In Fiji at last
Landing in Nadi, Fiji was disappointment. It was normal but as soon as I walked across the threshold of the aircraft door and into the sunshine and warm tropical air I knew I was in a different place. That was my first impression of Fiji and when I turned around to look at the enormous aircraft I had just exited from I caught my first glimpse of the Nadi Mountains. They are rugged, sharp and distinct from any I have seen in North America.
Fiji is part of the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire,” a large collection of current and extinct volcanoes. Think of Fiji as Hawaii’s southern brother. Fiji is a continental island that rests on its own plate. The oldest rocks in Fiji are about 40,000,000 years old. The island nation is made up of some 300 islands (at high tide) scattered over a small corner of the South Pacific. The higher islands are mostly made of basalt while the smaller atolls of reef formed limestone. The basalt, unlike the granite of New England, is relatively soft and porous. Weathering by wind and rain has given them a sharper, more vertical edge than the more rounded slopes we are used to in the north east coast of North America. Most of the islands of the south Pacific have this same geological look and feel. Tahiti, for example has a similar geological structure.
The island of Viti Levu, the main island in Fiji, is surprisingly large, about 100 miles (160 km) in diameter at its widest spot. To get to Suva, where I was going on business was 200 km (125 miles) by car but the company I was working for had made arrangements for me to fly to the airport nearest Suva at Nausori. The airport at Nadi is like every other international airport in the world. People speak English, the signs are in English and the Duty Free shops has the same overpriced merchandise found in any Duty Free shop anywhere in the world. The Nadi airport is not Fiji.
I had a window seat for the uneventful flight from Nadi to Nausori. From my seat I could see the tall ridges and valleys, roads and farmland, villages and dense jungle. The interior of the island is very thinly populated. The few roads I could see from my window were obviously dirt tracts leading along the valley bottom to small hamlets generally near a lake or on a river. As we descended into the Nausori airport we followed the Waimanu river as it grew from a relatively small stream to a large river navigable by fishing boats. The first thing that stuck me after landing at Nausori was how small the airport was and how quickly I could find a cab. My next surprise (and it should not have been a surprise) was that the Fijians drive on the wrong, that is British, side of the street.
The first five miles of my cab ride to Suva were more “white knuckle” than any part of the plane ride as we swerved around the traffic circles in the wrong direction. Because the major bridge over the river was being rebuilt we had to detour several miles around and through the construction. Like all construction projects there were a lot of workers supervising and a very few actually working. I mentioned this to my driver who remarked that this happened everywhere not just in Fiji. He was right of course but the number of laborers was astonishing. In a country like Fiji where the average income per capita is something like $3500 U.S. Dollars it’s cheaper to hire more laborers than it is to hire heavy machinery.
Fiji is very clean. I’m not sure why that surprised me but it is a lot cleaner than most cities in the US. I can walk down any street in America and find trash on the ground every few feet, you can walk down any street in Fiji and you won’t. It is enough of a difference to be startling. Then there is the smell. Fiji has a unique smell. It’s the combined smell of burning palm fronds and hardwood. Many people in Fiji don’t cook on stoves but rather on a small “hibachi” outdoors. This is true even if they have electricity and surprisingly it is also true inside Suva itself. There is the light scent of burning wood, slightly acrid but not unpleasant that hangs over the entire island.
As we drove into Suva we passed what my driver called “worker housing” or what we would call a housing project. This project had one-room apartments with cinderblock walls, tile floors, electricity and nothing else. Facilities with water, including a row of outhouses with flush toilets, were in a separate cluster away from the main cluster of buildings. There is no hot water here only cold. Hot water is what you make over a little electric stove inside your apartment or on a “hibachi” in the courtyard below. The good news is that it rarely gets above 85 degrees or below 72 degrees Fahrenheit so you don’t really need an air conditioner or any kind of heating. From this point of view Fiji is paradise. I’m not sure if there aren’t mosquitoes in Fiji or if there is an aggressive spraying program but I got bit only once and that was in Nadi not Suva.