Friday, December 9, 2011

Searching for the Perfect Fijian Island

It was a tough job but somebody had to do . . . OK who am I kidding? Covering the remote islands of Fiji was possibly my most fun gig out of my seven years of working for Lonely Planet. Why? Well, it's not for the reasons you'd expect. The weather was terrible - I saw the sun maybe three hours in four weeks and I only got in the water five times; I drank about six beers total, had flights cancelled and skipped several meals due to my over-full work schedule. This wasn't your cliché fun in the sun voyage. No, the reason it was so great was for intangible factors that escape tourist brochures: the real, ever-present smiles, the way everything happens in the present (so forget planning or dwelling on anything), kava drinking at night to songs everyone knows, feeling safe all the time, a red hibiscus flower behind the ear, the list goes on. Fiji, to put it straight, is as heavenly for its culture as it is for its coral gardens and rainforests.

My first stop on this trip was Labasa, a landlocked sugar industry center that the guidebook describes as dusty and of little interest to travelers. I got off the plane after about 20 hours of flying and transfers, got my bag and found a taxi. The driver was a plump Indo-Fijian woman who, within five minutes of chatting, invited me to stay at her house. I didn't take her up on the offer because I'd already booked and paid for a hotel and I was too tired to want to worry about the politeness it requires to stay in someone's home, but I was touched by her gesture. Then stuff like this kept happening - and Labasa was the least friendly place I visited.

On the boat to Taveuni I met a woman with three children who invited me over for lunch. She was a school teacher. The house had three rooms without one piece of furniture although the walls were lined with giant sheets of brown painted tapa. We sat on woven pandanus mats and ate boiled eggs, toast and milky tea, laughed and chatted while the children gazed at me, intrigued - then her husband drove me to my guesthouse so I didn't have to pay for a taxi.

My job looking at hotels the next day was probably the most pleasant I've ever experienced. I saw about 10 hotels and guesthouses on foot and each one I stopped at (whether they had any idea what I was doing or not) invited me in for food or drink and I ended up sitting and talking with them all at least a half hour - way more time than I usually allot. Although I'd never met any of these people before it felt like I was visiting old friends. When I walked down the street random people would come up and just start talking to me, pleasantly and without any motive beyond being natural and nice. And this went on everywhere I went.

Towards the end of my trip I met another woman on a boat who invited me to stay in her village - which happened to be near several places I needed to visit. This was a highlight as anyone who has stayed in a Fijian village will tell you - I could write an entire blog post on this alone. The point is, you get invited, everywhere, and it's safe, fun and all warm and fuzzy.

When I hired a boat man to take me around islands he caught a bunch of fish and gave them all to me just because I said I liked fish. When 16 locals were drinking kava at night and playing music, they would make sure that every few songs would be an American song I'd probably know so I could sing along. They would figure out my music tastes without asking as the night wore on and would be able to dig up classics I not only knew but liked (4 Non Blonds' What's Up was a personal fave).

In the meantime five minutes anywhere became an hour, flights were cancelled constantly so tourists were missing international connections and I lost two work days because of airplane malfunctions. And nobody, not even the most uptight looking tourists with business meetings to get to, cared. Anyone who has been in Fiji more than a week knows that there's no point in fighting 'Fiji time' and you just gel yourself into the moment where, hey, you're in Fiji, so enjoy. Stress seems silly. The Internet never works so email becomes irrelevant. No one wears makeup or fashionable clothes, there are rarely mirrors anywhere and you begin to forget what you look like. Someone everyday will beckon you in for a bowl of kava and if you don't like kava just go in and sit with them anyway and it's OK. Fiji is that place where all the world's crap has been raked away to expose a clean and shiny humanity. It's refreshing and mesmerizing and it stays with you after you've left.

I spent my last few days on Viti Levu where I learned quickly that my pure Fiji experience unrolled the way it did because I was in the outer islands and not in the main tourist center. I got pick pocketed, ruthlessly hit on by beach boys and saw every other female I met get as aggressively hit on by hotel staff and local surfers to old Chinese shop owners. It was a transition back into the 'real' world, on the way to LAX with it's unsmiling TSA agents. Luckily my home is a good place and I've been tackling work with less stress than I usually do. The happy Fiji feeling will fade, this I know, but the lesson has been absorbed and I will try to remember that all this modern stuff is nothing compared to a smile and a shared cup of tea.

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