In Fiji the cops wear skirts. Wait. Let me rephrase that before you envision J. Edgar Hoover in one of his frilly pink tutus. Whoops. Too late. Okay, quick, remove that thought from your mind by contemplating a beautiful tropical lagoon full of parrotfish. Now imagine coming out of the water and walking up to the village. And what are the people wearing? Pinstripe business suits? Nope. Sulus. Shin-length wraps pulled around the waist: the most comfortable tropical attire for both men and women.
Instead of abandoning traditional garb in favor of Bermuda shorts as has occurred in some island cultures colonized by the British, Fijians have just adapted their casual ancestral clothing for more formal situations. When worn among policemen and army officers, for example, a sulu is an unprepossessing official grey, quite tightly wrapped, and extending down below the knee. But I don’t know how they run in those things. Official sulus look about as restrictive as a kimono. I figure a criminal in dungarees would be able to outrun any sulu-clad copper in the country. But maybe they have some kind of weapon hidden under there. Or they peel it off to reveal emergency jogging shorts beneath. Funny the things you think about when you travel.
I mention the sulu, though, because it illustrates the fact that Fijian culture has not disappeared from Fiji. It’s been modified to fit more harmoniously with the world culture, but it hasn’t by any means disappeared – as it has on some Pacific islands where the missionaries successfully eradicated all traces of pre-colonial life. The cities are growing. But a large percentage of native Fijians still live in villages. And village life remains traditional, existing under a communal system called kerekere that is very close to what communists 80 years ago touted as the ideal society: "From each according to his abilities. To each according to his needs."
But kerekere faces the same problems that communism did in execution. When everyone in the village shares everything, there’s no incentive for anyone to excel. The excess is just distributed around the village. This – as my Fiji Indian guide pointed out many times – leads to a culture in which the lazy do no work and sponge off the naively industrious who become discouraged enough to eventually stop work themselves. It’s a great system for making sure that the old, the injured, the sick, and the very young are taken care of. It’s wonderfully supportive. But it’s a terrible system for people who want more out of life than lying around in the shade waiting for today’s breadfruit to drop from the nearest tree.
The word you’re going to hear everywhere in Fiji is "Bula!" Literally, this means "life!" And when people greet you with it, they always do so with a broad generous smile. It’s sometimes boisterously shouted at you, and it’s less like the American "how y’doin’" or "what’s up" and more like an invitation to friendship.
If you get a chance to sample native Fijian life, the other words you’re likely to hear are yaqona and kava. They’re the same thing. They’re a root that is ground up or chewed and spat out to make a muddy-tasting drink that acts as a mild euphoric. If you’re visiting a village in the hinterlands, you should bring your own kava roots to share with the people you’re visiting. If you want to try it at home, you can find it now in tea form in most health food stores.
The mataqali is the extended family that owns the village. A village is kind of like a commune filled with relatives. And the people in the village live in a bure (pronounced BOO-ray) which is a large thatched hut, the usual residence in a village.