Richard Turen
Richard Turen

Vava'u, Tonga:

I am jotting this down in the midst of our annual family vacation. On this trip, as I have for 26 of the past 28 years, I am being accompanied by more than 30 clients.

This one should be easy. We're sailing the Paul Gauguin on an incredible itinerary from Fiji to Tonga and the Cook Islands, heading northeast to the Society Islands on a 12-night journey.

As sometimes happens, one of the trip highlights occurred before I ever boarded our 10-and-a-half hour Fiji Airways flight to Nadi.

After two-stopping from our home in Florida we arranged to spend the night at the Ritz-Carlton Marina del Ray in Los Angeles. This is a low-rise hotel that looks out over the Pacific on one side and the huge yacht harbor on the other. It was the perfect break before doing the long-haul flight the next day.

My wife, daughter and I were walking along the path that lined the boat docks at the rear of the property on a perfect Los Angeles day. My daughter was dribbling her basketball, as she finds walking without purpose boring. An older gentleman was heading our way, and as he approached he began speaking to my 10-year-old, explaining that he was a much better dribbler and he was certain he could run circles around her on the court. Since he was at least 90, she doubted that, but they hit it off and we were all taken by his sparkling blue eyes, warmth and intelligent energy.

We stood there talking a bit about our lives and he mentioned, modestly, that he was the partner of someone named George Martin. He talked about his family of immigrants, and we realized that we came from similar backgrounds. He barely whispered that he had written a book about his family but he couldn't quite remember the exact title.

"It's got the word radish in it", he told us.

I ordered it that night from Amazon so it would be waiting on my return.

This stranger was beguiling, as those you meet along the road often are. I knew that whatever we might experience in the South Seas, this chance encounter was a wonderful beginning. He invited us to come home with him to meet his wife, but we had to decline. So we talked some more about his "extraordinary" family members, the poverty they endured and their struggles in the new world. Finally, he looked at us, one by one, and said, "You know I really like your family, so let me tell you the most important thing my father ever taught me."

He recalled how, as a kid about my daughter's age, living in a tenement, with few prospects, his father sat him down one day and said he wanted to teach him something he should remember for the rest of his life.

Always be the first one in the family to use the toilet in the morning, his father said. "Otherwise, you'll have to wait in a long line. And when you enter the toilet, look for a few moments at yourself in the mirror. And while you are looking, laugh as loudly as you can. If you start each day laughing at yourself you'll never take yourself too seriously and you'll be happy."

Later that day I Googled his name back in our room. He has written six books. The George Martin who was his partner was indeed Sir George Martin, who had produced the Beatles. He went on to start his own sound and film studios and he produced several films. I've laughed in the mirror every day since I met him. I highly recommend it.

The next day before boarding our Fiji Airways flight, I took a long walk through the terminal to get a sense of the place. Parked right next door to our aircraft was the Air New Zealand flight for Auckland. I also saw the Virgin Australia plane loading up, along with Qantas flight that had just pulled in to the gate. What was interesting is that they were all using the same equipment, an Airbus 330, a long-distance workhorse that features two engines. As I walked past these identical aircraft all lined up for a flight of 10 hours or more, I thought about how easily the public has accepted the notion of flying long ocean routes on a two-engine aircraft when four-engine alternatives like the Airbus 340 are available.

We landed in Nadi, the commercial center and a place the brochure photographers wisely overlook. The population of Fiji is just under a million, and they are fairly well spread out. Although there are literally thousands of tiny islands in the archipelago, about 320 are thought to be large enough to support human habitation and the necessary cropland required for survival. Fijians have populated only 111 of these islands.

We have this notion of a South Seas paradise when we think of Fiji, and it is certainly that. You can find your palm-fringed beaches and a wide variety of resorts that cater, primarily, to the Aussie market, which is only 1,300 miles to the east. I had been told that I would most enjoy meeting the Fijians, a genuinely friendly people who always seemed to appreciate the fact that we came from America, at considerable effort and expense. Few of the people I met on Fiji had ever been to the States, and only one person I spoke to had any relatives there.

Life in the islands has not always been calm and, even now, there are undercurrents of political unrest. Since the mid-1980s there have been three political coups in Fiji, largely brought about by conflicts involving ethnic Fijians and the descendants of laborers from India who make up a significant portion of the population.

Perhaps attracted by the calm winds and incredible beaches, missionaries of all stripes have targeted Fiji over the years for their brand of religious devotion. The Methodists seem to have won -- for the moment -- although there are significant numbers of Hindus and Muslims.

The missionaries have had their work cut out for them as the "peaceful Fijians" practiced cannibalism and tribal torture as recently as 200 years ago.

Nowadays, was I to return to Fiji, I would be tempted to stay at the beautifully situated Cousteau Family Resort. It is nestled in a gorgeous setting along the edge of Savusavu Bay. Think perfect family resort for families who swim, snorkel and scuba.

The untold story of Fiji, I suppose, is that more than a quarter of a million of its residents live in poverty. The population is spread out enough to make delivery of education, health care and the most-basic human services tough for any government to deliver.

Many Fijians live the "Kaiviti way," a subsistence village lifestyle that centers on tribal family led by a village chief and supported by ideals that literally translate into food, shelter and friendship for everyone.

The next day, we decided to set out for one of those villages, mindful of the way we dressed for the visit. Fiji is trying to ban public floggings, a practice that hails from colonial days under the British and currently used to punish young girls for wearing shorts. Schoolgirls are also lined up in some villages for a "village haircut" if the elders feel their locks are too long.

One village chief summed up his feelings about the practice in an interview with the Fiji Sun by saying these practices will help communities keep order "but in a controlled manner."

Sometimes paradise has an inner core that isn't always pretty.

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