2010-04-28: Back to the Bush

Nadi has a way of quickly letting me know I am back in Fiji. The first sign was the 86 degree temps and moist air as we walked the tunnel up to the terminal. The second was the warm Fijian smiles and greetings of Bula! as we met several pairs of staff along the way. In Fiji everyone works in teams. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone working alone. From road crews to bathroom cleaners, there is always a partner nearby. I like that.

As we entered the customs queue we were curious if our PC no-fee passports would allow us entry into the Fijian citizen line, which is always much shorter. Going the conservative route we lined up with the 100 or so other tourists from New Zealand and Australian awaiting their interview and stamps. The customs agent was a very friendly Indo-Fijian and advised us next time we should use the other line.

This experience compared with the one in New Zealand was much different. First of all international passenger entry room in New Zealand is large enough to host the Rugby world cup with enough stanchions and pedestrian gates to run three theme parks. The customs agents resemble Jack Bauer as they penetrate your facial expressions with inquisitive gazes. The questioning process is recorded by cycloptic, bugg eyed cameras perched over the questioner’s right shoulder as your every reason for existence is called into question. I felt like I was on an episode of Lie to Me.

As we approached the escalator to the baggage carousel Kelly and I reflected on the intimate moments she had with the steely beast just 11 short months ago. A couple of days before departing to Fiji she broke out of her denial that she would really have to wear dresses for the next 27 months and scampered off to Target in a cold sweat to buy a handful of ankle length dresses. Because she had waited so long there wasn’t enough time to hem some of the longer dress purchases. Thus created the perfect storm between her newly purchased Amish dress and a carnivorous escalator as we traveled from the plane to the bus after arriving in Fiji for the first time. As she approached the base of the escalator and prepared to exit the lower landing, the hem of her dress became entangled in the retreating steps. Thankfully the mechanisms halted to a stop with a booming echo. This off course attracted the attention of many teams of Fijian staff as they all examined the situation with genuine curiosity but vacant resolve to do anything about it. Thankfully the go-getter Melissa Goldman showed up on the seen with a pair of scissors and quickly freed the captive. We all had a good laugh and saw this as a sign of more equally entertaining and yet frightening experiences ahead.

Back at the airport this time … we gathered our belongings and took advantage of a few Duty Free purchases which where 75% less expensive without the tax. Fiji is a Tea Partier’s dream. The next phase was finding a cab to a fellow volunteers house whom kindly agreed to letting us crash at her place the night before catching our final flight out to Savusavu the next day. Unfortunately she doesn’t live near major landmarks so describing the destination involves a bit of interpretation. I guess 12 days in the western world was just long enough to make us naïve tourists again and the targets on our foreheads where just too much for the local staff to resist. A motherly Fijian women smelled blood and quickly directed us to other well dressed Fijian men as we ambled through the departing terminal. I suspected something was up when he started leading to the exit away from the cab stand. Soon our new escort was loading us into a very nice passenger van with tinted windows and a graphics package. My ‘your about to get screwed’ alarm finally went off, and I asked him how much all this was going to cost. He said $25 dollars, about twice as much as our friend had advised us it would be. I quickly grabbed the bag he had loaded into the van and asked him where were the metered taxis. He and a nearby gathering of other well-dressed Fijian men promptly proceeded to tell me meters don’t apply in Nadi for trips longer than 16km. This was interesting as our friend who lived there advised us this was not true and that we would have to insist on running the meter. Perhaps even more telling was the fact that this new flock of transportation advisors had no idea where we where going or how far it was away when the told us of the 16 km rule.

We thanked them for the potential screwing and headed off to our next battle. At the taxi stand we found three cabs all the same color with what appeared to be a manager directing the actions of the drivers. He too adamantly explained the no meter rule to us again and thus began the volley of negotiations. It quickly became apparent that we were not going to win the meter battle and the option of other cabs was uncharacteristically non existent. It is usually quite easily to find multiple cab offers within minutes in Fiji, especially at major urban centers. Since we were at the mercy of this cab operator, the negotiations didn’t go so well and we ended up paying less than $25, but still about $3-5 more than it should have cost with the meter.

We loaded our bags and took off in the taxi meandering through dark roads. We miraculously found our friends house, had great conversation, and slept restlessly letting our senses slowly get in tune with the cacophony of Fijian night sounds: dogs, roosters, clapping, hymns, birds, buzzing mosquitoes, etc…

The next day we retraced our steps back to the airport and had a very expensive breakfast of flat white coffee and breakfast pies. Since I hadn’t spent much time in the departing terminal of the Nadi airport I surveyed the eating options landing on Esquires Coffee. The other option was the “Domestic Café” where you can get rice and cassava and mystery sausage at any time of the day. Welcome to Fiji.

We checked our bags and were of course overweight. The ticket counter attendant was chattier than normal and said he would give us deal on the overage as we lived in Fiji and were Peace Corps Volunteers. He said he would only charge us $30 for the additional weight not knowing we had gone through this many times before and were very familiar with the cost per kg of overweight bags. We were 15kg over weight and the overage charge is $2, thus the $30 deal was really no deal at all. I decided not to pursue a pointless conversation of how the ‘deal’ was really he pocketing the $30 bucks, which typically happens when they don’t hit any keys on their computer or give you a receipt, and carried on.

We boarded the flight with a family of four and arrived to a beautiful day in Savusavu. We hadn’t seen such clear and crisp skies since our inaugural trip back in July. It was beginning to feel like the relentless ‘hot’ season was finally abating. We ran a few errands and then prepared for the always enjoyable 3 hour bus ride to Buca Bay.

Things were back to normal on the island when we returned. Tealiki and Bale helped us with our bags and we found our humble abode as we had left it. A relative of our neighbor had just had a baby in Labasa and the required seven day celebration was in full swing when we arrived.

It appears the wasps had a field day while we were gone and several new mud homes had been erected in our absence. I spent several hours pacing with my trusty Mortein wasp spray in hand sending clouds of death in the path of any wayward hornet. It will take several more days to reestablish my authority over the stubborn little devils and they seem reluctant to loosen their foothold. Despite this setback it is good to be back on the island. I’ve never felt such a sense of calm and relaxation from a vacation return as I do now. Back home, vacation terminations are usually welcomed with gigabytes of emails, stacks of to dos, and boring debriefings of all the meetings and work events missed while gone. I was thankful to have none of that and was glad to simply reflect on the wonderful time spent with family and nature. It was a nice moment.

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