. Chinnaswamy says the easy warmth of the people made him stay on.

Tropical resonance

In many ways, Fiji has the celebratory spirit one associates with a tropical island nation. A flaming-red hibiscus or any tropical flower adorns the ear of Fijians. “If you’re single, the flower is on your left ear; a flower on the right ear means he or she is taken,” a guide tells us. Fijians breeze through in their sarongs or sulu, hitch-hike a ride (It isn’t frowned upon. Not when you don’t spot people or buses for miles once you’re away from any city centre).

With a population under 9,00,000, Fiji is largely untouched by urbanisation, boasting of eye-popping blue waters and crystal-clear skies.

Despite seeking work in urban pockets, Fijians hold on to their humble moorings. Tales of the villages they hail from are fondly recalled. We hear about deep-rooted patriarchal systems. Scratch beneath the surface and the winds of change are evident. Many women today work in cities to financially support their families back in the villages.

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When to go

May to October is the dry season while copious rains characterise November to April. Houses on stilts narrate a story of preparedness for cyclones. Light showers and chilly breeze greeted us, despite monsoon being a month away.

Things to do

Zipline at Nadi: The 5km facility has 16 ziplines across caves, tree tops and canyons.

Rugby town: River safari apart, Sigatoka town is where you can talk to locals about rugby and if you’re lucky, play a game.

Watersports: Options are aplenty, from diving with sharks to long walks on coral reefs, and surfing to paddleboards. The ISA World StandUp Paddle and Paddleboard Championship is scheduled from November 12 to 20 in Fiji.

Island hop: At Cloud 9, the two-level floating platform at Ro Ro Reef, Mamanuca Islands, try snorkelling or book in advance for a Jet Ski trip to the secluded Monuriki Island where Tom Hanks starrer Castaway was shot.

Culture corner: Listen in to choir groups or watch performances by fire dancers.

Golf: The Natadola Bay Championship Golf Course, which hosts PGA tours, offers stunning views of white sands and coral reefs along the Pacific Ocean.

Bird watch: Walk through 12 acres of forest area at Kula Eco Park, observing birds and animals in their habitat.

(The writer was in Fiji on invitation from Tourism Fiji.)

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 8:49:19 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/Where-happiness-finds-you/article16077750.ece

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