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Gentle Lautoka part 2

Solomoni Biumaiono
Sunday, November 25, 2012

It was the day after Diwali and the sun lazily crept up behind the Sabeto range, everything seem to be on a hangover from the previous night as parts of the country celebrated this Hindu festival of lights marking the skies with fireworks.

Time is moving but only reluctantly this morning and the heat is not helping but some men are already in the cane field around the Saweni Beach Rd.

The cane cutting gang are gathered around the pani wala (water carrier) seemed to be in good spirits as they waved us down.

Somehow despite the many advances in the technology of water bottles, plastic or otherwise, the preferred method in Fiji's cane fields is still the old aluminium kettle. Regardless, we got off to talk with members of the gang.

They hail from the village of Nabukadogo in Macuata and had only come to Saweni to attend a wedding but ended up cutting cane. They think it is one good way of earning some money while in Viti Levu.

The cane cutting season is nearing its end and in the last two weeks these Nabukadogo villagers would have harvested 100 tonnes and they are near the end of their quota and all look forward to returning to their village with money.

We had wanted to go to Saweni Beach to take a photo of the beach and the dullness of the morning exacerbated by the empty beach, save for a solitary man from Lauwaki Village who was spearfishing in the shallows. The sea and the sky merged into one.

As we made our way into Lautoka City the sight of sugarcane stems fallen by the wayside along stretches of the Queens Rd. It is like following a trail of bread crumbs because during the harvesting season, one only has to follow these fallen cane stems to find the location of the biggest sugar mill in the country, the Fiji Sugar Corporation's Lautoka mill.

It is not hard to see why people affectionately call it the Sugar City. First off, this industry definitely built this city and its character was forged from the mill, which dominate the skyline and the waterfront of Fiji's second city.

Since I was a stranger to this city I had to consult the maps in the phone directory and google map first before I traversed the many roads in the city. But first my driver has to get used to roads in the central business district of Lautoka. Believe me it is not something easy and to this day, he still hasn't fully grasped the skill of negotiating the junction at Tavewa Avenue and Vitogo Parade. Narara Parade completely puts him off every time he comes to this particular junction.

First we had to find Simla, as it is the sight of one of the first low cost housing projects in Lautoka. And two minutes from the town centre we were at Simla. Of course Simla is a name from the old days of Colonial Sugar Refineries (CSR) Company.

There I got my first chance at talking to a local resident Male Ratu who is from Nacula in the Yasawa Group. He has been residing in Lautoka ever since he was born and his parents were one of the first tenants of this housing project in Simla.

"In Lautoka everything is close by. You can just walk from place to place. Over here people just walk to town and to other places they want to visit," he says.

"The only place here that is far away is Natabua."

Male adds that if we compare Suva to Lautoka, Lautoka is better because you do not need to catch a bus to go down to town because you can simply walk to town.

"The places here are close to each other and you don't need money to travel because you just stroll to all these places," Male says.

Later that day when I was taking photos of the acacia (vaivai) trees that line Thomson Cresent, there are other species of vaivai known as raintrees apart from the scientific acacia, when I met two gentlemen who were strolling down into town.

One of them was Sikemi Ciri of Burelevu Village from Ra and who had just come to Lautoka most recently.

When asked if there is anything special about Lautoka that makes it different from other towns and city in Fiji he just quipped that it's an easy town to live in because everything is within walking distance.

"People just walk everywhere and in one day you can walk all over the city and cover the business area through to the residential areas," Ciri says.

His workmate Krishna Pillay, a Tomuka resident for the past 52 years, agrees with him and says they are on their way to town to have lunch.

And with an hour of lunch that is more than enough time to eat and walk back to their workplace.

"And yes Lautoka too has changed a lot. I still remember the time when electricity first came, when the roads started to be sealed and now they have been a lot of changes that has taken place in the city," Pillay says.

We were talking near the Kings Rd, Thomson Cresent and Tavewa Avenue junction which is one of the many around Lautoka.

Right next to the junction is a town beautification project undertaken by the town council which is a water fountain under an acacia tree.

Who puts a water fountain near a busy road junction? But hey, these Lautoka people know how to decorate their city.

A new road junction at the entrance of the Lautoka wharf where Vitogo Parade meets Waterfront Rd, another is being built there.

Themed to the city's martime history, the main attraction of this junction is an anchor and four traditional style iTaukei canoe masts at four corners.

The Diwali lights that decorated the big Navutu Rd, Queens and Kings roads junction is another highlight of how well this city decorates its surroundings. On top of this the wide avenues and roads in Lautoka are another fact that distinguish this municipality from others. It is a well planned city where everything is centralised around the CBD allowing easy access from any point of the residential areas.

At the Lautoka botanical garden I met 57-year-old Ram Kumar of Lovu. He was having his afternoon siesta just beside his lipstick red Bedford truck.

Bedford trucks are a rarity in other parts of the country but in the cane belt of Viti Levu these English made trucks still haul cane to the mills and perform other duties. This is despite the fact that some of them had been mutilated to allow engines or other parts to be replaced with that other brands.

But Kumar is proud of his Bedford because it still has its original Bedford Indian engine that came off the assembly line with the truck.

"I got this truck from the Vunato Rubbish Dump and I repaired everything and now it is running again," Kumar says.

Other beauty is the AO number plate, which might be the original number plate of this Bedford but this is something about the cane belt, they keep things very well and sometimes it becomes a heirloom.

We left Kumar to return to his afternoon siesta and went straight to the mill's loading yard where trucks of various models were lined up to have their precious cargo of cane unloaded and crushed at the Lautoka mill.

There I met the 30-year-old Taslim Khan who also wears the hat of the assistant secretary of the Lautoka Cane Lorry Association.

Khan has spent the last eight years as a cane lorry driver and it is something he really enjoys.

"It all depends in the unloading, if the unloading is fast a driver can make two or three trips in a day but that is for those that are nearby but as for those drivers who come from Nadi and Sigatoka, it is quite difficult because of the long distance they will have to travel," Khan says.

He says the number of trucks coming to Lautoka is increasing as the mill gets crops from as far as the Suva side of the Sigatoka River and it is also in charge of the largest sugarcane producing sector in the country, the Drasa Sector.

Next we went down to the Lautoka wharf where Yasawa Islanders usually berth and where fishermen come in with their daily catches.

With strict marine laws now in place, the people of the Yasawa Islands have built bigger and stronger boats to transport villagers and cargo back to their island homes. This is a far cry from the early days when they used to make the dangerous crossings in open boats and punts.

There I also met 53-year-old Sunil Patel who left his work at Nadi Hardware 14 years ago to become a fisherman.

Patel says he now hires people to take out his boat and bring in the catch.

"I am happy to have left that job and become a fisherman I have been doing it for 14 years now and yes, I like it," Patel says.

I went to the international port where I met a group of stevedores who belong to the Lautoka Stevedoring Company Limited, which is made up of iTaukei shareholders.

Company manager Jone Bouwalu says the company used to be the union in the old Ports Authority of Fiji but when they outsourced the stevedoring services the union formed the limited liability company.

"We're barely keeping the company afloat but the boys are an important part of the ports operations here because they land and load cargo that comes through the Western Division and it is part of their contribution to the country," Bouwalu says.

He says most of the workers in the company come from Naviago, Vitogo and Namoli villages while the rest are from other parts of Fiji.

Bouwalu says the company is just managing to keep afloat but he hopes this will change in the future and hopes that the contracting company improves conditions.

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