Sunday, July 6, 2014

FIJI: THE LAND AND THE PEOPLE


Far, far away from Indianapolis, there is a place where the perfect panorama of calendar photos and screensavers are born.  It’s the place for lovers and those in search of ultimate relaxation; it’s the view of luxury.  To visit Fiji is to live the high life. But the island nation in the South Pacific is more than a pretty beach. Even though I think I need to go there and investigate this myself.

Where the name Fiji came from made me roll my eyes. The word isn’t Fijian at all.  They call their country Viti in their own language.  The word “Fiji” came from the English pronunciation of Fisi, the name for the islands that their neighbor Tonga gives them. 
Fiji actually consists of 322 islands (of those, 106 are inhabited), and they also include 522 smaller islets.  The largest two are Viti Levu (where the capital city Suva is) and Vanua Levu.  Most of the islands are spread in the same general vicinity, with the exception of the island of Rotuma, a special administrative region, which lies about 310 miles north of the main islands. The average temperature in the cool season stays around 72ºF. (This sounds absolutely perfect. I wonder if I can “work from home” from Fiji.) It’s home to many coral reefs and a wide variety of marine life.

Pottery found on the islands dates settlement between 3500-1000 BC, although it’s not exactly clear the order of migration.  Some historians believe the Lupita peoples, or early ancestors to the Polynesians may have been the first inhabitants on the islands; it’s also believed that the Melanesians were the second major group of people to land on the islands before moving on farther to Samoa, Tonga, and even Hawai’i.  Most of the islands in the South Pacific have been trading with each other from the beginning of civilization.  During the 19th century, stories of cannibalism and fierce tribes kept many of the European steering clear of the Fijian islands. One of the most macabre characters from history is the chief Ratu Udre Udre.  He’s considered by the Guinness Book of World Records to be the “most prolific cannibal.” It’s been noted that he has consumed between 872-999 people, keeping a stone for each person he ate. He was under the influence of the crazy idea that if he consumed his 1000th person, he would gain immortality.  (And who’s going to tell him otherwise? If you did, you’d probably be helping his cause.) It wasn’t until Abel Tasman (yes, the same guy who discovered Tasmania Island and New Zealand) set sight on Fiji in 1643, although he never actually landed there.  Most of the Europeans who landed here were missionaries, whalers, and those who were in the sandalwood trade and sea cucumber trade (apparently, there was such a thing). Eventually, the warring tribes ceased under the leadership of the chief Ratu Seru Epenisa Cakobau. The British then took over the islands in 1874, bringing over laborers from India to work the sugar plantations.  However, they also brought on a measles epidemic that wiped out nearly 40,000 Fijians (about one-third of the population at that time). Fiji was granted their independence from Britain in 1970, and since then, suffered through two military coups in 1987, another in 2000, and a fourth one in 2006. 

The capital city of this island country is Suva, on the southeast coast of the main island of Viti Levu.  Even though it is the capital, it’s not the largest city; that would be nearby Nasinu.  Suva is not only home to the nation’s political and administrative districts, but the larger metropolitan area is home to many of the nation’s top universities and colleges, business districts, shopping centers, and sports arenas.  In fact, Suva has hosted the South Pacific Games three times in the forty years it has been running.  The city itself is multiracial and multicultural, as is most of the country. Museums, libraries, parks, and theatres dot themselves across the city as well.  In 1953, Suva suffered through the most devastating earthquake in its history.  The 6.75 earthquake killed eight people and caused nearly a half-million dollars in damage (1953 figures in US dollars).

Fiji has an abundance of forest, fish, and mineral resources making it one of the most productive economies in the South Pacific.  The sugar industry is one of the nation’s leading industries; they are number two in receiving sugar subsidies in the world (after Mauritius).  The islands are also dependent on tourism.  Resorts and local transportation are also dependent on the tourism boom. Trade, international banking, investment, and housing are growing, but it’s still a criticized sector of the economy, especially under the rule of a military government.

A large portion of Fijians is Christian, thanks to the British influence. This is probably one of the few countries where the Methodist Church is the largest denomination.  Other denominations include Roman Catholic, Assembly of God, Seventh-Day Adventist, The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, and the Anglican Church. Of the Indo-Fijians, most are either Hindu or Muslim with a small portion of Christians.  Of those who practice Hinduism, most are of the Sanatan sect with a small number of followers of Arya Samaj sect. The vast majority of Muslims are Sunnis. Baha’i and Jewish populations are also minutely represented in Fiji as well.
Bula = Hello
The Fijian language is the official language of Fiji.  English and Fiji Hindi also have official status as well. Fijian is a part of the Malayo-Polynesian family of languages, and while there are many dialects, Standard Fijian is based on Bau, an island in the eastern region.

Professional golfer and champion Vijay Singh was born and raised in Fiji (he’s of Indo-Fijian background, although he lives in Florida now). Nalini Krishan is another famous Fijian – she played the character Bariss Offee from the Star Wars movies Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.  It’s hard to recognize her because of all the make-up.  Rugby is huge in Fiji. And by that, I mean, some ten percent of the population plays rugby and the others watch. Years ago, I was making my way through the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Movies” list (the 1998 version).  Number 86 on that list was the 1935 film Mutiny on the Bounty.  While the movie is criticized for it’s historical inaccuracies, it’s been said that after Captain Bligh and 18 of his men were set adrift by the mutineers in 1789 off the coast of Tahiti, they drifted into Fijian waters and narrowly escaped Fijian war canoes. The International Date line runs just to the right of the island group, and was angled to include most of the islands; however, it does runs through the middle of the island of Taveuni – at one point, you can put one foot in today and one foot in yesterday.  And yes, Fiji Water, one of the most expensive bottled waters I’ve ever purchased, is actually water from Fiji. So, grab your Fiji Water, if your bank account allows, and follow me to Fiji (I wish that were a literal statement; well, ok, no I don't. I don't want EVERYONE to go with me. I'm way too introverted for that. Just keep reading, ok?).

Up next: holidays and celebrations

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