Fiji backwater is friendly despite lawless past

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Joseph Ramusu, a muscular, dark-skinned man, led us into the traditional Fijian thatched-roof building we had spotted while walking along the road. The impressive interior had massive log posts and beams and walls covered with beautifully woven matting. But renovations were under way; lumber and tools littered the dusty floor. "This is where the provincial chiefs meet," he explained, pointing to a decorative board listing all those of rank since 1874. "Are you a chief?" I asked. "Oh, no," he replied, "I'm only the carpenter." "Only?" I countered. "There have been some highly honoured carpenters in history named Joseph." He laughed and beamed. In Fiji, revering an ancestral lineage doesn't conflict with being a good Christian. And in the small town of Levuka, Fiji's first capital, people feel particular pride in their heritage and share their enthusiasm with visitors.

My wife and I had stayed at a couple of mainstream Fijian resorts and enjoyed the palm-fringed beaches, great snorkelling, and fine food. But those places were isolated from villages and towns. Surrounded by western tourists, we met Fijians only as employees who catered to our needs. We decided to take the two-hour ferry ride from the main island of Viti Levu to Levuka; with a population of 2,000, Levuka is the only sizable settlement on rugged Ovalau Island. Except for one German backpacker, the passengers were all locals. They were friendly, which seemed appropriate, as we were aboard a ship called Spirit of Harmony. English is Fiji's official language, and everyone wanted to know where we were from. "I have family who live near Vancouver myself," one man told my wife. An electrical engineer whose crew was working on Ovalau's power lines gave me his card and insisted that we phone him when we got back to Viti Levu, so that he could drive us around. "Bula!" said a couple of young men in baseball caps who were hanging loose on the sunny top deck, bidding us hello in Fijian dialect. They lived in Levuka but had made the ferry trip to bring back a casket for a family funeral. We had noticed it, gleaming white and bedecked with flowers, lying on the car deck below.

Arriving at dusk, we wheeled our suitcases up the main street and settled in at the slightly funky but enchanting Royal Hotel. At 15 rooms plus a few newer bungalows, it is the town's main lodging. There is no better place to get a whiff of colonial-era atmosphere. Built in the 1860s, the hotel is the oldest continuously operating hotel in the Pacific Islands, with lazily turning ceiling fans, rattan chairs, a billiards room, and the ambiance of a Joseph Conrad or Somerset Maugham novel. (Maugham actually stayed there.) Today, it is owned by a family that is part European, part Samoan, and part Japanese, typical of the island's melting pot.

We walked a couple of blocks to a simple Chinese restaurant where the staff appeared more Fijian than Asian. The walls were lined with framed photos of old ships and former chiefs wearing grass sulus, or wraparound skirts. (Two days later, we met three Methodist churchmen from Viti Levu decked out in gorgeous grey woollen sulus who were in Levuka for the funeral.) After dinner, we strolled along the sea wall. Clusters of young people gathered under the street lamps enjoying the cool breeze, playing music, and singing. "Bula!" they called out as we passed.

The next day, we started to explore. A small museum housed displays on Levuka's tumultuous history. European and American whalers, beachcombers, and sandalwood merchants arrived in force in the 1820s and '30s, followed by missionaries and traders in copra (dried coconut flesh from which oil can be extracted), sugar cane, sea cucumbers, and "blackbirded" (kidnapped) workers from western Melanesia, who were essentially slaves. For decades, it was a metropolis, a wild and lawless place where hotels and grog shops lined the shore. The island's mountain tribes repeatedly attacked Levuka and burned down its buildings, but the white people made alliances with selected chiefs, including those from neighbouring islands, and consolidated a series of makeshift governments. They built churches and schools, and established a Masonic lodge, and even, briefly, a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Ultimately they prevailed, but not before an allied chief, trying to collect taxes from hostile islanders, was killed and eaten.

Meanwhile, Britain and the United States engaged in gunboat diplomacy, jockeying for power in the Pacific. In 1874, the conflict ended with the cession of Fiji to the protection of Queen Victoria. Levuka became the seat of the British administration. But the town had been built against steep mountains and had little room to expand, and the harbour was too small for a rapidly growing colony. After seven years, the capital was moved to Suva on Viti Levu, and Levuka reverted to sleepy provincial outpost. Which is just as well. Unlike dirty, teeming Suva, it's a pleasant and welcoming place.

When we strolled through the tidy streets, people waved or stopped to talk. The Red Cross chapter was having an open-air reception, with speeches to honour its members. We were invited to join, and we gladly made a donation and partook of the sandwiches and refreshments. We entered a small general store to buy Band-Aids and found packed shelves, accessible by ladders, reaching to the ceiling. The store was owned by a third- or fourth-generation Indian family. (Indians came to Fiji to work the sugar plantations.)

Proprietor Bhupendra Kumar's eyes lit up when he heard I was a writer. "So am I," he said, and pulled out a paperback illustrated history of Levuka. He had written the chapter on business and trading, and had once served as the town's mayor. He signed the book for me and insisted on phoning the only local Canadian expats, hoping to introduce us, but they were away.

We met Akosita Likuca, who was sitting with her two young daughters selling homegrown fruit in the shade of a large tree. They posed for a snapshot, and I promised to mail them a print when we got home. Then we ran into one of the young men who had accompanied the coffin on the ferry. In the back of his pickup he had a huge pig that he was about to have butchered for the feast that would follow the funeral. "So it's the pig's funeral, too," he joked.

The slabs of pork would be cooked in the traditional way: simmered for hours in a pit using rocks heated by a wood fire. In Levuka, the old ways coexist easily with the new.

ACCESS: Part of the writer's flight and accommodation costs was paid by the Fiji Islands Visitors Bureau. For information on Fiji see www.bulafiji.com , and on Levuka see www.levukafiji.com. Levuka can be reached by ferry, including bus connection from Suva, for $17 one way; flights with Air Fiji from the Suva airport cost $41 one way. For the Royal Hotel, where air-conditioned bungalows for two start at $56, see www.royallevuka.com