The true meaning of ‘bula’... a holiday in Fiji

| December 25, 2015

Cox & Kings clients Christine and Robert Frati travelled on holiday to Fiji, where they learnt a lot about the local culture, and what ‘bula’ really means. Here Christine shares with us her travel diary, sent to friends and family back home.


Tuesday 3 December

This evening we arrived in Fiji from Auckland, flying into Nadi airport located on the main island of Viti Levu. We were met by friends at the airport who live in France in the next village from ours and by chance are in Nadi. We celebrated our arrival with dinner on the beach, and drank to the health of our new grandson, Gabriel, born yesterday in Montreal. Tomorrow we have just 15kg of baggage allowance for our onward flight to Savusavu. As we have now been travelling for 5 weeks, 15kg is not exactly the weight of our cases; luckily the Cox & Kings agent has offered to keep most of our baggage in their office for us until our return.

Thursday 5 December

Yesterday we left Nadi for Savusavu on a small plane, which gave us the most amazing views of the Fijian coral islands set in a deep turquoise sea.  We landed on a small strip cut from the jungle and taxied to the ‘terminal’ – a wooden open sided shed. Fiji itself consists of more than 330 islands, and Savusavu is the second town on the second largest island – Vanua Levu. We were met by the house gardener and a taxi and taken to the supermarket prior to going to the house. The gardener advised us on our shopping: anti-mosquito coils, anti-mosquito sprays, bottled water… The supermarket was very limited and mainly stocked foods reminiscent of my childhood: Fray Bentos corned beef, Spam, Carnation dried milk, Betty Crocker cake mixes, along with very sweet and fluorescent-coloured drinks, and blancmange… but we managed to find just enough fresh foods for a few meals.

Going by our first impressions, we were lost for words on how to describe Fiji. If you remember the beaches in the film South Pacific, then you’ll be close to the beauty of it all. There were these enormous shells waiting to be picked up – but of course we had to think of our 15kg weight limit!


Unfortunately, what you didn’t see in the film were the mosquitoes and the coral shelf of the lagoon, which means you cannot wade out into the water. But, we are learning so much about the culture.  The people of Fiji are amazing, so friendly, and so kind. No-one passes you in the street without a happy ‘bula!’, the local greeting which means ‘life’. Many will shake your hand and exchange life stories with no ulterior motive, no brother-in-law’s carpet shop to be visited – of which there isn’t one anyway!

What about groceries? Well, everyone here grows their food, or gathers it from the trees: breadfruit, pineapple, passion fruit, limes, papaya, coconuts – all are there for the taking in the lush vegetation that surrounds us. Feel like fish for lunch? Just wade out in to the lagoon or take a boat and throw a line. And yes – the scenery is breath taking. Palm trees and the jungle right up to the edge of the golden sandy beaches – although in the films you don’t see the necessity of dodging the falling coconuts! The locals tell us the coconuts have eyes and we don’t need to walk with our eyes skyward.

At the end of the afternoon we tried to find an internet café in Savusavu. We eventually found a shop selling second-hand clothes, renting DVDs and with three rather elderly computers. No wireless internet though!

Friday 6 December

Today we took a very long, hot walk along the beach and around the point, through mangroves and under coconut trees. We saw people wading out to their small boat under a parasol to fish and met a woman cooking breadfruit on a beach fire waiting for her husband and boys to bring back a fish from the lagoon. She introduced us to a hotel nanny who was walking barefoot on the beach to work; a 6km walk twice a day. It seems she is a cousin of our housekeeper. She took us into her hotel and showed us around – here we discovered that the price of a very expensive lunch at the only top-class resort on the island, the Cousteau resort, also buys unlimited Wi-Fi, a swim from their pontoon and a chance to play guitar and swap melodies with their guitarists. So more tomorrow perhaps…


Sunday 8 December

Yesterday we were invited by Scici, our housekeeper, to her village for a fundraising to collect money towards the building materials for the school teacher’s house. Now this wasn’t without its etiquette problems: no shorts and no hat allowed for Robert, a dress for me, no walking into the village without an invitation or unaccompanied – and we had to take a gift of kava to present to the village chief. Kava is a pepper root much prized by the Fijians.

So the morning started with a quick taxi trip to the market to buy the kava, assisted by our driver. We duly presented ourselves on the outskirts of the village at the appointed time with the kava and in the correct dress. We had of course been warned about the famous ‘Fijian time’, but had not expected to wait over an hour for our housekeeper to arrive. Once in the village, we waited a further two hours for the fundraising to actually start. We were beginning to understand the approximation of Fijian time.

The men slowly started to arrive at the village meeting house, all freshly showered, and dressed in colourful shirts and sober skirts. The chief arrived, and we presented our kava which he solemnly accepted and prayed over. Clapping his hands three times, everyone else following suit, and then he shook our hands and welcomed us. The day was spent, after a lot of waiting around, sat on rush mats at the meeting house with lots of loud music from a cassette player. The women at one end of the veranda danced with Robert, highly solicited, as their men folk were far too busy with the kava to bother dancing with them. We drank freshly squeezed juices and ate fresh fish in coconut, served with breadfruit and cassava.


At the other end of the veranda the men took care of the kava; pounded the root to a paste, put it in a little material bag that was then soaked in water and swished about and squeezed. The resulting mud was poured into the large kava bowl and drunk from a communal half coconut shell that was passed around. And boy are they keen! It is not an alcoholic drink, but hallucinogenic. I managed to escape, but Robert had to take his part.

We then divided into two teams and played a bidding game, the idea being that the team that raised the least money had to drink copious amounts of kava. Thank goodness our team won! I am not sure which was the greater motivating force: the pride of being the winning team or the greed for more kava!

During the long waiting periods of the day, the women kindly explained to us how their society worked. The chief – although living in the village some 8km from Savusavu – is chief of the entire region. It is a hereditary position. He gives permission for building, which will then be rubber stamped by the town administration, but his approval is required first. He authorises marriages, education and many facets of the village and town people’s lives. If a young person wishes to go to Nadi to train as a nurse for example, he will decide, along with the elders, if he or she can go. If the training is approved, then everyone will pay towards the schooling as no one person earns enough to pay for themselves or their family. Everyone seems to be related to everyone else, and because of this they all know we ate at the Cousteau resort yesterday.

That night, I disturbed an 50cm gecko in the kitchen cupboard when reaching for a pan. Not sure who was the most surprised. We have no television, no music, no internet in the house (the humidity is such that all machines eventually breakdown from the damp), but in the evenings we have the geckos to watch instead, on the terrace stalking their prey and devouring their dinner. It can be quite absorbing.

Monday 9 December

Today is our last day in Fiji, and the humidity is beyond belief: the temperature in the shade is only 28C, but we can barely move from the heat. It was also our last shopping trip to town to stock up on Fijian shirts. I tried to persuade Robert into buying a man’s skirt, but to no avail. We browsed through all the stores, which are small Indian stores with just an open doorway selling a fascinating choice of goods. The first we checked out was selling hurricane lamps, rice, animal feed, string, cold drinks, flour… and coffins! Quite a mix. In the shirt shop we went behind the scenes and met all the seamstresses making the shirts. This was a happy working environment with everyone stopping for a joyful photo.

Walking around the market today Robert felt something live and large crawling inside his shirt. We struggled to get ‘it’ out and it turned out to be a lizard – in shock!


Today we had our last, of the twice daily visits from Scici the housekeeper, and Andreas the gardener and handy man. They are so sweet: just come in, sit down and expect to talk or just sit in companionable silence. But we do learn a lot about the structure of Fijian society, even if they do get us out of bed some mornings! Tomorrow we fly to Nadi, then on to LA for a night, then on to London for a night at our daughter’s and then home.

Our last sad ‘bula’ from Fiji. Fiji has changed us.

Christine and Robert travelled on a tailor-made holiday to Fiji. To design your own, call one of our specialists on 020 7873 5000.

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