19 January, 2006
Tom Cockrem had the warmest of welcome in Suva
Taken from the Sydney Morning Herald, 20 August 2003. I arrived in Suva at 9pm, drenched to the bone, with no ID and penniless but for a five-dollar note. I had come on the back of a truck. And it rained. Then the discovery. I'd left my documents and money back at the hotel in Sigatoka, a two-hour drive up the Queens Road. But this was Fiji - no need to despair. The truck driver whisked me into the office of a personal friend - the Chief Inspector of Police. This man, cheerful and reassuring, overlooked my wretched muddied state, and arranged not only my accommodation, but also for my documents to be sent down by courier overnight. He then drove me to the guest house and stood as my personal guarantor. This was my welcome to Suva, and one I am unlikely to forget. After checking in, I strolled back to the centre. The streets snaked their way through leafy garden suburbs - towering palms and giant shrubs with shiny dripping leaves. This was a far cry from the island's drier dusty north, and the hard and dusty town of Nadi near the international airport. No, this was much more like the Fiji I had hoped to discover on my travels: moist, tropical and lush. Strange that I should find it in the capital. The city centre too had treats in store. The streets were quiet, almost deserted in the rain; but the town's aged buildings seemed to glow. There were big, broad colonnades and generous verandas, all immaculately painted in creams and neutral tones. I later learnt their names: the old Garrick building in the heart of town; and in Victoria Parade the Fintel Telecommunications Building and the old Town Hall. That night I walked into a nightclub, The Golden Dragon. So this was where the people had all gone. The night was alive indoors. Drinking schools - one glass passed from hand to hand - had set themselves up around the bar. Befriending generous locals, my five dollars went a long way that night. So this was where the people had all gone. The night was alive indoors. Drinking schools - one glass passed from hand to hand - had set themselves up around the bar. I already liked Suva, and especially the people. It was clear that they took great pride in their city and its past. And for good reason. Made capital of Fiji under the British colonial rule in 1882, Suva rapidly became the Pacific's biggest town, its main port and most vital link with the outside world. It remains that way today. As well as being the region's economic hub, Suva is also its ethnic melting pot. It is here that people from Pacific Island nations like Tonga, Samoa and Tuvalu come to work and live. And so do Fijians from the country's far-flung outer islands. Most are Melanesian in origin, but there are Polynesians as well. They gravitate to the capital from exotic-sounding places like Rotuma, Moala and Lau. The perfect place to lose yourself among these island folk is at Suva's Municipal Market. Saturday is best. It is then that bus loads of villagers stream in, particularly from the Rewa River delta and the Sawani Highlands, to set up shop. The place explodes into a sea of colourful sulus, saris and bula shirts. It is the kind of scene Harry Belafonte would be moved to sing about. All the tropical goodies you would expect to find are there: mangoes, pawpaws, pineapples and huge bunches of bananas, all freshly plucked from fertile village plots. The vegetables are mainly root varieties. Some, like dalo (taro), stand elegantly tall, while others, like yams, are formidably earthy - as are the ever-friendly women who sell them. Here too, tucked away in little nooks, groups of Fijian men indulge in their favourite pastime - sharing a bowl of kava. It is locally known as "grog". Accept a cup when offered. It will bring a tingle to your lips and mellow out your senses - just the thing for a day at Suva market. Downtown Suva is roughly divided into two sections. To the north, Renwick and Thomson streets wind their way up a steepish hill to the once-ritzy but now pretty shabby suburb of Toorak, passing through the city's main shopping precinct. The shops are mostly Indian run, selling gold jewellery, electronic goods, saris and so on. Commanding the top of Renwick Street is the iconic Kings Hotel. The imposing three-storey wooden structure manages to accommodate four bars, a couple of night clubs and a bunch of Indian-run businesses along its upstairs gallery. The other part of the city - the more salubrious one - straddles Victoria Parade. The street emerges from the bustling city centre, and runs south straight out of town. Near its end stands what was once Suva's pride and joy: the Grand Pacific Hotel. At times rather flatteringly compared to Raffles in Singapore, the GPH represented the British Raj, Pacific island style. The hotel has been closed and left languishing for more than 10 years. Happily, plans are now afoot to bring it back to life. Across the road is Albert Park, where Sir Charles Kingsford-Smith made an emergency landing on his landmark flight from England to Australia. The park these days is the scene of some of those thumping rugby games for which the Fijians are internationally renowned. In Suva you are constantly reminded of the past. My favourite spot for breakfast was the Old Mill Cottage. It's a rare surviving relic of Suva's long-defunct sugar mill. It has an airy wooden veranda where you are bound to strike up conversations with regulars I got to know the reggae boys who play at a local nightclub. "Coming to Traps tonight? The band's on. I've got a spare ticket if you want one. See you there, OK?" And that's the way it is in Suva. The people want to know you and include you in their lives. The Fijian way, after all, is the way of the village. The people are intensely community-minded, and everyone has a part to play. That includes the visitor. This is the strongest feeling you get in Suva. Its a city, true, but a Pacific island city, and no one gets left out. It's a different kind of paradise, but a paradise in its own way just the same.