Nadi, Yasawa Islands, Matacawalevu Island, and Flying Fish Organic Village
15.05.2011 - 22.05.2011 95 °F
I always knew that I wanted to travel. I thought with a world so big and full of possibility, who wouldn’t want see it all? Growing up in America, we’re told we live in the greatest country in the world, but I wanted to find out if that was really true and what the other places around the world had to offer. I knew that we were more progressive in the U.S., but as a liberal thinker, I had grown a little disdainful of the political games played here. I began to think about what life is like for other people in all those far-off and exotic places I had dreamed about. It wasn’t much longer after that, that I was starting to go to these places, and I made it a priority that as I travelled, I would learn about the places I was travelling to. I wasn’t going to be one of those travelers who spent gobs of money to sit in a resort on the other side of the world and have all the comforts of home. I never understood the point of that other than to prove you can spend a lot of money on vacation. No, travelling was going to be an experience for me, not just a change of scenery. I wanted to learn about the cultures that lived in these places. I wanted to know what their socio-economic problems were or weren’t, and hopefully I would really be able to adventure and learn from my travels, instead of just having nice photographs.
In the last six years, I have managed to visit nearly all of the lower forty-eight, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, France, and Costa Rica. I have had beautiful and different experiences in all of those places. Sometimes those experiences were uncomfortable or scary, but none thus far had prepared for my recent trip to Fiji. While in Costa Rica a year prior, we had met and made friends with some other travelers who were abroad on a Habitat for Humanity mission. Their stories made me realize that the humanitarian experience was something I wanted to make a part of my travels. What can I say? It sparked the warm, fuzzy part of me that wanted to do something good for someone who less fortunate than I. I set out to determine what experience would allow me to give back to others while taking me to a different part of the world.
I knew of a friend, (we’ll call him Peter), who had been living with a tribe in Fiji for some time. We corresponded via email, and he told me how the tribe was running an eco-village to help support their needs. I thought what a perfect opportunity for the trip I’m looking for! He explained that he had been helping to teach natural building and they were teaching him about organic living. We could come and stay with the tribe, located on the beautiful Blue Lagoon, in exchange for a minimal cost of stay and four hours of work each day. The work would consist of helping to build the bures, snorkeling and fishing for food, and learning about sustainable living. The island itself is located across from Turtle Island which is a high-end resort for the extremely wealthy, and is inhabited solely by the chief and his family. I thought, paradise and humanitarianism- what could be better?
I had a lot to learn about travelling, especially as a woman, and about helping others. From the moment we stepped off the plane, our adventures began. Peter, my supposed friend, was in New Zealand helping in Christchurch from the earthquake aftermath. He was arriving in two days, and he wanted us to wait on the mainland for him and take the boat to the island together. We came with very little money, which was all we had, because we had pre-paid for our stay on the island with the tribe in advance for every day of our trip. Luckily, we had the good fortune to meet a young local couple who had lived very near where we do now in California. They put us up for the night at no cost, and actually our time with them ended up being the only thing close to enjoyable the whole trip. Our first day there, just hours after getting off the plane, they take us into town to show us around.
We learned very quickly that in Fiji there is racism between the native Fijians and the Indians who were brought over for labor by the British. In the town we were in, Nadi, the Indians have the pull because they own the shops. We also learned that many of the cops in town are paid off by the shop-owners to keep local Fijians away from tourists. Here we are in downtown Nadi and we’ve been offered every hospitality by our local friends (who happened to be a mix of Indians and Fijians) that they can offer. They even offered to cook us an authentic Fijian meal for lunch as there are only Indian restaurants in that part of town. In an effort to return some of their kindness, we decide to buy the groceries. One of the girls, probably no older than eighteen, went with us to the market to help us pick out what to get. We went to the store and we’re taken aback to see that a small chicken, not much bigger than the size of one’s hand, was $10FJD. Their minimum wage is only $2FJD! It’s no big wonder why the poverty is so rampant in downtown. And to be honest, I expected to see a certain amount of poverty and social unrest.
This wasn’t the really disturbing part of our market venture anyways. After we left the grocery store, we went to an open air market to get some cassava, which is a root much like a potato. While waiting for our cassava, an un-uniformed cop approached the local girl we were with and began to harass her. He was speaking in a language I couldn’t understand, but it obvious that he was getting irate. He then began to slap her in the face, and no matter how much we tried to protest or step in, he wouldn’t stop. Even when we were at the point of standing in between them so he had to reach around us to try and hit her, he wouldn’t even so much as look at us or acknowledge our presence. Another woman came up and helped us to get her out of there and away from the cop. The other woman even threatened the cop by saying she would go to the police and report him so that he would lose his job. Apparently this is a common problem in downtown Nadi.
It was so upsetting, especially as a woman, to see another woman hit in the face in public for no other reason than that she was a Fijian female, and she was with white people. It wasn’t fair and I was upset, but when we relayed our concerns to the rest of our hosts, they seemed to just accept that this was the way it is. We figured things would be better on the island with the tribe. They wouldn’t have these problems in a closed community where all their needs are provided for by their natural surroundings. Boy, were we naïve. We still had another full day before we would meet with Peter and take the boat to the island. Most of that day was spent at the whim of our hosts, and being told, ‘Hey, this is Fiji Time’.
The evening of our second day we met with our contact and departed early the next morning to take the boat to the island. Now there are two options for a boat to take us where we need to go. There is the village boat, where the only expense is the fuel. This was the original plan, but Peter thought that the villagers bringing the village boat would want to do shopping on the mainland, and he was in a rush to just get home. He tells us that he can get a deal on the expensive boat so we will be able to take it for cheaper. Wrong again. While in line to board the boat, he returns from the ticket line, requesting the very last of our cash. As it turns out, the tickets were $120USD one way, per person. That was almost as much as we had paid apiece for our ten day stay with the village! He reassures us that the village boat will be able to bring us back. So we embarked on a four hour boat ride to the second to last Yasawa Island, which would be our home for the remainder of our trip.
Once we get to the island, the tide is out and the villagers have left the small boat on shore. We were stuck on the boat and had to ride it the rest of the way through the island chain and back around. This time the local resort boat gave us a lift to shore where we walked a good mile or so through reef and sand to get to our part of the island. We had to leave our luggage on the ferry boat from the local and resort because there certainly was no carrying it with us on this hike. We hoped that our luggage would be okay and nothing stolen. At least our passports were with us, and it wasn’t like we had any money left to steal. Peter in the meantime has learned that the larger village boat, which goes to the mainland, went there anyways to pick us up because there wasn’t any communication between Peter and the villagers about our pick-up arrangements. We would’ve been able to take the local boat and save our money. Now the local boat was on the mainland, looking for us, and without the fuel to get back to the island or a return trip for when we would need to go home.
The villagers greeted us with the welcome song as we walked up, a rare beautiful moment in our nightmare vacation. After the song was over, however, the villagers walked away and most were never seen again during our stay. Our company now was Peter and the other travelers staying in the village: a German couple who had been living in Australia for the last several years, and a young English musician who had been traveling on his own for quite some time. All three had recently arrived before us. They were quick to inform us that they had found bedbugs in the bures. The German girl showed us her arms and legs which were covered in more bites than unaffected skin. We were grateful we had brought our tent to sleep in. Oh wait, but the tent was still with the luggage, which was still on the boat. Peter comes over and tells us that we will be sleeping in the bure. We insisted several times that we pitch our tent, but they didn’t want to clear a space or get our luggage at that time. He was certain that our bure did not have any bedbugs, and that we would be fine. He also instructed us briefly on the activities we would be doing there. I would be doing the “women’s work” of making brooms, cleaning, washing dishes, and doing laundry. My boyfriend, Ben, however, would be snorkeling for clams and hunting octopus with the guys all day. At that moment, the girl got up and took me over to start making the brooms. She turned and winked at the guys, saying this was the “girls’ job”, they needn’t worry themselves. We were dumbstruck. We didn’t mind working, but we came on vacation together, not to be split up into gender roles for all of our activities.
We eventually got our luggage that night, shortly before we had our kava ceremony with the “chief”. The actual chief was on the boat that had gone to pick us up on the mainland and was now stuck there, so his brother was the acting chief. That night at the kava ceremony was my first real interaction with the tribe’s males. None of the women were present at the kava ceremony other than me and the other female traveler. The men wouldn’t look me in the eye or interact with me at all, yet they were the friendliest and most hospitable people I had ever seen to Ben. It was as though they viewed him as chief of some of other tribe, and I was simply his hand-maiden he brought along. The acting chief kept insisting that my bowls of kava be smaller and smaller, until it was just ludicrous and I decided to go back to the bure. Upon saying goodnight, I thought it would be respectful and would maybe earn me some brownie points to say goodnight in their Fijian language. I had been picking some up on the mainland and was getting conversational in it. The chief immediately reprimanded me for my accent and misuse of a word and then turned sweetly to Ben, who had no interest in using their language, and wished him the warmest of goodnights.
Back in the bure we tried to sleep, despite the sweltering heat. That’s when the bites started. We could turn on the light and see their little black, hard-shell bodies crawling around in the bed. Every time you went to squish one, blood would squirt everywhere from the bite they had just taken. It was horrifying and disgusting. We had to stack the beds in one corner. We used our sleeping pads and sheets on the floor and wrapped the mosquito net around it all. It was infinitely better than getting eaten alive, but far from comfortable.
The next morning, Ben and I were uncomfortable enough that we felt it prudent to say something to our host. We voiced our concerns and his response consisted mainly of telling us that we were ignorant to the beautiful culture around us, and as Americans, we were really going to have to start adjusting to “Fiji Time”. All Fiji Time meant to us at this point was being on everyone else’s time but our own since we had stepped off the plane. We decided that this was not the place for us and it was time to leave. But how since we had spent the last of our money on the boat from the mainland?
It was some small miracle that, as a bon voyage gift, my mom had paid for and set up my phone to make 50 and receive unlimited text messages. We figured out that if we walked to the tip of the island, and mostly this had to be done at sunrise or sunset, we could get a little reception. So, we start text messaging family back home to have money wired so that we can get off the island for starters. In the meantime, we’re making the best of it by sticking together. The men looked at Ben as if he must be crazy for wanting to spend time like that with a female. Apart from the male elders, they don’t even associate with their women. The men themselves are cast into a hierarchy based upon their relation to the chief: chief’s brother, chief’s son, chief’s nephew, etc.; if you aren’t a close relation to the chief, your rights seem to be limited. Nothing in the village was done without the consent of the chief.
We tried to talk to some of the women throughout the day while the men were out fishing. As I mentioned before, I was picking up a fair amount of Fijian conversation at this point. There aren’t nearly as many concepts in the language as others I have spoken/ studied, and in many ways it was nearly impossible to communicate our concerns. Not only is the topic apparently taboo, but it didn’t seem that we could express ourselves in a way that they deeply understood. They could sense our pain and see it in our eyes, but they couldn’t seem to be able to comprehend it. They see the tourists who come and spend all sorts of money to vacation there, and so they seem to have a general conception that all the tourists have a lot of money. They seemed to think that perhaps it was the lack of running water and electricity that was making us so uncomfortable. We couldn’t even be bothered by either of those things at that point.
By the evening we had been split up a couple of times, me to bathe and dress the little girl, and Ben to do the ‘manly’ work of building the campfire. I went to the campfire to meet Ben before dinner and I notice upon my arrival that I’m the only female present, of course. Not one of them bothered to say ‘hello’ or acknowledge my presence, even when I complimented them on their fire. They couldn’t seem to stop chatting up Ben, and when dinner was ready they turned to us and said, “Benny, Benny come to dinner,” and walked away without so much a glance in my direction.
At dinner it was mentioned that two octopi were spotted during the snorkeling/ fishing excursion for the men. They described how beautiful they were as they changed from bright purple to blue, and then camouflaged into the reef. Then Peter says how he wished he had a spear to kill it. They had also taken nearly a dozen beautiful, live mollusks from the sea and instead of preparing them for dinner, left them out to be eaten alive by the ants over the next couple days. To what purpose, I never really understood. I guess to have pretty shells outside the bure. They didn’t seem to have any regard or respect for the life around them they were taking. They had a couple dogs at the village as well, and it obvious by the way they would constantly cower and whimper that they had been severely beaten. It was shocking how they treated the life and the earth that surrounded them with such indifference.
We were done, and we had barely worked anything out with our family back home via text. It was another sleepless night. In the morning I found Peter at sunrise and told him we needed to leave. He asked us to stay just a couple more days, because we were in paradise. I said that visibly it was paradise, but that there were a lot of other issues going on that made it not really so. In the meantime, both of us had become terribly ill from dehydration and sunstroke. There was no medicine or medical care on the island whatsoever, so our health was starting to enter a critical state. The airline was telling us it was going to be $1200 to change out tickets, but we had to get off the island. We managed to make enough contact back home to have some money wired to our account. We boarded the boat penniless and told them that we would have to pay them from the ATM when we reached the shore. They were kind of enough to abide and even discount our tickets $50.
By the time we reached the airport, it was only a few hours before the flight to Los Angeles was departing and there was a group of 400 Americans on board. We were ready to beg, borrow, or steal to get home at this point. The thought of, “what do we need to do to get deported,” even crossed our minds at one point. We told the lady at the Air Pacific counter our story and she changed our tickets for merely the $100/ per ticket change fee. I’ll be eternally grateful to that woman for doing so because there are only four flights per week from Nadi to Los Angeles. Somehow, we even managed seats together. While smoking a cigarette outside before our flight, we met two Americans from the large group on our flight. They explained how they were on a group business trip, and one of the activities was to visit a local tribe for a kava ceremony. Their tour guide had warned them before hand of the gender roles within the tribe’s culture and to be prepared for un-equality. I was thinking, why didn’t our host do this? Well, because he would never have any guests, I imagine.
We made it home a week after we had left. It was only really four days in Fiji, but between losing and gaining time, there were about three days of travel. I had gone from 100 lbs. to 85 lbs. in that week, and Ben had gone from 185 lbs. to 175 lbs. For as horrible as we felt physically, (and probably looked), we couldn’t have been happier to touch ground in the States. I was so grateful to be an American at that point. Something I hadn’t truly felt in a long time. As I was writing in my travel journal on the plane home I realized that I regretted none of it, because I was changed as a person. There was my life before Fiji, and now there is my life after Fiji. It had been a real adventure, but I walked away feeling that if only we had known, maybe things could have gone differently. Then I realized, people do need to know about this. I felt an obligation to share what I had learned, and maybe spare somebody a ruined vacation, or much worse. In a lot of ways I feel like we came out of this lucky. I did end up writing to Peter after our return. As articulately as I could, I told him that our experience was not what he had prepared it us for, and that he had an obligation, as the person responsible for bringing travelers to the island, to make his visitors aware of that real situation there. His response was pretty much what I expected; I was a close-minded American who couldn’t possible understand their culture, and America was worse under any and all circumstances. He also didn’t refund any of our money after we had paid for ten days with tribe and ended up staying with them only two.
I’m not entirely certain that we had been drawn into a tourist trap. There were many times it felt that way, but there was another feeling too, another lesson. No matter how good one’s intentions to help others, or how much better one thinks they can make the situation for another, true change, real change has got to come from within. I also learned that despite our problems in the U.S., at least we have come past some of the most basic social pitfalls. Our problems are really much more systemic and philosophical than the core issues that plague a lot of societies in the world. It put a lot into perspective and so yes, it’s a cheesy way to end, but moral of the story: I’m proud to be an American.