A travel series about my recent trip to Fiji and New Zealand.
Chapter 1 : Bula Vinaka
We landed at Nadi at the crack of dawn. The warm, balmy breeze felt very welcoming especially after spending half a day stuck like a sardine in a frozen tin can. We walked through the under-construction terminal along with Fijian expats adorned with gold rings on their fingers, young honeymooners, middle-aged scuba divers, and excited geriatric groups escaping the monotony of their lives in the States. As we headed towards the Immigration counter, a posse of happy Islanders welcomed us with their guitars and ukuleles.
My long-awaited vacation had finally begun!
“Tum Hindi bolte ho?” (“Do you speak Hindi?”) asked the Fijian immigration officer looking at our Indian faces. “Ahm, uhm…”, we stammered, not expecting to hear Hindi being spoken on a tiny island in the South Pacific. But this is not something that should’ve surprised us. Turns out that almost half of Fiji’s population is ethnically Indian. How did Indians end up thousands of miles away in these remote islands? Well, you can thank the British for that.
Back in 1874, the British Empire colonized the Kingdom of Fiji. In a classic imperial move, they went on to clear a bunch of forests to create space for massive sugarcane plantations. Now they needed folks to work on these plantations. The British, at that time, were reluctant to exploit the indigenous labor. I wonder if it was because of xenophobia (“Ugh…let’s stay away from these cannibals”), or practicality (“Native Fijians aren’t immune to the European diseases yet”), or a self-imposed sense of pretentious righteousness (“These people must be protected!”). So the British said, “Hey, let’s bring in a bunch of hardworking Indian farmers and pay them very little money.” A form of corporate slavery not very different from today. The really interesting thing that happened over the years was that people from different parts of India came to Fiji and ended up forming a cohesive Fijian Indian identity. At least here, the Hindus & the Muslims weren’t fighting over religion, the Brahmins & the Dalits weren’t fighting over castes, and the Tamilians & the Kannadigas weren’t fighting over Cauvery water.
But Indian travelers were still viewed with skepticism. After staring at us for a while, the immigration officer took our passports and went into a secret back-room. I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach. We hadn’t gotten a visa for Fiji because the internet told us that Indians living in the US didn’t need one. But the internet could be wrong.
The man came back with our passports, asked some semi-hostile questions about what we were planning to do in Fiji, when we were getting the heck out of there, and then stamped our passports and let us in. Phew!
Having had only dinner rolls and butter for my past three meals (remember, the plane had run out of vegetarian food), I was craving for some real food. So you can understand my excitement when we saw a cafe that sold pakoras, samosas, and bhajjis. Needless to say, we emptied out the cafe, and then nervously joked with each other about getting diarrhea.
“You’re going to Tropic of Capricorn?” a big, muscular Fijian guy asked us when he saw us hovering outside the airport. Tropic of Capricorn (aptly named) was the hostel we were staying at for our first day at Nadi. Putting our blind faith in this stranger (in all fairness the hostel told us that they would send a “shuttle” to pick us up), we shoved all our luggage into the boot and hopped into his van. Another equally burly man sat at the driver’s seat. My friend whispered to me, “This is how we get robbed and dumped in the middle of nowhere leaving us with nothing but our underwear.” We laughed and then stopped, realizing that it could definitely be a possibility. That didn’t happen. But unfortunately something much worse happened. We were subject to Justin Bieber songs on the radio.
“Bula Vinaka!” (‘a very warm welcome’ in Fijian), the Fijian man at the hostel reception welcomed us with a toothy grin. His cheerful demeanor and gaps between his front two teeth made him look like Goofy. We checked in, picked up our keys, threw our bags in our dorm and ran towards the beach with much enthusiasm. The hostel was at a really good location — it was right by the coast along with a few other backpacker hostels in its vicinity.
Our enthusiasm was short lived though. The beach was terribly underwhelming. The waters were dark, almost muddy. The sand was brown and coarse. It was 7am local time and not a soul was to be seen, except for a blond woman in yoga pants and earphones glued to her ear, running along the water. In objective terms, the beach wasn’t bad. In fact, it reminded me of places along the Pacific Coastal Highway. I wasn’t here to see California though. I was here to see a tropical paradise.
“Where are you from?” asked an old man who seemed to appear from nowhere. He wore a faded shirt, had rolled up his pants up to his knees and wore a straw hat that cast a shadow on his face. Judging by his features, he looked Indian. As Indians do with other Indians, we viewed him with much suspicion. Should we tell him that we were from the States and risk giving him the impression that we were rich brats? Or tell him that we were from India and risk giving him a sense of unwarranted camaraderie? We chose the latter. Unsurprisingly, the man started speaking in Hindi.
Fijian Hindi sounded super weird to me. It was unlike any accent I had heard back home in India. There was perhaps a touch of Bhojpuri, a dash of Queen’s English, and a sprinkle of native Fijian blended into the Hindi that I spoke growing up. Despite his weird accent I could understand everything he said. But it seemed like he only caught half the words I said.
The man seemed nice enough. He called himself Pandit (which literally translates to ‘priest’) and was a 4th generation Indian living in Fiji. He had never been to India and was curious to know the weather, language, and customs of the country. I gave him the standard spiel : “India is a country of immense diversity. It is impossible for me to summarize”. In return for all this wisdom, he said he would offer us coconut water. “Fiji coconuts. Best coconuts,” he said.
The coconut water tasted like piss.
“Only 20 Fijian dollars. I’m giving you a discount,” he said. I almost felt like taking that coconut and smashing it on his head. But being the non-violent person that I am, I gave him the money and ruminated about my own poor decision-making. The moment we said “yes” to his coconut offer, we knew we were going to get swindled. But it seemed like our collective subconscious forces wanted to see how much we would get ripped off.
The afternoon was much more pleasant. We were only getting ripped off in more expected ways — paying $15 for a bland pasta, $10 for a cocktail that tasted like sugar water, and waiting an hour for our taxi to come by which would apparently take us to a much nicer beach.
“Are there buses around here?” I asked Mr. Goofy. “Yes, but there are no buses on Sunday,” he replied. He explained to me that Sunday was the ‘Lord’s day’ and so everything was closed. Shops, tourist attractions and even public transportation. If you weren’t a religious Christian, all you did on a Sunday was to laze on the beach and look at the water. That didn’t seem like a bad idea at all. So I spent my afternoon napping on the hammock, listening to the coconut palms swaying in the wind and the waters gently lapping on the shore.
Our taxi finally came with Mr. Goofy himself at the wheel. He drove us through the countryside which reminded me a lot of rural South India — lush greenery, tall coconut trees, houses with clotheslines strung in their backyards, cement lorries, and every now and again, a small Hindu shrine peeking out from amongst the trees. “The roads here are pretty good,” I shouted over the roaring wind. “Yes, there is only one road in Fiji,” Mr. Goofy replied.
We stopped at a liquor store for water and beers (apparently liquor stores were open on the ‘Lord’s Day’) and headed south to Natadola Beach. Natadola was the Fiji from all those google image searches. A serene and expansive beach with smooth sand. Warm, clear blue waters. A lush forest separating the beach from modern civilization.
There were a few more “where are you from?”, “I have the best coconut water” being thrown around by the locals. But this time, I just smiled and used the classic evasion strategy — “I’ll get it when I come back.” Of course, both of us knew that that wasn’t going to happen.
Life was good.
This is the second post of the series. You can read the first post here : https://medium.com/@chronicblabber/zealandia-b62545dcba45#.5l1mgmipy