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Discovering Fiji

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Photo: Gustavo Ten Hoever

Later in the afternoon, I snorkel on the shoreline, in the company of angelfish and yellow tang, who noodle around chunks of soft coral. Little stone frogs guard an entrance to the Breeze Spa, where therapist Sereana performs an expert watsu session in a chlorine-free, glass-mosaic-tile pool with underwater speakers. Every time she dips me, I hear a cappella hymns sung by a local choir.

Fijians take Sundays seriously. The indigenous population is overwhelmingly religious; earnest missionaries saw to that. For a live performance the next day, I attend a white Carpenter Gothic church, also built by Gilmour, where the staff kids squirm, giggle, and poke each other in the pews. They rise to perform "If You're Happy and You Know It." I clap my hands, too.

Back on Viti Levu, in the crowded south coast city of Suva, I pay a brief visit to Pure Fiji Spa to learn about the native dilo nut oil. (It's used in treatments at Wakaya.) Gaëtane Austin settled in Fiji shortly after World War II, when her diplomatic-corps parents relocated from Tonga. The family first started concocting coconut-sugar scrubs and passionflower bath soaks in their kitchen; they now employ women from several islands to harvest natural ingredients, manufacture pressed-flower paper, and weave baskets. According to her daughter, Andrée, nuts from the tropical dilo tree contain a unique fatty acid that promotes new-tissue growth. Since I forgot to pack sunscreen, I climb back into my taxi with a tub of "rescue gel" to comfort my scorched nose on the way to Pacific Harbour.

The Kings Road is lined with rice fields and grogshops selling kava, a mud-puddle psychotropic that numbs the tongue faster than a dental hygienist can. On a field surrounding a shantytown, I catch sight of skinny boys in tattered shorts tossing a rugby ball while pretending to be Waisale Serevi, the national sports hero and Pepsi pitchman. Next year, Fiji will play in rugby's World Cup. Grog and rugby—clear signs that Britannia once ruled here.

As my bags bounce in a battered workboat across the smooth Beqa Lagoon, I sit in the stern, relaxed. The shark god that governs this water must be content today. Charlie, my navigator, steers toward Ugaga Island, an eight-acre gumdrop that has been turned into the Royal Davui resort. Southwest of Suva, the Beqa barrier reef shelters limestone islands from the deeper waters of the broad Kadavu Passage. Davui owner Grahame Southwick is a fifth-generation Fijian who also operates a commercial fishing fleet—hence, the seared yellowfin tuna in wasabi cream on the dinner menu. In some ways, the South Pacific tuna industry is just as cutthroat as the earlier bêche-de-mer trade was. With 16 mahogany vales (villas) clinging to cliffs that overlook a marine sanctuary, Royal Davui is a lovely hedge investment against the perils of overfishing and the protests of Greenpeace. Vale 13 sits above a shallow reef that ripples turquoise and silver at dusk. I sit on the deck next to a private plunge pool and watch an ominous cotton ball build to the south. Every few minutes, it lights up inside, and a bolt of lightning zaps the ocean. A myth relates how the shark god Masilaca promised to show the Sawau tribe that lives across the lagoon how to dance across hot coals without getting burned. As guardian of the reef, he supposedly protects islanders from toothy marine denizens as well. No one from this area has ever been attacked by a shark.

On the six-hour taxi ride north along Viti Levu's Coral Coast, wild pigs and mongooses dart out of the sugarcane beside the highway, where billboards advertise corned beef and Punjab Flour: HONEST IT TASTES REAL GOOD. Beyond the port town of Lautoka loom the high peaks of the Koroyanitu Range and beyond that of the Nakuavadra Range, where the FIJI water plant is located. Outside the village of Rakiraki, my driver, Ramu Jai, turns a corner in his Jeep and pauses next to a modest headstone under a rubber tree. "That is the grave of Chief Udre Udre," he says. When I ask him why this man was famous, Jai replies, "He ate more people than anybody else in Fiji." Anthropophagy is the fancy term for the consumption of "long pig," or human flesh. The practice died out when missionaries finally persuaded warring chiefs to suppress their appetites. Fijians tend to be dismayed by their voracious past, but replicas of cannibal forks and carved war clubs are tasteless curiosities that are still sold at souvenir shops. And there is no question that the trim men I observe sedately walking alongside the Kings Road in their formal black sulus (sarongs), Bibles tucked under their arms, can still channel their inner gladiator. When I run into a burly American mercenary, he seems quite pleased with the fierce reputation of the local warriors: PMC's (private military contractors) have been recruiting Fijians to serve as armed escorts in Iraq and other global hot spots. He mentions that a Fijian team recently foiled an ambush outside of Baghdad after one member was wounded. "That cannibal past comes up fast when they smell blood," he says. Sadly, economic necessity feeds this labor exodus. Fijians are willing to risk life and limb overseas because it's so lucrative: the average weekly wage for a middle-class taxi driver is about $50; mercenaries get $2,000 a month.

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