The Pacific: Traditional Customs

Traditional Customs

Although the South Pacific is a region of great variety, there are a number of rituals and ceremonies that many islands have in common. The most important of these is the kava ceremony found in Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu. Kava (called yaqona in Fiji) is a drink made from the crushed root of the pepper plant. The powder or pulp is strained or mixed with water in a large wooden bowl and drunk from a coconut-shell cup. Elaborate protocols accompany formal kava ceremonies although kava is also a social drink consumed by ordinary people when they get together to relax and chat.

Another widespread feature of Pacific culture is the making of bark cloth called tapa (masi in Fijian) used for clothing or decoration. This felt-like cloth carries stenciled or printed designs.

Other customs include firewalking in Fiji, stone fishing in French Polynesia, the use of an earth oven called an umu in Polynesia or a lovo in Fiji, tattooing in Samoa and elsewhere in Polynesia, land diving on Pentecost in Vanuatu, shell money in the Solomon Islands, and the presentation of a whale's tooth called a tabua in Fiji. These unique traditions are a thread uniting the diverse peoples of the Pacific.

The Pacific Way

A smile costs nothing but is priceless. Islanders smile at one another; tourists look the other way. In Western societies wealth is based on the accumulation of goods; in Pacific societies it's based on how much you can give away. Obligations define an individual's position in society, while sharing provides the security that holds a community together.

If people are hospitable, look for some way of repaying their kindness and never exploit their goodwill. It's an island custom that a gift must be reciprocated, which is why tipping has never caught on.

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Questions

The islanders are eager to please, so phrase your questions carefully. They'll answer yes or no according to what they think you want to hear--don't suggest the answer in your question. Test this by asking your informant to confirm something you know to be incorrect. Also don't ask negative questions, such as "you're not going to Suva, are you?" Invariably the answer will be "yes," meaning "yes, I'm not going to Suva." It also could work like this: "Don't you have anything cheaper?" "Yes." "What do you have that is cheaper?" "Nothing." Yes, he doesn't have anything cheaper. If you want to be sure of something, ask several people the same question in different ways.

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Dress Code

It's important to know that the dress code in the Pacific islands is strict. Short shorts, halter tops, and bathing costumes in public are considered offensive; a sulu or pareu wrapped around you solves this one. Women should wear dresses that adequately cover their legs while seated. Nothing will mark you so quickly as a tourist nor make you more popular with street vendors than scanty dress. Of course, there is a place for it: on the beach in front of a resort hotel. In a society where even bathing suits are considered extremely risqué for local women, public nudity is unthinkable. Exceptions are Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Nouméa, where the French influence has led to topless beaches.

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Travelers

If you're alone you're lucky, for the single traveler is everyone's friend. Get away from other tourists and meet the people. There aren't many places on earth where you can still do this meaningfully, but the South Pacific is one. If you do meet people with similar interests, keep in touch by writing.

In many traditional island cultures, a woman seen wandering aimlessly along a remote beach or country road was thought to be in search of male companionship, and "no" meant "yes." Single women hiking, camping, sunbathing, and simply traveling alone may be seen in the same light, an impression strongly reinforced by the type of videos available in the islands. In some cultures local women rarely travel without men, and some do-it-yourself day-hikes and interisland ship journeys may be uncomfortable or even dangerous for women.