#34 Paradise Found?

Sent: Sunday, September 1, 2002 19:29 PM

08/07/02 - After a 4 hour delay we finally get away from Auckland International Airport and strike out straight North for Fiji. The delay puts back our arrival from a comfortable early evening to a less convenient 2am and the rest of our first night is spent in the noisy, less than clean surroundings of Hotel Kennedy from which we depart without regret whilst wiping the sleep from our eyes the next morning.

The South Pacific is the one part of our trip for which I have very little idea of what to expect. As we have made our way around the world reclining on a beach has not been too high on our list of priorities and so the idea of spending four weeks in Fiji and a further two weeks in the Cook Islands is a little daunting. Can we adapt to life on a beach? Or will we go stir crazy?
One factor weighing heavily in Fiji's favour is that having endured five weeks of weather in New Zealand that generally moved between abominable and unpleasant with only occasional bouts of cool winter sun we are desperate to feel some warmth on our backs.

Fiji consists of over 300 islands less than one third of which are populated and we have arrived on Viti Levu the largest island. The plane landed in Nadi (pronounced 'Nandi,' the anglicised Fijian alphabet is very simple to write but contains some soundings of consonants that take a bit of getting used to) and we need to make our way round the Coral Coast which involves a ride in a minibus filled with some of the surliest British travellers we have ever encountered.

The Coral Coast is the name given to the portion of Viti Levu from 11 (Nadi) to 4 (Suva) on the imaginary clock face imposed on this roughly circular island and the guidebook warns us that along most of its' length the fringing coral makes swimming impossible at anything less than high tide.

The minibus makes it's way along a broad tarmac road through a gently rolling landscape dropping down occasionally to the coast where gritty beaches face out on huge expanses of gnarled coral at whose edge, between 50m and 200m out from shore, the Pacific swell breaks on the reef drop-off.

Our Lonely Planet guidebook is nearly two years out of date and the prices it contains are enough to limit our expectations to the very cheapest end of the market. We had phoned ahead to the Vakaviti Motel and had been told that we would need to spend a night in their dorm before a room would be available for us the following day and the lack of a cheap alternative meant that we were obliged to say yes. On arrival we are therefore delighted to be shown straight to a huge bungalow with it's own cooking facilities and bathroom, all of which has seen better days but is very clean and tidy. We are just unwinding and unpacking when a knock at the door is the precursor to a request to get out of our little palace which we have been given in error. Our bed in the dorm awaits, a mistake has been made! Much furrowing of brows apologetic smiles and painstaking renegotiation follows leading to an overall saving for us by way of apology and a night in room normally occupied by a member of staff in preference to a night in the dorm. It is a night spent on the spongiest bed in the world. Every movement sends out slow moving ripples that take minutes to ebb away. On Sausage's side the mattresses slope from either end into the middle causing her to wake time and again curled in a foetal position in the valley bottom while on my side there is a huge slope from the edge of the bed toward the middle. The slope is so steep that in order not to fall onto the foetal ball of Sausage my wife has become I have to hook an arm and a leg over the edge of the bed and try to sleep in the style of a shirt draped over a washing line.

Our first walk to the shops is an introduction to Fiji. Everyone says 'Bula!' and smiles and on the way back everyone does it again! Our bona-fide room is almost as spacious as the imposter we were given on arrival and the bar up the road is a comfortable venue to watch Germany win their World Cup semi-final but the lack of a beach we can swim off and the largely overcast weather combine to propel us back to the roadside a couple of days later.

Two buses crawl past us without stopping before a taxi screeches to a halt and agrees to take us on to Suva for the same total fare as two bus tickets.
Within minutes we have overtaken both buses as our Fiji-Indian driver demonstrates a far greater affinity with slalom skiing than safe driving.

Suva is the capital of Fiji and the biggest town on the main island of Viti Levu. We find a room in the immaculately clean South Seas Hotel, a two-storey weatherboard building built entirely from wood and polished to a high shine.
Suva is small enough to walk across in half an hour, even allowing for the slow pace dictated by the humidity. If anywhere in Fiji could be said to bustle then I guess Suva would be it. But the pavements are crowded with people who bustle in a very languid fashion. All the usual disappointments are to be found, McDonalds, KFC and somewhere that calls itself Pizza Hut but isn't, a crime carrying the death penalty as far as Sausage is concerned.

A walk along a Suva street is a bit like a walk in New York, you spend a lot of time looking up. But here it is the people rather than the buildings that are universally tall. Men, women, girls and boys, tall, heavily built but not overweight with open, smiling faces and frizzy hair in big afro's.

Fiji has a population of just under 800,000 people a little over half of whom are called Fijian, being of mainly Melanesian origin and just under half being Fijian Indians with a sprinkling of Polynesians, Chinese, Europeans, Americans and Antipodeans. In the late 19th century European traders wanted to fully exploit the trading possibilities offered by the Fijian Islands but the locals were reluctant to work on their plantations being quite happy with their village based, cooperative subsistence lifestyle. So the plantation owners brought in indentured labourers from India and exploited them instead. Over a century later Fijian life still reverberates with the consequences of this hugely influential migration. It is hard to imagine a greater contrast between two peoples in terms of outlook than between Fijians and Indians. The Indians we encounter are in business and could have arrived from Delhi the day before to judge from their hectic approach to striking a bargain, while Fijians prefer fixed prices, no bargaining and a 10 minute chat to seal the deal. That Melanesians regard themselves as Fijians and the immigrants from Asia as Fijian-Indians (which tacitly means 'not Fijian' or 'less Fijian') is both an indictment of their past and a threat to every Fijians' future. Fiji's major export is sugar and the world sugar market is in a perilous state. A high proportion of those who own and work on the plantations are of Indian origin.
The mathematical equation that begins with the collapse of the sugar market is all to easy to imagine and concludes with yet more political upheaval in a country that has already had a political coup in the new millennium to match those it had late in the last.

The currency here is the Fiji Dollar and we are once again the beneficiaries of a strong Sterling exchange rate of approximately $F3.4 to the £. We go twice to the $5 cinema (£1.47 each!) and see Minority Report (good story, plodding
direction) and Sweetest Thing by the end of which Cameron Diaz has risen a long way in our estimation.

On the Friday we book our combined bus/ferry ticket to Ovalau for the Saturday
and rise the next morning to another overcast day. Just down the hill from
the hotel are Suva's main sports fields; three muddy, pock marked rugby pitches lying in front of grey inter-war government offices that would not look out of place as the town hall in an Agatha Christie TV adaptation.

Rugby players are everywhere. All three pitches are in continuous use. So as
six teams play three matches so six more warm up. We stand and watch and try
not to yelp too much. The skill levels are moderate but the level of physical commitment is bone crunchingly scary.

As if the rugby is not enough today is also Fiji Music Day. At this time in 2003 Fiji will host the South Pacific Games and this milestone in the countdown is being marked by a parade and concert.

The Salvation Army Band lead the way closely followed by their smiling, tambourine waving entourage and then in turn by delegations of school children from many of the nations that will compete in next years Games. Earnest flag bearers lead excitable gaggles of national costume wearing teenagers. It is with some regret that we climb onto our bus at 1pm because our departure means that we can't go to the concert that was warming up as our taxi passed by the site and looked like being rare old knees up.

Suva Bus Station is the usual confusing bees nest of people and buses. Having found the stand from which our bus will depart something surprising slowly sinks in as we watch buses come and go. No one is standing, the buses are never overcrowded. As soon as one bus is full another empty one appears, a first in all our travels. The buses vary in age and the vast majority have no windows, just rolled up tarpaulins for use when the weather is sufficiently bad.

Anticlockwise from Nadi to Suva the Queens Road was all broad flat tarmac.
Clockwise from Suva toward Nadi the Kings Road soon dwindles to a muddy single track along which our venerable old bus slowly bounces.

Natovi Landing eventually appears out of the rainy gloom and represents a redefinition of the phrase Ferry Terminal to include a shed and a rutted cart track leading to a crumbling sea wall to which is tied a rusting hulk which looks like it started work about 50 years ago and is still waiting for its' first day off. We opt to pass the two hour long journey from the mainland to Ovalau on deck where the sea air gives our noses a fighting chance against the peculiar smell of the saloon. I strike up conversation with a guy called Phil from Birmingham and in the five minutes Sausage is left alone three Indian guys give her the benefit of their best chat up lines.

It is dark by the time the ferry creaks, groans and clangs to a halt at Levuka the main town on Ovalau. Levuka is a town with a lot of history to tell. It was here in 1871 that Ratu Seru Cakobau attempted to create the first Fijian national government and here in 1874 that the Deed of Cession was signed making Fiji a British colony. For the following six years Levuka was Fiji's first capital city but its' inability to grow, hemmed in by the sea to the front and hills to the rear led to the capital being moved to Suva in 1882.

Today Levuka is a sleepy town of 3000 people but the wooden clapboard shop fronts which line the main street give the place the feel of a movie studio backlot waiting for the heyday of John Wayne and the Western to return. This is entirely appropriate for in the late 19th century this sleepy little town was a lawless violent melting pot. If in the 1880's you were a European trading in the South Pacific in copra, whale meat or people then Levuka was where you came for your R 'n' R. 52 hotels, over 3000 residents of European origin and enough sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll to satisfy the most extreme appetites.

The Royal Hotel advertises itself as the oldest hotel in Fiji and it is utterly charming. Downstairs the large airy public spaces have the feel of having changed little in the last 50 years and upstairs the rooms with their wooden walls and creaking floors appear unchanged for even longer. Phil and I have a game of snooker on a table that is over 100 years old and Sausage takes maximum advantage of the phone in the bar which miraculously allows free calls to any number starting 00 4..... which is great news for residents of the UK and Austria of all places.

We have been told to expect great singing in Fiji and the locals suggest that we try the Methodists on Sunday which suits us fine as they start at 10am and the Catholics fire up at 8. We awake to the curtains gently flapping in a breeze that carries the sound of Roberta Flack absolutely belting out a big number at about 9 on Sunday morning. We pull on appropriate clothes and head off in search of the Methodists. The Church is easy to find, but completely empty so we presume that the singing from up the hill is probably the Methodists relocated to a neighbouring hall and climb the steps to find a battered wooden house. In another reminder of the Wild West as we enter every head turns to look. But every face smiles as we are invited to sit on the floor. We have missed the Methodists and found the Old Mission Church who, to judge by their expressions of surprise and delight, don't get too many visitors. The singing is more committed than tuneful, arms are waved, incantations mumbled and the preacher is great fun. He is a fan of the ranting American style and ends up shouting at us 'Thank you God, for sending the English Missionaries, for before they came we wore no clothes and we ate each other!' Roberta Flack is elsewhere.

On our way back to the hotel we realise that if we had turned right instead of left at the Methodist Church we would have found the correct congregation in yet another church hall. but they are going to be doing their thing again at 4pm, with the help of a visiting youth group (visions of swaying choirs backing Roberta swim before our eyes) so we vow to return later in the day.

Oh dear. It all started so well. We enter to find 40 white clad teenagers sat on the left of the aisle and a congregation of maybe 40 more on the right. But it turns out that these Methodists are a very deadpan crowd and the youth group from the mainland have been brought in to spice things up. This involves various combinations of the visiting troupe getting up on stage lining up and miming to very slow religious songs in a style that would have embarrassed even Pan's People in their heyday. Over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. That's seven long slow songs if you're counting. As we emerge it is dark and somewhere in the middle distance Roberta Flack is once again singing His praises in another of Levuka's six churches, but our bums are too numb and our religious sensitivities too anaesthetised to go and seek her out.

On the Monday it is Sausage's turn to go to the hospital. She picked up a dose of athlete's foot in Australia that has proved both irritating and impossible to shift. The hospital is a microcosm of Fiji. The doctors are on strike over pay and conditions, but a service is being delivered and the waiting room is full and completely silent. Mainly because everyone in it is fast asleep except for Sausage and one local guy who knows everybody and pokes awake the person appropriate to each name that is called!

While Sausage is treated at the Rumpelstiltskin Clinic I head off into the hills on Epi's Tour. The island of Ovalau is a dormant volcano and together with five others and Epi I set off to walk to the village of Lovoni which sits nestled in the steep sided caldera.

As we climb the going gets progressively muddier and Epi explains some of the various medicinal and food plants that we pass. He points out a yam vine, two intertwined vines no thicker than a pencil and explains that if we were to excavate we would find between 20 and 30 yams each up to a foot long and four inches wide. It starts to become apparent how the subsistence life works.

The villagers of Lovoni regard themselves as the proudest people in the whole of Fiji. They give expression to this by not removing their hats when they enter other villages. Their pride is rooted in their village never having been conquered in the long history of tribal conflict that dominated pre- and immediately post-European contact. Before and after a beautiful lunch, sat on the floor of his sister's house, Epi tells the story of how the village refused to succumb first to the overtures and then to the warriors of Chiefs from other islands before a missionary tricked them into attending a banquet and then surrounded and captured while they ate. Once caught they were sold into slavery, a wrong corrected three years later on the order of Queen Victoria after the Deed of Cession. Epi is a brilliant storyteller weaving seemingly disparate storylines into a cohesive whole and I left reflecting on how different it must be to be a part of a culture with an oral tradition.

The village houses are simple two room concrete boxes, the large living area a broad expanse of pandanus matting with very little furniture. On arrival we offer the village chief a sevusevu, a small gift to show our respect for him and his village. The village contains 7 clans and 16 tribes stemming from the 7 children and 16 grand-children of the founding father of the village. Men stay in the village while women marry out of it, a practise common throughout Fiji to avoid issues of inter-marriage. 83% of all the land in Fiji is tribal land and it is this above anything else that provides a rooted sense of stability in the face of frequent political upheaval. On Ovalau Lovoni, in the crater, was the original settlement and the land extending out from the village to the coast was divided up into 16 equal slices of a cake and allocated to each of the 16 tribes. The villages on the coast are derived from the appropriate tribes and each tribe farms the land within their own slice of the island. All of which would have no importance at all if it didn't play a significant art in explaining the people who are universally chilled out, peaceful and ooze calm contentment. It is hard to say that they have so little yet appear so happy, but it is truer here than anywhere else we have been.
Here the level of exposure to Western lifestyles is higher than in many places we have been, it sometimes seems like every island bigger than a postage stamp has on it a 5* resort, but the Fijians seem to look at such developments with the same regard as they viewed the opportunity to work as virtual slaves for European sugar growers and to have decided to find their own way forward.

Tuesday dawns with a rainstorm of Wagnerian ferocity. We prop open the wooden shutter that serves as a window in our hotel room to watch and listen to the rain shoot down in vertical lines that fall so fast I think there must surely be some kind of pressure hose arrangement parked in the sky above Levuka.

In mid-morning the rain lets up slightly and a man called Tui appears clad from head to toe in yellow waterproofs. Five of us are to make the trip out to Caqelai (pronounced Thangalai!). Phil the dizzy blond from Birmingham, Emily, posh young waif- like, Seb, her not so young boyfriend with unfortunate facial hair, Sausgae and me. The half hour journey in a small open boat is uneventful, if soggy and our first sight of our tropical paradise is less than enthralling as Caqelai swims in the murk of the rain clouds slowly solidifying as we draw near to reveal a tiny coral atoll 300m long by 100m wide green clad and dripping. Is this really paradise?