By Jerry Hayes
The South Seas has always called to me. Perhaps my vision of far-away golden beaches, blue lagoons and waving palm trees was born when I read Treasure Island as an 11 year old or when my fourth-grade teacher rewarded good behaviour by reading Robinson Crusoe to the class.  A recent visit to Fiji was the fulfillment of a boyhood dream. I'm happy to report that reality did not shatter my ideal, only changed and enhanced it.   

First some facts gleaned on-line. The South Pacific nation of Fiji consists of an archipelago strewn over 10% of an area about the size of Washington State. Although there are thousands of islands, only 106 are inhabited; most of the population of 600,000 lives on two large islands, Viti Levu and Vanua Levu.  The former, the southern-most of the two, contains 75% of the people and more than half of the land area. The majority of the population is Melanesian, the inhabitants when the Europeans arrived.  South Asians, brought in to harvest the sugar cane during the British colonial period, are a strong minority. There is also a scattering of Europeans and Chinese - both economically important. In recent years there has been tension between the native Fijians and the ethnic Indians, which has resulted in political instability.

The capital of Fiji is Suva, a bustling town on the south island strung along a fine harbour. I found the bars and restaurants to have a South Seas flavour, relaxed and exotic. One expected to see old salts coming off tramp steamers. The main point of interest in Suva is the complex of government buildings surrounded by immaculate green lawns and guarded by Fijian soldiers in their idiosyncratic uniforms. The headgear and the tunics are standard, but sulus, the ubiquitous wraparound skirt, replace trousers. There is an added touch, the sulus' hems have a jagged zigzag pattern as though cut by giant pinking shears. The uniform belies the Fijian soldiers reputation for ferocity. There seems to be a rule at work here: Do not fight soldiers who wear skirts. In addition to the Fijians in their sulus are the Scots in their kilts and Greek soldiers in their skirted parade uniforms. All are formidable warriors.

For an old South Seas ambience, the guidebook recommended the former capital Levuka on Ovalau Island lying off the east coast of the south island. We were totally unprepared for the arduous journey required to get there.  Firstly, our timing was wrong since it was the end of the school holiday so the bus to the ferry was very crowded. Then, the berth for the ferryboat was in rather shallow water, so we had a long wait for the ferry to at high tide. The ferryboat was a filthy rusting hulk that had seen service in Asia somewhere as evidenced by the Chinese characters along with English text giving safety instructions. The instructions were in no way reassuring. As soon as I saw the boat, I remembered all those stories of ferryboat sinkings in poor countries like Fiji. The trip was saved by the kindness and good nature of the people. We were all in the same boat so we made the best of it by being good company. Fortunately, I had just enough Lifesavers for a group of four little kids waiting for the ferry.

Levuka certainly had an old-time feel to it - a single main street with a covered wooden sidewalk. Our hotel was straight out of Somerset Maugham. Its lobby featured deep rattan chairs, potted palms, and a lazily turning overhead fan. I imagined myself sitting in that lobby outfitted in a panama hat and a white linen suit, discussing the price of copra on my plantation and drinking what else but planter's punch.

 My ideal of a tropical paradise is Yasawa Island group lying 75-100 km off the northeast coast of the south island. The ferry out to the islands passes through Bligh Waters. Recall that after the mutiny on HMS Bounty, Captain Bligh, together with a few loyalists, was set adrift in an open boat. Part of his epic voyage to safety was through these waters where cannibals chased him.  There is a revisionist view that Bligh was not a bad sort after all. The mutineers, led by Mr. Christian, just wanted to go back to Tahiti for what we shall call earthly delights, (no, not surfing and no snorkeling).

My wife Niki and I stayed at a backpacker resort along with a gang of young people, mostly Brits, who could have been our grandchildren. Niki and I slept in a bure, a round hut, right on the beach. Meals consisted of native food, lots of root-like stuff cooked in a pit over red-hot stones,  and served in the common dining room. Cut off from the world of TV, evenings were filled with music, reading and card playing. On Saturday night we all played a game, which required losers to do their party piece. I sang a song of the Irish Rebellion to all these Brits.  Who was punished, them or me?

On Sunday morning many of us trooped off to church in the adjacent village. The church itself was a long single storey building with a corrugated iron roof, open and right on the beach. Whatever your relationship with the Almighty, Sunday morning services is a must do in Fiji, for the people sing wonderfully. The children sang first. I thought this was the main event, until I heard the adults - a singular experience. I cherish the memory of their glorious, fervent singing, the palm trees on the white sand and the blue-green sea.     

The church was unadorned except for the handsome dark-skinned people in their Sunday best. I recall one older gentleman in particular.  White hair and steel rim glasses framed his distinguished features. He wore a suit jacket, white shirt and tie. A sulu completed his outfit. Though his feet were unshod, no one was more fit for an audience with the Queen.

Here in this place among these people, I found the South Seas of my boyhood dreams.