February 20, 2004

Bula!

Fiji provided us with a lovely 4-day, 3-night stopover on the long haul across the Pacific. After a harrowing experience with Air Pacific in Los Angeles ("You want to take my bag back off the plane?"), we were quite delighted to arrive in what appeared to be paradise.

In many ways, it was everything we expected. Piercingly blue sunny skies; tall, impossibly bent palm trees; ubiquitous friendly smiles; and a cultural mix (largely Fijian and Indian with a hint of British colonial leftovers) balanced precariously somewhere between history, current reality, and tourists' expectations. Oh, and the fact that it was mango season didn't hurt!

We stayed at a hotel called Tambua Sands on the Coral Coast, the south coast of the main island, Viti Levu (Fiji has over 300 islands -- who knew?). It wasn't a huge resort -- we didn't really want one -- but it had a lovely sandy beach backed by a coconut palm grove, beautiful waters, delicious meals, cheeky mynah birds that tried to steal your breakfast, and abundantly friendly staff. We even had our own beachfront "bure" (traditionally a hut, but in our case more of a bungalow).

We had intended to take it very easy in Fiji, and succeeded in doing so. Our only excursions were to visit nearby Sigatoka town (twice) and Kula Ecopark. Sigatoka town is the main town on the Coral Coast. We visited the market, ate delicious Indian food (easy to find in Fiji!), and walked around the main city square and a residential neighbourhood.

The town was, not surprisingly, nothing like our hotel or the larger resorts. The woman at the front desk at Tambua Sands seemed genuinely concerned about what we might uncover if we wandered into the town. Sigatoka town was harmless, although on the residential side of Sigatoka river you could see that many Fijians did not, of course, live in resort-style conditions. At the edge of Sigatoka town you would find, jarringly, "Le Cafe." The cafe, which might as well have been in Europe and had "Under Swiss Management" emblazoned on its sign, was clearly designed as a buffer for unsuspecting tourists who happened upon the town.

Kula Ecopark exceeded our pamphlet-set expectations. It's hard not to swoon like a child when somebody puts a colourful little parrot in your hand and a crested iguana (or three) on your shoulders.

The staff clearly had their heart in their work. The centre, built on the support of an American philanthropist (the government "doesn't give us one cent", according to the staff), had a fabulous varying-altitude boardwalk and beautiful flora and fauna. It also had a parrot that had spent a year in an Australian pub and had picked up some colourful vocabulary. We were impressed and ended up sponsoring a visit for a Fijian school class.

Back at our hotel, the staff provided both intended and unintended entertainment. We went snorkelling with some Australians from Sydney and the hotel's "Entertainment Coordinator", Limo. The snorkelling was rewarding, scenery-wise, but also amusing, beginning with Limo's safety warning ("Just don't touch anything") and ending when his feet hurt too much because he brought the wrong flippers. Other entertainment at the hotel included climbing for coconuts, an "International Crab and Frog Race" (the name really says it all), and a night of allegedly authentic Fijian music and dancing (who knew the conga was Fijian?). Limo's favourite activity appeared to be providing informal, off-duty entertainment: playing pool and ping-pong with the guests in the evening.

Ultimately, the most remarkable thing about Fiji was the people. It is a stereotype for the residents of island nation retreats like Fiji to be friendly, but this was something else! Everywhere you walked, people would smile and say "Bula" (one of those all-purpose greeting and acknowledgement-of-presence words). This was not, as the cynical might suggest, simply people trying to convince you to part with some Fijian dollars. It was quite literally everyone -- from shop owners to random passers-by to four-year-old children playing in the residential side of Sigatoka town.

This friendliness extended beyond a simple "hello". We were at Kula Ecopark until the park closed, so the staff invited us to join them in a crowded van (about fifteen people piled in) on the ride into Sigatoka town. At the hotel, the job of one employee, Lemeki, appeared to be to sit by the beach, greet the guests, and ask how they were doing. Even our jaded taxi driver, "Bob the Builder" -- who would often mutter "Yeah, yeah, bula, bula, bula" in a sarcastic tone as we drove around and he exchanged greetings -- offered to cook us a "lomo"-style meal, which involved digging a pit in the ground and about three hours of work (stunned into sheepishness, we didn't take him up on his offer).

All in all, it was a stupendously relaxing four days. Next stop: Australia!

For more pictures, check out the Fiji Photo Gallery.

Posted by anatole at February 20, 2004 10:53 AM
Comments

Woohoo! Stories! We knew you could do it... Though it just makes me even more jealous!

Posted by: Aven at February 23, 2004 02:41 PM