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TRAVELING IN STYLE : BAREFOOT DAYS IN FIJI : The splendid isolation of Matagi Island is reason enough for a visit. Another is its size: 240 acres. There is nothing on Matagi except a single resort

October 21, 1990|DAVID L. KIRP | Kirp is Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and a syndicated columnist who writes regularly about social issues

We are sitting cross-legged on mats spread over the floor of the bure , the bamboo and grass-mat cottage of the village chief. The headman and his family have gathered, along with a few neighbors and myself, an American visitor to Fiji. After some talking and some drinking, the chief's wife, who until now has been quiet, turns toward me.

"Are you married?" she inquires. When I tell her I'm divorced, she asks in the blink of an eye: "Do you want to marry a nice Fijian girl?"

I've come to this village of Vatusogosogo on a small skiff from nearby Matagi Island. Michael, a friend from London who's come to Fiji with me, is skipping this outing. He flees his dank and gray hometown whenever he can for the chance to slather himself in baby oil, slip an opera tape into his Sony Walkman and bake himself bronze. For him, Fiji means sun.

For me, the lure is more than getting a tan. I'm after the mythic, unspoiled escape, the tranquil refuge, and Matagi Island Resort promises all of that. But while I was seeking an escape, what I found turned out to be much more intriguing.

That Matagi (pronounced Ma-TANG-ghi) is situated in splendid isolation is reason enough to come. Another reason is its size. A horseshoe-shaped, botanist's dream of an island rising dramatically from the sea, Matagi consists of only 240 acres. And there's nothing on it except a single resort, a dozen bures accommodating at most 30 guests, set among gardens of frangipani and bougainvillea and poinsettia.

Tranquillity found. Here I spend mornings lying under tall coconut palms, reading the novels and histories I've brought from another place. I collect shells on unsullied beaches and swim alongside dolphins. I suck in air through a snorkel while drifting for hours above fish that Picasso might have painted, above majestic gorgonian fans and fields of soft coral that wave like a woman's auburn hair.

I set my watch aside as soon as I arrive, since meals are announced with the thumping of a drum, and otherwise time means only sunshine and shadows. A day later I discard even my Topsiders. They just get wet in the sea.

One day I go picnicking with Michael--lamb sandwiches and succulent papaya and shortbread--on a long and deserted arc of white-sand beach. If this were Waikiki, I think, the beach would be lined with big hotels and swarms of reddened tourists. But we have the place to ourselves. At night, the sky is so dark and clear that I imagine I can see the outermost edges of the galaxy.

On my boat trips out to the best snorkeling reef, I get to talking with a 20-year-old Fijian named Richard Valentine Jr., who works at the resort. He's fascinated by anything American. He's taught himself fluent English by chatting up the guests; he has initiated a correspondence with an anthropologist from Berkeley who spent some time at Matagi; he asks if I'd send him some T-shirts from the States. A few days into my stay, when Richard invites me to go with him to the village of Vatusogosogo, where his grandfather is the chief, I jump at the chance.

Learning how others live, I've found, is the most rewarding part of traveling. I struck stately homes from my itineraries several trips ago, and these days churches have to be truly special (preferably tiny and Romanesque) to rate a visit. More worthwhile is a chance encounter with local color and culture. Once, for example, on a Sunday morning in a Balinese village, I came upon a wedding and, next door, a fascinating coming-of-age ceremony in which the incisor teeth of adolescents were filed down in order to keep away the "devil spirit."

Make no mistake, I like lazing around a balmy beach. But there is much more to a remote corner of the Pacific 5,000 miles from California than sunsets, rum punch and a deep tan.

In Vatusogosogo, on the island of Qamea, I find an extended network of neighbors and kin that has let in something from the outside while maintaining many of the old ways. That tradition includes the Fijian commitment to family and friends, including newly made friends from America. The time I spend on Qamea gives me new insight into this peaceful dream.

On our way to Vatusogosogo, Valentine maneuvers the skiff through a canal cut out from the mangrove swamps to his sister's home, a few miles up the Qamea coast. Here I buy the customary gift, a kilo of yagona , better known as kava, the dried root of the pepper tree, Piper Methysticum .

Kava is the usual tourist's present to the villagers, but it's also part of the ordinary way of life. On a quiet day in any rural Fijian household, families are likely to sit on the floor around a large wooden bowl drinking the liquid that is made from this root. It is celebrated in a Fijian ballad:

Go uproot the yagona and bring it,

Prepare the root and proclaim it!

The acclamation rose skywards,

Reaching distant lands!

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