05. Friends Go Away

  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

One of the best things about friends is that they go away. Sometimes they go away for a holiday and I get to go with them. Sometimes they go away for extended periods, usually blaming work or business or family, and I get to go visit them. Sometimes when they go away there are phone calls or emails or letters or skype chats, but these become fewer and farther between, and eventually we describe each other to strangers as having “grown apart” — but at least we both grew. And then sometimes friends just go away, never to be heard from or seen again, raising doubt as to whether they were really friends. This may not be one of the best things about friends, but is certainly is cause for reflection, which in my experience is all for the best.

Clara and Aydell are friends who live nearby. Over the years Frank Lee and I have come to depend on them – and to a somewhat lessor degree, I think, them on us — for the sorts of things neighbours have no business depending on each other for, but friends do.

So it was with mixed emotion that, over dinner in late 2011, I received the news that Clara would be spending the next year as a volunteer in Fiji. Aydell would be her “trailing spouse”, as goes the phraseology of international do-gooders. Clara would be with a “non-government organisation”, or “NGO”, as the acronystic ancronyse such acronomyc acronysables, pardon the lingo. The idea was she’d help them abbreviate their chaos by dealing with the obvious, a skill in surprisingly short supply in Fiji and elsewhere. My first thought was that Clara was more than amply qualified.

Frank Lee was less equivocal in his reaction to this announcement. Before Clara even finished her sentence he blurted “We’re coming to visit!”

Clara responded “We thought you might…” onto which Aydell tagged “…and we would expect no less.”

IIMG_3364 stared blankly at Frank, eloquently contributing “Uhhhh…” By that I meant “Fiji? We swore we’d never go back to Fiji!”, but it was too late. The deal was done, plans were being laid, the conversation had moved on.

Thus it was that on Saturday 13 October 2012 at two o’clock in the morning we boarded Qantas flight 395 from Melbourne to Nadi.

“Nadi” is pronounced “NAHN-di”, as the Fijian “d” is phonetically “nd” for reasons that may be interesting but I have no intention to discuss further. Consult your local linguistics professor; they can be fascinating. Nadi hosts Fiji’s major international airport, on the west coast of the nation’s biggest island, Viti Levu — mostly because that’s where they built the airstrip during World War II. Largely due to that quirk of history Nadi became a commercial centre, and a popular backpacker destination. There, young randy folk enjoy seedy but romantic accommodation, events, and each other.

More recently a number of large, expensive resorts have been built on nearby Denaru Island. If you like to lounge safely behind barbed wire on white sand beaches whilst the survival of your maid’s children of depends on your tip, Denaru Island is your kind of place. See Orlando.

We landed in Nadi at about 8:30 am. Thanks to Aydell’s accurate instruction, by 9:30 am we were on the local bus for the five hour ride to Suva, total cost US$30. Once again our bus followed the Queens Road across the southern coast of the island, only this time it was by day and I was sober.

IMG_3365Thankfully, the bus made a toilet stop in Sigatoka, where a “shoppers’ tour” had brought us from Crusoe’s Resort in 1999. The human mind remembers that which is important to it. In my case, that is the location of toilets. The Sigatoka toilet was right where I had left it 13 years earlier. I beat a busload of women headed for it, not that I was headed for the ladies room. There was no sign that it had been cleaned since last I saw it, but such is the unfortunate nature of men’s rooms globally. In any case, whew.

Our extraordinarily stinky diesel bus chugged its way toward Suva, up and down some rather steep grades, mostly over well kept pavement, but occasionally persevering pothole pocked moonscapes. A large minority of passengers revelled in the Bollywood howls emitting from the single overhead TV behind the driver.

I focused on the scenery. Perhaps a dozen times I recognised the dirt road leading to where the now defunct Crusoe Retreat used to be. Each time I was more certain than the last, often waking an increasingly and understandably irked Frank from slumber. The human mind also represses things, thankfully. Frank was characteristically sarcastic yet forgiving.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Eventually we reached Suva. I’d never been to Suva, but I had noticed it was one of those places that made the faces of those who had been there go grey in an instant, like Philadelphia. Aydell had assured that the taxis at the Suva bus depot were plentiful and cheap, and moreover honest and knowledgeable.

Suva is not Philadelphia; I’d rather be in Suva. Suva is the capital of a nation of 900,000 people – roughly the population of Delaware or Auckland – covering seven thousand square miles (18,270 km²), about the size of New Jersey. Unlike New Jersey, only 110 of Fiji’s 332 islands are inhabited. Like so many other nations’ capitals – Washington DC, Canberra, London, Paris, Beijing, you name it – Suva bears little in common with the nation it capitalises.

On the other hand, like Philadelphia, if you want the ugly truth about what it takes to make democracy stick, there are few better places to visit. Suva continues to be the epicentre of constitutional improvisation subsequent to being “granted independeIMG_3359nce” in 1970, and freed from the shackles of the British monarchy in 1987. These improvisations are usually described as “coups” by western observers, but it is telling that there is no consensus on how many coups there have been. Somewhere between three and six is generally accepted. Since we had been in Fiji last, there had been two or three coups, depending on which self-righteous condescending westerner you consulted.

My favourite coup occurred only nine months after we left Crusoe’s Retreat in 1999, a stretch long enough to enhance the plausible deniability of culpability on my behalf. In a nutshell, in May, 2000 a gent named George Speight and 36 of his buddies marched into parliament, guns in hand. George told all who had showed up that day he was taking over. Parliament’s response was classically Fijian, and admirably genteel. It was fine with them; they weren’t really using Parliament anyway. They chatted for thirty-six days.

Then, a counter-coup was mounted by a gent named Bainimarama (Bah-nee-ma-RAH-ma, just like it is spelt). Freshly back from aOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAn inexplicable trip to Norway, Bahnee may or may not have had plausible deniability of his culpability in George’s entrepreneurial adventures. I’ll get back to Bahnee, but you might start to understand how coup-counting gets complex – was that one or two?

George Speight is a fascinating fellow for a founding father. Born in 1957 and educated at Andrews University in Michigan with an MBA (amongst other degrees), he had established himself in Fiji as a successful businessman and was admired as a public servant. I can’t imagine what led him to believe that the guy with the gun wins. Regardless, after Bahnee’s counter-coup settled things down a bit, George:

  • got elected to parliament;
  • got thrown out of parliament for non-attendance (??);
  • got charged with treason;
  • pled guilty to treason;
  • got sentenced to death for treason (which seems a bit harsh since he pled guilty);
  • got his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment;
  • found Jesus; and,
  • started telling all sorts of unchristian and dubious tales about Bahnee.

The official line is that today George rots in prison, rumor suggesting he is on one of those 222 “uninhabited” islands. I’m not sure we’ve heard the last of him.

Aydell was right. Armed with our trust in him and his address, we hailed a taxi that whisked us to that address for three bucks. There old friends, Clara, Frank, Aydell, and Smiling exchanged stories and joy like we had never before.

One of the best things about friends is that they go away.

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