Published: December 4th 2006November 1st 2006
We reconnected at LAX after jumping on separate flights on a very snowy morning in Calgary. The first leg to LA was easy; the 11.5 hour all-nighter was still to come. In the end, arriving in Fiji at 3:00 am local time, which was essentially 9:00 for us, was not too grueling and the excitement of the adventure gave us the energy we needed to get processed by customs and checked into our hotel.
After a few hours rest we made our first trek into town. A wide eyed awakening, we strolled through the village of Namatomoto. We would later learn that this was a fairly “affluent” village, but the cinder block and corrugated metal shacks that lined the street definitely spoke of a different story. Nadi (pronounced Nandi) is a bustling city with all shapes and sized vehicles hurling themselves in every direction. Standing on a darkened side street, armed with only a Lonely Planet guide book, we were an easy mark for the street urchin. He appointed himself tour guide and local knowledge expert and dragged us through the racing traffic off the main drag to the “best restaurant in town”. He told us of his family woes
and how he was the sole bread winner for his extended family of 12. I tried to give him money, mainly so he would go away, but he insisted to sit with us while we ate the very average meal that the most friendly waitress brought us. He seemed not at all interested in my money, mind you I was only offering a buck or so, but he continued to sit with us. Without notice, he abruptly got up, said good-bye and left us. We finished our meal in relative peace. We shopped for groceries and grabbed a cab back to our hotel simultaneously jazzed and bushed.
We began to adjust to life on the road . . . typically eating breakfast in our hotel room, consisting of cereal, fruit; beautiful mangoes, papaya, bananas, pineapples, hand picked coconuts, yogurt and boiled eggs which we would prepare in the electric kettle or coffee maker. We found mobility in the form of a rental car that really enhanced our ability to get out and see things. Thank goodness it was already a beater because the roads were something else. The potholes could accommodate our car and an entire Fijian extended family.
And this was on the main Queen’s highway. The secondary roads would constitute 4x4 country back home but here the locals flew down them in small cars and vans. We bottomed-out almost continuously as we made a trip down to the ocean to a surf resort we had researched on the net; more “rustic” than imagined. The place reeked of a laid back surf vibe. We strolled around the sheltered tide pools before continuing on our way, all the surfing is boat accessed at off shore reefs. The ocean was warm under foot and the simple process of wading in, drained the stresses of travel and began to ground us in Fiji.
We tried quite deliberately to spend our time on the driest parts of the main island, which is covered in sugar cane fields. Harvested mostly by hand, the workers would chop down the burned stocks with hand crafted machetes. Out of the tourist zone, the workers seemed as interested to check us out as we were to check them out. Big smiles and bigger Bula Bula’s! greeted us from across the fields. The sugar was then loaded on the cane train, a small diesel train network that
spider webbed across the island. We stayed at one beach side resort that had a spur line 5 metres for our hotel room door!
Our goal was to spend at least two nights in each location and typically we were reluctant to leave any place we stayed. It did work out that each place we ended up brought new adventures and each seemed to offer more than the last. We stayed in a safari tent with an outdoor shower, in an urban hotel, in a cheesy resort and in a room that most resembled a backcountry cabin. We cooked most of our meals and did laundry by hand. Not by necessity but it seemed spending time in an urban Laundromat would not have been the best use of our time.
We managed to get a room at one place that while it resembled a ghost town, with not a guest to be seen, was continuously full to capacity. We later found out the place was entirely booked up with a film crew from Calgary who were working on a big budget picture just down the road. We met a few folks from the crew and got some great
advice about must see sights in the area. Angie and I left the kids and explored for the day as they worked as paid extras for the film. It felt great having the time to ourselves while the kids worked!
The kava ceremony is the social and cultural centre point of Fijian society. Kava, a root, is pounded to a fine powder which is put into a cloth bag. The bag tossed into the Kava Bowl then wrung through the hands of the one performing the ceremony. After several minutes the cold tea concoction begins to resemble used dish water, which means it’s ready to drink. The social structure of the family group is followed with the senior men drinking first. And don’t be shy when the bowl reaches you, as custom has it … bottoms up! The bowl was the size of half a coconut, in fact it actually is, literally, half a coconut.
We were extremely fortunate to experience Kava in a village without the touristy add-ons that accompany most ceremonies. The three room house had a couch but everyone sat on the hand woven grass mats on the floor. When tired, they slept on
the hand woven grass mats on the floor. In total 16 people shared this house, the kids were the lucky ones, they had one of the rooms to themselves. The evening ended with the extended family singing us a few traditional Fijian songs in an amazing three part harmony. They were bragging themselves up pretty good about being performers and for a while it seemed like plenty of big talk. An hour later the singing finally began; a fine example of how Fijians work, that is on “Fiji Time”. The entire song was predicated by the singing of one note by the eldest cousin who sat quietly in the corner. Through the evening he said next to nothing while the younger hams, joked and carried on with good-willed bravado. One note he sang, then the others, instantly fell into place, each knowing their part. These were traditional songs passed on from generation to generation. They had learned them by listening to their parents sing when they children now they sang as their children listened from the next room. This was a true “moment”, one of those rare gems that will remains with us for our entire lives.
the villages are the centre of the traditional Fijian way of life, then the cities represent the centre of the Indo-Fijian way of life. Most commerce is conducted by people of Indian ancestry. The cities have a true urban feel and while everyone says crime is very unusual, all the shops are barred with heavy steel cages. We ate in a restaurant after wandering around Lautoka, Fiji’s second largest city. The Asian food establishment, which was highly regarded in the Lonely Planet, was well armored and had a door man who immediately barred the door behind us on our entry. The police woman who stopped us on the street was very firm with us when she asked us what we were doing in that part of town at night. She shook her head and said at least carry your bags in front of you rather that on your back. We scurried away and were not at all unhappy to have the door barred behind us. Once accustomed to the cities we did really enjoy the adventure of bartering in the open markets and cruising through the busy streets.
Our laptop computer was little help to us in accessing the
internet but every café and hotel did offer service with a range of prices from $1 per hour to $10 per hour. My favorite was down a dark ally, up the stairs to the third floor to a local hair salon. In the cramped and hot quarters, we were warmly greeted by the “girls”, most of who weren’t girls at all. Peroxide dominated the olfactory and the place buzzed with activity, one customer and 6 staff. At about 65 cents Canadian per hour we grabbed two computers and made our first email connection. I volunteered to run for groceries while the messages were checked but the overall comfort level in this place was low and an intact family unit provided at least the perception of more security.
We went snorkeling at most locations we hit and enjoyed a variety of exotic fish sightings. Thanks to Finding Nemo we recognized the sight of most but of course their cartoon names were of little help to us when communicating with the locals. It really was little value to say we saw three ‘’Dory’s”, two “Nemo’s”, a “Gill” and 7 “Peach’s” during our swim. The spear fishing swim with the used car
salesman from Cochrane and the Fijian guitar player proved entertaining. I bagged 8 fish in total with a net weight of about 1 and a half pounds. The hand made spear fishing kit we were using was crude but effective and I think there was a meal for two by the end of our hunt.
We ended our time in Fiji with a boat trip to a small island, (Maloaloa Island) 50 minutes away from the mainland. Relaxation central, the Funky Fish resort, while new was quaint and rustic. The redeeming quality was our two bedroom Bure (cabin) which was 10 metres from the high tide line. The double tri-fold front door opened to turn our whole place into an open air porch. We snorkeled and played volleyball, kayaked and swam in the pool. Quin was in thick with the four 20 year olds from Ireland and he showed them several card games including Indian Poker. He also grew very attached to Joe, one of the staff members who played the multiple roles of: pool cleaner in the morning, activities chairman during the afternoon, waiter at dinner time and bar tender at night. He also managed the resort’s gambling
program, crab racing. Tiny hermit crabs were release on the sand floor in the centre of a 2 metre circle. First one out of the circle is the winner. If your numbered crab wins, then you are the lucky recipient of your choice of drink from the bar. Quin enjoyed several milkshakes thanks to the swift legs of Crab #5.
I surfed off shore at a reef break on two occasions from the Funky Fish. Small John, Big John’s son, would pick up surfers at the various resorts that occupied the two islands and take them out to the break. The warm water and nice waves were a gas although it was a little unnerving racing down the face of an overhead wave with less than a metre of water between you and the jagged coral reef. I came out unscathed although water logged from getting “caught inside” for a major wash cycle. I even rescued a damsel in distress who lost her body board and got caught standing on the reef barefoot in the surf zone. Disoriented, she stood like a deer in the headlights being repeatedly tossed by the oncoming waves. I rode in on my belly scooped up her board and loaded her on my very buoyant surf board and we paddled her back out to the waiting boat.
“Did you just see that shark?” the Aussie next to me yelled. I said no and asked him how big it was. “Any shark is a big shark!” he exclaimed without missing a beat, or a wave! I caught a few more rides and paddled back to the boat. Warm water surfing is fun!