Saturday, 19 November 2011

Fiji – a Land of Striking Contrasts

A guest post by Martin S Pribble

This, the first of the guest appearances by other readers of Something Surprising to celebrate the first 50,000 page views, comes from the other side of the world, written especially for publication here.

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If you read my blog regularly you’d know that I recently took a trip to the paradise that is the Fijian islands. For the first 5 nights we spent our time inside a walled compound that was fortified enough to keep out marauding hordes of zombies. Most of the people who were staying at that resort were Australian bogans, people who think that a holiday in a foreign destination should consist of drinking piƱa coladas by the pool and NEVER leaving the resort. Luckily we had gone to Fiji for a friend’s wedding, so our immediate group was friends and family who I love and who don’t fit that stereotype. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Aldous Huxley’s book “Brave New World”, where the rich and privileged exist inside the walled compound while the poor “savages” carry on their existences outside. I apologise to Fiji on behalf of Australia, we are not all like that.

Outside the zombie-proof compound was a very different world from the sterile and Disney-esque fire-twirling performances by well oiled and buff Fijian men in grass skirts. It was a land of contrasts, some which I totally understand, and others that I find perplexing indeed.

Fiji is a place of intense beauty and lush green vegetation, and has a particularly high annual rainfall, yet for many of the outer isles, water is scarce and many of these islands suffer regularly from drought. While there can be huge downpours in Nadi, only 50 km away in The Yasawa islands they may only see the far off clouds. In 2009 a cyclone hit the main island of Viti Levu and washed away bridges, roads and people, yet the outer islands only received moderate storms. Water water everywhere, and yet…

For the most part the people live in poverty. Fiji is a 3rd world country, and an average salary is about $100 a week, only 10% of the annual average wage of an Australian. Their homes suffer the double-pronged attack of humidity and poverty, which makes upkeep quite difficult. Despite these squalid living conditions, where the people share their living quarters with livestock, there is a “pride of place” to these dwellings, many painted in bright colours among the cyclone-wire fences and wandering goats. And despite not having much, there is a tradition in Fiji, if someone passes your house, you must offer them food, or to share in the meal you are preparing. No matter how poor these people seem, they are rich in hospitality.

The fact that tourism is their main source of employment serves them well; not only is Fiji a beautiful environment, with perfect weather and clean clear oceans, but the people and their attitudes toward westerners is authentically one of caring. A Fijian will go a long way to please a tourist, putting themselves out much more than would any of their western counterparts. On thing that struck a note with me though was the recognition that beneath the hospitality and care there seemed to exist a resentment toward many of the holiday makers. Of course the Fijian people recognise that the tourists are necessary for both their employment and their economy, but I couldn’t help but feel that they look at tourists with a sense of distaste with the way that the holidaymakers conducted themselves. Watching the majority of folk at the first resort we stayed at, I can understand why this is.

Part of their rich cultural heritage is a particularly violent past, one where warriors and chiefs alike would seek out opponents and kill then eat their bodies as a way to humiliate them in defeat, yet today the people of Fiji are some of the most caring and welcoming people I have ever met. Despite this welcoming and caring nature, in Fiji there exists a strong class divide between the native Fijians and the Fijian born people of Indian descent; Indo-Fijian people are not allowed to own land, and many of the homeless people in Fiji’s cities of Nadi and Suva are of Indian descent. For the greater part of the last 100 years, the government of Fiji was mostly Indian, acting on behalf of the English Commonwealth, and at that time the Indians were the ruling class. Since the military coups of the last several decades, all this has changed. Fiji is now run by it’s military. Typically a military government means that a country is holding onto order by tenterhooks, bringing in the military as a last resort measure to pull a it back from the brink of self-destruction. Often a military government can mean strict social measures, limiting the choices of its citizenry and committing violations to a population’s freedom. Not so in Fiji. Under the military government, Fiji is now spending millions on upgrading its roads, by way of a contract with a Malaysian country which hires a lot of local people to do the work for them. Also their old-age pension has trebled in value, and crime had plummeted, especially crime against tourists. This is very different from the military regimes we have seen in the rest of the world.

While the cannibalistic past of the Fijian islands is historical and documented fact, the remembrances the of these times and the deeds done during them is both revered and shunned. The nostalgia is tainted with shame, as if the people feel both a need to hold onto their cultural past, and yet to hide it under the rug. One of the main tourist items in Fiji is replica fighting weapons, specialised for inflicting particular damage to the opponents. You can’t walk 50 feet in tourist areas and not see a “back-breaker” or a “neck-breaker” in the tourist areas, and the stories told to the tourists are of fierce man-eating savages with no regard for life. The stories do seem exaggerated, however they are retellings of the way the Fijians used to live, and the embellishment is meant to give the tourists a little jolt. I’m not sure however that this intention is met, with the “theme park” tourists instead seeing this as an affirmation of just how “civilized” they are. What is surprising is that the people of Fiji attribute the end of cannibalistic practices to the introduction of Christianity instead of the irresistible push for normalization by an increasingly industrialized and global used world. This has become accepted as fact rather than the propaganda spun by the church that it actually is. Fijian people will talk proudly about the warrior past, but also dismiss it by saying “We are not like that anymore”, as if the shame that religion has brought to them reduces the significance of these deeds. The “wild west” history of Fiji has now become a tool for religion to contrast against as if to say “See how we fixed these people?”

Once I saw these conflicting contrasts in Fiji, it allowed me to deal with the people on a much more personal level, one where I felt compassion for their situation, and empathy for their plight. I am hoping that in time people who travel to destinations such as Fiji will take some time to look around them, to see not only what is happening but ask also ask why, and then maybe they would understand more about the world and its people. Through this kind of understanding of others, we have a better appreciation of how we can move forward as a global society, rather than just pushing the rich forward.


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Many thanks to Martin S Pribble for supporting Something Surprising in many ways, and for bringing an Australian viewpoint to our attention here.  You can read his regular posts on his own blog at http://www.martinspribble.com/ and follow him on twitter @MartinPribble

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have to call you out on an inaccuracy in this statement: "For the greater part of the last 100 years, the government of Fiji was mostly Indian" :Fiji has only had ONE Indian head of government: when Mahendra Chaudhary was elected in 1999. Prior to this, there have been i-Taukei (Native Fijian) PM, and British governors during colonial times. See this link: http://www.fijibure.com/rulers.htm