Fijian warriors doing the National Kava Ceremony.
Fijian warriors doing a kava ceremony.Ignacio Moya Coronado / Shutterstock

The Cultural Renaissance in Fiji Is Forward-thinking, Without Forgetting the Past

In Fiji, hidden behind the upscale resorts and turquoise blue waters is a growing cultural renaissance.

After a fifth “tsunami”-sized coconut bowl of kava, my lips and tongue were numb, my legs felt wobbly, and my vision started to blur. Following tradition, we drank each bowl in a single gulp, despite it being large enough to hold with both hands. The taste was bitter and earthy, but did offer a deep sense of calm.

Fiji’s prized crop, kava, is a mild narcotic and muscle relaxant, and an instrumental part of local traditions. Native to the South Pacific and harvested after five or more years in the ground, kava is crushed, ground, and soaked in water to create a tea, then served in a large, communal basin as a traditional ceremony.

Sitting cross-legged in a circle with our hosts, we drank in rounds, taking breaks to share stories and sing call-and-response songs. Kava is used for a wide variety of occasions—making amends, welcoming visitors, and even asking for a father’s blessing. When I was offered my next bowl, I knew exactly what to do. I yelled “BULA!,” clapped three times, and drank it without pause.

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Background on Fiji

An archipelago of some 330 islands in the South Pacific, Fiji sits 1,300 miles north of New Zealand and 2,000 miles west of Tahiti. Only a third of the islands are permanently inhabited and the total population of the country is less than a million. But, despite the small population and remote location, Fiji has used its forests, minerals, and stocks of fish to become one of the most developed economies in the region.

Eight-six percent of the land is owned by indigenous peoples and while one of the national languages is Fijian, there are over 300 sub dialects across the chain of islands. Today the country is divided into 14 provinces, but historically it was split into 70 smaller territories, each run by a tribal chief. The majority of the population still relies on subsistence farming, mostly crops like sugarcane, cassava, potatoes, bananas, and rice.

Family is incredibly important to Fijians, but traditionally it’s based on spiritual ancestors, not biological lineage. Communities are close knit, with complex social structures. As a whole, Fiji is an amazingly friendly country. “Bula,” which you’ll hear everywhere, has many meanings—hello, good morning, good afternoon, and cheers, among others—embodies how warm the country often feels.

More recently, Fiji has become a tourist hot spot and a popular destination for scuba diving. PADI, the largest scuba diving association, calls it “the soft coral capital of the world” and the “best shark diving location in the world,” among other accolades. Tourism has helped the country grow rapidly, with fancy resorts, major infrastructure, and dollars flooding in, but it also poses risks to the environment.

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Learning From the Past

Later in our kava ceremony, I asked the chief what he thought the future might look like. With help from our translator, he responded, saying “a balance of old wisdom and modern technologies.” As I would learn, this sentiment is shared among a growing number of Fijians, especially older generations. Together they’ve catalyzed a cultural renaissance, bringing traditional foods, arts, and skills back to life.

One harbinger of this renaissance is the Uto Ni Yalo, a traditional Fijian sailing canoe built in 2010. With the intent of promoting a sustainable and reciprocal relationship with the ocean, the canoe moves around the archipelago teaching traditional navigational skills, arts, and customs to local communities. To date, the 72-foot double-hulled vessel has sailed over 80,000 nautical miles of open ocean to 15 countries including to Australia, Hawaii, and New Zealand, using only the stars to navigate.

The Uto Ni Yalo was one of nine canoes built by Okeanos Foundation for the Sea, which are now spread across the Pacific. In partnership with local boat builders, the Uto Ni Yalo was designed with just wind and solar power, to show that carbon-free travel is possible. The boat is also used for attending major events, as well as utilitarian functions like taking relief supplies to islands hit by cyclones.

The boat occasionally works with local researchers who are studying the impacts of climate change on endangered species, cyclone frequency, and community displacements across the islands. Much like the chief I met, the boat’s crew hopes the future of Fiji bridges their ancestral roots and modern day science, inspiring youth to go forward while respecting the past.

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Looking to the Future

The Uto Ni Yalo is intended to be a proof of concept for the future, for everyone. If the small crew can effectively use just wind and solar to deliver goods between islands, others can do so, too. While more than 90 percent of all goods transported by sea today are powered by fossil fuels, the Uto Ni Yalo proves there is a better, more sustainable option, especially for maritime islands, but possibly everywhere.

For me, the lesson was even larger than just Fiji. Sustainability efforts around the world often fall into one of two camps: invest in futuristic technologies or revert to living off the land. Sometimes these two groups are even pitted against each other, as if they don’t want the same outcome. Neither has felt truly right to me, and while I probably didn’t need a trip to Fiji to realize the connection, it certainly helped.

The cultural renaissance in Fiji is forward-thinking, without forgetting its past. The movement uses ancestors’ knowledge of oceans to elucidate a vision of the future. With a longstanding belief in the “interconnectedness” between nature and people, Fijians are sailing the metaphorical ship of the future using the ethos that’s built from the past. Pretty genius if you ask me.

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Recommended Gear for Fiji

A good pair of sandals is an absolute necessity. I wore a pair of Teva Hurricane XLT2 every day of our trip, only taking them off out of respect during kava ceremonies, or to put on fins and, y’know, sleep.

A reef-safe sunscreen that is natural based and highly effective in water is a must. My favorite is Thinksport SPF 50, which kept me burn-free for long days out in the tropical sun.

An underwater action camera (with a good housing if you’re scuba diving) like the GoPro Hero 11 will go a long way towards capturing memories and making your mom proud.

A natural, fast-acting wristband that helps mitigate sea sickness has become a key part of my kit. Even for a short ferry ride, choppy waters can make me feel nauseous. The Relief Band fixes that.

A lightweight and packable hooded shirt can make a blistering hot day feel a lot more enjoyable. I often bring my Mountain Hardwear Sunshadow on dive trips, to wear between dive sites.

A pair of simple and classy polarized sunglasses can be used while on the water, around town, and on the beach. My favorite is the Julbo Meta.

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