Monday, October 3, 2011

Fiji Time

A few Fridays ago Sharon and I jetted off to Fiji for a long weekend. We were inspired to travel after seeing a friend mention a 2-for-1 airfare deal on Facebook. We looked at cheap fights to the Whitsunday Island chains (where hotels were $1,000/night), and then looked at cheap flights to New Zealand (hotels were also expensive for some reason), before booking full fare flights to Fiji. The bonus was we'd be able to use my Hilton points to stay for free.

In the past I've had bad luck with tropical destinations. It started with the Bahamas in 2005 or so, when I went to visit some relatives and got a lot of rain and chilly weather. Then on a family cruise in the Caribbean the weather was so rainy and rough that we were unable to dock at some of the scheduled ports. Then Sharon and I went to Brazil where it rained the entire week -- it rained so hard the beach town we were in actually lost power two nights in a row. As an added insult, it was beautiful on the day we left.

So I refused to check the weather as our trip to Fiji approached, afraid that I'd see rain predicted. But then Sharon went ahead and checked and told me rain was predicted for the time we were there. I was crushed.

We arrived and headed over to the taxi line. Our taxi driver was very friendly and acted as tour guide as we drove.

I was a bit caught off guard when he pointed out a cluster of simple houses (a "village" he called it) and called out the chief's home. If there's a problem in the village, he said, the people go to the chief first, then the police if need be. It didn't occur to me that chiefs were still around.

On either side of the road, where there weren't buildings there was lush, dense green -- palm trees, mangroves, banana trees, tall grass, flowers. Green mountains rose in the distance to the north.

The change in scenery as we crossed a short bridge to Denarau Island, where the Hilton was located, was sudden. The unruly foliage and basic homes gave way to a mix of Fijian-style and modern mansions with well-curated lawns. Denarau Island is 2/3 man made; one taxi driver told us it took ten years to truck in all the dirt. It supports a collection of seven big resort properties, a golf course, a yacht-filled marina, and a number of small gated communities containing said mansions.
The Hilton was the northernmost resort. We stepped out of the taxi into a large, open-air lobby and were greeted with fresh lemonade and a round of "Bulas!" from the staff. Bula means "hello" and also "cheers", so it's the word you'll encounter the most in Fiji. Thanks to my Hilton Diamond status (the fruits of living at a Doubletree for 15 months in New Jersey), we were upgraded to a large 1-bedroom suite overlooking the grounds and ocean.

View from one of the Hilton's pools.
We got a late lunch at the Hilton's main restaurant, which overlooked the beach and was flanked by the resort's six pools. The holiday pace-of-life, the breeze, the view of the ocean…it was thoroughly relaxing. And then something wonderful happened: the clouds began receding and the sun popped out. We walked around the island a bit, then chilled out with some wine and had a late dinner.
Saturday had perfect weather. We spent the morning lounging around next to the pool. Though the resort had a beach, it was what Fiji calls a "black sand" beach. Really it was just brown. And a bit muddy. It wasn't the exquisite white sand you see in ads for Fiji.
In the afternoon we took a bus to downtown Nadi, the nearest city and second biggest after the capital, Suva. Nadi has a great central market but is otherwise a bit of a dump. It's full of souvenir shops and fast food joints. Every other block we were approached by someone who promised to take us to a real Fijian souvenir shop, not the Indian places on the main street.

The market in downtown Nadi.
(There seemed to be a bit of tension between the native Fijians and Indian immigrants. There is a large Indian population in Fiji and from the looks of it they've been quite successful; a lot of the bigger and nicer stores did indeed appear to be run by people of Indian descent. One day we had a tour driver named Salesh, who was Indian; he made it a point to tell us that Indians in Fiji only rooted for the Fijian rugby team, not India's team. I wasn't sure whether that was a true statement or just spin, but the fact that he specifically called it out made me wonder just how good relations are between the two groups. Update: just Googled it and there are racial tensions between Fijians and Indo-Fijians.)
Sunday we hopped on a big ketch at the marina with about 40 other people to cruise out to an uninhabited island and go snorkeling for the day. The water was crystal clear and warmer than the resort's pool. We saw bright blue starfish, these little fish that were almost an electric neon purple, and tons of coral formations. Victor, the first mate to Captain Paul, impressed everyone by remembering the names of every guest on the boat correctly. Then we did a kava ceremony. Kava is made from the ground up root of a pepper plant and then mixed with water. It resembles muddy water in both color and taste. Kava is drunk from a bowl that is dipped into the large stoneware in which it is mixed, and then passed from one person to another. About twenty people had sipped from the bowl before it got to Sharon and me, which made me hope that no one had any transmittable diseases.

On the way to the island.

Our island for the day.

On Monday morning we got up early and reported to the lobby to await a ride into the hills we had passed on the drive from the airport to the Hilton. We were going to go hiking up to a waterfall. After about 20 minutes of driving we exited the main road and then slowly lurched and bounced along a rocky dirt road for another half hour.

View of the mountains from the road.

The scenery was stunning. Fields of sugarcane, banana, and tobacco lined with tall trees in bloom, with the mountains in the background steadily getting closer. The odd cow with a bird perched on its back. Small homes and shops. It was definitely rural.
Our driver was fantastic. He stopped at one point and ran out into a field of sugarcane, then brought us back a piece and showed us how to rip off the skin to get to the sweet core; you could then rip off a chunk with your teeth. It was very sweet.
Eventually we made our way to a small property with a few shacks and a bure (a traditional Fijian hut). Our driver introduced us to a large man in a white polo shirt who turned out to be the chief of the village, which encompassed about 70 people. Becoming chief in Fiji is a hereditary privilege: this man's grandfather had founded the village and become chief, then his father inherited the position, and he took it up upon his father's death.
He presented our guide for the day, Vika, his granddaughter -- a girl of 14 or 15 in a t-shirt, resort towel wrapped around her waist like a sarong, and bare feet. Sharon and I both took notice of her toes: spread out in a sturdy fashion, free of the deformation that comes from wearing shoes all the time.
She led us towards the back of the property. We passed the buildings where they lived, low structures made of corrugated tin; I tried to peer inside and just saw some rugs on the floor. An outhouse buzzing with flies was the bathroom. A number of large water jugs sitting outside the kitchen suggested there was no running water.
The buildings gave way to some tobacco fields, which sloped down to a stream. We crossed over it and began heading uphill, ascending into dense jungle. After about twenty minutes, by which time I was dripping in sweat, we arrived at our destination: two waterfalls cascaded down the hills above, with one landing in a pool of water large enough to swim in. I lowered myself into the freezing water, hung out for about 30 seconds, decided I'd experienced enough of Stage I Hyperthermia and hustled back out.

Hiking up to the waterfall.
We moseyed back down the hill to the chief's property for a real kava ceremony in the traditional bure. The kava he and his granddaughter made was stronger than the kava we'd had on the island. He made a lot of it and nearly filled the bowl up for both Sharon and me. Then he told us we couldn't leave until the kava is finished, so we forced down another full bowl each. Then we had a lunch of chicken sausage, banana, spinach made from taro leaf, and cassava.

The chief and his granddaughter making kava.

Afterwards one of the guys on the property knocked down a coconut from the tree (apparently the orange ones are sweeter than the green ones), whipped out a machete to chop off the top, and handed it to Sharon. She'd been saying how she wouldn't leave Fiji until she had fresh coconut water, and this was as fresh as it gets.

Getting some fresh coconut.

Sharon ready to ride.
Then we hopped on some horses and were led on a walk around the area (not that awesome as Vika kept the horses on a lead). Then it was back to the Hilton and back to chilling by the pool.
One thing that surprised us both was the number of babies in Fiji. The flights there and back were packed full of young families (and unfortunately Sharon and I were downwind of dirty diapers each time). The Hilton was also full of toddlers running around. There were so many babies, Sharon thought it must be some kind of special promotional deal, like "Baby Month" or something. She googled it but nothing came up. I asked a colleague who'd been to Fiji a year ago whether he had the same experience and he said he did; I guess Fiji is just a big holiday destination for young Aussie families.
On the last morning, just hours away from returning to Sydney, Sharon and I sat by the infinity pool looking over the ocean and a number of islands. I did my best to soak up the air, the view, the "chill". It's a lifestyle I've always wanted. "Sharon," I said, "We might need to move to the Caribbean when we leave Australia."

She said "no" but I can probably convince her….

1 comment:

  1. Bula! We were in Fiji a few moths ago on a cruise. Your post makes me want to go back ASAP!