As we rose and looked out on the approaching islands of Fiji, the scene wasn’t quite as imagined. Rather than sun kissed palm fringed beaches we could see leaden skies, steady rain, a rather industrial looking port ahead and some ominous shipwrecks surprisingly adjacent to our starboard bow!
It was more akin to sailing in to Greenock than Suva, capital of Fiji and on the island of Viti Levu. No offence intended to the good people of Greenock – I have fond memories of two years working there. Those memories include lunchtimes driving down to the port to see the cruise ships docked there and wondering what places the guests on board were visiting that day.
Our planned tour in Suva, a forest walk to a waterfall and a chance to swim, had been cancelled last minute the evening before we arrived, due to heavy rain causing a landslide on the trail. This was a portent of what lay ahead weather-wise. Due to the customary efficiency of the Grand Princess shore excursions team we were immediately able to choose and book a replacement tour and opted for a visit to two local villages with a longboat river trip needed to reach one.
The rain was continuing to fall as we disembarked and boarded our local coach, fetchingly upholstered with plastic seat covers. This, along with the lack of air conditioning, made us glad that the temperature was much more comfortable at the low 70s than it had been in the last few days. Our local guides were charming and appeared genuinely thrilled we were there; this was to become the dominant and redeeming feature of the day.
Many of the South Pacific economies have suffered greatly through the pandemics as cruise ships disappeared. We are only the second large vessel to have visited Tahiti and Fiji and, as both are impoverished nations, the income from tourism is vital to their fragile economies. The majority of Fijians exist from farming the land and the government depends largely on aid to function. Tourism is the main additional source of revenue and no doubt the villages we visited today will be reimbursed for the warm hospitality they provided.
As we set off on an hour’s drive to our first village the rain began to ease, the clouds lifted and we could begin to see the lush, fertile landscape which one would expect in this climate. We could also see evidence of some basic agriculture and some homes, raised on stilts, very basic structures which housed both local farmers and squatters, who come to Fiji from a range of smaller Pacific islands. Once again, these pictures are mainly taken from a moving bus with rainstreaked windows so please forgive any blurring.
Our first stop was at the village of Raiwa. We were enthusiastically greeted with cries of ‘Bula Bula’ which we had been taught as the local familiar greeting which encompasses warmth and good wishes. We would trumpet this is reply throughout the day, always receiving huge smiles in return. Locals accompanied us through the village to a communal hut where we removed our shoes and took welcome shelter from the gently falling rain.
The Fijians say ‘if you haven’t tasted Kava you haven’t been to Fiji’. Our guides were unfathomably mysterious about the process but advised us we would witness the ceremony and be offered a drink. Sure enough, after a hugely energetic and infectious musical welcome from assembled villagers the chief, assisted by several suitably attired and painted warriors, provided the ground root to our elected ‘chief’ who – somewhat apprehensively it must be said – accepted the drink. As he had suffered no apparent ill effects, several of us agreed to try the drink. I was offered a mercifully small portion of what looked like dirty dishwater and tasted pretty much of that ilk. My host was evidently delighted at my participation and the genuine pleasure our hosts were taking in our presence was humbling.
So much so that when the dancing and music began again I threw off my normal inhibitions for such things and took to the floor.
I was not alone – the pure warmth of the welcome was infectious and appeared utterly genuine. I’ve been to similar gatherings where there has been an undercurrent of cynicism, weariness or aim for financial gain but none of these ulterior motives seemed to sully today’s proceeding which were rather infused with an innocent delight.
With much waving and cries of ‘Moce’ (mo-thay) for ‘goodbye’ we left for our second port of call. A very short bus ride took us to a water taxi stance where we were ushered into colourful vehicles (which were most definitely not longboats!) for a short journey along and across the river to the island village of Naililili.
We were greeted once more with warmth and enthusiastic cries of ‘Bula Bula’. We received flowers in our hair, the charm of which was admittedly somewhat diminished by the fact that the continually falling rain had given us a faint aura of drowned rodent.
Our guide advised us that this village had previously been one of the last to practice cannibalism and we were shown the trees from where the victims were hung awaiting ingestion by the chief. Thankfully the Christian missionaries arrived, the practice was abolished and a cathedral built which still is home to a congregation of some 800 souls.
The interior of the church is cheerfully decorated, if showing some signs of needing care and attention. The altar is one used by Pope John Paul II who performed mass from it in Suva in 1986.
From here we took our taxis back to the bus for a rather soggy return journey to the ship. Reflections are of a much less beautiful place than expected, perhaps a good example of the fact that although a day visit on a cruise can introduce you to a country and often charm you with it’s flavours, it doesn’t always do the country full justice. I’m sure there are beautiful beaches and idyllic forest parks on the island. As we sailed out and the cloud continued to lift, there were teasing hints that these lay south of where we had anchored.
What will remain with me is the genuine warmth and affection with which we were welcomed by the islanders we were fortunate to talk, walk and dance with today.