Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

My Island Home

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The call came around five o’ clock. “Mrs Corbett,” (you will have to imagine the accent). “This is Rajendra here from Air Pacific Sydney. Your flight to Fiji will be delayed by two hours.”

You know the rest, my last blog described it. What I did not tell you, is that phone call had a subtext, a message borne of living in Suva for four years. It said “Welcome to the South Pacific, where time moves slowly — Welcome Home.”

The flight itself was uneventful (apart from being offered fish curry at 5:45 in the morning). We all managed a little sleep and our rental car was waiting at the airport as arranged (Ok, so folding seats needed help and one of the six seat belts wasn’t working, but there were only five of us and the air conditioner worked. It was functional). I had forgotten the soft diffidence of Fijian customer service and the shy smiles. I had forgotten how easy it is to intimidate people who are waiting for something to go wrong, the urge to reassure that once lived in my heart for four years.

Everything was familiar to Andrew and I. But for Phoebe, Seth and particularly Priya it was seeing things anew through grown up eyes. As we travelled through Nadi and headed for the Coral Coast it became a memory game.

Phoebe: “Oh. I remember that. One point to me!”

Seth: “So do I!”

Phoebe: “Are you sure Seth? I don’t think you can. You were only four years old.”

Seth: “Well, I remember going to McDonalds. I went there didn’t I?”

We drove through Nadi, past the temple, past small tin houses and gaudy cement mansions; past cane fields and through villages past the turn off to Sonaisali Island Resort.

“Oh, there’s Natadola beach and the sugar cane train.”

Seth: “Did I go on the sugar cane train?”

Liz: “Someone did. I can’t remember who.”

Phoebe: “Jack would know, if he was here … ”

And later

Liz: “So what do you think Priya? Do you like it?”

Priya: “Yes, the air is kind of thick (humid) here but I like seeing so many brown people walking around.

I was all for brunch at McDonalds. Memories of our first, hungry, trip to Rakiraki were fresh in my mind. Newly arrived ex-patriots in Fiji we had set out with money in our pockets and the calm assurance that we could buy lunch in Korovou, only to find there was nothing nothing appealing.

“No,” Andrew said. “Not McDonalds. Sigatoka will have “come on” a bit.”

Of course, “come on,” is a Western construct based on our own values and expectations of progress. It really means looking for evidence that another country is like our own. No matter how crass, you simply can’t help doing it.

In Sigatoka we saw no evidence of “come” or “on,” but we had lunch there at a Cafe proudly advertising that it was: “under Swiss management.” The Swiss management had been in Fiji for too long judging by the pile of cigarettes on his ash tray beside his laptop, but the curry was nice (Swiss?) and it was a clean shop.

Two things of note on the way to Suva:

One was the advent of the public telephone called a Drua Phone. Not a booth a sort of Perspex cone with phone in it. They were everywhere!

Second was an innocent observation of Seth’s while driving through a Fijian village. “It’s two ‘o clock Friday afternoon. Is everyone on holiday or something?”

Suva was just as we remembered it: chaotic, crumbling and smelly. I love it. You will be pleased to know there were signs of both “come” and “on,” in Suva, although I am not sure who is paying for it. The two Coups that have occurred since our time have had a devastating effect on the economy. Never-the-less, there were new buildings everywhere. The parks and footpaths along the Suva sea wall had also been developed.

We had a fantastic Curry at the Bad Dog Cafe the first night in Suva – yes! It is still there – and we went to a movie at Village Six which was built while we were living in Suva. What can I say about Village Six? It smelled distinctly like Blue Vein Cheese. Now, I am rather partial to blue vein cheese as a culinary experience but not as an olfactory experience, and especially not when trying to watch a movie. The upholstery, the carpet the curtains were simply unsuited to tropical conditions.

Priya and I used the public toilets at the cinema. Ok, so it was challenging. But you can do anything if you have to. Priya was not so sanguine. The noises of dismay coming from her cubicle (some sort of insect) were astonishing. I expect I sounded rather callous. “Just stop making a fuss and get on with it.” A woman emerging from a nearby toilet asked: “Is she alright in there?” Her accent told me she was Australian. “She’ll be fine,” I said. “She is just experiencing cross-cultural meltdown.”

Priya spent most of our time in Suva clutching convulsively at my hand. It was all so strange and so unlike what she was used to. We took her to the market, the fish market, the hospital where she was born; the orphanage where her mother stayed (ante-natally); as well as to the International School and to our old house. A highlight was morning tea with Naomi the Fijian Marama who worked in our house for three years. She has not changed a bit, except that she is a Bubu (grandma) now and very proud of it.

My general impression of Suva is that it has Westernised. We ate breakfast at the Queensland Insurance arcade and lunch at The Cottage (a brightly painted weatherboard specialising in local cuisine for Kai Vulangi’s). I counted three escalators and a number of new shopping centres around town. There were Cafe’s and cappuccino machines everywhere and some of them actually worked!

When we were living in Fiji, Indian women wore full Sari or Salwaar Kameez with gold bangles and ear rings and toes rings and necklaces as well as red pigment along their hair parting denoting their marriage status. Fijian women wore Sulu and Chaba, men wore Sulu Vakatanga. The city was alive with Bula prints. It was always grimy and over crowded, of course, but colourful and somehow exotic.

Now cheap western clothing is the mode. Even older Fijian women are wearing skirts and the younger women are wearing shorts. Traditional hairstyles have been abandoned for relaxed perms and various hair products. I am not saying this is a bad thing. Hey, if it is cheaper, more comfortable and convenient, so be it. But to me it felt like something was missing. Suva had lost the cultural manifestations that made it unique.

The resort was fantastic. We stayed at the Fijian. We ate too much, of course. We swam we snorkelled and read books. Some of us sailed and played tennis. Andrew and I went to the gym every day to try and counteract the kilos we were gaining. I have a new i-pod so I revised my Welsh by listened to a number of podcasts from BBC Catchphrase while pounding away at the running machine.

The service at the resort was very professional. It was not simply a few Maramas from the local village waiting on tables with enormous smiles and very little industry experience. These days the Lovo night is exclusive and expensive. The local village Meke is a choreographed event. The boy who climbed up the coconut palms to collect fronds and coconuts wore a harness and spiked shoes. Safety standards have made it to the pacific and that, by the way, is a good thing.

But I remember a different Fiji. A Fiji where the man who supervised the sail boats at the resort sat down with an out of tune guitar sang to us over lunch. Where a woman (who was obviously a man) performed proudly in the front row of the women’s Meke. I enjoyed holidays at island resorts where the kerosene for the resort’s torch lights was stored unsafely on the beach. A Fiji where young boys shimmied up coconut trees in a pair of ragged shorts and bare feet. Those of course were the bad old days and that is purely nostalgia speaking. I am glad, for the people working there that those days have passed, that there is now work safety and adequate professional training. I am also glad I lived in Fiji when I did. Before excessive Westernisation, in a time when there was at least an illusion of innocence, when Fiji was unsophisticated and, somehow, more free.

I will put the photo’s up on Flickr so you can walk down memory lane with me.

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1 Comment

  1. Look forward to seeing the photographs on Flickr but ion the meanwhile thanks for your account.

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