Do you wanna dance, and hold my hand? Problems and issues facing ordinary Fijians

Including new travel tips!!!!

Yesterday, I got an email from a producer of a BBC Television show asking for some comments as she is looking at making a show about crazy places to drive a taxi.  In doing a response for her, I have included information that gives a picture (through my eyes as an Australian married to a Fijian, living here in Fiji) of what life in Fiji is like – really like!  So, if you wanna dance, and hold my hand and take a trip through Fijian life as I observe it, read on.  I have not mentioned the upcoming election in 2014, or any political views, but I can tell you that living in Fiji to me feels safe, secure.  Like the current government or not, most Fijians I speak to feel that at least the current Prime Minister is a man who gets around to local communities and gets things done.  Anyway, no more on politics.  My response to the enquiries below:

Thanks so much for your email.  I know heaps of taxi drivers as apart from the bus, it is my only mode of transport.  As far as I am aware, there are no “water taxis” as such.  When people need to travel over water, apart from the big barges and ferries operated by Patterson Brothers Shipping, Bligh Shipping and Groundar, they travel mostly by fibreglass boat such as in this story.  Often the boats are bought using microfinance or loans for thousands, and the fare is about $5, so I don’t know how they actually pay off the loans. http://www.fijisun.com.fj/2013/05/03/a-boat-for-yanuca-islanders/

For a list of shipping contacts see here: http://myfijiguide.com/general-info/boatsmarineshipping/shipping-companies-and-agents.aspx

Even from one point to another on the same island, it is easier and faster to get the boat.

Many people die each year in the small “fibres” as they are called.  http://www.fijitimes.com/story.aspx?id=238916 including the late Tui (chief) Macuata.  There is a post in my blog about it.

Even government travel is by these small boats sometimes, such as teaching staff going between the islands.  http://www.fijitimes.com/story.aspx?id=235708

If you wanted to put your man on the water, I would suggest that you do it in the Lomaiviti Group, that is the group of islands including Ovalau(where Levuka is, the old capital), Gau, Kadauv etc .  Actually here is a list of the islands.

There is plenty of boat travel between all of the islands in the group.  Including sea-road travel. for example, a truck wanting to take goods to Koro Island from Suva would have to travel by road to Natovi Landing near Nausori (Rewa Delta), then the truck goes on the boat to the island, then travels overland to destination.

Re normal taxi drivers, the cars are often old, the fare is usually about $3 for short trips, and they have to go on all kinds of roads.  Some travel regularly on the road from Suva to Nadi for $100 FJD.  The scary way to travel is by minibus.  There are minibus routes all over Fiji and the drivers drive non stop in all conditions, with vans jam packed full.

IMGP6677Later that night, further into the conversation, on being thanked for my prompt response (excuse my generalisation, not all Fijians drink Kava, and not all the time, but it is as expected at work here as late night Karaoke and drinking are in Japan.  If the boss says drink, you drink.  If you don’t you are seen as not loyal.  Also, due to the nature of family and clan ties, often there is a traditional relationship involved and to not drink would be considered socially unacceptable, disrespectful and frankly UnFijian:

Ahh, see I am married to a Fijian.  They all drink Kava, all the time.  It is midnight here and I am waiting for him to get home from the “meeting”.  By the way, I also should have mentioned that all the taxi drivers drink kava all the time also, even between jobs, or while waiting at their taxi base.  Especially if they have to go on a long job and take someone to the interior, they will be given Kava when they arrive.  It is not just a quick “one for the road” affair either! 

I do know someone here in Rewa who would be a great person.  His name is Jerry, and he is Fijian and owns traditional land, and drives the other kind of taxi which is a huge truck converted into a carrier with bench seats.  He does daily runs from Nausori to Logani and the other villages towards Bau Landing, which has probably some of the worst roads in Fiji.  Drivers here are very skillful, and he and his family are real characters.  His son is a great friend of mine.  They will take your man in like he is one of the family, and after work he will get to tend to cattle, plant dalo and ride horses in the sea.

IMG_2155

Our sleeping arrangements on the inter island ferry

IMGP2774

Just one small part of our family

Earlier today:

Hi, I am going to try and answer your questions below, I hope this helps you:

Oh by the way… Even if these boats you mention below are not ‘water taxis’ as such – do locals pay a fare? I love the suggestion about the trucks. As a local what do you think are the main ‘current affairs’ affecting Fijians and people like Jerry?

Yes, the locals pay a fare.  They also often pay with their lives.  A fibreglass is an open small boat as pictured in  https://alicevstokes.wordpress.com/2013/02/22/suva-harbour/.  They take officially 7 to 9 passengers across the reef, or if travelling from island to island, over open water.  The weather here is very changeable and the sea often treacherous.  Very few wear life jackets.  The inter-island fare is normally the cost of a weeks’ earnings for some people.  For example, from Levuka on Ovalau to Gau island, the fare is about $70.  Many Fijians earn $10/day.  However, if you “gotta go” then there is little option.  Because of strong traditional relationships, if there is a family event such as funeral etc, then you must travel.  Fijians (even Indo-Fijians) are very much tied to 3 places in this order: their mother’s village, their father’s village, their birth place.  Where they actually live or “stay” as they call it (for example if they have moved to Suva for work) is of little or no consequence.  I think that is one of the reasons there is so much litter here.  It is not your concern as it is not your village. 

For all Fijians that I know and have met, the family and family ties are the most important thing.  That is one of the most wonderful things about living in Fiji.  No matter the problems, family time (even with husband and wife, kids etc) is the number one priority.  Respect for your parents, and elders is paramount.  For example, my niece just had a baby.  Instead of being called the baby’s aunt, I am called the . grandmother or “Bubu” as I am in that generation (even though of course I am still wildly attractive and only 48) and all of my counterparts are considered as important to the baby, and a source of advice for the new mother.  The baby is named after its great grandfather (my husband’s father), my son – no blood relation, and the biological grandmother’s late father.  This is a huge honour to have a “yaca” (yatha).  Even as I write this, I feel an obligation to further explain the family relationships, as it matters so much (for example, that the baby’s mother is the first daughter of my husband’s eldest brother, and that the father of that eldest brother is the first namesake), but I won’t…. but you get the idea. 

The reason I am going into all this, is that for any taxi driver, boat driver, carrier driver, bus driver or whatever, family is the real driver.

Religion is the second driver.  God is real here, and your parents are viewed as God’s representative on earth. 

Even though wages and fares are low, the sense of community here is very strong.  If you ring a driver or get a driver and explain that you don’t have any money but your need to travel to a place for reasons of family, getting home or a commitment that is important (again, only family or religion), then they will take you on a promise.  Often I get home having not paid anything at all, not because I don’t have any money, just because one of my neighbours (anyone living within a 5km radius) or relatives (anyone from Gau or the Lomaiviti group, or Vanua Levu) has seen me and picked me up.

Taxi drivers here are the people you go to if you want or need to find anything.  They take a real sense of responsibility for making sure you get what you need.  They will go  into the shop with you and explain what you need, and negotiate.  They are friends with every one.  They are a very trusted group in the community and often have regular customers and jobs.  When I say customers, actually your taxi driver becomes part of the family.  They pick your kids up and take them to school, they tell people where you live, they help you move house, they make enquiries if you are searching for a house to rent or a car to buy.  They do everything for you.  I published some taxi driver phone numbers on my blog as these people I really trust.  They invite you to their daughters’ weddings, they are a blessing.

·         Who are Jerry’s (Or someone like him) customers – how reliant are people on taxis?

Jerry and the other drivers rely on their regular customers as much as their customers rely on them.  They do deliveries, make sure that all the kids are picked up, run rain, flood, hail or shine, as it is the only way for people to get home.  I came to Fiji in December the day after a cyclone and our road was flooded. Our driver somehow found a way through the flooded back roads, and got us home from the airport.  They will not leave their neighbours stranded. 

·         What is life like for a taxi driver – do they own a decent wage – how are they viewed by society in Fiji?

Many do not earn what we by Western standards would call a decent wage, but that is not important here.  Most people grow at least a decent proportion of their own food (except possibly in Suva City).  See above re society views. 

·         You say the roads are bad   – what are they like? Is there a bad accident rate?

The roads are appalling!  I can’t say much more.  It is really a “see to believe” type of thing.  The accident rate is also appalling.  Buses catch on fire regularly http://www.fijisun.com.fj/2013/07/05/another-bus-burned/ , minibuses crash regularly http://www.fijisun.com.fj/2009/09/16/bus-passengers-escape-death/

 and buses crash .  It is not so much the death rate, but that the accidents are always so shocking.  The shock coming from the cause, and also that we know that when someone dies or is seriously injured here, the financial toll on the family will force them into poverty.  (around 40% of Fijians live in what we call poverty, many in “informal settlements”. 

·         What are the main ‘social’ issues that are worth exploring in Fiji?

Poverty in housing – see “informal settlements” which we would call slums or shanty towns, or squatter settlements http://www.fijitimes.com/story.aspx?id=227553

http://www.fijitimes.com/story.aspx?id=238556 with an estimated 300,000 people in Fiji living in squatter settlements (total population just over 900,000 in Fiji) this is a pressing issue for so many.

tamavua i waiSquatter settlement at Tamavua i wai (near Suva).  Source: http://www.fijitimes.com/story.aspx?id=238556

Another source says that it is only 100,000 in squatter settlements, but I would go with the 300,000 having lived here.  http://news.ccf.org.fj/students-teachers-viewing-the-documentary-struggling-for-a-better-living-squatters-in-fiji/ also notes importantly that “Besides having no proper legal title to their homes, the vast majority of these people lack basic amenities such as piped water, sewerage and electricity”.

Poverty in education (school fees for one child are about $280 per year, but this is a struggle for many families, and children are disallowed from school regularly if their fees are overdue). It is a daily story in both major newspapers at the start of each school year.  http://www.fijisun.com.fj/2013/01/23/children-turned-away-for-not-paying-fees/

A better life for their children (just like all parents).  This involves spending a large proportion of the family income on education, and the hope of immigrating to the developed world.

·         What is Jerry and his family like – when you say ‘characters’ what would we find    compelling about them?

They are an amazing family.  Fijians often live in extended family groups.  Jerry and his family live in a village in Tailevu, and live on land owned under traditional title, that is passed through clans in traditional ways too long to go into here.  Jerry is head of the family.  The family is originally from Bau Island which means that they are highly regarded as Bau was the old seat of power in Fiji.  Also, too long an explanation re their compelling nature.  You will find most Fijian families compelling I think, but as Jerry and his family both operate a business and travel to and from town for work and schooling via boat, bus, carrier, taxi, minibus, and live a rural traditional lifestyle by the ocean, they are a good example of the best of Fiji.  Jerry’s son Eddie is 21, and a real thinker.  He knows everything there is to know about pig farming and takes responsibility for the schooling and school fees of his younger siblings.  He is a very attractive person both inside and out and a dear friend.

·         How real is the risk of flooding in the Delta – does this affect the roads? What season is worse for this?  http://www.pacificdisaster.net/pdnadmin/data/original/FJI_2012_FL_NEOC_Sitrep14.pdf

Gives a true picture of what happens to roads and transport in Fiji during the yearly (sometimes 3 times a year) floods.  Road closures, bus services suspended, bridges washed out.  But still the taxi drivers and carrier drivers manage to get people around.  That is when boat travel comes into its own.  You take a fibre from one point to another and bypass the flooded roads.  Flood season from December to April.  Floods here are devastating due to the quality of housing. Most houses made from corrugated iron roughly put together.  To get a picture of what it is like see http://poleshift.ning.com/profiles/blogs/7-of-10-sinking-fiji-this-current-flood-is-worse-than-the-floods

Some awesome pictures of the Nadi flooding that has many people calling for the whole town to be relocated. https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.365058533519909.106465.112621892096909&type=3

Children brave river dangerous river crossing to catch a ride to school since damage to crossing 7 months ago in Cyclone Evan http://www.fijitimes.com/story.aspx?id=238801

·         Even though there aren’t ‘water taxis’ as such do the boats that people take out loans for carry other passengers.

fibre fdb

Source: Fiji Times Online

Yes, they get loans from FDB (Fiji Development Bank).  This is a real life story and a typical one: http://www.fijitimes.com/story.aspx?id=190741

It’s been such fun reading about life in Fiji from you mails – from Kava to riding horses in the sea – I feel like I have almost transported myself there from London for the day!

Fiji Roads Corporate Plan 2013 – see 1.3.3 and tables.  You will get an idea from the “horses mouth” about road conditions, and also the number of unsealed roads (where the term “road” is used loosely). http://www.fijiroads.org/sites/default/files/fra-corporate-plan-2013-final.pdf

“Irish Crossings”  http://www.fijisun.com.fj/2012/01/27/students-cross-flooded-creek/

are regularly washed out, bridges closed etc.  I can’t find a good example online as most of the info on Fiji is really quite lame, but Air Pacific (now Fiji Airways) has a great map in it’s inflight magazine showing the sealed and unsealed roads on each island.  Maybe you can pick one up from the local travel agent.  That will really give you a good picture.  Unsealed roads literally are little more than dirt tracks. I live on one, and it is very close to Suva.  Anyway, if you hit the google map http://goo.gl/maps/EmR99 and zoom in, you might get a bit more of an idea.  Drivers here are very skilful.  Many of the roads on the islands literally brush the ocean, with cliffs on one side, water on the other, and mud in between.  The road to Levuka from the ferry stop is harrowing, especially in the dark, and if it is raining.  If two vehicles meet, one has to back up.  Often that is a big, full bus or truck.  If one car or bus breaks down, then everyone waits.  That of course is a great opportunity for any taxi or carrier driver on the “lee” side of the breakdown as they come somehow, as if by magic, and ferry people from the traffic jam to the boats.

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3 thoughts on “Do you wanna dance, and hold my hand? Problems and issues facing ordinary Fijians

  1. Hi Alice great page you have here. What really irks me is the way people dump their household garbage on the roadside, plastic bags full, white, black you name it… the water taxis are used to transport villagers who live in the Rewa Delta… quite an exciting ride….and very scenic I might add through the mangroves….

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