Monday, May 2, 2016
Important Reminders: The DO's and DON'Ts of Your Village Visit in Fiji
As our recovery efforts begin in earnest, it is important to learn and follow the customs and traditions of the Fijian people in order to show respect and not offend our hosts.
The DO’s of Your Village Visit in Fiji:
Fijians are known for their friendliness and care-free attitude, yet they are very modest people attached to tradition and ancient rituals. Here are some of the courtesies you should extend to honor their ways and to show your respect to the village residents who no doubt will surround you with their genuine hospitality:
· Do bring a gift of yaqona for the village chief. Before you visit a settlement, make sure you obtain yaqona (kava root) which you can offer to the leader of the village. The gift shows your goodwill and is a way of asking for permission from the chief to enter his community. You need only a small amount of yaqona – aim between half a kilogram and one kilo (one to two pounds in weight) – which you can easily buy at a local market for no more than 15-20 Fijian dollars.
· Do present a gift of yaqona at the chief’s house before you begin sightseeing. Once you arrive at the village, locate the chief’s house right away. Knock on the door and ask for “Turaga-ni-Koro”, the village head, to whom you will give the yaqona in an act called by Fijians “sevusevu”; explain the purpose of your stay to him. Remember that this is the only appropriate way to seek approval to be let into the community as a visitor! What should you do if the chief is neither at home nor at the village altogether? Should you leave and return another day? This is exactly what happened to us when we went for a village visit on Tavua island: we learned that the chief was not at his house and would not be back to the village for a while. Our guide – one of the village residents – advised us to present the gift to the chief’s wife instead. She accepted the yaqona on her husband’s behalf and granted us permission to explore the village as his proxy. Do try this solution if the chief is not around!
· Do participate in a yaqona (kava) drinking ceremony if invited. Offering a gift to the village leader is just a start; don’t be surprised if you are first invited to participate in a ritual of drinking the yaqona before you can start your village tour! Yaqona is central to many important events in Fijians’ lives, ranging from births, weddings, funerals to cultural, religious and political ceremonies; if the root you offered to the chief is prepared into a drink – by being crushed into fine powder and mixed with water – it’s a gesture of friendship towards you. Do have a cup! Although the yaqona/kava drink may not look tasty (it has a muddy appearance), it could be perceived as disrespectful if you declined it right away without trying. It’s okay to pass, though, once you had one cup.
· Do stay with your guide throughout your village visit. The person who invited you to his/her community will most likely act as a personal guide during your stay (remember that showing up at a village uninvited is unacceptable). In addition to being your sightseeing expert, your host will gladly teach you about history and culture of Fiji, and make sure to explain to you how to adhere to local customs. If you are hesitant about the best way to behave or react in a certain situation, your host is an invaluable resource – always ask for his or her help to avoid misunderstandings.
· Do dress modestly for your visit. Make sure your attire is conservative: simple blouses are okay, but flashy shirts, tons of jewelry or other fancy accessories are a no-no. Some villages observe stricter rules with regards to clothing than others, but your appearance should always be unpretentious and neat. Regardless of whether you are a first time visitor, a returning guest or a local resident, the rules are the same: women must cover their shoulders and knees while men must avoid short length shorts.
· Do always take off your shoes before entering a house or other building. If you are invited to someone’s home, remove your shoes outside the door and leave them on the porch. Coming into a house barefoot or in socks is fine, but entering while wearing footwear would be seen as extremely rude – this applies to visits to community halls, schools or any other village building.
· Do offer a gift to your host if your visit extends beyond a day. If you stay at a village overnight, it is a courtesy to leave a gift for your hosts as a thank you for their hospitality. This could be a small amount of money or other useful present such as a bag of groceries, an accessory, a school supply or toy (for kinds) or a souvenir from your home country. Make sure that every member of the host family receives a small token of your appreciation – if you are unsure what to offer, ask tactfully what your hosts might find handy. While tipping in Fiji is discouraged, a small amount of cash as a contribution to the costs of your stay is very much acceptable.
· Do always say “Bula!” back. Get used to hearing “Bula!” (or “Hello!” in Fijian) several times an hour! It’s one of the many ways Fijians express their hospitable nature. You will hear “Bula” even from – or perhaps especially from – strangers, who will wave at you and smile. Say “Bula”, wave your hand and smile back, which is a sign of friendliness.
· Do embrace Fiji Time. The famous phrase “Fiji Time” refers to the relaxed, unhurried pace of life on the Fijian islands. It’s the key to making the most of your village experience: just leave your watch at home! Allow yourself to enjoy every moment of your visit by taking it slow and resetting your mind to the “Fiji Time” clock: no schedules, no rush, no stress. Be patient if the kava ceremony takes a while; expect the locals to keep stopping you for a chat or for a photo together; be prepared for villagers to invite you to their homes or to join them for a meal! You are likely to make many unscheduled stops and detours during your visit, so relax and have a great time immersing yourself in Fiji’s laid-back culture.
Missed something? Just say “sorry”
If you do commit a cultural faux pas and inadvertently cause offence, remember to apologize: a heartfelt apology goes a long way, especially if you were courteous and demonstrated your knowledge of local customs on other occasions. Fijians are very positive and friendly people and they will not scorn you for your mistake. Show that you are willing to learn and reassure your hosts that the gaffe will be a pointer for you on how to behave next time – they will certainly forgive you!
The DON’Ts of Your Village Visit in Fiji:
Equally important as the “DOs” are the “DON’Ts” of being a visitor at a Fijian village. Here are important tips to help you make sure that you duly observe local customs and don’t accidentally cause offence to your hosts:
· Do not come to a village uninvited. You shouldn’t stop by a settlement without prior invitation; otherwise, your presence will be perceived by the locals as an intrusion. The same rule applies to visiting Fijian homes: you are welcome to enter a village or a house only if one of its residents extends the offer to you. This said, experience taught me that Fijians are very cordial and often invite you to their home after a longer chit-chat!
· Do not be loud. As a guest you are expected to behave in a quiet, unpretentious way. If you don’t want your conduct to be seen as offensive, don’t make noise during your visit, don’t speak with a raised voice and don’t shout across the village – this is allowed solely for senior members of a tribe and only in certain circumstances.
· Do not hug or put your arm around anyone. You should never embrace newly met village residents or hug anyone in their presence. Hugging is very unusual in Fiji. Instead, you can express feelings of gratitude through words and a smile. A pat on the back or shoulder will do as well, but it is better reserved for friends and relatives.
· Do not touch anybody’s head or hair. Touching someone’s head is considered to be rude and insulting. It doesn’t matter whether you do it directly with your hand or indirectly with an object – the gesture is not acceptable under any circumstances. While visitors may be tempted to touch children’s heads (kids love to run up to village guests and keep them company), it would be highly disrespectful to do so. A person’s head is simply sacred in Fiji.
· Do not point your finger. Did you know that pointing a finger at a senior member of the village would be equivalent to challenging his/her authority? Pointing is generally a taboo, so be careful not to accidentally do it towards a village resident, especially an older or high-ranking one or you will cause serious offence.
· Do not wear a bathing suit. The dress code in Fiji is traditional and conservative, especially the farther away you travel from cities and resorts. Both men and women should bear in mind that swimwear is not allowed during a village visit. Wearing a bikini, swimsuit or swimming pants would be extremely inappropriate – in fact, you would not be permitted to enter at all.
· Do not leave your shoulders or knees uncovered. Make sure your outfit does not expose bare shoulders or knees – this applies to men and women alike. In some villages female visitors are even expected to wear a sulu (a traditional skirt) rather than trousers or jeans out of respect for their male counterparts. To avoid any cultural/fashion faux pas, avoid low-cut garments altogether – sleeveless shirts, tank tops and shorts are best left at home.
· Do not cover your head. The third important rule of attire in Fiji concerns hats, scarves, caps, bandanas, and other coverings for the head. They should be removed before you enter a settlement (remember that the head is regarded as sacred in Fijian culture? See above!). Even if you are trying to protect your head from the sun in good faith, remember that wearing a hat around a Fijian village is an insult to its residents and, above all, the chief.
· Do not admire possessions. Much like in the Middle East, Fijians will feel obligated to offer you an object as a gift if you praise it. I’ve actually heard stories of less affluent hosts giving away their valuables to well-off foreign guests because the latter were unaware of this cultural practice. Do show your appreciation and respect, but give out compliments very carefully if at all.
Bottom line? Respect!
My tip for making the most of your time in Fiji? Read up on the culture – knowing Fijian customs goes a long way in connecting with local people. When you show knowledge and understanding of their everyday practices and conventions, Fijians are all the happier to teach you more about their traditions as well as the history behind them. They appreciate your familiarity with what to do and what not to do as a foreign guest – meanwhile you can enjoy your stay to the fullest knowing that you are not unintentionally violating any taboos and are behaving with respect to your hosts’ beliefs and cultural heritage.