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Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2001

No, really, it's completely unspoiled!


Special to The Japan Times

Paradise in the South Pacific? Isn't that only ad copy for getaway resorts that put little beach umbrellas in the cocktails and charge prices the locals could only afford after a winning lottery ticket?

Local leader Visanti Makrava, here with an arm around his elder brother, hopes to keep tourism small-scale to minimize its impact on the community.

Maybe so, but places remain that, if not paradises, are blissfully unwired and undiscovered. Of course, in drawing attention to those places, travel writers often make them a little more like Shibuya: Where the jumbos fly, McDonald's and Starbucks inevitably follow.

The jumbos, however, will probably never make it to Rotuma, an island 470 km north of Fiji's Nadi Airport, to which one ancient Gulfstream belonging to Sunflower Airlines flies twice a week.

I went there last summer to report on a film that a locally born director, Vilsoni Hereniko, was shooting with a mainly Rotuman cast. Titled "Fire in the Womb," it was based on the director's life as a boy growing up poor on the island in the 1960s, as well as Rotuman myths that Hereniko had first heard as a child from his father. At the center of that mythology is the Warrior Woman, the mother of all Rotumans, who still lives, traditional belief says, as the spirit of the land, protecting her devotees and punishing evil-doers.

The film, as I discovered on my first day on the set -- the two-room office of the Fijian District Commissioner -- was a low-budget, labor-of-love production, but on Rotuma, an island one could walk around in a day, it was big news.

As I rode on the back of a flatbed truck to the set in the morning, Rotumans of all ages waved at me with big, friendly smiles. Cars are still a rarity and the encounter of passenger and pedestrian still an event. Also, the roads were so bad that most drivers never got out of second gear, making a ride more like a procession. I liked this place; it struck me as the anti-Tokyo.

The beaches of Rotuma Island in Fiji are unspoiled, and the Rotumans mean to keep them that way, welcoming visitors only on an individual basis. Local community feeling is strong, and old skills are still prized.

Though their island has been part of Fiji since 1881, Rotumans are mainly Polynesians, not the darker Melanesians who are the majority in the rest of the country's 333 islands. They have their own language and culture, though today, 162 years after the first Christian missionary stepped ashore, attendance at the Methodist and Catholic churches that dot the island is all but universal. On Sunday morning nearly every house is empty and open, with no locks on the windows or doors.

"No one steals here," said Visanti Makrava, my host and the head of the Rotuma District Council. "It's a small island. Where would they go?"

What, I thought, would they steal, anyway? Hardly food. With its rich volcanic soil and abundant rainfall, Rotuma is incredibly fertile. Food grows everywhere, including breadfruit, bananas, coconuts, cassava, taro, yams, watermelons and kava -- the last used for a drink that is the Rotuman moonshine. In the lagoons that ring the island are not only thriving colonies of coral and dazzling displays of tropical fish, but lobsters, crabs and other sea life for spearing, netting or capturing on camera.

Though jobs on the island are few, money is relatively abundant, sent to the 2,500 islanders from the 6,000 or so Rotumans living abroad. Thus the Westernization of the diet, leading to a sharp rise in diseases; thus the VCRs showing Hong Kong chopsocky movies; thus the generators roaring into the night; thus the raw-looking concrete-block houses, replacing more traditional constructions with walls made of crushed coral and sand.

Still, money and modernization have also brought better medical care and education and a higher standard of living. When Hereniko was growing up, he said, "My parents had 11 kids to feed and getting three meals a day wasn't easy -- there were a lot of days when all we had to eat was taro and salt, or maybe cassava and a little fish." His constant dream was escape, and his route was education: He left the island at the age of 16 with a scholarship to study in Fiji.

Though the film retold this and other stories from his youth, Hereniko's protagonist is a girl played by Sapeta Taito, a Rotuman teenager with large, flashing eyes he discovered in an island-wide audition. Much like her character, Taito is a top student at the island's only high school, who plans to become a scientist or surgeon.

"I would like to live in other countries and come back to Rotuma on holiday," she said. "But I want to take my parents with me."

This kind of family closeness is typical -- the clans that have dominated Rotuman society and politics for generations still collectively administer the land and play a large role in the lives of their members, including the determination of who can and cannot visit and live in Rotuma.

After experiments with cruise-ship calls in the late 1980s, the Rotuman village councils (the official voices of the clans) turned their back on mass tourism. Now only homestay visits are permitted, but Makrava and other leaders are still pushing for the start of a tourist industry.

"We must preserve the local customs and environment," he says. "On a small island like Rotuma, that's important." He is preparing the way by opening his own house, the largest on the island, to visitors.

"I want to start on a family basis, with a small bed-and-breakfast or homestays," he says. "We have to ensure that it is a successful experience -- otherwise everyone will say that it is no use."

Was my stay on Rotuma successful? I liked the white sand beaches, the crystal-clear lagoons, the fresh-off-the-tree fruit, but what really made me love Rotuma was the absence of television and e-mail, the presence of people who had a wave and friendly "Faiaksia (hello)" for the stranger just off the airplane.

"This is the kind of place you can't find in other parts of the world, both in the natural beauty and the lives of the people," says District Officer Luke Moroivalu, himself a newcomer with only six months on the island. "For a social scientist, this an ideal society. There is hardly any crime, no drugs, hardly any problems at all."

Maybe one: booking a seat on that Gulfstream when Makrava starts his B&B.

For information on Sunflower Airlines flights see the Web site at www.fiji.to For information about homestays on Rotuma e-mail Ian Collingwood at sunflowerfiji@is.com.fj or write Visanti Makrava at P.O. Box 88, Rotuma, Fiji.


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