Archive for March, 2005

Oh, Island in the Sun

Thursday, March 31st, 2005

The Mamanucas While the untouristed reaches of Vanua Levu might sound appealing, I am off to do a circuit of the most touristy, resorty, touristy place of them all. Practically the birthplace of the tropical island resort, the granddaddy of them all – the Mamanuca island group. Situated conveniently just outside Nadi bay, its a group of a fair few islands, some of which are uninhabited, but for the main part, all have resorts on them. The islands can be privately owned, meaning that if you’re not staying at the resort, you’re not even allowed to land on the beach, for example. These resorts have been here for ages now, but since they’re only a short bus and ferry ride away from the airport, they’ve remained hugely popular despite apparently remaining exactly as they were in the sixties. This is where you can hop off the plane, get on your resort shuttle bus and ferry, hop off, find your room, and forget that the real world exists outside the resort, and still claim to have been to Fiji rather than to your closest local resort. The resorts go from the ultra exclusive, to the el cheapo backpacker versions, although these days, the backpacker population tends to gravitate towards the Yasawa islands, which are just a bit further out from the Mamanucas. Most of these islands are serviced by a speedy catamaran ferry that does the rounds between the islands, while individual resorts have little tender boats that scuttle up to the ferry to pick up guests. If you ask me, the best indication that these are truly dedicated tourist traps is that most of these islands have names that are designed to perpetuate the South Seas Paradise myth, and make tourist feel like they’ve gone back to the days of whatever flight of fancy their imagination prefers. Beachcomber island, Bounty island, Treasure Island, Castaway Island, Robinson Island – I’m sure these all had authentic Fijian names at one time, but this is what they’re known as these days.

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The award for most imaginatively named island goes to the South Seas Island, a tiny speck of land, about 30m across and about 50cm above sea level at high tide, a real honest to god picture book tropical island, which has a relatively cheap backpacker resort in the middle. All the same, it’s all same same but different all the time.

Round trip all done with

Wednesday, March 30th, 2005

Nananu-i-Ra – Nadi
Continuing my trip around Viti Levu, I make it back to the mainland safe and dry – the boat that took us snorkelling must have sunk in the night, as there’s no trace of it. The Northern parts of Viti Levu are covered in sugar cane and a fair bit of it ends up at the distillery in Lautoka, where they make Bounty Overproof Rum, which tastes surprisingly good considering it’s 58% alcohol by volume and as such closer to rocket fuel than cocktails. Apparently it’s also the bee’s knees for firebreathing, as it burns well enough, and yet tastes better than petrol and the likes. There you go, I’m sure you needed to know that.

Continuing on from the distillery and sugar refineries of Lautoka, there’s not much else to see before I’m back in Nadi. Well, there you have it – I’ve toured around and seen enough of Viti Levu to tick it off the list. Only a thousand or so other island in the Fiji group to check out. Kadavu is supposed to be nice, Ovalau even more so, while Vanua Levu sounds tempting if only because apparently “there’s no tourists there as there’s nothing there” (according to a tour agency lady). I somehow feel there’s tons there, but that since it’s more than a day away from the internation airport in Nadi, the one week package holiday crowd don’t make it there. Sounds appealing? Why yes it does.

Money makes the world go round

Tuesday, March 29th, 2005

Nananu-i-Ra
Panic! I’ve spent too long in parts of the world where plastic money rules and even the daily newspaper is bought with a card. I suddenly realize that I’m a bit short on Fijian paper money. Not really a desperate situation – I can always hop on a boat to the mainland, get a cab to the bank, use the cash machine, cab ride back to the pier and boatride back to the island, but this would cost about twice as much as my whole Nananu-i-Ra budget. The island is relatively cheap, but they make their money when you pay for the boat. To get to the bank and back would cost me in the region of 60 fijian dollars, and one nights accomodation set me back around 15. Granted, Fiji is very expensive, and you get a 3rd world experience for what are very much 1st world prices, but too much is too much. Luckily I can scrape together just enough leftover kiwi dollars to pay my way, and that the one working restaurant accepts credit cards, so I’m back in the black, crisis averted. The local restaurant is MacDonalds. The MacDonalds beach shack of course, not the McDo of golden arches fame. This MacDonald’s do a wicked fish curry. I’m so much in the black again, I can even afford to pay for a snorkelling trip to the outer reef, situated in the Bligh Waters (named after captain Bligh of the Bounty, who supposedly came here at one point, not too sure if before or after the mutiny though, and nobody here can tell me either, and now that I write this, I read that he never dared go to Fiji because of cannibals, so god alone knows why they’re called the Bligh Waters, but I digress.)

Whatever the reason for the reef’s name, its by far the best reef I’ve seen so far. Bigger, better, prettier than any I’ve seen in SE Asia or the Red Sea, but fish there’s none. Or at least none worth mentioning. A bit of a disappointment there, as is the bloke who takes us snorkelling. A local dude, looks sort of European, he’s more or less your only option if you want to go to the outer reef, but that doesn’t stop him plying his wares on the beach, selling his trip with photos of the reef, photos of his boat, description of all the safety features on the boat and whatnot, so while I’ve learned from bitter experience never to expect too much, it still comes as a bit of a surprise to find yourself on a leaky, beaten up old boat that more closely resembles the driftwood that is soon to be its fate than an actual seaworthy vessel. The engine doesn’t work and the tub heaves creakily in the swell, letting in more and more water every time. But we make it to the reef, where our wonderful guide almost shoves me and two other naive souls overboard, so he’s got space on the boat to start fishing for his lunch. Never mind, the guide and his boat might be the worst, but the reef is still the best.

A beach is a beach is a beach is a beach

Monday, March 28th, 2005

Suva – Nananu-i-Ra

Abandoning abadoned Suva, I carry on around the island of Viti Levu, taking the King’s road East around the island and then North towards a small island called Nananu-i-Ra. The King’s road is a pretty scenic road at the worst of times, following the coral coast along the south end of the island from Nadi to Suva, where it’s still a pretty decently maintained, if a bit narrow, road. Onwards from Suva it swings inland into scenic mountainous territory, and the sort of places that are usually labelled “authentic” by travel agencies, meaning undeveloped local villages that don’t as yet have a branch of McDo’s. The road turns into a standard 3rd world potholed nightmare, but the ride is pleasant and very much worth it nonetheless. Beautiful scenery, and regular everyday villages, with villagers going about their business. Sort of lacking that tourism element here, at least until you get up North to the village of Rakiraki. Rakiraki is another one of those places that exist to ferry tourists between their bus and their offshore island resort, in this case the island of Nananu-i-Ra (gotta love the name).

Nananu-i-Ra is heavenly. An idyllic, tiny island, lined with coconut trees and nice beaches. The mainland side has a small selection of accomodation and a nice sheltered bay for an easy snorkelling swim, it provides for all one’s needs, without being overdeveloped in any way or fashion while the ocean side of the island is more windswept, with deserted sandy, coconut lined beach number 3.456.291. All very nice indeed, but I am beginning to suffer from what I call Southern Thailand Sindrome, which manifests itself as an unexplicable urge to keep on moving and exploring every place, despite the fact that every new place you go to is exactly the same as the place you left. The “I’m here, got to see and explore the whole place, not just laze around on one beach.” feeling that has you wasting time traipsing all over the place seeing the same old sandy beach in a million and one different variations on a theme. Pretty, granted, but gets to be much of a sameness after a while.

A legend in his own lifetime

Sunday, March 27th, 2005

Suva, Viti Levu, Fiji

After a couple of days lazing at the Beach House, the exploring spirit reasserts itself, so I’m off to Suva, the capital of Fiji. At first glance it’s pleasant enough in a tropical colonial kind of way, but then again it’s also Easter and the whole place is dead. And I mean dead. Even the Indian markets and chinese restaurants are shut. It would seem nobody does anything on a christian holiday in Fiji. The upshot is that you can walk around and explore completely unmolested, but the feeling of desolate abandon soon gets the upper hand. The place to go for quaint, picturesque tropical colonial towns is Levuka on the island of Ovalau, which used to be the capital of Fiji, Levuka apparently has it all, Suva in the meanwhile, quickly fades into boredom. The South Seas Hotel in Suva on the other hand, comes loaded with exactly the right kind of tropical colonial villa feeling. A big timber building, with big rooms, high ceilings with fans lazily spinning around, shuttered verandahs and squeaky floors. It also appears to be deserted by all except me and one other guest, adding to the sense of slight otherwordliness.

The other guest is a 67 year old man from Luxembourg, who retired at 50 and has been travelling the world ever since. And I do mean ever since. None of this back and forth from home two week package holiday business, he found someone to take care of his finances etc, packed his bags and left. He does go home occasionaly, but it’s very rare, and he’s been slowly exploring the pacific for the past so many years, slowly moving from island to island, seeing everything there is to see. His pension is enough to keep him happily on the road, as long as he doesn’t splurge too much on airfares and the like, which isn’t a problem as he isn’t in a hurry to get anywhere and is happy to slowly circumnavigate the world by local bus and local ferry. His kids never visited him at home (yes, we’ve heard this story before), but apparently they’re now more than happy to catch up with good ole dad when he’s in a particularly appealing spot. He is legend.

Kava day two

Saturday, March 26th, 2005

The Beachhouse

Once again, this could be due to being on holiday and a general feeling of all round laziness, but then again, it could be the long lasting effects of kava (a case of might not be strong, but whatever it does will last a while?). Whatever it is, the day isn’t exactly one of frenetic activity. I sleep on the beach. I move to a different hammock. I sleep some more. I eat lunch and go for a post-prandial nap in the shade. I wake up, then I sleep some more. I’m not sure when, but at one point I manage the energy to pack away my tent (yes, camping on Fiji in the rainy season might not be the best idea), but that’s about it. At one point I attempt a bit of P. Theroux’s Happy Isles of Oceania, but the man is such a grumpy old codger that the book is unreadable, and I go back to sleep again. Granted, Theroux is a miserable old sod at the best of times, but he outdid himself with this book, it’s practically unreadable, at least while you are enjoying the actual happy isles themselves, and by his account, enjoying them much more than he did.

Kava time!

Friday, March 25th, 2005

No, not coffee. Kava. Piper methysticum. Recreational drug of choice in a fair bit of the Pacific, and most popular in Fiji and Vanuatu, I’m told. I don’t know about Vanuatu, but the fijians do seem to love their kava ceremony. The general idea is to take the root of the kava plant, and mash it around in a bowl of water until the water looks and tastes like muddy dishwater, take out the kava root, and knock back the dishwater until you can’t do it any more. Of course, since doing it like this would just look a bit sad and desperate, you need to dress it up in ceremony. To begin with the kava bowl must be just so, and the cup you drink out of must be just so (well, the cup is actually just a polished half of a coconut shell, so I won’t bother you with links). Everybody sits around the bowl, with the main man in charge of making the kava ladling it out cup by cup and passing it one at a time to everybody in the circle. Before you accept your cup, you clap once, shout “Bula everybody!” (probably not necessary in the real nontouristy thing, I’d say) then you take the cup and drain it (trust me, this is no sipping liquor) to the applause of everybody around you. When the kava runs out, songs are sung while a new batch is made up, and the process is repeated until everybody is katatonic.

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Sounds all serious and druggy, but in reality, the main and foremost effect of the kava on non Fijians (who love it and will hear nothing against it, of course), seems to be “yuck, this tastes like dishwater“. Then you notice a tingling sensation in your mouth and slowly your mouth starts going numb. After a few rounds, the slight numbness starts spreading over your whole face, but this is more or less as far as it gets with me. You are relaxed and slightly listless, but it’s hard to guess what is the kava doing its stuff and what’s just due to being on holiday in a lazy and laid back kind of place with a long day behind you.So, all in all, nothing dramatic, but you do get a pervading feeling of utter relaxation and goodwill to the world. No actual feeling of being drunk or stoned or drugged. Just a happy feeling. Followed close on its tail by a feeling of “where’s the loo?” – you drink a lot of liquid in a kava ceremony. I’m told that after 20 or 30 cups of fijian cava, you get slightly incoherent and slowly fall asleep, but that seems to be it. Certainly doesn’t seem to be anything to make it the most popular thing going. Then again, I’m told that the Vanuatu kava is so strong you can be “relaxed” for up to five days, so maybe that’s the real good stuff and this is just the swill tourists get. Until I get to Vanuatu, I guess I’ll never know.

Fiji beach style fish recipe

Friday, March 25th, 2005

Here’s how to prepare the most delicious fish I’ve ever eaten.

First, catch your fish. In my case Eddie, a kiwi spearfisher has taken care of that, in your case you might want to resort to the fish drug shrub or just buy some, any will do, I believe.

The key ingredients are:
– a nice sandy beach, preferrably with coconut trees lining it
– clean sea water (ok, might be a bit of a problem in some parts of the world)
– wood for a fire
– your fish
– lemons
– chillies

Optional ingredients inclue:
– cold Fiji bitter (once again, might be a problem in some parts of the world)
– taro
– cassava
– bananas
– and a nice sunset
– and anything else that floats your boat

Find a secluded spot on the beach, build a fire and get it roaring.

In the meantime, chop up your chillies and slice your lemons into big wedges. Get a big bowl of fresh sea-water and put the chillies and lemons in it. Let it stand. When you’ve got your fire going nicely, shove your cleaned fish into it (once again, get Eddie to clean it). This is it. Pure and simple. You don’t actually do anything to the fish (well, in fact you do quite a lot of things to the fish, all of them guaranteed to ruin the poor fish’s day, but you know what I mean, no seasoning, no herbs, no nothing, just gut it, scale it, and shove it in the fire).

When you reckon the fish is done, pull it out of the fire with your asbestos lined fingers, and quickly (speed is of the essence here, you’re trying to keep the fish as hot as possible), tear the meat of the bones in big chunks and toss it into the bowl of seawater with lemons and chillies that’s been sitting there waiting. Gather your friends around, roll up your sleeves and with (hopefully clean) fingers, fish chunks of fish out of the bowl of seawater and tuck in.

This is it, nothing complicated. The salt water with lemons and chillies seasons the fish very nicely, so there’s no need for anything else, and since you’ve not actually sauted the chillies, or boiled the seawater or anything like that, the flavours are all very gentle and don’t overpower the fish itself. The fish, on the other hand, has a nice smokey flavour imparted by its brief sojourn in the fire.

You can boil some taro and cassava to go along with the fish, especially if you don’t have enough fish – like Judah pointed out, a little bit of taro will fill you up nicely. I trust you don’t need me to tell you what to do with the beer, but here’s what you do with the bananas – while you’re eating your fish, shove your bananas into the embers of the fire, unpeeled of course. Steamed bananas for desert. Followed by a leisurely soak in the warm pacific.
Ahh, the simple pleasures of life. I could get used to this.

Canyoning Fiji Style

Friday, March 25th, 2005

The beach house has got everything laid on for the lazy backpacker. You can make coconut jewellry to your hearts content, go snorkelling, go on an organized snoreklling trip, an organized tour of Suva and other towns along the way and many many more fun activities. For those who’re feeling especially energetic, Judah organizes a walking trip inland through the jungle and up a small creek to a nice waterfall. It’s supposed to be easy walking, no biggie, Judah does it barefoot twice a day.

It might sound a bit naff, but Judah is the sort of guide that all guides should be – knows a lot about the bush, and is happy to explain every interesting plant he comes across and its uses, and seeing as how none of us even know much about the non bush fiji stuff, he’s happy to explain the finer points of cassava cultivation (there are none, it would seem, when you uproot the plant to get at the root, which is what you eat, you just chop up the plant into foot long sticks, and stick them back in the mud, and two to three months later you’ve got cassava to eat again. this works all year round and requires no special care or attention it would seem), cooking cassava (you boil it or you fry it, and then you eat it seems to be the general idea), he shows us the shrub they use to drug the reef fish, wild pineapples, and – he’s even got a sense of humour – a flip-flop tree (well, or at least a tree that someone’s hung one flip-flop on).

This nature walk carries on through the bush and up along a cold stream (well, cold by Fijian standards, it might be considered a hot spring in NZ), and ends at what in all objective honesty, isn’t much of a waterfall or much of a crystal clear pool (in fact, it would win prizes in the muddy pond category), but somehow it all comes across as very impressive indeed, with the cold water of the waterfall very refreshing to the sore-footed sweaty bunch who were taken in by the “oh, it’s an easy walk” sales pitch.

Waterfall

On the way back, Judah tell us even more about Fijian crops and cuisine, for example – taro is good because despite the fact that it’s tasteless wallpaper glue pap that probably sets like concrete once it’s in you, it fills you up for a long time – glues your intestines shut is probably more like it. It’s not all bad though, he shares some pretty delicious recipes with us and sends us on our way laden with the cassava and taro we came across in the jungle. See? I told you nobody starves on Fiji.

Cocoooonut!

Thursday, March 24th, 2005

Beach House Resort

I’ve long believed that coconuts might be the best proof for the possible existence of some very kindly disposed gods. Where ever these beauties grow, there’s so many of them that no-one could possibly polish off all of them, so even tourists, the eternal walking cash machine can occasionally get one for free (see? manna from heaven for the backpacker on a budget). Even if you have to pay for them, they’re cheap and on their humble own provide a safe feed and a safe and refreshing drink, combined with other foods coconuts are the basis of very many very delicious complicated meals. Here at the Beach House, I find a new use for them – to while away the time while waiting for the tropical downpour to stop, you can make coconut jewellry out of the shell. Or, if you’re less handy with the saw and file, you can make cups out of them. I realize this might sound silly, but it’s not really, if only you could see the beautiful Kava cup I made with my bare hands out of what used to be a humble empty coconut shell you’d understand.

Speaking of cheap food, I think I can safely say I’ve seen my fair share of lush, palm covered tropical paradise islands, and yet I don’t think I’ve ever seen any place quite as embarrassingly fertile as Fiji. Every bit of bush is chock full of things to eat. Cassava, taro and kumara grow like weeds all over the place, and one doesn’t even get the feeling that there’s the slightest attempt at serious cultivation. The sea is full of delicious fish, the coastline is lined with coconut trees, and a short stroll inland will take you past bananas, pineapples, and practically any tropical fruit you’d care to eat. To top things off, there’s even a shrub you can grind up and use to drug the reef fish so you don’t have to work too hard at catching them. I’m told it’s harmless and just makes the fish woozy for a while, and after a snoreklling trip or two, I can vouch that it’s certainly less destructive than the bomb fishing methods practised in other parts of the world. The reef seems nice and thriving with more than enough fish still around, and surprisingly enough, none of the fish looked stoned. I realize this could be a description of any place in a number of tropical zones, but trust me, Fiji wins hands down, no wonder the average Fijian is much bigger than the average Asian.

The coconuts in the meantime, rule supreme in their role as delicious all-round provider for the needy, despite the fact that they turn every lazy nap in a hammock on the beach into russian roulette.