Fiji: The Real Deal

Wednesday, October 16 2013, 7:17am (or with the IDT, Tuesday Morning)

It is Tuesday Morning….again. Yesterday was Tuesday as well, but that’s what happens when one is cruising over the 180th Meridian. But I’m getting ahead of myself, let me talk about Monday afternoon which was two days ago…even though today is Tuesday 😉

I enjoyed the morning at the beach and did a bit of writing and reading. My flight was at 2:20, and they ask that you be there 90 minutes prior. I arrived about 2 hours before, simply because I didn’t have anything else keeping me at the hostel. Posted fare to the airport was $14 FJD. I tried negotiating to $10, but eventually acquiesced at $12.

My bags were too heavy due to the fact that I insisted on lugging my huge tripod around for some nice shots; my checked luggage was 22kg vs. 15 and my carry on was 12kg vs. 7. I ended up paying $38 FJD for the difference. I grabbed lunch which was chicken curry. It wasn’t the best, but then I’m not a big fan of spicy food AND it was airport food after all. I went through security and into the small, one flight-at-a-time gate. It makes sense because most people depart Nadi via small boats headed to nearby islands. My flight was full except for a few seats and was a small approx. 20 person unpressurized prop plane. The flight was beautiful if not loud, and offered panoramic aerial views of the largest Fijian island Viti Levo. After about an hour we took a stomach churning descent over the even more luscious island of Vanua Levu which is home to Savusavu known as the “hidden paradise of Fiji”. The “airport” here is just a tiny runway with a small gate. I met my driver Junior who told me that it would be about an hour and a half drive to my embarkation point (which was much longer than I was expecting)!

My ride over was a fascinating exploration into Junior’s life and knowledge. At 34 years old, he was really enjoying life. He used to be a scaffolding engineer, but broke his shoulder and thus turned to driving taxi. His boss owns four different cars and he works every day of the week for 12 hours with a one hour break from 1-2. In addition to driving, he also does mechanical work on the cars from which allows him to earn a bit of extra money.

He told me about the military coup that occurred in 2006; apparently there was a very corrupt democracy in place that was constantly changing the laws to favor certain individuals. An example he gave was allowing people to own the sea which meant that they could demand remuneration from anyone that decided to go swimming. The military took over and according to Junior crime is down 80%. I never was a huge history buff, so I look forward to researching this topic a bit more upon my return. Junior, though, was quite excited about the new government and even keeps a copy of the constitution in his glove-compartment (although, Fijians don’t really have a need to wear gloves, so I’m not sure what that compartment is called here). He talked about how in the old days elections would last a week which would give people time to switch the ballot boxes. Now, elections are electronic and occur in one day. I encouraged him to run for office, as he clearly cares about the people.

Junior also was an outstanding citizen; he was honorable and trustworthy. He shed light on the illegal taxi business that was likely going on back at Smugglers Cover. He explained that there were two types of taxi cabs in Fiji: a licensed taxi (LT) and a licensed hire (LH). The former is required to use the meter instead of accepting an agreed upon amount; Taxis are allowed to accept less than the standard fare, but not more. And if they don’t turn the meter on, you don’t have to pay them. They can’t take you to the police, because if they did they would be fined and you would be let off without penalty. Junior said he never tries to cheat anyone on a cab fare, and I believe him. We stopped on the road one time, while he opened his door, scooped up a huge rock and he threw it off the road to prevent it from damaging other vehicles. All-in-all the trip was around 44km. The first 22 were under construction, but were quite nice compared to the last 22. Apparently the Chinese government gave a large grant to Fiji to redo the road; they have widened and compacted it, and will be putting asphalt on it within the next year. After we got past this stretch, the road narrowed to about 1.25 lanes, so we’d pull to the side if we ever ran into another vehicle which was more often than not a bus.

We drove over the crest and Junior pulled to a stop and pointed out our destination: the Tui Tai. The ship was sparkling out in the middle of a vast protected cove surrounded by lush greenery. As we drove up to the dock Junior called someone on the boat to let them know that we had arrived. They sent over a smaller version of a Zodiak and handed down my luggage. After securing myself in my life vest, we took off at full speed for the larger boat. The crew gathered on the side of the boat and greeted me with a traditional welcoming song! As they came to an end they all waved and warmly shouted “Bula!” I waved back, and returned the Fijean greeting. I climbed aboard and was whisked off to the lounge. There I was handed a delicious fruit drink which I’ve since come to crave (I think the secret is papaya), given a thorough tour by the Captain, and received an unexpected, but most welcome foot massage which included a soak in coconut water, a sugar exfoliation, and a moisturizer treatment. I then was introduced to my fellow passengers and shown to my room.

Originally we were supposed to have 10-13 guests onboard for the week. But a family of four backed out due to illness, and a few other last minute cancelations occurred as well. So the total number of guests onboard my expedition is 4. Because of this, I was upgraded from the expedition cabin which I had booked to a deluxe stateroom on the upper deck.

tuitai

The Tui Tai (supposedly named for the two ship builders that built the boat Tui and Tai), is definitely not a sleek new yacht. It has been well-used, but this use has given it a very warm, charming quality that I wouldn’t trade for anything. On the entry level is the large air-conditioned lounge foragerthing when it’s raining outside. Also on this level are the expedition cabins which I was supposed to be staying in, a large couch/bed from which I’m sitting writing this at the moment, as well as stairs to the upper deck and stairs that lead down to the crew’s quarters. Opposite the boarding side is where all the SCUBA gear is kept. It has places for the gear, showers, and stairs that lead down to water level to board the smaller boat that carries us to our dive sites. The upper deck is beautiful: Tui Tai used to be a sailboat. While she no longer sails, she still has three large masts that are a bold reminder of the history of the ship. The rear upper deck has 6 large sun lounge beds covered with large fluffy pillows. There’s a bar in the back, a long narrow table down the middle where we eat our dinners at sunset, and a large canopy that goes up after we’ve dropped anchor to shield us from the sun’s rays while still allowing us to bask in its warmth. The four luxury cabins are on the top. Mine has all wood panels, a large queen bed, more storage than I know what to do with, an air conditioner above the bed and an ensuite bathroom which has a river rock floor grouted in. It’s about the most comfortable flooring I’ve ever experienced. We get turndown service every evening and maid service during the day too. Apparently too much time in a hostel has conditioned to no longer expect the niceties of a hotel.

The first evening dinner was a creamy corn soup to start, a delicious chicken stir-fry for the main course, and a scrumptious apple tart for desert. We reviewed the next day’s agenda and headed off to bed.

stirfry

Tuesday morning (the first Tuesday, not the second) I woke up around 5:30 and was able to watch the sunrise and get a first-hand view as we pulled up anchor and came into port in Taveuni which is Fiji’s third largest island and is nicknamed the Garden Island because of how green it is. We had our first cold breakfast at 7am which was a repeat of the delicious juice I had when I first came on board and then fresh fruit and toast. I purposely didn’t eat much because our second breakfast at 9:30 was promised to be large and delicious. The first breakfast was just enough to sustain us for our first activity: diving Rainbow Reef!

The last time I went diving was when I was in Hawaii a little over two years ago, getting reacquainted with the water and all the gear made me a little nervous. Diving itself is not really very difficult as long as you remember to always keep breathing and always keep equalizing. Do those two things and you’ll generally be fine whilst diving with an experienced dive master. They also gave us dive computers to take down which simplifies it even more by beeping at you if you’re ascending too fast and tells you how long you can stay down without having to do a decompression stop. We go down with 200 bar on our air tanks which is enough to last about 45 minutes. At 50 bar we start heading up to do a safety stop at 5 meters. After three minutes there during which time our bodies off-gas the extra nitrogen that has accumulated in our bodies, we head up to the surface and climb back on the boat. Two disorienting things about his dive were that my gauges were in meters instead of feet, and I had my GoPro strapped to my BCD.

The underwater world is absolutely beautiful. Once you try diving, it’s easy to get addicted quickly. Getting a first-hand look at the animals has ruined aquariums and snorkeling for me.

meSCUBA

After getting back to the boat and showering, we had a hot breakfast of eggs, hash browns, bacon, and fruit waiting for us. There was a French toast option which I was proud to decline (all those unnecessary carbs). We ate and then jumped into a taxi on the dock. This took us up to a catholic church/boarding school where there were so many cute little kids running around, playing, praying, and most notably: washing a plastic bag! It was really funny and so cute as these two little girls who were standing by a water fountain would dip their plastic bag in the water and then pretend to wash it, likely imitating one of the sister’s doing the wash. I asked if I could take a picture, and then let me.

washingPlastic

We then proceeded to a local shop that sold sarongs. We were told that we would need these the next day to visit a local village. I bought this beautiful blue one with a map of the Fiji islands on it: clearly a tourist sarong, but I am a tourist so it all works out. We then drove up to a church which was right next to an area that was set aside to mark the 180th meridian. This is the imaginary line that serves as the International Date Line. Merely by crossing over we transported ourselves to the previous day…and then back again. When standing in the middle, I could feel myself being torn apart by the time/space continuum. It didn’t feel too bad though, so I did it a few times to get my picture there.

IDL

We then took the taxi up a really steep, very poor road that led to a penitentiary. It was funny because the inmates were out in the yard and they were waving and smiling at us. Needless to say we did not wave back. We were told that the prison holds at most 20 people and that there wasn’t really any major crime. The only thing that happens on the islands is petty crime where people steal from farmers. We continued to a remote part of the forest and then hiked up into the mountain. Our guides took us to a natural water slide. Apparently the Blue Lagoon film used this location for one of the scenes. It was a lot of fun after getting over the scariness of slinging oneself down wet rocks. The water was obviously cool, but the day was still warm, so we dried out quickly.

Back aboard the Tui Tai we had a very filling hamburger lunch with all the fixin’s. I was only able to eat about half, but did finish all the meat because I felt bad wasting protein. We then went on another dive which was fantastic! We saw a 5-6’ white-tipped shark that was probably 20-25’ feet away from us. We also saw an eel farm where all the eels have their faces planted in the sand and their tails are wriggling.

Back above the surface we encountered dolphins swimming along with our boat. We watched them jumping around for a bit and then my dive master Daniel told me to hop in the front of  boat and I was able to film them at the bow as they were swimming along right underneath us!

dolphins

Dinner that evening was a watercress soup, grilled chicken, and pineapple tart. We played a hand of Euchre which was amazing. Euchre is a game that is pretty much only played in Michigan, so to encounter three other people that know how to play in the South Pacific is pretty incredible. I’ll save my description of the rest of the guests for another time. It’s about 7:45am at the moment, and I need to go and get ready for my first dive at 8am. Hopefully we’ll be heading out to dive and snorkel with the manta rays. The Tui Tai crew has a feeding station setup where they usually congregate. Until next time!

Thursday, October 17 2013, 7:27 am

coral

Yesterday was a lot of fun, even though we took it a bit easy. We started off the morning with two dives. One in Dolphin Bay and the other the Rambi Reef. I’ve been capturing a lot of underwater footage and I really hope that some of it turns out well. I feel a bit like a movie producer always going after the best shot. But every time I get too close to the fish with my camera, they run and hide in the coral. Apparently they all learned their lesson from Finding Nemo.

fishChips

After a delicious lunch of fish and chips, we had a few hours to relax. We then donned our sarongs that we had purchased the day before and headed to the island. The school children there put on a show for us and were dressed up in costume. At the very end they ran over to us and pulled us up to dance with them. Hopefully no photos of that exist! There was one little guy in particular that was so enthusiastic. After the show I made sure to go up to him and tell him how much I enjoyed his performance. His name was Timothy. Even though you’d have no trouble picking him out in one of the videos I shot, here’s my favorite picture of him!

timothy

We laid out on the sun lounges for a while as we were taking our evening sunset cruise, but it soon started raining quite hard. Everyone else headed to their rooms, but I was able to talk with one of the engineers on board for a bit. At some point he’s going to give me a tour of the engine room which I think will be a lot of fun. I was going to check it out last night, but after a big steak and garlic mashed potatoes, I was exhausted and went to bed about 8:15! I must be getting old :/

dinnerSetting

Isoa (pronounced S-oh-waa), our tour guide, told us that today we’d be going to the Ringgold Isles. We just dropped anchor this morning. These islands are totally uninhabited and are completely surrounded by coral reefs except for two diametrically opposed spots where the tides come in and out. It’s only possible to reach this island during high tide. He told us that we would be hiking up to the top of the volcanic mountain and then be able to have panoramic views of the entire island. There’s supposed to be a crater in the middle as well with water. Once we hike down, kayaks will be waiting for us and we’ll spend about 45 minutes paddling back out of the crater. Then later tonight, we’ll have a night dive which sounds awesome!

Saturday, October 19 2013, 5:48am Fiji Time

Thursday did turn out to be magical! The diving there was probably the best diving that I’ve ever done. The visibility was about 150 feet and the clarity was amazing! The coral and reef fish were amazing, but the highlight was a few different sharks that made an appearance. The first were a bit away from us, but it appeared to be a mother shark with two of her young. Then later, a larger shark swam within about 15 feet of me!

After our dives we had a pizza buffet and then packed up our gear for the island hike. The views were quite amazing once we reached the top and could see the Pacific Ocean on both sides. It started raining but only lasted for a few minutes. When we hiked down to the side, a boat was waiting to take us to the inner cove. On our way, we stopped by this large tree to observe thousands of fruit bats hanging upside down. Isoa made some sort of predator noise, and they all took off in masse! We paddled out of the cove; I was doing really well in terms of staying dry until I beached the kayak at the end and didn’t get out soon enough. A wave came and finding it not able to push the kayak any longer, flowed over top and soaked me!

bats

The rest of the night was a bit of a blur; I took a Dramamine because the rocking of the boat was quite intense. This knocked me right out, and I only got up briefly for another excellent chicken dinner. The first night when I said I was going to go blog I actually fell asleep without writing anything. As it turned out, “blogging” has become our euphemism for sleeping. The rest of them tease me whenever I say that’s what I’m going to do now.

Yesterday I did something during my dive that you’re never supposed to do: I freaked out. We saw our first sea turtle on this trip, so naturally we took after it to record it. This went fine for about 5 minutes, but then he started swimming away from the reef and out into the large drop off. I swam after him and then watched him head to the surface to breathe. I turned around and realized I was quite far out. I started swimming back but even with me kicking my hardest (with fins) I was only able to stay right in the same place. I was low on air at this point, and was thinking about just heading to the surface, doing my safety stop, and then waiting for the boat to find me. Isoa was apparently trying to tell me to descend to find a better current, but I couldn’t make out what his hand signals meant. He eventually swam out with me and then we swam back together. This is why it’s always a good thing to have a dive master with you. Since he has over 6000 dives, he knows a thing or two about diving safely. He then latched on to a piece of dead coral with his reef hook and we waited out our safety stop.

After we were safely on the Tui Tai, we showered and then jumped into a smaller boat to take us to the island we were docked nearby. We had a picnic lunch there and then spent the afternoon playing in the surf, trying our hand at stand up paddle boarding, hiking up along the coast, and sipping fresh coconut water directly from a coconut Isoa climbed and harvested. The grounds are apparently a second home for an American that lives in California who allows Tui Tai guests to use once a week.

fijifiji

After that we set sail for Taveuni once again. We got all dressed up in our sarongs and made our way to shore. A Taxi took us the rest of the way. One of the crew Tina went along because it was her village that we visited. There they put on a show for us complete with a ritual Kava Ceremony where they take the Kava root and mix it with water. Before you drink it, you must clap once. Then afterwards, you clap three times. There was either too much Kava or not enough of us, because we went around twice in order to finish it. They then did a bunch of different dances including a few with audience participation.

village

Last night was a curry buffet (curried vegetables, chicken, and beef).  I ate about 3 helpings and then decided it was time for me to “blog” 😉

Sunday, October 20 2013, 6:43am

Yesterday was a lot of fun! I finally got my authentic experience in Fiji with a bunch of little kids!

In the morning we went for our normal dive; it was extremely choppy, so the Tui Tai actually dropped us off right at our dive site. We saw a hammerhead shark and then as I was doing my safety stop, I saw another small white tipped shark right below us hanging out on the bottom. The video of that looks really cool, so I’m excited to start editing all the footage I’ve captured!

After a shower and hot breakfast we jumped into the Zodiak and went back ashore Taveuni; after a brief stop at Tina’s village to trade some fish that we caught for some freshly picked Taro, we continued our 45 minute drive to the village of Bouma. They have three large waterfalls there. We hiked up to the spot on the hill well above the first one and enjoyed panoramic views of Taveuni. Then we went back down to the first waterfall and jumped in from the cave behind. Isoa had told me to bring along my Fiji waterfall shot…he said this was the place to drink it 😉

waterfall

It started raining during the hike truly illuminating the reason why they call it a rain forest. That said, it was a refreshing rain because it was still around 76 degrees. We walked back to the pavilion at the beginning of the trail and then our guides started up the BBQ. While that was happening, I saw one woman from our party walk over to a group of children that were playing at start handing out candy that she had brought. After grabbing my camera I made my way over there as well; they were busy devouring a coconut that they had opened with a machete (keep in mind these kids were probably between the ages of 5-13). They told me that they were part of a local Rugby team and were very patient in explaining their names to me…lots of rolled Rs always makes for a difficult time for me. We chatted for a while about the things they like to do for fun, and they were really curious about how to pronounce my name. They showed me how they like to run and dive off the nearby bridge, and I took pictures as they would do this. There was this one adorable little girl who wandered by and showed me her puppy! Of course I had to snap a pic! After lunch we came back over and chatted for a while longer. They shared a piece of their coconut with us which was quite good. Isoa came over with a bunch of fruit that we had left over from lunch and shared with the boys. They were really happy to have it and most took 3 or 4 pieces! As we left, they were all waving and saying goodbye.

girlPuppy

We drove back and headed back out to sea headed toward the island of Qamea; the large swells always bother me a bit, so I always try to sleep when we have the engine’s on and are pushing through open water. Daniel woke me up to ask if I wanted to do the night dive, which I of course said yes to. I’ve never done a night dive before, so I was a bit nervous. They gave us a torch and we got all geared up. The Captain came with as did a few of the crew. Before dropping in, Daniel told us not to shine our lights on turtles if we saw any and not to shine them at sharks because otherwise they would swim straight towards us! Real reassuring to someone going on his first night dive!

In actuality, we didn’t see a ton of things; it appeared that most of the fish were asleep, and the visibility is obviously much worse at night. We dove in Carey’s Cove, and only went down about 20 meters. This meant that we got longer bottom time, though.

Safely back aboard, we showered and then had our delicious dinner before heading back to my stateroom to “blog”.

Monday, October 21 2013, 5:41pm

As I write this I’m sitting in the Bedarra Beach Inn’s outdoor dining room overlooking their pool and the Pacific Ocean. My last day aboard the Tui Tia was magical. We awoke early to find ourselves docked in waters surrounding Qamea Island and proceeded to take one of the tender boats over to a mangrove forest. There our kayaks were waiting for us and we were able to go through the waterways carved through the trees. I got a little too close a few times only to see these rather large spider-looking crabs that would run up and down the tree. I paid close attention not to get too close to make sure that they didn’t jump into my kayak and later found out that Isoa considers them to be delicacies. At one point we paddled into really shallow waters which butted right up against a local village. The kids kept waving and shouting “Bula!” while some of the adults chatted with our guides aboard the tender boats.

DCIM102GOPRO

Once we got back on board, we headed over to one of our crew’s family’s house; they’re caretakers for this amazing home and every week host the traditional Lovo celebration. This entails piling lots of firewood on top of large stones. They light that on fire and then get the stones heated up to be red hot. They then pile large palm leaves over top and roast fish, pork, chicken, and karo. We saw them making the preparations and headed back to the boat. There we spent a bit of time jumping off the boat. It took a bit of encouragement for me to agree to jump, but as soon as I got back onboard, Isoa was standing right near the stairway along with Uday. He smiled at me and then grabbed him. He told me to grab his legs and we threw him over board. I felt a bit bad about it, honestly, but Uday was a good sport. And after taking that plunge then I met him one deck higher and he asked me to take his picture as he did a perfect dive into the water below!

DCIM102GOPRO

We started moving quite soon after being back on board. As we started heading out into open water, I happened to be on the upper deck. Clayton was in the tender boat that we normally drag behind us, quickly wrapping up the disconnected line as we got farther and farther away from him. Then he whisks up beside us as I look at him from the upper deck. I see one other crew member jump in and a large container of gasoline get handed down into the boat and then they go zooming back to the island. Later I found out that apparently he had forgotten to give the key to the house that his family was caretaking for, and so had to hurry back and return that. I took a nap as we proceeded to move from Qamea Island back to our starting point in Buca Bay.

The Lovo was lovely, even though I wasn’t all that hungry. I had asked if we could all eat together (passengers and crew), but my request was either turned down or forgotten. That was unfortunate because I really got to know the crew well and consider them to be my friends. After dinner we swapped e-mail addresses and a few photos. Everyone headed to bed early while I stayed up and read for a while. Ironically this was the first night that I felt awake enough to stay up late. Unfortunately for me, everyone else was tired. Eventually I retired, since myself, Ray and Sally had a 6pm appointment with Junior the next morning to catch our 8:50am flight back to Nadi.

I woke up early, but read for a while until I figured I had better start packing. I quickly cleaned out my cabin and then went down for a quick cold breakfast. The crew had already gathered dressed in their finest and had their instruments at the ready. They sang their traditional farewell song, and I literally had to fight back tears. I had multiple people comment that the guests don’t normally mingle with the crew as much as our small group did, and I knew that I was going to miss them quite a bit!

An hour and half later and we were back at the airport in Savusavu. The plane was a bit late, but we all got back to Nadi safely. My flight doesn’t leave until tomorrow evening at 10pm, so I decided to rent a car and drive down to Suva and explore it for a bit. I made it out of the very touristy Nadi and drove about 1/3 of the way. I really should have driven further, but I took a few detours and checked out a town called Sigatoka for a bit. It felt much more like a real city with real people, and I was really happy for the welcome change. But I am travelling alone, and I’m starting to crave the companionship of a travel buddy.

My manager said that a short-term break is good to do for oneself, but that it needs to be longer than two weeks. He said that after 1 week, you start to relax. After 2 weeks, you begin to stop thinking about work. 3 weeks allows you to start thinking about life, and 4 weeks brings deep philosophical reflection about life and its purpose.

But if you know the layout of the maze, you can do it faster, so I seem to be on the third and fourth week’s task on my second week. I’ve found myself thinking quite a bit about life and what it all means. I’ve thought a lot about my Mom, and I think that a lot of the things that I’m striving for are as a result of how she lived her life: I knew I never wanted to have to worry about money. I knew that I wanted to travel widely, and explore the world. And I knew that I wanted to accomplish a lot. I’m working on figuring everything out, even though I don’t think I’ve come that far yet. Well my pizza is here, so I’ll pick this up tomorrow!

Tuesday, October 22 2013, 2013 9:20pm

Today I did something I was taught never to do: I picked up hitchhikers. I dislike driving, especially on long trips. Usually when I’m in the car I feel it’s wasted time. I try to fill it with audiobooks, long phone calls, or ideally intellectual banter with someone else (preferably they’re driving and I’m the passenger). Couple my dislike of driving with the necessity of doing it on the wrong side of the road (wrong being the opposite of the right side) in a foreign country with questionable insurance and you start to get a little crazy.

In America, if you want to hitch hike, you just hold out your thumb. But in Fiji, you hold out your whole hand and move from your elbow up and down gently the same way you’d signal for a bus. I saw a few people do this but originally wrote it off as them waving, so I’d wave back and shout “Bula” as I hurtled on past. Eventually I figured out that I was unintentionally being quite rude, and I pulled over as I passed this couple waiting a bit away from the bus shelter. They ran forward and I got out of the car and asked if they needed a ride. The rather large man introduced himself as Hopi (pronounced like the Indian tribe) and asked where I was headed, so I told him Suva. That’s where he was going too, so I told him to get in. I asked the woman whom I presumed to be his wife if she was coming too, but she was not. I asked him some cursory questions, but I wasn’t sure what the standard protocol was. He didn’t fear asking inappropriate questions however, and within 10 minutes of us being in the car together he asked me how much money I made! Obviously I declined to share that information, and we went back to silence. I’d ask about different things as we passed the sights, but I started wondering why I had stopped in the first place.

It wasn’t long before I saw another group of kids that always signaled. I could tell that they were on their way to school, because they were all wearing standard uniforms which I had seen the day before in Sigatoka. I asked where they were headed and my friend Hopi assured me that it was on the way, so they piled in. The eldest girl was named Tina. Along for the ride was her very little sister whose name she didn’t give me and her brother Joseph. The two girls got out rather quickly as their school was closest. Joseph and Tina exchanged some muffled words, and Tina reached back in and tried to hand me $5 FJD. I declined and Joseph climbed back in happy that he had gotten his sister to try and compensate me. The boy’s secondary school was a few kilometers south yet. I asked him about his studies, and he said he was studying math extra hard. He wasn’t very talkative, but if you know me well you know that I have a huge soft spot for any children that I meet. We arrived soon enough, and Joseph left me alone with my first passenger once again.

The Queen’s Road runs all the way from Nadi to Suva and is one half of the Fijian highway along with the King’s road which connects the two going around the other side of the country. This highway is normally 80 kmph except every 10-20 km when a little village breaks up the road; in these vicinities the speed limit drops to 50 kmph. I went over a bridge and apparently missed a sign temporarily lowering the speed limit to 60 kmph. A uniformed office walked out into the middle of the road and signaled for me to pull over. I did silently cursing myself for my bad luck. The officer came over and first shook my hand which was really odd to me. He then showed me the radar gun which read 76 and informed me that I should have slowed down after reaching the bridge. I apologized, and told him that I completely missed the sign. He told me that he would have to give me a ticket which I could pay in Suva. He asked where I was staying and asked for my driver’s license. I gave him the name of my first hostel I stayed at because I didn’t want to mention that I had slept in my car the night before. He disappeared and Hopi apologized for not warning me. It was clearly not his fault at all, but I still appreciated the gesture. The police officer returned several minutes later and handed me back my license. He then shook my hand again, and said that he wasn’t going to book me, but that I should make sure to drive more carefully and pay attention to all the signs. I agreed to do so, and thanked him. As we got back on the road Hopi commented that I had been lucky, and he thought that the reason I got off without a ticket is because I had him, a native Fijean, in the car with me. I think that his reasoning was likely correct.

As we approached Suva, Hopi offered to show me around town. He mentioned that he had been a taxi driver in Suva for 6 months while his wife was pregnant with their baby and knew the town quite well. I said that would be great and he then slipped in that first he needed me to drive him a few miles outside of town so he could drop off his package to a friend. The manner in which he first offered me something before making a request did not go unnoticed by me. He started directing me to places that didn’t make me entirely comfortable with driving because I didn’t feel confident I could retrace my steps. We went clockwise around roundabouts, back and forth back roads, and through multiple non-working lights where everyone would simply guess as to whose turn was next; one’s mere presence in the lane served as the official indicator that it was in fact his turn.

He finally said we had arrived, and he gets out and hands his friend this this big burlap bag. After chatting for a few minutes, he hops back in and says we can continue. I’ve been brainwashed by my American upbringing to assume that I had just helped a drug dealer transport his stash and complete a successful sale. My suspicions finally outweighed my tactfulness, and I ask him point blank what was in the bag. “It was a pumpkin”, he replies deadpan. I hope he wasn’t looking at my face when he said that because my eyes must have bugged out of my head! A pumpkin!? Who did this guy take me for? Who in their right mind spends 2 hours in a car to deliver a pumpkin? Lucky for me, my filter was still turned on, so I merely volleyed an inquisitive “Oh?”.

“Yes, I’m a farmer”, Hopi rejoined. Unlike San Francisco where you can’t walk downtown without smelling pot, the only thing that people seemed to be into here was drinking Kava in copious quantities (my brief encounter left my tongue numb). I didn’t have any further questions I dared ask my taller, heavier, now-suspected drug dealer, so I allowed him to direct me back to a place he described as being a “nice safe place to store the car” which turned out to be the supermarket. They did have security there!

Once the car was parked, we walked around the city. It was much larger than I was expecting. After seeing how the villages were structured and the outer islands, I was not expecting a bonafide city. Suva has high-rises, the only cinema in the country, and big government buildings. It would be easy to get lost in. We walked through a few different shops and Hopi seemed to think that I’d enjoy shopping at the “tourist shops”. These were shops that were catered to foreign visitors: air conditioning blasting out of the open doors, everyone clothed in neatly pressed and matching Fiji-inspired livery, and looking like a combination between a Kohl’s and a Meijer or Safeway. Ever since disbanding my shot class collection (irony is a cruel mistress, is she not?), I’ve never been one for souvenirs. I’ve been on a quest for minimalistic living lately, so the only thing that increased when I go on a trip is my digital archive.

Two buildings that stood out for me: the first was the Suva Carnegie Library which Andrew Carnegie’s grandson donated the money to build. I asked to go inside and take a look. It was small by anyone’s standards, but it also charged a membership fee of $22 (assumed yearly?) which allowed one to check out up to 4 books at a time. They also had a note that said that primary and secondary students weren’t allowed in the library during school hours without a school pass. There are only a few people that I can think of that would consider skipping school to go hang out in the library; I’m one of those people, but I didn’t think it would ever warrant a sign saying such things.

The second building was a little hole-in-the wall coffee and tea place. Hopi was obviously getting hungry and asked if I wanted tea. I agreed because I thought it would be a fun experience, and he led me down into a little shop tucked away in the back corner of an underground alleyway. As soon as we walked in the smell of many different pastries hit my nostrils. They were right up front on large plates which were being guarded by the cashier/fly swatter. She sat there fanning away the flies and also took our money. It was $1 for each piece as well as $1 for the tea which they called Miro. The lemon-tasting treat that I took was okay, but certainly not delicious or nutritious. The tea wasn’t to my liking either, but tea normally isn’t. When I indicated I was done, Hopi asked if he could finish my tea since I had already paid for it. I didn’t have a problem with that in the least, so he downed that bringing his total pie pieces to two and his total tea cups to two as well.

Hopi wanted to go over to get his son’s shoes fixed, so we walked over to a nearby farmer’s market. There were quite a few Indian cobblers there that were fixing all sorts of shoes. Hopi pulled out this small sandal which had one of the Velcro pieces pulled off. When I saw the small sandal it suddenly seemed to validate some of his story. He explained what he wanted done to the teenager, and said we’d walk around the market and come back in 15 minutes. I did a double take on the sandal, because it was just a cheap plastic thing that I would’ve thrown out without a second thought. But here was someone who represented a culture where things like that were repaired whether due to cost or environmental consideration. I have a hunch that it’s more the former, but still, vastly different than ‘Merica.

cobbler

We walked through the farmer’s market together. I recognized the large cuts of Kava root thanks to Isoa pulling out a large piece for Bill to take back to the crew for proper brewing. There were lots of good deals, but unfortunately I was leaving that evening and knew I couldn’t take any food past customs. The pineapple aboard the Tui Tai was delicious though and it came from the islands themselves from pineapples that were about half the size of what we normally see in America. I tried my luck and for $1 FJD, I bought myself one that was already cut. It was as delicious as I remembered, and I’m sad that I won’t be having more in the near future.

Hopi bought a few things too, and we returned to the cobbler to pick up his son’s shoe. It had been done to his satisfaction, so he paid the kid a few dollars for the repair. We headed back to the car a little before noon. On the way to the supermarket, though, we had to stop at one of the used DVD stores to look for a movie about Rugby that his son enjoyed watching. If you’ve ever wondered what happens to old DVDs, somebody must aggregate them and then ship them to Fiji in a big Ocean container where they’re resold for $3/movie. He didn’t find what he was looking for, so we returned to the car empty handed.

After running into his Uncle who works at the supermarket, we got back to the car. I paid the $2 fee for the “nice safe parking”, and we were off. “Oh, we need to pickup the air freight from DHL on the way”. I didn’t know how to politely inform him that he had hitch hiked with me which indicates a one way free ride from point A to point B. Not a taxi service engaged for round service treatment at his passengers beckoning. But I’ve always been extremely passive aggressive, so I acquiesced while thinking about all the things I should’ve said to him. That is, until we had been there more than 20 minutes and there was still no Hopi in sight. He had left his back pack in my car, and I honestly considered leaving it outside and driving off. After all this was my vacation and he was wasting my time with all of his errands. But I decided to go inside looking for him; he was chatting it up with this customs agent. I indicated that we should hurry it up a bit by loudly tapping my toe, crossing my arms, and fiercely glaring at him. So after all that wait, out comes 3 large and heavy boxes on a pallet jack! At first I thought that for sure this was more drugs, but then I realized that they had just been cleared by a customs agent, so unless he was bribing him, it was unlikely to be anything illegal in the containers.

Relieved to finally be on the one-lane-per-direction road again, we headed back towards Nadi. I did stop at the Pacific Coast which is advertised as “the Adventure Capital of Fiji”. It had a few cool shops, and there was a massage place offering a traditional Fijian “Bula Massage” that has 4 people (8 hands) on you for an hour and 15 minutes for $80 FJD. I almost did it, as she gave me an unrequested sample as I was standing up and it felt fantastic. But I was chauffeuring Hop around, so what’s a guy to do? The ironic thing is that most people that encountered Hopi and I likely suspected that he was my taxi driver whom I had hired for the day.

As I was driving back to the Queen’s road, Hopi told me to stay on the side road and park in front of a small bakery. He wanted to buy some bread. So I waited. Then he got back and wanted to buy some butter for another small supermarket. So I waited again less than patiently getting angrier by the minute; who did this guy think he was? He was taking advantage of my generosity.

We drove for quite some time, but eventually came up upon his village. I drove down a dirt road, turned on another direct road that had large mud puddles, and drove over a large patch of big stones to reach his front porch. There my heart did a complete 180. He lived in one of those properties that I had mentioned in my other article. It wasn’t so much a house in the American sense as it was a tin shack. There was a large wooden front porch, but the windows didn’t have any screens, there was no furniture to be seen inside, and the only appliance I saw was a very old, tiny refrigerator standing in the corner. After helping him carry the boxes of “clothes” up the stairs, his wife Miri (pronounced Mir-e) offered me some tea. I accepted, and she quickly went inside to heat up some water. She came out to the front porch with a large mat which had been weaved using the dried branches of a palm tree. She then brought out two large mugs of cocoa and a heaping pile of bread slathered in a healthy helping of butter (most likely the same stuff that Hopi had just bought). She also brought out a container of cane sugar for the cocoa. After appropriately sweetening the drink, my drink wasn’t all that bad. I declined the bread though, as I didn’t feel right eating what little they had when I have so much.

Turns out that she is 30 and he is 38. They have a daughter who is 14 and lives in Suva with the rest of his family and a son who is 8 that still lives with them. In their words, neither has a job they just farm. When I asked about their son becoming a farmer too, Miri replied “Oh, we hope not; we’re doing everything we can to keep him in school so that he can get a job and support us.” I pressed for more, by asking what kind of job and she replied that it would hopefully be a good government job like a policeman. She mentioned that jobs are hard to come by in Fiji which is why so many people farm.

The farm wasn’t large, but it was sizeable for just the two of them. They had a bull which they used to help plow their fields and a horse which they said was their son’s. I asked them about selling the crops and they said that they could take them to the farmer’s market in Suva (which was a 2-3 hour drive), or they could sell them at the street which is what they usually do. Hopi commented that the government doesn’t support (I corrected with subsidize) farming in Fiji like they do in America, so there’s no guaranteed market for them to sell to.

hopiHouse

Hopi asked me about farming in America, and what crops we usually plant. I mentioned corn, beans, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, etc., and he looked on knowingly.

They started talking to themselves in Fijian, and Hopi translated: “My wife has to go up to our village to drop off a few more pumpkins and is wondering if you could take her?” I asked whether they wanted me to just drop her off, or bring her back too. At my suggestion, they jumped on that and Hopi decided that since I was driving he would come too. It was raining quite liberally, so although you wouldn’t get completely soaked at first, with a 10-20 minute walk you’d definitely get drenched.

After “regressing” (their word for backing up) my car back thru the driveway that was never designed for a vehicle, we drove to the village. I have wanted to do this since my first day in Fiji, I just didn’t think it was appropriate for me to just drop in on a village. But while Miri was dropping off the plants, Hopi showed me the community center where a bunch of women were working on weaving mats similari to the one we sat on at Hopi’s place. They all greeted me warming, and allowed me to come in and take pictures. I asked how long one takes, and they replied “Oh not long…usually about 4 days.” There were at least 5 women working on it while I was there.

After taking them back, Hopi asked how much his fare was. I obviously told him not to worry about and that I was happy to have taken him. And even though I may not have felt that way while actually driving, I was telling him the truth: I had really enjoyed my day with him!

We exchanged contact information and Hopi said that I have a place to stay whenever I need it. He also commented that it was sad that we were just getting to know each other on the last day of my stay in Fiji. They were so sincere and so nice even though they have so very little. I wished them well with their crops, and took off back towards Nadi. I stopped for two other hitch hikers. The first was a woman that worked at the Beach House which is a backpackers resort in the Coral Coast which I had heard good things about. She too tried to pay me, which I declined.

Then I was going by a school where there were a bunch of Rugby players. I stopped and then 4 guys jumped in. They weren’t all that nice, and one left a big stain in the back. After dropping them off, I didn’t see anybody else that needed a ride.

I got back to the airport a little after dark, returned my rental car, and then checked in for the long flight home. I was quite happy with my vacation; I had gotten to see many of Fiji’s extremes: poor vs. wealthy; touristy vs. authentic; and cities, villages, and remote white sandy beaches. I certainly enjoyed my time in Fiji, and now that I’m back in the states I find myself missing the wonderful greeting that conveys so much happiness and emotion: Bula!

  • Kelly B. on Nov 01, 2013 Reply

    I loved reading this! Sounds like you had a fantastic trip! I love trying to see the authentic side of the locations I travel to and not just the touristy places. I’ve yet to immerse myself into the culture quite as much as you appear to have in Fiji, but we generally try to get to know some of the locals and find out what places they like to go to/eat at/etc. I’m not sure that I’m brave enough to pick up hitchhikers…but it sounds like it worked out pretty well for you in the end 🙂 I can’t wait to hear more about your trip and maybe see some videos when you’re back in GR sometime!