Yet another true story to celebrate an eventful number!
Years ago, it must have been sometime in the first half of the 1980s, I was sent to Fiji to attend some sort of education meeting. To be honest I can’t really remember much about the meeting. Suva was hot and tropical and humid. It poured down with rain at the same time every afternoon. I went out and bought a fancy multi-coloured umbrella and in the first rain shower it dripped all the multi-coloured dyes over my white shirt.
Suva, where the meeting was held, is surrounded by mudflats and mangrove swamps. With the heat there was a constant smell of stinking swamp mud. In my room there were big pink lizards everywhere and they would zap the mosquitos. At night you would hear a plop on the floor as a lizard on the ceiling had eaten too much and couldn’t take the weight on its ceiling-clinging suction pads.
To wander through Suva was to be hounded by merchants selling their wares. A cruise ship came into the harbour. Sale signs appeared and prices doubled. Fiji is a place where you bargain when buying. It was a new experience for me. At first I was terrified because it felt so rude, but I got the hang of it after a while.
The phone went. It was the Prime Minister of Fiji, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. I taught his son George back in New Zealand. Would I like to come to dinner at the Prime Minister’s residence? Naturally (and humbly) I accepted the invitation. He would send a car around to pick me up.
My life was suddenly thrown into turmoil! What do I wear? What do I call him? What do I call his wife? Do I take my shoes off at the front door? Won’t my socks stink in the heat? Can I wear open sandals? What is the Fijian protocol so as not to be offensive? I asked around.
The time came for the car to pick me up. It wasn’t an ordinary car; it was a chauffeur-driven Mercedes-Benz. The chauffeur got out and opened the back door for me to enter. Finau, another of the Prime Minister’s sons, was in the car to accompany me.
We arrived. The Prime Minister himself came out to greet me. We shook hands. There was a huge farm tractor parked at the front door. Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara said, “We like to keep our priorities right!” We had a delightful meal of raw fish and all sorts of other goodies. The waiters, of which there were two, a man and a woman, brought the food in while bowed right down so that their heads were lower than Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara’s – and he was sitting! I felt like getting up and giving them a hand. With the occasion over the chauffeur drove me back to where I was staying. It was a memorable experience.
Sometime later, back in New Zealand, I saw photos on the news of Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara wearing traditional Fijian garb – tapa cloth and skirt and all that. Someone remarked that “You’d think these dumb Natives would know how to drag themselves out of the jungle.” They clearly didn’t know that Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara had studied to be a medical doctor in New Zealand, had a Master’s degree in Political Science from Oxford University in the UK, and subsequently graduated from the London School of Economics.
Oh – and inside the Prime Minister’s house we all kept our sandals on!