Through my eyes

living my life without regrets

Friday, February 28, 2014

Lautoka, Fiji

Lautoka has a large harbor, the central commercial hub for the sugar industry that dominated Fijian economy for so long. Where ever possible, fields are covered with sugar cane. Right next to the harbor is the sugar refinery and it is a very busy part of the harbor. All of Fiji seems busy. The total population of all the islands is said to be around 900,000 inhabitants, quite large for such limited space in this island chain. We docked on the main island of Viti Levu. Fiji has a total of 332 islands but only 130 or so are inhabited. The rest of the islands are either too small or have no natural resources to provide an occupation.
On our excursion from Lautoka, we visited a typical village on the island. As always in the South Sea, one is greeted with song, dance and a kava drink. This time, knowing the effects of kava, Carol and I, each, drank a good cup full of this brew. Although nonalcoholic, it made my lips feel numb after just a few minutes. Kava is a root crop of the pepper family. The older the plant, the more potent the effect. Fijians grow their kava for about 8 or 9 years before they harvest the roots, dry them in the sun and then grind the dried root into a powder. This powder is the basis of the kava drink we had.
Next we had an extended visit to the foothills of the Sleeping Giant mountains. Raymond Burr, the late American actor (Ironside), donated his extensive holdings of orchids along with some properties he held to the Fijians. A garden oasis, filled with tropical plants, exquisitly arranged in their natural states of growth, met our gaping eyes. There were 2,000 varieties of orchids and the effect of so much variety of plant life was overwhelming. Our guide, a native woman, knew every plant, knew the use of the plants for medicinal purposes and what was and was not edible. This would be nirvana for a botanist. I know too little of plant life to truly understand the full impact of this sanctuary.
Growing sugar cane is a labor intensive process and cutting the cane with a machete is hard work. The natural conditions of the terrain on Fiji does not allow for any kind of mechanization. Sugar cane, even today, is still cut by hand. To transport the cut cane, a narrow track rail line criss-crosses the island and ends at the sugar factory. Trucks are also used in some remote corners. Refining sugar is a huge operation and the whole harbor is geared to transporting the refined sugar throughout the world. There were not enough people on Fiji even way back in the 19th century. So in order to maximize their yield and to avoid the back-breaking labor of cutting the cane, the sugar merchants imported people from India between the years of 1879 to 1916 to work on the sugar plantations. Those sturdy, yet poor people were used almost as slave labor. Their original labor agreements were made for 9 years of labor, after wich they could stay on Fiji or go home to India. Most stayed on and worked as free men and women after their conscripted labor.
Today's population is broken down to 38% Indo Fijian, 57% Melanesian and 6% others. So India had a huge influence on Fiji, not only in the language, but also in the religious aspects of life where 21% are Hindus, 55% are Methodist, 9% Catholic and 6% are Muslims. The whole of Fiji is a mix of humanity. Yes, there is still a majority of aboriginal Melanesians but the mix of races will even get more diluted in time. In a way that is a good thing. I believe that the whole earth population will be "poly humans" soon, anyway. The old terms or distinctions of races will fade. The life and behavior according to a certain tribe, or a certain island, to think and live according to an inherited set of rules or culture is nearing its end. The names of Micronesia (area of small islands and small people), Polynesia (area of many different people) and Melanesia (area of dark skinned people) is ending. Modern travel, exchange of ideas and mixed marriages will merge us all into the "poly" (many) era.
This transformation is especially noteworthy here on Fiji. These islands I am in now used to be known in olden times as the Cannibal Islands. Not only was cannibalism practiced in Fiji, but in most parts of the South Pacific. Missionaries especially were eaten since their new religions offended and upset the old traditional ways. Offenses against not understood taboos were reason enough to cook, fry or roast your 'enemy'; to the extreme that a native chieftain by the name of Ratu Udre Udre ate 850 people. He believed that if he ate 1000 he would gain eternal life. Cannibalism was a way of life. On the long ocean voyages, in search of new islands on which to live, the eating of the dead or dying was one way to survive. In battles between tribes on overpopulated, established islands, the culling out or the eliminating of one's enemy by eating them, was logical. The protein thus provided was an important food source in a notoriously short supply of meat. The logic behind the eating of ones enemy is irrefutable. It just shows that anything can be done if one has no morals or perceived scruples. For the natives, this was an accepted way of living. It was the ultimate degradation after battle to be eaten by one's enemy. Well, times have changed and will continue to change. I believe we are changing for the better.
As on all the other archipelagos in the South Seas, the cultural roots are deep here in Fiji. For almost 6000 years these islands have seen change. The most recent is the establishment of an independent Fiji from Great Britain in 1970. Politically, there are still changes to come. After 4 coups since their independence, Fiji has yet to have a democratically elected government. While presently run by the military, change will come in many ways to Fiji. There is still an overpopulation and yet there are no longer other islands to expand into. The future of Fiji is wide open. It is clear that Fiji can not go back to tribalism, to canibalism or to expansionism, nor can they continue with their military dictatorship, no matter how benevolently it is run.

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