Tuesday 16 March 2010

Doubtful about Tomas

More cyclones. This time Tomas is pummelling Fiji with even more force than Katrina in New Orleans: they were forecasting 250kmh winds. Having seen what around 180kmh gales did to Aitutaki, it's pretty chilling to think what could have happened to places like this village in the Yasawas, where the people live in simple huts right beside the beach.

We visited on a Captain Cook cruise, in a small ship that even so looked huge and other-worldly, gleaming white and modern in the bay, as out of place as the USS Enterprise. We were made very welcome everywhere we called in - Fijian people are so friendly - and a highlight of our week was, as elsewhere in the Pacific, going to a church service where the windows were open, the air was scented, chickens scratched around outside, and the unaccompanied singing was so loud and forceful that it sent shivers down your spine. We went to a school, too...

>>> ...Captivating though it was, the snorkelling was for me the supporting act of the cruise’s features: the best part was visiting the villages and seeing close-up how the Fijian people live. It's a laid-back life: temperatures of 30+ degrees don't encourage industriousness, and the main impression is one of languour. With a sea full of fish out the front, coconut palms fringing the beach and chickens scratching under the breadfruit trees in the village, it might seem that most needs are met without effort: but as our hospitality manager Trevor explained, a diet rich in starch and fat has serious health consequences that reduce the average life expectancy considerably. So it's a short life – but on the face of it a happy one, where the priority is on family and friends, and where it is not a twee homily that a stranger is a friend you haven’t met, but a fact. There can be few other places where visitors are made to feel so welcome.

This was most evident on our visit to the second village where the highlight was a concert put on by the children of the four-classroom school. A plain and unadorned building on the far side of a grassy playground where a single netball hoop stood in a circle of hard-packed dirt and a volleyball net drooped between its poles, the classrooms were straight out of the 1930s. Bare wooden walls were covered in scrawled pictures (this was a primary school – few children get the chance to take their education further) and battered desks with lift-up lids were stacked neatly to one side for the holidays. Piles of exercise books covered in brown paper awaited their owners and on the blackboard were education objectives in beautiful cursive writing. Although it was the holidays, a group of around twenty children from 5 to 12 years of age waited to entertain us with enthusiastic renditions of songs and nursery rhymes. It was odd to realise that ‘The Wheels on the Bus’ was as exotically unreal to these children as ‘Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross’.

Afterwards, my hand was seized by 5 year-old Lusi in a pink frock, who hauled me away on a tour of her school, of which she was as proud as any new entrant anywhere. Several of the passengers had brought gifts of stationery, to the delight of the teacher: "We never see pens," she gasped...

[Pub. Press 19/12/05]

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