01. Fiji…Again?

  1. 01. Fiji…Again?
  2. 02. Fun & Games
  3. 03. Growing Indigenation
  4. 04. Coup de Grâce?
  5. 05. Friends Go Away
  6. 06. Mercy by Coup, Merci Beaucoup
  7. 07. It’s Nice to be Needed
  8. 08. Walk Like A Man
  9. 09. Extreme Retirement
  10. 10. Get a Grip
  11. 11. Dangerous Cargo
  12. 12. Drinking in the Holiday Season
  13. 13. Fit for Purpose
  14. 14. Emotion Sickness
  15. 15. New Fiji’s Eve
  16. 16. One Helluva Christmas
  17. 17. Enough is Enough

If you had told me thirty years ago that my fifty-fourth Christmas would be spent in Fiji, I would have been much better looking then.  A very smart sister of mine once observed that if you aren’t happy with your looks at the age of twenty-four, you’ve got a rather difficult life ahead.

This is my third trip to Fiji, albeit my first Christmas spent here. It may seem an odd place to celebrate Christmas, but Christianity itself is riddled with such oddities. If the Brits can sings hymns declaring Jesus an Englishman, surely it is not a bridge too far to suggest he may have wintered here. Certainly the Fijians have become pretty good Christians, at least since they stopped eating one another.

The true oddity of my immediate situation is that I am in Fiji at all, having vowed never to return after each of my previous visits. Human beings, like politicians, should be allowed to change their minds when circumstances change. In this instance I was confronted with the need to exact a polite yet insurmountable reason to decline an invitation to a lovely Christmas lunch which included three well-behaved children under the age of five chaperoned by their understandably attentive parents. I have my limits. Fiji it is!

Looking back at my considerable library of travel diaries I saw that even my first trip to Fiji, in July of 1999, was the result of some duress. In a significant departure from our prior travel habits, Frank Lee and I had thrown ourselves upon the mercy of Qantas Holidays, who had packaged us into the resort of their choice, but our choosing, for a week. Historically, we travel at a ferocious pace in independent whirlwind fashion, convincing ourselves in a single day that we had done all there is to do in cities as large as St Louis or Bern. Not so that time. On that trip, contemplative reflection would heal the wounds of the workaday world’s overwrought hysteria. Or something like that. At the very least, we hoped to get a good tan and some memorable hangovers, only one of which is available in Melbourne during July or August.

IMG_7904Neither Fiji nor Crusoe’s Retreat thereon was our first choice for a holiday destination. In fact, it wasn’t even a close second. Our first choice was a cruise from Darwin to Bali to Broome, with lots of other stops at islands of strange names no doubt assigned by Europeans with stranger habits. It was the only cruise on that route, and not surprisingly it was sold out fifteen years ahead, to hear the travel agents tell it. Had we booked it then, we might be on that cruise now, but in 1999 now was a long way away.

Our second choice was a “specialty resort” in the Solomon Islands (specifically, on Guadalcanal) which targeted those of Frank’s and my ilk, nudge, wink. Ilk targeting was relatively new in this hemisphere, so we were eager to check out this new “paradise” (as our extraordinarily ilked travel agent described it). There, we were led to believe, the friendliest natives in the south pacific would entice us to relax blissfully on the beach, thwarting any urge to hoist flags or loft hand grenades at like-minded Japanese. As it turned out, a week after making the arrangements, but before paying for them (thankfully), these friendly natives started hacking one another, as well as assorted by-standers, to death with machetes. There it was, buried on page 36 of The Australian, that the capital Honiara was under siege by not one but two militant nationalist groups, and the Australian government people who warn tourist about such things were doing so in unusually pointed terms.

My first-hand experience with militant nationalist groups is limited to those exclusively involving lesbians, so I cannot speak as an authority on the subject. But I will anyway. I would be willing to bet one of those groups was more militant, and the other was more nationalist. Most probably, however, I suspect that all are pissed off that their country is being ruled by a bunch of corrupt imbeciles who only pay attention to their “constituents” needs when said constituents start hacking each other to bits with machetes. Machetes, mind you, not even civilized weapons like the AK47. No wonder they have economic difficulties, how do you maintain a military-industrial complex based on machetes? Nonetheless, we resisted the urge to descend on Guadalcanal with our enlightened American views on street fighting.

So in 1999 Fiji was a chosen by a process not unlike that of choosing an apartment or buying a couch. You start with a lengthy list of imperatives and furtively search in vain for a candidate that satisfies all of them. Eventually, in exhausted despair you realize that little was imperative after all, and you settle on the Fenway, or the green-and-blue stripes, or, in this case, Fiji. In all the cases to which I refer here – that is, apartment, couch, holiday destination — the only imperative was the same: I needed to be able to sleep there.

Which was more than I could do on that flight. It got us off to a good start, not so much for the contemplative reflection, but for the memorable hangover. The flight was full of kids. I love kids, medium rare, thank you. It occurred to me that only two hundred years ago, such an order would have been filled quite literally in Fiji. I considered that culinary preferences are long-lived – witness the Irish love of boiled cabbage, or the French enjoyment of all things moderately offensive on first address, culinary or otherwise. Did some Fijian cult persist in offering parents a more permanent solution to stress? What else could explain the preponderance of pre-schoolers on the flight?

Alas, my eager but subtle inquiries, not infrequently interrupted by a kick in the back of my chair or the need to wipe apple juice from my brow, revealed that many resorts in Fiji and some airlines had “bring your kids for free” packages. If Orlando, Florida was any indication, this trend did not bode well for the cultural development of Fiji, nor for my contemporary enjoyment. The only hope, it seemed, was a sudden and irreversible uprising by a militant nationalist group who appreciated the true meaning of “serving children.”

It must be said that the flight attendants were quite generous to those of us who answered, time and time again, to different audiences at different times “He’s not mine.” The standard mediocre economy class chardonnay flowed freely, and I resigned myself to the fact that even “My Favorite Martian – The Worst Movie Ever Made” would be less irritating (although no more entertaining) than the Kindergarten Cop scenes parading before me. Mercifully earphoned, I maintained consciousness if not sobriety through the flight.

The remainder of the evening was something of a blur. Bless his soul, Frank stands ready to give a detailed account of my actions from the moment we passed through customs, through the two bus rides that delivered us to Crusoe’s Retreat. In this version of history, my behaviour was appalling, and included smoking in forbidden locales, and scaring the ever-loving shit out of both the bus drivers with sudden outbursts whilst they navigated challenging terrain. All I can say is that the entire ordeal would be difficult to prove in a court of law.

I do have a vague recollection of arriving at the resort. In a brief stop at the bar, we met a gentleman of considerable stature who was occupying at least one bure. Somehow, Frank immediately extracted the fact that he had been born in Winthrop, Massachusetts, and currently lived in Hawaii. Dozens of comments, witticisms and insights came to mind, but I discovered my mouth unable to form a sentence. Although many there were in similar stead, for me this was an unacceptable state of affairs, and I decided to call it a night. Which would turn out easier said than done.

fiji5Crusoe’s Retreat is now long gone, but then it was located on the south facing “Coral Coast” of Viti Levu, or “Big Fiji”. It was in a relatively undeveloped region, and some five kilometers down a dead-end dirt road at that. Our cabin, or “BUHR-ay”, presided over the complex, some ninety steps above the beach. Let me tell you, ninety steps is a lot of steps when you are drunk and baggage laden, the steps are wet and irregular, and it is dark. Somehow, we made it. Immediately Frank expressed an urge to check out the beach, whereupon he began the descent, and I followed once I figured out that he was just trying to leave his slobbering companion behind. And then we trudged back up. And then we collapsed for our very first night in Fiji.

1999 FijiThat was Wednesday 28 July 1999. Since then Fiji has had not one, but two coups, with a constitutional smorgasbord in between. We spent a week in Suva, the capital, in 2012 as Fiji approached the denouement of their most recent coup. Now, in December 2014, Fiji is enjoying a fledgling democracy.

If my muse holds up, this series on Fiji will cover all three visits. Much of the 1999 trip will be resurrected from my diaries. Unusually, I did not diarise our 2012 trip, so much of that trip will be extracted from my memory, which is to say it is likely to be a pack of highly entertaining lies. As for this trip, this week, if anything worth writing about happens — and it always seems to – you’ll read it here.

SK

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