Savoring Suva

As the largest city in the South Pacific, Suva feels like a bustling metropolis after the months spent on uninhabited islands and in small villages. There is a huge market, crowded streets, and plenty of tempting restaurants. Heading ashore, the heavy industry surrounding the harbor slowly gives way to busy streets full of tiny shops and cramped stalls. We are anchored off of the Royal Suva Yacht Club, about a mile from downtown Suva. Across from the yacht club is the Suva Prison, which looks a lot like the set of Shawshank Redemption. The population of Fiji is fairly evenly divided between native Fijian and Fijian-Indians, many whose ancestors arrived as indentured servants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although both ethnic groups have been very kind to us, there was a palpable tension between them that was difficult to ignore. On several occasions, I was approached on the street by Fijians who warned me to be careful of Indian’s (they were accused of charging high prices and driving too fast). So far, the prices have been fantastic and the drivers courteous. The diverse population of the city does have culinary benefits and we have found the restaurants in Suva to be outstanding. During the past week, we have enjoyed excellent meals in Fijian, Indian, and Chinese restaurants. The shopping is also exceptional with low prices on clothes, handicrafts, and pirated DVD’s. Thanks to a complete disregard of intellectual property rights, we were able to get our entertainment fix and restock the movie library, which was much needed after two years of watching the same stale DVD’s. Later, we read in one of the local papers that a DVD shop was closed down by the police for selling pirated DVD’s, so perhaps the practice is not as widespread as we initially thought. This article was next to a short blurb mentioning that two men had escaped from the Suva Prison – one a convicted murderer. Apparently, the men took off while on KP duty, bringing the number of unaccounted escapees from the prison to a total of nine. In an unrelated story, while walking back to the boat on Saturday, just outside the yacht club we past a group of people crowded around a man that appeared to be dead. In addition to our onboard entertainment, we even went to the cinema to catch the Bollywood film “Kabhi Alvida Na Kehn.” Expecting the movie to be set in some colorful Indian village, the action instead took place in the exotic locale of, drumroll please … New York and Connecticut. Granted, it has been over a year since I was in New York, but I don’t remember so many well-choreographed dances spontaneously breaking out in the city streets. In summary, I spent four hours in Fiji watching a movie from India about Connecticut. On Wednesday, we visited the Fiji Museum. Usually, local museums are drab and dated tourist traps, providing little in the way of interesting information. This museum was different. The Fiji museum is probably the most morbid museum that I have visited since going to the American War Crimes Museum in Saigon (despite the government propaganda opposing Americans, the Vietnamese were very pro-American and several people asked to take shake our hands and to take pictures with us outside of the museum). The exhibits dealt with dark subjects ranging from shipwrecks to cannibalism. All of the information was in English and the exhibits were extremely effective in describing the fascinating (and violent) history of Fiji. Among the useful information accompanying the displays were the following: – On traditional wooden clubs: “short clubs used in battle, as a symbol of authority, and to maintain order in the polygamous chiefly households.” – On decorating the club: “kills were recorded by notches on the club or by inlaying a tooth from the victim in the head of the club.” – On the sorcerer’s club: “used to curse victims who were then doomed.” – On cannibalism: “the eating of the victim by the priests or chiefs meant that the victim was being totally destroyed or annihilated both physically and spiritually.” – On preparing for a cannibalistic feast: “human flesh was wrapped in borodina leaves, then baked. A sauce was prepared from the tomato like fruit … Malawaci was cooked as a vegetable with human flesh.” – On the cannibalistic celebration: “torture included being thrown alive into ovens, being bled or dismembered, being forced to watch their own body parts being consumed or to have to eat some of themselves.” – On earrings: “the old religion required both sexes to have one or both of their ear lobes slit and expanded to take an ornamental plug of wood, bamboo, shell, or whale-tooth ivory … after death, the spirits attacked those who had not had their ears pierced. These unfortunate souls were captured by spirits, and forced to bear heavy barkcloth beating boards on their backs for eternity.” – On tattoo’s: “rows of puckered dots about the upper chest, back, or shoulders, or concentric circles cut into the upper arm or back were very common. The puckered scars were made by thrusting a sliver of wood or coconut leaf midrib under the skin, and then burning it.” – On mourning: “when a chief or close relative died, the little finger was cut from young men, women, and children, so that adults typically lacked at least the top joints of their little fingers.” – On the European arrival: “Europe first learned of Fiji’s existence in 1643, when the Dutch East Indies yacht “Heemskercq” commanded by Abel Tasman blundered across our north-eastern reefs and islands.” – On beachcombers: “Many foreign sailors were wrecked, marooned, or deserted from ships in the early 1800’s. Some settled in Fiji as “beachcombers”, acquiring wives and attaching themselves to chiefly households.” – On enticing Indians into indentured servitude: “Fiji was described as an island just beyond the Calcutta horizon.” Along with the informative plaques, the museum displayed traditional Fijian canoes, the ornate forks used especially for eating human flesh, the wooden bowl that a missionary was served in, an example of a traditional village home, and archeological artifacts suggesting the links to other Polynesian, Micronesian, and Melanesian islands. Although relatively small, the museum provided an interesting look at a culture and history that is very different from those of Western countries. Perhaps the only aspect of Suva that was unwelcome was the religious fervor evident throughout the city. On the walk from the yacht club to town, we were often accosted by missionaries offering to save our souls in exchange for providing our name and address. Despite the minimal effort required for eternal salvation, thus far I have opted to continue on the path of the damned. Downtown, the Scientologists have commandeered the main park. On the waterfront, a variety of religions not based on a science fiction book hold large gatherings each evening. Even though the boat was anchored more than a mile away, we could hear the fiery speeches reach a crescendo before the choir would break into song to the accompaniment of the preacher screaming “Halleluiah.” Considering how loud it was on the boat, we couldn’t help but wonder how deafening it must have been up close. On Wednesday, we worked up the courage to visit the religious gathering and soon learned that we were fortunate enough to be in Suva during the National Church Foundation Annual Conference. With a large stage and people camping out everywhere, the festival resembled Woodstock, only without the hippies, drugs, and good music. No sooner had we sat down to observe the spectacle than some Jesus-freak approached us and continually repeated “prosperity in Jesus.” The gentleman was obviously inspired by the Lord His Savior and was intent on spreading the good word. Smiling uncomfortably and looking baffled, through clenched teeth I instructed Anna to say something in Polish. For the next few minutes, we pretended not to understand English and the man eventually took his message elsewhere. I felt slightly bad for our deception of such a fervent believer, but, even though I do speak English, in all honesty I really don’t have any idea what “prosperity in Jesus” means. After being moved by the spirit, the spirit then guided us away from the gathering and to a good meal at an Indian restaurant. On Sunday, we took a bus to the Colo-i-Suva rainforest. The forest was fairly small with a few tiny waterfalls trickling frigid water over moss-covered rocks. The trails in the national park were well-maintained despite what must be an endless battle with the mud. Although it is said to rain, on average, four days every week, our visit to the park was on a sunny day and we enjoyed a picturesque walk through the woods. Throughout the week, we dashed all over the city, visiting various government offices in order to secure permission to visit other island groups in Fiji. Just as our clearance into Fiji required a visit to the Customs & Revenue dock, two Immigrations offices, one Quarantine office, two Health Inspectors offices, and a children’s hospital, our quest to gain a cruising permit proved challenging. The adventure began at the Ministry of Fijian Affairs, although in looking for that building I learned a valuable cultural lesson about Fijians: if they don’t know the answer to a question, instead of admitting that they don’t know, they just guess. Several people that I asked for directions gave me conflicting advice, with one security guard directing me to the American Embassy. I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t get a cruising permit for Fiji at the American Embassy, but at least the security guard there was able to point me in the right direction. Once I finally found the office, the cruising permit involved simply writing down my name and boat information before they stamped a piece of paper. However, the journey had just begun. The Lau Group is a specially protected group of islands in Fiji and approval for yachts visiting these islands is difficult to obtain. Despite being upwind from Suva, the islands are a desirable destination because of their famed beauty and unique culture. The friendly workers at the Ministry of Fijian Affairs gave me instructions to the Lau office, so we headed off across town to the bus station. Each bus driver that we asked pointed across the street from the station at a market, so we figured there must be a special bus that departs from the market. Realizing that no bus was stopping, we asked again and were told that the office was located in the bazaar. Sure enough, tucked between a barbershop and a tiny store peddling sandals was the office. Inside, we were told that we would need to go to the Central Police Station to get a Police Clearance and that we would need to provide a letter explaining why we wanted to visit the island group, along with an itinerary of where we would visit. After making copies of our passport, shelling out about $50, and completing several more forms, we were told that our certification would be sent to the Lau office within 10 tens. And so we wait, pestering the employees of the Lau office daily to see if our request has been approved. So far, our visit to Fiji has been fantastic. Our stay in Suva has provided the comforts and conveniences of living in a city that we have largely been lacking for the past few months. Walking around town and learning about the country through reading and our interactions with locals has provided a comfortable way to learn about the islands. Although we have enjoyed our stay in Suva, we are eager to view the authentic culture and natural beauty of the outlying islands. Due to the many reefs throughout Fiji, the sailing here is difficult, but we hope that the challenges (both navigational and bureaucratic) do not prevent us from fully experiencing what appears to be a fascinating country.

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