You can’t stay disgruntled for long in Fiji, where the all-pervasive ocean, alive with blues, looks as textured as a Turkish carpet rolled out to meet the horizon. I’ve spent the morning on my private beach, located steps from my personal villa, somewhere near my own yoga platform and its adjacent swimming pool, in ruminative solitude, and focused on an artistic endeavour. With a kids’ sized box of coloured pencils, I’ve been hard at work attempting to re-create the vista I see before me. Like a bikini-clad Monet, I’ve watched the light change, noticed the waters begin to glitter as faceted gems, seen the colourful birds and fat frogs come and go. Unlike Monet, I can’t capture it at all.
At Laucala Island, one of 300 varied-sized islands that compose this archipelago nation, I have other options. I could be riding a horse along a craggy ridge, become ensconced in the cliffside spa, tee off on the undulating, oceanside greens or submerge amid schools of rainbow-coloured fish in the private-island resort’s diminutive submarine. Reproaching myself for wasting time at this all-inclusive hideaway (owned and operated as an eco resort by the founder of Red Bull), I suddenly realise that being one with Fiji’s untarnished landscape is hardly misspent moments. I’ve smelled the flower-flecked wind, listened to the clapping hands of the waves, and felt the sun’s caresses on my (increasingly) golden skin. Putting away my pencils and mounting the bike I’ve borrowed for the tenure of my stay, I pedal across some of Laucala’s 3,500-acres. Since my sketching didn’t work out so well, I think I’ll head out now to watch some other artists at work.
Fiji, a patchwork of cultures that includes European, Indian and Chinese, manifested in elements from food to festivals, has its foundation in its indigenous Oceanic population. So bellicose in ancient times that they garnered the nickname “Cannibal Islands,” today’s Fijians couldn’t be more affable. Kind hearted and down to earth, with a zeal for education and an intuitive desire to connect with others, Fijians generously adopt you into their way of life. “Bula!” cry out various staff members as I pass them on my bicycle. “Bula!” I exclaim back, trying not to crash into a coconut tree, while raising both arms into the air – the sometimes physical part of this classic greeting. (Bula, an exuberant, multi-use word is most often used to say hello or when making a toast.)
After a few minutes, I reach my destination – the Cultural Village. Perhaps the heartbeat of Laucala, it sits on a grassy plain, shaded by trees, and marked by three bure, a Fijian version of a home or hut. Wooden-beamed and thatched-roofed, these open-air houses reflect the way of life in a traditional Fijian hamlet. Today, few of these bure villages remain; most have been replaced by structures of painted, stacked concrete blocks, crowned with corrugated tin. At Laucala, the Cultural Village holds three traditional structures: the Spirit House, Chief’s House and the Village Hall. Meant to be a quiet, educational alternative to jet skis or swimming pools, the village operates without pretense. It aims to immerse guests into Fijian sensibilities. During every guest’s stay, Laucala offers a typical Fijian night, which brings staff and locals to sit among you for a family-style dinner, join in the singing and dancing and personally explain traditions, legends and history.
I approach the village, noting that it feels stuck in time. A man pensively whittles a dugout canoe and two women work diligently, side by side, on disparate crafts, shaded beneath the thatched rooftops. One woman weaves baskets, while the other wields a primitive looking paintbrush made from pandanus seeds, swabbing it across a caramel-coloured canvas. “Bula,” says the latter, grinning widely. “What’s your name?” When I tell her, she squeals with joy. “I am the one who made your tapa,” she says, pointing at herself, and simultaneously beginning to unroll beautiful scrolls of tapa cloth, a product made from the bark of mulberry or breadfruit trees. “I am your artist,” she says, explaining that she made the scroll I received the night before as a gift from a friend, a beautiful map-like square etched with my name. With pride, she shows me how she darkens the cloth with
milky-coffee-brown paint made from the koka tree to give it background
colour. It looks like layered, pressed paper from medieval times – or
papyrus; thick, overlapping with fibres, and smooth to the touch.
I watch as she takes black and chocolate-hued paint (gleaned from the mangrove) to stencil, smudge and stamp designs. She tells me that Fijians once wore clothing made from tapa – explaining that nowadays they don it only for special occasions – such as weddings. Forget sketching. By the time I bike back to my villa, I’m formulating a plan to move to Fiji, live in a bure and design tapa-cloth wedding dresses for the rest of my life.
But then I learn about kava. “It makes my face turn numb,” says my helicopter pilot as we chopper over a dozen emerald gumdrops poised in the rumbling Delft-blue South Pacific en route to Royal Davui, another seductive, private island resort. He’s trying to explain the effects Fiji’s national drink, a slightly narcotic, but not mind altering, beverage, made from soaking a root in water. Denizens in Fiji knock it back all day long; much like the rest of the world puts away coffee. And, if you want to do a business deal, impress a village chief, or hang with the cool kids, you better be prepared to partake of this earthy tasting, cloudy libation. “Wait until you see how they make it” continues the pilot. I can tell by his face this will be good; he looks like a lunatic teenager. “They filter it with dirty socks!” As it turns out, he’s wrong about the dirty socks – and on point about the mouth numbing results. I find kava leads to powerful dreams (not nightmares). When I ask a Fijian about that, he just looks at me as if I were crazy. “I never dream,” he says. What’s true is that kava acts as a threshold to connection between individuals – even tourists.
At Royal Davui, an eight-acre island with 16 villas, owned by sixth-generation Fijians, I sit cross-legged on the floor of their treehouse-like Banyan Tree restaurant as an honorary chief strains the liquid through a cloth filter. A woody aroma fills the air. I wait my turn, holding an empty coconut bowl in my hands. As each participant drinks before me, a ritual of clapping and shouts of “bula” follow. When my cup is filled to the top, my kava friends clap – and I down it in one gulp. I don’t feel woozy or weird, just happy to be amid a crowd of new friends. The kava bonding ritual makes you feel part of the Fijian family. Don’t leave Fiji without cruising to some of the islands that aren’t resorts. One Sunday, I sail across a lagoon to participate in a tiny village’s church service. There, inside a simple wooden building, I listen to a choir of children croon and harmonise with such passion and verve, that I’m moved to tears. Another day I visit a school, and spend the morning reading to eager first graders, who later lead me around their village to show me their homes. (Fiji’s literacy rate stands at nearly 94 per cent and its official language is English.) One day I travel to Taveuni to Bouma National Heritage Park to hike a mountain trail that leads to three stunning waterfalls. There, local families picnic and frolic in the swimming holes beneath the falls, just as I do.
I end a recent trip to Fiji at Wakaya Club and Spa, another private island paradise with just a handful of rooms [set to re-open after refurbishments in December, 2016]. At this onetime coconut plantation, I live the life of barefoot privilege. Though lazily in repose, I tour the farm, snorkel the pellucid lagoon; hike the mountain and tour fascinating archaeological sites. Heady with James Michener visions of the South Pacific, I keep trying to sketch the panorama. When it’s time to go home, I haven’t succeeded with a likeness. As I skulk to the jeep, which will whisk me to the airstrip, I see a crowd gathering. Surrounding me stands each person I’ve met on this island, from maids to waiters to hiking guides. Together they begin to sing Isa Lei, a traditional Fijian farewell song. The dulcet tune has been passed down for generations. Sorrowful and joyful simultaneously, it feels like love. Who need a perfect sketch when you have the jubilation of Fiji in your heart?
Wakaya Club and Spa
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