A cluster of Fijian flags appears just at the corner of Albert Park in the city centre, bright blue against the overcast Suva sky. It moves towards us, powered forward by feet stomping in time to the brassy blare of the marching band.
It’s October 10 – Fiji Day, a celebration of independence from British colonial rule back in 1970. Each year the occasion is marked by events across the country, now under military control (elections are scheduled for 2014).
Here in the island nation’s capital, Suva, this parade is the main part of the celebrations. But once the grassy quadrant is packed, flags fluttering in the sticky breeze, it comes to an end. We flee the speeches and the rising humidity for the Fiji Museum, just a short walk through the botanic gardens.
As we wander through a display of war canoes and bilibili (bamboo rafts), an explosive boom shakes our ear drums.
“It’s the cannon,” our guide Usaia tells us as we freeze in shock by a case of traditional fishing tackle. Each year on Fiji Day, a 21 gun salute is fired. Another blast sounds, then another. But we eventually grow used to the racket and continue our exploration of the museum’s ceramic art and natural history displays.
As we shuffle back past the park, we see it has been transformed into a fairground. People whirl around the big wheel, while others tuck into picnics as music crackles over loud speakers.
But Fiji Day isn’t restricted to Albert Park.
A solitary float trundles along the street that leads away from the park at snail’s pace, packed with dancers wearing traditional dress who move in time to beats that come in bursts.
Small children peer down at us from their positions up on their parents shoulders, waving their little blue flags frantically.
At the corner of the street, piles of hairy brown coconuts mark the entrance to the markets. A few vendors have small Fijian flags poking from their hair as they lay out their mounds of cassava and eggplants.
“Happy Fiji Day!” they call out to us we suck on freshly cut pineapple from one of the stalls.
We wave back, sugary juice dripping from our fingers and strings of yellow flesh caught between our teeth.
The market is just a fraction of its normal size, with many stallholders staying away to enjoy the public holiday. Most of the shops and restaurants are closed too.
The people in the streets also start to disappear now, heading home to prepare the lovo – meat, fish and vegetables cooked in an oven dug into the ground, lined with coconut husks, then lit on fire and covered by stones.
It’s the tagline for this year’s festivities – “Put up a flag and put down a lovo”.