Pay your credit, Sunny Waitovu

Important supplies in Levuka: plastic flowers, mugs, a rolling pin, assorted bowls, styrofoam plates, empty containers, cloth, broom, hand-written advertisements, a blanket, colanders, kettles, fake flowers, cocoa, and an attempt to collect credit using public embarrassment.

Levuka was the capital of Fiji until 1877, when the British moved the capital to Suva.  It makes sense; Levuka is surrounded by sheer cliffs that drop off into the ocean, limiting how big the city could have grown, but Suva is surrounded by plains and rolling hills, perfect for expansion.

Since the move, little seems to have changed in Levuka.  Many of the buildings have been standing since the 1800s – wooden structures that can go up in flames like the dry tinder they are.  The Masonic building, for example, was burned by a mob in 2000; the stone walls are still there, but everything flammable went up in smoke.


The town – with its ancient buildings, slow traffic, and remote, small-town atmosphere – feels like the wild west.  There were a few times where I thought someone was going to burst into one of the restaurants or bars and start a fight, just like in the movies, but it was one of the friendliest places we stayed on the whole trip.  We couldn’t go ten feet down the sidewalk without someone smiling at us and saying “Bula!”  People would stop and talk to us for a few minutes, then go on their way; even now, just thinking about the friendliness of the people makes me smile and feel all warm inside.

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A pile of Kava, ready for sale. Bananas and mangoes in the foreground.

The first two days, we walked around town and tried to get our bearings; we visited the museum, the library, shops, and watched the local rugby squad practice for their upcoming game against a nearby town (apparently there’s a huge rivalry).

On the third day, we decided to climb one of the peaks that surrounded the town, so we called the local tourism office.  They put us in touch with a guy named Magila, and we arranged to meet him for a trip up the mountain.


We met near our hotel – the Royal Hotel, the oldest hotel in the South Pacific – and he walked us up the mountain.  That’s exactly how it was: there was a barely-visible trail that we followed, but otherwise, it seemed like we were just making our own.  Occasionally, we’d take a detour to see a waterfall, or see some plants – mangoes, pineapples, kava, etc.

This gym was halfway up the Levuka mountains, at the top of the village.  It’s where the rugby players all lift.  I jokingly suggested that they call it the Jungle Gym; they all looked at me like I was a seer and said that that’s actually its name.
Just trying to be friendly.
Magila, on the peak above Levuka.
The rugby field is to the left; the large white building next to it is the Royal Hotel, the oldest hotel in the South Pacific.
Alice and Magila on top of the mountain.
No joke – she’s on a path. It was not very well used.


When we descended, Magila invited us to come to his house for Kava, and we gratefully accepted.  We’d been waiting for a week to be invited by someone.  First, we had to stop by his supplier, who we found grinding the bark by hand in a giant…well, mortar.

Pounding kava.
This guy was high as a kite. He sold us Kava for $2 Fijian dollars a bag; in Suva, the same size bags were going for $14.

When we got to Magila’s house, we learned his story.

Levuka was hit hard by Cyclone Winston in 2016; it ripped through the town, smashing buildings and leaving many people homeless.  Magila’s house was one of the ones that was destroyed.  Most of the village had to stay in the local school while they were rebuilding.  Magila’s house has still not been rebuilt, and the walls and floor were still open.  All of the villagers seem to rely on the kindness of others for supplies – Magila, for example, is sometimes able to bring back scraps of building materials from his day job in construction, which he incorporates into his house.

We sat on some of the remaining floorboards and he told us about his children; one of his daughters had to go to another village to study because that was the only place she could get an education that would give her the opportunity to eventually teach.  He was trying to help develop the tourism infrastructure.  His dream was to get $800 to build three cabins on the mountain we’d just climbed, which he wanted to rent on AirBNB to tourists.

Alice dumping some of our freshly-ground Kava in a kava “sock.”
Massaging the water in and out of the sock to make the beverage.
Stirring and scooping the kava with a coconut shell.

It started getting darker, and we decided to head back to our hotel before it got pitch black.  “We have lights on the path!” Magila said proudly; they had strung electric lights most of the way up through his village.  But his house still didn’t have electricity of its own, and his children were struggling in school because they couldn’t do homework in their house – they still didn’t have electricity.

I was wandering in town when an anti-drug march came through of local school children.


The final day, we volunteered to help build one of Winston’s victims: the Ovalau Club.  It’s one of the oldest members clubs in the South Pacific, but was smashed up by the cyclone.  The Japanese Government has sponsored workers to help rebuild it; they sent over a team of Japanese architects, who were doing a lot of the work.  They included Mr. Fujimori, a master craftsman who worked entirely by hand, and preferred not to use nails or screws to fasten wood together.  It was absolutely incredible to see him work, and an honor to get to shake his hand.

Alice, Mr. Fujimori, me.
This was a serious problem.

Our last week was spent at the Intercontinental Fiji – hugely expensive, lavish, with hot water, toiletries, daily linen service, restaurants and a stunning beach fringed with a coral reef.  It was an incredibly luxurious end to the trip.

But halfway through the week, I was seized with the realization that despite all of the deprivations of Levuka, and the plush facilities at the Intercontinental, I would have gone back to the Royal Hotel in a heartbeat – to the sheds, the smell of tuna, the scarred countryside, the friendly people, and the beautiful heart of the country.  The Intercon was a cookie-cutter resort, and could have been anywhere else in the world.  Levuka had soul, had a story, and we only scratched the surface of it.

I also wanted to learn who Sunny Waitovu was, owing money all over town.


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