The flight out from Auckland was uneventful until we reached Fijian airspace. There we were treated with a spectacular lightning storm, which had knocked out the town's electricity supply earlier that day. The lightning jumping from cloud to cloud looked amazing, but not far enough away for my liking.
The pilots skillfully slalomed through the clouds avoiding most of the turbulance at height, and left it until we reached the airport before spiralling down to the approach path. The fancy footwork kept the bumps to a minimum, and I felt that Air Pacific had deservedly shed its former sobriquet of Air Pathetic.
At the airport my brother met me. He's slim, five years younger than me, light-haired, blue-eyed, tanned, athletic and popular with girls. We could be twins :-) I hadn't seen him for seven years, so he had changed a bit, getting into trouble, and then (mostly) getting out of it. He's a pilot too, which is seen as a good occupation over there. He's happy building up his hours, but his salary is less than the dole in Britain! He had nearly 1000 hours by then.
The theory with having relatives and friends all over the world is that you can stay at their places cheaply. With my brother this meant that instead of staying a cheap central hotel with air-conditioning, I was on the floor with just a fan and the rats to keep me company, at the end of a long road that had sufficient potholes to discourage many taxi drivers :-) It was great, because I hadn't seen him for so long. He assured me that the rats squeaking in the trap in the corner were the last two, and indeed I didn't see any after that.
Outside the grass was that springy lush variety that loves Fiji, and it had the tropical downpour that it thrives on. Dozens of cane toads had decided they quite liked the tiled floor under the verandah - a trademark creature in Nadi.
My brother was working then, so it being my 30th birthday I decided to wander on into town. I thought that having experience of the mean streets and bars of Britain and Thailand I should be able to take care of myself. I was overoptimistic.
I politely brushed aside the hustlers and touts and got a delicious breakfast bargained down from $8 to FJ$5. (I had not haggled in a cafe before!). A friendly looking Fijian chap sat down at my table and started chatting about Fiji Sevens and so forth. He had played with Rabuka in a friendly and seemed quite interesting (see Rabuka notes later).
He then suggested I should go to the only Fijian owned shop in town (communalism and commercialism don't mix successfully very often). This led to me drinking Kava, which I am not a great fan of. It has a deleterious effect on many Fijians, and it being my first time I excuse my later lapses in judgement on it, with the tropical heat :-). Honestly I'm much more sensible usually! I spent more than I should have on cheap clothes (at another shop) and then he whipped out the piece de resistance - a wooden sword which he carved my name on! Hah, he was a swordseller after all, and after I had promised myself that I would not be taken in by one. I had been expecting the obvious looking ones that were there in my youth, but I had missed the signs here. I coughed up the money, thinking that at least I had been done by an expert who took pride in his work, not by those young upstarts outside who couldn't con an OAP (and the amount in British money was small really). He took his cap off revealing his grey curls to prove he was a grandfather.
After this, I wandered past a shop annoyed at myself. The shopkeeper anxiously asked if I had spoken to the man, or bought anything with him, since "he is a con artist, ripping off tourists" (no... really :-). I admitted I had and I did and he was. The shopkeeper tsked and sighed and asked me how much I had spent. With hindsight, I can see the dollar signs lighting up in his eyes as I had given him a target which he felt honour-bound to beat! He could not have some street con-artist ripping off tourists more than he did! I immediately got taken into the back room, full of jewellry and he brought out the "special jewellry" he obviously saved for the particularly gullible (i.e. me at the time).
Despite not really wanting the stuff, I bargained him down to a fifth of the ticket price for two necklaces. With hindsight I reckon this was still four times what they were worth, and they weren't really that well made either. But I guess they'll make a pleasant enough gift for someone somewhere sometime.
I later went to the handicrafts market, and saw reasonable stuff for reasonable prices. You really should not buy anything on your first day in Nadi - shop around, ask around and then decide. The retailers there can be very persuasive and they are very knowledgable in English (as well as Fijian and Hindi) unlike in many other countries. As I said before, one of these days I should go on a course to learn about how much nice stuff is really worth. Still, the process of haggling, shopping and generally browsing is entertaining, and can be a memorable part of your stay in Fiji. Just try to stay alert! The normal people in the area are extremely friendly, always saying Bula as you walk past - the trick is in differentiating between them and the hustlers.
My brother was amused at my woes, but it had happened to other people he knew so he told me not to let it get to me. The dangers in Suva are much more real, so I was glad to get my gullibility out from me in the first day and bring back my natural cynicism :-) I left the souvenir swords with my brother so he can remember me.
On the way into town one morning I met with an interesting person, a Fijian "girl" in her late twenties who had obviously not had the chance to shave that morning. S/he seemed a little the worse for wear; I presume there was much merriment the night before, but it must have worn off. I was slightly flattered at being hit on, but I'm not really very big on that sort of thing. A cute guy would have caused me more anguish. Being gay is very much frowned upon by the church/state, but it seems that dressing up is more acceptable. The glamourous Fijian I met in Wellington had many tales of secret rendezvous and hotel back entrances; perhaps drag queens cause less of an upset in traditionally macho societies, since the blokes don't see themselves in the other person.
Before delving into Fijian politics, first note that Fiji is about half ethnic Fijian and about half ethnic Indian, mostly descendants of indentured labourers the British Empire brought to the country a century ago or more to harvest sugar-cane. The rest are Chinese, European, mixed race and other Pacific Islanders. Since independance in 1970, parliamentary seats have been divided by race (Fijian, Indian and General Voters) plus one seat in the Senate for the island of Rotuma. The Senate was appointed, with many of the seats in the gift of the council of chiefs (Fijian only). The Governer General represented Queen Elizabeth ][.
Lieutenant-Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka, oops I mean Brigadier Rambuka, oops I mean General Rabuka, oops I mean Prime Minister Rabuka, oops I mean National Treasure Rabuka, is the military man who overthrew the Fijian government in two bloodless coups in 1987. A western Fijian (Dr. Timoci Bavadra) had gained power with a mostly Indian cabinet and the eastern chiefs did not like this.
Dark years followed, but the burden of power and responsibility apparently softened his views and the country has now been democratic for a couple of years, with an Indian Prime Minister (Mahendra Chaudhry) even! Some people think Fiji should be a beacon of light in the world showing how ethnic tensions, based on real economic, cultural and historical differences can be worked around (if not resolved) without the ethic cleansing and mass bloodshed which has blighted so many parts of the world.
For more information try looking for "Multiculturalism & Reconciliation in an Indulgent Republic: Fiji after the coups 1987-1998" by Robert T. Robertson (Fiji Institute of Applied Studies, Suva. ISBN 982-301-012-9). After all, my knowledge of the place is mostly second-hand.
The resort life is quite different from city life, and I couldn't come to a top tourist destination like Fiji without spending at least one day as a pampered foreigner. So I caught the day-trip to Beachcomber Island from the Sheraton. Unfortunately the cash machines in Nadi decided to take the day off that day, but the travel company was happy with plastic.
The catamaran took us out there in no time and there we were on a picture postcard tropical island with golden sand, clear blue seas, a few coconut trees and a bar with a great selection of fruit cocktails. Lunch was nice, and the glass-bottomed boat showed off the colourful coral and fish to great effect. Treasure Island resort looks close enough to reach out and touch, but the staff say it takes longer than you'd think to swim there.
The crowd there was a mixture of European tourists (German, English, American) - backpacker aged singles and middle-aged couples, plus some Pacific Islanders who were staying in Fiji, and a youth rugby team from Sigatoka. Some of the locals wore their shirts in the water, despite being a good deal less melanin-impaired than me. It seems people are wiser about the sun now than when I lived there.
A pleasant trip back meant I was in a great mood that evening - if you want to forget about the rat race you could certainly do worse than visit one of the resorts here.
Trip to Suva
My brother managed to take a couple of days off, so we headed off to Suva after brunch in "Chefs", an upmarket restaurant. With tickets to the other side of the mainland costing cust FJ$7.50 (£2.50), we couldn't complain about the price! Some buses have glass in the windows these days, but we had the proper green rolled up plastic sheets.
The bus started off mainly full of Indians, with some Fijians and four Europeans (including us). We drove past the glorious Hindu temple into luscious cane fields, with the cut cane piled neatly in bundles.
The heat was oppressive, but once we got going the breeze was very pleasant, and I was glad we didn't take the air-conditioned bus. Of course when the bus stopped the heat returned, but open-window buses don't cut you off from the countryside.
The radio was playing most of the way, with global pop music such as Willenium, Mambo #5, Un Doe Tres mixed in with Bob Marley and tight Pacific island harmonies. An advert on the radio regarding STDs said to wait until marriage or use a condom. I can't remember ever hearing safe sex messages on the TV in the UK.
Now that the road from Nadi to Suva is fully paved (apart from brief sections of road-works diversions) they have put up some speed limit signs for decoration. To tell divers that they are serious, there are hefty judder bars on the main highway, delimiting villages.
The bus passed forests of Pine, and fields of root crops. Red earth predominated until we reached the Sigatoka sand dunes. The old one-way bridge which used to create so much drama has now been pedestrianised. No longer do cars race to the middle and argue over who should back up - there is a good two-way bridge there to take care of that. The Sigatoka mosque showed another side of Fiji's diversity.
After a 20 minute halt for refreshments, we continued on our way to the capital. The countryside gradually got less dry, and the passenger composition became Fijian rather than Indian (although many people were going the whole way). Churches were more prevalent, but we passed many mixed villages. Most of the mainland outside of Suva is leasehold, constituationally owned by the various Fijian chiefdoms, which has an effect on property development.
Tradewinds hotel is just before Suva (near Lami) and offers pleasant views out to Mosquito Island, where a school trip took me long ago. A pleasant swim and a nice meal went down well.
The capital city is a world apart from Nadi. Instead of you being the focus of existance for the entire population, you can blend into the crowd a little. Normal people were shopping for school clothes, or going to the office. Prices were more stable in the shops, since I could easily have been a kaivalagi ex-patriate.
Suva has recently started a beautification scheme, with designer rubbish bins, benches and lamp-posts showing a common theme which captures an island feel. The place has always had potable water (to proper houses anyway) and sewerage, which puts it ahead of many countries, but some of the buildings let the side down. In particular the Grand Pacific Hotel which my family stayed at is now dilapidated. The guard in front of it said it will be rebuilt and reopened, but did not know the timescale. Let's hope it is soon.
With incredible bad timing, our family friend Nazreen was on leave when I visited so I missed her. I did get to see my old haunts though - the house we lived in 20 years ago, the thick vegetation behind the road where we used to play with the neighbours. The road name has changed, but most of the houses are recognisable. I could hardly believe I used to crawl through the sewers under the street - they look so small now! The shop at the bottom of the road did a passable impression of Fort Knox after being blitzed by graffiti. A Chinese family was huddling behind the bars serving food and essentials, not the open Indian shop I remembered of old. The old track to the next suburb has had gates put over it, so I went no further. A police van cruised past a few times, so I explained my interest in the place. I don't think they often come across nostalgics there :-)
The town at night was quite busy, with enough young beggers in evidence that I felt I should keep my wits about me. The nightclubs have a stricter dress code than the resorts - no shorts or T-shirts allowed in most places.
Lucky Eddie's, where my parents used to dance, is still going strong. The partition has gone, removing the restaurant part of the room, but the bar and dance floor can get reasonably lively. Just after new year it was quite quiet, since many people were still at their family villages. O'Reilly's downstairs was much busier, with a few happy campers there in the mixed crowd.
A cute Fijian guy chatting with the happy campers was happy to be bought a few drinks (pitchers of beer!) and bought me some too. He seemed to change his mind about dancing with me (and a girl) though once we were on the dance floor - I'm not sure what was going through his mind. I left before things got too interesting.
The area around Lami had a few villages, and on a Sunday I saw the locals dressed in their church clothes; old men with plain blue/grey sulus, a shirt/tie and flip-flops. A sulu is a tradtional cloth wrapped around the waist; generally the local men go for less gaudy ones than the shops try to sell you. The army and police uniforms are particularly nice looking, with serrated edges at the bottom. In the dark days everything was banned on Sunday - one of the more popular early relaxations of this was when they allowed buses to run again, saving many people a long walk to church. The Sunday observance laws are quite relaxed now.
Before returning to Nadi I stopped off at Orchid Island. This is an interesting place with exotic plants, explanations and demonstrations of traditional skills, and historical artefacts. The stories of cannibalism, and the punishments of people who broke a rule of traditional etiquette (e.g. by touching the chief's head) were gruesome. This is a far cry from the candy coated pictures photographed by authors such as James Blish. Cannibal forks are one of the chief souvenirs of the country, and souvenirs in general seemed quite reasonably priced at Orchid Island.
How had it changed?
Some things have changed, others have continued a trend, and yet others have remained the same. Fiji has enormous potential if it is allowed to live up to it. The country is beautiful and fertile, and so are the people ;-)
Crime has increased in the last two decades, though people were cautious even then. Burgler bars on windows and barbed wire fences come as standard on middle-class homes. A taxi driver told how some time ago he had been stopped by a roadblock of prisoners, hit on the head and driven in the boot to Nadi before he could get hostpital treatment. Roadblocks seem to be quite common, but the police are looking for escaped prisoners rather than drunk drivers. Perhaps they should build the prison walls a little higher.
The beautification scheme of Suva showed there are talented people in the country, and the will to improve the place. I found the television advertisements to be higher quality than those in New Zealand, despite TV being so recently introduced. I hope that with democracy restored the spirit of improvement moves from the cosmetic to the pragmatic, and finally to a good look at the structure of society, in baby steps but always in the right direction, building trust in the institutions and people of the country.
The racial divides are being breached in small ways. The country has an Indian Prime Minister, and I met a Fijian taxi driver. Intermarriage is less rare than before. I have hopes that Fiji can be the "land of freedom, hope and glory" its national anthem claims it to be, and which it deserves to be.
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