Off the Beaten Track: Exploring Fiji’s Industry

Everyone’s a fucking race car driver. – Our Host

Old man Seawright and I were recently invited to visit the Sugar Mills in Fiji as guests of the Fiji Sugar Corporation (FSC) to consult on some of their engineering projects. It was kind of a big deal since FSC employs roughly 25% of the population and the Chairman reports directly to the Prime Minister.

Before stepping off the plane I would never have thought the place would remind me so much of Far North Queensland, Australia; but it does. As we descended the steps of the plane to the tarmac; we could see the palm trees, sugar cane crops, and mountain ranges strewn across the landscape… and of course it was raining. Once we were inside the terminal however, the similarities ended, and it became pretty clear that we weren’t in Kansas Cairns anymore.

Everyone’s Happy

Although our arrival in Fiji wasn’t our first interaction with the locals, it was definitely our first real experience with the culture (flight attendants don’t count). As we walked through the terminal towards customs we were greeted by a group of musicians dressed in tropical attire and playing traditional music. They were happy, and they weren’t the only ones.

From the customs officers, to the security guards, the hotel receptionists to the tradesmen and apprentices in the mills; almost all of the locals we met were happy. While we toured the mills we had a constant stream of people coming up to us to shake our hands and say hello, or bula (pronounced “mm-boola”) as the locals say.

Of course, most people that visit Fiji probably say the same thing; although most people also stick to the tourist destinations too, the plethora of resorts, the markets and cafe’s, and the reef and adventure tours. Our work however, took us off  the beaten track; we drove almost 3/4 around the coast of the main island of Viti Levu (where most tourists stay), took a plane to Vanua Levu, and visited all 4 sugar mills in the country.

I’m certain that while we were in Labasa the entire town knew we were there; we didn’t see any other westerners around, and at one point we were approached by the wife of one of FSC’s employee’s that we had met the day before… just so she could say hello!

Fiji Time

An unfortunate side effect of everyone being happy in Fiji, is that for the most part, they are also extremely laid back and relaxed. Of course, this isn’t a bad thing if its part of your culture and it makes you happy, but it got pretty frustrating for us on occasion since we weren’t used to it… Part of our trip had us supervising the repairs of a wood chipping machine that had broken down the week before we arrived. We had to design a special tool to fit the replacement rear main seal on the engine since John Deere wouldn’t sell it to us.

The whole job took about 3 days to complete where in Australia it would have been sorted out within the day; and with a lot less people…

Important by Name, Acronym by Nature

This was something curious we noticed about the professional culture in Fiji; people in positions of authority are often referred to by their position title, or the acronym of the title. So whereas in Australia we refer to our Prime Minister by their name, Frank Bainimarama (the Fijian Prime Minister at the time) is often referred to as “PM”; we also heard “Chief” for the Chief Engineer, “the Chairman” for the Chairman of FSC, and “CE” for Civil Engineer.

For us “tourists” it got a bit confusing if you weren’t paying enough attention, especially by the time we got to the last mill (a lot of the positions are duplicated across different organisations).

Fiji professionals also seem to love to use idioms; more so than in any other culture I’ve experienced. A couple of my favourites were:

“The tail is wagging the dog”; pretty obvious, this one was in relation to organisations or teams. The bottom rung employees of the organisation are controlling what is happening rather than the top.

“Jungle in jungle out”; was a reference to the branches and trees that were used to replace the mill cut timber on the loco trucks by some of the farmers.Rather than replacing them when the trucks were back at the mill, the maintenance crew would simply send it back out the way it came in.

Not All Peaches and Cream…

Unfortunately while we were in Fiji we came across some examples of what we believe was likely corruption (non-government related). Most of it directly involved money (but then, when doesn’t it?), where little schemes kept the back pockets of certain individuals lined. The current Prime Minister seems pretty intent on ensuring that things change however; which was great to see.

The Fijians we spoke to about it were concerned and dead against it as they understand that in the long run it is bad for the country. One of the most genuine people I’ve ever met was a descendant of one of the the founders of the mill in Vanua Levu, who, when asked about corruption, could keep talking about it until you wanted to change the topic. I’m sure he’d pinched a copy of every one of the “anti-corruption” posters he could find and put them up throughout his office as well!

If you plan to visit Fiji, be careful of tourist scams too, as with most low-economic countries they are around. Although we didn’t really come across anything serious, old man Seawright was “approached” at one point…


Have you been to Australia? Did you get sunburned while you were there?

Well if you live in FNQ you’ve no doubt be sunburned (more times that you probably should have). However while we were in Fiji it didn’t happen. We were often in the sun for an hour or so at a time without sunscreen (or even a hat), yet none of us got sunburned once.

For most people, 20 minutes in the sun in Australia is usually enough for a minor burn. It just goes to show just how much of a problem a hole in your ozone layer really is; especially when it is right above you.

Little Island Paradise

Fiji was a great country to visit; the interesting mix of Island and Indian cultures supported by a community based around agriculture and tourism is definitely something different. There are some absolutely beautiful sights and places to see as well; and most things can be had fairly cheap (main meals for around AU$12-15, drinks for AU$3-6, for comparison) depending on where you go and what you want to do.

For the real cultural experiences though, you need to get away from the tourist locations; most people won’t want to, but it’s worth having a bit of a wander (or drive, if you’re feel adventurous!) around. Time wise, you probably wouldn’t need more than a week there unless you’re just planning to laze around on the beaches or at the resorts… then it really depends how long you can do nothing for. For me though, that isn’t very long!

Oh, and don’t forget to try the kava…