Krishna’s taxi sped flamboyantly, in the manner of Third World taxis, towards Lautoka, the second city of Fiji.
“I like the dry side,” Derek said, more than once, but for me this part of Viti Levu (Great Fiji, the main island) was a disappointment. I had imagined soaring hills and wanton vegetation; but the western or leeward side lies in a rain-shadow. This year there was a drought, preceded by a hurricane; the land had a used-up look: sere hills, small fields of stunted sugar cane, pale greens and browns, and in one dry valley a shantytown of corrugated iron shacks on hard red earth.
“Poor people,” Krishna said.
Indians without land. Fijian doesn’t live like Indian. Fijians live all together in village, all help each other. Indian lives anywhere, always struggling with neighbours and relatives. Indian is very individual man. If he succeed, get rich. If he fail, end up in shantytown.”
Whenever no vegetation or rise in topography blocks it, the Pacific comes in view to the west: a great slab of silver indistinct in the haze of smoke and dust. To the east, low mountains rise slowly like the weary hills of Africa. The large islands of Fiji are not vertical crags thrown up by the volcanic action that raised Hawaii and Tahiti; they are mainly remnants of an ancient land mass, and their age shows in rounded contours and gentle slopes. In Fijian the dry side is called the talasiga, the “sunburnt country”-bald from centuries of slash-and-burn farming and brush fires. Exhausted land is colonized by worthless spear grass, but here and there the forestry service has made small plantings of Caribbean pine. These trees look out of place in the company of scattered palms and the great poincianas and monkeypods that shade the road.
“See that mountain there? We call that the Sleeping Woman. When you see it from the top of Tabletop Mountain, over there”Krishna pointed-“it look like pregnant lady.”
Drifts of smoke rising from the slopes were soon lost in the general blur, and lower down dense palls hung over cane fields burned for harvesting.
“I thought you said they didn’t burn cane here?” Derek challenged an earlier assertion of Krishna’s. “Some do but they shouldn’t. Burnt cane is easier to cut, but it must be crushed quickly or it no good.”
Many of the Indian bungalows were large, surrounded by shrubs, with a car in the drive. Others were less grand, but all looked neat; even the shantytown was orderly and substantial when compared, say, to the slums of Lima. It occurred to me that the entire population of the Fiji Islands is one tenth of Lima’s. There was no comparison, yet I could not help making comparisons. Some houses were flying small red pennants from bamboo poles. In Peru this sign tells that home-brewed beer is for sale. I asked if it meant the same thing here. Krishna was offended:
“When people have a prayer meeting they put a red flag there. House must be very clean and correct. It serious business.”
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 Fiji Guide to serialize his work for your enjoyment. We welcome your comments.
©2018 Ronald Wright