Fiji Journal, 2007: Part 1

01 May 07

I woke up early and checked out. I walked with my ruck about 15 minutes at 6AM to the bus terminal and took the shuttle to the airport. It went easily and no problems with security. The only issue was the poor signage so I waited first in a Qantas club line, then international line, then was told that since I was going to Sydney first, I had to wait in the domestic line. Sigh…

I read my China book on the plane and kept the new Nine Inch Nails on repeat. “Capital G” is just a fucking awesome song. After Sydney I flew to Fiji on Air Pacific. “mBula” means hello, “vinaka” means thank you, “modeh” means goodbye. On Survivor after the merge, they call their tribe “Bula Bula”, as an example for you. I arrived late into Nadi (pronounced Nandi as Fijian tends to add invisible sounds like “m” before “bula”). Customs was okay. There was an outdoor walk from the deplaning tube to the terminal and it smelled fresh and rainy. A huge Vodafone ad covered a whole wall at the customs area promoting Fiji’s mobile connectivity. One customs guy saw my camo Camelbak and asked if I was a servicemember. I uncomfortably said yes but he was just curious.

I grabbed a taxi to Stoney Creek Lodge, forgetting to go to the ATM beforehand. Luckily I’d converted all my Aussie dollars to Fijian dollars (even cheaper than Aussie money!) in Sydney. But Stoney Creek paid for the ride, consisting of a 15-minute ride down the main road, and then a 15 minute ride down the main road, and then a 15-minute ride along a road up into the foothills of the Garden of the Sleeping Giants. Before reaching the lodge, the road turned to compressed earth with one particularly bumpy part from rain and people spinning out tires in the poor traction. It was dark and I didn’t see much. My driver was Muslim I think and was pissed he had to take his taxi through the mud. I found out later their bosses didn’t like them coming up here. The guy also wouldn’t come with me (leaving his taxi) to get his money. Grumpy? Wary?

I met Naomi who was on the night staff. Very nice. She offered me a free drink and I ordered dinner. I took my stuff to my private bure (a private room) which is pretty much in an open air area. The area outside my room was a common area opening up to a balcony overlooking the interior of the valley. There wasn’t A/C so it was very hot and humid.

The dinner was yummy; in fact all the meals at Stoney Creek were so I usually ate there. I had chicken curry with veggies. Sleep was hard as it was hot. Also a mosquito got in somehow so all the other nights I carefully employed the overhanging mosquito net. THe mozzies really fucking bothered me the whole time in Fiji!!!

02 May 07

In the morning I slept in as much as possible. To be honest I had no clue what to do for four days and I wasn’t looking forward to it. No one else was really here. There was a couple who’d left that morning. She was pregnant. Chris and Jen. They left to some other islands in Fiji as most people do. There was a pudgy British guy who never socialized as he said he was constantly busy with work. In Fiji. Okay… A couple of Californians arrived late the previous night. I chatted a bit with them; they were leaving the next day. They offered me a look at their Lonely Planet guidebook. They were college buddies and came here to surf. So in the morning I caught a bus outside the lodge. It was only $1 to go to Nadi. Actually I wanted to go the airport but it didn’t stop there and I didn’t know exactly where to go. So in Nadi I stopped into the first store, Nad’s (an unfortunate name) and didn’t get very far before a very helpful (but a tinge suspicious) guy named Joe (or Average Joe, he blithely joked) marked me. To be honest he explained a lot to me over the course of the next hour. Turtles, kava, drinking dishes, ukuleles, drums, chiefs’ fighting clubs, weapons, head dresses, pots, everything. I learned quite a bit and he wasn’t pushy. We shared looks at tattoos and talked about 300. Eventually he got to this $450 chief’s weapon and lingered around it. Uh oh. He had me hold it, etc. etc. Then he showed me what it’d look like laying on a patterned rectangle of tapa fabric. Then he got a scale and weighed it and calculated shipping. Then other employees gathered around to help! Joe even gave me a “special price”! He’d earlier told me about how the coup in September or about in 2006 had killed tourism because the US and AU governments warned tourists. He said many had been laid off and showed me sale prices versus original sticker prices. To make matters worse, the two surfer guys came in and they said hi and saw me looking at this damn thing! I told Joe I wanted to look around and was like “okay” but five minutes later (if that!), there he was harassing me. I said goodbye to the Americans and left.

So I’m walking down Nadi’s main street and guys keep asking where I’m from or what my tattoos mean (this was a time I regretted having them since it gave them a conversation opener). At first I just thought people were being friendly but it became clear these young men were employed by a Fijian store off the main street. If I said I wouldn’t go, they’d ask if I wanted any marijuana. If I wasn’t isolated in a foreign country I’d be tempted to say fuck off and make a scene and point out these guys to everyone. Especially after some hung outside Indian stores and said racist shit like “Don’t go in there, they’ll rip you off.” What bothers me is that these guys play off the kindness of tourists. I learned that in the future I’m going to make a scene of these guys if I’m sure I have safe lodging.

I tried Cherry Ripe, which was actually a good chocolate bar with a cherry paste. The two ingredients work well together. Not the perfect bar, but definitely different.

By the time I reached the end of the street, I hadn’t gone in anywhere except a sneaker store were the Indians didn’t even bother me. I was pissed off and missing you. I took a photo of the awesome Hindu temple at the T-intersection and walked back to the other side of the road. None of the guys were on that side so it was more pleasant. I found an Internet cafe after calling you from a Fiji payphone. The Internet cafe was hot and owned by nice Indian people. Most of the place was devoted to gaming consoles and TVs so it was full of kids. In the back were computers.

Now I had no idea it was so mixed in Fiji. There are many FIjians who were floral print outfits if they’re older, traditional, and dressed up. They’re bula shirts for men and a dress for women. Some mean wear skirts which actually look pretty formal. They are all wearing flip-flops. Traditional women wear short afros. Then there are a ton of Indians. My perception of racial tension was overblown by this first experience in Nadi but definitely the hard-working money-seeking Indians and their successful businesses offend a lot of Fijians who famously operate on “Fiji Time.” They’re all super laid-back. There are also many Muslims. The Indians and Muslims are not new — almost everyone I met regardless of race were Fijian natives.

One thing that stuck out to me was the long line at each ATM in the cities. Evidently people were not only making money, but making enough to want to spend a lot of it. The markets were packed. Indian women always dressed well in saris or salwar chameez with lots of makeup. I saw no military anywhere. Last year’s coup was bloodless. Much of the politics occurs in Suva, the capital on the other side of this island, Viti Levu. Without exception people said the general in charge was a good man who’d gotten rid of a corrupt government. He’d also allowed for economic progress to continue.

Michelle was the co-partner of the place or Gary’s (the other) wife. It was hard to say. Michelle had a very sophisticated set of tastes and accent. Well-to-do. Cropped hair, black, a little pudgy but not in an American fatty kind of way. She didn’t mind putting on a bathing suit for the pool. Anyway she was pretty pissed off that tourists weren’t coming since the coup had not destabilized any cities. She said the first coup in the 70’s or 80’s shook Fiji to the core since it was a very laid-back happy country. She noted that the first coup was like our 9/11, turning their whole worlds upside-down. My impression was that much was good in the country but having a military general assume power and promise to hold elections while he actually doesn’t…I just don’t see it ending well. The general typically won’t stop until he gets his issues voted in, which probably doesn’t happen. There will be a power struggle which is a shame since Fiji tries to be pleasant. The Fiji Times, I assume the biggest newspaper in the country, re-prints quotes from the government on top of its papers. For about one week straight was voter information about transparency as the article title. “Government wants transparent elections” in a red background banner at the top every day. Sounds legit! To be fair inside were re-printed articles by transparency experts from Australia criticizing the government and proposing a way forward. And user-contributed letters were well-informed. I hope it works out there, politically. Because the rest of the country seems to be booming! I also saw construction everywhere.

I left the cafe and got in a taxi to the airport. The lodge only took cash so I had to get about $250FJ. I ate at the airport to chill out and get some A/C. I was still pretty pissed. At the ATM (from ANZ Bank), I ran into the surfers again! They said I was the big sale of the day and I was like what? They said the store people said I bought the damn axe. I told them I hadn’t and we traded goodbyes again.

I took a taxi to the lodge. The driver was Muslim so I tried some Arabic but he preferred English. I might know more than them if they are locals? I had seen the route earlier in the bus which was an open-air bus with wooden plank seats. Some people looked at me but everyone minded their own business. People would shout at people on the streets, since everyoen along this small foothill route knew each other. We drove past a Muslim mosque with its small minaret with loudspeakers. We passed the Yamboutini River. And a multi-colored Indian temple school visible from up the hill at the lodge. I relaxed until dinner, when I shared a dinner of chicken wings with Gary from New Zealand. I think now that hew as the owner but he acted to me like he was just a tourist which I sort of resent now. He left the next day for Vanuatu, where he has a home. But we talked about fictional adventure characters, war, politics, and family. Meanwhile despite long clothing, I wore flip-flops and ended up with feet full of miserable mozzie bites that would fester until I got home.

The lodge has three sets of staff. The day staff, the night staff, and animal staff. Kanshma is the main girl during the day. She’s short and Hindu. She handles the books and schedules so I assume she’s very good at those things. She and another girl (I never learned her name!) helped me figure out the buses. The night staff had Naomi who was Fijian. She ws very polite and took all my meals. Anna cooked all the food — she’d usually hang out in the back but she was a very good cook and was a very tall Fijian. Michelle took pride in hiring these girls and taking them un der her wing. She gave them a good, safe work place and took them back if they’d quit because of marriage or pregnancy or rash decisions. The animal staff consisted of about six dogs and three cats. I only remember Stumpy, the dog who was missing the ankle and paw on his left front foot (he would hop around and would look normal at full run), Lola the biting playful golden retriever puppy, and the damn black and white cat that climbed on the roof and such. You’d often find the dogs laying all over the gazebo area sleeping. They knew the territory well — in the back under my bure, they’d drive off two cattle that would come to graze. On a hill outside my window was a vista but also a row of Fiji water bottles. Upon asking what it meant, Michelle said the dogs were afraid of Fiji bottles for some reason so she emplaced them to keep the dogs from raiding a nearby farm for chickens!

In the early morning I heard the roosters crow. Frogs would ribbit — they would gather on the patio at night in the light despite the staff laying down salt to keep them out. Around 5:30AM I would hear the muezzin — call to prayer — from the nearby mosque. I learned that red flags with white frills symbolized Hindu homes or places of worship.

The girls taught me “ouroh” which is “cute” in Fijian. So, you’re very ouroh! Michelle told me the ambassadors and diplomats she met in Suva (she meets all the rich and famous including some Microsoft programmers who retired early and set up the sound system using MP3s in the lodge) kept to themselves and never left their safe areas. I said that was unfortunate and that I didn’t believe a representative should hide from the people he works with!