Impressions of Fiji on a Shoestring

Fiji is, in a phrase, not at all what I expected. When one imagines Fiji I suppose white sand beaches, turquoise water, leaning palm trees, and hula dancers come to mind. And while I’m sure somewhere on this island of Viti Levu, or somewhere very near off the coast, one can find all of these things, the capital city, Nadi is home to brown water, volcanic sand, and locals who are pushy, aggressive, and frequently have a mouthful of gold teeth. Kate and I spent three days in Nadi accompanied by a new friend, Lara, whom we met in our hostel. The first two days we spent slathering ourselves with sunscreen and laying on the beach, taking time to “cool off” in the very warm, very dirty water on the very hot, very dirty beach upon which the backpackers hostels sat. Fiji on a shoestring means you are not staying on a five star hotel’s man made beaches, we realized quite quickly.
The mosquitos bit us, the sun burnt us, and we decided to head out for an island, booking in town with a travel agent who took $75 FJD and booked us for Robinson Crusoe Island just a short boat trip south of Nadi, assuring us white sand beaches and beautiful snorkeling awaited us. She said the bus would pick us up at 8:30 and after a long day of trying to catch yet another bus that never came to the mud pools and giant orchid gardens, we gave up and went back to our hostels, excited to be picked up by a reliable bus that we had prepaid for to take us to a beautiful island, which we had also pre paid for. Everything, it seemed, would work out in the end.
Well, the next morning 8:30 passed and then 8:45, and by the time we reached 9 it seemed high time to make a phone call and ask what was happening. We called the woman in town that we had payed and she told us the bus was probably on “Fiji Time”. Every local says, they are on “Fiji time”. At first, this was fun and totally acceptable. Your waitress takes a long time to bring your drink- Fiji time! The internet breaks in your hostel and it isn’t repaired for hours- Fiji time! But after awhile it seemed it was used exclusively to cover up for mistakes and as a strange half-assed way to apologize. We said had a feeling it wasn’t “Fiji time” and that she should call and check. So she did and it turns out the bus had forgotten us. Again, we had paid $75 and the BUS HAD FORGOTTEN US. We were pissed. We took a $10 taxi into Nadi town where the bus was waiting for us by a giant Hindu temple. With the staff claiming Fiji time we climbed on board and took our seats. “Fiji time!” was all we heard. You forgot us- Fiji time. We have no reservation- Fiji time. We aren’t booked at all- Fiji time. Luckily for us by the time we got to Robinson Crusoe island about an hour and a half later we were escorted up the dorms to find them completely empty, albeit one girl from Michigan who was leaving that morning. She bid us farewell and we dropped our things. We had a 13 bed room all to ourselves. While this sounds like it would be awesome, it actually just seemed creepy and we still shared a communal bathroom down a steep staircase and a walk from our room.
Never ones to make the worst of situations, Kate and I went for a walk on the much cleaner, much more beautiful beach, took pictures on the sandbar, and frolicked around looking inside shells for hermit crabs and climbing around on palm trees. We took a dip in the salt water pool, redeemed our free massage, and got a bucket of beers. Despite our crazy morning, everything seemed great and we were enjoying our time meeting the other visitors, talking to the locals, and watching babies chase each other around in the sea foam. We took a deep breath and relaxed. Since we had already paid for this all inclusive two night stay no one harassed us to buy things, no one came up to us and suggested in a way so friendly it was strange to book a day trip with their brother or friend or uncle. Instead, everyone just asked us if we were enjoying ourselves and would we like another beer. We would indeed, we decided, and after a few hours we all had dinner as a large group as the stars came out with local men playing acoustic guitar and setting up a welcoming kava ceremony.
Kava, derived from the root of a pepper plant is the national drink of Fiji when pulled out of the ground, dried, ground up and mixed with water. It tastes, for lack of a better term, like dirt. But it’s sedative properties are world renowned, and Kate and I shrugged at each other. “When in Rome,” we decided, and took our places after dinner with the other guests of the 28 acre island. We learned how to drink the kava, saying “Bula”, when to clap, etc. and everyone went around partaking in drinking the kava. Then we all went around and said our names and “for fun” whether we were married or single. A majority of us were single, with a few married couples thrown in. They gave us tiny coconut bowls half filled to drink from, and after careful consideration with a Kiwi man I sat next to we decided that while we did want to experience the sedative properties of kava, we did not, in fact, want to drink a million tiny bowls like everyone else, but would rather drink just two large ones. So we did. And I felt nothing. But nonetheless we had fun, talking with the other travelers and drinking kava, passing it down to one another (mostly to a German backpacker who wanted to have “funny dreams”), laughing and musing on Fiji and the island. I sat next to two Fijian men who worked on the island and did the ceremony every night for the new travelers who had joined them that day. They were nice, and we talked about how the bus had left us, which they thought was very funny and again chalked up to “Fiji time”, about how they got sick of drinking kava every night with strangers, and about things to do on the island. All of it totally innocent, with Kate and a few others chiming in. Kate and I also laughed with a New Zealander about Flight of the Conchords, which was excellent, put us in a great mood, and as the kava kicked in and we grew tired, we bid everyone goodnight. One of the Fijian men who had participated in the kava ceremony with all of us asked me why we were going to bed. I said because we were tired. He asked where we were sleeping. Strange I thought. “On the island,” I said, trying to be as vague as humanly possible.
Kate and I went up to our room and decided because it was just the two of us that we should lock the doors. It was creepy to be in a giant room full of empty beds. It felt like an abandoned orphanage. But with locked doors, full bellies, and tired minds we drifted off to sleep by about 9:30 pm. I did not know, but at the time Kate had a feeling something bad was going to happen and not wanting to worry me, had wordlessly grabbed her knife, just in case, leaving in next to her while she slept. THANK GOD. So there we were, asleep in a giant room of empty beds, when at 11:45 we were both were startled awake to the sound of someone walking up the stairs to our room. “Kate,” I whispered, “do you hear that?”
“Yes,” she whispered back. And then the knocking started.
At first, a few knocks. Then, a fiddle with the latch. Then, the voice of the Fijian man from the ceremony saying my name. MY NAME. Over and over, “Erin, Erin, Erin,” he said in a loud whisper, fiddling with the lock, shaking the door back and forth trying to get in.
My heart was in my throat. I started to think about grabbing my knife from my bag next to me, but first we needed a lantern- the room was pitch dark. He kept saying my name and shaking the door, “Erin….Erin” he said louder and louder. Kate was clutching her knife, both of us laying there frozen, our minds racing with what we would do if he got inside our room. There were no windows, only screens, so he could hear anything we said. We said nothing. And after what felt like an eternity, but I’m sure was only a few minutes, he turned around and walked away.
Kate Parnell, the Rambo that she is, sprang up in bed with her knife. We tried to turn on the lights, but they were out. Nothing worked. No fans, no lights. Nothing. We grabbed our lanterns and my knife, and after a few minutes of discussion, went to find someone who worked there to demand an explanation and a change of rooms to one with windows and a lock. An older woman who was drinking tea outside took us to the manager, who apologized, but seemed, quite scarily, unsurprised. She led us to a private room with a large, king sized bed, and asked if it would be okay. Anywhere on the tiny island was honestly, not okay, but there was nowhere to go. We were trapped, on an island that takes half an hour to walk around entirely, with a person who had tried to break into our room for who knows what, and all of his friends. The islanders all saw themselves as “one big happy family”. The women told us the power was out because they turned the generator off around 11:30 or 12, which explained the pitch blackness and took their leave. After the two women left, staring at us blankly, we went into our room and locked the door. Our adrenaline was in high gear, I could feel energy coursing through my entire body. Coupled with the kava, it made for one killer headache. We both couldn’t sleep and stayed up til about 4 am talking and whispering, then listening to the sounds of footsteps outside of our door again and again. We felt extremely unsafe and extremely uncomfortable. Eventually, knives in hand, lanterns on, we drifted off to sleep for a few hours. Sleep did not come easily, nor did peace of mind. The fact that this happened on the fifth day of our trip, in a country like Fiji- synonymous with relaxation- on a tourist ridden island, by one of the employees of the island made us all the more uneasy. The fact that he came right after the generator turned off and we were left to fend for ourselves in the dark, however, was by far the scariest.
So, after a long night of laying in the dark looking up at the ceiling, dawn broke and we left our room to talk to management. They apologized, but said that the manager who had helped us switch rooms that night had told them nothing of the situation. We briefed them, they apologized more, and asked if we planned to stay. We had breakfast and talked to some other guests about it, all of whom were sympathetic but shared the notion of, “if your room was upgraded and you have a locking door, what’s the big deal?” With the safety of daylight and traveler comradery we agreed, and got ready to go kayaking.
After a leisurely kayak out to the end of a sandbar we docked our boats and laid around, playing with shells, weaving them into Kate’s hair, splashing about enjoying the sun. An hour later we decided to paddle back, but about half way to shore we realized the tide had gone out and we were in extremely shallow water, and since Kate’s kayak’s hull was quite a bit deeper than mine she began to beach herself all over the sandbar’s shallow pools. After a few minutes of struggling we decided to tow our boats in, walking them to shore. Kate was about to step out when a poisonous sea snake swam past her foot. If there is one thing Kate hates- it’s snakes. If there is one thing that can kill us on the entire island- it’s poisonous sea snakes. Needless to say, we were a bit freaked out. I’ve never seen Kate jump so quickly- in seconds she was standing her her kayak, struggling to stay afloat. From there it was a bunch of hijinx- trying to tow Kate in with my kayak, trying to ditch Kate’s kayak all together and put her in mine, trying to push the sea snake away. Then, another sea snake swam by and into a hole. Then we realized there were holes EVERYWHERE and in the struggle to get Kate’s kayak moving we had gotten mine stuck! We had beached ourselves right in the middle of a sean snake lair. A LAIR. We were panicking, but laughing, but more panicking. We pushed ourselves as far as we could to shore, then jumped out of our kayaks and ran like hell to the sandy beach. We ditched our kayaks down the beach and walked back to the camp, realizing upon arrival that we had been gone for two and a half hours. Robinson Crusoe Island was indeed turning out to be an adventure.
After lunch we napped and read and played rummy with some fellow travelers and just generally had a lovely afternoon/evening, casually brushing aside the sea snake incident. And in the morning we packed our bags, which have somehow gotten 25 pounds heavier with the addition of one sarong, and got ready to head back to Nadi for our last night in Fiji before we headed off to the land of the long white cloud, New Zealand.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Impressions of Fiji on a Shoestring

  1. Mez

    Be careful ez!!!!!!!!!!! I love you

  2. caitlin comiskey

    I don’t think fiji time and i would get along.Those Fijians needs a hard dose of reality. welcome to 2013 people!

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