Jim O'Leary

Waverly Star

By Jim O'Leary

An e-mail newsletter for and about Waverly people, used with permission in the HLW Herald and on this web site.

Aug. 26, 2002

"Bula!"

That's what we Fijians say to all of you people who are unlucky enough not to be one of us, people who don't live on tropical islands in the South Pacific called Fiji.

We Fijian men wear sulus, that is, skirts, but make no mistake. We are warriors, "ladies from hell" just like the Scots with their kilts in World War I.

We Fijian warriors, until the killjoy missionaries came along, used to dine on our enemies, something even the Scots weren't tough enough to do. In fact, they used to call Fiji, "The Cannibal Isles."

Anyway, everybody says "Bula" all the time, and the travel brochures have got it right: Fijians are the friendliest people in the world.

It's a step back in time to go there, even without the 'international dateline,' a better time where no one was ever in a hurry and where everybody got along with everybody, with or without money. (I just read this on the marquee of a Methodist Church: "God is coming down here to pull civilization over for speeding.")

Well, there's no need to go into all that here. I just wanted to tell you how the lucky transformation came about for me. How did Jeanne and I wind up in Fiji marrying off our son, Sean (to the beat of war drums)?

His bride is everybody's dream of what a daughter-in-law should be: intelligent, patient, benevolent, tolerant, and in love with our son.

She is also a physician, a pediatrician like Sean. Our son had spent some months in Fiji rotating in this so-called third world country as part of his medical training in his residency.

Then and there he decided he wanted to be married there. His wife is the former Sonja Burbano. Her parents, Dr. Emiro Burbano and his wife Sonia, and Sonja's brother and sister, Donald and Diana Burbano, were also there, along with some very beautiful women from Colombia, Sonja's aunts and cousin.

The wedding, presided over by my wife, Jeanne's brother, Father Robert Moosbrugger, is the reason I have become a travel writer.

I realize my trip to Fiji has little to do with Waverly, but there are two Fiji connections. My friend Father Ed Quinn, a Graham grandson and a former visitor to Waverly every summer from his home in Omaha, has been a Columbian missionary in Fiji for almost 30 years.

He is Tom and Artie Graham's nephew. He would have been at the Quinn reunion in Waverly this summer, but those 11 inches of rain washed out the reunion last month, so I missed him both in Waverly and in Fiji.

I did see his house in Suva, Fiji, where he lives and works, and I had a great visit with his friend and colleague there, Father Duster, also of the Columbian missionaries.

Another great serendipitous connection was with two friends of the bride, Karen and Deborah Michael. Karen is now an attorney in Atlanta, Ga., and Deborah is a physical therapist there.

They have fond memories of Howard Lake because their distinguished grandfather, Pastor Gerhard Michael, was pastor of St. James Lutheran Church in Howard Lake.

Pastor Michael had served there from 1957 until his retirement in 1985. He passed away a year ago last May. You can imagine how much I enjoyed the time I spent with these two remarkable young women in Fiji. Their brother is also a pastor in the Missouri Synod, as is their father.

My greatest discovery in Fiji is that I really do love to travel. I can't believe I had to be urged to go there. I will never, however, be a travel writer.

I was humbled by how much there was to see and do in Fiji. I just don't have the discipline to take a pen and paper and camera and quit looking around and talking.

If you like to snorkel, or scuba dive, or kayak, Fiji is the place for you. The beaches are incredibly lovely and the water is clear and blue.

It's what Hawaii was 40 years ago, with its lushness and beauty, and 100 shades of green, flowers blooming everywhere and anywhere and always.

I don't know how travel writers do it - I could never get down on paper half of what I see or half of what I would like to report.

I didn't feel like a tourist in Fiji, even though tourists abound. Tourism is Fiji's biggest money earner, with most of the tourists coming from Australia and New Zealand.

The people of Fiji, whether they are native Fijians or people from India who were brought there as indentured workers by the British to harvest the sugar cane, are so friendly they don't make you feel like a foreigner. There is no tipping in Fiji.

Prices are cheap. Our American dollar is worth two Fijian dollars. Cab rides cost about $1 in our money.

There are 320 islands to Fiji, most of them volcanic. The population is 840,000, about evenly divided between Native Fijians and Indians. There is racial tension in Fiji, but the people of Fiji don't like to discuss it with tourists.

In that way, they are like the Irish who don't like to talk with tourists about the "troubles" in Northern Ireland.


I am on a path now, through a jungle, which has the Pacific Ocean on the right, and villages on the left, villages with no running water or electricity. The path will take me five kilometers to Taveuni Falls (Taveuni Island is called the Garden Island of Fiji, with good reason.).

On the path I see dense and flowered brush, ferns large and small. Overhead are coconut palms and tall trees of all kinds.

Every now and then, the Pacific Ocean crashes against giant boulders, and every now and then is another perfect sandy beach, the stuff of travel books.

I meet people now and then from the villages carrying breadfruit and coconut bundles on their head and shoulders. They all say "Bula" and want to know where I am from. (Fiji is the only place I have ever been other than Ireland, where everyone says hello and has time to chat. Everything slows down here.)

On this trail, I am suspicious that maybe National Geographic Magazine or the Fiji Islands Tourist Board had planted beautiful Fijian men and women on this trail to greet me and ask me where I was from, but it doesn't take me long to discover they were real, carrying their burdens of taro and their machetes.

There were many pigs and chickens running loose on the trail. People seem to have everything in common in these villages, and the village chiefs and their families work just like the rest of the people.

The villages on the highways, of course, are different from these jungle villages. People in the jungle villages are all Christians, either Methodist or Catholic, but the Indian people, of course, are mostly Hindu or Moslem.

It starts to rain, and I go back to the entrance four kilometers back.

But I know I want to come back here, to this trail, and to this country.

Next time I will bring a pen and paper and a camera.

And next time I might not come back to the USA.


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