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Fiji is a group of tropical islands four hours by air from Australia. It is a poor nation, but one rich in history and tradition. Most of the 750,000 inhabitants live on the coast. According to archaeologists, Fiji was first settled 3,500 years ago. It was part of the British Empire from 1874 to 1970.

The British started an era of migration that profoundly changed the Fijian society, and the ramifications are felt today in the tension between Indians and Fijians. When British planters sought labor for their sugar plantations, they found the Fijians had no wish for money or labor beyond their tribal enterprises. Because of the Fijians' unwillingness to adapt to the British imperial system, Indians were imported as "coolies" to work the plantations. Now there are more people of Indian descent than Fijians.We spent time with Ron, a native Fijian, and visited his village. Ron is fiercely proud of the village and, relatedly, its care for the elderly: "We Fijians live off the land. They tried to force my grandfather to work in the plantations. They beat him, threatened him, but he threw the money back in their faces. He had no need for that life - the land provided what he needed."

So, too, Ron lives primarily off the land. The tribe he belongs to owns 12 square miles, much of it along the beach. Members produce their own fruits, vegetables and meat, and the sea provides all the fish they need. While we were snorkeling, Ron was spearfishing for the family dinner.

The village's sole store sells only milk, eggs, bread, margarine and tins of meat. Looking at the village through Western eyes, the cement-block and corrugated-steel structures look like a shanty town. But one discovers a complex social structure that provides for all the tribal people, regardless of age.

When a man in the village marries, all the people of the village join together to build him a home. Marriages must be approved by the chief, and people fromthe same village cannot marry each other. The females leave their village when they marry and live in the village of their husbands.

I asked Ron about nursing-home care in Fiji. He said there is one in Suva (the capital), but no Fijian would send his parent to it. Ron's demeanor changed dramatically as he said, "Fijians would never put old people in nursing homes. It's considered the worst crime against our family traditions and is an insult to our ancestry.

I think we can all learn something about living from the Fijians. - Elyse Salend