Fiji


All,

Here are the links to our two-part first installment, which also should be linked at the Friends of the Earth website by now. It’s up on Gather.com.

Part 1:
http://www.gather.com/viewArticle.jsp?articleId=281474976821714

Part 2:
http://www.gather.com/viewArticle.jsp?articleId=281474976821718

We just got off the Milford Track, “the best walk in the  world,” and were scheduled to hike the nearby Routeburn Track but it’s closed for avalanche danger. So we’re headed south the Catlin Mountains instead. More later.

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The first installment of our Positive Vision Project for Friends of the Earth. … We’re working out the kinks with Gather.com and the FoE people and should be able to link it to here within the next few days.

Okay, all right, here’s my first blog post. I can’t help that Marc, with all his writer’s pretensions, is an unabashed computer hog.

And despite what you all may think, I am still alive.

And I’ve been keeping notes. So I have to go back a bit and talk about Fiji. Fiji: the land where shoulders are sexy, the beer is warm and the showers are cold. But other than that, it’s paradise. Marc has already filled you in on most of our adventures so far, but here are a few tidbits I thought I’d add.

In my first few moments in Fiji I learned my first world travel lesson (especially for the visually challenged). I forgot my glasses in my checked luggage, which, to my dismay, stayed an extra day in L.A., and having taken out my contacts during the 11-hour flight to Nadi I spent my first day in Fiji blind as a bat.

After regaining our bags and my eyesight (God bless Air New Zealand), we headed off to the Yasawa Islands, a backpackers haven, and some much-needed unplugging from our hypercharged D.C. lives. At Mantaray Island Resort, many fruity drinks were imbibed and, despite my pathological fear of sharks, I had my first experience swimming in a coral reef.

After some trepidation (and figuring out how to use a snorkel and mask without inhaling massive quantities of saltwater and tiny reef fish), I set out. The water was crystal clear down to 30 feet, the coral is still healthy for the most part, and the variety of fish of every color, shape and size was truly astounding. There were stripy neon yellow and blue fish; schools of little, iridescent blue fish that suddenly turned yellow with the change of light; giant clams; a long-snouted, yard-long fish the shape of a walking stick; even a fish that flapped its fins up and down so that it looked like it was flying. And the coral! The colors ranged from red to yellow, blue and gray. Some were shaped like giant brains (remember the movie Cocoon? they were just like those … only I don’t think there were any glowing, fountain-of-youth-spewing aliens inside), and others like shelves or elk horns. We glided over it with our sea kayaks watching the fish of every sort watch us. And then there was the manta ray.

The special thing about this particular island we were staying on is that it was next to a virtual highway for that gentle giant of the deep—the manta ray. We happened to be visiting during the right season, when streams of nutrients brought in the krill, which the manta rays funnel into their mouths with flaps of skin that act like the paddles of a pinball machine. When they are sighted moving through the bay, the locals bang a large hollow tree—a kind of Fijian drum they once used to call warriors, now mostly used to call tourists to mealtime—to summon everyone to the boats.

With Pavlovian zeal, I answered the call and ran to the boat with snorkel and mask.

Several boatloads of us piled in and after taking our names (to later call roll to avoid abandoning us to our fate in the middle of the Pacific—see the movie Open Water), we were off at top speed. We jetted farther and farther and the water went from a shallow turquoise to a deep navy blue. Suddenly the pilots spotted our quarry and we were instructed to don our gear and plunge into the deep. Suddenly I was immersed in water too deep to see the bottom, surrounded by a dozen other thrashing humans turned clumsy aquatic creatures.

The adrenaline kicked in and I forgot this was my second day ever swimming in the ocean. Also I figured if there were sharks, chances are they would nab one of the other tourists first. The fatter ones were good candidates. Anyway, our guide called out “Manta ray!” and we swam in a school in that direction.

There it was, about 20 feet below us: a huge, black ray the width of a minivan, serenely coasting through the blue waters. Floating and swimming above it, I felt serene as well, despite a leaky mask and the fact that I had been deposited in the middle of the ocean with no instruction or experience. It was, truly, one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.

After what seemed like hours following our aquatic friend, one by one we flopped back into the waiting boat, glowing with glee. We were the few, the proud, the manta ray swimmers.

___________________________

Fiji gave us our fair share of culture shock. As I mentioned earlier, for women, baring of the shoulders, as well as the knees, is considered quite provocative. Hence I spent my time there – except of course the time I spent on the beach in turisto land – swaddled in my sulu (sarong) and tucked away in heavier tops. Marc also had a change of wardrobe during our visit to a local village—donning a sulu (skirt) as a sign of respect to the local chief. Tee-hee!

(No photographic evidence exists of this alleged event. – Marc)

(Drat! – Lisa)

Aside from the change in attire, Fiji was a wonderful country. The people are friendly, the environment relatively pristine, and the society in general pretty darned sustainable. Most food is locally produced and organic and delicious. More than eighty percent of the land is still owned by native clans, and most people still live traditionally. If the apocalypse hit tomorrow, this little corner of the Pacific would still be doing all right.

So maybe I’ll move here—depending on the outcome of the next election. Put that way, I’m not sure whom I want to win in November. J

So there it is – I finally posted to my own blog. At this rate, you’ll get my thoughts on New Zealand once we’ve been in Australia for three weeks.

Until then. . .Bula, vinaka vaka levu, adios and aloha!

I don’t mean to brag, but apparently, I am the greatest non-Fijian kava drinker any of these people have ever seen. I do not come to this conclusion lightly.

 

Kava, as many of you may know, is a ceremonial drink derived from the root of the kava plant, which grows here in abundance. Like wine, the older the plant the better: most plants are culled at two years, and it is said that seven-year plants are the best. But those are now almost impossible to find: kava was originally used only for special occasions, but is now consumed everywhere, even in restaurants in the cities, as a mild social lubricant. The pressure to harvest is preventing the growth of the best kava across Fiji, a development lamented among its aficionados.

 

 

Its appearance is light brown, like a bowl of sandy water, and its taste is grainy, earthy. Its effects vary, like any intoxicant. For the most part it serves as a very mild depressant; it certainly aids sleep, and requires frequent bathroom visitation. Overuse can cause liver damage, which is why kava was outlawed in Australia, and perhaps why there was an effort to illegalize it in America. Still, kava consumption is mostly a nightly occurrence where there is any true appreciation for it.

 

 

Our inaugural kava experience (in Fiji) came in the Yasawas our first week in the islands, but that was clearly and somewhat disappointingly tailored for the tourists. Our second night in Taveuni, however, we drank kava at the invitation of Anna and her husband, Lavena’s acting chief, and that’s when I began to suspect that I am, indeed, something of a kava-quaffing superman.

 

 

My suspicions were reinforced two nights later in Vidawa, during the sevusevu ceremony with that village’s chief and elders. The kava was strong – Taveuni is acknowledged by all islanders to boast the best kava, probably because of the superiority of its soil – and the bowls (cured coconut shells) of it came fast and full: “high tide.” But the effect on me was something akin to a nice satisfying meal at the end of a long day: a soft-edged feeling of tranquility, nothing more.

 

 

Needless to say, I was beginning to be very impressed with my kava prowess. I was not alone. On our last night in Taveuni, we stayed in a new place on the western shore, Waimakare Camping Ground – highly recommended – and were invited to have kava that night with the manager, Semi, and his cousin, Pedro. Pedro wore a jacket and long pants because, he said, he felt chilled when the weather dipped to a mere 70 degrees. The three of us (Lisa retired early) finished an entire tanoa (large wooden ceremonial bowl) going exclusively the “high tide” route, and while my two hosts were giddy with the stuff, I was more or less completely unaffected. Superman. The two veterans appraised the rookie with hearty familial respect.

 

 

“High Tide” Marc moved on the next morning, bound for Suva, just a little drowsy after his prodigious imbibing. But his legend lives on.

 

 

 

 

Leaving Taveuni, we hopped on a boat bound for Suva, Fiji’s capital, and the final leg of our three-week tour. Once in town we settled in at the South Seas Hotel, formerly a girls’ dormitory where, it is said, amorous young men used to break in through the floorboards. Most buildings, including almost all domiciles, are built on stilts in Fiji, and this architectural quirk – along with the maddening concentration of so much girlhood – must have offered too much temptation to determined suitors.

 

 

Now the place – high ceilings, whitewashed walls, polished wood floors – is just a decent backpackers’ hostel. (When it isn’t home to a rancorous horde of unruly rugby players. Who have an unhealthy obsession with Celine Dion music.)

 

 

On our way into Suva we noticed a McDonald’s. Whatever else you may think of McDonald’s – and we certainly have a very low regard for it – it’s pretty amazing how they’ve been able to create a uniform cuisine the world over. For a variety of high-minded reasons, none of which I will divulge here, we popped into this location early in our visit to Suva.

 

 

Okay – it was my idea. Lisa hates McDonald’s, like white bread, with animal ferocity. But after nearly three weeks of sweaty jungle hikes and hit-and-miss Fijian food I was eager for a little taste of America, so in we went. And now I can report that a Big Mac and fries tastes exactly as it does in Riverdale, Maryland – or Dublin, Ireland, for that matter.

 

 

“Crappy,” Lisa observed. “How can you eat that stuff?”

 

 

“Shut up,” I explained, expectorating fries all over the table.

 

 

Once sated by our Value Meals (they had a veggie option to satisfy poor Lisa), we checked out the city. Suva, unlike Nadi, actually has the look (tall buildings) and feel (bustling markets) of a big city. Suva is immeasurably more comfortable and cosmopolitan. There are sketchy neighborhoods, of course, but they lie chiefly in the north part of town and are easily skirted. Restaurant and bar options are more varied, and shopping – especially if you’re looking for a hard-to-find electronic doo-dad without which none of your gear will function – is infinitely more tolerable. If you like that sort of thing, Suva has a couple modern malls (arcades, they’re called) seamlessly woven into the more classic downtown architecture.

 

 

Furthermore, Suva lacked two things Nadi had in abundance: business owners all but wrestling you into their stores, and shifty dudes trying to sell you cocaine and/or marijuana every five paces. It was a nice change.

 

 

There is a highly regarded museum and a beautifully designed Parliament, whose image adorns the $20 bill. And there are green spaces: parks, yes, and rugby pitches and bowling lawns. They actually worked trees into the landscape. And Suva is directly on the beach, not tucked behind a mangrove forest and flanked by moats and ditches. Suva, unlike its cousin to the northwest, feels like a city some thought went into.

 

 

So, naturally, we were desperate to get the hell out of there. Why? Fiji was starting to wear on us a little. Constant vigilance against the unknown is very tiring. Also it rained our last three days in country, a hard, cold rain out of a sullen skyline, driving down our frame of mind. Plus there’s only so much Celine Dion one can take.

 

 

We wanted to get to a new place. New Zealand was always supposed to be the start of this trip, and for two-and-a-half weeks Fiji was a pleasant pause before that start. Once we left Taveuni, though, it felt like we were just biding our time.

 

We boarded a bus for the three-hour trip back to Nadi, spent one last night sipping Fiji Bitter in a hostel bar, and headed for the airport in the morning. And that was that.

The bus stops here. All automated traffic stops here. Lavena is literally the end of the road, a village of 400 with one lodge, one shop and one trailhead.

The Lavena Coastal Walk is a three-hour trip along, and above, the beach and rocky coast of Taveuni’s eastern shore, leading at its terminus deep into the jungle to the spectacular Wainibau Waterfall – a double waterfall dropping into a single rocky enclosure.

With surf crashing on our left we plunged into the heat of the forest and arrived early at the falls, took a swim, ate some lunch and departed just as the tourists started to straggle in. Even so there were only a handful: this area truly deserves the designation “wilderness”: Wainibau, and the larger Bouma that encompasses it, is one of the least explored, least understood places in the central Pacific. Here alone are found numerous plant and animal species that are known to exist nowhere else in the world. Here, unique perhaps to the world, are found waterfalls within a kilometer of their deltas (most waterfalls are nearer to a river’s source, where it tends to be stronger).

“The last 15 minutes,” according to the Moon Handbook we faithfully toted around Fiji, “is a scramble up a creek bed, which can be very slippery as you wade along. Two falls here plunge into the same deep basalt pool and during the rainy season you must actually swim a short distance to see the second pool.”

Actually, you have to swim no matter what season it is. As many of you know, I am not the most avid swimmer; I prefer to say I lack the animal urge to insensibly leap into every available body of water. Regardless, being on an island in the middle of the ocean, I’ve been confronted by multiple unavoidable occasions requiring submersion and, I think, responded with aplomb. Lisa, whose job it is to chronicle my misadventures and frequently iterate and reiterate them, may disagree.

Digression concluded. I swam, and we finished the Lavena Coastal Walk and spent a quiet night as the only guests of the community-built-and-owned Lavena Lodge. We drank kava with Anna, the manager, and her husband, the acting village chief (the permanent chief being away on business) whose name, like many Fijian names, I can neither pronounce nor remember. It was our first authentic, away-from-the-throngs experience, but not the last.

The lodge was a nice place situated on a promontory sticking well out toward the breakers that provided a soundtrack to the two days and nights we spent there. Its lobby served as a thoroughfare for chickens, dogs, crabs and – almost – a giant poisonous sea snake. Our second and last night in Lavena requires description because it was then we met the lodge’s two new guests, both of whom became our companions for the next two days. One of them, David from the U.K., had worked several months directing work through Raleigh International (a sort of British Peace Corps) on the nearby Vidawa Rainforest Hike and proved a good salesman in convincing us to visit it.

The next morning the three of us – including our other new acquaintance, a Phishy from L.A. named Jon – accompanied David there, and he arranged a half-day tramp guided by Roussie, head man (but not chief, a distinction I’m not qualified to quantify) of the local village of Vidawa. The hike was magnificent: a four-hour climb into the misty hillsides that form the dark silhouette of the island as seen from the sea – the innards of Taveuni, the mysterious highlands, that few travelers witness. The walk came complete with a history lesson and demonstrations of practical skills, but it was the actual terrain we were most impressed with. The tangle of trees and vines and undergrowth was awe-inspiring in itself: then, when it seemed the green walls on either side would never break, an opening would appear suddenly on one side and a wide postcard view of the rolling florid hills and far-off sea would stagger us for a few moments before we plunged back into the thick, impenetrable jungle. The greenness of it hurt our eyes. The depth and variegation confounded the imagination. And that was just the flora. Three times we spotted the elusive orange dove, found only on Taveuni; we also noted such rarities as the golden whistler, kingfisher, musk parrot (koki, as the villagers name it), flying fox (a giant bat, also found only on this island) and several other denizens of the Garden Isle. A singular experience.

Over the course of the hike we were extended an invitation, gratefully accepted, to be guests of the village for the night. It was only the second time outsiders – white people – had had such a privilege.

We presented sevusevu – a formal offering in the form of several bags of ground kava – to the village chief and proceeded, over the course of the night, to drink approximately 76 bowls of the stuff with the chief, his brother Matia, his eldest daughter and a dozen or so other village luminaries. We told our respective life stories and were accepted as honorary life members of the village.

That night Lisa and I slept in the home of Matia, a former Suva policeman who lost his right leg after a bout with diabetes – a real problem in a country where sugar is an ingredient in 90 percent of the public diet – and his wife, Mere; against our wishes they slept on the floor while we took the bed.

The next morning they tried, but failed, to refuse any kind of remuneration. We took some group pictures, just the four of us, and promised to send them copies. They were very generous people. Ben and Miri, a younger couple who help run the rainforest hike, served dinner and breakfast, and the entire village – a poor place of corrugated-iron shanties and ramshackle board-and-cinder-block dwellings, with no electricity – but happy, painted pink and green and informed with a strong strain of the sunny disposition displayed in some degree by all Fijians – all of Vidawa made us feel very welcome, and deeply sorry to be leaving so soon.

We left on the morning bus with many a “vinaka” (thank you) and “vinaka vaka levu” (thank you very much).

Most of the residents of Vidawa are farmers; farming – taro, kava, cassava – is their ancient franchise and continues to be what they do best and with the most knowhow and success, despite recent forays into the world of ecotourism. Jon, a farmhand in one of his most recent occupations, had his most effusive moments in talking about the achievements of Taveuni’s farmers – and the exemplary soil they have to work with.

“You can chop a branch off a tree here, stick it in the ground, and watch it grow,” he said after his 12th bowl of kava. “In a month you’ll have a tree.

“This place doesn’t need fertilizer at all. That’s everything in farming. It’s one of the biggest expenses. People here have all they need: they work the land for about 16 hours a week and that’s enough.”

They do have problems: for one, the infestation of the cane toad, which has decimated the frog population: you can’t walk anywhere at night without squashing a couple. Ben encouraged the squashing of as many as possible. For another, the villages – which own 83 percent of the land across Fiji – face a constant but so far resisted pressure to develop, to cut down the trees and mine the islands’ resources. It is the same story across the archipelago. They did it once, in the 1960s, bowing to the enticements of the British government, and the old men who remember those days vow it will never happen again.

That’s why the Vidawa Rainforest Hike is so important: along with the Lavena Coastal Walk, Tavoro Waterfalls and a nearby marine park, it gives the village and its neighbors an alternate, sustainable means of income, one immune to the vagaries of farming, that will keep the people working in their own communities in a state of continual health and relative prosperity for the foreseeable future. Or so it is hoped. If done right.

They seem to be on the right track. We left a village full of smiling people, smiles on our own faces.

Once again, this time by design, we were faced with the prospect of being incommunicado for an extended period. Once again, the only recourse we had to register our experiences was the world’s oldest computer: pen and paper.

We planned all along to visit Taveuni, Fiji’s “Garden Island” off the east coast of Vanua Levu. We were confirmed in our choice by the testimony of other travelers. Taveuni is one of Fiji’s most scarcely visited places.

One reason – the chief reason, probably – is the difficulty in getting there. We had two options: by ferry out of Suva, a 20-hour ordeal involving a superannuated rustbucket christened in Stockholm and retired here long ago, or by plane, which was of course more expensive. But it was also a mere 1 1/2-hour trip, so in the end we plunked down. On the return we would frugally chance the ferry.

We piled into the tiny Cessna-style plane with a handful of other nervous-looking white people and of course the flight went flawlessly.

The other main reason for Taveuni’s solitude is its climate. Its position as eastern buffer for the drier Vanua Levu (and the rest of Fiji) makes it the location of some of the most inclement weather in the entire island chain. It is the climatic opposite, in other words, of the Yasawas, which we just left. Yet as we descended into Matei Airport on the island’s northern coast we saw no evidence of excessive precipitation: just as everywhere else in Fiji, Taveuni appeared jungle green and growing.

We had yet to explore Taveuni’s chief attraction, its parks and rain forests, so we reserved our surprise. As it turns out, the island normally gets less rain in the months preceding October, so we’d accidentally timed our visit just right.

Also there was a drought on of unusual length. Billy Madden, owner of the campground where we stayed our first night (and a University of\ Michigan alum), smilingly informed us that not only had there been no rain, but the temperature was as hot as it had been in memory – with no letup in sight.

“We always have dry weather this time of year, but this is the driest and hottest I’ve ever seen it,” Billy told us as he distributed free bananas and papaya to the camp guests.

There was, indeed, no rain our first night in Billy’s excellent campground, which sits directly on the beach beneath flowering poison-fish trees that dip their roots, almost mangrove-like, into the foamy high tide. There were, however, colossal spiders dangling over the outhouse toilet, big as a human head. I don’t know the name of these spiders and I don’t care to know. They could take out a small bird. But not a mastiff bat – another indigenous, rare species we spotted that first night, floating on massive vampiric wings above us in the twilight.

The dogs barked and the roosters, unaware of their franchise, crowed incessantly through the night.

We caught the bus – a squeaky rattletrap that kicked up cyclones of dust and sounded, from the inside, like a 1964 Dodge camper-truck driving on the moon – down to Bouma National Heritage Park, somewhat ironically named in that it was established with the indispensable aid of New Zealand. Trivialities. Politics. Meaningless. Once there we hiked into the Tavoro Forest, a bird sanctuary and spider playground, to see its three famous waterfalls.

They were amazing, but we soon discovered why we hadn’t seen many Americans in Fiji: They’re all on Taveuni.

Now, I don’t begrudge anyone the enjoyment of nature’s wonders. If I started to demand exclusion I’d probably have to start with myself, to be fair about it. But I have a big problem with these huge tour groups. They swarm a secluded place in droves, shattering the serenity of a quiet corner of the hard-to-reach world with screams and snapping cameras and shouted instructions and exclamations of dumb joy, followed by diving splashing woo-hooing stupidity that scares off all the wildlife for miles and makes a private pool of a perfect public place.

Reverie reversed, we retreated from the Tavoro Waterfalls. But our unwanted fellow visitors couldn’t entirely ruin our day, despite their repeated failure to injure themselves on the sharp rocks around the falls. Because Bouma – towering hills of lush verdure reaching vertiginously down into great sweeping valleys of coconut groves, green starburst crowns marching in a broad formation to the sea, as a blanket of mist comes off the mountains in pursuit – Bouma is too big to bother about a little human pollution. Let it slide: go with the flow: sega na leqa, in the Fijian parlance. Sit back and wait it out.

Enough misanthropy. Have I mentioned how great the people of Fiji are? They put up with this shit every day, always with an indulgent smile. Like William, a cab driver somehow associated with the park who happily bummed us a ride down the road – to the End of the Road, at Lavena.

“End of the road,” William said, “and start of the beach.”

Take this heart
And give it to a charity

Take this heart

And give it to the poor

Take this heart
And give it to the Salvation Army
I don’t think I need it anymore … 

We boarded the Flyer bound north for Nacula, where we’d booked four nights at the reputable Oarsman’s Bay, and found that the music on board hadn’t improved. In fact The Carpenters were now on heavy rotation. Ugh.


 
Oarsman’s has a fascinating history. We were scheduled to stay to Sept. 8, the six-year anniversary of its founding, which came about amidst the coup of 2000 when American magnate and owner of nearby Turtle Island (one week stay: $3,000) Richard Evanson was forced – after a brief imprisonment in one of his own bures – to finance a sizable loan to the local tribe, among other bestowals to local interests. In two months they’ve scheduled a big party at Oarsman’s to celebrate finally paying off the loan.

The bay itself, nestled between huge looming humps of lushly verdant isle, has been declared “Tabu” (pronounced “tambu”) by the local chief in an effort to protect the coral reefs here – which run right up to the white-sand beach – and their dependent sea life from the encroachment of current and impending development: the water therefore is sacred and must be treated as such.

It all sounds very serious, and it is, but this is still Fiji, one laid-back country if ever there was one. Everything operates on “Fiji Time,” generally 30 to 45 minutes past schedule. And why not? It’s too beautiful here, too warm, too idyllic, to stress the time.

 

 

And it is a happy country. Songs are the preferred method of expression. The language seems to lack a word for “goodbye”: instead, the staff, almost all natives (excepting management, Evanson’s presence manifested), gather on the beach with their guitars and serenade the departing boatload of guests, just as they welcome the daily new arrivals with more ebullient musical efforts. Always, it seems, they are strolling the beach, or sitting near the dinner tables, guitars in hand, humming and singing and smiling.

 

 

The result is infectious. One comes here burdened with the cares of ordinary life and very quickly gets swept up in the rhythm of the place – “Fiji Time” – the deliberate pace of life: the result of which is total relaxation. Which, after all, is the chief purpose of a holiday.

 

All too soon, of course, it’s over, and we return to the “real world.” Fijians refer to this in almost snickering, mocking terms. We can’t blame them.

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