Strictly No Eating of Peanuts and Peas in this Bus

Trip Start Mar 11, 2011
Trip End Sep 09, 2011

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Flag of Fiji  , Viti Levu,
Thursday, March 24, 2011

It's our last day in Fiji today, and tomorrow we head to New Zealand (where hopefully this blog will get uploaded). It feels incredibly strange to be leaving a country where we have been for nearly two weeks and not to be heading home. It’s exciting, but strange.

Last post we said we were at Raintree Lodge in Colo-i-Suva.The next day we headed again into Suva, dragging our backpacks with us, with the intention of catching the Patterson Brothers Shipping Service to another island called Ovalau. After standing at the bus station for nearly an hour and a half, the bus finally arrived, and we suddenly realised that there was no chance of us ever getting on that bus. People seemed to suddenly emerge out of nowhere, just appearing and scuttling hurriedly towards the bus. We raced with them, only to have our spirits dampened by a couple of American backpackers who informed us that we needed to have bought tickets to get on. Damn. We watched the bus drive away without us, then swiftly we headed to the Patterson Brothers Shipping Service Office, which, might I add, not a single person at the information office at the bus station told us existed. We purchased tickets for the following day and solemnly headed back up to Raintree Lodge, which, at this point, seemed slightly silly. When we got there we embarrassingly explained how we were stupid enough not to realise we’d need tickets for a journey that only runs once a day, and could we please have the same room (Room 18) for yet another night? So we stayed there again, and we felt like maybe it was a day wasted, but there are probably going to be quite a few instances in the six months where things don’t go quite to plan, so we might as well embrace it and go and chill in the pool (Helen) and lie in a shaded hammock (John).

The next day we left again, backpacks in tow, and this time we knew exactly what to expect. We got to the bus station in plenty of time,and, anticipating the sudden appearance of hundreds of people when the bus arrives, we stood closer with a plan to run and throw our bags underneath then get on the bus ASAP. This might seem extreme - planning how to get onto a bus quickly - however in Fiji there is a severe lack of organisation with things like this, and the art of queuing for such things just doesn’t happen.Typically, things didn’t go according to plan. The bus pulled up and we were pretty much last to board. The only seats left were the two directly behind the driver, where everyone seemed to have dumped boxes labelled 'Levuka’ and various bags filled with vegetables and questionable foodstuffs. Grateful as we were that we actually had seats, only our toes touched the floor, and it was mightily uncomfortable. Bear in mind that this wasn’t an air-conditioned coach, or even a comfortable seated bus like in England, but a typical Fijian service bus, with sliding windows, hard seats and not much room at all. We travelled for two hours by bus to the dock,then we sailed on the ferry for another hour, and once we’d reached Ovalau, it was another hour and a half to our destination of Levuka. In Ovalau, things were much less touristy (not that where we’d been was overly touristy), but there was a definite sense of more rural living. There was no real road surface, more of a dirt track that would be more suited to a 4WD rather than a raggedy old bus, and as we pulled up to the edge of numerous villages, it was nice to see the whole village swarm to the bus to greet whichever member of their community had been to Viti Levu (the main island we had just come from)and what they had brought back with them. It was during one of these drop-offs that John noticed a little boy, no older than six, flipping open and chasing his friends with a switchblade.

We got to Levuka at about 6pm and headed up the main street(Beach Street, although there is no beach), and found the Royal Hotel. After our experience in Suva with the horrible room, we decided it would be a good idea to ask to see the room before we committed to staying there. After a broken conversation with a lady who didn’t seem to understand us at all, an angry and flustered looking man appeared, told us we would not be allowed to see the room first, and asked us how many nights we would be staying for.Reluctantly, we said three nights and paid the FJ$159, took the key and headed upstairs. In reality, there really was no other place for us to stay, so we had to pay up. John opened the door in case there were any uninvited creatures there, and we were pleasantly surprised by the character and cleanliness of the room. The Royal Hotel is the oldest continuously run hotel in the South Pacific, built in the 1860’s, it’s a colonial style building (such is the town), and big rooms with old wooden floors, high ceilings and a particular charm about it. According to the leaflet we picked up, ‘the Royal has catered to everyone from the infamous sea captain,Bully Hayes to the former president of Fiji, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara’. That night we sat in the old dining room watching lizards on the ceiling, when we started talking to the angry and flustered looking man, who as it turns out,wasn’t at all angry or even flustered. He told us about his life in Fiji, how he’d visited all but three of the Fijian Islands (there are 332 in total), and how the room we were sitting in was the room that Prince Charles shook his hand in. He was a nice man after all.

The next day we headed out early to conquer Mission Hill, a series of 199 steps up the side of the hill to give great views of the town and out to sea. The steps ended at 189, and the view was lovely (the pictures don’t do it justice), but we had to retreat as there was a swarm of unhappy hornets blocking the thin pathway that led over the hill.  When we got to the bottom we were both incredibly hot (about 33 degrees and very humid), so we went to read our books in the shade by the pool for a while. That afternoon we strolled along Beach Street and hopped in a taxi to take us to the beach which was 3km along the coast from Levuka.  Due to losing a day because of bus confusion,and due to the weather being unpredictable, we decided that it wouldn’t be worth risking going to Caqalai (tiny little paradise island that Helen especially had been highly anticipating). So we ended up on a not so great but not so bad little beach which we had all to ourselves. The tide was out and there was a lot of coral exposed, so we didn’t go digging around, but John was very excited to have spotted a sea snake in one of the rock pools, and there were hundreds of tiny crabs scooting all over the sand. It was nice, but it wasn’t paradise. We decided to leave when an (adorable) stray dog started following us along the beach. He was all but eating his own leg, and we were both a bit ridiculous with how nervous he made us! So we started the 3km walk back along the coast to Levuka. It was beautiful, and because it was late afternoon, the heat wasn’t too intense so we fully enjoyed it. About half way back, we were passing a little village when the locals called us over to join them. They were sitting on a rug under a tree drinking kava, and warmly welcomed us. It was a group of men, and usually women aren’t allowed to be involved in these kava drinking sessions, however because we were guests and had been invited in specifically, Helen was allowed to join in. We all shook hands and the kava bowl was passed around. Helen only had one bowl but John decided to have two. They asked us questions about where we were from, whether we were here to tie the knot, what our jobs in England were like, etc. and they were all so quiet when we were speaking, really listening to our answers. After about half an hour we thanked them for their kindness and shook their hands and left, but not after one of them asked if John was named after Elton! On the remainder of the walk back to Levuka, we decided that that was probably the best thing that has happened in Fiji by far, something that no money could have bought, and no beach would have topped.

The next day, since we weren’t going to Caqalai, we decided to book our tickets to get back to the main island for the day after, then just wander the town and relax by the pool. We didn’t get any photos of Beach Street, which is a huge shame as it looks like it’s been lifted straight off a set of an old western movie! But we did get one of Sacred Heart Church, which was absolutely gorgeous – so quaint and picturesque. Whilst John was lounging by the pool, Helen went back up to the room to grab a hat, and just after opening the door and stepping in, a huge mouse popped out from behind the door and ran out! Helen went, slowly, back outside to get John to come and assess the situation. As it turns out, Mickey had been in the top part of Helens backpack, as he’d left little round brown parcels in his wake.  Ugh. Luckily, the bag had been mostly shut,so no real damage was done, other than that sinking feeling you get when something which seems utterly perfect suddenly has a flaw.

At 4.30am the next day we headed out of the Royal Hotel and to the Patterson Brothers office to get our bus. The journey was no more comfortable this time round, but the ferry crossing was beautiful. We got to see the final parts of the sunrise across the Pacific. After a final stay at Raintree Lodge (which had practically become our home by this point!), we headed back to Nadi from Suva, on the same air-conditioned comfortable coach as we had gotten previously, and it was great to be comfortable and cool. This time however, the scenery didn’t seem so nice. For every 5 star resort and spa that we passed, with the gorgeously preened entrances blocked off to the public with huge white walls, next door there was the poorest of villages, people living out of corrugated iron shacks, held together by plastic bags and pieces of string, the roof held down with a few heavy rocks. Some have no water supply, most have no electricity, and nearly all have to house an entire family. It’s a sad state, and one that we both don’t ever want to exploit by visiting the resorts that glamorize Fiji as some country where everyone is happy and living a life of luxury. Nearly 40% of people here are living well below the poverty line, and it is something that is not hard to see. There is areal sense of community in Fiji, and people do their best to be polite and to help each other, but a lot of people here are struggling with everyday life,and have literally nothing. The heavy tropical rains that fall here may look beautiful to someone observing from a veranda overlooking a lake, but 20 metres down the road, you know that some family are lifting all of their possessions out of the flood of water which is seeping into their home as they have no windows, no front door, no protection.

We have really enjoyed our time here, and we’re thankful to say it has been enjoyed primarily because of the beauty of the people and of the country, and not because our money bought us a tailor-made holiday blinded from the truths which overshadow this exceedingly friendly, yet deeply saddened country.

Helen and John


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