10. Get a Grip

  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

The Duncan Road house where we stayed in 2012 was a two story building divided into two spacious three bedroom homes. It was in a relatively affluent part of Suva, popular with ex-pats, with plenty of well-heeled Fijians about. A common indicator of a good neighbourhood worldwide, there were several good schools run by religious sects, mostly Christian, nearby.

The organisations that place volunteers in Fiji tend to be security conscious to the point of paranoia, so our compound was surrounded by a six foot fence topped IMG_3490by decorative sharp steel fleur de lys, at the ready to impale transgressors. If that wasn’t enough to detract any would-be evildoers, the “Beware of the Dog” was intended to dissuade them, although the aging hound that lounged in the yard was quite happy to welcome strangers in hope of getting fed.

There are plenty of dogs in Suva, both inside and outside of fences, a reality driven home by their irksome late-night conversations. The predominant breed is a of mix mangy and harmless. The dogs outside our fence had ample sources of food, as the thrice-weekly rubbish collections – a necessity given the year-round heat – left the streets lined with garbage awaiting pick-up as often as not. To the city’s credit, the collectors did a pretty good job of cleaning up what the dogs left behind.

We did venture out to hit the local grocery store, where one can find most every packaged product on which we first-worlders have come to depend, sometimes unknowingly. As we had been warned, there were considerable stretches of empty shelves, holding places for shipments of products due in Fiji time. Australian products were well-represented, but New Zealand products made an even bigger showing.

Aussie-to-the-core Aydell had peaked our curiosity by abandoning tried-and-true Aussie brands such Smith’s potato chips and Bulla ice cream in favour of New Zealand products, including Bluebird chips and ice cream by one of NZ’s gazillion ice cream purveyors. The quality was arguably superior, nonetheless I was shocked by the lack of loyalty. But then, the “Buy Australian” movement never really caught on in Australia. Come to think of it, the “Buy American” movement never really caught on in America, either. There’s more of the free-marketer in each of us than we’d like to admit.

Wednesday night we took Clara and Aydell out to dinner as a small token of thanks for putting us up for the week. At Clara’s suggestion we attended a cozy joint called Café 30 which served everything from pub fare to Indian curries to Fijian kokoda. The restaurant appeared to be a former residence, which gave it a feel most homey.

Most patrons sat in the main parlour, but we were seated at the lone table in what must have been the formal dining room, a private room most colonial. Each time the wait staff left, the door closed, leaving us momentarily in silence before the next cascade of conversational clamour commenced. The four of us have never been strained for discussion topics, which commonly vary from the bizarre to the objectionable. Each time the wait staff returned, our verbal volleys would break as if teacher had caught us red-handed.

Our isolation had the effect of feeding the perception that our feeding was taking a long time. This was not a worry since it did nothing to restrict the amount of wine consumed, especially once we convinced the young lady struggling with the corks to leave it to the experts. Eventually we enjoyed a pretty good dinner of amazingly diverse provenance. Good value, as well.

Clara took the day off on Thursday, so we headed out in the morning for a day of hiking in Colo-i-Suva Forest Park. Getting there was another bus adventure, this time a short ride north on a local, open-air contraption. The twenty minute ride took us by the Suva prison into the hills where we passed the Embassy of the USA, of which the prison was the more colourful and the US embassy the better guarded.

The park was a lowland rainforest turned mahogany plantation before it reverted to parkland. Today it offers an interesting mix of remnant indigenous flora interspersed with the now endangered mahogany. As a result of harvesting restrictions in the Americas, Fiji and a handful of Asian countries now provide most of the world’s commercial supply of mahogany.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADespite the intermittent rain one should expect of a rain forest, the hike was a pleasant one on well-kept tracks through the very hilly terrain. On the positive side, the rains provided spectacular shows of waterfalls going full blast.

At the nadir of one valley we came across a swimming hole, complete with a rope swing hanging from a tree branch extending over the pond off a rocky ledge. A park worker manned the swing. Bored to distraction, he seemed happy to see us – happy to see anybody, really –holding out the rope in our general direction, as if to say “Have a try?” It had been about forty years since I’d had a go at a rope swing, and I was already dripping wet from the rain and the humidity, so I figured what the hell. I took off my t-shirt and sneakers, and clambered up the cliff.

Cliffs always seem cliffier from the top looking down then from the bottom looking up. And rocky outcrops seem to crop out more from down below. This one scared the crop out of me. Once perched with rope in hand I realised I’d have to swing out a fair way before letting go, because if I didn’t I’d end up a bloody mess on the rocks below. Yikes. I took a deep breath and leapt.

In my prior consideration of rope swing dynamics I had reviewed the physical demands required of a successful swinger, concluding that upper body strength was the key. I have reasonable to good upper body strength, so proceeded based on this analysis. Unfortunately my analysis and conclusion proved faulty.

A nanosecond after leaving the cliff it became abundantly clear to me that the key force at play was gravity. As I tumbled in a disturbingly downward direction, the only thing that mattered was my ability to grip a rope with vigour. It would not have made a whit of difference if I was capable of bench-pressing a piano.

As it happens, grip strength in not my forté. I struggle getting pickle jars open. Heck, I struggle to maintain any sort of grip, mental or physical. Thus the rope burned through my sweaty palms as I descended perilously close to the boulders beneath. Luckily the forward thrust of my leap was sufficient to plunge me into the water rather than a lengthy hospital experience in a foreign land. “How was it?” enquired Frank.

“Life threatening!” I revealed. Using a hooked pole, the park worker fished the rope back from the centre of the pond and directed his daring gaze at Frank. Frank opted to start from the lower set of rocks – how come I hadn’t thought of that? His foray was more successful than mine. Both were caught on video, but I am relieved to report that record resides in a file too large to upload.

As Frank exited the water, a van load of scantily clad youths showed up, raising the temperature considerably. Each was carrying a Princess Cruises beach towel, so I surmised they were on an excursion from the cruise ship in port. These stir-crazy kids had been mercifully separated from cruel parents who had subjected them to insufferable periods of time at sea in their company. This also explained why a park worker was being paid to tempt us into near-death experiences. The kids showed us the ropes, quite literally, demonstrating that rope swings were not designed for fat middle-aged men.

Hiking back up the hill, the rain got steadier, threatening comradery. We reached the road, somewhat west of nowhere, to see our bus pull away with smirk and a giggle. I’d never seen a bus smirk and giggle before, but there it was. Instantly, a taxi appeared. Saved again.

Back in central Suva we stopped off at the market as Aydell wanted to pick up the ingredients for dinner. The Suva Market starts to gear up for the weekend on Thursdays, so it was in its weekly turmoil of farmers arriving from far and wide to sell their harvest. Like all farmers’ markets, that which is on offer is dependent on the season. That which is currently being harvested is in huge supply at low prices, and that which isn’t, isn’t.

Notably, any foodstuff that can be heaped is sold by the heap (rather than pound or kilogram), a heap being the amount on a paper plate. When it is in season, the heap is huge. As it goes out of season, the heap shrinks until the product disappears altogether. It was abundantly clear to me that this evening’s supper would necessarily involve large quantities of the green capsicum peppers that teetered in heaps the size of the Great Pyramids. By necessity Aydell had become marvellously inventive in creating varied and tasty meals from certain forms of produce that would remain in-season for lengthy periods. That evening, he proved it once again.

IMG_3513Our 2012 Fijian adventure was coming to a close. The five-hour bus ride to the international airport in Nadi loomed before us. It didn’t leave Suva until noon, so we spent our last morning at the Fiji Museum. Frankly, it didn’t hold my attention, although it was good to see well-behaved schoolchildren in large nIMG_3528umber enjoying a day out.

IMG_3523 Eventually we and our considerable luggage taxied to the bus depot where we found seats two-thirds of the way back on the coach to Nadi. Surprisingly, the bus left on time, almost a disappointment since we had purposely allowed for an extra three hours in Nadi on the assumption that the bus would operate on “Fiji time”.

It was a beautiful afternoon, sunny and not too warm, so I was somewhat frustrated to be trapped on a bus. Heading west on Queens Road, we passed through Pacific Harbour again, this time seeing a glimpse of it in the sunshine. We passed through Nabua again, where we had lost two young ladies on a “canoe” trip in 1999; it hadn’t changed a bit. Anticipation grew when I realised we were approaching the locale of Crusoe’s Retreat, where we had stayed then, my eyes darting about in search of any recognisable landmark.

The bus started up a particularly steep hill. Yes, yes, I remembered this hill!! Suddenly our bus gave a cough came to a grinding stop, still on the road as there was no shoulder, just a deep gully to the side. An eerie hush came over the passengers, the driver stopped the Bollywood movie that had been blaring away. He tried to restart the bus several times – chukachukachuka-ziziziziz-pwoom! Chukachukachuka-ziziziziz-pwoom! No luck.

The driver slunk down in his seat, while another man sitting across from him in the front row jumped up, opening the buses’ aisle floor. There was the engine, with which he began to tinker. After twenty minutes or so, he shouted something at the driver, who nodded. Simultaneously releasing the hand brake while trying to start the engine, the bus lurched backward down the hill, causing every man, woman and child on the bus to scream in horror. The engine bellowed smoke inside the bus while making all manner of disagreeable sounds. Sensing the futility of this adventure the driver slammed on the brakes, not a moment too soon, the rear wheels inches from the gully’s edge.

The passengers emitted an audible sigh of relief. The driver and the tinkerer began to bicker in an unknown dialect which I can nevertheless confidently translate as the driver asking “What the fuck was that?!?” to which the tinkerer replied “No worries, she’ll be right, this time for sure!”

After another twenty minutes of tinkering, they tried again. The results were the same —the bus plummeted backward down the hill, plumes of diesel smoke streamed through the bus, fifty apoplectic passengers made peace with their respective makers by screaming bloody murder – but this time, the engine started! The backward descent stopped, and slowly, with groan such as that a thousand-year-old redwood makes in high wind, or a Saturn 5 rocket makes at lift off, the bus inched forward.

It seemed like it took another hour to get over that hill. Each and every person on that bus gripped their seats with tension enough to puncture the upholstery. As for me, I completely forgot I was looking for Crusoe’s Retreat, and was looking forward to the toilet stop at Sigatoka, having developed a strong need for a change in underwear. I was not alone.

The rest of the ride was relatively uneventful. There was a minor delay to rubberneck at a rental car that some German tourists had IMG_3591directed into the roadside gully, where it overturned, totaled. They were outraged to have been so inconvenienced, but otherwise unharmed. We arrived in Nadi 90 minutes late, which was fine since we had left ourselves so much extra time. A smart thing to do in Fiji.

IMG_3605For F$75, we bought our way into the Air Pacific lounge and drank ourselves silly. As entertainment, we watched some extraordinarily fat people gorge themselves on pasta salad and cut sandwiches. As one who has struggled with his weight throughout life, I had some empathy for these bouncy behemoths. I engaged one young lady in conversation, discovering the lot of them had spent two weeks at a resort “fat farm” where their intake had been restricted to carrot juice, bird feed, and other diarrhoea inducing slime products. Life is cruel.

As we awaited our flight, I told Frank “I cannot imagine what would make me want to come back to Fiji.” He nodded.

I would soon discover the limits of my imagination.


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