Beaches & OceansDad Diaries

Dad Diaries: Fiji Culture, Villages & Diving

By September 17, 2020October 2nd, 20203 Comments

Bula (Boo-la) Friends! (Hello in Fijian!)

This recent vacation to Fiji was very special because it was not your “just sun n’ fun”.  It was a vacation on the levels of experiences.  

fiji resort

The Fiji Experience as a Visitor

We arrived in Fiji at 5:50AM to a tsunami warning from an 8.1 earthquake off the east coast of Fiji and a message from Tom (our son, the disaster king) “Call me as soon as possible, please.” He had already called the hotel and I believe he already had his “Go Bag” in his car to come save us. The quake was relatively close, but miles deep and on the other side of the island. No effects where we were at all. As far as I can see, no one on the island felt it or would at least admit it. We were so numb traveling the two days, 16.5 hours of flying, I know we wouldn’t have felt it, but actually it happened two hours before we landed.

We actually got to see part of the island because the resort was an hour away from the airport. Rolling hills, goats, cows, horses, sugarcane and more sugarcane.  The volcanic mountains were off in the distance on the other side of the island which does not have infrastructure like roads, etc.  The only train on the island carries sugarcane, go figure.

Fiji’s economy is based on 1st – sugarcane and then tourism…no mention of Fiji Bottled Water?

Fun Facts: 

  •  If you come here, you will say Bula (boo-la) 2000 times a day because you cannot pass any staff without them acknowledging you with Bula and several questions about how you are doing.  After a short time, you start blending in inflections to saying Bula that say as much as the word does (hello, how are you). There are also ancillary terms like Bula BS and Bula Shit.
  •  The three major religions of Fiji are Christian,  Hindu, and Rugby.  We heard more rugby “discussions” between the Fijians and the Aussies and New Zealanders than anything else.  Fiji won some major Rugby tournaments in the 80’s and they named the main bridge after the tournament.  Tourists are primarily from Australia and New Zealand since they are a 3-5 plane ride away.

fiji village

“Fiji time” is a real thing.  It is much like “Caribbean time.”  Two gears. 1st gear forward and reverse. Based on what we experienced in the villages, and excessive and continuous supply of Kava (their national drink which is controversial and has some saying it is a mild narcotic) has something to do with it.

Fiji is the first land mass after the International Dateline. They are the first to see the new day, Christmas, New Year, etc. Some folks traveled to Fiji at the turn of the millennia to be the first to experience it. 

Viti Levu Island

It takes about 12 hours to drive completely around the perimeter of the main island of Fiji which is Viti Levu and where the airport is. This is the island we stayed on. There are about 330 islands which make up Fiji and 1/3 are inhabited.

You get all excited about the US dollar which is twice the value of the Fijian dollar. What is interesting is that in all our travels, Fiji was probably the least expensive foreign country so far. It was about average (and in many times lower) with the US currency based on the current conversion rates.

In 1987, there was a coups d’état. The Fijians joke about it. Because they are on “Fijian time”, they basically ignored it and schools, business, churches went along without any effect. They called it the “Happiest coup” there ever was, ever.

We never found any Fijians that had traveled off island. A few say they would like to, most say they have “no reason to travel.” Most say any vacation time off was spent going back to their villages where they were born and visiting their “family.” Their “family” is not their immediate family, but all those who are part of their village.   

The Fijian Villages

village in fiji

We finally traveled out of the pristine paradise of the resort supported by Fijians from all over the island (rarely did we see a non-native Fijian as an employee in the resort except for management). There is always an agreement from the hotel with the local villages that they hire their village “family” first. This trip was an absolute shock to our perspective. I thought the diving was going to be the highlight of this trip, but was not. It was our excursions into the Fijian villages.

The island is organized in “villages.” You can tell by the way they talk about them, Fijians are very proud of them as part of their heritage and are quite content. Each village is a small, very tight community made up of generations of Fijians born in the village and has its own “sub-economy.” There are about 300 villages, many of which are several square miles. We discussed visiting some of the villages with the cab driver and he mentioned not to go through a travel companies because all the monies go to the companies and not to the villages. 

How The Villages Work

There is a Chief of each village. Neither he, nor his wife work. People from the village supply him with what he needs (wants).  He also holds meetings of the village men either in his house or committee building where women are not allowed and where they make village decisions. The Authority of the Chief is past down to the eldest son or if there is not one, to a younger brother of the chief. 

Different villages have different “gifts.” At one that we visited, pottery was their gift; another was carving, farming and so on…

In each village, there are four clans –  The Chief, a Spokesman, the Warriors, the Fisherman.

Even though English is the official language of Fiji and everyone speaks it, their native language (dialects) varies from one village to another, but ALL Fijians speak a common version of their language (Bauan) when people from one village speak to another Fijian from another village. When you listen to them talk to each other, it is completely unfamiliar language.

They still use Fijian drums to communicate to everyone in the village. Drums at 6:00 pm means kids are in to do their homework. Drums at 7:00 is for family prayer. Drums at 10:00 means kids are supposed to be in bed.  There are drums for Church, assembling in the Committee Building, the Chief summoning the men, etc.

making pottery fiji

During the visit, we listened to their unbelievable harmonious singing, drank Kava, and danced with them (I made sure NO cameras had any evidence) during the visit and bought some pottery after watching them show us how they form the clay to make the pottery (with their feet and hands, no tools). This village’s gift was pottery and it was a way to produce revenue from tourism.

Bottom Line: 

I am so glad we got out of the resort and got an “adjustment” to the others. At first we did not understand why they were not resentful of the “resort people,” but clearly and genuinely the opposite.  These people are proud of their cultures and were very thankful of their tourism which only started in the recent past. During each village tour, we went through getting permission from the Chief (or Spokesman) to sit with the villagers and visit. They encouraged pictures so we have a memory of “True Fiji.” At each village there were very formal Fijian ceremonies to welcome us and we were called family of the village and asked to return anytime as family.  Fijians do not have a word “Goodbye,” it’s Moce (moe-thay) which means “See you later.”

Diving in the South Pacific – Shark Week All The time!

The diving here was a completely different experience, and made it my Top 5. Tahiti was all about large schools (balls) of fish like barracuda, tuna, sharks, etc. To sum up Fiji diving, it was about large fish…mostly sharks. Up the reef where it is shallow, Patti enjoyed snorkeling with the colorful reef fishes, cobalt blue star fish, but saw no turtles (her favorite). 

Beyond the shallow protected reefs, the area by the resort has a barrier reef system. If you had a death wish, you could walk on the exposed reef at low tide. There are still Fijian free divers fishing inside the barrier reef.  Did I mention sharks?  Nurse sharks, black tip, white tip, grey reef sharks, guitar sharks, bull sharks, etc. Inside the reef (in sight of Patti), we saw about 8 white and black tip sharks. We entered a shallow cave and took a nose to nose picture of a 7 foot Nurse Shark resting. Another cave, a 7 – 8ft Gray Reef Shark and a couple of White Tip sharks were hanging out swimming around for quite a while as I videoed them. 

There was something going on all the time. One dive while we are going through our Decompression Safety Stop before surfacing, we watch 10 spotted eagle rays (6-7 ft from wing tip to wing tip) pass beneath us. The pictures and videos are simply outstanding.

diving in fiji

The Rookie Dive

There was, however, one experience I could have passed on. I learned in Tahiti that the diving companies in this part of the world are very basic. This one particular dive, the waters were rough, just off a barrier reef a mile off the island (which is very normal for the South Pacific). 4 – 5 foot seas cresting frequently. There were three of us diving and the other two were Dive Masters (one diving for fun).

We did all the normal things like backward rolls off the boat, staying tight formations, etc.  Started to descend and headed for the reef when apparently the Dive Master got disoriented. We kept swimming underwater for 30 minutes and saw nothing but sand before he decided to surface to take a look. I could see by my compass he was not going in a straight line. He came back down and could not see the reef or the boat. We had swum out to the open ocean side of the reef and the current pulled us to open ocean. We all surfaced and started deploying rescue tubes (bright colored tubes that stand straight up) and blew whistles. It went on for 15 – 20 minutes and nothing.  They made a movie about this with a very bad ending, except we were still in sight of the island a mile or so away (which really didn’t make the second diver and myself any happier).

The Lead Dive Master decided to take off his equipment, leave it with us and swim back to the other side of the reef in the rough seas to approximately where the boat should be (about a mile away). I kept blowing my whistle for another 10 – 15 minutes or so until we heard the captain of the boat yelling on his approach (we couldn’t see him with the size of the swells). I was done for the day and cancelled the second dive even though it was going to be an easier dive. Big shark dive in two days and I needed to regroup my head. 

Not a fun fact: There is no Coast Guard in Fiji.  

Fun Fact: Despite this rookie dive, Fiji is still in the Top 5 of dive locations. 

The diving was nothing but outstanding, however we had winds every day, so we were diving in 4 – 5 seas which is challenging, but not my first rodeo.  The type of diving was all about the pelagic animals, sharks and turtles everywhere.  As I said before, white tips, black tips, grey reef, guitar (a first for me) and nurse sharks were experienced on every dive.  The sea turtles many times were curious, so I got some time to spend with them and the camera.  Patti said the snorkeling overhead was some of the best she had done, but she did not seen her favorite, the sea turtles. The reefs were in great shape, however the coral was a lower profile because they were exposed to open seas. Again the pictures and videos will describe it all.

Shark Dive

Traveled 2 hours to the other side of the island to do shark diving, which turned out to be an understatement. Before you call me crazy, I researched diving with sharks on a third world island and the choice I made was with a world class 5 star dive operation which lived up to the experience. Dive briefings that go over the “dive plan” usually take about 5 – 8 minutes. 

This dive briefing took 1 hour and 15 minutes. There is usually one “Dive Master” for each dive that is like a captain on ship. What he/she says (or signals), goes underwater. There were 8 divers, 1 Dive Master and six Master Divers (dive masters with the secondary roll to the Dive Master). I normally wear a shorty suit. They required me to wear a full 6 mil dive suit with hood, boots and gloves (no exposed skin that looks like bait). 

sharks in fiji

I had a camera, so they also made me wear a stainless mesh “long sleeve shirt.” They explained that when I get excited, I will hold the camera away from my body and the silvery, shiny camera looks like bait.  After seeing the sharks up close (the bull sharks were an average of 10 feet, 3-4ft wide and 400 – 500 lbs.) and personal, not sure what benefit the shark suit would do (for the record, my camera NEVER left my chest the entire time, once I saw the environment I was diving in).  

All that said, it is truly paradise. What made this trip so special was the people. They are truly the nicest we have ever experienced and they are deep into the visitors experiencing their deeply rooted culture.  

Thanks For Reading About Rick’s Trip to Fiji! Be Sure To Check Out More From Our Dad Diaries Series!

Rick Cotter

Author Rick Cotter

Rick Cotter is a Massachusetts native and new world traveler. After scuba diving throughout the Caribbean and road tripping across the USA, he's moved onto Europe as a new baby boomer playground. Follow Rick's adventures in his 'Dad Diaries' series on Pure Wander.

More posts by Rick Cotter

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