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Published: March 31st 2010
(Day 726 on the road)
Ah - Feejee... 333 sun-drenched islands, two-thirds of them uninhabited. World-famous honeymoon destination. Reliable tropical climate. Main South Pacific tourism destination with 500.000 annual tourists. British colony until 1970. Located over 2000 km away from New Zealand or Australia. 850.000 inhabitants, 57%!e(MISSING)thnic Fijians, 37%!F(MISSING)iji-Indians, 6%!o(MISSING)ther.
But also: Half the population living below the poverty line. Regular political coups (four since 1987, latest one 2006). Unstable political climate, resulting in profits not being reinvested in the country. Over-dependence on the sugar industry, with sugar prices at all times low. Racial tensions - Fijians from Indian origin ("Fiji-Indians") are forbidden by law to call themselves Fijians, or buy freehold land. Rapid depletion of fish stocks due to illegal longline fishing. Wide-spread domestic violence.
In short, Fiji was looking to be an interesting destination to say the least. I have two weeks here, but realised after being in the country for less than two hours that there is no way I could do the place any justice in that amount of time. Unfortunately, my onward flight to Hawaii is booked, so I just got to make do with what I have. My rough plan was
to spend a week on a beautiful island or three, and travel around the main island of Viti Levu for the other week.
Choosing one of the 333 islands over the other 332 was by no means an easy task. The guidebook I had picked up was no help at all on that matter (Island X is a beautiful place", "You can easily spend a week on Island Y", or "Island Z is one of the best islands to explore"), so picking an island to visit was more or less random.
In the end my choice fell on narrow Mana ("Magic") Island, 45 minutes by boat from the mainland, with a coastline of four kilometres, and only 400 metres or so wide. I figured it had to be a beautiful place since the TV series "Lost" and "Shipwreck" had been shot here a few years ago. In fact, the ruins of the many buildings that were erected for "Lost" are still in place and are rotting away slowly - why don't they clean up their mess after they have finished shooting rather than ruining an entire beach for years and years to come?
However, I should have
known better than to book four nights on a popular island close to the mainland with a reputation as a party place. I was, with a few notable exceptions, surrounded by twenty-something year-olds on the search for getting drunk, getting laid, and partying all night.
I am not taking the moral high ground here, but that just isn't me at all, (especially since I don't drink alcohol), and I didn't enjoy it all too much. With many a conversation revolving around how much they drunk last night, who stayed up the longest or with how many girls they have slept since they came to Fiji (or in Thailand, or on Bali, or in Australia), it was hard for me to connect with the other backpackers. I reckon all the partying as such wouldn't have been a problem, but as most of the bonding between the people took place during the partying time, I was somewhat out of the loop. With the exception of a few like-minded others, I thus felt pretty out of place, but since I had paid in advance I was stuck on the island (I won't make that mistake again, even if it costs me more
money). The run-down and overpriced hostel I stayed in, with a rat-invested dormitory room, bed-bugs and toilets that didn't work half of the time did not help much to brighten my mood.
I wasn't overly disappointed though as the island was lush and beautiful indeed (except for the algae in the water and subsequently along the beach, which was a shame), and I found it extremely relaxing (alternating between swimming, snorkeling, sleeping or reading in a hammock). There were also a few hills that offered amazing views of Mana and its neighbouring islands. Further, the eccentric hostel manager Basco ("Welcome to Planet Mana") did a great job of running the place and looking after his guests (95% from Europe as happens so often, with 40% from Germany and 40% from the UK).
The setup of the island itself was somewhat strange however, with a high fence effectively cutting the island in half: A few years ago a dispute between the Japanese-owned 4* resort on one side of the island and the locally-backpacker hostel on the other side proved unresolvable, and as a result the fence was put up by the Japanese, complete with security guards at the entrance
of the resort and along the fences.
But I must say that I have seen much better islands, notably in Malaysia, Indonesia or the Philippines. Other tourists on the island were absolutely raving about the place, and I think if I just came here for a holiday I might react in a similar way. I find it increasingly difficult not to compare a place to somewhere else I have been - having been to much nicer places makes it really hard to appreciate a place sometimes. I must make a serious effort to take a place for what it is, and not compare it to others. Life is here and now!
I should also add that not all was well on Mana Island. Whilst the locals can't do much about the algae in the water and on the beach, the lack of fish or the poor visibility for snorkeling (six metres at best), they sure can do something about the rubbish that they seem to drop wherever they stand. They often show a complete disregard for their islands, with garbage lying around everywhere, mostly plastic, cans, glass and other packaging. Some sections of the beach were so littered
with cut glass that it was not possible to walk barefoot. You wouldn't actually notice any of this if you stayed around the hostel, but walk literally two minutes into the village or onto another beach, and rubbish is lying around pretty much all over the place. I have witnessed similar behaviour in may parts of Asia, and am just as appalled by it now as I was then.
Leaving Mana Islands however was great. I had heard somewhere that Air Pacific offers affordable flights back to Nadi on the main island of Viti Levu, and in fact the flight was a mere two Euros more than the boat. The owner of the hostel I had stayed with in Nadi on my first night before going to Mana Island had called the boat operators "the Mafia", and I can see why: Surly a 40 minute boat ride does not cost 230 Euros (23 per person) in a country where half the population lives below the poverty line? Especially when the flight costs 25 Euros? Somebody is making big money here.
Anyway, the flight was just amazing - even though it took a mere 12 (!) minutes. It must
be one of the shortest commercial flights in the world. There is no airport on Mana Island whatsoever, just a gravel runway that runs right from one side of the small island to the other. Here is how taking a flight from Mana Island to Nadi on Viti Levu works: The eight-seater turbo-prop plane touches down after a dramatic approach over the ocean, the pilot comes out, shakes my hand, makes a phone call because I am somehow not on his list (I am the only passenger), he puts my bag in the plane, tells me to get in, and then explains that I can use the safety card as a fan if it is too hot in the back (no other instructions, security checks or any of that). A minute later we are airborne, flying low, with simply fantastic views of the blue-green South Pacific Ocean below. I found it particularly amazing to see just how many tiny islands there were and how shallow the water was in many places, with coral reefs dotted here and there right in the middle of the vast ocean.
In closing, I apologise for sounding a tat negative in this blog. I
am sure Fiji is an amazing country, and I have heard from other travellers that there are nicer islands than Mana, so I guess I was just unlucky and will seek out another island soon. Of course, if you appreciate a good party then Mana is the place for you. But if you are looking for a beautiful, more quiet island, my advice is to go somewhere else.
Next stop: Viti Levu Island (Fiji).
To view my photos, have a look at pictures.beiske.com
. And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon
(and most other online book shops).
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