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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Bula, Marie! You’re on Fiji-Time Now…

Rocky shorelines, crystal blue water, eco-friendly resorts, stunning coral reefs, swaying palm trees and the warmest, loveliest people I’ve ever met. That’s a tip-of-the-iceberg portrait of the northern reaches of Fiji’s islands, which include Vanua Levu and Taveuni. I was taken off-guard when I arrived in Fiji; an island is an island, right? Wrong. I thought that before I went to Bali and was floored by how much of an impression it left on me. The same with Fiji. Before arriving, the South Pacific conjured the white sandy beaches of dream worlds, images crafted by Michener and Stevenson, tabloid portrayals of Marlon Brando’s French Polynesia and honeymoon couples lazing away days in overwater bungalows. Yet as I realized in Fiji, there’s oh-so-much more. Fiji is indelibly inked into my travel memories as the new favorite (as I’m sure over the last couple of years, I’ve said that more than once). A place where time doesn’t matter and loving thy neighbor comes naturally, Fiji was a country that I didn’t want to ever leave.

I woke at 3:30 AM in Auckland to catch the first airport shuttle of the day. Tired and cranky, I arrived to the international terminal at 4:30 for my 7 AM flight to Nadi (pronounced Nandi by Fijians) only to be told that I had mistaken the time. Huh? It was 7 PM. A joke? I don’t make organizational mistakes. Must be a joke. Yeah, not so much. All prepared to jump on a plane, fall back to sleep and arrive in the tropics, my whole day required an immediate re-plan. First, frantic calls to the SF and North Carolina based travel agents who e-booked this part of my trip. Cancel my Fiji inter-island flight, push to the next day; aware the north resort that I’d be a day late, arrange for a substitute Nadi hotel, arrange transfers. From 4:30 – 6:00 AM, I payphone re-planned. Then called my sister to bitch about it. Sometimes, a girl just needs a good bitching.

Unable to muster the effort required to play tourist in Auckland (which entailed changing out of “plane clothes,” packing a day bag, making an Auckland agenda, taxi-ing back into the city and hanging around for the sake of hanging around), I opted to take a couch day, only the yummy sofa would be an itchy airport plaid, the cable television a communal one tuned to CNN, and the food selection an assortment of fast food outfits like McDonalds (hashbrowns for breakfast), Burger King (a side salad for lunch) and Gloria Jean’s Coffee (a Starbucks knock-off here in NZed where I got about 6 lattes to keep awake). Getting online, I worked in my “office” at the food court, downloading pix, IMing with most of you, reading the papers and gossip mags that chronicled Britney’s psychoses (all the rags here are calling One, where she changed outfits with a stripper, a “seedy lower Manhattan hard-core strip joint” or a “Manhattan bordello”…kinda funny), and genuinely enjoying an otherwise frustrating day.

When I arrived in Fiji, finally, I was exhausted. Sleeping off the day’s airport in lackluster Nadi, I woke early, this time for my transfer to Savusavu, a city on the north island of Vanua Levu. Entering the airport, I knew that the bad luck had finally ceased. “Marie Elena! Ms. Martinez! Welcome home, Love!” smiled the faces at the Air Pacific counter. “Oh, girl. You’ve had a hard day! Bula, Marie! Bula! You’re on Fiji-Time now.” I almost wasn’t sure if they were talking to me. But, they were. My resort, Jean-Michel Cousteau (Jacques’s son), had sent someone to greet me, escort me through the check-in process and present me a cibi seed (plant indigenous to Fiji) necklace and lots of hugs and kisses. Oh, how I love being fawned over… I dug my handler’s flowy floral dress and her 70’s afro. Looking around, I concluded that the 70’s afro was “the” Fijian lady’s ‘do. Everyone sported it. The picked at it when they thought nobody was looking. I freakin’ loved it.

After a 45-minute puddle-jumper, I FINALLY arrived to Savusavu at 9 AM. There a driver that would shuttle me to Cousteau met me. Known for it’s diving outfit, the Cousteau resort was the recommendation of Jen-Cory, who described it as a slice of heaven. Given the recent coup in Fiji, which isn’t felt within the country but is taking a toll on tourism, prices at otherwise unaffordable places opened up to me. Coupled with rainy season, Fiji’s outer islands were quiet. So, I bargained myself down a beachfront bure (bungalow) with a couple of free dives, free massages and all meals (most of the outer islands serve all meals AT the resort since the towns are sparsely populated and lack dining establishments since the Fijian people cannot afford to eat at them). The humidity clinging to my skin, I stared out the window as we drove through the run-down villages of Vanua Levu, past the crumbling main drag in Savusavu town, and onto a dirt road that deposited in front of a group of guitar-carrying men that I would come to know as the Bula Boys (Bula is the Fijian greeting), serenading me as I stepped from the vehicle.

From that moment on, I was in heaven on Fiji Time (which means there is no awareness of time) at Cousteau. Cousteau isn’t divine because of all it is, its charm lies in its simplicity. It’s eco-conscious, so there’s no air-conditioning (and it’s humid and hot, make no mistake), the beaches (like most of the north beaches) aren’t sandy and inviting, the pool was gorgeous but small, and the daily activities board more campy than classy. BUT, Cousteau is the most special place I have ever stayed. My bungalow was spectacular and with only ceiling fans and breeze-allowing screens, the lapping surf put me to sleep every night. The products (all coconut based) were sinfully delicious. After the foot massage at check-in with the coconut scrub, the showers with pineapple shampoos, and the massages with starfruit oils, I added about 4 lbs of lotions and potions to my already oversized baggage. The meals were immaculately prepared and everyday a new menu appeared listing four entrees (starters), mains, and desserts to choose from. The one “treat” in the gift shop was these huge gummie snakes that I’ve become hooked on in these parts. For me, the perfect indulgence. ($30 of my final bill was spent on snakes. Problems…). Here, at Cousteau, the rain didn’t even bother me (it rained at some point each day).

But more than the food, the accommodations, the activities, the snakes, it was about the people. The staff was made up of the most inclusive and attentive people I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with. Everyone, from the gardeners to the wait staff to the diving team, knew my name. Bula, Marie! Bula, Bula! They would call out to me from across the grounds as I made my way past. How was your dive, Marie? How was lunch, Marie? To which I was always amazed and flattered. I felt awful for not being equally adept at memorizing all of their names. They deserved for me to remember as each staffer was encouraged to assert their individuality in dealing with the guests. I got to know them; I felt that I was not only receiving outstanding service, I was interacting with a Fijian friend, learning from them and their life, as they learned from me. While that seems like it can be a potentially annoying situation, it wasn’t overdone. It was executed flawlessly. Everyone else I spoke to at the hotel (there’s only 30 bures, so you get to know your fellow guests) agreed. There was just something special about Cousteau’s Fiji, Savusavu’s Fiji, Northern Fiji.

The diving was amazing, Namena’s reefs, specifically. Working on becoming a World Heritage declared site, Namena was way better than expected. The corals are eye-candy, the fish plentiful. My dives were of the type that I imagine people envision when I say “I scuba dive.” I wound up enjoying the dives SO much that I went on to complete training for my advanced open water certification, actually doing a night dive with a flashlight (very Jaws, opening scene, terrifying at first), an underwater wildlife awareness dive (I can actually identify the fish I see…), a drift dive (where you let the current take you through smaller passages not accessible without the current), and a navigational dive (let’s just say that Geoff, my divemaster, was thankfully lenient on that assessment, as I hope NEVER to need to rely on myself or my compass to navigate out of underwater trouble). Because of the comfort with the dive team, I went with them to experience a bit of Fijian life, going into their villages, to church on Sunday, and attending the Suva (Vitu Levu island) vs. Savusavu rugby semi-final match, a game where $5 entry gained me access to a makeshift field, ropes creating outer boundaries, attended only by locals holding umbrellas over themselves to shield the hot sun’s rays from their tanned bodies. I was intimidated at first, sticking close to Mary, my Fiji-born hostess. Being the only outsider, you never know if eye contact will bear warmth or hostility but EVERY person I made contact with smiled at me from their soul, their eyes sparkling. Even as I passed in a taxi through the streets later in my stay, every Fijian would meet my glance and beam. It was amazing, the confidence in themselves and their culture, their lives. I remember being struck by this in SE Asia, the happiness amongst poverty. Again, in Fiji, this was amazing to see.

On my last day, I allowed myself to indulge in the sweet pancake of the day, which ended my stay at Cousteau on a yummy sugar high. While the Bula Boys sang me off, I waved furiously to the staff that had accumulated outside the transfer van. I was immensely sad to be leaving. I enjoyed myself so thoroughly that I actually contemplated changing around more flights/hotels to spend more time with in Savusavu. But onward, upward, that’s the nature of my trip. I had other places to see and…one more night in Fiji. Off Nadi, on Denarau Island. A built up island that is home to the Westin, Sheraton and Sofitel, Denarau was a total disappointment. I might as well have been in Florida, not Fiji. Of course, being a chain, the Westin screwed up my reservation and wasn’t at all accommodating about rectifying it. While visually stunning, the Westin just reeked of commercialism, of a fake Fiji, of a recreated Fiji. After spending time in Savusavu, this just wouldn’t do. Even the Bulas were lackluster. So, I retired to my air-conditioned room and wrote this blog, preserving my memory of a true, amazing Fiji. A Fiji to which I cannot wait to return.

Next up: The Cook Islands after a quick 2-nighter in Auckland.
More soon.

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