"Ni sa bula vinaka ne Scouts Fiji" loosely translated as “Thank you and hello to Fiji Scouts” I never dreamed my first words on national radio would be in Fijian; in fact, until last week I wasn’t even sure Fijian was an actual language, but now, sat in the air-conditioned studios of Fiji Radio One, that’s exactly what I was attempting to speak. Donning the headphones I tried to explain our role as Scout ambassadors to the 60,000 (potential) listeners to the fortnightly Scout radio programme broadcast all over Fiji, and the world – although I think a hastily written Facebook message did little to boost the international audience figures.
After exhausting my limited Fijian, briefly explaining what we had been doing in Fiji and what we planned to do in Tuvalu, I took one last moment to relish the wonderful invention of air-conditioning, before sweatily heading back out into the 31° tropical sun to find some breakfast, it was only 9am, and it was definitely going to get hotter.
Taking off from Sydney I grabbed my travel guide to Fiji, and began to day-dream as I was promised: “Sun-drenched beaches, turquoise lagoons, swaying palm trees, and all the classic images of paradise”. Four hours later, flying over the stunning, jungle-clad mountains, just as the huge orange globe of the tropical sun was rolling down their flanks into the cool blue of the Pacific, I had every reason to believe that I had indeed arrived in a tourist’s paradise.
Unfortunately, ‘Tourist’ is the key word, and although I doubt you’ll believe me, we are not here as tourists, we are here to work, and so with only two days left in Fiji before the final hop to Tuvalu, my swimming shorts, flippers and snorkel have stayed firmly packed in my bag, my underwater camera is still in its box and my feet are yet to feel sand; instead, my Scout uniform, camping gear, and notepad have all taken a pounding, and there is nothing we now don’t know about Scouting in Fiji.
First on the agenda – become well acquainted with the Fijian national Scout head quarters and the records kept within. A grand title, the national head quarters is every bit your classic Scout hut, wooden slats, broken windows, and paint flaking off it, it wouldn’t be out of place in the UK. Inside, the walls are lined with old Scouting posters from the 1980s with white kids playing in evergreen forests, and a framed poster of Baden-Powell above the door, further going to complete the classic Scout hut theme. What set it apart from its British counterparts (except for the tasteful, faded red carpet emblazoned with Christmas trees) was the Fijian flag and various newspaper cuttings from the Fiji Times outlining the feats and momentous occasions throughout the history of Fijian Scouts.
We have spent most of our time in Fiji at the national headquarters, and have met with many of the important members of the Scouts here as well as going through census information, programme ideas, and the overall aims and mission of the Fijian organisation, to try and give us a reference to work from when we get to Tuvalu. It hasn’t been all paper pushing though, and we have had the opportunity to visit the training centre up in the jungle, and got to spend the weekend with a Scout troop camping at their school – Tents were a little unnecessary considering the temperature, but being forced from your tent as soon as the sun rises does mean you get to witness the beautiful Fijian sun leak into the purple canvas of the tropical dawn.
We also enjoyed a brief stint of local celebrity after being filmed for a news report which was shown on the 6pm national news – link coming soon!
Although we might not be living the tourist dream at a five star resort, walking on golden beaches and sipping cocktails, what we have “missed out” on, we have more than made up for with our experiences with the local people, and personally, I wouldn’t want it any other way.
We have been fortunate enough to witness the legendary Fijian hospitality first hand through two home stays with different members of the Scout association, and their families. We have been welcomed into Fijian homes, businesses, and churches, with open arms, and treated like members of the family. We have been spoilt with a huge variety of traditional cooking ranging from indigenous Fijian fare – heavy with coconut milk, fish, and as much pineapple as you can eat, to the spicier, Indio-Fijian cuisines including dhal, rotis, curry, and left over Diwali sweets which are incredible
Everywhere we have been (particularly in uniform) we have been greeted like long lost friends by people from all walks of life. People are always curious of what we are doing and are excited when we tell them about our project in Tuvalu (although worryingly they always laugh when we say we are going for a year, and they often refer to Tuvalu as “The end of the world” and humorously remind us to “take some Fiji water with us!”)
In keeping with Fijian hospitality customs, we have also been invited on several occasions to sit with families and officials alike on the intricately woven mats seen everywhere in Fiji to chat, tell them our story, and to take kava.
Kava or yaqona is ubiquitous in Fiji. Made from the yaqona root, and dried and pounded into powder called waqa, kava is a traditional drink which is drunk to welcome people into a community, house, or area, or simply to start a meeting. It is a mild depressant, and it’s traditionally drunk so that everyone is calm, relaxed, and on the same level when discussing business, or swapping stories. After mixing the powder with water, the resultant muddy liquid is blessed with a prayer, and lots of hand clapping, and then it is presented to you in half a coconut shell – you clap, take the bowl thank the host, and the down the murky contents in one, handing back the empty shell, and clapping again.
Now, I have drunk some pretty horrendous things in my time, ripe papaya juice and university 'spoof' pints spring to mind, but I can honestly say, nothing has passed my lips like kava. The taste is as opaque as its appearance, and muddy water isn’t a bad analogy, but it is the bitter kick that would make even the most seasoned coffee drinkers cringe which sets it apart. Although accustom to the taste, it isn’t uncommon for battle hardened Fijians to cringe and wince after drinking, and quickly reach for some pineapple, so you can imagine for the uninitiated it is a challenge. After you have dealt with the taste, you become acutely aware of the tingling in your lips and tongue, and with each bowl becoming progressively harder to drink. Short of a one-of event, kava is drunk until the bowl is finished, and then is often refilled, and with a packet of “grog” costing only $1 Fijian (33p) it’s not only a pastime the rich can take part in.
Our short time in Fiji has been intense: meeting with several important people including Scout commissioners, education ministers, and army generals; it has been hot: with the temperature never getting bellow 25°C; and it has been hard: going through reams of paperwork to identify what is going on often for hours at a time; but ultimately it has been an amazing experience. Being welcomed so completely and genuinely into people’s homes, meeting some incredible characters both inside and outside of Scouting, who have helped to inform, and prepare us for the next leg of our journey, buying traditional sulus and bright Hawaiian shirts without feeling like a 90s throwback, and finally having the opportunity to meet some amazing young people who’s energy, enthusiasm, and curiosity knows no limits – Fiji is a country with an unsettled past, but if the children I have met in my short time here have anything to do with its future, I think they’ll be alright!
Next stop – “The end of the World”