My trip to Fiji was unplanned. To be honest, I had never really thought of going there before, so it was sort of by accident that I actually went. It just so happened that when my friends brought up travel plans to do an RV road trip across Aotearoa, the flight I priced flying from Hawaii to New Zealand made a scheduled layover in Fiji. Fortunately, I was smart enough to ask about an extended stay in the islands rather than just a quick stop off. That was to be one of the best unintentional decisions of my travel life.
What I found there in Fiji surpassed any of my expectations. I experienced a traditional culture still strong and vibrant, and a hospitable people whose personalities were so familiar they were akin to my family and friends back at home in Hawaii.
There were so many things I enjoyed about Fiji, but one of the most memorable experiences was my time spent in a traditional village. There are many intricate details you can take away from visiting a Fijian village, or koro, but here are just three aspects of village life that really stood out to me.
The Bure - Traditional Thatched Roof Houses of Fiji
Six decades ago, a group of tribal elders in the village of Navala on Viti Levu met together and decided that they would reject the modern building materials that had begun to creep into other Fijian villages.
Instead, they encouraged the young ones in the village to learn and preserve the traditional skills of building a Fijian bure, or house, out of wood, bamboo and straw. Today, this art form survives.
In my birthplace of Hawai'i, images of 'little grass shacks' are overly romanticized and touted for tourists.
But in reality, the unique Pacific Islander art form of building a bure, or a hale as we say in Hawai'i, has been lost to modernization.
If it isn't high rises and apartment complexes on O'ahu, then it's tin-roofed plantation houses on Maui, Kaua'i and Lana'i. To the modern day Hawaiian, the word hale is nothing more than a single breath of sound representing a place where the family gathers. But in Fiji, their hale, or bure, live true in it's original form.
You can still travel to villages such as Navala and others where these iconic houses stand, not as relics of the past, but as living, functioning structures of today. Overlapping generations of Native Fijians have lived together, loved one another and passed away surrounded by their loved ones, all under these same thatched roofed buildings. And they continue to raise their families there in the traditional ways today.
The Meke - Cultural Dances of the Fijian People
In Hawai'i, our traditional form of Native music and song is called mele. In Fiji, their traditional dances are called meke.
The Fijian meke can be performed by both men and women during festivals and celebrations. Like the Hawaiian hula, Fijian meke typically separate the men dancers from the women.
The stories behind the dances are very similar to the ones I grew up listening to in Hawaii, with legendary tales of forbidden love and adrenaline pumping adventures. The tempo can be as diverse as the gentle sounds of swaying palm trees in the Fijian fan dance, to the blood curdling beats of chants and war cries in the Fijian spear dance.
Lovo, Hangi or Imu - Underground Ovens of the Pacific
The Hawaiians call it imu, the Maori call it hangi and the Fijians call it lovo, but it's all essentially the same idea: Cooking our food in an underground oven. All across the Pacific, this is a tradition that has been passed down for generations.
Growing up on the Hawaiian island of Moloka'i, my family looked for every reason to make an imu. Junior Boy graduating High School, Kimo moving to another island or Honey Girl and Kalani getting married, all were equal opportunity occasions to make an imu.
This was a time when all the uncles and boys in the family would come together and help slaughter a fattened pig to be thrown into the lua, or imu pit.
Meanwhile, the aunties and cousins would be making bundles of laulau by taking handfuls of diced pork belly, chicken and butterfish, surrounding them in layers of kalo, or taro leaves, then wrapping them with ti-leaves.
The Fijian version of the laulau is called palusami. They take dalo leaves, or what we call kalo leaves, and cup them in their hands, placing in them onions, garlic, coconut milk and sometimes canned meat. Then they close up the dalo and wrap the parcel in wilted banana leaves.
Making the Fijian lovo is almost identical to preparing the Hawaiian imu. Dig a deep pit in the ground. Fill the pit with lava rocks and heat them until they are glowing red.
Cover the hot rocks with banana leaves. The pit is then filled with food, which in turn is covered with more banana leaves. The mound of leaves, food and more leaves is then covered with earth and left to cook for several hours, before being reopened with celebration.
Unearthing a Common Heritage
When I learned that the Fijians made imu and laulau as a part of their traditional cuisine, just under the guise of different names, lovo and palusami respectively, that they lived in thatched roof houses called bure, so much like the traditional hale Native Hawaiians once lived in, and that their meke dances carried with them the same cultural undertones as our Hawaiian mele, I was immediately reminded of the intertwined history that many Pacific Islanders share.
Although Fijian culture developed at the crossroads of Melanesia and Polynesia, while Hawaiian culture is more of an offshoot of the Polynesian societies of Samoa and Tonga, blended with the Eastern Polynesian culture of the Marquesans, the similarities in language and culture still evident today helps tie us all together as Pacific Islanders with a common story.
I hadn't originally intended on exploring Fiji and it's vibrant culture, but my unplanned side trip to this pearl of traditional native culture turned out to be one of the most memorable travel experiences in my globe drifting history.
I'm JR. I come from a long line of adventurers, some were nomadic explorers of the sea and others wandering cultivators of the earth. Ultimately, this legacy of drifters has deeply affected my view of travel. Read more...