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Fiji Islands: Drifted away from paradise

Put your necklace on, jump on the shuttle bus and arrive at the five-star resort. That are pure clichés for honeymooners or package holiday-makers. But behind the glittery facade, there is more: culture, poverty and narcotics.

It smells of samosas. Samosas, dumplings and curry. The air squeezes through the small crack that links the hot air outside with the air conditioning inside the bus.

The streets are colourful and full of saris, the traditional Indian item of clothing that women breezily wrap around their bodies. Bright turquoise, yellow and orange. They match the colourful shop signs, tightly packed together.

The giant boxes outside the music shops are booming out Bollywood music, which somehow suits the old Yamaha scooters whizzing down the street. The scene is perfectly Indian, until a joyful “Bula!” resounds and a garland lands around my neck as I step out of the bus. This is not, in fact, India, but the archipelago of Fiji, embedded in the Pacific Ocean. In the background, you can hear the hum of the traditional Fijian welcome song. Its lyrics are a mantra for the days ahead of us on the island.

Nadi in Fiji: Where paradise starts

“Bula” is the Fijian word for “welcome”, “hello” and “cheers” – the most important parts of life. The Fiji islands have appeared in its fair share of glossy magazines, yet if you look closer it is so multicultural that you can barely ignore the contrasts and differences. Most tourists land at Viti Levu, the largest island, then continue on to the small pieces of paradise scattered around the islands that look just like brochures and honeymoon videos. People go diving, snorkelling and get married. But if you stay on Viti Levu, you get a different experience.

The city of Nadi is the gate to Fiji. This is where the honeymooners arrive, brought to luxury resorts with garlands around their necks. Those who aren’t going to one of the smaller islands stay here and create their own paradise adventure. The garland isn’t a bad start.

Nadi is one of the larger Fijian cities, but not the capital. Barely 12,000 people live here. Owing to the British colonial period between 1871 and 1970, around 40% of the (Fijian) population originates from India, which explains the influence. Most of them live in Nadi.

They are descendants of guest workers brought from Britain to grow sugar cane, who ended up staying – unlike the tourists who only stick around for up to two weeks, top up their tan then fly home. Viti Levu’s main trade is not tourism, though. The locals mostly make a living from selling curry on the street and small attractions created for the few tourists who end up here in the Fiji islands. From Nadi, the remaining tourists are off to the jungle. The Biausevu Trek is a hike through a forgotten bit of land that hasn’t been spruced up for visitors. In fact, there are no clear paths, nor any signs, but there are Fijians pulling their nutshells along the river and leading tourists down the muddy runways.

Around Viti Levu in Millie’s bright blue bus

Millie is one of them. For years, she has been leading tourist groups – mostly young backpackers – through parts of Fiji islands that remain untouched by honeymooners and all-inclusive vacationers. Many of them have just finished a working holiday in Australia and are eager for a bit of island air. Millie takes them around her home island in a bright blue bus. Just about once an hour, she shouts, “Bula!” and explains every last detail of her little paradise, one that is so rarely perceived as the real Fiji islands.

Millie starts the bus and drives towards a resort that is neither typically glamourous, nor a typical five-star joint. Instead, it fits right into nature and the untouched surroundings, possessing its own charm. Viti Levu welcomes newcomers on their first evening with a picturesque sunset, which people on other islands probably enjoy with a mojito or caipirinha. Maybe a flower garland, too.

If you want to explore the islands to the full, you have to get up early. The trip around Viti Levu goes clockwise, stopping in the country’s capital of Suva. If you’ve ever left a resort on one of Fiji’s 332 islands, you’ll see what everyday life is like. Suva is full of little shops that sell everything: bras next to CDs, shampoo next to takeaway curry. It’s interesting to see what goes on behind the scenes here. The people running these shops make very little. In fact, 30% of Fiji’s one-million-strong population lives below the poverty line.

But Millie – a lady in her 30s with an Afro and a constant smile on her face – does well, working in tourism for years. It is a secure job. Tourists are coming in slowly but surely. Cannibals in Fiji islands are a thing of the past. There are also lots of deals for those travelling from Australia and New Zealand who only care about what star hotel they’re staying in.

Despite the increase in tourists, locals do not try to conceal their poverty. It even becomes part of the trip. This place that many governments and tourist offices would try to hide is an important income source for Fiji.

Millie stops the bus on the Suva roadside in front of a small stationery shop. She knows the owner, Zayn. They meet almost every week when Millie brings tourists for a little shopping trip there. They do this before driving to the local school to meet children. Zayn has already prepared everything in little packages containing two notebooks, a few pens, an eraser and an English dictionary. “That’s what kids need at school here,” Zayn declares proudly.

Whether they really need this once a week and at that, from 10 travellers at a time, he doesn’t say. Zayn has a friendly smile, which makes you feel a bit guilty if you don’t buy anything. It also makes you forget that what’s happening here is pretty much forced social work. Millie’s bus continues on, packed with writing equipment.

A few hundred metres away from the school, you can already hear children’s voices harmonising. Naturally, they know the roaring motor of Millie’s bus from a mile off. Half an hour of singing, a short tour through the classrooms, constantly hearing “Hello, how are you?”, and the tourists are gone again. All that remains is the ready-packed stationery from Zayn’s shop, which goes into the storage rooms, already bursting at the seams.

In the end: Narcotics and “Bula!”

The little bamboo hut that Millie squeezes her friends and tour group into is packed. The hut is improvised, but charming. Whether they’re in the Fiji out of the glossy magazines or the one of Viti Levu, there’s one thing everyone in the country loves to do: drink kava.

The powder is put onto a cotton cloth, stretched over a wooden kava bowl called a tanoa. This is filled with water and the powder in the cloth is wrung out, producing a brown liquid that gets carefully poured into a small coconut bowl. Once everyone gets theirs, you shout “Bula!” at the top of your voice and drink it like a shot. One thing’s for sure, though: kava doesn’t taste good. It doesn’t have a taste, in fact, but it numbs your tongue, sometimes to the point where you can’t speak. No wonder kava ceremonies are traditionally organised when there is important news to announce.

Tonight there’s no news, but an numb-tongued travel group and Millie with her unfading glow sitting next to us. It’s the perfect moment to simply enjoy the silence and reflect on all we’ve seen of the real Fiji, the bustling locals, the lovingly-filled packages from Zayn and the innocent laughter of the children.

These are things that could only be seen here, far away from the luxury resorts. The people are there are most likely ordering their next mojito, while we’re all waiting for the next round of kava. Bulaaa!

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