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Orchid Island Cultural Centre
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Orchid Island Cultural Centre
  Viti Levu Travel Tip

Eileen Chambers, Fiji Visitors Bureau

... While other native peoples were stripped of their lands in the colonial era, Fijians were allowed by an unusually farsighted British governor to keep more than 80 percent of theirs in perpetuity. That distinction explains why Fiji's ancient culture lives today not in corny hotel 'folkloric' shows but in village reality.

And that is the pleasant surprise of the Orchid Island Cultural Centre, just seven miles outside Suva, the capital. A human-scale, historical experience awaits visitors -- a showcase of flora, fauna, crafts, customs and ancient rituals kept alive through everyday use.

Orchid Island, a natural formation in a river, has been cultivated into a realistic microcosm of Fiji. People live and work in the traditional village of thatched bures constructed around a 50-foot-high temple. Cannibalism, long connected with temple worships is the one custom no longer practiced -- or demonstrated for tourists. Breathe easy.

The temple, or bure kalou, greets visitors with gleaming hardwood floors and majestic posts rising to an impressive peak. This reproduction emulates those ancient places where Fijians dedicated human sacrifices -- often war enemies -- to their ancestral spirits.

So precise a copy is this temple of the ancient style that many Fijians believe it has been adopted by spirits. Their suspicion is reinforced by the fact that no one has ever successfully photographed the temple interior; film fogs, cameras jam, batteries die. Mysteries abound. Try it.

Outside in the fragrant, sunny air one may notice a mongoose, imported here from India to wipe out destructive pests, or perhaps a pair of brilliant little parrots, their feathers red, blue and green.

The tour moves on to the tribal chief's bure, traditionally the second highest building after the temple, this one furnished in authentic detail of the pre-European 19th century; baskets, pottery, weapons, and woven mats, the last still part of Fijian homes and many a bride's dowry.

Next comes a lighter side of Orchid Island, a swamp full of twisted mangrove roots, chirping birds and hungry fish that leads to naturalistic habitats for island animals: rare iguanas, boas and fox-faced fruit-eating bats.

Groups of village women make masi cloth from the bark of the pepper mulberry tree; the cloth inked with geometric and floral motifs was the stuff of men's loincloths, women's wraparound sulus and wall hangings in the old huts and in modern hotels. Pottery making is in progress. Fishhooks are fashioned from bone. Mats and baskets are woven as if in a sewing circle.

Culmination of the three-hour tour is the ritualized yaqona (pronounced yahn-GO-na) or grog drinking ceremony. The anesthetizing but not alcoholic juice of the pepper tree is consumed as decorously as tea in Japan. A light-hearted musical meke or story-telling dance ensues. Together, the rituals simulate how a visiting chieftain would have been greeted and welcomed with honor in the pre-Christian past.

Today, the welcome is for travelers and it is no less genuine. While Orchid Island is a tourist attraction, it is an attractive one indeed. Fijians are proud of their past. They will even speak candidly of the cannibalism, so feel free to ask about it if your curiosity so dictates. Nobody's going to bite you -- but do consider their harsh heritage in light of your own. Exotic cultures have no exclusivity on barbarism, do they?

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