The narrow tracks of a sugar railway now ran beside the road. A train appeared with a vulgar blast on its electric horn: a boxy yellow engine pulling a dozen flat:-bed cars piled high and wide with blackened cane. The railway, the shiny Toyota and its Hindu icon, the women in saris with pots on their heads, the holy zebu cattle wandering insolently over fields and gardens-all had a disorienting effect. I felt I had no measure of the place. Was this the Third World or the First? The Old World or the New?
And Lautoka: a crisp modern town of twenty thousand; white concrete shops displaying cameras and videos; names like Maneklal Duty Free Camera Emporium, Vishnu Patel Jewellers (“nose and ear piercing a specialty”); and down the middle of the main street, as if to remind everyone what this town is about, a sugar railway beside a row of royal palms. On the waterfront, a graceful park.
There, some bushy-haired Fijians on a bench beneath a poinciana call out“Bula!” and Derek, to show his command of the language, answers them more formally, “Ni sa bula” (“Health to you”). And to fix the word in my mind he points out the trilingual sign of a chemist, in English, Hindi script, and Fijian: Vale Ni Wai Ni Bula, House of the Waters of Health.
Later that afternoon, back at the Nadi Hotel, we sat in the garden and played chess. Out of the sun, the air was indeed “soft,” as Derek had said. Clothes, from a practical point of view, were not needed, yet there was enough of a breeze that one felt no discomfort in shirt and jeans. We ordered draft Fiji Bitter-a good beer made locally by an Australian firm-and drank in drowsy silence. The only sounds were the quarreling cheeps of myna birds (which came to Fiji with the Indians), a dog’s bark, and fussing from the chickens that lived behind the hotel kitchen. Yes, the air was soft, suffused with whiffs of wood smoke, incense, curry, and Derek’s strong tobacco.
Historian, novelist, and essayist Ronald Wright is the award-winning author of nine books of nonfiction and fiction published in 16 languages and more than 50 countries. Much of his work explores the relationships between past and present, peoples and power, other cultures and our own.
On Fiji Islands, was published in 1986 to critical acclaim. He has graciously allowed Fijiguide.com to serialize his work for your enjoyment. We welcome your comments.
©2018 Ronald Wright