All I can figure is that Tom Hanks lost his glasses in the plane crash. In the movie Cast Away, he spends years, washed up and alone on a Pacific Island. He gets skinny, grows a beard, nearly goes insane, and ends up spending huge amounts of time talking to a volleyball.
“Oh, yeah, he was on that island right there,” Pilli tells me, indicating a rock tower just around the point. From on top of those rocks, if Hanks had his glasses on, he wouldn’t have had any trouble at all seeing the village where I’m about to sit down to a wonderful meal of fish cooked in coconut. He probably could have even seen the resort one more island over, bures, the traditional Fijian houses, lined up neatly against the shoreline and a bartender who serves the strongest rum punch I’ve ever had.
We’re in the Mamanucas, a chain of islands to the west of Fiji’s main port town of Nadi, on Viti Levu—one of only two of more than 300 islands in the country big enough to show up on most world maps. And it didn’t take getting into a plane crash to get here; actually, the ferry ran right on time and was really comfortable [see "Travel Tips: Fiji," March/April 2013].
The Mamanucas look like Hawaii before it was Hawaii. They look like the background of every painting Gauguin ever did of a tropical paradise: mountains rising out of the sea, no transition between water and flower-stuffed jungle except lines of powdered sugar beaches. Villages are hidden behind lines of sheltering coconut trees, pandanus, and stuff I’ll never learn the name of but has leaves the size of dinner plates.
I catch a boat over to a beach on the far side of the island from where most of the film was set, unload a picnic lunch and string a hammock under a thatched shelter—a good idea to be under cover, since every now and then from the jungle comes the crash of a coconut falling out of a tree, and that just isn’t something you want to be under.
My ride steers his boat away and for the first and so far only time in my entire life I have a beach completely to myself (well, except once in American Samoa, but that beach was haunted, so technically, I was sharing it with the ghosts) with no chance whatsoever of anyone coming by.
The sand stretches as smooth as a pool table, except for my footprints and some tiny, delicate shells, like a kind of cowrie that’s been Dalmatian spotted.
Let’s face it: If the Garden of Eden had resorts, it would have looked like Fiji.
Which is why Tom wasn’t the first Hollywood star to wash up on Fiji’s shores. Cameras and crews have been coming out here since at least 1932, when Edward Sutherland shot Mr. Robinson Crusoe. No, you probably won’t find that one on DVD. Better chance of seeing Burt Lancaster play His Majesty O’Keefe, a 1954 hit where he realizes it’s more fun to be happy than rich as he walks the streets of Suva, Fiji’s capital (on the other side of the same island as Nadi) despite the fact that the weather forecast never says anything but “rain.” Gregory Peck stood in Suva’s rain during the production of 1974’s The Dove.
But here’s where Hollywood got Fiji very, very wrong: What all the films have in common is that you have to work for paradise, getting there can’t ever come too easy. A little suffering to purify you for the experience, like stripping off the skin from a sunburn.
Yet just like getting to the Mamanucas on a nice, shiny ferry, I didn’t work at all to get here. Fiji is just three hours from Australia, or about 10 from Los Angeles. And the islands have resorts so luxe that the staff actually looks offended if you touch your own bag.
And being here is zero effort. Everybody speaks fluent English, even out in the villages, and they might well be the friendliest people on the entire planet. The only voices you’ll ever hear raised are the constant shouts of “Bula!” the all-purpose greeting and expression of joy.
Isn’t pure joy better for your soul than Hollywood trial and tribulation?
And I’m about to get a whole lot of joy, because the sun’s going down and it’s time for kava.
Kava is the glue that holds Fijian society together, and it was the one thing the missionaries weren’t able to change about the islands. Because the truth is, before the arrival of missionaries in the early 1840s, the Fijians were not exactly known as the nicest people around; in fact, most sailors went a very long way out of their way to avoid Fiji. At least one missionary ended up as soup. At the death of a chief, a passel of his wives would be strangled, so he wouldn’t have to die alone. The Fijians maintained a more or less constant state of war, but at the same time, you can see something deeper was going on, because their war clubs—ironically still the most popular souvenir in all the shops—are works of art, like it would be rude to bash someone in the head with a club that wasn’t as beautifully made as possible, intricately carved and decorated.
But the missionaries, with that famed missionary perseverance, eventually stopped turning into soup and changed the entire local approach to life. Like they did across the tropics, the missionaries convinced people who lived in a hot, sweaty climate to wear clothes suitable for a New England winter. They stopped head bashing from being the sport of choice. And they built churches every 20 feet or so in most villages. When I walk through a Fijian village on a Sunday morning, hymns pour out of a half dozen chapels’ open windows.
But the missionaries couldn’t do anything about kava, and maybe one of the reasons why film crews love Fiji so much is that the national pastime is getting blitzed on kava every evening. Kava is made from the root of a kind of pepper plant. Grind the stuff up, mix it with water, and you get … well, a drink that both looks and tastes remarkably like mud. But mud that first makes your mouth go numb, and then, according to people who apparently have a much lower chemical tolerance than I do, instills you with a very relaxed, happy feeling. So relaxed that you might not want to move for several hours. Or, if you drink enough of it, several days.