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First Impressions of Fiji

I decided to come to Fiji because Zozi (a site similar to Groupon) had a really great deal on a SCUBA expedition and I LOVE diving. Ever since getting certified and experiencing the weightlessness and amazing underwater environment, I’ve been addicted! But there were limited flights and Tuesday’s were the cheapest, so I decided to come a few days early to check out the main island before heading on the boat. Like usual, I procrastinated and didn’t book my hostel until a few hours before I left. This meant that I didn’t start packing until I was to the point where I had about 15 minutes to throw everything in my suitcase! I grabbed a Lyft and was dropped at SFO a little over an hour before my flight. Even though the ticket counter agent gave me a funny look, I was still able to get through security in plenty of time, and my luggage all arrived safely. While I wouldn’t recommend cutting it so close, it did all work out well for me. I flew from SFO to LAX at which point I had to exit the terminal and head over to their very large international terminal. I went through security again, and was blown away by the amount of high-end, duty-free shops. I had about 3 hours before my flight, so I actually had time to log on to the amazingly-free wifi and book my return trip ticket from SFO to Grand Rapids. That was a bit sad to do, but exciting at the same time.

As I boarded I realized that this was the largest plane that I’ve ever been on! It was a double decker and I got to sit in front on the upper deck. Plus I even got a window seat which had a bunch of additional storage on the right side. The flight took 10 hours and 10 minutes. We got dinner right away and then breakfast about 2 hours before landing. I was able to sleep like a rock, so time passed quite quickly. When I was awake, I was able to chat with this really friendly family that had been taking a holiday in the US.

We landed, went through customs, and then I found the van that took everyone that was headed to Smugglers Cove. There were about 6 of us, but later I found out that most of the people I would meet had been on my flight.

An interesting observation: people that stay in hostels come from all walks of life: young, old, rich, poor, student, professional, Elvis impersonator, and guitarists; there is ALWAYS someone that plays the guitar. I continue to be astounded by the diversity. I stay in hostels primarily because they’re cheap: mine here is $33 Fijian dollars which is about $20 USD/night and includes “breakfast”. I put that in quotes because it’s largely composed of over-refined carbohydrates and no protein. They do have papaya and pineapple each morning which is one of the redeeming qualities. Another reason I travel in hostels especially when travelling alone is to meet people. There were many people I met that were taking trips around the world: a lot of Ausssies obviously, but also people from Germany, France, England, and Jamaica. Many of them worked for a year or more, saved up a stockpile of money, and then quit working to explore for anywhere from a few months to a year. One tidbit I learned was that it’s extremely easy to get a working/holiday visa from Australia. Apparently it takes about 24 hours and a few hundred dollars. And their standard entry wage for hospitality is somewhere in the neighborhood of $20.

Fiji time – apart from being unrushed and +/-10 minutes from what’s posted – is 17 hours ahead of PST and 20 hours ahead. But really the way I think about it is that we’re 5 hours behind PST and 8 hours behind EST….+a day. It was odd leaving on Tuesday evening, being on the plane/in the airport for 14 hours, and then to get there on Thursday morning, but that’s what happens when one crosses the international date line. But now I like to think that I’m living in the future, and let me reassure you: the future looks good J.

The first day I was here was Fiji Day which is similar to America’s Independence Day. All the shops were closed and the Fijians stayed home with their families to celebrate their national holiday. This actually worked out quite well because I was able to just relax and do nothing which isn’t something that I often get a chance to do with my experience everything, you-can-sleep-when-your-dead mentality of living life. But after a long international flight, this can be the best medicine. I made a few new friends, walked the beach looking for shells, and practiced some time lapse photography with my new GoPro. It was a rare overcast day in Fiji, so I also didn’t get burned which was good!

One thing that seems to hold true is that your expectations tend to drive your experiences; the first day in a hostel is easier to make friends because you’re able to bond over everything. For me, I was walking down the beach and I ran into a French guy wading into the water. That conversation lead to an introduction to his girlfriend and we all became friends over the course of several days. But if you go into life expecting people to be unfriendly, you tend to find that that’s the case. And the longer you stay in the same place the more comfortable you become in your own routines which present fewer opportunities for you to make friends and meet new people.

On Friday, I wanted to get out and explore. Smuggler’s Cove is one of a few hostels located by the airport. There are a lot of backpackers, but not a ton to do. The four people staying in my room talked about renting a car and splitting it, but the rental guy came by and told us that the people that had the car had decided to extend their reservation, so we were out of luck. I really wanted to explore some other areas, so I split a taxi out to Denauru Port with one of my dorm-mates. The Port turned out to also be a small shopping center designed to separate tourists from their money. We grabbed lunch and then walked over to the man-made island that houses the majority of the 5 star resorts. The guy I went over there with was apparently a male model for Calvin Klein and wanted to work out, so he went to the Hilton’s gym while I went to the beach to work on my sunburn. We were going to meet up later, but never ended up finding one another. This was a little taste of what it must have been like before cell phones and texting became ubiquitous :/

I walked along the beach and ran into the designated swimming areas in the Pacific Ocean. It wasn’t quite as crystal clear as they show in the advertisements, so I opted for exploring the resorts and looking at all the pools. While I was going through the Hilton, an activities director stopped me and asked if I’d like to participate in a Fijian cooking class. Never one to turn out experiences, I accepted and he took me into one of the kitchens with a few other guests and taught us how to make Vakasoso. This is a traditional Fijian desert that starts with large plantains which are split longwise down the side. It’s filled with scraped coconut from a mature coconut. Then coconut cream (pressed coconut milk that has been strained and thickened with sugar) is ladled over it so that the concoction soaks up the milk. You then put it in the oven for the whole thing to coalesce, and it’s ready for serving! It was delicious and a lot of fun to see how it was made. As I was walking along the beach the chef that taught the class approached me and asked if I enjoyed the class. I, of course, said yes and so he told me to write down a few other local dishes I should try: Kokoda, Lovo, and Kava. I did eventually get to try the last one during a traditional Kava Ceremony. It’s made from a bitter root and looks like dirty water. I was told to drink it bottoms up and then I would become one of the Fijean people and could do whatever I want on their island. I did as told, and got a numb tongue in return. Apparently if you continue to drink it your entire body goes numb. I opted to end my Kava experience after the first cup as I greatly prefer  Vakasoso.

After walking for a bit more, I found the perfect place for sunset, and setup my GoPro. I enjoyed reading a free travel magazine which described one woman’s “experience of a lifetime” which just so happened to be about a voyage aboard the Tui Tai…coincidently the vessel that I’ll be boarding on Monday!

As the sun set, someone from the resort came by and began lighting all of the torches lining the sidewalk. Then really large fruit bats began flying overhead migrating from the island where they slumbered during the day. It was fascinating to see them swoop over us in search of their breakfast.

Fiji seems very much like the touristy parts of Mexico: the cabbies yell out and ask if you want a ride, everything is negotiable, and some locals selling their wares ask where you’re from not so much because they’re curious but more because it helps them decide what price they can charge you. I largely find this exciting and humorous, although I know that it can be really annoying for other people. I enjoy negotiating and getting a great deal, so it’s a lot of fun for me to haggle. At the same time, I do get frustrated when none of the travel brochures have prices.

Our cab driver was a funny guy. He agreed to drive us from our hostel to the port for $20 FJD down $5 from the normal price. Then the whole way he was giving us tips and advice on how not to get taken advantage of by other locals. He explained how to make our way back to our hostel for a little under $3.50. So after sunset, I took his advice and walked down the main road until I got to the bus stop. There was one local worker there from the Hilton; I confirmed that this was the place to catch the bus to Nadi Town and waited patiently with him. I was glad he was there because there’s a little hand signal that one does when the bus is approaching much like one would hail a taxi in NYC. The bus came and it was packed with locals! I was the only tourist there, and honestly it was a bit uncomfortable. There’s a “Bula bus” which costs $8 and is clearly designed for the tourists whereas this bus cost $1.50, BUT one pays when one exits vs. when one gets on which is obviously exactly the opposite of what I’m used to in the States; I think that everyone trusts each other more here. From Nadi, I was supposed to wait somewhere else for another bus that would take me past my hostel. But I hadn’t paid enough attention on the way there, it was dark, and I didn’t know which stop I needed to get off at anyway, so whenever a cabbie asked if I needed a ride I’d ask how much to get to Smuggler’s Cove. They ranged from $7-$10, so after doing a small bit of grocery shopping (sun cream, peanuts, and fruit) I accepted one of their offers and was whisked off to Smugglers. I later found out that my dorm-mate was able to get back for $5, so clearly I should’ve negotiated a bit more.

It’s interesting how so many of the places where people vacation are fake; they’re setup just for the tourists and don’t show how the locals really live. It must be frustrating to make due with so little and then to see tourists come into your home and spend exorbitant amounts on things they don’t really need. If I was in their place, I imagine I’d be quite frustrated. Oddly enough though, almost every Fijian I’ve met has been nothing but friendly. Everyone greets one another with their traditional greeting “Bula!” which I’ve been told means “Life” but is used as a greeting none-the-less. Everyone seems upbeat and happy which makes Fiji a really great place to spend time since everyone knows that happiness is infectious!

That said I’m very much looking forward to some more authentic experiences. Touring the local town and supermarket was hugely informative and was definitely my most authentic experience thus far. The most surprising thing to me was that the eggs aren’t refrigerated! I haven’t researched it yet because my access to the Internet is quite limited, but supposedly the reason that supermarkets in the US refrigerate eggs is because they go through a sterilization process that kills all bacteria. This means that the good bacteria that’s normally present in eggs can’t defend against the bad bacteria. After all, hens lay warm eggs out in the sun, so it at least seems plausible. Today I’m planning on visiting some mud baths and hot springs. Tomorrow is still up in the air, but then Monday I’ll make my way back to the airport for the next step in my vacation!

The following is an update written Monday, October 14 around 8am.

Bula! I did end up going to the Sobeto Mud Pool Hot Springs on Saturday. It was about a 45 minute drive including a brief stop at a local fruit market. The cabs here are so interesting; there aren’t any meters, and it’s always a negotiation up front. And they’re more about hiring a car for particular event as opposed to just arranging transport from point A to point B. Whereas in a city you’d call a cab to get you somewhere and then they’d drive off to get their next passenger, here you pay the cabbie and he waits with you while you do whatever activity you’re partaking in and then he takes you back. It reminds me very much of my family’s time in Jamaica. I believe my dad paid a driver $80 to take us around for the day.

We went with 7 people + 2 guys from the resort. The 7 of us paid $35 for the ride, but we paid that to the hostel, so I’m sure they took a cut before paying the cabbie. Then it was $15 to get into the mud baths and then another $5 for lunch. These are all Fijian dollars, of course, so USD is about 58% of that. I’ve been nursing a sunburn on my shoulders since the second day here so while the mud felt good the last bath was extremely hot so I didn’t spend much time there. The experience was very much like a facial for one’s entire body. Maybe Lewis Litt from Suits knows what he’s talking about after all.

The main hot spring is so hot that the local villagers actually boil their food in it. It has a large fence erected around it to prevent anyone from falling in accidently. One thing I was really surprised about was that they had a huge trash pit where they just throw their garbage. It bothered me that they did this, but I think that’s because in the States we simply camouflage all our waste. On my most recent remodel, I think that I’ve had at least fiver 20-yard dumpsters already, and will probably need a few more. Here in the local village, instead of paying people to haul it off and make the garbage someone else’s problem, they throw it down in a valley where everyone can see what they’re doing to the environment.

Someday, as 3D printers become ubiquitous, I think we’ll see great improvements in being able to receyle things at the very elemental level. Imagine a machine where you throw your waste and all of the base elements get separated back into their individual parts to be reused in the next 3D printing of whatever you need!

When we got back, I took a nap. It has been 5 days now, so I finally feel that I’ve adjusted; supposedly conventional wisdom suggests that one needs one day to adjust for each time zone changed, so I should finally be used to the local time.

Yesterday was an absolutely crazy day! To understand it though, let me give you a bit of background first:

My first morning here I wandered into a surf shop that’s right at my hostel’s property and there was this local-ish guy from America (supposedly here for 3 months, but comes every now and then for a few months at a time) who turned out to be an Elvis impersonator who sings at the bars and resorts around here. He gave me lots of unsolicited albeit seemingly good advice about where to go and what to do. He obviously knew a bit, so I filed his tips away and wrote him off as harmless.

There’s a small café just down the street from where I’m staying that has free wifi, so it’s the place everyone congregates to check e-mail and Facebook. Yesterday morning I was over there trying to figure out what to do with my day. I was reading reviews and suggested itineraries from Frommer’s and Lonely Planet and even talked to a cab driver (the same talkative guy that took us to Port Danaru) about hiring him for a half day to take me down to what Condé Nest apparently considers to be the 7th best beach in the world Natadola. As luck would have it, I sat at a table of two Germans who mentioned that they were planning on taking a day trip down that way and had already talked to a taxi driver that would do it for $100 split between whoever went. I hesitated briefly, but then quickly said yes as I didn’t have anything else planned. I walked over to the taxi and who else should I see but my friend Elvis. Apparently he has a nephew from Michigan that I remind him of, so his nickname became Uncle Elvis. And just like an Uncle he was full of half-way true stories, local trivia, and insights into some of the better things to do on the island.

We ended up agreeing on $30/person for a van for the day. That came to a $180 fare for the driver for about 9 hours of his time but because he did a really great job we ended up giving him closer to $200 at the end of the evening. It’s hard to break away from the tipping habit, although it’s much easier for me to do that at restaurants. Tipping in Fiji isn’t a custom. I also learned that when dining in Australia, the taxes area also already included in the prices which would be a nice thing for us to adopt in the States. It is certainly nice to know exactly what one’s bill is going to be when ordering something in Fiji.

We started off by grabbing breakfast at Port Danaru. The steakhouse there has $4 breakfast sandwiches; after the carbolicious continental breakfast at the hostel each morning, it was a welcome change to eat meat! While there Uncle Elvis secured a new gig singing twice a week at the steakhouse for $500 a week. This covers his rent and basic expenses, so it looks like he’ll be able to stay in Fiji indefinitely which he was extremely excited about. It’s always interesting to me to understand how people think through their expense cycles. Personally I consider my entire life. Uncle Elvis prefers to take it week-by-week. I reserve the right to pass any judgment on which is right, but I do find it interesting to think about. Many Americans seem to think about their own expenses on a monthly basis.

After breakfast we wandered down the docks to look at all the super yachts. I almost started playing Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous on my iPhone because that’s what came to mind. After observing the toys of the wealthiest stratosphere we high-tailed it to Natadola beach. The ride there was quite thought provoking; it saddened me greatly to see the standard of living here. It’s the first time in my life that I’ve seen so many people living in such poverty. Many of the houses don’t even have glass windows; they’re just covered with cloth. It presents an interesting dichotomy, because I absolutely do not believe that the best way to help would be to give them money or subsidize their way of living. My economic education doesn’t provide an easy solution, but I suppose the Californian liberal inside of me momentarily felt like I should do something to fix this even though anything I did would likely not solve the larger issue.

Obviously tourism is a huge industry here, but I feel that with the money that developed countries bring here also comes the worst of the developed nation; oreos and soda pop are not the best our society has to offer, and yet those are the things that get imported here. We stopped at a local supermarket on our way because it’s much cheaper than the tourist shops. In local stores, there is a very limited selection. Many things are boxed or canned, fans blow around the hot air, and there isn’t really a dairy section. But walk into the store at the Port and you’re blasted with air conditioning, greeted with row after row of produce, and you have 10 different varieties of cheese…just like a Wal-Mart in North America. Clearly these are more expensive to import which is why they’re here for tourists, but there is a huge divide between locals and tourists which is difficult for me to get over.

We arrived at Natadola and were awe-struck. Compared to our dingy little beach at our hostel, this was Fiji at its best: sparkling turquoise water, white sandy beaches, and almost nobody else in sight. There were horses there for rent, but none of us decided to indulge. We played around for a bit, and then our tour guide Uncle Elvis told us it was time to go and check out the Intercontinental Resort.

The Intercon is amazing; this is the place I want to come back to for my honeymoon! Their huge infinity pool overlooks Natadola and there’s a large coral reef out there that provides plenty of things for snorkelers and divers to explore. The grounds are expertly manicured and they have very high quality cabanas overlooking their own private lagoon. I combed the beach for a while and found some really cool coral specimens to take home. I did get the notion while there that it would be a lot of fun to develop large destination resorts; the idea of creating a paradise somewhere on a tropical island is quite seductive although I suppose starting with much lower star property is the place to start. The creator of the well-known Joie de Vivre boutique hotels Chip Conley started out with a very questionable rooms-by-the-hour property in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district after all.

Around 3pm we walked back to our cab driver who then took us up to the golf course overlooking the Pacific. I’ve been to Pebble Beach, and this view was far superior! We just took a few pictures and then jumped back in the van for our hour and half cab drive back to Nadi Town and then on to First Landing. This is the place where all the oil for Fiji comes in and is also where the first Fijians landed. We ate at the Boatshed in the marina there. It was delicious and we enjoyed the perfect sunset to the perfect day. Uncle Elvis even got on stage and did two songs; the only one I recognized was You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hound Dog.

After coming back to Smugglers Cove I ran into my two French friends whom I had dinner with several times before. I had already eaten, so I didn’t get to take advantage of the buffet at the neighboring hostel with them. I told them I’d meet up with them after I showered, and boy was it fantastic to feel clean! We chatted for a bit and then went back to my hostel for the fire show. The performance was absolutely incredible! It was many times better than the overly commercialized luaus in Hawaii. The fire dancers here were much better, and I’m just staying in a low-budget hostel. Plus the show was complimentary. I was taking video both with my GoPro and my iPhone when one of the fire dancers was swirling two double sided burning sticks and kept coming closer and closer. I held my ground as he approached and he got right in my face and then threw the torches behind him; meanwhile I fell backwards and into the sand while everyone else laughed; it was fantastic! I was then recruited to come “on stage” to dance with a bunch of other guests to Dragostea Din Tei by O-Zone (better known as the large guy that lip syncs on YouTube). We’ll see if that footage makes it off the cutting room floor J.

Today I fly over to Savusavu to board my ship for the whole reason I came to Fiji: my diving expedition. I’m quite excited. Fiji has been amazing so far, and all I’ve really been doing is taking it easy! Thanks for reading about my adventure so far!

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