5 things I wish I knew before going to Fiji

Chances are if you've come across this post, you are either considering becoming an expat living in Fiji, or you are travelling to Fiji for the first time as a tourist, and probably looking for some Fiji Travel Tips. Our family have done both - been tourists and lived as expats, in both the 'local' world and the 'expat' world. Here are the top 5 things I wish I knew before going to Fiji, way back in 2009.

1. LANGUAGE OF FIJI Most Fijians (certainly the ones you will come across in a Resort or a main city/town) speak fluent English. Indigenous Fijians will also speak their local dialect of Fijian, and some even speak a third language, Hindi. Pretty cool, hey?

Side Note: The Fiji population (estimate 2017 is 900,000) is made up Itaukei (indigenous Fijians) and Indo-Fijians (Fiji citizens who are fully, or partially of Indian descent). I get pretty uncomfortable labelling like that, because I don't feel I have a right, not being a Fiji citizen and all. But I wanted to explain where the Hindi language comes from.

Anyway there is no real need to be concerned about a language barrier.

It is handy to know some of the more common words and phrases, and the Fijians will be delighted to know you picked up (or at least tried to use!) some of their language.

Have a go of some of the most common words you will hear on a daily basis whilst in Fiji:

BULA (pronounced Mm-Booo-lah) a happy, warm, prosperous greeting which most people say a million times a day. PS. the Mm sound is not really made out loud, it is more of a way to keep your lips together before the boo sound! You will hear Bula many times a day, remember to smile back and offer a loud Bula in return!

BULA VINAKA (pronounced Mm-Booo-lah Vee-nar-ka)

a slightly more formal version of Bula

NI SA BULA VINAKA (pronounced Ni-sa-mm-booo-lah-vee-nar-ka)

a very formal way of saying Bula - you will most likely first hear it on the plane if you fly with Fiji Airways (Fiji's national airline)

VINAKA (pronounced Vee-nar-ka)

means Thank you

VINAKA VAKALEVU (pronounced Vee-nar-ka-Va-ka-le-vu)

is a very sincere and more formal way of saying thank you

MOCE (pronounced Mo-they)

is a "Goodbye" greeting, as in "Moce Joe", it is also used when saying someone is asleep, like "baby is moce" - baby is sleeping!

MATAKA (pronounced Ma-tar-ka)

means "Tomorrow" - so you could say it like a question: "Mataka? " meaning 'will I see you tomorrow?' . Or you could get really flash and tell that tour operator whose trip you booked for the next day "Vinaka, Moce Joe, Mataka" meaning "Thanks heaps, goodbye Joe, see you tomorrow!"

KERE KERE (pronounced Kerry Kerry)

means "Please"

SEGA NA LEQA (pronounced Senga-na-lenga)

means "No Problems"

MEKE (pronounced Meh-keh)

this is a "traditional Fijian dance," and the reason I placed it on this list, is because if you are travelling to Fiji, you MUST see one of these live. The spirit will travel through your heart and leave you in awe. I promise!

2. FIJI TIME

It's emblazoned on almost all souvenirs, and chances are you've seen the phrase on a t-shirt somewhere back home.

"Fiji Time" is about life unfolding in it's own time. It is most certainly the Fijian way of life, and it is my most favourite part of Fiji. It is a calm, non-rushed way of going about daily life. Letting the stress go by not getting worked up about anything (except maybe Rugby!).

For tourists travelling to Fiji for the first time, or new expats living in Fiji, it can be frustrating (like when you ordered your burger by the pool an hour ago, or your hopes of an icy cold Fiji Gold is dashed when you see it sitting on the bar for 20 minutes before being delivered to you, it could be when the bus timetable doesn't seem to be running to a timetable at all!). It could even be at the bank:

As an expat living in Fiji, it will be one of your greatest challenges - to overcome the concept of 'Fiji Time'. You will likely try to reject it, or change it. Let me be clear - you have no hope - you may as well board the plane back home.

If you are living and working in Suva, or any of the bigger towns (Nadi, Lautoka, or even Sigatoka) chances are it will be something you need to get on board with very quickly. You may be able to use it when showing up late to the office - or you could blame the transport, or the weather! You see where I'm going with this? Get on board with Fiji Time - it will be your best friend.

A word of warning though - if you are holidaying in Fiji, here is a Fiji Travel Tip: you won't be able to use Fiji Time as your excuse for showing up late for a tour, it doesn't work that way!

Look, as Westerners, we are all so used to living minute-by-minute according to the watch on our arm, or the I-phone in our hand, but I implore you, whether you are in Fiji on holiday, or living and working in Fiji, try to go with it.

Soon enough you will be wishing it was introduced into your home country. (Yes, I promise, you will!)

3. KAVA AND 'KAVA TIME'

Kava is a drink made from the crushed roots of a plant of the pepper family. I would playfully suggest it is Fiji's national drink, and has properties which are sedative, anesthetic, and euphoriant. It is available across many of the South Pacific islands, and in Fiji it is also called Yaqona (pronounced Yang-gona). It costs around $80FJD for 1kg (post-Cyclone Winston the price has increased, used to be around $35FJD). Fijians drink kava regularly, and if you are holidaying in Fiji, it is very likely you will find yourself invited to a traditional Kava Ceremony.

It is a great experience, involving yourself in an aspect of the rich culture of the Fijians. It is important you are respectful of the village customs - taking off your hat, sunglasses, and dressing modestly, including wrapping a sulu (sarong) around yourself. Only drink your "bilo" (cup) when instructed to, because the order of the serving depends of the status of those present, from the highest-ranking chief down.

Fiji Travel Tip: The Fijians will gracefully guide you through the process, but if you are new to kava, and a little bit nervous, politely ask the Chief for 'low tide' which is a smaller serve, and if you are keen as mud (yes, it kind of looks like muddy water) - ask for a 'tsunami' meaning a full bilo. Clap three times before drinking it down in one swift go, and say 'bula'. Also, be sure to bring a few bottles of Fiji Water with you, and quietly and respectfully request if the Kava be made using that, just so you can avoid unpleasant tummy issues from possible water bugs. (If you are on a specialised Tour or Day Trip, it is likely the water has already been thought of.) While I'm at it, if you are invited to a village personally, it is a very nice idea to present a "Sevu Sevu" (gift), as a thank you, and half a kilo of kava is customary. You can ask your taxi driver to take you to the local market to buy some.

Drinking kava is a great social movement adopted by mostly all Fijians - it is hard to be angry with someone after drinking kava!

Kava Time - (pic courtesy of gowaytravel)

If you are moving to Fiji, whether you are living and working in Suva, or indeed anywhere on the island nation, you will hear a high pitched banging noise almost every afternoon around 5pm (coincidentally knock off time!) - this means it's "Kava Time!". When I first became an expat living in Fiji, it baffled me what the noise was.

The repetitive sound is actually the locals pounding the kava root in a metal bowl (tabili) with a metal rod.

When you see the process the first time - a strong Fijian boy slamming a metal bar into a bowl on the side of the road, with a crowd of other strong Fijian boys surrounding him - it can be a bit scary (not knowing what is going on - much like the machete carrying farmers who are heading to their crops). But, there is absolutely no need to get nervous, and the sound becomes a good indicator of the time (remember no watches - Fiji Time and all!)

Boy pounding kava in Fiji (image courtesy of istock)

4. BANKING QUEUES

Fiji has Westpac, and ANZ - banks that Australians will be used to. They also have Bred Bank, BSP, and Bank of Baroda. All have one thing in common.

The Queues. Long Queues. Extremely Long Queues.

For whatever reason you find yourself needing to go to the bank, I mean inside the bank, not just to an ATM, you need to be prepared for the length of time it will take.

I have no explanation. I have nothing else to add, except to say, take a book, or make sure your phone is charged so you can play games, surf the net or facebook your mates.

Side Note: Speaking of phone charging - you will see people carrying their phone (nothing odd there) with their charger hanging out of their pocket (a little bit strange!). Often they will charge their phone in the food court of a shopping centre, or at their mates house. It's common in Fiji, but as a tourist, it is a new sight to behold.

I digress, but writing this list, I am fondly remembering things which seemed different to me, all the things that make Fiji so great.

Back to the banking, when withdrawing from an ATM from your Australian account, you will be charged a fee from the Fijian ATM, plus a fee from your Australian bank. Be aware of that.

If you are a new expat living in Fiji, you will obviously need to set up a bank account. My advice here is to firstly ask for a checklist (all the banks provide these) and be sure you can adhere strictly to what is required. In Fiji, things are 'black and white' only, especially in banking. Even if you have a logical explanation, or logical substitution for something on that checklist, it will make no difference. In fact, this goes for everything to do with Government Departments. And if all else fails, remember back to Number 2 of this list - Fiji Time! Enough said.

5. THE COCONUT WIRELESS

When Australians refer to 'the grapevine', connotations of gossip and rumor are associated with it. Whilst it can be unpleasant in the workplace, there is a certain element of this 'grapevine' which will help you a great deal with life in Fiji.

Especially if you are moving to Fiji, a great tool for you to embrace is the "Coconut Wireless". Say you are looking for a rental apartment; a plumber; or where to buy the cheapest pineapples in Suva - something I always do myself, and recommend to others, is to firstly to ask your Taxi Driver. (Then ask the next one to see if the answers match up.)

Or the Barista at the local coffee shop (check my blog post on coffee in Fiji). Or the Cleaner at the shopping centre. Or the man sitting on the bus next to you. Or the Gardener at your church. Do you get my drift?

Fijians are notoriously helpful, and they know a lot of people. Everyone is related in some long-distant-cousin-brother-aunty way. It is therefore, very likely someone will be able to give you a phone number of someone, who knows someone, who can fix your loo.

Sidenote: If you meet someone who says 'Big Johhny' is their cousin - don't automatically assume it is a 'cousin' in the Australian sense of the word ie. your Mother's sister's child. It means it is a really close friend, or family member, or a distant relative, or someone they've met twice - or all of the above.

Some expat friends I've made whilst living and working in Suva, didn't approve of this 'Coconut Wireless Questioning' method, preferring to keep more to themselves. But I say go for it! I made a lot of great, genuine friends by opening up, and being honest with the locals. I've found countless rental properties right across the island nation with this method. As I said before, Fijians are notoriously helpful and genuine in their concern for others. And a bonus to this method, Fijians are great remembering faces (and even better with phone numbers - I do not know why, but it's true!) and they will likely remember you from the question you asked one year prior, and come up to you somewhere random to give you a big BULA and a big hug. Who could resist that?

So there you go, 5 of the things I wish I knew before going to Fiji. If you enjoyed this article, please share it with your friends by pressing the Facebook button just underneath this post

Have you been to Fiji and can relate to some of these? I'd love to hear from you - email me HERE

or scroll down just below and leave me a comment - Vinaka!

Are you a born and bred Fijian (lucky you!) - have you got some tips of your own to share with other expats to Fiji? Please scroll down just a bit and share them with me in the comment section below. I LOVE COMMENTS!!

If you're heading to Fiji soon, all the best!

Check my Packing Guide for Fiji Expats or Packing Guide for Fiji Holidays, and of course read all about What to expect when you arrive in Nadi

And, moce friends! SJ x

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