If Vanuatu was consistently voted the happiest place on earth, Fiji might be the friendliest. The flight attendants were ebullient. I don’t think I’ve ever before heard a plane announcement asking passengers to keep their shoes on. This is serious business. I’d gotten used to Vanuatu’s casual domestic air travel. They also sprayed us with pesticide. I didn’t like that so much.
As usual, I’d read the in-flight magazine, but it was almost all about Fiji Airways, not about Fiji. As you may have noticed, the in-flight magazines fascinate me. I was most amused by an article on former Take That singer Robbie Williams, who was featured on the in-flight audio channel. Williams’ new album is called “Swings Both Ways.” The magazine said he had “straightened up” by going back to a retro sound. Really? Do you think, oh he “straightened up” when you hear someone “swings both ways”? Reading about a new deal between Fiji Airways and Emirates SkyCargo made me think about how little I knew about cargo and export issues, an ad encouraging all citizens to register to vote in Fiji’s first democratic election made me realize how little I know about Pacific island politics, and a list of Fijian words, well, I already knew how little I knew about the Fijian language.
I have never landed in a place with so little information about the country or what I was going to do there. I wanted to go diving and to go to a lovo, the traditional meal and dance, etc., but I didn’t know anything else about the country. Rik had recommended the island of Mana, but he coudlnt’t remember the name of the place he’d stayed. He said it sounded like “ratatouille.” Some white people we’d met on the domestic Vanuatu flights said Mana was full of drunken kids and to go to a resort called Treasure Island, but I didn’t like them or the sound of a private resort island. Still, since it was the only hotel I could name, I put “Treasure Island” on the landing card. Paul hadn’t put anything, so the customs officer stopped him, but I went over, said Treasure Island, and they stamped his passport and let us go. He was carrying our exit flight paperwork, which I probably needed anyway.
A flight from Tonga went through customs with us. Now I want to go to Tonga. Although I knew nothing about the Pacific islands, I realize some preconceptions as they bet broken or confirmed. People from Tonga, Fiji, and Vanuatu look completely different. Somehow this surprised me but at the same time, people from Tonga and Fiji look exactly as I would have expected them to. I knew people in Vanuatu would be black, but aside from that I didn’t know what to expect. I certainly didn’t expect so many people with red or blond hair or with fantastic hairdos. My favorite might have been the driver with braids down the side of his head and a giant Mohawk.
The customs hall was a little dark. Paul observed that customs halls were always dark and theorized that the lights were lowered to calm people down. I pointed out that the room was lined with windows, so if it hadn’t been night time and pouring rain, it would have been brighter in the room. He has a lot of theories, and my first impulse is usually an alternative explanation, but he may be right a lot for all I know.
I know my first impulses are wrong a lot. For example, one kid in line at customs had on a t-shirt that said “Tae… Peace Corps.” I couldn’t make out the first word. I realized I had never heard of a non-US peace corps but why not? And what country name started with “Tae”? I kept trying to see his shirt, but he kept turning the wrong way. Finally I made it out: Taekwando. Taekwando Peace Club. Ha ha ha.
My New York came out as I stopped two different people from cutting me in line. I thought the whole mob was pushy, but soon I realized only the Chinese passengers were cutting. I spent two months in China in 2009. I already knew Chinese people don’t do lines, so I mostly gave up on trying to stop them from butting ahead. Still, I was gratified when their pushiness got punished in a way I hadn’t expected. The line divided into two lanes at one point, and I saw three different Chinese passengers cut their way into the shorter line (yes it was shorter, and they still cut). I was in the longer line. Maybe they did know how to read English, but I’m betting you they just cut that line because it was shorter and that they never noticed they’d gotten in “Goods to Declare” instead of “Nothing to Declare.” By the time I got to the front of my long, but rapidly moving line, I sailed right by the three of them with all being forced to open all their luggage for the officers.
While Paul bought a SIM card and data plan, I looked for a tourism advisor. Rik had said that when he landed in Fiji, a giant man in a dress had shouted “bula,” asked what his plans were, and then, when he said he didn’t have any, whisked him away and taken care of him. All the men were big and wearing skirts, and nobody shouted bula. It didn’t take long to find a huge, skirted man with a tourism badge though. His name was spelled something complicated and pronounced Joe. I told him that if I imagined a Fijian man, he was exactly what I pictured.
I said I was here for two full days, had no plans, and wanted some recommendations. He was so excited to take care of me. I guess I should have heard him out first, but I felt awkward arriving so stupid, so I asked about Mana island, since Rik had loved that, and about a place called “something like ratatouille.” He lit up. “Raku Tini!” he enthused, “This is the best place!” He took my luggage and tried to whisk me off, but I went back and found Paul in the phone store so he could come too. Our guide took us to the air-conditioned office of the Raku Tini Backpackers & (PADI) Diver Shop and called someone to come meet us. We’d already missed the daily boat to Mana, but the woman booked us two nights at Raku Tini, including meals, including a Thursday-night loro; a round-trip boat with free pick-up (“tomorrow at 9am Fiji time,” she said. “What time is that?” I asked. “Maybe 9:10, 9:20, 9:30,” she answered); and one night in Nadi, all for about as much money as I spent every day in Vanuatu. She was upset they didn’t have any beachfront rooms left. We didn’t care at all. The other rooms are a short walk to the beach and cheaper, and it’s raining anyway. I hope it doesn’t rain the whole time we’re here, but the weather forecast says it will.
As they were booking the hotel rooms, I asked whether there were any rooms available with two beds. They got very confused, and I said Paul wasn’t my husband, and we’d prefer two beds but could share if necessary. The woman called the hotel back and although the conversation was in Fijian, you could tell how confused all parties were by the request. Who knows what we’ll get.
While Paul paid his half by credit card, Joe walked me back to the ATM. As soon as we got out of the office, he asked me, “Paul isn’t your husband?” I said no. He asked whether we were a couple. I said no. He asked incredulously why we were traveling together and whether I had really spent six weeks with Paul. I said we were friends and yes. Joe put his arm around me and asked whether I was single. He said I should sleep with a man in every country I visited, and that now that I was in Fiji, he was available. Earlier I had told him how great his job was and said that I would enjoy welcoming people to New York and suggesting fun things for them to do. Now I asked whether that was part of his job, welcoming women to Fiji: “Do you try to sleep with women from each country that come to visit?” I asked. He feigned shock and said absolutely not, but that he would sleep with me. The whole thing was made odder but less creepy by how casual and friendly he was. He didn’t pressure me at all, just made the offer politely. He said he’d try to come to Mana on Thursday and I could decide. I’m going to expect him Thursday on Fiji time, which is to say maybe Friday, maybe not at all. I’m flattered but not interested. I was also flattered by him under-guessing my age by 12 years. I over-guessed his by five, and I was trying to be nice. He was 29 and said he’d been working in tourism for 15 years. Wow.
We missed the free shuttle and took a cab to the Horizon Beach Resort aka Horizon Backpackers, but we have an actual hotel room with two beds and a bathroom. I took the big bed, which means I’ll probably get the floor in Mana.
The back porch overlooks water, probably a beach, but it’s dark and rainy. The lobby is full of white tourists. We went for a short walk to explore, but there’s nothing local here, only other resorts and backpacker hostels. The place two doors down advertised a kava band. Two guys were tuning instruments on the floor with a bowl of kava, but Paul told them he’d drunk it two days ago and was still sick. That hotel also had torches in the garden, a gift shop with no snow globes, and an excellent telephone booth and map of Fiji, which I now know comprises 333 islands.
We came back to our hotel because it had half-price pizza, and although I’d promised myself weeks ago I wouldn’t order any more pizza because it’s always too much and bad, there wasn’t anything else, so I ordered pizza. It was bad, and I ate too much.
I’m enjoying my snatches of the language, the textile patterns, and the look of people, but I sure hope it stops raining and that we manage to see anything other than hotels.
Throughout the night I kept waking up convinced it had stopped raining because I could hear birds and other noises and then realizing I was hearing them under torrential rain, but my morning, the skies were dry, if still gray. Here’s what I saw from our back deck. I’m pretty sure this is Wailoloa Beach in Nadi Bay.
Our included breakfast consisted of toast. I like protein. I like fruit. I like vegetables. don’t consider toast food.
Our 9am ride arrived 9:26, which was within the Fiji time window we’d been given. The van stopped at a supermarket to give us a chance to stock up on groceries and use the ATM because there aren’t any on Mana Island. Since our meals are included, I didn’t get cash or buy anything, but I enjoyed wandering through the Indo-Fijian supermarket gawking at corned mutton and multiple varieties of Weet-Bix bites, which looked a lot like my discontinued favorite cereal, Fruit-a-Bix. I took down the URLs so I can check whether they have an American distributor.
The boat was much smaller that I’d expected. At one point the boat stopped, and the crew rolled down plastic siding only on one side of the boat. Then we continued and that side got soaked, and my side stayed completely dry. The ride took about an hour, and Paul, the captain, and I were the only passengers who stayed awake for the trip, including the rest of the crew.
When we got to Mana Island, the boat anchored, and an even smaller boat came to get us. It brought us almost all the way to shore, and then we walked through water. At reception, they brought us fresh juice. Paul asked what kind, and they said “welcome juice.” It was orange. They also put a hibiscus behind each of our ears.
After the boat’s seven passengers had all checked in, Ruben the manager gave us a briefing, about when meals were, what activities were available, where to go snorkeling, and how long it would take to walk around the island (2.5 hours but it’s only possible at low tide). He also warned us that the water was not potable and that the power would be turned off each day from 3-5pm. Then he told us to make a line in the next room, changed his mind, told us to make a line in the room we were in, then changed his mind again and got us to gather around some chairs. He got out a guitar and sang us a welcome song.
By then it was lunchtime. Only it wasn’t ready yet on Fiji time. I asked Ruben whether we had to buy all our drinking water, and he said yes but then said I could use the tank of rainwater. I asked where that was, and like Joe at the airport, he put his arm around me to steer me in that direction. I didn’t see an open tap though, so I asked a passing housekeeper. She directed me to it but as she got close, whispered, “The boss is there,” and didn’t want to go near the tank. I said, “The boss said I could use it.” She said I could, but to wait till the boss was gone.
Lunch was a tiny chicken burger on a giant bun with French fries but no drink. The restaurant though offers a variety of local and international food. I wish we hadn’t gotten the meal plan. Plus I calculated the money wrong, and our room is expensive! I talked to a backpacker here, and we’re paying exactly 10 times as much as he is, although granted he’s staying in a dorm room and doesn’t have meals. Whatever, it’s just two nights, our room is large with two double beds (first time that’s happened), and the resort is lovely. They offer hair braiding, but it costs 50 percent more than on Vanuatu. I’m not even sure I brought that much cash, but I may break down and do it anyway.
Only remember last night’s torrential rain? So it turns out two storms are converging, and we’re predicted to get a category one cyclone. It’s supposed to rain all week. The dive shop manager says conditions are way too rough for boats to go out today or tomorrow, and anyway we wouldn’t be able to see anything because everything’s too stirred up. I was really looking forward to a dive. Sometimes things don’t work out the way you’ve planned.
The island has no roads and no cars. Our resort, Ratu Kini, is between a fancy Japanese-owned resort on one side and a village on the other. After lunch, I started to wander to the village, but then I thought Paul might want to go for a walk too, so I came back. In the meantime, he’d walked up the beach to the Japanese resort.
I felt a little lost about what we were going to do for two days here, especially in poor weather. I wanted to walk around the island, but low tide is at 6am (too early!) and 6pm (dinner time on our meal plan). There’s probably a few buffer hours in which we could still make it, but if we can’t dive, the best snorkeling is supposed to be in the morning, and by afternoon tide will be too high to get around.
More importantly, if there’s really a storm coming, the boat won’t go back and forth from the mainland, and we won’t make our flight back. Hey, if there’s a really big storm, our flight might not take off anyway. We start talking to the staff about options, and one woman recommends we get off Mana and get back to the mainland tomorrow. Paul says that’s the smart thing to do, but I of course insist that we wait to see what the weather’s like in the morning because it didn’t rain today as predicted so maybe the storm will go away.
The activity board says there’s a coconut demo at 2pm. Since a coconut is not a mechanical object, I have no idea what this will entail. Around 1:30, a staff member invites me to come with him, and I join two Danish women scraping coconuts with knives. The staff member, Patrick, gives me a coconut, but he doesn’t have a third knife, so I get a shard of glass. My knife skills aren’t so sharp anyway (see what I did there?) so I’m happy to hack away with my shard.
As we carve, guests from Germany, Australia, the US, Japan, and Argentina join us, and he gives them each a coconut or a piece of coconut shell to scrape. There are also guests here from China and maybe others, but they didn’t show up. Paul’s piece is broken, so he walks into the ocean to find a whole coconut. The ones in the ocean, by the way, are rotten. The ones under the trees on land are edible. He found a whole coconut pretty fast, scraped it, and sawed it to make a bracelet but then decided his bracelet was too big and that he didn’t want to sand it, so he cut it up and made a heart pendant.
A staff member comes over to ask whether anyone is from England. A few minutes later she comes back to ask whether anyone is from Australia. One man is. It turns out the governments of some countries are asking their citizens to register at the embassy and stand by for storm evacuation instructions.
After I scrape all the fuzz off my coconut, Patrick saws off the ends and hands it back to me to sand. While I was sanding, Ruben and another guy interrupted the impromptu coconut jewelry-making session for the official coconut demonstration, which turned out to be a demonstration of some of the many ways Fijians use coconut plants. First, Ruben showed us how to open a coconut and how they grate it to make milk. It took me forever to understand why this involves soaking a tree in the ocean for four days and then drying it in the sun for four days, but when I finally understood that this was the process for making the strings in which they ring the milk from the coconut meat, it explained the trees I’d seen weighed down by rocks in the cove in Tanna.
They also showed us how to make a pinwheel to test wind direction, how to weave plates, how to make string, and how to decorate a pillar. Ruben started the frond braid. I tried to continue it but couldn’t figure out how. A Japanese tourist braided the rest of the pole. Then Ruben cut off the frond ends and filled the braid with flowers. He said Fijians often decorate this was for weddings, so an engaged German couple took posed with it for photos.
One of the Danish women was also making a bracelet, and every time I thought mine was done, I’d check hers out and discover mine needed further polishing. I was sanding that thing forever. Finally I took it over to Patrick. He said the outside was 100 percent, but he grimaced when he rubbed inside it. I started sanding it again, but the Danish woman said I should cut out the white inside with a knife before sanding it. The inside of hers was the same gorgeous brown as the outside. I borrowed a knife and scraped up the inside that I’d already sanded. The white barely came off, and I ruined the softness I had. After a while, I showed Patrick again, just to see whether I could switch from scraping to sanding, and he oiled the bracelet and pronounced it done. I thought the inside was still too rough, but he said if I sanded it any thinner it would break. It’ll probably get seized at customs anyway.
The coconut workshop lasted till dinner, which was a plate of spaghetti with a little bland meat sauce. After dinner, we were scheduled for bula hour and 7:30 and crab races at 8pm, but instead we had a mix of bula and crabs all evening. First, anyone who wanted to picked a hermit crab for $5 Fiji (about $2.40 US). I picked up the two crabs I saw moving the most and ran a qualifying race to pick the one I wanted anyway. I named my crab ViveCrab and gave it number 5 even though that wasn’t in sequence. Other crabs were Cherry Danish (Paul’s), Porsche Killer, Tiffany, Fiji, Carl, Lucky, Supercrab, Champ, and my favorite name, Fiji Gold. Patrick wrote each crab’s number on its shell in what looked like Liquid Paper and drew a large circle on the floor of the bar with an X at its center.
Then it was bula time. Everyone who was leaving tomorrow stood up and gave a short speech, mostly thanking the staff. Then the staff sang them two Fijian good-bye songs, told them they were now family and could come back anytime, and hugged them each good-bye.
The crab races were awesome! Plus, they were an awesome botch, which is just the combination I love. Patrick announced that we’d have three heats. All ten crabs would race in the first heat. Five would be selected, then three, then two. I noticed but did not point out that these three heats would not then produce a winner. The bartender (who was also the sponsor of Fiji the crab) cranked loud music, we counted up from ten, and then Ruben released the crabs on the X. The first five to cross beyond the circle were the winners. Neither of our crabs made it, but I couldn’t even tell which was which and started cheering for Fiji Gold because it had the best name. On the second round, both Patrick and Ruben picked up crabs they thought crossed the line first, and then they had a confused conversation in Fijian, in which they obviously realized they now had no idea which three crabs won the heat. The two of them and a manager took all the crabs onto the porch while the guests waited in the bar. It was hilarious that they were so concerned about what to do to fix their mistake, that they stepped outside even though none of us spoke Fijian so we couldn’t eavesdrop anyway, and especially that they took the crabs with them for the conversation. Justin, the other American, said to me, “What do you think they’re telling the crabs?”
They came back and announced that they were starting again with all ten crabs. Of course this made five of us very happy. This time, Paul’s crab made it in the top five. Cherry Danish made it to the top three. It made it to the top two. Then it lost. Fiji Gold took the title! Its owner, a Japanese woman, won a Ratu Kini sarong.
After the crab races, Ruben asked us to make two lines. Then he moved us. Then he and Patrick taught us a bula dance. I can’t remember what song they played for it, but it was American pop not Fijian traditional. The dance was one of those ones where you all do the same thing, and there’s a quarter turn at some point, and then you repeat the steps. We did it about three-quarters of the way back to start, and then Ruben shouted, “Do you all have it?” and signaled the bartender to cut the music off in the middle of the song. He did the same thing a few more times with different dances. Each time, he took a while to get us into a line, led us in a dance or dance-like group behavior (e.g., conga line or spreading our legs wide and taking turns climbing through the tunnel), and then cut the music off abruptly.
After dinner I grilled a different manager about Fijian politics, religion, land ownership, the upcoming democratic elections, the current military commission leading the country, the outside countries that wrote a constitution for Fiji, antipathy towards Indian immigrants, and other topics. He also told us the latest weather report had the storm changing direction and hitting 600 kilometers from here so we should be fine and not need to leave early. We hung out with him and a variety of guests until deciding to turn in.
I couldn’t sleep anyway, so a little before 6am I walked to the beach for sunrise yoga. It wasn’t raining, but the wind was powerful, and the ocean was roiling. As I walked, dogs kept running to me from all over, yapping and pawing me. I lay down on a hammock, and six dogs surrounded me, grabbing me through the weave. Soon, about six other women showed up. The instructor said the dogs usually calm down by the end of class, but several of the participants were annoyed or freaked out enough by the dogs, that the instructor moved the class “indoors,’ which turned out to mean onto a covered wooden deck. The deck was a little cramped and hard, but the class was easy and maybe good for my back.
The yoga instructor volunteers at the island’s only elementary school. She invited guests to visit later that morning. In the meantime, I had breakfast and, when it was clear that no boats were going out that day, headed back to bed. Normally the place offers a range of fishing, snorkeling, island hopping, and diving boats, but the water was too rough, and the rain kept threatening. I still couldn’t sleep unfortunately.
Mana Island is small but, like many small towns at home, hosts a lot of churches. The Adventist church runs the only primary school on the island. The kids were divided into three classes. The two volunteers I’d met teach grades 4, 5, and 6 in the same classroom, about 20 kids. The children all wore uniforms, but few wore shoes. We asked them a few questions, they asked us a few questions, and then they sang us a song about building a bridge. There is no high school on the island, so kids move to the mainland, either to boarding schools or to live with relatives.
During recess, a boy showed us around, and then we asked the volunteer teachers at least as many questions as we’d asked the kids. They were both young and English and had been traveling for 18 months when the fell in love with Mana and offered to volunteer. Neither had ever taught before (to my eyes, the classroom was a little out of control). They worked four days per week in exchange for housing and food, but they shared half a shack among 11 people and said they were feeling their lack of fresh fruit and vegetables. Even though there are fruit trees all over, the mangoes and papayas weren’t in season, and maybe the coconuts and bananas are spoken for.
I forgot I decided to make the pictures for this blog bigger. I just tried to go back and change the ones I already did, but it was distorting them, so I’m just going to leave them medium and make the rest of them big. Jury’s still out on which is better anyway (or as my friend Karen would say, jury’s not out yet).
I’d been asking around and finding great price disparity among what people had paid for their rooms. Plus, the included meals were horrible, and I wanted to drop my meal plan. One of the other guests pulled up the Ratu Kini website, and I discovered we’d paid approximately $30 more per night than the listed price for our room. I also found a slew of other options, including dorms and rooms without full board, that Joe hadn’t told us were available (and we’d asked about other options). My New York came out, I borrowed his phone with the website, and I marched over to the front desk to complain that we’d been lied to and taken advantage of. I didn’t put it in those terms, and I tried to stay smiling and polite. The women behind the counter gave me a number of contradictory explanations (that was an old website, the room costs more because of air conditioning, the extra fee went to an agent), but it didn’t matter because they wouldn’t switch me off the meal plan or refund any money. Maybe I should have asked before the 10am check-out time.
Lunch was a ham and cheese sandwich and the same fries as the day before. While we were eating, one of the managers announced that the weather was getting much worse. The scheduled afternoon activity was lovo preparation, but since that involves cooking food in a pit, they had to cancel the lovo. To make up for the lack of activity and to encourage us to stay indoors, they were going to play a movie: Castaway, which was filmed on a neighboring island that many of our co-guests had visited. About eight of us crowded around a television, but I couldn’t hear or see the movie very well. I’d seen it ages ago, and mostly you get the point, but right at the end, as he’s hugging his girlfriend who’s now married to someone else, the power shut off for the afternoon.
I was tired of staying in the resort. I’d asked about a kayak, and the manager agreed but asked me to stay right in front of the resort in case they had to rescue me from the rough waters. Instead, I rounded up a group of five and set off to walk around the island. Three dogs joined us uninvited. The managers had told us we could only get around the island at low tide and to bring flip-flops because areas were rocky. It was the first time I’d worn shoes since arriving, and I regretted it the whole time and they got immediately slimy and I felt less sure footed. We hiked along tiny overgrown paths to the summit of the islands one mountain and enjoyed a 360-degree view in which I counted 14 other islands. I didn’t take my phone because of the threatening rain, so I don’t have any photos, This also meant I didn’t have a map, because I’d taken a photo of one on my phone. Doesn’t matter, the map was pretty bad anyway, the trails were almost impossible to spot, and the island was small.
We hiked down the other side and discovered a super posh set of big houses with individual swimming pool/fountains in their front porches. We tried to figure out how anyone that fancy would get there or get supplies or luggage from our side of the island, but maybe in normal weather boats would have been able to land there.
It started raining as we walked along the impossibly clean sand beach. In a few places we had to scramble over rocks through water. At one point we were hugging a cliff wall that would have been impassible if the water were any higher. My shorts got soaked, but I was proud of my scrambling abilities.
On the next beach, two women were standing waist deep in water fishing. We asked them whether we could proceed from there to Sunset Beach. “Oooh!” they shouted, no, Sunset Beach was all the way on the other side of the island. I pointed where we knew it was, “Oooh!” they shouted, “Snorkel Beach? That’s over there, but you can’t get there at high tide.” It was 4pm. Low tide was supposed to be at 6am. I know I don’t understand a lot of nature, but how can high and low tide be an hour apart? We asked how to get to Ratu Kini. “Oooh! Far away, go back that way,” pointing the way we came. At one point, they did point to a path that seemed to cut through to Snorkel or Sunset Beach, but nobody else wanted to risk it, so we walked back through an inland path across private property.
It was still over an hour till dinner, and I wasn’t ready to sit around. We ran into one of the Chinese guests returning from Sunset Beach with a snorkel, and he said it was beautiful but too rough to see anything. He also recommended we not swim since he said the water was pretty rough. Paul said he’d had enough walking to last the rest of his life, and Satomi and Tina were also ready to relax, but Justin and I set off for Sunset Beach. We both ditched our flip-flops, and he grabbed a towel just in case he wanted to swim. He’d been there before and knew a shortcut down the airstrip.
We got a few burrs along the way, but I was happy to be out of my slimy shoes. Right at the end of the airstrip was a pristine sand beach. Justin dove right in. I stood watching for about 30 seconds and couldn’t take it, so I waded in in my shorts and tank top. The Chinese guy was right. Immediately, the bottom disappeared, I felt a strong undertow and a strong current pulling me to sea. Even though I hadn’t swum out far, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get back. I swam back to shore. I hate being scared, so I waited a few minutes and dove back in. This time I just waited a few moments feeling the tide and the forces and than swam back unafraid.
On the walk back, it started to rain enough that my clothes would have gotten soaked anyway. We passed a few more resorts and a few chapels, one of which was next to a clearing with hundreds of metal tags glittering on frames. They each had a date on them and the first names of a couple.
We got back 15 minutes into my dinner time, so I rinsed my feet and ate in my wet clothes. Dinner was good, fish, taro leaves, taro root, sweet potatoes, salad, and watermelon, but it sure wasn’t a lovo. Sometimes things don’t work out the way you’ve planned.
After a long, hot shower, I joined the evening’s “Fiji Night” activities already underway. A group of about 12 guests and 6 staff members were gathered around a bowl of kava. The mix of guests and staff was sweet. One guest was chief, another was bodyguard, and there was some elaborate ritual about who served whom in what order and what you had to do when someone drank. Also, we shouted “bula” a lot. The staff played musical instruments and sang a good-bye song for those of us who were leaving tomorrow. Things that were different from kava drinking in Vanuatu: men and women drank, kava was a ritual instead of just a drug (it was both), people were boisterous. Things that were the same: I didn’t try any.
During dinner, the manager had made an announcement that the power would be turned off from 1-6am to save fuel because the storm had gotten much worse, and they didn’t think any boats would be coming the next day. This wasn’t good news as our flight was the next night, and we needed a boat to get to the mainland where the airport was. At Fiji Night, the chief engineer confirmed that the storm was too bad for boats. He explained that he had enough fuel for two days and was shutting off power that night in case boats couldn’t get through that long. We’d come on the little boat, but we’d seen a bigger boat arriving at the resort next door. Paul said he’d pay to get on the big boat, and the chief engineer repeated that the storm was too bad for any boats. I said I hoped it would clear up, and I was taking the little boat back. We’d already paid for the little boat. Paul said he’d repeated that he was getting on the big boat. The chief engineer said, “you can get on it, but it won’t go anywhere.” There wasn’t much point worrying or planning till we got more news in the morning, but it was stressful. Neither of us have travel insurance, and I wasn’t sure how often there are flights to the US from Fiji. It would have been an awfully expensive flight to miss.
In the morning, however, the sky was clear, and the wind had abated. I’d been told yoga would be canceled, so I slept in as best I could, but at breakfast, I found out I’d missed a lovely, small class. I watched jealously as the four Chinese guests, who were also checking out that day, boarded a small boat and spent the morning snorkeling, which they later described as awesome, but my clothes from the day before were still soaking wet, and I didn’t want to deal with packing more wet clothes. Plus, we had to check out of the hotel by 10am, so I didn’t have access to a shower or towel. The sky had streaks of blue for the first time since we’d arrived in Fiji, so I put on my swimsuit and walked along the beach, hoping to get a last hour of sun before heading back to winter in New York. I collected shells, thinking I might give them to my nieces, and then left them on the beach because I don’t like taking things. Sometimes I would reach for a shell, and it would cling to a rock or scamper away, and I’d watch the snail or play with the hermit crab. Along the way, I walked through a village and another backpackers hostel and chatted with locals who were fishing in the ocean, or carrying back cassava from the plantation.
Mostly I walked along the perfect sand or in the clear water, but at one point I had to cross some flat rocks. Remember how proud I was of my rock-scampering ability? Well, we all know where pride goeth. I wasn’t even trying to scamper, just walk, but I slipped on the slick surface and fell hard, scraping my knees, and landing flat on my belly and chest.
On the way back, I picked up a coconut, and a local woman offered to open it for me. As I drank the juice, I saw our boat arrive at the hotel. I’d packed, but my wet clothes were still on the line, I was still in my swimsuit, and I still wanted to open the coconut the rest of the way so I could eat the flesh! I raced back and accomplished all three tasks in the brief span it took the staff to unload the incoming passengers and supplies and load the outgoing passengers’ luggage.
The boat back was crowded, but the sea was much calmer than it had been the day before, when we’d heard about a bumpy passage. I lashed my wet clothes to the boat straps, and the staff all laughed and gave me the thumbs up. On our way, we needed to stop at Beachcomber Island to pick up a few more passengers for the mainland, but as we got close to the island, a boat started waving to us, and we turned around and went back to it. The boat had lost power, stranding about 14 snorkelers. They weren’t a huge distance from shore, but some of the snorkelers looked tired enough that they needed help even swimming getting back to the boat. We threw a rope to the other boat, circled around picking up the snorkelers, and then towed them to shore. As we stopped to get them, I leaned over the side and could see colorful coral and fish right from the boat. The water was perfect and clear, and I was even more sad I hadn’t gotten to dive or even snorkel.
Ratu Kini had promised to stow our luggage for us so we could explore Nadi for the day. It was only 1, and our flight didn’t leave till almost 10. I left my suitcases in the staffed Ratu Kini office, and they were kind enough to spread out my still wet clothes to dry in the air conditioning. They also offered me a private shower, as I guess a lot of their guests want to swim till the last minute. Paul didn’t trust them with his luggage and didn’t want to go into Nadi, so I walked alone to the bus stop, but by the time I got there, it was raining pretty hard. I’d been warned that many of the stores close in the rain, plus by that point I only had about three hours until we would be allowed to check in. I waited a few minutes and then turned around and walked back to the dismal terminal. I was drenched, and anyway, it was too hot to change into my airplane clothes, so I found a comfy chair and then an abandoned office where I had privacy, power, and wifi to wait out the hours.
When we finally were allowed through security, we went to a land of Fiji goods and Fiji bands playing for us. I used up the rest of our money on horrid Indian food as there was nothing more Fijian.
Because we passed the International Date Line, we landed before we took off. Customs was uneventful. I pouted when my agent didn’t say, “welcome home,” so he humored me. I admitted on my landing card that I was bringing plants and seeds into the country (“1 x coconut bracelet, value: $0, 1 x woven bag, value: $0”), but the official let me bring them in. She asked about the bracelet and smiled when I said I made it myself.
We waited hours in Los Angeles airport with limited, horrid food options, and when we land so late that we’ll take a car to Paul’s parents’ house where I left a car, and I won’t get home till tomorrow. At this point, I’m so impatient and ready to be home. Forty-five days is a long time.
I wish I had interesting stories to tell, but Fiji was pretty much a bust, mostly because of the weather. If you go, do a lot of research first and go during the dry season (or leave plenty of extra time in case of rain delays).
Thanks for coming along for the virtual ride!
Fiji was the fourth of four countries I visited on one long trip in the beginning of 2014. To find out about the rest of this trip, please read my posts on New Zealand, Australia, and Vanuatu. For a different perspective on the same trip, check out my travel companion Paul’s blog.