Fiji has always been somewhere really far away for us. It is geographically far, and culturally they are quite different too. We got quite excited as we were going to know more about this island country for the next ten days. We has an early start as our flight was at 8am in the morning with Fiji Airways. At check in counter the ground staff was checking every piece of hand luggage we had so we got quite surprised by how particular check in and approval of cabin luggage was (we thought these pacific islanders are so relaxed and worry-free?!). Though cabin crews and flight procedures are usually internationally standardized, our Fiji Airways flight was different. Instead of displaying the safety instructions on TV screen, the instructions were announced by cabin crew. Our captain was also different than any other boring captain we have flown with so far, as our outstanding easy-going captain gave some long funny speeches. As other captains do, our Fijian captain informed us about the forecasted weather conditions throughout the flight, adding that “of course, Mother Nature is powerful so you can never tell”. True enough, Mother Nature decided that it was time for some roller coaster fun and so we had some bad air turbulences for an hour. Upon landing our funny captains’ had his long speech to welcome us to Fiji, “Our brothers and sisters, the sons and daughters of the 360 Fijian islands welcome you to our home…The place where happiness finds you”. Is that not a funny welcome speech? Now we really want to find out if all Fijians are that welcoming and funny!
And so we disembarked, welcomed by a nice 30 degree warm wind in our face and understood from this very minute that things are different here: airport building is open! We literally walked from gate to terminal on a balcony. There were guys with colorful shirts and guitars singing in security zone. Even the Immigration Officials with all different color clothes. And Bula, Bula, Bula (Hello in Fijian) from everywhere.
One thing we learnt prior to this Fiji trip was the term “Fiji Time”- it was supposed to mean like “take your time” or “no hurry” we reckoned. Till the moment we waited 1.5hrs at airport for our pick-up, then we had a better understanding of what they meant with the term “Fiji-Time”. The driver arrived with a tiny little car that could hardly fit our luggage. Our first encounter with Fijian local was some good chatters to Neal (driver) who is of Indian descendant (like almost 40% of the population here are). We then arrived in our Backpackers around 20min later. Then there was a lot of “bula bula bula” again until we checked in to our room. We fell in love with this place instantly: the place gave a cozy atmosphere with hammocks everywhere, friendly people having a short chatter with you and finally some shorts/bikini weather. We spent the afternoon discovering the vicinity, had some lunch at the beach followed by some relaxation in the hammocks with reggae music in our ears. Fijians eat a lot of fish and we had our first local dish for dinner (Fish in coconut sauce with cassavas) and a cold Fiji Beer. This is Life!
We got up early and had so-so nice breakfast at beach. Like New Zealand and OZ, the backpackers serves toast bread and it is the only type of bread you could find here. The locals might eat cassavas for breakfast – who knows. We took the bus to Nadi town with George (one of the locals working at backpackers) and some other guys. The bus ride was an experience itself. Sitting in the bus, you feel like you are sitting in a hundred years old bus that is almost breaking apart, no windows (because it was open on both sides) and so shaky it felt like a massage for our muscles. The ride cost 1.15 Fiji Dollars (50 cents) and took about 30mins for maybe 10km (bus reversed at several places, drove on the beach for some hundred metres and had to stop for random weirdness on the road several times). To signal the bus driver to stop, simply pull the rope on the side that would ring the bell in front of driver. Arriving at Nadi, it instantly felt warmer than on the beach because there was no breeze. George showed us the local fruit and vegetables markets, saw a small temple and then, that’s it. Nadi is really nothing for sightseeing, but, to watch people here is a sight for itself. As other guys who came with us had other agenda (some went to have hair cut which cost 2USD), we were the only two left with George so we asked George to have lunch with us. First he suggested a place, which we soon found out he had not been to before. We sat down and were given a way too overpriced menu (one curry for 14USD). No one dared to say something. Feeling confused by the ridiculous prices, we ordered and after the service lady was gone we all said “wow that’s expensive”. George suggested to leave and so we left. How weird is that? We got to another place he knew that was packed with locals and the food was nice and cheap (12 USD for the three of us incl. drinks). We had some good conversation about life and how it works in Fiji. George left us since he had to go back and w ork (he already missed his bus and would probably be like 30mins to 1 hour late but yeah, its Fiji-time, isn’t it). We strolled around in town, bought some postcards and stamps, and went back with bus on our own late afternoon. It was then some chill time on hammock before shower; followed by a dinner accompanied by Polynesian dance performances on sand with some beers. We booked a tour for the following day. It was hard to choose what to do as most of the mainland operated tours are either day tours to island or inland tours with minibuses. Since we were about to have our island-time for 5 days in a resort we crossed beach trips out. The other activities were somehow too touristy for us. We wanted to get in touch with locals and see how they live so we booked a private tour (A local driver showing us around according to our own wishes). Let’s hope it will turn out well!
Breakfast again was not so worth mentioning… There was this old man whom we have met yesterday trying to sell coconuts. (We said he climbed the tree but other locals meant that that’s really what HE says…and no one has ever seen him climbing a tree before so God knows). We were supposed to be picked-up at 9am. By 9:15 no one was there so the receptionist made a few calls. Wonder if, and if who will show up in the end. Finally our driver arrived and we left by 9:50am. Timani was our driver, tour guide and our new brother. He was really pleasant from the beginning. He is actually from a highland village which did not even have electricity until a few years ago. In his village in order to go to communal school, children would either walk or ride horse to school! Horses will be tied up in jungle whilst the children attend classes. After 5mins drive from our backpacker we stopped at gas station because Timani has to meet a friend who is a Fijian residing in Canada. He was exceptionally happy (and people are already very happy here anyway) since his brother (actually it was just a friend but all people are brothers and sisters here) bought a car which he left for him to use while he’s not around. Having a car apparently means a lot and one of the cheapest models would cost more than a full year’s salary. We drove to the Garden of the Sleeping Giant, a beautiful garden at the slope of the hillside with an incredible selection of orchids and other plants. After that it was a visit to Viseisei Village, village where first settlers arrived. We had a short tour around in village and shopped some souvenirs. One of the villages’ ladies joined us to drive to next town. In the car Timani and this lady told us their experience flying to Australia years ago. In Fiji, it is a “dream come true” if you could once sit in an airplane and fly somewhere. Timani was tearing in airplane when he had this opportunity to visit Australia, so touched by the fact that he was flying! If someone does fly, it is a whole-village-event. People from village would throw you a farewell party, send you to airport and pray for a safe flight for you. It did remind us of how blessed we are to be flying around (though we both don’t fancy flying so much).
Timani then drove us to the second largest town in Fiji, Lautoka, which was not touristy at all. In Lautoka, Timani had to stop every 50 to 100m to greet someone or shake hands with all his “brothers and sisters”. So eventually our visit to town took quite some time, we felt like we weer walking with superstar. We had a stroll around town and in central market buying some stuff and discovering (of course Timani also knew almost everyone there). People smile at you and you smile back here. We have probably not smiled as much this year as in the past two days… People want you to take their photo and spread to the world whereas some cultures it is disliked and prohibited. We asked Timani to bring us to place where real local lunch is served and enjoyed some new food discoveries. At the end of the tour, we have to say we learnt a lot from Timani. Money is not everything here people are genuinely happy. If people don’t work here or have no business to do they just plant something in their garden. Sharing is common so if you don’t have food someone else will have. Even if you don’t have a lot, you still share with others. It was a pretty impressive way of thinking.
We spent the evening chilling in our beach front bar underneath straw huts again. Every now and then a “Bula, how are you bro?” mixing with the reggae music playing, some locals riding horses along the beach, paddlers on longboards in the background and from time to time a loud watertaxi (water plane) starting or lading in the bay. Weather was never really good past two days. Overcast and sometimes a shower. But nice and warm.
Our first Fijian encounters have helped us to earn many good insights. Through open conversations about Fijian life and way of living we realize we have a lot to learn from them.