I regret to inform you that we have all been wildly misinformed about pineapple. I’d been going through life fishing rings of the stuff out of tin cans onto gammon and indulging my controversial affection for it on pizza, so I cavalierly assumed I had a pretty good idea of what it tastes like. I was wrong. I realise my mistake the moment I casually bite into a slice of freshly-picked pineapple and it explodes in my mouth: sweet and rich. It’s like hearing Beethoven’s Fifth when you’d been expecting a drunk banging on a bin. It’s as if happiness itself had a taste.
At the moment of my epiphany I’m standing in the kitchen of Sala Lacabuka’s home, in the tiny village of Vacalea. With a population somewhere around 80, it sits on a hilltop towards the eastern end of Kadavu, Fiji’s fourth largest island. The house was built by hand by her husband Seimisi and is painted a slightly deeper shade of blue than the vast sky above. When Sala started preparing dinner – tuna, spinach, eggplant and the tropical root vegetable, taro – Seimisi picked a baby pineapple from one of the plants outside and sliced it up to serve as a snack. We eat greedily, while above our heads shiny DVDs hang from the ceiling, catching the fading light. Sala’s incongruous choice of decoration is a complete box set of Scrubs.
Outside the window every child in the village – from toddler to teenager – is engaged in an energetic game of pani, a local game roughly equivalent to dodgeball. Behind them the sunset is beginning to turn the horizon candy-floss pink. Earlier, approaching the village by boat, thick green vegetation had made the whole place appear uninhabited, and there are no cars or roads on this side of the island. At 411km2, Kadavu is just slightly bigger than the Isle of Wight – but home to an awful lot more palm trees swaying over white sandy beaches. The sea is turquoise and clear. Pineapples grow freely. If you were ever shipwrecked on Kadavu, you probably wouldn’t be in any particular hurry to be rescued. For their part, the islanders don’t seem to be in any particular hurry about anything. Sala’s catchphrase is: ‘Take your time, no rush.’
I’d come to Fiji to find out why people here are so happy. A 2017 Gallup poll found that 92% of people who live in Fiji describe themselves as ‘happy’ or ‘very happy’, the highest proportion anywhere in the world. This statistic comes as no surprise to Seimisi, who as well as growing most of the food we’ll eat tonight also farms kava, the root crop used to make a mildly sedating drink which is Fiji’s main form of social lubrication. As we sit down to dinner, joined by their children Lusiana and Samuela, Seimisi points to the bountiful natural harvest spread out on the table in front of us as one of the reasons why Fijians are so content.
‘No money, no worries,’ he says. ‘In your country, you need to have money. Here you can pull up cassava and taro from the ground and get fish from the sea. In the evening you can drink kava. You may have no money, but you have no worries either.’
The plentiful food also helps to facilitate Fiji’s culture of generosity and hospitality. Sala, who works as a manager at the nearby Matava Resort, invites guests to come and stay in her village. She’s just as welcoming to her own neighbours. ‘We keep our door open,’ she says, and she means this literally. The front door has been propped open all day. ‘We’re eating now, and whoever walks past we’ll say: ‘Come, have dinner!’ Anyone can just walk in if they feel like coming in. If they’re starving they’ll just come straight away and we’ll serve them food. Families don’t cook just the right portion. We cook extra so that we can invite anyone to come and have a meal with us.’
This sense of tight-knit community is strengthened by the islanders’ rich folklore and collective mythology. Over the dinner table Lusiana cuts off her parents to eagerly regale us with the story of Dakuwaqa, the fearsome Fijian shark god who was only defeated in battle by an octopus who lived in the shallow waters around Kadavu. ‘When they fought, the octopus wrapped his arms around the shark and used two of them to block the shark’s nostrils,’ explains Lusiana. ‘The shark surrendered and promised he would never bite or eat any Kadavu people.’ Local fishermen claim Dakuwaqa has protected them from shark attacks ever since.
After dinner I settle down for bed on a foam mattress in Sala’s living room and am quickly lulled to sleep by the quiet of the village. A chorus of cockerels breaks the silence a little before 6am, but another couple of hours pass before Sala appears in the kitchen to start shaping dough to bake into fresh buns. ‘In island life this is how we do breakfast,’ she says with a shrug. ‘There’s no rush.’
Most of the men who live in Vacalea are farmers, like Seimisi. For those women who don’t work in tourism like Sala there are more traditional forms of employment, such as weaving grass mats from pandanus leaves. A couple of doors down from Sala’s house I meet Kelera Raivasi, who learned to weave this way when she was just six years old. ‘All through Fijian history people have been weaving like this,’ she says. ‘The skill is passed from grandmother to mother to daughter.’
She sits on the mat as she works, happy to chat away as the weaving has long since become second nature. Her eyes light up when she hears that I plan to visit Bouma National Park on Taveuni, another island 200 miles to the north-east. Slightly larger than Kadavu, it is known as Fiji’s ‘Garden Isle’ because of the incredible diversity of its flora and fauna. By chance Kelera’s in-laws live there, and she’s spotted an opportunity to display that characteristic Fijian generosity. ‘The head man of that village is called Iosefo, he’s my husband’s father,’ she explains as she fetches two sulus, the Fijian sarong. ‘Can I give you these to take to him and his wife? He looks after the waterfalls. They’re beautiful.’
Bouma National Park lives up to Kelera’s billing. A three-hour hike through the teeming rainforest reveals three waterfalls, each forming its own perfect pool. After the long climb I can’t resist the chance to dive in, washing the sweat from by body in the cool, fresh water. From vantage points near the top of the trail the island appears entirely untamed, a sea of green from which coconut palm trees grow like church spires. As I walk downhill, hibiscus, gardenia and heliconia flowers provide bright splashes of colour while frogs and purple shore crabs cross my path. In a small village near the entrance to the park I meet Chief Iosefo Raupuga, who welcomes me to his simple home and happily accepts Kelera’s sulus. As we talk, he points out that this pristine natural environment can’t be taken for granted. His community had to fight for it.
He explains that in the 1980s, a Korean logging company did a deal with the most powerful chief on the island to turn Taveuni’s trees into timber. They even went so far as to construct a sawmill. However, the chief still needed to get the assent of the various village chiefs, which at that time included Iosefo’s father. They all refused, the deal fell through and the barely-used sawmill fell into disrepair. In a poetic twist, the mill itself is now part of the forest, overgrown and tied up with vines. A tall, unfelled palm towers over the forgotten doorway.
‘They turned down a lot of money,’ says Iosefo. ‘They decided the island was more important. They were thinking of future generations, and I think they made a wise choice. Now we’re reaping the benefits of it. Money comes into the village from the tourists who visit the waterfalls every day.’
Like everyone I meet, Iosefo quickly agrees with the portrayal of Fijians as happy people. ‘We’re happy because we live as a community,’ he says. ‘We live as neighbours among these beautiful surroundings and we can always go and talk to the other villagers, our brothers and sisters.’
Live and let live
This sense of togetherness is another clue towards understanding Fijian happiness. Importantly, it even extends across what other countries would called ‘religious and cultural divides’. While around 64% of the population identifies – like Sala and Seimisi – as Christian, the sizable Indo-Fijian population helps explain why 28% of the population are Hindu.
Many of those Indo-Fijians live on nearby Vanua Levu, which at 12 times the size of Taveuni is significantly larger than the two previous islands I’ve visited and has much to explore. On the south coast near Savusavu I stroll along a white sandy beach and swim surrounded by tiny but curious fish. The island’s biggest town, Labasa, is home to almost 30,000 people – a heaving metropolis by Fijian standards built around one main street, with a bustling market and a busy bus station. Just outside of town is one of Fiji’s most significant Hindu religious sites: Naag Mandir, literally ‘Snake Temple’. The red and yellow building contrasts sharply against the rolling hills and is built around a three metre tall rock which resembles, from certain angles, a cobra. Some Hindus believe that this island is the place referred to in their scriptures as Ramanaka Dweep, where Lord Krishna sent a snake god.
When I visit, the rock is garlanded in red, yellow and white flowers. Although the priest’s chanting echoes around the room, there is a sense of stillness. Families from as far afield as Australia and New Zealand kneel, pray and give offerings of apples, bananas, coconuts and milk. The air is thick with the smell of burning camphor.
After the families leave the priest introduces himself as Anil Maharaj, and explains why people travel such distances to pray here. ‘They come to have their desires fulfilled,’ he explains. ‘Their problems are solved and their sicknesses are healed.’ He adds that religious tensions in Fiji are non-existent. ‘There are never any problems here,’ he says. ‘It’s a beautiful country. People are very happy.’
In Fiji that happiness springs from many wells. It’s easiest to see in the natural beauty of those untouched beaches and waterfalls, but it rises too from the strength of the communities that protect them. It’s there in the spirit of hospitality, the giving of gifts for no reason, and sometimes it’s in places you might not expect it – like that first bite of really fresh pineapple.
Published in Lonely Planet Traveller, January 2020.