09. Extreme Retirement

  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

Having explored as much of Suva on foot as we cared to, we decided to look further afield. At dinner Aydell suggested we head to Pacific Harbour, the closest “real beach”, an hour’s bus ride out Queens Road to Suva’s west. Frank’s eyes lit up, as he recalled that a colleague had opened the resort there, The Pearl. A quick review of a fistful of tourist brochures followed, the results supporting the notion that Pacific Harbour was a place to check out. Whitewater rafting, sea kayaking, zip-lining adventures, “Jetski Safaris”, reef diving, scooter rentals, laser tag on the rain forest beach, big game fishing charters, “Snorkeling with the Sharks”. I wondered whether the big game charter fishing operator had realized the potential synergy of teaming up with the “Snorkeling with the Sharks” people to save on bait costs. Regardless, there seemed no end to the testosterone tantalizing treats that awaited the intrepid and continent at Pacific Harbour.

It promised to be an exciting day.

In the morning, the weather was cooperating. When I awoke, I was not in a pool of sweat, unprecedented in my Fijian experiences. Blue skies with big fluffy clouds accompanied a relatively cool morning of 23°C, the humidity plunging to a mere 99.97%. Eschewing a morning shower in anticipation of some grubby activites, we downed a quick breakfast of mysterious yet delicious fruits, and headed for the bus depot.

One is spoilt for choice when it comes to getting to Pacific Harbour. There are the local, open air buses that come and go frequently but unpredictably, stop anywhere and everywhere so take forever, but cost next to nothing. There are the coach express buses with real seats, windows, and air conditioning, but a limited schedule, the ride costing about F$10 (US$5) a head. There are the 12-seater mini-buses that are quicker because they are driven by deranged maniacs who not infrequently end up in the ditch, charging more for the privilege. And then there are the omnipresent taxis, cheap at F$50 for a quick trip in reliable comfort with safe and polite service.

Such competition for patronage to umpteen destinations renders Suva’s main bus terminal a whirlwind of diesel smoked activity. We managed to find and board a scheduled coach, pleasantly air conditioned, which departed only twenty minutes late – on time in “Fiji time”. A comfortable half-conscious hour later, we arrived in Pacific Harbour.

IMG_3578The door closed behind us, and as the bus pulled away, a sheet of water fell from the heavens, instantly drenching us to the bone. At first I thought us the victims of a prank, scanning the palm trees above expecting to find young boys emptying buckets on our heads. No, this was actually rain. We ran to the nearest shelter, a roadside café on the edge of some sort of tourist shopping complex. We decided to have a coffee and wait out the rain.

The café’s menu board prominently featured “ice coffee”. Despite the rain it had become quite warm out, so I ordered one, reluctantly taking my chances in iced coffee roulette. In most parts of the world, iced coffee is a relatively recent development, so the product delivered when it is ordered remains highly variable.

I was raised in the sixties with the idea that an ice coffee is lukewarm coffee –usually the thick stuff that’s been sitting in a percolator for several hours — poured over a large glass of ice, then seasoned with sugar and milk to taste. In the early eighties I was proud of myself when I “discovered” that adding a scoop of coffee ice cream and sticking the whole thing in a blender made for a delightful afternoon pick-me-up treat. As late as 1991 I was stunned to find that even in the warm weather climes of Savannah, Georgia and Baltimore, Maryland there were people running coffee shops who had never heard of iced coffee. “Yer nat ferm rund her, er ya?” said the woman in “Balmer”.

I didn’t see the potential of my ice cream infused concoction until the local Boston chain, The Coffee Connection (later bought out by Starbucks) started selling them as “Frappuccinos” for about six bucks a pop in 1994. The following year I discovered that in Australia an iced coffee has always included a scoop of ice cream, although not blended. Since I have discovered that many countries have their own unique perspective as to what an iced coffee is — some not actually involving ice.

This recent evolution is not dissimilar to that of coffee more generally. Coffee has played a central role in civilizations worldwide for centuries. I’ve even heard it credited for the rise of the British Empire, whose subjects allegedly started drinking coffee and tea during the day whilst their continental competitors were drunk by noon. While I can’t vouch for that, recent contrary behavior patterns of the British would seem to go a long way towards explaining their empire’s decline.

The days of a getting a “Coffee, regular” (eastern US colloquial lingo for coffee with cream and sugar) are long gone. Today, customization is the key. In the US, Seattle led this charge, with a half dozen coffee shops on every city block. An absurd level of choice and understanding became necessary to get a cup of joe. There, Starbucks emerged as the dominant player, rendering meaning to sentences like “Quad venti half caf breve no foam with whip two splenda stirred skinny three pump peppermint mocha, please!” This is coffee?

The more disturbing trend, though, is the increasing number of those who view coffee as a religious artefact. My adopted hometown of Melbourne is a leading perpetrator in this crusade. Soda fountain jerks are now worshipped as “baristas”. At work or in a café, coffee purists offer their incite-full criticism of any coffee passing their muse. They banter incessantly as to which purveyor has “the best” coffee, with adamancy and fervor that is downright scary. Perhaps in reaction to the proliferation of choice, there are café’s in Melbourne which refuse to serve decaffeinated coffee, or skim milk, or artificial sweeteners, much less the likes of soy milk, or peppermint flavouring. I’m told a few go so far as to prohibit milk and sugar! Excuse me, who is drinking this coffee, me or you?

When it comes to coffee, I am a product of my upbringing. For me, “the best” coffee is served at breakfast in a bucket by a woman named Flo in a pink dress who hovers with full pot at the ready to provide refills after every sip. I marvel at those who can withstand the twenty minutes of caffeine withdrawal required to obtain a bespoke thimble-sized coffee served by a grubby twenty-something with attitude issues. It is another reason I avoid breakfast meetings in Melbourne (as if I needed another reason). When put in the circumstance, instead of “Yes, coffee, please” I am forced to request “An extra-long black with cold milk on the side.” Often I explain “I am trying to re-create what you would call ‘bad American coffee.’”, to which the server shudders with a condescending smirk. This is called “service”.

Here’s the thing: it is coffee, not the transubstantiated blood of Christ. Every hamlet on the planet believes it has the best coffee, and every one of them is correct, because it is a matter of taste, not a moral judgment. I respect the inclinations of those that view themselves as having an evangelical duty regarding coffee, but I do so wish they would respect mine. That is, what you think of my coffee is of no concern to me. Certainly what you think of your own coffee, or anybody else’s, does not interest me. I’d really rather talk about cricket or needlepoint.

My views on wine, by the way, are note dissimilar. Same with food. Or sex.

Our Fijian ice coffee was served, Australian style, with ice cream. I was pleased but surprised because the Fijian coffee I’d encountered had been of the American genre, which is to say drip coffee on the weak side. (If one looks hard enough in Suva one can find a café serving whoseewhatsit whatchamacallits with thingamabobs.)

After finishing our treat, we inspected the shopping complex. It called itself an “Arts Village”, although I saw little indication of any art or any village. There was an outdoor venue with posters spruiking “shows” that promised to reveal the inner secrets of Fijian culture and history – but nothing was on today. A decent-looking backpacker hotel loomed, open but dormant. That morning, all the complex could offer were restaurants and craft shops nestled around a pleasant manmade pond. We fondled trinkets and perused menus while chatting up the proprietors, each of whom expressed surprise that we’d bothered to come out from Suva in such lousy weather.

We came across a notice board covered in real estate listings. Pacific Harbour was built in the seventies around a canal offering numerous waterfront house lots, now mostly developed. It appeared one could get a canal-front lot for around US$100,000, give or take. Depending on who is doing the selling, Pacific Harbour is branded as either the adrenaline/extreme sports capital of Fiji, or a retirement haven, or both. This is an interesting juxtaposition, giving some insight as to the retirement expectations of baby boomers. I’d consider retiring here if it ever gets a world-class symphony orchestra.

The rain showed no sign of abating. Having exhausted the wonders of the Arts Village, we purchased cheap umbrellas and trudged off, down Queens Road towards The Pearl Resort, in the continuing torrent. I was getting used to being wet all the time, and we had dressed for the beach, anyway.

There isn’t much to Pacific Harbour other than the Arts Village, The Pearl resort and some well-hidden residences. After fifteen minutes we came to the gate for The Pearl which stood across a muddy brown puddle, the size and depth of which qualified it as an inland sea. We paused momentarily considering our options for traversing it, when a security guard got our attention through the gatehouse window. He motioned for us to stay put, pointing at and waving his phone. Moments later the resort’s shuttle bus appeared to pick us up. We piled in, profusely thanking the driver, whose name, fittingly enough, was Moses. He executed a crisp U-turn, parting the sea to whisk us to the portico of The Pearl. Service!

The Pearl stands on the ocean beach side of the mouth of the canal whose construction created Pacific Harbour. A walk around its soggy grounds and splendid beach showed it clearly to be a top-notch facility. The concierge was extremely helpful even after determining we weren’t staying with them, always the sign of a class establishment. We agreed that, in the pouring rain, between whitewater rafting, sea kayaking, zip-lining adventures, “Jetski Safaris”, reef diving, scooter rentals, laser tag on the rain forest beach, big game fishing charters, and “Snorkeling with the Sharks”, the only thing that was any fun was whitewater rafting. He offered to book a rafting trip that left in the morning, an offer we declined. “Then a spa treatment, perhaps? Or lunch?” he suggested.

Lunch! It was half-past noon, so I expected to find the restaurants full of rain- trapped guests. Instead, the place was nearly deserted. Where was everybody? I postulated they had taken the shopping tour and were, at this very moment, being shaken down by nearby Methodist villagers. We settled in for a bland and unremarkable lunch of the sort resorts serve their bland and unremarkable clientele.

Pacific Harbour’s Canal when it isn”t raining

Finally, the rain stopped. The skies remained solidly overcast, though, and the buffeting winds made it no day for the beach. It was time to get out of Dodge. Moses kindly parted us across the Brown Sea again, from whence we set off on foot towards the bus stop. Halfway there, the coach bus passed us. We ran to catch it, hollering and waving as it deposited passengers, then watching helplessly as it pulled away into the dampness. The schedule posted indicated there wouldn’t be another for almost two hours. And it started to piss rain again. Of course.

Here’s one of the very best things about Fiji: taxis. Crestfallen, wet and irritable, we would have killed each other if not for the taxi that magically appeared. The driver happily offered to take us back to Suva for F$50 ($US25), exactly the price Aydell had quoted. After a comfortable air-conditioned forty-five minute ride we were back at our base on Duncan Road in Suva.

Recently I watched the BBC’s weekly “The Travel Show”, a London-based program broadcast the world over. The program opened up with the grabber “Why do Melbourne’s taxis have such a bad reputation?” Someday I will answer that question at length. Right now, I will merely suggest that they’ve got a lot to learn from Fiji.

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