On an Island Paradise, Seeking Out a City’s Complexity

After I checked into the Grand Pacific Hotel in Suva, Fiji’s capital, a colonial-era lodging so iconic that locals call it simply G.P.H., I walked outside along Victoria Parade, the wide boulevard in front. Many of the people I encountered smiled, waved and shouted “Bula,” a greeting. I passed a lively cricket pitch, then skirted around Parliament. An older, sprightly gentleman made a beeline for me. “Sir, you must be very careful here. People will rob you,” he said, then paused. “But I can protect you.”

In an era when novel and elaborate online scams have eclipsed classic, in-person confidence games, a real-life con man roaming the streets of Suva seemed quaint, even appealing. Nevertheless, when a “Don’t Walk” sign flashed, I sprinted across the street to evade him. I was happy just to wander and see what I might find.

I also didn’t have much choice — when it came to travel intelligence, this city was a digital black hole. Recent posts on Tripadvisor contained not actionable advice, but the nostalgic recollections of missionaries who had visited here decades ago en route to work in rural Fiji. All of which made Suva perfect for both old-school, analog con artists and for a visitor like me, yearning to escape from places with everything known and little left to discover.

Terry Walk, a small park adjacent to a canal that bisects the city, is the site of the Fiji-China Friendship Pavilion, which commemorates the arrival of Chinese in Fiji more than 165 years ago.Credit…Tom Downey

An irresistible challenge

For most people, a trip to the South Pacific would mean tiny islands, deserted beaches, bucolic villages — Robert Louis Stevenson territory.

Not me. I love cities not just because of their man-made beauty and intense concentration of life, but also because they pose the ultimate challenge: to try to decode their human complexity. Though it may not have a swimmablebeach or a robust tourist trade, Suva, with a multiethnic population of about 100,000 people from all over the country and the region, defines the urban South Pacific.

I went on morning runs to the bustling market lined with women selling cooked sweets made of tropical root vegetables, watched tramp freighters pass cloud-topped green mountains on the distant shore and nursed sundowners on the patio of the regal G.P.H. By night I drank pints of Fiji Bitter beer next to Gujarati tradesmen at the Merchants’ Club, a private organization founded by Indo-Fijian businessmen that welcomes guests. I sipped gin and tonics alongside business bros partying late into the night at the Defence Club, started by soldiers heading to fight in World War I, but now also open to guests like me, who wander in and sidle up to the long, wooden bar. I watched crowds of students from all over the South Pacific stream into Traps, a raucous nightspot that’s been among the most popular in town for decades.

In the morning I was awakened by the surprising sound of rhythmic chanting and pounding. I stepped out onto my balcony and saw the Fijian national rugby squad drilling at dawn on the lawn of my hotel.

An Indo-Fijian breadfruit and coconut curry served at the Eden Bistro & Bar Fiji.Credit…Tom Downey
A bowl of kava at Mana Coffee Kava Bar. The drink is usually consumed from a cup called a bilo, typically shared by multiple drinkers, but at Mana drinkers can scoop a personal bilo for each drinker.Credit…Tom Downey

Inspired by their efforts, one morning I went on a reconnaissance jog, where I spied some large, still living mud crabs lashed together on a tabletop at an out-of-the-way restaurant called Eden Bistro & Bar Fiji. I returned there for lunch, sat at the counter and ate a fantastic crab curry laced with coconut milk. It came with a homemade red chile paste that had the sharp tang of fermentation to cut the richness and spice. I started talking to the owner, Sangeeta Maharaj, 56, who explained that this was her take on a quintessential Indo-Fijian dish.

The next day, Ms. Maharaj and her friend Rajan Sami, 47, a writer and fashion critic, met me for a weekend lunch at Yue Lai, a Chinese-owned hotel with a packed dim sum parlor. After we sat down and waited for our plates of dumplings, bowls of congee and pots of jasmine tea, they broke down the crowd for me, as only a chef who saw food as a way into culture and a fashion critic used to unraveling the semiotics of streetwear could.

At one large table there were new Chinese immigrants who had come in recent years as part of China’s once soft, but increasingly harder, power play in the region; other tables were filled with Chinese-Fijian families who had been here for generations. There were small groups of government officials with their friends and families, mixed tables of Indigenous iTaukei and Indo-Fijians who worked together, and a sprinkling of the international United Nations/NGO set.

“In the last few years, the idea of who is Fijian has changed,” Mr. Sami said. “Before, when you said a person was Fijian, it meant they were iTaukei. But now Fijian has come to signify everyone from this country. That means a lot to me, because now I can finally call myself Fijian.”

Most of the Indian population, like Mr. Sami’s ancestors, came here in the late 1800s and early 1900s, many as indentured laborers. They constitute just under 40 percent of Fiji’s population. The iTaukei, a Melanesian people, are close to 60 percent. There are small numbers of Chinese, and about 1 percent of the population is Polynesian. Relations between all these groups are complicated and conflicted — the legacy of nearly 100 years of British colonization.

“The bones of Suva are British,” Ms. Maharaj said. “You can see it in the Grand Pacific Hotel, the cricket field, the wide boulevards around old government buildings. The bones of the towns, like where I grew up in Lautoka, are Australian, because they were once run by Australian merchants.” She went on to explain that in old sugar cane towns like Lautoka there were still large numbers of Indians. Villages across Fiji are almost all iTaukei, with a smattering of Chinese traders. But Suva is where everybody comes together. This made me think that many visitors to Fiji would enjoy a couple of days in Suva, where they can experience the ethnic and cultural diversity that defines this nation.

Kirikiti Juna’s “Us,” a work done in the traditional masi style, depicting some of the most important events in the history of Fiji and Suva.Credit…Tom Downey
The lobby of the Grand Pacific Hotel, a hotel built in 1914 to house ship passengers. The hotel closed in 1992 and was reopened in 2014 after extensive renovations.Credit…Tom Downey

The ‘beating heart of the South Pacific’

Through a friend of Ms. Maharaj and Mr. Sami, I met John Pule, 61, a world-renowned painter and writer, originally from the 1,600-person island nation of Niue, who was hosting a workshop for artists at the University of the South Pacific. The university, funded by 12 countries in the region, sits on lush, landscaped grounds, with vernacular architecture inspired by open-air, grass-roofed structures.

“I try to challenge these artists to tell their stories in a traditional way,” Mr. Pule said, “using only the three muted colors of the masi, which are brown, black and burnt umber.” Masi, called tapa elsewhere in the region, is a South Pacific graphic art form typically painted on tree bark.

For me, the most striking work was “Us” by an iTaukei artist, Kirikiti Juna, 45, originally from northern Fiji. Mr. Juna, inspired by street artists like the early Jean-Michel Basquiat, had used the rigorously defined format of the masi to map the story of Suva and Fiji, blending a traditional-looking structure and patterns with renderings of iconic images, such as the first Chinese family in Fiji, Queen Elizabeth II of England on her first visit to Fiji, the iTaukei people sold as slaves to P.T. Barnum, and the facade of Suva’s Regal cinema, now a used-clothing store.

A couple of days later, I drank kava with the owners of Mana Coffee Kava Bar. Kava is a root that is dried, pounded and then soaked in water to produce a ritual beverage typically drunk on special occasions but also consumed more frequently by those who enjoy its mellowing effects.

Most kava bars are somewhat sordid, male-dominated establishments, with loud sound systems and metal gates meant to bar drunks or thieves from entry. Mana radically alters that formula, creating a clean and comfortable space where women and men come together to drink kava, coffee, beer and cocktails. Next to our party was a group of traditionally dressed Melanesians who were conducting a business meeting with their European colleagues. There was a multigenerational family whose older members were drinking kava with their supper.

Traditionally everyone in a group scoops kava from a large wooden bowl into a shared vessel, called a bilo, and then drinks from that same cup. At Mana each person had a separate bilo, which was filled with a ladle, so as not to contaminate the bowl. A small group of people gathered around our wooden bowl to slurp grog, as kava is also known, and to reminisce.

An older man downed the bitter compound in one gulp, as you are meant to do, and explained why there used to be many more kava bars in Suva. Until the latter half of the last century, he said, iTaukei and Indo-Fijians were not allowed to purchase or consume alcohol. So kava bars, which often relied on the beauty and the alluring singing voices of their waitresses to draw customers, became an alternative to the European-only bars from which locals were excluded.

On my final day in the city I traveled to CAS, the newly opened Centre for the Arts, Suva, where I met one of its founders, Nakita Irvin, 36. CAS was hosting an exhibit in a warehouse owned by Ms. Irvin’s grandfather, which had been repurposed as a gallery. Its first exhibit, “Suva, Shifting Landscapes,” had opened just a few days before, showcasing the work of young, local street photographers documenting their hometown. The image that stayed with me, shot by a rapper/photographer named VISUALICE, is of a woman in a black hijab walking in front of a dark background into which she almost disappears; engraved next to her, on the left side of the frame, are the words “Public Land Sales on This Spot 1880,” a reference to an early initiative by the British to privatize Fijian land.

“At CAS we want to explore what it means to have this urban South Pacific identity formed in a very multicultural place,” Ms. Irvin said. “It makes sense for it to be here in Suva, the beating heart of the South Pacific.”

Ms. Irvin’s Samoan-Chinese grandfather, Falo Kei Weil, 87, sat on a bench outside the entrance to the gallery’s high-ceilinged industrial space, underneath a sign that read “Falo’s Services Limited”from a tire company he opened here decades ago. Now he watched as visitors entered his garage not to have their tires retreaded, but to try to untangle the cultural complexities of this city through its art.

If You Go:

Almost all international flights to Fiji land at Nadi Airport (NAN). Taxis to Suva cost about 300 Fijian dollars (about $135) for the three-and-a- half- hour drive. There are also a handful of daily, 30 minute flights connecting the cities.

Fiji uses the Fijian dollar, which at current exchange rates is worth about 45 cents. A local beer costs 3 to 8 Fijian dollars; a meal can run from 20 to 100 Fijian dollars.

Accommodation at Suva’s Grand Pacific Hotel starts at about 450 Fijian dollars for rooms in the new wing; heritage suites in the original building start at about 800 Fijian dollars. Sundown drinks on the patio here, or at the neighboring Holiday Inn, are a daily ritual.

Mana Coffee Kava Bar offers an easy and modern introduction to Fiji’s kava culture in a comfortable space that also serves good coffee and food. When you’re ready for a more traditional kava bar experience, try Praveens Kava on Victoria Parade, a central outlet opened by a kava trader. But be ready to share your bilo, a kind of cup, with other patrons.

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