Where do you go for a vacation when you already live in paradise?
As Christmas quickly approached, I was faced to the unappealing task of choosing where to spend my two-week holiday. While there were plenty of other equally worthy choices; Australia, New Zealand, Vanuatu, Tonga and Western Samoa, I ultimately settled on Fiji as my destination for some fun under the sun. While my initial plan was to find a resort and just relax on the beach, I realized that I can basically do that any weekend I want. I decided, therefore, to take a tour around the main Fijian island of Viti Levu, before heading out to an outer-island resort for a few days (I mean, I can still live the resort life a little bit, right?).
To get to Fiji from American Samoa, I had to fly through Apia (in Western Samoa). There are two airlines that fly to Apia: Inter Island Air and Polynesian Air. Given all of my past dealings with Inter Island Air, can you guess who I chose to fly with? Unfortunately, Polynesian Air flies into a small regional airport, about an hour’s drive from the international airport. So, once I landed in Apia, I had to quickly flag a cab and drive to the other airport (cost me about $40, but it was worth it to fly with an airline that has planes that work….). From the international airport in Apia I flew to Nadi, arriving there at about 2 am on Friday the 23rd. I was absolutely exhausted, and I was in desperate need of private comfort, so I ended up upgrading my hostel reservation to a private room, which allowed me to have my own bathroom (with HOT WATER…what a luxury!) and a giant bed.
My tour didn’t leave until Saturday morning, so I had all Friday to explore Nadi. I can say with absolute certainty that Nadi is an epic shithole, there isn’t much going on and it’s completely filthy. Being white, I couldn’t walk ten steps without being harassed by somebody wanting to sell me something. I’ve never been good at saying no to people, but I can honestly say that I didn’t buy a single useless souvenir while in Fiji. After about the 4th pushy vendor, I came to the conclusion that all of these people must take some kind of “tourist trapping” course, as they all pretty much said the same things to me.
Here is the basic conversation:
Vendor Bula my friend! Merry Christmas to you!
Me Hi, Merry Christmas….
Vendor My friend, where are you from?
Vendor Oh…Canada! Go Maple Leafs! I have a friend that lives in Vancouver!
Me That’s great……
Vendor My friend, can I give you some advice
Vendor Do not buy anything from the Indians, they are big-business, and they are hurting this country
Me Uh, okay, I’ll keep that in mind….
Vendor My friend, can I show you some of my culture (and they would beckon me inside)
Me Uh, no thanks, another time….
I swear every vendor said the same thing about Canada, and they all shared the same hatred for Indians. Fiji has a huge Indian population, some people call it “Little India” and I can certainly understand why. The British brought them in by the boatload to work the land back in the day, and the cultural differences between the Indo-Fijians and the “Native” Fijians have fueled a pretty intense hatred for each other. Native Fijians are a lot like Samoans; they are super laid-back, and they work on “Fiji-time”, which means that it will happen when it happens. Indians, on the contrary, are all about deadlines and efficiency. Essentially, the Native Fijians think the Indo Fijians are “big-business” and are stealing jobs and money away from the country, and the Indo Fijians think the Natives are lazy and leech off the system. Just a bit of history for you I suppose, but everywhere I went in Fiji there seemed to be mutual resentment between the two groups.
After spending a couple of hours getting harassed by shopkeepers (all of whom apparently have friends in Vancouver) I decided to take a cab over to Port Denerau, which is a man-made island just outside of Nadi. Port Denerau has all of the ritzy resorts (Westin, Radisson, Hilton, etc.), and is thus where all of the rich white people go when they come to Nadi. Port Denerau has a shopping center, so I went there for a bit, mostly just to get a decent meal. I ended up eating at a steakhouse (apparently the best in Fiji), and while I’m sure the steak wasn’t anything amazing, it certainly seemed like it to me. After dinner I walked around the rich, white part of Fiji before heading back to my hostel (I took the bus back, with all the resort employees going home for the day).
My tour picked me up on Saturday morning. It turns out that not that many people tour around during Christmas (figures…I would guess most people want to spend Christmas at home before going on vacation), and as a result my tour was essentially private, it was just me and a girl from Ireland. We had an Indo Fijian driver named Kaka (I know, haha) and a Native Fijian tour guide name Kili (who used to work as contracted security in Iraq). So, while touring around the main island of Viti Levu, I felt like a super-rich tourist, with my private driver and private tour guide who doubled as my bodyguard.
On Christmas, I went on a three-hour hike through the Fijian jungle. The scenery was lovely, but because Fiji is so wet this time of year the trail was essentially a giant mud trail. Luckily, the trail goes by a waterfall, so we stopped and chilled there for about an hour. It was a really nice way to spend Christmas, just kind of isolated in the middle of the Fiji wilderness. On Boxing Day we went through the capital city of Suva, which is nearly as much of a shithole as Nadi. We walked by the President’s mansion and the parliament buildings, and I got a picture standing beside the President’s guard (the kind that aren’t supposed to laugh or move).
There were two main highlights on my tour of Viti Levu: the village visit and the Indian food. We visited an “authentic” Fijian village one afternoon (I say authentic hesitantly because I’m sure they play up their customs when there are tourists around). As we entered the village, some of the elders invited us to take part in a traditional kava ceremony. Kava is a huge deal in the South Pacific (including AmSam), and is always had during important meetings, celebrations and ceremonies. Kava is a root that is crushed into a powder, and is then mixed in water. Kava looks like dirty water and pretty much tastes like dirty water, but it makes your tongue numb, and when you have it in large enough quantities it will basically make you drunk (they call it kava-dope). I didn’t drink enough to get kava-dope, but when I was done I felt a numbing sensation on my tongue.
I also hung-out with some of the local village boys and we went bilibili rafting (made from bamboo trees tied together). It was nice just to horse around with some of the local kids, they seem to get really excited to see foreigners, and they wanted to know all about Canada. After the rafting, I took part in some “traditional” Fijian dancing, which is basically just dancing that you make up as you go. As we were dancing, an older woman started walking around and dousing all of us with baby powder. Apparently, this is what people do when they are celebrating, but I’m pretty sure that they really just like to mess with tourists so they just grab whatever they have and throw it on them and claim it is the custom. Whether or not the village was really authentic, it was certainly nice to experience Fijian culture. The kava ceremony piqued my interest in the traditional brew, and the experience opened the floodgates for what would become my kava-binging tour of Mantaray Island (more on that later).
As for my other highlight, on my last day of the tour I had the best Indian food I’ve ever had (are you surprised that I would glorify this?). Our driver took us to his aunt’s house, which was a bed and breakfast five miles off the main road in the middle of absolutely nowhere. We sat in her kitchen and she just kept coming out with more food. The more I ate, the happier she seemed to be, and she just kept bringing more, I must have sat there for a solid hour before I had to stop. It might have been the 5-month absence of anything even remotely similar to Indian, but everything tasted so fantastic, and when I mashed everything together on my plate it tasted even better!
The tour took us in a full loop around Viti Levu, so we ended back in Nadi, where I stayed the night at the same hostel before heading out to Mantary Island. Mantaray Island is in the Yasawa Island chain on the west side of Fiji, and it is absolutely gorgeous out there. The only way to get to the islands is by float plane (if you’re mad rich) or by boat. The boat was only supposed to take 3 hours to get to my island, but the combination of rough weather and general Fiji-time meant that it took closer to 5 hours to get there. For the next three days, I just lied in the sun, snorkeled and kayaked. I got a decent tan, but even with generously applying sunscreen every couple of hours (I went through an entire bottle while I was there) I still managed to get a sun-burn, so for the last day I stayed covered up and just read in a hammock.
While the days were fun, the nights were where the real excitement happened. Having already whetted my appetite for kava during my village visit, I was keen to see if I could procure more of the traditional beverage. After asking around, I was told that I should speak to Joe, a maintenance worker at the resort, if I wanted to get the “good stuff”. Now, while I may or may not have dabbled with the occasional doobie in my time (guess you’ll never know…sorry Mom), I have a general policy to “pass on grass”, as it were; so when faced with the task of approaching a stranger and requesting the “good stuff”, I was unsure of how to proceed. Whatever the most sensible way is, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the way I did it.
Kava is perfectly legal; it’s not even “weed in Jamaica legal”, where everyone thinks it’s legal and then finds out that it’s only really legal for locals, and when tourists are caught with it they can get arrested and thrown into a dirty Jamaican prison, where the Bob Marley song I Shot the Sheriff is actually true, and the song No Woman, No Cry takes on an entirely different meaning. No, kava is completely 100% legal; everyone drinks it from when they’re young until the day they die. Despite this, however, I somehow got it into my head that I had to be really careful and secretive when I approached Joe to ask him for some kava. So, I decided that it would be best to wait until I could get Joe 1-on-1, that’s when I would make my move.
It just so happened that as I was walking to the bathroom later that day, I saw Joe cutting the lawn with a weed-whacker. “It’s now or never”, I thought to myself, as if my quest for kava was of some significant importance. As I approached, Joe turned off the weed-whacker and greeted me with boisterous “Bula!” (Fijian for hello). His greeting was unexpected, and when compounded with my nervousness, made me freeze-up. I didn’t know what to say (perhaps an equally boisterous “Bula!” in return would have sufficed), so I said the only thing I could think of, “Why do you use a weed-whacker to cut the lawn, wouldn’t a lawn mower make more sense?”
Now, there is a back-story to my particular question that might make it seem less random (although it was still a pretty bad choice to make a first impression). In Manu’a, nobody uses a lawn mower to cut their lawns; everyone uses a weed-whacker, which absolutely mystifies me because these Samoans have enormous lawns, and a job that would take them an afternoon to complete ends up taking them a week. Wes and I have asked our students multiple times why people don’t use lawn mowers, and nobody seems to know, so we just shrug to each other and say “meh, T.I.S.”
While my question about Joe’s choice of lawn-maintenance equipment could have been potentially disastrous, I was relieved to find out that the man had a sense of humour. He laughed a little bit, shrugged his shoulders and said “I don’t know”. He then asked me where I was from and we talked a little bit about Canada and American Samoa, and when I finally felt as though I had earned his trust (I’m no narc), I asked him about the “good stuff”. “No problem”, Joe said, “meet me outside the dining hall after dinner, I’ll take you to the employee village, we’ll have some real kava”. While I was confused about what Joe meant by “real kava”, I was nonetheless excited to drink some. I was feeling more and more like an authentic South Pacific Islander.
I met Joe after dinner and he took me down to the employee village. I had never really thought about it before, but if you have a resort on an island, you obviously have to have a place where the employees live. At my resort that place was on the other side of the island, far away from where the tourists typically venture. The employee village was basically just a couple of dorms on the beach, and as I entered with Joe I could see a group of about 8 resort employees sitting on bed mattresses around a fire. Joe quickly introduced me to everyone, and then invited me to have a seat on one of the mattresses while he prepared the kava.
Now, I’ve watched enough 60 Minutes to know that tourists disappear all over the world, mostly because they meet someone and follow them somewhere and never return. This was not lost on me while I was sitting around the fire, the only tourist in a group of locals. As I began to ponder this further, I envisioned Joe slipping a “roofie” into my kava and proceeding to rob me and sell me into slavery. All of my anxiety quickly dissipated, however, as Joe started passing the kava around; I was too keen to try the “good stuff” to worry about my face being plastered on the 1% cartons of Québon.
The method of drinking kava pays homage to the traditional culture of the South Pacific, and while I’m sure some people might just drink it like any other beverage, it seemed to me that most people respected the cultural preservation of the activity. Kava is mixed in a giant bowl, and is served in half of a coconut shell. When the kava is ready, the person mixing the kava dips the shell into the bowl, and holds it high in front of him, waiting for someone to indicate they want to drink the shell. To drink the shell, a person claps once, says “Bula!”, and proceeds to receive the shell from the person mixing the kava. Once you finish the shell (which you’re supposed to do in a single go, sipping is for the weak), you are supposed to hand it back to the person mixing the kava, and clap three times. I thought the whole thing was a little strange at first, but when I saw the locals doing it I knew that it had to be legit, so I joined right in with them.
It didn’t take me very long to understand why this “real kava” was the “good stuff”. Like everything else, kava is something that has been exploited for tourism purposes. Kava powder is sold in plenty of stores, and kava ceremonies are conducted all over the place (most hotels and hostels do them every night). But because tourists have not grown-up drinking kava, the stuff sold in stores and used at hotels and hostels is extremely diluted. Locals buy their kava in root form, and grind it up themselves, which makes it more authentic, or as Joe liked to put it, “the real stuff”. So while my first experience with kava (during my village visit) left my tongue a little numb after a few shells, the kava I was now having made my entire mouth numb after a single shell.
So it went for quite some time, the 9 Fijian locals and a tourist, sitting by the fire passing around the kava shell. Every time it was my turn, Joe would ask if I wanted high-tide (a full shell) or low-tide (half a shell), and while I started strong with a few high-tides, I quickly retreated to low-tides for the rest of the night. Kava varies from country to country, and while each country will boast that their kava is the best, there are clear differences in their potency. Vanuatu, for example, supposedly has the strongest kava, where 1 or 2 high-tides will put a tourist on a trip for a couple of days. In Fiji, the kava is much more mellow, and it wasn’t until somewhere between my 10th and 15th low-tide (after what I would consider an impressive 5 or so high-tides, I might add) that I began to get my kava-dope.
Getting drunk off of kava is a much softer, smoother inebriation than alcohol. I felt as though my body was becoming lighter, and I was having serious flashes of euphoria from the smallest things. The book Getting Stoned with Savages, an account of one man’s journey through Vanuatu and Fiji, dedicates an entire chapter to kava-dope, and he does a much better job of describing it than I can; I’ll just say that it’s a pretty good time. What isn’t as much of a good time, however, is the morning after drinking kava. While I wouldn’t say I had to suffer the classic symptoms of a hangover (headache, sensitivity to light, etc.), I was groggy and sluggish all day long, kind of like operating on not enough sleep.
Regardless, that night with Joe and the other employees I had been apparently granted “local” status at the resort, and was free to join them anytime for some more kava. And join them again I did, the following night, and the night after that. My days became sluggish kayak trips and walks on the beach, and my nights became euphoric story-telling sessions on mattresses in front of the fire.
On my last day (December 31st) I caught the boat back to Viti Levu (just 4 hours this time, an improvement), and from the marina I took a bus straight to the airport, where I met up with Jill and Katherine, my WorldTeacher friends who let me crash at their place whenever I’m in town. We ended up celebrating New Year’s at the airport bar, just the three of us at the bar in a near-empty departures area. Our flight back to Apia left at 2 am on New Year’s Day, and upon arrival I hopped into a taxi and took the hour drive from the international airport to the regional airport (which is really just a glorified grass field).
Fiji has had 4 coups in its history, the most recent occurring in 2006. The military is currently ruling the country, and as a result the country has been suspended from the Commonwealth. You wouldn’t know it from touring around the country, however, as Fiji is absolutely gorgeous, and shows no obvious signs of military rule or continuous civil war. While it is true that the big cities are rather off-putting, there are thankfully only a couple of them and the wonderful countryside that surrounds them more than makes up for it. I had an absolutely wonderful time in Fiji, and it was an excellent way to spend my Christmas vacation.
When my feet hit the tarmac of Pago Pago International Airport, I felt like I was home again. That feeling quickly subsided, however, when an American Samoan customs officer asked me for my Immigration Identification Card, reminding me that I was, in fact, a Canadian castaway. “No problem whatsoever”, I said to the customs officer, proudly brandishing my beautiful ID card; the very same card that I had spent a tumultuous 48 hours obtaining on that very island only two months prior. As I left the airport, I stopped by the office of Inter Island Air, curious to see if my flight back to Manu’a was on schedule. “I’m sorry”, said the woman behind the counter, “the plane is broken right now, so your flight has been canceled”.
I was home.