Even before I boarded the plane for the ten-hour flight from Singapore, I had the distinct impression that Fiji was going to be strange. The ground crew wouldn’t let me enter the jet bridge until I showed proof of an outgoing flight. Besides not being very friendly, their behavior was quite odd, although the Fiji airport in Nadi was really nice. Modern, clean, and busy. There was even a native band to greet us passengers—large, dark-skinned men wearing bright floral shirts and dark blue cotton skirts, playing guitars and banjos.
I couldn’t find a cab. Everyone was going to Suva, the capital, to try to catch a glimpse of Prince Harry and his American bride, Meghan, who were touring Australia and the South Pacific Islands; they would be in Suva the following day. Eventually I found a tourist office next to the currency exchange. After I booked a day tour, the smiling, sarong-clad woman hailed me a cab.
I wasn’t prepared for the squalor of Nadi, a city on Fiji’s main island. It didn’t look like the Fiji I had seen on HGTV. The buildings were dilapidated; the cars were old; and the storefronts were a combination of Indian and inner-city general stores. My hotel, the JFK, was a rundown building on a small side road called Vunavou Street. The rooms were located above a small South Indian restaurant in the front and a nightclub in the back. I was greeted by two Fijian women, Betty and Milly, who smiled and reassured me that I would be just fine. “Quiet and clean,” they said as they led me up to my eight-foot-square cramped room with a large covered window facing the street. It bore no resemblance to the photo on Booking.com.
I threw my suitcase on the bed and went out to stretch my legs and decide whether I could actually stay there. I walked down the main street, observing school boys in long shorts or sarongs and girls in white or blue shifts, depending on the school they attended. Many of the men were huge and very dark, some heart-stopping handsome—a big mix of Fijian (descendants of Tanzanian Africans by way of Indonesia), East Indian, and European (probably Australian). Men wore sarongs; women strolled in bright floral dresses or Indian saris.
The sign above the door said “Authentic Fiji Crafts.” The windows were full of beautiful wood carvings, inlaid turtles, and large bowls. I was greeted by two men who, with total disregard for my jet lag, convinced me to imbibe a cup of Kava, Fiji’s national and ceremonial welcoming drink. Of course, it came with a sales pitch, and now I own a lovely carved turtle!
Ear plugs and determination got me through the first night. I had scheduled a few tours with a very local tour agency. (The staff operated out of a hair salon and assured me that all proceeds stayed in the local community.) I decided not to move to new accommodations quite yet. I liked Betty and Milly, they made little animals out of towels like you find on cruise ships, and there were no bugs—although I would have to find a better place for breakfast.
On my first tour, I learned that Tom Cruise owns one of the 320 islands that make up Fiji. His is the only island inhabited with deer, which he imported from the United States. The late Raymond Burr, an orchid enthusiast, also lived in Fiji. The tour group, consisting of me and an Australian couple, visited the Sleeping Giant Garden—a large, lush botanical garden where Burr grew his orchids and plants. Our guide drove us to a nearby, typical Fijian village and pointed out the chief’s house. It was easy to spot, because a chief’s house is always in the village center and has the tallest roof. The homes of families belonging to the warrior tribe surrounded the chief’s home. All the houses were modest, and in many cases even primitive. Each village has a church, unless it happens to be a Hindu or Muslim village. The absence of a church is one way to determine whose village it is, but there is also a more colorful indication. Muslims paint their homes, schools, and buses green; Hindus put red flags on their homes. The guide told us how the first Christian missionary was eaten by locals, but assured us that Fijians are no longer cannibals. (I heard the same story from another traveler before I left Laos.) However, Milly, at the hotel, said there were still some practicing cannibals in remote villages. Our tour ended at the flamingo-pink Sri Siva Subramaniya Hindu temple that guards the southern entrance to Nadi—an outlandish reminder of the growing Hindu population of Fiji.
I followed the tour with a back massage, a nap, and a few minutes on the hotel’s computer to try to connect with my online class. Then I went to the Port Denarau Marina. It was there that I made the decision to stay with Milly and Betty at the JFK. The marina could have been in Naples or Sanibel Island, Florida, down to some of the same franchises like the Hard Rock Café and the Bone Fish Grill. Although I wound up eating dinner with a pleasant enough family from New Zealand, I wanted nothing more than to return to Nadi, put my ear plugs in, and try to stay awake until 9:00 p.m. so that I could sleep through the music and the night.
On my next tour I visited the coral coast, where I walked along the surf, chatted with hunky fisherman, drank fresh coconut juice, and rejected the souvenir sellers who accepted “no” replies with smiles and kind words. This time I was joined by a mother and daughter from New Zealand. While I walked the beach, the mom had her hair braided into cornrows and the daughter had an hour-long massage on the beach.
Our driver, a middle aged Indian fellow, had a terrible sinus problem and breathed so loudly that I had to sit in the backseat just to be able to think. We left the beach, with its competing views of the surf and the magnificent Hilton resort, and drove to a lovely Fijian village where, after passing on the Kava ritual, we took a challenging hike up to a nearby waterfall. I wasn’t prepared for the hike nor the cold freshwater streams that we had to cross to get there. Sometimes being the old lady comes in handy; the village women—our tour guides—were happy to hold my arm or wait while I caught my breath.
To my tummy’s dismay, our driver took us to a typical Indian restaurant for lunch—whether it was owned by a relative or just his lunch preference, I wasn’t sure. Fiji is a unique fusion of South India and Fiji island culture, which is simultaneously colorful and confusing. Restaurant food tends to be Indian, hot and spicy. Fijian food, mostly vegetables, is slow-cooked in the ground so that you have to be in a village to enjoy it. In addition to this culinary competition, politics is becoming more strained between the two ethnicities as they each vie for power and influence. The British brought Indians to the islands as cheap labor in the late 1900s, and they stayed. Now they account for a large percentage of the population and, thus, the political rivalry is heating up the airwaves. I got a good dose of the rhetoric while being driven around the island with car radios tuned to local talk shows.
The climate of Fiji is much like Hawaii’s—perfect—and the surf and beaches are pristine. But my tour unmasked the poverty that exists alongside outrageous displays of wealth. Much of the coastal land and big resorts are on property leased or sold by the Fijians who remain in villages and the outlying islands. It’s hard to tell whether the wealth is all foreign in origin or belongs to these unseen, ancient Fijian families. Sugar cane and tourism are the biggest revenue streams, and the locals welcome anyone who comes to pump money into the economy.
I think the phrase “saving the best for last” is actually a lyric from a popular song. For me however, it describes my final tour—the one I had booked at the airport on arrival—and it was wonderful. Four other people went on this tour: two young Chinese men from Hong Kong and an older, retired Australian couple. I suppose it was wonderful because it included a visit to a village school.
“Bula!” As soon as we walked into the school, we were greeted with shouts of “hello.” I’m sure we were just a few in the procession of tourists who came to visit, and yet we were treated as special guests. After introducing ourselves, we were entertained, classroom by classroom, with songs and smiles. Like those in Laos, this school had no working computers—no technology at all, for that matter. But the blackboards and walls were covered with grade-appropriate materials for science, math, and spelling; posters reminded the students of the rules of good behavior. Children did not wear uniforms like in the town schools; most did wear shoes, however. All of them were eager to tell us about rugby.
From the school we went to a neighboring village for the best meal I had eaten in days. The turanga ni koro (village headman) greeted us and provided each of the women with a sulu (Fijian sarong) to tie around her waist. Once we were properly attired, the headman—in this case, the top security person in the village and a member of the warrior clan—invited us into his kitchen to help finish cooking our lunch. It was a vegetarian meal, cooked underground and then suffused with fresh-squeezed coconut juice. I wanted to stay there forever! Chengdu could keep its pandas; I wanted traditional Fijian food.
Eating requires yet another ceremony. Shoeless, we entered the large central room, sat cross-legged on the floor and, bowing our heads slightly, introduced ourselves. Before eating, guests are always invited to participate in a yaqona, a Kava-drinking ceremony. I wondered how many times a day our host had to drink this potent beverage, along with his guests. Eventually we were permitted to dig in, using our hands and eating family-style.
Little children, who were not in school, danced and sang. Two villagers joined us and played guitars. The elderly Australian woman got up and danced, and the headman seemed bent on hugging me. A good, strong embrace by a big handsome Fijian man was okay with me. I did learn, however, that Fijian men tend toward infidelity.
Only one experience will remain in my memory longer than this remarkable day—my visit with Milly to her large village, which lies just outside the northern end of Nadi. It was my last day in Fiji. Milly had asked me the previous day if I would like to visit her home, her children, and her village. She seemed genuinely pleased when I accepted her invitation, and she was surprised when I returned from the tour and asked if she would still take me home with her. “Yes,” she said. “We will walk to my village and take a cab back, if that’s okay. I have to work at the nightclub tonight, and I need to change.”
Nadi town, as the locals called it, was not much more than a few miles long, so I figured I could walk the distance. We set out at a quick pace and, thirty minutes later, arrived at a village of makeshift dwellings and cardboard bridges spanning puddles. Barefoot children, from babies to eight-year-olds, were playing here and there with runny noses. Milly, after introducing me to her three kids, a couple of cousins, and an aunt, abandoned me to get ready—”dolled-up,” as her aunty called it—for her evening job. One little girl playing amongst the gang of youngsters, a mulatto, was the product of a white great grandmother and her Fijian lover. If anyone took offense at her blue-green eyes and light, creamy skin, they didn’t show it. I chatted with the women, watched the children play and chase chickens and pigs, and marveled at the relaxed attitude they seemed to take toward their living situation. I had just finished a glass of homemade lemonade when Milly reappeared, dressed in heels and a slinky dress, perfumed and made-up. She looked more like a woman on the hunt than a waitress at a club. We said our goodbyes; she kissed her kids, and we headed out to the main road. We walked a few blocks till we were able to hail a cab into town. The cab driver stopped several blocks short of our destination and told us to get out because he had a fare to pick up. Aghast, I said that he was to take us to the JFK or I was not paying him. “Fine, don’t pay me. Just go.” Milly and I wasted no time tumbling out of the cab. She looked at me with new-found admiration.
I left Milly and Betty the last of my Opium perfume along with some makeup, a pair of sandals, and a few blouses that I didn’t want to drag home. I’m not sure I could have managed another night at the JFK, but I was glad that I had stayed there and not moved out of town. By the end of my few days in Nadi, the locals knew me, waved to me as I sat at a local coffee shop in the early morning, told their children to say bula, and smiled when we passed on the street.
- From The Wanderer…find it on Amazon