I am sitting cross-legged on a battered tarpaulin in Fiji among palm trees, watching a skinny dog worry chickens as the sun goes down.
Across from me, by a church, a group of men perform a traditional kava ceremony for the tourist group I’ve arrived with.
Kava is a bitter root, ground down to a powder and mixed with water. The resulting drink (which I had a sip of) tastes earthy and apparently if you drink enough of it it gives you a buzz, then wipes you out the next day.
It’s supposed to signify the village welcoming people ashore, but I wonder how the villagers feel about this steady stream of strangers from around the globe incessantly turning up, so I chatted to some, with the help of a translator.
Semisi Vunibola is a ninth generation chief – a 54-year-old dad of six, granddad of 11 and leader of the 300 people in Gunu village.
The former butcher became chief six years ago, when his father died, and he tells me it’s his job to look after the welfare and development of his village.
He attends village meetings every month and district meetings every six, and is proud to have overseen the introduction of solar panels and better drinking water tanks.
‘I want to set a good example with my leadership. I want to set a good example for people to respect one another and look after one another. In our culture there’s a lot of respect for the elders but in modern times it’s really going away,’ he says.
The biggest challenge his clan faces today, he says, is the high cost of living, which affects every family. ‘The cost of living is high but the income is low. We try to balance it by planting for our own subsistence,’ he says, adding that developments to create jobs would be welcome.
When I ask how he feels about his clan performing traditional dances and ceremonies to tourists he says: ‘It’s a source of income and the money that comes from it helps with the maintenance of the things that are used by the villagers, like the community hall. We bank the money and when there’s a big function where the whole village is involved this money pays for it.’
He also explains that tourists are expected to present themselves, with an offering of kava on arrival, as a mark of respect.
‘Everyone who comes to the village has to come and see us,’ he says.
‘When they come they have to present their sevusevu (offering) for arriving into this land. That’s the culture in every village.’
While we chatted we were joined by Jovesa Seuseu, who is in charge when he’s away.
I also meet his 27-year-old son Eseroma Vunibola, 30-year-old daughter-in-law Resina, and grandchildren Maria, seven, and baby Sakiusa (seven months).
When I ask about women’s role in the clan, Resina replies: ‘In our community women are hardly recognised. We always say that a woman’s place is in the kitchen. So every decision made in the community is done by men. We are only there to assist them.
‘In urban areas women’s voices can be heard, but in our traditional communities women’s voices are hardly heard. Women’s rights hardly apply in Fijian communities – only in working areas they can fight for their rights but when it comes to communal things women can’t fight for their rights. They are left unspoken. Only men can speak up.
‘At times it’s really difficult. Most of the women are better educated than men but most of the women’s ideas are not taken, it’s just the men.’
She explains that often, when there’s a clan meeting, men will go home, discuss things with their wives then take those ideas back.
‘But women can’t speak directly to the elders. It’s a big taboo,’ she adds.
While there are a few female chiefs in Fiji it’s by no means the norm. In this village, for instance, their laws forbid it. This was tested when Semisi’s dad was chief and his aunt challenged him to the role.
Later in my trip to Fiji I have the most incredible experiences – I swim in hidden caves, bask on palm-lined shores, paddle board and eat delicious food.
But I can’t forget my chat with Resina.
Elsewhere, I talk to a group of Fijian women and, as well as identifying with her experience, they tell me kava can become a problem for men in some communities – it’s drunk to excess, rendering them useless and leaving women to do all the work.
Fiji is a beautiful series of islands, with an incredibly friendly welcome, but it seems even paradise isn’t perfect.
It’s a visually stunning, kind-hearted but slightly baffling mix of archaic customs and modern technology – of men in grass skirts worn for the tourists pulling peace signs for Instagram.
Women don’t have a say but even the remotest islands have mobiles.
At the end of our chat Eseroma pulls out a smart phone. ‘Are you on Facebook?’ he asks.
Unmissable Fiji activities
Swim in the Sawa-i-Lau caves
Water babies will love this place. With a guide’s help you can swim under some rocks to access a series of dark caves said to be inhabited by a 10-headed sea snake (not that I saw him). We visited on an excursion from our Captain Cook Cruise.
Paddle board at the Blue Lagoon beach
Fans of Brook Shields will recognise this attractive spot. If you’ve never heard of her or The Blue Lagoon you’ll still enjoy a day here.
Snorkel around Castaway island
The Tom Hanks film was filmed here, on small but perfectly formed Mondriki. A Sea Spray Day Adventure from Mana, which includes a trip to Yanuya to take part in a kava ceremony and lunch costs £78 (219 Fiji dollars).
This is an ingenious way to see Fijian countryside – via a unique set up of electric bikes on repaired train tracks.
A half day tour, which includes a beach stop and time for swimming, costs £48 ((129 Fiji dollars).
For more ideas on what to do, go to the Visit Fiji website.
Where to stay and how to get there
You can stay at an Air BnB in Gunu on the island of Yasawa.
Amele’s Secret Getaway Homestay includes breakfast and costs from £8 per night.
The former had more of a couples’ feel, with plunge pools and cosy basket seats on your patio, while the latter had a to die for pasta restaurant, high quality breakfasts and seemed best for families.
Rooms at The Sheraton Tokoriki Island Resort costs from £110 per night based on a minimum three-night stay.
A night at The Shangri-La Resort & Spa costs from £100 per night.
Another option is a Captain Cook Cruise. The staff on my ship were outstanding and it was a great way to get around the islands.
A three-night cruise costs from £628.
British Airways flies from Heathrow to Nadi in Fiji via Hong Kong, with onward connections on Fiji Airways. Flights cost from £1,183 return travelling in economy class.
Alternatively you can fly via Los Angeles, which costs from £1,165.