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On and Off the Beaten Path in Fiji

A welcoming ceremony with drugs

Fiji - The interior of Ovalau

A family with three kids tries to balance safety and comfort with the desire to get to know the places they visit for real: a few days in a tourist resort, followed by a night in a sailors' haunt that doubles as hotel and bordello; crossing to a rainy little island in a ferry that looks like it might keel over; experiencing the kindness of the Fijian people in overcrowded public transportation.

Travelogue & photos: Paul Joseph

I could just make out a pale glow at the horizon as our plane descended into the Nadi airport. We had crossed the International Date Line and were about to land in Fiji. The country, a collection of over 300 islands in the southwest part of the Pacific Ocean, is a place with great beaches but also a significant history, an interesting political life and a vital culture.

I had lost touch with my body clock. I drank too much gin-and-tonic, had an extra bottle of wine with dinner, and then then some Cointreau. My wife Linda did yoga in the terminals and on the plane, but then gave up self-improvement for drink. Our three children, Ian, Sara, and Danny, were also with us as we started our two week tour.

Fiji - Overlooking the Coral Coast

We found Inia, the driver of the hotel van. Our hotel was on the Coral Coast which stretches along the southern part of Viti Levu, a two-hour trip. The air smelled dirty and fragrant at the same time. Some people were beating upside-down oil drums. I had another drum beating inside my head.

Inia was a big, strong-looking man with a wide grin and friendly manner. Our children Ian, Danny and Sara smiled back despite their exhaustion.

As we drove down the crowded highway, the sun appeared over the hills and Inia told stories about his life and about Fiji. He lived in Nadi with his wife and children, had built up his transportation business from one to two vans, and together with his brother-in-law owned some sugarcane fields. His cheeseburger lay on the dashboard. He was saving it for lunch.

Coral Coast

Sea snakes are almost always docile

I woke at dawn after crashing at 9:00 the night before. Our resort, the Hideaway, was a modest place with small bures (huts) on one end of the beach, a building with hotelrooms in the middle, and two dormitories for backpackers on the other end. We fit comfortably in one of the bures.

Fiji - Bure (hut) on Hideaway Resort

Below us, a small sand beach ran into the lagoon which stretched toward the reef about three hundred yards off the coast. Powerful waves ran along the far side of the reef and we were warned not to swim outside of the lagoon or near the channel that ran at its entrance.

The others were still sleeping, so I read on the beach. The air was warm and wet, and the surf sounded very different from Boston's traffic. After breakfast, I took a local bus to Sigatoka, the nearest town. Ratu, a night porter going to visit his girlfriend, sat next to me. His shirt was clean-white and he didn't look like he'd been up all night.

"How do Fijians and Indians get along?" I asked Ratu. It was a charged question. When England colonized Fiji, the administrators brought indentured servants from India to work on the sugar plantations. Almost half the population of Fiji are now of Indian descent.

The groups compete for power and have different religions and cultures. Indians are not allowed to own land, and the high rent they pay to Fijian landowners is a contentious issue. Fijians and Indians have generally avoided inter-ethnic violence. In 1987, though, the Fijian military took control to prevent a coalition of Indians and reform-minded Fijians from assuming office.

"They don't get along too well," said Ratu. He explained the differences in culture, part of which reflected the difference between rural and urban. Ratu had supported the "typically Fijian" coup: "There was no violence at all. That's what I'm trying to say about ourselves."

Fiji - Waterfall above the Coral Coast

After lunch the next day, Linda and I took a hike up through the small hills that lay on the other side of the Hideaway, while the kids went with some resort guests to visit the one village that lay nearby. Linda and I enjoyed the unusual smells of the local flora and being off by ourselves.

The kids enjoyed yaqona, a mild drug made from water seeped through ground kava roots. Walk around any outdoor market in Fiji and you'll see heaps of kava roots. People bring a small bundle when they go visiting, much like we bring a bottle of wine. Yaqona is part of the welcoming ceremony, which is an essential part of Fijian culture.

In the village, the children went to the chief's house, where they sat down while the potion was prepared in a big bowl and then handed out in coconut dishes.
Danny: "Before you got to drink it, you had to say 'Bula!' [hello] and clap two times."
Ian: "And when you finished, you said 'Vinaka' [thank you]."

The second time the yaqona was passed around, a woman who was staying at the Hideaway refused and told her daughter not to take any either. Danny: "I looked around when she made an ugly face. I could see that the villagers didn't like that."

According to the children, the yaqona tasted like "muddy, bitter swamp water". The third time, Sara got dizzy and her tongue got numb. She almost threw up. But Ian experienced it differently: "It made my lips and tongue tingle, must have been some kind of drug. I definitely liked it."

I was proud of them. They understood that the ritual was about hospitality. They had the courage to try something new. They knew that, in this context, doing drugs was "normal." And they were horrified about the uptight mother.

The Coral Coast of Fiji provided ideal snorkeling conditions for beginners. The depth of the lagoon varied with the tide but was usually only chest high and calm, home to lots of exotic fish with names such as fusilier, blue-striped sea perch, angel, and squirrel. Lots of starfish too.

The kids loved snorkeling in the lagoon. I liked it too but I was afraid. The ocean was warm, but I was thinking of the creatures around me. And, unlike in the murky water off New England, I could see them. Especially the sea snakes. "Highly venomous but almost always docile," said the guide book. Almost enough reassurance.

Because of the sea snakes, I'll bet I was the only one snorkeling with his eyes closed most of the time. The kids were trying to get me to look. Once when we surfaced, Danny sputtered: "Did you see the one that swims like a wave, black and white rings, real ugly head?"

We spent a few more days on the Coral Coast, and found it a nice place. But while planning this trip, we had promised ourselves that we would try to get the family out of the protected American middle-class cocoon. We hoped to get off the beaten track.


Filtered light from the back windows lent a special clarity to the filth

We also wanted to be creative about lodging, favoring local options over the standard Western-style room. Linda and I picked out the cheap Metropole for our night in Suva. We loved the name and it seemed ideal as a base for a quick look at the capital before setting out for Ovalau. We decided to make an advance reservation.

I called the Metropole from our home in Lexington, Massachusetts. Their old phone made a hollow burr. Five resonations later someone answered: "Bula!"
"Bula! This is Mr. Joseph. I'm calling from the States. I'd like to make a reservation, please."
"You're calling from the States?" The static and unfamiliar accent couldn't mask his disbelief.
"One moment. I must go and get the manager."

Almost five minutes later, someone else picked up the phone. We went through the same greeting ritual and Mr. Niumia, the manager, was surprised to learn that I wanted to book for August 25th.

"Do you know that August 25th is more than two months from now?"
"I know. I thought it would be smart to make an advance reservation."
He paused. "Fine.  If you feel the need. We will have a room available."
"Actually, we need two rooms."
"Two? Why?"
"I'm coming with my family."
The phone screamed with silence. Then the manager's voice came back on.
"You want to stay here with your family?"
"Yes, is there a problem with that?"
Another pause.  "No, not at all. We will have two rooms available."
"Great. Do you need a deposit? I could give you my credit card number."
"No, no, Mr. Joseph. No need for that. Just come with your family and all will be taken care of."

We took the public bus from the Coral Coast to the capital city of Suva, arrived at the downtown bus terminal, and dragged our bags to the hotel. After wandering through the market and doubling back along a series of alleyways, we finally found the doorway to the Metropole on Usher Street, a main thoroughfare in Suva.

We lugged our bags up a steep, narrow flight of stairs. At the top of the stairs we entered a large, open room with a bar. It was early afternoon and the bartender was picking up debris left by the lunchtime rush. Two small groups of drinkers were still busy, and the filtered light from the back windows lent a special clarity to the filth in the corners and the dust motes in the air.

To our right the room morphed into a Chinese restaurant with its own separate bar. There were a dozen sailors from freighters moored at the nearby docks. Divided by nationality, they were united in getting drunk as quickly and as deeply as humanly possible. They looked hard and had scruffy facial hair. Despite the warm day, most wore dirty woolen hats.

Three twirling ceiling fans blended the fetching aromas of Szechwan pepper, garlic and black bean paste from the Chinese food still on the tables with rancid cooking oil drifting in from the kitchen, cigar and cigarette fumes wafting from overflowing ashtrays, and the unmistakable odor of spilled beer. Unidentifiable scuffling sounds came from the men's bathroom.

I looked at Linda. We both shrugged. I moved ahead to the end of the bar where the cash register lay. The bartender saw us, dropped his collection of bottles in a bin, and welcomed us with a warm smile. "Bula!" he said. "You must be the Joseph family." He went to get Niumia, the manager.

"Those will be your rooms," the manager said as he greeted us. He waved toward a doorway behind the bar. Over a shoulder-high ledge holding ascending rows of liquor bottles, I could see a hallway and four closed doors. During the surprisingly long registration process, two aging men entered one of the rooms and began to remove empty gin bottles from a wardrobe.

"The rooms will be ready soon, Mr. Joseph," said Niumia. "Perhaps you and your family would like a little lunch while you wait. We have an excellent Chinese restaurant."

Fiji - Church in Levuka

Instead we took a walk around the town returning a couple of hours later. More customers had arrived and the drinking buzz was picking up. The kids looked a little scared. Rather than our usual adult-children split, I moved in with the boys and Linda shared a room with Sara.

The Metropole had its attractions. If hungry, you could grab a handful of peanuts or pretzels in the bar. If that didn't satisfy, there was the restaurant. Or the smoked fish vendor immediately below our window. The fish were displayed on newspaper and regulated by a sign: "Sale of fish from or around Nubukalou Creek is strictly prohibited. People who buy fish from this area do so at their own risk - By Order, Suva City Council."

I also could score a beer by opening our room door, taking one step out, and tapping the bartender on the shoulder. Later that evening, I went from thinking it would be nice to drink a Fiji Bitter to actually drinking one in under twenty seconds.

A gate was positioned between the rooms and the shared bathroom down the hall. It was locked with reentry gained only via a buzzer controlled by the bartender, to preserve some privacy for guests. But we had to be careful, as it was easy to be trapped down the hall. The bartender left his post frequently and a couple of times one of us got stuck until he returned.

Inside our rooms, a classic bare light bulb hung from the ceiling, and peeling insulation and exposed wire stretched immediately above our heads. The kids expressed some trepidation about eating with the sailors so we went out and found a quiet vegetarian place.

Sara slept soundly that night but Linda was woken frequently by sounds from the bar, a banging door, and serial sexual activity coming from her far side room.

Okay, maybe staying in the back rooms of a combination Chinese restaurant/Fijian bordello wasn't the best choice for a family vacation. And I'd rather not talk about trying to use my credit card to make an advance reservation at the Metropole... 

Fiji - Levuka Police Station

The next day, we walked all over Suva breathing in the heavy smell of garbage and wilted flowers left from the previous week's Hibiscus Festival.

We watched a game of kayak waterpolo and visited the National Museum which featured a huge wooden canoe, an impressive collection of artifacts, and several displays related to Fiji's history of cannibalism: forks, knives, and small pronged spears for prying out the more delectable and inaccessible pieces of flesh.

In most places, cannibalism was rare. European colonialists exaggerated the frequency of the practice to assert their moral superiority over the people they were about to exploit. In fact, cannibalism was usually limited to celebrating a victory over an enemy. In the case of Fiji, inter-tribal war was not uncommon so the opportunity to celebrate did come around. The conversion of most Fijians to Christianity in the middle of the nineteenth century put an end to the practice.

Cannibalism still plays a role in Fiji's historical memory. Replicas of cannibal utensils were on sale in the museum gift shop (no, we did not buy any). Fijians also love to joke about it.

Recently, a leading politician was invited on board a visiting cruise ship. When it was time for lunch, the choices from the menu seemed to disappoint the official. "Would you like to hear," the captain asked, "what else the kitchen has to offer?" "I was hoping," said the dignitary, "to make a selection from the passenger list."


Rain, rain and then sunshine

Fiji - Fresh pineapple while waiting for the ferry to Ovalau

The next day we found more than thirty vehicles at the bustling terminal in Suva, each surrounded by hand carts holding fresh vegetables, snacks, peanuts, and assorted dry goods. Our bus, owned and operated by the Patterson Bros. Shipping Co., was full so we were lucky that we had purchased our tickets the afternoon before.

We weren't the only ones with lots of luggage, and everyone's stuff was loaded in the front of the bus, in the aisle, and down the steps to the door. I expected a relaxed attitude toward seating arrangements, but the bus did not depart until I sat down in my designated place.

After a two-hour drive, we arrived at Natovi Landing, a remote pier along the east coast of Viti Levu. The ferry was late so we left the bus and wandered around, buying drinks and fresh peeled pineapple from the local children.

The boat finally came. It was little more than a large, rusted hulk, like those overloaded river ferries that roll over and sink, leaving the passengers to be eaten by crocodiles. A dozen lorries bumped across a twisted ramp onto the boat, followed by our bus. The cabin was stacked with huge bales of cloth, over-stuffed baggage secured with bits of string, a container with small pigs, and three chickens in a wood cage. The "gents" stank.

Fiji - Ferry from Viti Levu to Ovalau

As soon as we left the jetty, a video monitor flickered to life. Everyone stared at the screen to watch A Bronx Tale, a Robert DeNiro movie. The sound was terrible and the picture jumped up and down.

I was having trouble understanding the audio track so I had no idea what was getting through to the Fijians. I glanced around the room: everyone was mesmerized.

I went outside to the deck and hung over the rail. The sound of gently cascading water rose from the bow wave. Layers of grey clouds suggested metallic filigree. Directly ahead lay Ovalau. The thick coastal vegetation gave way to rugged mountains rising more than two thousand feet to a volcanic crater whose rim was obscured by the gathering dusk and drapes of mist.

Fiji - Approaching Ovalau

Looking down, I found glittering flying fish skipping through the still, slate water. As the sun set, the last light refracted through the curtained sky. Isolated shafts of light streamed through gaps in the clouds and highlighted gorges and rock outcroppings on one of the approaching peaks.

We didn't land on Ovalau until after dark. It is a small, rugged island, measuring roughly six by ten miles. It took another hour to Levuka by bus, on a winding dirt road full of potholes. The headlights illuminated snatches of the jungle as we twisted and turned through the dust raised by the trucks that had come off the ferry ahead of us.

Fiji - Hotel Royale in Levuka, Ovalau

We checked in at the Royale Hotel which, after 125 years of service, is the oldest operating hotel in Fiji. The hotel had a long bar, a heavy, musty smell, and artifacts from Levuka's past as a whaling port.

We had a two-bedroom cottage. It had two verandas facing the hills behind the town, a shabby kitchen, wicker furniture with peeling paint, and flowered carpets on the floor.

Everyone wanted a shower. But first I had to figure out how to ignite the antiquated boiler. I found a torn page of instructions which offered some clues. The buttons on the panel next to the tub were numbered, some with pictures of small blue flames, others with larger orange flames. After fifteen minutes of experimenting, the gas finally ignited with a medium-sized explosion.

Fiji - Be sure to pay your debts while visiting Levuka

Most upscale resorts in Fiji are located off the western side of the island of Viti Levu because it is favored with dry weather. The international airport is not near Suva, the capital, but rather at Nadi, on the west, convenient for visiting tourists.  The further east, the more it rains and the less tourism there is. Our island, Ovalau, is off the dreary east coast.

We awoke to a rainy day and spent the morning wandering around Levuka, looking at store fronts. I tried not to stare at the workers at the local fish-processing plant. Or at miserable Thai fishermen huddled for shelter under the overhang of the forecastle deck of their stinking boat. Or at the large sign posted in the window of the grocery store, listing people who owed the shopkeeper money. The town smelled of anchovies.

At lunch we found ants walking all over Sara's pizza. She found it inedible anyway since it had been made with BBQ instead of tomato sauce. The restaurant guestbook was filled with dismal references such as "And I thought that Scotland was wet," signed, Bill McDonald.

Back at the hotel I played a game of snooker with Ian. Putting a F20c coin in a meter on the wall gave ten minutes of light. Otherwise the room was so dark that the whaling prints and old public announcements on the wall were practically invisible. I loved the atmosphere. Only a few medium-sized rats scurried on the curtain rods above us.

Fiji - Above the town of Levuka

During dinner, Linda talked with our waitress. Waiti was the youngest of five, and her father had died before she was born. Her mother had been working at our Royale Hotel since she was fifteen, arriving each day at 4 PM and leaving at 8 AM. Two of Waiti's sisters worked in the cannery.

The next morning's breakfast scene was gruesome. It was still raining and we had to hurry to find an acceptable restaurant. Danny ordered Chinese corn soup but it turned out to be canned corn on toast. He circled the table cursing and moaning and then fell on the floor where he twitched and kicked spasmodically. After many warnings, we kicked him out of the restaurant.

Things were looking up on our third morning in Levuka. The weather was fine. Plus, we found a restaurant called the Whale's Tail that served food that American children will eat. After stuffing ourselves with omelets and scones, we took a hike to Levuka Peak and enjoyed the view.


Don't sit under coconut trees

Fiji - Local transport to the black sand beach at Rukuruku

Later we rode in the back of a lorry to a village on the northern tip of Ovalau called Rukuruku. Rukuruku was reported in the guide book to be a popular family and backpackers' resort with the only black sand beach in the country, but we found it desolate. But the kids played in the water with some local children for two straight hours.

I soon left the beach and went for a run along a dirt road. It was a wonderful route that traversed a series of small hills. The sea and some smaller islands lay down the steep slope off to the left, while sugar cane and cassava plantations rose up on the right. Behind the vegetation lay the range that marks the interior of Ovalau.

I passed through small villages, slapped hands with the friendly kids, and worked up a nice sweat. With the spectacular scenery everything fell into place somatically. My jet lag was finally gone and being at home with my body felt great.

I came back from the run and joined the rest of the family. We sat together under a tree. A tall, gaunt European with a squirrely beard and ragged shorts came walking towards us. He had been drinking and his eyes held a dull glaze.

Fiji - Linda makes a new friend at Rukuruku

"Hello," he slurred.
"Hi," we chorused.
"Americans, right?"
"Before I introduce myself, I need to tell you something right away. You're sitting under a coconut tree. Not a good idea." Sheepishly, we shuffled around to safety.

He turned out to be the owner of the Whale's Tale restaurant in Levuka. Linda and Sara told him they liked his restaurant. He said his daughter managed the restaurant, while he kept an eye on his plantation.

He bent down and peered closely at my face. I almost passed out from the alcohol fumes. He noticed the burn on my eyebrow. I explained about the boiler. "The type with two control knobs and a water pipe running between the jets?"

"That's it."

"You want to be careful with those"

Rukuruku is the turn-around point for public transportation, and we had been the first passengers to board on the way back.

Fiji - Danny rides with farmers on the way back from Rukuruku

The lorry made many stops, picking people up and letting them off. Danny found himself sandwiched between two huge, strong farmers, each carrying machetes. They were very friendly and talked with Danny throughout the trip.

The next day we took a walk through the rainforest to Lovoni, an ancient village in the volcanic interior of Ovalau. Effy, our guide, pointed out cassava and taro, whose tuberous roots form a staple food, as well as kava, the plant used to make the welcoming drink. Then he climbed a tree to pick a papaya, which we ate for a snack.

Effy pointed out paths used by wild pigs and described how they are hunted. Dogs chase the pigs through the bush along rough tracks that only animals can use. Another dog points out the direction to the hunters who then race to the spot where the pigs would leave the track. Then they jump out and kill them with spears.

While beautiful, the walk was also moderately difficult. We climbed steadily for an hour, the path muddy from the rain of the past few days. Stones, roots and slick patches marked the narrow trail. All of us fell at least once. Sara was scared by enormous spiders which hung over the trail. Danny was cranky and whined about being dragged along. We sent him to the front of the group where he did much better.

Fiji - Swimming with local kids while hiking interior of Ovalau

Una and Rosie, two kids from Levuka, came along with us. When we stopped for a break by a creek, they stuck their hands under some rocks and then stood holding their hands in the air. Crayfish dangled from their fingers.

The others went ahead while I removed a small splinter from Rosie's finger. She had a forthright manner with a laugh like a bubbling creek. The splinter came out and we hurried to catch up with the others. She asked me my name and giggled when she said "Paul" out loud. Rosie looked me over and laughed even harder. "Why are you laughing?" I asked her. "Because you're so fat." (I am six feet and weigh about 175 pounds.)

Colo-I-Suva National Park

Mahogany trees, wild orchids en cinnamon

Fiji - Small plane back to Viti Levu

We finally left the island of Ovalau, this time on a small plane with only twelve seats. The day was clear, and the fifteen-minute flight back to Suva was beautiful. At the airport, we were able to rent a car despite the fact that neither Linda nor I had driver's licenses.

With everyone yelling "left, left" to help me stay on the "wrong" side of the road, we headed north to Colo-I-Suva National Park, about thirty minutes north of Suva. As we parked, a ranger came up. There had been thefts and even an occasional attack on visitors. He advised us to place our luggage in his padlocked hut. He also suggested that we invite him to join us as guide.

Fiji - Linda and the dense vegetation of Colo-i-Suva Forest Park

The park was spectacular. We tramped down a gorge with mahogany trees, wild orchids, cinnamon and lush vegetation. A stream ran through the dense woods, falling over small waterfalls. We rested and the kids swung from ropes and swam in pools that had been made by damming up the water.

When we heard someone running down the trail, the ranger stiffened. Fortunately, it turned out to be one of a bunch of picnicking teenagers. One of them dived in the pool in an unsuccessful effort to find a watch that Ian lost as he did his Tarzan Act. Colo-I-Suva was the only place in Fiji where we were worried about our safety.

We headed back toward Nadi and stopped in Pacific Harbor for a fire-walking demonstration. The ceremony is performed over a circular pit lined with stones and covered with large pieces of timber. Several hours before the event, the wood is lit and the stones heat up.

A fire was burning when we arrived. The burning logs were removed, and vines employed to arrange the red-hot stones so that they formed a path.

The bete, or head priest, signaled that all was ready and the firewalkers emerged and traveled, single-file, across the stones. We could see the steam rising, but the men did not rush their steps or do anything else to indicate discomfort. The firewalking had been choreographed for tourists; nonetheless, the ability to walk across the hot surface with such panache was impressive.

Afterwards, I spoke with one of the performers. It turned out he was from Beqa, an island that is the traditional home of the firewalkers. He admitted it was hot, but with the right preparation it could be done. This was a secret, he told me, but since I was a visitor, he could tell me: "For three days, no alcohol, no sex, and no coconuts."

Castaway Island

Every water sport imaginable

On our last day in Fiji, we took a tour to Castaway Island, a typical tourist island paradise, complete with white sand, meticulous bures, water sports and perfect weather. The kids were pleased with their lunch of cheeseburgers and fries. We went snorkeling and found a huge school of silvery fish which surrounded us with the "wall" that they present to potential predators.

Fiji - The family return to the Beaten Track on Castaway Island

We dined at a local Indian restaurant. The waitress, Anna, a 31-year-old aspiring teacher, told us her life story and invited us to stay at her village near Suva should we return. Her village specialized in straw mat weaving.

After serving us, Anna pulled out a chair and sat at the table. The owner joined us as well. I could see the family wished for some American privacy.

Later that night I lay in bed, trying to block out the noise from a rugby team party taking place around the hotel's swimming pool. I needed some rest for the long travel day coming up. Just getting all twelve of our bags to the airport in time for our 5:15 AM departure to New Zealand was going to be a challenge.

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