Thursday, September 14th, 2006

Because of the paucity of recent posts, I will try to be as long-winded as possible in our first descriptions of Fiji, a gloomy hellhole, leaving out a full recounting of how our first day was soured by the (foreseen) loss of our luggage.  

That’s right – Day One, and we’d already involuntarily simplified down to no change of clothes and a bunch of electronic gear with no power. And no deodorant, far more a trial for Lisa, who had to be near me. The saving grace was that it couldn’t get worse.


Indeed, it very quickly got better. Within 24 hours we had our bags (which had been inexplicably routed through Auckland) and had met, dined and exchanged contact information with three fellow travelers who had also provided us loads of invaluable advice. Plus: Fiji is freaking gorgeous. Even the main island, disdained by more experienced backpackers, offers innumerable joys and wonders. The sunrises here suck so badly, we haven’t missed one yet. And the sunsets – so unworthy of our attention that as I wrote this Lisa was getting teary-eyed staring at our third, unable to articulate, palsied by its grandeur. I had to conscript someone from the hostel staff to carry her back to our room.


After two intolerable days of this we left the main island, Viti Levu, for points north and a little west: the Yasawa islands. Conveying us there is the Yasawa Flyer, a vessel whose captain apparently doesn’t realize that better music exists than Kenny Rogers and The Carpenters. I mean c’mon – two times through Kenny’s “Greatest Hits”? Torture.


Our first merciful stop was an “eco-resort” called Manta Ray Bay, on the island of Naviti, so-named because near here, every year about this time, schools of manta rays – some ranging to 14 meters in length – migrate through on their way north. For F$20 you can be dropped in the water above them and do your darnedest to swim along. Lisa had the experience and will relate it in a future post, if I can ever convince her to contribute to this blog.


At Manta Ray we had a little bungalow, or bure, on the beach, and day and night the sound of the tide kept a constancy over the tranquil scene. Calm is the way of things here, and the natives call it “Fiji time.” We very quickly became part of the pace. Right out our door was a view of the sunrise, and water so blue it almost resembled Gatorade. The cloudiest day here disperses by 9 a.m., giving way to a sun so brilliant no one could reasonably think of remaining indoors.


At night the strange constellations twinkle brightly around a fat moon. The smell of saltwater wafts over the coconut fronds, merging with the perfume of suntan lotion and slow-roasting skin.


Strangely enough, few Americans seem to visit Fiji – at least, few compared to the Brits, Australians, Kiwis, Greeks and Italians. Our first night at Manta Ray, though, we encountered one at dinner, a lovely Zanax-addicted woman with a murderous ex-boyfriend, who explained that this was the trip of her dreams and that it ended the next day: she was heading back to her job as administrative assistant – whatever that is – in some government office in North Carolina. So sad. Sitting beside her, and paying her a good deal of attention, was Richard, not a guest at the resort but a sailor whose craft, the Sea Dove, was moored off the island. He was here for the food, and the company. The food was to his liking, but the company, I’m sorry to say, was a little more than he bargained for, especially when the topic turned to the environment.


After a few rounds of Fiji Bitter, Richard, a silver-haired British expat living in New Zealand, expounded somewhat stridently on his view that most of the current to-do about climate change is an effort by environmental activists to drum up fear, to better secure funding. “I belong to the 35 percent of people who simply don’t buy it,” he said.


“I think the percent of people who don’t buy it comfort themselves that they are as many as 35 percent,” I answered without thinking. “Really it’s more like 5 percent,” and the conversation devolved from there. Fortunately the dinner drum soon sounded, defusing a potential international incident.


The food here, as on the main island, is excellent. On special nights they serve something called “lovo,” a chicken-like meat (possibly pork or goat) cooked underground over hot coals, served steaming in its crispy skin. Fried rice is a staple. Pumpkin and carrot soups make frequent appearances. And of course the fish selections are varied and superb: mahi mahi, snapper, the sweet meat of barracuda, rock perch, all garnished with cucumber salad sweetened with golden raisins.


One curiosity is the complete lack of bread options. Only white bread is available. It’s as if they never heard of any other kind. It’s he only disappointment, so far, in our experience of Fijian cuisine.


“Maybe they all just really like white bread,” said Lisa, who hates white bread with something like an animal ferocity.


“Do you mean to suggest they’ve never discovered the joys of wheat on this island?”


“Where would they get wheat? There’s no room for big farms here.”


“Import it, like everything else they have here.”


It’s a mystery, to be solved at a later date. Maybe we’ll insult some locals by inquiring into their limited bread knowledge, and report back to our breathless readers in a future post. Until then.


Photos coming soon. 


We got the news that the Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin, was killed by a stingray; like most news it filtered in to us after many days, with hazy details. But immediately there was a misconception needing illumination about the nature of the beast responsible for the Croc Hunter’s demise. For one thing, as Lisa can attest firsthand, there is little in common between the stingray and the manta ray.


Manta rays are peaceful creatures who entirely lack the inclination or the capacity to harm humans. They never attack. The only harm they do is when unwary divers wander too close to their immense fins and suffer a concussion. Lisa swam with one – she’ll offer her first post to this blog soon to report the details – and called it one of the greatest experiences of her life. Second only to meeting me.


We came to the end of our brief stay at Manta Ray Bay after an extensive, and sweaty, climb to the uppermost point of Naviti Island, to a cliffside overlooking the strait between Naviti and its neighbor to the south, Waya. It was a singular experience if only for the view: miles and miles of brilliant blue ocean broken only by humps of bright green isle: you could see forever, almost. We sat on a crumbling volcanic cliff, amazed.


Our guide, Noks (short for Makelili Nainoka) seemed unaccountably to like us, and extended an invitation to stay in his village when we return to Fiji. I tried to warn him that this was a dangerous invitation – just ask our friends in Bangkok, Sweden and elsewhere, whose hospitality we mean soon to test … Just kidding guys. We’re great houseguests. Really. (By the way, I like my eggs sunny-side up, with wheat toast, jam and butter on the side. Promptly at 8.)


Noks, and his fellow staffer Aba, provided us a detailed recent history of the island, parts of which their tribe leases to the resort and parts on the island’s far eastern side they’ve consented to sell to developers planning, in the next two years, to build a five-star hotel. From the point of view of the nearby villages, which will provide the man- and woman-power to construct and staff the new hotel, this is a good – even great – thing. For purists who really have no business meddling in Fiji’s affairs – us – it’s bittersweet at best. You don’t have to be an expert in geology or topography to appreciate the vast variety of these islands, their uniqueness, and that’s without even approaching the subject of plant and animal life. The coral reefs in particular, running right up to the beach and allowing snorkelers to simply wade to them to witness their intricate, incomparable ecoystems, are delicate and require constant vigilance and protection. We hope it’s provided.


We think it will be. We decided to be content seeing the area – accompanied by the resort’s two mutts, Misi and Tui, who reminded us of Kaya in more than just appearance – before developers change it forever. And learning a bit about the place in the process.

We learned, for example, about the rara tree, which has a kind of sap good for soothing upset stomachs, and we learned how to knock down, select and un-rind coconuts. We learned about trees that provide remedies for eye problems and treatments for diabetes — a real problem in a country where sugar goes with 90 percent of the diet. And, mot importantly, we made more friends.