My control freak nature means I research my travel destinations thoroughly, becoming as much of a local expert as possible. Somehow, the psychological preparation for what I am about to experience proves to be cathartic. But for some reason, I did not do this prior to Fiji, in a peculiar defiance of routine. I was a know it all naïve 21 yr old. And Fiji was obviously crystal clear waters, paradisiacal living, the ultimate island getaway, home to ‘Fiji Water’ that paparazzi snapped celebrities and models sippin’ on. Everyone knew that. And it was of course heavily marketed to be as much.
And for most, it lives up to these expectations. Port Denarau, the tourist hub, has manicured gardens, 5 star resorts, paved roads, cheerful Polynesian men in floral shirts playing ukuleles, tour companies to islands with snorkelling, white sand, colourful fish plentiful. It’s a place where you lie by the artificial beach, sip overpriced cocktails and enjoy the ‘island life’.
Alas, the life of a broke uni student meant a one month stay at the Four Seasons would not be monetarily feasible, and so we stayed in Nadi (pronounced Nandy) itself. For some reason I anticipated a modern, developed bustling city. Fiji was booming with tourism after all and surely this enhanced the economy; flow on effect to make for a city fit for international travellers like myself.
But the reality set in within the airport itself, the décor time warped me back into the 80s. The first of hundreds of, ‘Bula!’ & ‘Vinaka!’. It’s 9 am in November 2013, the air is sticky. The scenery at first from our cab consists of palm trees and fields of lush green. It transforms to drab tin roofed shops, busy streets, people walking, talking, sitting, smoking, blankly staring into nothingness.
It wasn’t made to look pretty like Denarau. The drive out of Denarau over the bridge and back into Nadi can be described as nothing other than the most stark of contrasts. Paved, smooth roads become bumpy and unloved, crew cut lawns of green become unkempt overgrown marshes, palm trees become less strategically planted and more sporadic. You see, Nadi town itself was nothing spectacular. The kindest word a ‘privileged’ person like myself could use to describe it at the time was ‘quaint’.
But it embodied the island town vibe. Dotted with grocery stores, stores selling outdated electronics amongst other things nobody wanted to buy, simple restaurants that couldn’t afford to spend on décor but probably housed delicious Indian. Markets with gargantuous amounts of fresh and cheap produce from local farmers, pineapples, oranges, eggplant, fresh fish and of course, Kava.
Getting around, the buses were old and void of air conditioners, which proved disastrous when they were perpetually packed. The windows, if you could even call them such, were just rectangular frames. I could feel everything the bus drove over, the rumbling of the engine reverberating through my body. The breeze slapping my cheeks gently. An anti-emetic to the long haul bumpy rides between the towns of Nadi, Sigatoka and Suva.
The hospital was basic at best. One floor, 1 doctor to the hospital at night. Queues of patients. Old, young, ordinary. People. I felt uncomfortable with the lack of luxe I was accustomed to even within a hospital. It was an exercise in gratitude for the first world resources we consider norm.
But the nurses and doctors, they were not limited by this. They were resourceful, hard working, efficient and attuned to the needs of the Fijian people. A far cry from the comparatively cushy experience of medicine back home.
But please, do not get me wrong, Fiji isn’t tricking us when they show us pictures of islands and clear waters. You have to know where to go. The Instagram famous resorts on islands such as that of Qamea, Taveuni Island, they do indeed exist. In fact I visited one called Tivua for a day in the Mamanuca chain that can only be described as idyllic. We snorkelled the clear, tropical waters with warm and cool currents, in synchrony with colourful fish, kayaked, relaxed. The coral coast on the south of Viti Levu, near Sigatoka was another, a trip down a dirt road to Natadola Beach in front of the prestigious Intercontinental boasted azure waters, when the sun was out.
But is that what Fiji is like in its entirety? Sun tanning, cocktail sipping, beach laying? No. Fijians are certainly not kava and coconut drinking, ukulele playing, beach side hammock lying people. A trip in the back of a ute in the midst of a severe thunderstorm away from the hustle of Lautoka, and into the increasingly remote inland takes us to the village of Navala in the Nausori Highlands. Picture undulating hills of green, and then huts dotting a hill. It is reminiscent of the original, authentic Fijian way of life.
My phone doesn’t work here. And for once, I am forced to be present. I see the young children running around laughing and smiling. Fascinated by us strangers. We see this life as limiting, primitive, an ‘authentic cultural experience’, but this is no tourist show, this village and lifestyle is real. And they appear free in their blissful oblivion.
I guess the trip, it was an adventure, truly unexpected and broke down my preconceived ideas about the place. It served as a reminder to look beyond the hub of tourism when I visit places, to dive in, to really look, experience, listen, learn the real essence of a country in it’s non glamourised forms.
Living as a local and the experience the Fijian daily grind was totally different to what I would have experienced on a short 4 night trip to the island. And yes I know, we don’t all seek the same from overseas travel, and for some it will be perfctly fine to allow Fiji to remain a facilitator for island escapism.
But for me, the entire trip was a reality check and an exercise in gratitude. That the world is big and the lives we as humans lead can be so disparate. And I will never forget it.