Here is a link to some Fiji photos… http://www.flickr.com/photos/mckenzie_pictures/sets/72157632482239199/
We headed off to the Honolulu airport a few hours earlier than we normally would for the first international leg of our journey, for fear we might run into some sort of glitch. And so we did. The American Airlines check-in desk was closed, so we sat in the terminal for about two hours, just waiting for someone to show up. They eventually opened for business, but although our tickets had an American Airlines flight number on them, we found out (after considerable confusion) that we were actually instead flying with Air Pacific, a small Fijian airline that is somehow affiliated with American Airlines. The lady at the desk had never heard of this Fijian airline and she looked at us and our paperwork with growing puzzlement, then wandered around for a while, not sure of what to do with us. She kept looking at our passports, frowning and shaking her head. Not exactly the most reassuring way to begin our international experience. Eventually, she asked someone else and they pointed us down to the very end of the terminal where an agent at a small desk in the back corner with a single sign reading ‘Air Pacific’ was checking people into our flight. Relief!
After about 40 minutes in a claustrophobia-inducing security line, where Dwayne was pulled aside for having peanut butter in his carry-on luggage (it’s a liquid-like substance, don’t ya know?), and then another 20 minutes or so navigating the sprawling, crowded terminal to our gate, we arrived just in the nick of time to board our flight to Fiji. Good thing we arrived absurdly early to the airport! We decided we would do the same for all future international flights, just in case.
After several hours cruising over the Pacific, we descended into Christmas Island to drop off some passengers and pick up some more. The landscape beneath us was a flat, watery honeycomb of lagoons enclosed by rust-colored sand bars, largely devoid of any human touch save for a few dirt roads and some sparse clusters of homes hidden amongst stubby palm trees. It was a stark contrast from the pointy-hilled, lush, idyllic tropical islands that graze the covers of the South Pacific tourist brochures I’d seen. Dwayne and I talked about the famous Christmas Island migrating crabs we’d learned about from various nature documentaries, and wondered if we happened to be looking down on them without knowing it.
The plane touched down and taxied to Christmas Island’s international airport, which was little more than a metal-roofed shack with a sign on it that read ‘International’ (quite possibly in hand-painted letters). Our huge jet pulled right up to the front door as if we were nothing more than a grossly oversized SUV pulling into a parking space in a suburban house’s driveway. Aside from one other small private jet, we were the only plane. A handful of passengers filed out the front door of the airport and walked across the pavement to hop on. It felt somehow comical to be at an airport such as this after just leaving the chaotic and labyrinthine Honolulu airport behind. It made us smile, and we decided Christmas Island might be a fun place to visit someday.
Once airborne again, we spent the rest of the flight to Fiji taking full advantage of the free food and beer that were provided by festive Air Pacific flight attendants wearing ‘Happy New Year’ party hats. A very pleasant surprise, especially since American Airlines doesn’t offer so much as a free bag of peanuts anymore on 5 hour flights, those cheapskates. After some taste testing, we decided that Fiji Bitter beer is appropriately named and Fiji Gold beer isn’t much better, but the price sure was right.
The sun was setting as we finally began our descent into Nadi, Fiji, and we could see a densely populated landscape beneath us with massive cruise ships chugging slowly along the coastline towards a few Polynesian-themed resorts with thatched-roof huts clustered onto long piers over azure lagoons. Just inland from the resorts, the homes looked much more modest, ramshackle even. Many of the homes had large bonfires burning in their yards, which confused us until we found out that they were processing sugar cane to then use or sell. We landed and then walked up the gate tunnel into the open-air airport, where we were immediately taken aback by the shrieking of hundreds of tropical birds perched along the terminal’s rafters. It was as if we had entered a bird sanctuary at feeding time. They cawed and swooped as we made our way to the customs desk. It worked wonders as a reality check that we were now on a tropical island.
After our passports had been stamped and our bags x-rayed by some men wearing sarong-like cloth wrappings, we walked out into the night and were immediately deluged by hyperactive taxi drivers, as is always to be expected. (If there’s one thing I hate about travel to the developing world, it’s haggling with pushy cab drivers.) Luckily, we had pre-arranged for our hostel to pick us up in a van, so we just dismissed the cabbies and went back inside to wait. Eventually our van driver arrived, and we piled into the back and headed out onto the streets of Nadi with American pop music blaring scratchily from broken speakers.
My first impression was that Fiji is comparatively orderly and calm, with very little car honking and reckless driving. A pleasant surprise. Though the signs are all in English and everyone understands it, the people generally speak Fijian instead, which was nice to hear. (It always feels good to see a former colony retaining its unique, pre-colonial flavor despite all the pressure they must have felt to abandon it.)
Once we arrived at our hostel, ‘Bamboo Backpackers’, our van driver hoisted a piece of our luggage onto his shoulder and carried it up to our room for us as we followed. It was a nice little room, with a small balcony outside of a pair of flimsy sliding doors. We dropped off our bags and headed downstairs to the courtyard out front where many of the other travelers staying at the hostel were sitting on cushions in a circle under a thatch-roofed shack. In the middle of the circle was a dread-locked Fijian young man strumming a guitar and stirring a large vat of some sort of brownish liquid. We joined in, and learned that this was a tourist version of the Fijian tradition of ‘Kava’. The brown, murky liquid was a drink made from a type of root, and it was being passed around in a single, communal coconut for each traveler to drink. Any tendency towards germaphobia had to be abandoned immediately if one was to take part.
Between playing songs on the guitar and taking drags off his cigarette, our Fijian Bob Marley continued to scoop out over-sized swigs of the earthy, bitter drink. Each time he’d hand the coconut to a backpacker, he’d say “high tide, incoming!” in a groggy stoner voice. Though it was not alcoholic and didn’t cause a buzz, it did have a numbing agent of some sort, as we discovered when our tongues and cheeks began to feel like we had just left the dentist office after getting Novocain shot. When we had our fill (and then some, as it was not very tasty) of the kava, we headed off to bed and hoped that a.) the numbness would wear off by morning, and b.) that we would not be making any middle-of-the-night emergency bathroom dashes since we had no idea what was actually in the liquid we just drank other than that it had probably been made with the unfiltered tap water.
Happily, the morning arrived without any bathroom drama and we both had feeling back in our lips. Things were looking up. Since we only had one full day in Fiji, we got dressed and headed downstairs right away to see if we could arrange a day trip to one of the nearby islands. Our hostel had advertised that it offered an organized day trip that included a boat ride to ‘Beachcomber Island’ that left directly from the hostel, which sounded great to us. It meant we didn’t have to wait around for public transportation to bring us to wherever the other organized boat tours left from, which was a relief since there was a sign next to the public bus schedule on the wall that warned “beware of Fiji time”.
We sat down for some breakfast at the hostel’s café, which was a tiny, open-air, thatched-roof hut sheltering some picnic tables. As people in the café ate, the hostel staff (which consisted of the Fijian Bob Marley, the van driver, a few other teenager boys with gold teeth, some teenage girls who were cooking in the café, and a 10-year-old boy who was probably somebody’s little brother) broke into a water fight. In every direction we turned, buckets of water were being emptied over peoples’ heads and then revenge was being sought by drenched victims. Busted flip flops were flying around the hostel grounds as would-be targets darted away from their assailants at top speed, weaving in and out of the diners eating breakfast at the café. We began to wonder how organized our hostel’s ‘professional guided tour’ would turn out to be. We soon found out.
After we signed up for the boat tour, we were informed that we were the only two people on it so far and that we would leave very soon, just as soon as one more person signed up to go with us. Otherwise, the amount we paid wouldn’t cover the expense of the boat’s fuel. Fair enough. We settled down to wait, confident that the staff would soon recruit one more person and we’d be on our way in no time.
Three hours later, after several more water battles had been waged and no progress had been made in the recruiting department, we decided this was ridiculous. The day was half shot, and all we’d seen of Fiji was a picnic table at our hostel’s café and several drenched staff members. We had clearly fallen victim to the dreaded trap of Fiji time. We grumpily told our gold-toothed ‘booking agent’ that we would be making other plans since we only have the one day in Fiji and it was quickly passing us by. He looked concerned that we were disappointed, and quickly consulted with his buddies to work out an alternative plan. They decided that they could take just the two of us, but not as far as Beachcomber Island. They would instead take us to a closer lagoon where we could watch them as they went spear-fishing. Dwayne and I agreed. At this point we didn’t care what we did or where we went as long as it didn’t involve sitting at the hostel. The Fijian Bob Marley and two of his cronies (who were apparently going to be our guides) scurried around gathering up spearfishing equipment and flippers.
Just as we were about to leave, a Canadian couple expressed their interest in the Beachcomber Island tour, and just like that we were back to the original plan. We waited around a while longer for the couple to finish lunch, change into swimsuits, assemble backpacks with towels and gear, and lather on sunblock, and then, at long last, we all headed for the boat.
What Dwayne and I had been hoping for was a nice, relaxing cruise along the tropical coastline to a slightly offshore island. Perhaps there’d be a gentle ocean breeze and some small swells, just enough to make the ride more fun. No one told us that there had been a typhoon recently (we found out later). We hopped into a small whaler (probably about 15 feet long or so), took a seat towards the front, and slopped on some sunblock. Our ‘captain’, a scraggly, skeletal-looking fellow, did his best impression of the shrunken head from the Harry Potter double decker bus scene as he stated “fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride, hahaha”, and steered the boat straight out towards the open ocean.
We spent the next hour crashing recklessly through enormous, white-capped swells (that is, of course, when we weren’t airborne). We held on for dear life as the boat pounded into each wave with a shaking thud that sounded as if it would loosen all the bolts holding our poor little vessel together. We tried to keep from falling off of our seats while wiping the relentless sheets of salty spray from out of our stinging eyes. The same drenching spray was power-washing off any of the sunblock that we had applied, and our skin quickly began to redden in the beating sun. The wind whipped across our bow as we sped passed a few small islands, and we noticed that their beaches were strewn with debris from the recent storm. My gaze locked onto each island within sight with a longing for it to be Beachcomber Island so our ‘relaxing cruise’ would finally be over, but we kept sailing by them. With each passing island, I couldn’t help but assess whether I’d be able to swim the distance to it if we were to capsize. From the look on the faces of the bedraggled Canadian couple, they were wondering the same thing.
Finally, we pulled up to the leeward side of Beachcomber Island and hopped ashore with a collective sigh of relief. Soaked and rattled, but overwhelmingly happy to have our feet on solid ground, we ordered some beers from the island’s small resort bar to celebrate surviving the first half of our sea cruise. Dwayne and I walked the beach around the outer edge of the tiny island, which took all of 15 minutes, and then took in a show of hula dancing and fire baton tossing to the beat of Polynesian drumming over a loud-speaker. All the while, I couldn’t help but worry about the return trip to the main island and whether our little boat could handle the abuse that was to come.
To make it worth the perilous journey, we decided to do some snorkeling on the side of the island where the surf was slightly less rough. After considerable difficulty (I’ve previously mentioned how inept I am at maneuvering with flippers on and how little I enjoy having my hair ripped out by the rubber snorkeling mask straps), I crab-walked into the water, wiped the fog from my mask and awkwardly dunked my head to see what could be seen. The water was so churned up that all I could see was murk, which made me grouchy. I swam around for a bit, trying to find a clearing where I could see some colorful fish through the suspended silt, but swiftly became bored and headed back to shore to ditch the flippers and mask. Dwayne headed further out to sea, popping his head up every once in a while to exclaim enthusiastically that he had found a sea cucumber or a blue starfish and that I should give it another try because the water was clearer further out. But I was much happier to simply bob around in the cloudy shallows, free from the frustrations of rubber straps and huge artificial feet.
After what seemed like a very short while, our Fijian guides rounded us up and we were instructed to hop back into the boat for the dreaded return journey to Nadi. We warily took our seats, covered our belongings as best we could, and held on tight. Though not quite as nerve-wracking as the first trip, the boat trip back to Nadi was indeed still a wild ride and when we reached the beach we had to hop out in chest-deep water because it was too rough to get any closer to shore. With drenched clothes and burnt skin, we walked barefoot across the jagged pavement to the hostel, lugging our dripping towels and gear.
Once we’d hung everything up to dry, I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror and realized that I looked like a half-drowned, half-boiled shellfish. Much worse than I had thought. Dwayne looked similarly the worse for wear. This, of course, added some fuel to my grouchiness. So much for a relaxing tropical day cruise in the island paradise of Fiji!
The next morning as we packed our bags, both wincing as we hoisted the backpack straps onto our tender, crimson shoulders, I was shocked to discover that my legs looked as though I had contracted the chicken pox overnight. Huge, red welts were swelling up on my ankles, shins, and thighs, at least a dozen on each leg. I had not so much as swatted a single mosquito the day before, so I must have been unknowingly attacked by sand flies (or some other stealthy biting creature) while my mind was otherwise occupied with concerns about capsizing boats and roasting noses. The grouch-o-meter levels soared even higher.
As we hopped into a cab and headed to the airport to catch our flight to New Zealand, we decided that Fiji had not been given the proper opportunity to prove itself to us. It couldn’t be faulted for this. Had we travelled out to one of the more remote islands and stayed there long enough to experience a few days of good weather, good seafood, good swimming in a clear, tranquil sea and a boat ride that didn’t make us fear for our lives, than Fiji would most likely have left a much more rosy impression. As it was, our crispy-fried skin, bruised butts from the tumultuous boat ride, and constant itchiness from the many bug bites made it impossible to fall in love with Fiji. It felt strange to be experiencing relief when leaving a place that is considered to be heaven to so many, but we left it behind without any reservations. The sunsets may be beautiful, and the beaches may be white, but that certainly doesn’t guarantee that it’ll become a favorite destination. There has to be more to it than beauty, and a place has to be given the proper amount of time to reveal itself and its hidden treasures. We simply caught Fiji on an off day, when she wasn’t feeling her best and didn’t feel like playing the charming hostess.
So, with a dismissive glance back at Nadi as it disappeared into the blue horizon, we set our sights forward to New Zealand, the land of sheep and hobbits and adrenaline junkies, and hoped it would be friendlier towards us.