Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Be Careful What You Ask For


The last two days have been a first for both Lisa and myself; it was the very first time that we visited the Republic of Fiji. I had no idea that Fiji was comprised of over 330 islands stretching across the South Pacific. For almost 100 years it was a British colony, however, it gained independence in 1970. During its colonial past, the British imported large numbers of indentured servants, mostly Eastern Indians, in order to work the sugar plantations. Today, the island’s population is composed largely of two groups, the indigenous Fijians who comprise about 58% of the population, most of whom are Christian – while the remaining Indian/Hindu population comprises the balance.

Our first port of call to this idyllic faraway nation, was to a little known island know as Yasawa-i-Rara. Once again, the shore excursions staff on board Crystal, provided virtually no meaningful information as to what we could expect, or what we should be prepared to find. The day before our arrival, we located a small pamphlet that had been left on the shore excursion counter which contained a map showing that the island was some 13 miles long, and on this map was clearly depicted roadways and an airport. However, the map did say that taxis “were not available, nor would shuttle service be available or necessary.” The brochure spoke of an exclusive luxury resort discreetly hidden among the palm trees, and the map indicated that we would be tendering ashore to that location. That evening the daily newsletter was left in our room as is the usual custom. Here is what was quoted therein “No shuttle will be necessary in Yasawa-I-Rara. Taxis however will be available on the pier though and they will be metered.” Trying to put all this together at breakfast, the four of us decided that we would attempt to be among the first to depart from the ship in order to see if we could grab a taxi and tour the island to the extent that it was possible.

We were fortunate indeed in making the first tender to go ashore, and I will tell you that we were met with an unspoiled sandy beach of extraordinary beauty. The beach was the stuff of picture postcards, completely isolated, with pretty palms, powdery white sand, and crystal clear warm water. We would have been well served to have brought the snorkel gear we were never told about; however we were focused instead on finding a taxi.

All four of us went searching in different directions looking for the elusive taxi, only to fail. Somewhat in desperation, I ran up to the Fijian Policewoman, and asked if she could please help us in finding a taxi. She broke out into such a large and raucous laugh, that I thought she was literally going to fall over. She kept looking at me and saying over and over “so you want a taxi?” Smiling as broadly as she could, she gave Lisa and me hugs, and told us to stand right where we were and that she would be back with a taxi. We gathered Bill and Jayne, and patiently waited on the beach wondering from what direction our driver would arrive. Well, we didn’t have to wait long, until a small fiberglass boat with a 50 horsepower outboard engine came puttering around the corner of the rocks, and started backing up to where we were standing. Our police officer/friend arrived, and commenced on our behalf, negotiations about our fare for the water taxi. The whole scene became rather comical, because we were actively negotiating a fare for something, in truth we didn’t have any idea what we were negotiating for. Eventually, the driver agreed to accept $35 per person, only on the condition that we could find two more people to ride with us. We ran around and quickly corralled two other gentlemen who were willing to join the adventure. With the deal now sealed, we had to board our little boat.

At this point, common sense was telling me to walk away from this as fast as I could. First off, I had gotten off the ship without so much as one drop of sunscreen assuming that I would be getting in a taxi and driving around for an hour or so and returning to the ship. The policewoman told us that it was only a 35 minute ride to where we were going, and somehow I assumed that I could stand 35 minutes in this sunlight without a problem. Then there was the little issue of how we were dressed; I had on shorts, socks, and walking shoes, as did pretty much everyone else in our party. Again, had I realized what we were going to be getting into, I would’ve come ashore with flip-flops and a swimsuit, and a cover-up. The exuberance of the moment overtook all of our sound judgment, as we walked out into the water in our good shoes, and climbed into the little boat for a short 35 minute ride.

Short drive my foot! We literally flew across the water at top speed for almost an hour traveling I would guess a full 13 miles down the length of the island. Fortunately for me, I was able to borrow a towel from my friend Jayne, and cover up, but everyone else in our party pretty much had to suffer the unrelenting rays of the tropical sun. The water temperature was 90°, and the outside temperature was easily around 95° or higher. The sun and the temperature however were only part of the problem. Our little boat was hitting the wave tops so hard that at times it threatened to compress our spines, and at times, to literally throw us overboard. Today, Lisa and I are both sore from having held on so hard during the ride. In the end, our driver had taken us around the island to the location at which the movie The Blue Lagoon had been filmed. Located at this spot, is an amazing cave-within-a-cave, which is a geological rarity that should be seen. Having finally arrived at this idyllic paradise, we were confronted with something for which we were totally unprepared. Once again we had to walk out of our boat in our good shoes over very slippery moss covered coral to access a small sandy beach. From here, we were to walk up a narrow and steep flight of stairs that I understand went down the other side and into a large cave. There we were to jump in the shimmering blue water, hold our breath, and emerge later into the hidden and much larger cave within. Not one of us was dressed for such an adventure, and so this entire outing became almost laughable if not outright idiotic. Now the two gentlemen who joined our tour must have had some idea what was coming because they were dressed for swimming, and they did disappear into the cave for almost an hour while we politely waited in the burning sun for their eventual return.

If I thought the ride out was difficult, the ride back was even worse. By this point the effects of the sun’s rays were beginning to be felt, and the water had become choppier making the ride home even more violent.

Arriving back at the pier, we immediately sought out the policewoman who had found us our taxi, and you could not help but laugh at what it happened. She was so jovial and so friendly that we all immediately adopted her and encouraged her to come back on the ship to have lunch. Her name was Elena McGowan, and on the tender ride to the ship, she showed us pictures of her family and friends from her phone. She lived on the nearby island that we would be visiting the next day, but was required to spend the entire day standing on the beach in the hot sun as long as our ship was at anchor in order to provide for our safety and security. After we departed at 6 PM, she would take a water taxi over to the resort which was several miles away, and from there she would make her way back to the larger island.

That evening our cruise was a very slow peaceful transition to the nearby island of Viti Levu. Our ship docked the next morning at the city of Lautoka, which is the second largest city on the island. The largest city, Suva, is the capital of the Republic of Fiji. This island is quite large, and we learned that the drive all the way around the island would take approximately 18 hours. The only good roads that exist on the island run around its perimeter. Today we had a nice van with a good driver and also a competent English-speaking guide.

Our first stop was to visit a traditional Fijian village. This really was quite interesting because the word “village” conjures up the idea that these people are living in thatched roof huts, but that is far from the case. They have traditional homes, with electricity, and very beautiful landscaped grounds. In the center of a very large compound is the home of the chief, and it is impressive indeed. The next largest building in the center of the compound is the Methodist Church. While other religious denominations do exist on the island, none of them are allowed to build their churches inside a traditional Fijian village. It was the Methodists missionaries who first came to these islands and converted the people to the ways of Christianity. Also inside the family compound, you will find the burial sites for the previous village chiefs. Other members of the tribal community had to be buried outside of the compound.

We told our driver that all of us were interested in botanical gardens, so for our first stop we visited an area where the gardens were founded by Raymond Burr to house his vast orchid collection. Since we enjoyed this so much our guide took us to a less visited and less touristy orchard farm, and I’m afraid that most of the photographs we took of our day turned out to be pictures of flowers.

After having driven almost 2 hours into the countryside, on our return we passed the island’s only airport, something about which they are justifiably proud, and we turned off the main road to visit a local village, stopping long enough for Bill and I to stroll the farmers’ market.

In my mind, Fiji offered some of the most unspoiled and beautiful island scenery ever encountered. But upon our return, all of us ask each other one question – would you come back again? The answer in this case is sadly “no,” and that is primarily because while the island is idyllic and peaceful, it simply does not have a tourist infrastructure. There is very little to see and do, and the one really good resort is out on an exclusive island, so that once you are there, you are pretty much trapped.

Today we are enjoying a day at sea, however we will visit three new places over the next three days, before having a two day break, ending with our arrival into Sydney Australia.

Lisa and I hope that everyone is doing well, and that you are enjoying traveling along with us.


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