Empty jungle-like lot behind hotel in Suva - Homage to Fiji

Jungle-like lot behind the Victoria Palms hotel in Suva

A surprise destination


I visited the Republic of Fiji basically because I’m not as spry as I once was. I didn’t relish the prospect of flying all the way from San Francisco to Melbourne, Australia, the first of several places in that country where I had friends, without stopping to stretch my legs.

Fiji came up as a stop on one of my flight searches, so I read up a bit on that nation of 330 islands and its capital, Suva, a name I couldn’t remember ever having heard before. Suva is a city of a couple hundred thousand people on the island of Viti Levu, which is by far the most populous one.

I realized that Fiji was a perfect destination for me. I love the tropics. I’d planned to take a train up to Cairns, fairly close to the equator in Northern Australia, at the end of my trip, just to be in that kind of environment. A few days in Fiji would fill that bill at the beginning of my travels.

I used the various online booking sites to find a hotel that did not have comments from former customers about bedbugs, strange smells or all-night noise; and that also didn’t feature $500-a-night rooms, as some resorts did.

Via my library’s Interlibrary Loan system, I procured a small book about Fiji that Lonely Planet had published. I looked at online pictures, planned the rest of my trip and watched the days tick off.

Not always the most peaceful place


Fiji has a rather colourful history, as you may know. It includes a good deal of cannibalism in the fairly distant past. The nation is also unique in the South Pacific, for being composed almost equally of native islanders and people of Indian descent, whose ancestors were brought to the islands as indentured servants in the 1870s to work on Australian-owned sugar plantations.

The two groups don’t have a history of perfect harmony. In fact, the most recent of three coups since the late 1980s by “native Fijians” occurred in 2006. In 2012, however, the nation adopted a new Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion (there’d been pressure from some natives to make Fiji officially Christian) and enshrines the vital clause that everyone who lives in Fiji, as well as those of the Fijian diaspora who’ve migrated elsewhere because of the nation’s troubles, is a Fijian citizen.

During my visit in August of this year, the Fijian experiment appeared to be going well. Even the weather was perfect, with days rarely hotter than 80 degrees Fahrenheit (or 27 degrees Celsius). During my third day there, when I took a guided tour of Suva and its vicinity with Josh, a cab driver I’d become friends with, I believed I might’ve literally found heaven on Earth!

I asked Josh, “Does the weather get hot here?”His reply, “Very hot!” cooled me a bit, so far as migrating there.

I felt mesmerized by the tropical profusion of Life-Force that I encountered with practically every step!

At my hotel, atop the hills that started to rise only a couple of blocks in from Suva’s harbour and main street, I did savour paradise, if only temporarily. Behind the hotel was a small jungle-like area with coconuts, bananas and papayas all growing wild.

As I made my way down the hills on foot my first afternoon, after checking in to the Victoria Palms, an inexpensive establishment that was well-run by trustworthy people—and had good food!—I was in danger of not even reaching the harbour area by nightfall! I felt mesmerized by the tropical profusion of Life-Force that I encountered with practically every step! Here were giant bird-of-paradise plants; there were also big-leafed yams and taro growing in another “jungle lot” I passed. Here, a coconut palm that seemed to be doing a hula dance just for me! Only by finally putting my camera in my pocket did I succeed in getting down to Scott Street, the main drag that runs just inland from the harbour.

Suva is a mix of many kinds of sights, smells, people and feelings. It has a bit of what I call a Terry and the Pirates atmosphere, the sense of a murky Strait-of-Malacca port in a Joseph Conrad novel. I loved that!

Let’s hang out at the mall


Tappoo City office building - Homage to Fiji

Tappoo City, a large department store in Suva

At the same time, a commercial culture that emulates a Western economy has gotten a foothold in Suva. Mercifully, it so far hasn’t become an “invasive species” that has driven out all else.

As my days in the city went by, I began to be aware that its real centre has shifted to an area of downtown where several shopping malls have opened in the past few years. The Tappoo City tower faces the front of the MHCC Mall, the largest one in Suva. Across the way is a smaller mall with a more modest, but enjoyable, food court.

Meandering among all these destinations is a little stream making its way to the nearby Pacific Ocean, and indeed imparting a peace in the midst of the burgeoning crowds. Suva has in its favour the fact that, while being by far the largest city in the islands, it remains small by world standards.

As I had coffee at Gloria Jean’s, walked amid mall stores such as Jack’s of Fiji, and sampled the exotic (to me) food court choices, a sweet realization came to me. I thought of the cargo cults, which arose on a number of South Seas islands during the Second World War, when natives witnessed Americans arriving, building runways for their planes and then beginning to receive what the islanders thought of as “Cargo from the sky.”

The islanders wanted to receive cargo, too, and several leaders started movements that included building their own runways and even creating makeshift airplanes out of tree branches, emulating all they could see of what the Americans did to get the cargo to come.

Booth at MHCC mall food court - Homage to Fiji

Arabic/Bengali cuisine booth at the MHCC food court

The Americans left after the war. Life went on in the South Pacific. And now, some 70 years later, I walked the streets of Suva, the capital of Fiji, observing how many of the the citizens enjoy shopping or hanging out at the mall and eating at the food court. And what came to mind and made me smile, as I continued my stroll, was this thought:

The cargo has finally come!

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images: Max Reif