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Fiji: Relative values

A pilgrimage home to Fiji proves to be an emotional rollercoaster

Fiji: Relative values
Relatively speaking: Lisa and family in Fiji. © David Kirk

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“Still walking!” is all my father has to say to get the whole car erupting in incredulous laughter again. We’re driving the long, sparsely populated road that runs along the north side of Viti Levu, Fiji’s largest island. An hour ago, Dad started a tale of how he once spent three whole days walking a cow across these fields and mountains when helping his brother-in-law move house.

The story was introduced some time ago — when we passed the village the cow was moving to — but we still haven’t reached the point from where the journey started. It seems like a very long way. Every so often, Dad punctuates an unrelated conversation with “Still walking!” as we drive through the sugar cane fields.

Visitors are enough of a novelty for Fijians to exchange cheery greetings of “Bula!” with us as they walk the roadside by our car — in it myself, my husband David, my father, mother and brother Marcus. For reasons we assume are related to farming, most men we pass carry machetes; rather handy as we find out later, when a passer-by chops us sticks of sweetly reviving sugar cane to chew as we emerge to stretch our legs.

We pass villages of corrugated iron huts congregated around the ever present wooden church, boys selling mangos from roadside stalls and even the utterly bewildering sight of a horse carcass, legs stiff in rigor mortis, engulfed in towering flames on the side of the road. We stop by the grave of famed cannibal Udre Udre, said to have eaten hundreds of humans as trophy meals. It seems surreal to imagine my Dad walking for three days through this landscape with a cow.

Having a Fijian father in 1970s Wirral had me down, as you might imagine, as something of a rarity. My brother Marcus and I, born in 1971 and 1974 respectively, were too young to have been exposed to any of the difficulties our white mother and dark-skinned father had experienced in a society not yet used to foreign faces. To us, Fiji was a far-off, magical land of fables from Dad’s childhood.

We knew he grew up with no shoes in farm buildings made of mud and tin. We were wide-eyed hearing that, aged seven, he was taken away to a boarding school run by rather vicious-sounding missionary nuns. Our grandmother, or Agi, featured prominently in stories, along with Uncle Thomas and countless other siblings and cousins. Dad had once been champion lightweight boxer of Fiji and we staged pretend fights that invariably ended in giggles.

When we moved to Spain in 1981 in pursuit of warmer weather, my favourite game was sitting on Dad’s knee on the beach asking him the stories behind his many scars: “How did you do that one, Dad?” Tales of jumping into rivers, swinging from ropes on mango trees and growing up surrounded by farm animals would fascinate me for hours.

We grew up with Fiji remaining a distant land, further distant still after hearing the sad news in 1994 that our Agi had died, never to have seen the English grandchildren she so longed to meet.

Despite living in the farthest point of Spain, we remained very close to our grandmother and in particular her sister back in England. We loved hearing about the Fijian side of the family, but did not feel very connected to them. Growing up as a mixed-race child in very white areas has its own challenges and I admit as a young girl I just wanted to be as similar as possible to my pale, blonde friends. Kids can be cruel and I remember childhood games where I was made to sit in a cupboard for the whole of playtime or being told I wasn’t the right colour to play fairies. I soon learned that being shy wasn’t doing me any favours and actively set out to cultivate a more confident character. The taunts stopped, but I am aware they left some scars.

Reality dawns

Moving to London as a young adult, I had more interaction than ever with Indian people, but it took a long time for it to occur to me that we actually had something in common. It was time to get to know more about the other side of my heritage. Fiji Indians, brought to the island as indentured labourers by British colonists more than five generations ago, at one time made up almost half of its population. Indians, however, have been seen by some indigenous Fijians as foreigners who’ve taken over a large part of the workforce. Discrimination and discontent have been partly responsible for several military coups since the 1980s.

Sitting in a hotel lobby in Fiji’s capital seven years ago on my first visit was a memorable experience. My boyfriend David and I were waiting to be introduced to my cousin Ben, the first person I would meet there who was related to my Dad. Only then did it dawn on me that Dad had not really exposed us to any Indian or Fijian culture. I speak great Spanish and French, but not even a word of Hindi. Religion wasn’t something that really figured in our lives.

Having been told tales of shoeless poverty, I was surprised when Ben — who looked like Dad! — picked us up in his new 4×4, giving us a tour of his factory before taking us to Suva’s best restaurant. On the adjacent table sat the country’s Prime Minister, since deposed in a coup. We met Ben’s brothers Jan and Viveka and families and were welcomed into the fold, with plenty of tea and curry and hours spent poring over family photographs and stories. It was fascinating to see my Agi and the legends come to life in pictures.

This urban side of the family, having done well in business and travelling to Australia and beyond, were something of a buffer between us and some confusing cultural differences it took us a while to fathom. When invited for dinner at one house, we were surprised to be given tea and cake on arrival. Maybe our wires were crossed and we hadn’t come round to eat? We sat politely for hours, accepting yet another drink with much encouragement by the men.

It was only around midnight it occurred to us the women were waiting for us to finish drinks and give the go-ahead for dinner. Starving, we soon did so, but were again surprised to see the table set only for two. We awkwardly ate our meal, unsure whether to fill up to show appreciation or eat sparingly to ensure the seemingly scores of people waiting in the shadows didn’t go without.

Most of the family are also quite religious and live more conservatively than we were used to. Although no one seemed to judge us, David and I were conscious of our unmarried state and had to explain that we didn’t tend to go to church on Sundays.

Later, when we took the rickety bus from the capital to the north-eastern corner of Rakiraki, watching the wheels with trepidation as they trundled over ravines on nothing but a couple of planks of wood, we encountered the Fiji I had been expecting — the corrugated iron-roofed houses with their verandas overlooking the vast fields of cane in the same place my father had described all those years ago. Sipping tea with sari-clad relatives in the sauna-like heat felt like going back in time. Elderly ladies cradled my face in their hands, weeping my father’s name and asking when he was coming home. It was a breathtaking experience.

Family mission

Seven years later, a big trip had been talked about for a while. It was time we went to Fiji as a family. And that’s how we find ourselves — myself, father, mother, Marcus and my now-husband David — here in Rakiraki. Unencumbered by modernities like air-con or seatbelts, the van makes its way down one muddy track after another, our driver Vijay negotiating mud piles of cliff-like proportions.

Having already visited Dad’s two sisters, our lovely ‘Aunty Son’ in Lautoka on the west side and equally lovely ‘Aunty Mo’ on our first night in Rakiraki, we head through the hot green fields to the tiny hamlet of Borotu, where Dad was born. Creeping past a tethered bull, we find the exact coconut tree under which was the hut he was born in, next to the river where he acquired most of those scars. I can’t quite believe we are here. In Vaileka town, our cousin Vinai has a food stall at the same market where generations of our family have sold their wares. He plies us with delicious Indian sweets and curried peas for our travels. Across the road, another cousin Anil has a bakery, so we stop and say hello.

Later, we jump out of the car, scouring the reeds between two mango trees where one of Dad’s many childhood homes had been put together. Cautiously avoiding a rather excitable pig, I hang back while Marcus and Dad ask an Indian lady for directions, two small children’s faces peering through a tin hut behind. We’ve found what we’re looking for.

Dad, with a catch in his voice, tells us we are standing at the spot where his sister committed suicide. As a 17-year-old, my father had been very close to his little sister. A wedding had been arranged to a man she didn’t want to marry and after an argument with her parents, she hung herself in the farm well. With the devastated adults mourning at home, my father was charged with collecting his sister from hospital, post-autopsy, wrapped only in a white sheet. Carrying the body, he hitched a lift home in the back of a truck. I often wonder whether his sister’s suicide influenced his reluctance to impart any strict religions or beliefs on us. It’s good we’ve all been able to come here together.

There’s another reason we’re here. Although after indentured labour ended, most Indian immigrants felt unable to return to their lives in India, the complex caste systems they once lived by now dissolved. The British government introduced a scheme allowing paid passage for one member of each family to travel to India and trace, should they wish, relatives left behind.

My grandfather left for India in the early 1960s. When his letters inexplicably stopped, my father, by then having made the impossible-to-imagine move from the fields of Fiji to the factories of the north of England, found that all leads came to nothing; no reply from the relatives he had found, no recorded death or incident. My grandfather had seemingly disappeared into thin air. Now we collect letters, photographs and anything that might help trace his fate.

Being here with Dad is so much easier. It’s also nice to see him in charge again as, being quite easy-going, he often gets somewhat bossed around by the three strong characters of myself, Mum and Marcus at home. Here he’s in charge of all our movements and is very well respected in the family hierarchy. With him, I feel like I truly belong. These people are our family. However, something that doesn’t sit very well with me is the place of women in this hierarchy. Even though most of the family are quite modern, there’s a sense that ‘women’s work’ is still very much exactly that: having grown up in a very different environment, I find this quite frustrating.

Together again

More frustrating is that my brother seems to really be enjoying his new-found status as ‘alpha male’, something that resulted in a bit of a row when we got out on our own. It’s also strange to be travelling again with the family. Having spent all our childhood holidays in true 1970s camper van style, driving down to the south of France, my brother and I left home at very young ages and we haven’t been on holiday together for a long time.

Forgotten dynamics emerge and I find myself trotting after my father and brother back in the ‘little sister’ role, trying to keep up with the boys and get myself noticed. Apart from the odd bicker, we enjoy each other’s company. With my parents in Spain, Marcus living in LA and David and me in England, it’s nice to be travelling together.

Our cousin Jan, wife Sunita and their son- and daughter-in-law — both in their 20s and like many of their peers now living in New Zealand — travel from Suva to Rakiraki and we catch a boat to Jan’s business partner’s private island villa. This is postcard Fiji, with white sand and palm-fringed beaches but not a luxury resort or fellow tourist in sight. We return to a clifftop hotel on the edge of the main island and spend a great afternoon sipping cocktails around the pool. It feels good to relax.

With the ever-helpful Vijay, we set off for Suva, stopping only for a stand-up lunch in the pouring rain at the back door of a bakery. In the capital, a large family gathering ensues with Marcus, a musician, overjoyed to be playing with the many other musicians in the family, particularly our famous sitar and tabla-playing cousin Viveka.

We meet many more cousins, all so welcoming and warm. We spend happy days in Suva, staying with Jan and Sunita, visiting the Fiji museum with the remains of the poor Reverend Baker’s shoes and some of the implements used to eat him back in the days of cannibalism, and getting to know this small but busy colonial city.

We head back in a taxi around the underside of Viti Levu towards Nadi International Airport. Charlie, the barefooted Fijian driver whose grandfather had been a cannibal, drives us past the luxury InterContinental Hotel at Natadola, where we spent the first two nights after our long flight.

Our pilgrimage is complete; full circle from Viti Levu. I know we all feel very proud to be part of this large, colourful, Fiji-Indian family.

ESSENTIALS The details

How to do it
Visit Viti Levu island for the true Fijian experience. Don’t miss the city of Suva and areas like Rakiraki. The InterContinental in Natadola offers luxury with a small island feel.
Buses and cabs are plentiful and cheap. For that castaway experience take a boat or seaplane to the Yasawa and Mamanuca islands.
Air New Zealand, British Airways/Qantas, Cathay Pacific and Korean Air all offer indirect flights to Fiji.

More info
Books
Lonely Planet Fiji. RRP: £14.99.
Bittersweet: The Indo-Fijian Experience
by Brij V. Lal. RRP: £18.90;
Children of the Sun: Fiji Islands
by Glen Craig. RRP: £12.50.
Websites
www.fijime.com
www.fijiguide.com

Checklist — before you go
Red tape: UK citizens staying up to 120 days do not need a tourist visa.
Health: Check with your GP and allow time for vaccinations/boosters.
Pack well: Most towns have good supplies, villages less so. Take mosquito repellent.

Published in the May/June 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)