On first impression, it would seem that every Fijian is born playing the guitar and singing in harmony; it’s an instinct as natural as breathing for them. As you enter the arrivals lounge at the airport, you are serenaded by a small group of large Fijians, wearing brightly coloured and patterned shirts and the traditional sulu, a kind of sarong (the guys in Fiji were all doing it way before Beckham!) who are harmonising a Fijian welcome song effortlessly into four parts.
You certainly do feel welcomed in Fiji – you will hear ‘Bula!’ being shouted countless times, which is the Fijian word for both ‘hello’ and ‘cheers’ (when drinking). Our taxi driver warned us not to be worried if people shout it at us in the streets, they’re just trying to be friendly, so we got into the habit of replying with a mutually excitable ‘Bula!’ almost instantly.
We were dropped off at our hostel in Nadi, on the main island of Viti Levu, on which it is usually recommended to spend as little time as possible. Everybody pretty much has to go to Nadi, because that’s where the international airport is, but beyond that, there are not many other redeeming features; you just have to get in and out as quickly as you can, which was our plan…
But some things don’t go to plan.
Now, here comes the paragraph about the stuff that nobody tells you about Fiji: the country is a real pain in the backside to get around, and if you want to go to the Yasawa Islands – which is what Helena and I went for in the end – the options for accommodation are so limited that the prices are exorbitantly expensive. You are ushered towards ‘package’ style travel which locks you down, and you apparently have to know exactly what you want to do and where you want to go for the entire time you want to spend on the islands before you leave Viti Levu. In addition, we were introduced to the concept of a ‘meal pass’, which is a compulsory addition to the cost of the accommodation which then provides you with your food. There are no other options for eating on most of the islands, so you would have to eat at the resort anyway. It’s just that, once again, you are left no choice and it puts another huge hole in your budget.
Urgh! I thought Fiji was all about being super laid back and relaxing on white sandy beaches for days on end with no worries…
Well, in a way, it is, but you have to get your head around the logistical set-up first, which took Hels and I about six hours on our first day there. Major itinerary planning a go-go! My comment of, ‘I thought we’d just be able to jump on a boat to an island, see if we liked it, and take it from there,’ was met with disapproval bordering on disgust from the lady who’d offered to help us at the hostel’s travel desk. I think she was annoyed with me anyway, though, because I could not see how buying a huge travel package through them (clearly with a sizeable commission attached) could be the only way to get around. ‘You just need to pick where you want to go and book it,’ she said, after we’d been deliberating for most of the afternoon. ‘I get that,’ I said, ‘but how can I know where I want to go if I’ve never been there?’ She didn’t like that comment much either.
Hels and I oscillated between planning to visit the Yasawa group of islands, the Mamanuca group, or going over to an island called Taveuni on the east side of Fiji – the main attraction of the latter being that you could stand with one foot either side of the international date line. ‘Look, look, my left foot is in today and my right foot is in yesterday,’ – or tomorrow, depending on your perspective on time travel. The problem with Taveuni however – as explained by our helpful assistant – was that it would take us a day to get there and a day to get back, and boats only left on Mondays and Fridays and returned on Tuesdays and Saturdays unless they were delayed or cancelled due to poor weather or any unforeseen circumstances notwithstanding mechanical failure, acts of God, an alien invasion, an attack of giant sea monsters or the end of the world… Or something like that – my head was about ready to explode.
Our choice to visit the Yasawas, then, was one borne out of a huge session of wrangling with ourselves and the internet. Booking through the travel desk just seemed far too obviously like pouring money away – and lots of it too – so when we found that we could book directly with some of the accommodation, rather than through a package, we got busy. We opted for two islands at first: Tavewa and Naviti. The philosophy here being that since Tavewa is the furthest island away from Viti Levu that we could reach, it would be better to get all the way there in one go, and then work our way back. Ultimately we stayed four days at Coral View Resort on Tavewa, four days at White Sandy Beach Resort on Naviti, and three days at Bounty Island Resort on Bounty Island (surprisingly enough!).
Soooooooooo – enough about that!
Once we got out there, Fiji turned out to be every bit as relaxing, friendly and beautiful as we were expecting.
The bonus of the whole resort/meal pass thing, is that everybody at the resort eats together, so it’s really conducive to getting chatting to other guests (often striking up conversations with, ‘It’s lovely but so bloody expensive!’) Sorry, I know I said enough.
So, Coral View was our first stop. After a mammoth eight hour trip on the big catamaran that runs the island route each day, we were greeted by the staff with a song onto the beach. With welcome drinks in hand, we were introduced to the various activities on offer and shown to our room, a ‘bure’ – which is essentially a small Fijian hut. The best thing about Coral View was the amount of snorkelling on offer. Not only could you snorkel directly in front of the resort, they also ran free trips each day at 10am, to various different sites around the island.
After dinner on our first evening, we were told that there was a local rugby tournament happening the following day, and that we could take a trip to watch part of it if we liked. Now, I didn’t know much about Fiji, but I did know that they are mad about their rugby, so we jumped at the chance to go and experience it first hand.
The following morning, we hopped into a small boat with the activities leader, Toki, and a few others and headed off. The tournament was in a village called Somo Somo which you can only reach by boat. There are no roads or vehicles there, and only a smattering of small ramshackle huts, but behind it all there is a full size rugby pitch; an indication of the importance placed on this sport in the Fiji culture. And this was not a small tournament; there were 32 teams competing, playing 7-a-side, but each with squads of 10-20 players.
We were so pleased we took the opportunity to go because we instantly felt like we were getting to see a bit of the real Fiji. I think most of my/our frustration at the planning stage was that it all seemed a bit ‘package’, a bit ‘tourist’, a bit fake even? This certainly wasn’t. The pitch was fabulous. Although it was full size, the ground was extremely uneven, with bumps and ruts all over it, including two huge sand bunkers that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a golf course.
For poles, you can forget the metal structures you might have been expecting, here we had straight-ish lengths of green bamboo, lashed together with twine. The finishing touch to this beautiful spectacle was the lines, which rather than being painted on, had been accurately burnt into the grass.
These guys didn’t let any of this phrase them though. With 32 teams to get through, we were treated to non-stop games of 7 mins each way, with rolling substitutions. This meant that the pace was frenetic, the tackles were huge, and the whole thing had a sense of chaotic relentlessness about it that was almost as exhausting to watch as it must have been to play. The teams were made up of serious players; most of them held together by various amounts of bandage and tape over hands, heads, thighs, knees, elbows, thumbs – you name it, someone had it taped up.
And they were fast, so fast! Rugby sevens is a fast game anyway, but with only a few minutes to play at a time, they went at it very, very hard.
So we sat and tried to take it all in. We were greeted with an enthusiastic ‘Bula!’ by everybody we spoke to, and were made to feel very welcome.
The remainder of our time at Coral View was spent relaxing, reading, snorkelling, trekking up the hill, walking down the beach, chatting to the various people we met, and eating. We did a lot of eating! The food at Coral View was both good quality and vast in portion size – well, I guess the classic Fijian physique isn’t achieved by accident!
My favourite thing about meal times though, was that Jack, the main guitarist and singer at the resort, would sit and play songs from his massive repertoire. He was a huge guy and every part of him was rounded, his face, his eyes, his afro hair. His great height and gigantic hands made him look kind of like a Fijian Hagrid. His voice was superb; a sumptuous baritone with gooey vibrato and a huge range. I can’t really describe it – he is just the kind of singer you could sit and listen to for hours and hours. His version of Layla by Sting was my particular favourite – just perfect.
Soon it was time to move on. We got back onto the large catamaran and headed south to White Sandy Beach, where we were greeted by another guitar led ensemble. This time, however, the guitarist was a young guy of 20 called Ted. We got to know Ted pretty well over the next four days, and he was awesome. He fulfilled loads of different roles at the resort, not least being main guitar player, but I have to say, although I loved Ted’s enthusiasm on the guitar, he didn’t come close to Jack. Sorry Ted!
White Sandy Beach was quite different in feel to Coral View; much smaller, quieter, but in a way a bit more authentic I guess. It felt more like a family atmosphere rather than a business, which we liked a lot. The facilities were pretty basic though; cold water showers, electricity only for certain hours in the morning and evening, no internet access, and yet for everything it ‘lacked’, as such, it was enriched with simple pleasures. We lay in hammocks and read books undisturbed for hours, we snorkelled the reef just off the beach, we raced hermit crabs, watched Ted and Abu smash coconuts with their fists, had basic Fiji lessons and played volleyball with the staff.
Volleyball is Fiji’s second biggest sport apparently. When I spotted a game going on at the rear of the resort one evening, I wandered over and sat by the side and watched, in a kind of a school boy-esque, ‘I really want to play but I’m embarrassed to ask so I’ll just stand here and hope somebody invites me’ kind of way. Which, of course, they did. I didn’t realise at the time, but one of the guys stepped out of the game to make space for me – very kind!
This was the beginning of my Fijian love affair with volleyball. From this point on, I searched out games at every given opportunity, to the point of instigating games back at the hostel on the mainland, dragging in unsuspecting individuals to play as they sat happily enjoying the evening sun. Sunset volleyball became an institution of the rest of our stay on Fiji.
But playing volleyball had a secondary, entirely unintended effect – it allowed us to spend time with the resort staff in their leisure time, rather than as a scheduled ‘activity’, which was, again, kind of what we wanted to do.
Our other favourite White Sandy Beach activity was the nightly beach bonfire and singalong with Ted and Abu. Now, as I said before, Ted’s repertoire was nowhere near as developed as Jack’s, and his knowledge of the lyrics of the songs he was playing was often minimal and sometimes non-existent. Nevertheless, his enthusiasm and excitement were unbounding and we found ourselves singing along happily to harmonically dubious versions of Wonderwall and Someone Like You along with rhythmically unstable renditions of No Woman No Cry and Redemption Song. Where Ted really came alive was when he was playing his favourite hits such as, Reggae in the Bathroom, Please Don’t Touch My Papaya and The Fiji Animal Song.
Without realising it, we became quite attached to everyone we met at White Sandy, and so it was a really special moment for us when Manu – the chef and chief volleyball coordinator – came over on our last day and said he had a gift for us. ‘We just wanted to say thank you for staying with us for four nights,’ he said, ‘so the boys went and dived for a lobster and we have cooked it for you.’ We were really touched by the sincerity of the gesture and sat down to eat this final meal, offering the warmest of thanks for their hospitality. Strangely enough, we had also been preparing a parting gift for Ted. He’d been desperate to know the actual lyrics to some of the songs we’d been singing, so we wrote out what we could on a piece of paper and gave it to him. It wasn’t much but he seemed pretty happy!
On to Bounty Island then, which we reached in the dark. It was a little unnerving to be stepping off a large catamaran and onto a small aluminium boat in the pitch black. Before we knew it, we were speeding over the inky waves towards … nothing. There was literally nothing ahead of us. The simple reason for this was because the resort was on the far side of the island, but still! Trying to remain calm in this bizarre scenario was made easier by the presence of Simmi, one of the staff from the resort, who introduced himself and asked everyone their names; everyone except me however. ‘I know you!’ he said gleefully when he got to me, ‘You’re Jesus!’ His grin revealed several missing teeth as he continued, ‘Ginger Jesus!’ I guess I have no defence against that sort of banter.
Unlike the larger islands, Bounty is a tiny coral formation; you can walk around it in about 30 minutes. Fringed with white sand and coral reef, there’s not much else to do but relax and let your mind and body slip into Fiji time. Books were read, naps were had and their sun beds and pool were put to good use. We were productive at times though; with Ephy, the activities guy, we made souvenir jewellery from coconut shells, spent a fun few hours cleaning baby turtles, and played yet more volleyball, both on the beach with people we met, and at the back of the resort in the staff game (which I once again just approached and was invited to play). It was an excellent few days.
And that’s almost it for this blog, but no Fiji experience would be complete without drinking a little ‘kava’. ‘What’s kava?’ I hear you ask.
Well, it’s a good question. Kava is a traditional Fijian drink that’s made from the kava root. It is dried then crushed until it becomes a powder, then mixed with water in the kava bowl to make kava – a cold, watery, brown liquid that tastes of dirt. It supposedly has a mild narcotic effect but you’d have to drink about 20 bowls for it to kick in.
Hels and I drank kava a few times, but the most memorable for me was being invited to drink with the staff on Bounty (once again, the invite came after playing volleyball). I wandered up to the big bure behind the resort after dinner, was welcomed in and ushered to take a seat around the bowl, which is a large ceremonial wooden bowl that has been carved from a single piece of wood. Everyone sits around crosslegged on the floor on thin mats as the kava is mixed then handed around in small bowls made from halved coconut shells. Each time you are offered a bowl you have to clap once, take the bowl and down it in one go, the hand it back and clap three times. A lot of clapping is involved in kava drinking! There was a lot of laughter, discussions on various topics, and even some solemn prayers – most of which I couldn’t understand because it wasn’t in English, but it didn’t really matter. People were reading the paper, eating various little snacks to go with the kava and generally enjoying each other’s company. Simmi was sitting next to me and at one point he turned to me and said, ‘Hey Jesus, how do you like the kava?’
‘I’m not going to lie to you, Simmi,’ I replied, ‘It’s not the best tasting drink I’ve ever had.’
He laughed his open-mouthed, missing-toothed laugh and said, ‘Ha! We don’t like it much either. We just like sitting and spending time together.’
And that was the essence of our time in Fiji really. Despite the headache at the start, spending time on the islands turned out to be an enjoyable, exciting and enriching experience. With fewer distractions, you find yourself learning to enjoy spending time with the people around you, eating, singing, joking, laughing, playing or even doing very little, simply having a bit of ‘Fiji time’.