A little over a week ago, on clear and silent Sunday in Suva, I picked up a rental and went for a drive.
I headed north for a while then looped back towards the city centre through the suburbs and backstreets, past the houses of the wealthy and the most meagre and squalid dwellings.
Everywhere people were going to the temples of their many faiths – or the beach.
There were an impressive number of educational institutions from schools and colleges to training centres, religious institutions, private schools . . ..
I then drove to the south coast and headed to Sigatoga with the radio on, scanning frequently to pick up the BBC World Service, local Hindi pop, hymns, Fijian church services, what sounded like German soccer . . .
Once outside the sprawl of Suva – and yes, it does feel like half a million people in the greater area – the countryside, lush tropical stands and cleared acreage, was beautiful.
Along the way I stopped to chat with people where it seemed appropriate – and they were all friendly.
At one scrappy “beach” – little more than a clearing by the water – I spoke with a man out walking his baby in a stroller. We agreed it was a beautiful day and then he said, “Excuse me sir, can I ask you for something. I need to buy some milk for my baby . . .”
Later I drove past fields of grass and dairy cows (I am told the grass is hopeless for dairy production but New Zealanders are working with locals on dairy initiatives) and drove in to look at a few of these resorts that people speak highly of. They did look beautiful escapes – I was surprised how many young people who looked more like backpackers were staying in a couple, possibly special deals offered? – and the Pearl has a magnificent golf course, if that is your thing.
I passed slowly through tiny and tidy villages, chatted with kids at a river crossing. Closer to Sigatoga and the resorts thereabouts – like gated communities behind low or high walls – the villages seemed more conspicuously well off. The trickle-down economics we heard so much about, perhaps?
On a beach I saw a handsome young Fijian boy leading a horse along the white sand. On the horses back were two pale children with haloes of curly blond hair. It was worth a photo.
I have never understood why people would want to shield themselves from the country they are in by staying in a self-contained resort – but each to their own. And I accept many people work extremely hard and so for those few days when they can drop out of life they want a slice of undisturbed, cocktail-hour paradise.
But maybe some people also shield themselves from what they think Fiji might really be like?
If you read the New Zealand government's travel advisory (where, on a Google search, Fiji appears as direct link along with the Middle East and Africa) some of it seems unduly alarmist or over-cautious.
In four days – I walked all around Suva, drove one day unhindered and went out for a few hours around the coast for half a day with another couple of people – I encountered no police checkpoints, and the only soldiers I saw were lounging around in an abandoned but grand old hotel which I wanted to look through. They waved me in cheerfully and one young guy accompanied me around.
Maybe I was lucky, but I never once felt threatened – other by hospitality which resulted in quite a lot of kava being drunk one night – and at no time was I impeded or prevented from doing anything I wanted to do.
At the museum where I arrived late one day the woman at desk wrote something on my ticket which would allow me free entry the following day so I could have a better look around. Nice.
This is not to deny that censorship or military rule exists, but I would also note that at the museum I picked up a copy of Tutaka, “the quarterly newsletter of the Citizen's Constitutional Forum Ltd” – and the lead article was about the CCF requesting the government to commence inclusive political dialogue to find a way back to sustainable elected democracy.
The article noted that the CCF Chief Executive Officer Rev Akuila Yabaki said, “Since independence in 1970, Fiji's economy has performed better under elected governments.
Human rights and freedoms have been better enjoyed by people under elected governments”.
The reverend was also on record saying the government should urgently reconsider parts of the Media Industry development Decree (which I outlined here).
There was much more along these lines too: dissenting voices in other words.
The most frequent comment made to me, by people from across the spectrum, was that the governments of Australia and New Zealand were misrepresenting the situation in Fiji (and our media which selectively shows images and runs stories against the interim government) and that their dogmatic postions had been counter-productive to dialogue.
Everyone agreed that the former government of Qarase was endemically corrupt and something had to be done. Commodore Bainimarama was reluctantly in his position, said one gentleman from Australia who had worked – and still was working – closely with the Fijian judicial system.
He also noted that many good people in Fiji -- the most educated and qualified in areas of the judiciary, economics and the like – would not step forward into positions where theey could actually be useful in turning the direction of Fiji because of the travel bans imposed by Australia and New Zealand.
This was utterly counter-productive, he said.
Either he or I noted that currently New Zealand is kissing up big time to China, a country with an appalling human rights record, and yet Fiji . . .
One Fijian laughed and said, “You have bad day with the big boss at work and he kicks you, so you come home and you kick someone smaller there”. A crude analogy but you could fit China, New Zealand and Fiji into that image if you wished.
New Zealanders were too constrained by the moral high ground of democracy when it came to Fiji, said someone else, and because of that we had lost influence.
The Chinese – currently building a massive new embassy – along with the Taiwanese, Koreans, Japanese and other counties (Australia and NZ included, to be fair) are engaging with aid and development programs.
I was told Fiji is powerful player in Pacific politics (and we shouldn't discount its mineral and fisheries wealth) but by refusing to talk – and this goes both ways now – the influence of the Chinese is growing.
They don't care whether Fiji is a democracy, military dictatorship or a tin pot banana republic.
As someone who is always suspicious of a story which quotes a guide or a taxi driver, I mention this with hesitation . . . but on my final day I took a cab from Suva to the airport for a flight across the beautiful, seriously mountainous, island to Nadi.
On the way my driver – a wizened Indian gentleman who had one adult son in Maramarua and another who had been to New Zealand but came back to Suva “because Kiwi place was too cold” – told me he thought the budget of a couple of days previous (which I mentioned at the end of the last post) had been fair.
It was good for him because he might be able to get a better car (please god he would, it was falling to pieces around us) and that Bainimarama was doing good for the poor people.
I don't know if he considered himself poor – his wife rang to say the two roosters in the house were fighting and wanted to know what she should she do – but he told me owned the car and the house.
“But politics for every peoples everywhere is a headache.”
My time in and around Suva was brief, enjoyable, sometimes problematic and always interesting. As with any city or country I think you can have your preconceptions confirmed.
A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest, as Paul Simon once sang.
I have two photos among my many of Fiji, they could be signifiers if you wish to read them that way.
One is of that tropical paradise we see in seductive brochures, so beautiful in its cliched escapist perfection; the other is of a grubby strip of sand held in place by a retaining wall of old tyres and covered in styro-foam containers, plastic bags, beer bottles, soft drink cans . .
Which Fiji do you, or want to, believe?
Fiji, it seems to me, is both.
And of course, neither.
In other news: Elsewhere is back in big business. Among the many music reviews posted are the rarest of rare Bob Dylan (when he was 20), Afro-beat from Brixton, the new Alejandro Escovedo (sounding like classic Hello Sailor in places!), The Broken Heartbreakers polished diamond, Ed Harcourt . . and many more, with a track and video.
Every day I am posting a new one-off track at From the Vaults so check out the “risque” stylings of Auckland drag act of the Sixties/Seventies Noel McKay alongside faux-Beatles, Pavlov's Dog, the foul-mouthed Lucille Bogan and many, many more.
There are also DVD and book reviews to divert you from your work. Today's give-away to subscribers will be a mix-bag of 10 “elsewhere” CDs. That will happen later today.
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