Sunday, January 15, 2006

3 Seven days in Fiji - Suva

Suva is a “created” city, invented by the British to serve as the national capital. The British invented much in Fiji. In 1882 Suva became the capital, 8 years after Fiji became a British Colony. Before the city was built the area looked like this:

The driver took me directly to the Suva Motor Inn. There are lots of hotels in Suva and mine was known to be a place ex-pat engineers are put up with little fuss. Except for the tile floors and funky oscillating fan attached to the ceiling my room could have been a room at any Motel 6 in America’s southeast. I unpacked, took a short nap (Boston is 17 hours behind Fiji – so what time is my head telling me?) then headed to the bar/restaurant for some coffee. Almost every hotel in the world has a swimming pool and some of the crummiest have “workout” rooms with broken equipment but creating spectacular swimming pools seems to be a matter of pride in the Fiji hospitality industry. The view from the bar at the Suva Motor Inn looks like this:

I was on the fourth floor. The shoot only went up to the second and no I didn’t go down the shoot. In fact I never went in the pool. Here is another view stolen from their web site:

I did dip my big toe in the Pacific Ocean … once. At the end of the week I spent Friday night at a hotel in Nadi. It’s pool looked like this:

I’ll get back to Nadi later, right now I just got to Suva. The Suva Motor Inn is at the end of a very prestigious street, Gorrie Street. Prestigious in that the Fiji Red Cross and Fiji TV are all located on this relatively short, about 200 yards, mostly residential street. The end of Gorrie Street also marks the beginning of the nightly “red light” district. I didn’t know what when I took off on a mission of discovery.

The Suva Motor Inn is right next to a small police station but if you walk in the other direction you pass the Fiji Red Cross (which was having a large reception – I was tempted to crash the party but didn’t) and the headquarters of Fiji-TV. There are a few other mostly governmental buildings, a rundown hotel for tourists and some old rundown Fijian houses. At the end of the street, where the prostitutes congregate nightly, is one of the newer and more beautiful architectural sights in Suva. Suva is having a building boom, as is all of Fiji, and its often difficult to know what is going up or coming down.

To the right of this picture (point A in the map below) is a collection of small Fijian houses being demolished and to the left and down the street another 200 yards is the US embassy. From where I am standing to the entrance to the US embassy is the local nightly “combat zone.” Behind me at midday are government workers having lunch in the little park.

I love to walk. Where I live, in the far suburbs of Boston, there isn’t anywhere to walk to. The shortest “block” is about three miles. My first Saturday afternoon in Suva I walked for almost 4 hours … until I realized that I had very large blisters on both feet. I walked down Gorrie, turned left on Thurston St., passed the U.S. embassy and down to Victoria Parade, the main street in Suva. At this intersection I had a choice, turn right into the business district or left towards the Holiday Inn, the Botanical Gardens and the Presidential Palace. I went left on to Elizabeth Drive.

In case I haven’t made it clear the British influence is everywhere and pervasive. English is the official language. The English Monarch is still considered the head of state and is represented on their currency and the British taste in food has regrettably infected this charming place. There are no three star restaurants in Suva but I was never tempted to eat at the local McDonalds. I found two of them, one in Suva and the other in Nadi.

Suva is making a break from its colonial past. Many of the old structures are being torn down or are being recycled into what we might call “mini-malls” full of hundreds of little shops. At the center of colonial Suva is the old and still impressive “Government Building.” Today it mostly holds a museum and several courthouses. Right next to this old structure is Albert Park named after Price Albert, consort to Queen Victoria.

Figure 2 My neighborhood in Suva Fiji.

Albert Park is a wonderfully large open field. I can imagine parades of soldiers and horses marching up and down to impress the colonial governor, or bored colonial soldiers playing polo. Here is a postcard I found from the 1950’s of the police band marching up Victoria Parade, the old colonial buildings are in the background as is Albert Park.

As I walked by Albert Park that first day I watched parts of a soccer game in one corner and a cricket came in the other. A week later they were still in the middle of that game. I watched for an hour but couldn’t devise the rules.

Cricket as seen by an American: Every once in a while a fellow would come running up to the pitchers mound and throw a ball. The fellow at the plate might or might not take a whack at the ball with his long thin paddle that serves as a bat. It seemed that every time he did take a whack at the ball he hit it but he rarely ever ran. This went on at a very slow pace seemingly forever until something happened and everyone went running around in some sort of organized melee. Over an hours time this happened twice but I never did figure out why or what happened to trigger the frenzy. Apparently the same game was still going on the following Thursday when I again stopped to watch. Cricket matches can run for weeks or even months.

I walked down Elizabeth Drive for about a mile, passed the Presidential Palace. Elizabeth Drive follows the coastline around the tip of Suva peninsula. Once you pass the old defunct Grand Pacific Hotel, Lawn Bowling Association and several soccer fields, the road runs along the seawall. In New England where we have tides that may be as high as ten or more feet we have seawalls that, in some places, are as high as 30 feet or more. In Fiji, where the tide is only a foot or so, the seawalls are no higher than three feet. Lots of people live within a few feet above sea level in Fiji. I love the ocean but there are two things that frighten me: Hurricanes (called cyclones in Fiji) and Tsunamis.

I walked along the seawall on Elizabeth Drive. On my left, as I walked out of town was the Presidential Palace

and a row of beautiful old shade trees. I don’t know the species. Yes, in the background that is a hedgerow of flowering Hibiscuses

Here is the same area in 1954; the local army salutes the Queen when she arrived on her world tour.

Figure 3 Leaving the dais set up in Albert Park, the Queen closely followed by Ratu Sukuna, Fiji's most eminent indigenous leader at that time.

Elizabeth Drive is on the left, the seawall on the right:

Three days later and unknown to all an earthquake struck just north of the island and triggered a Tsunami warning. The AP report reads:

Undersea Quake Strikes Near Fiji
SUVA, Fiji, Dec. 13, 2005
(AP) A powerful undersea earthquake struck near Fiji on Tuesday, geologists said, and officials issued a tsunami alert for the local area. No damage or injuries have been reported. The quake, with a preliminary magnitude of 6.3, occurred at 3:16 p.m. about 155 miles northeast of Vanua Levu, the main tourist spot in Fiji's chain of islands, at a depth of 18 miles, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Fiji, a chain of 322 islands, is southwest of Hawaii and due north of New Zealand, between Australia to the west and Tahiti to the east. The Hawaii-based Pacific Tsunami Warning Center issued a bulletin that said there was no Pacific-wide threat of a destructive tsunami, but that quakes of the size measured Tuesday could cause damaging local tsunamis. Nilesh Kumar, technical officer at Fiji's Mineral Resources Department, said there had been no reports of any tsunami and no reports from anywhere in Fiji of shakes being felt. Kumar said the department is maintaining a watch and is in communication with the warning center in Hawaii. The U.S. Geological Survey initially reported a second quake nearby, much deeper and with a magnitude of 6.8. But the survey removed the second quake from its Web site soon after details were posted. The survey says that when a large earthquake occurs it is common for seismological equipment in the area to incorrectly record multiple temblors, and that such glitches are quickly corrected on its Web site.

The Fiji authorities claim to have a good tsunami warning system in place but not a soul knew about it. In fact I didn’t learn about it until I attempted to learn if the great tsunami of 2004 affected Fiji. It didn’t. If the tsunami had materialized this beautiful view would have been ruined.

The tsunami didn’t happen. I had blisters on my feet so I turned around and walked back towards town. On the way I tried to explore the Grand Pacific Hotel but was shooed away by a security guard. The old hulk looked like it had a fire. In its heyday it must have been magnificent. Today it just obstructs a beautiful view.

Figure 4 The Grand Pacific Hotel in 1920.

I took this picture looking past the old hulk from the other side of the building (B on the map). Until the opening of the Mocambo at Nadi and the Korolevu Beach Hotel in the 1950s, it was the only truly international - standard hotel in Fiji. In its time it was mentioned in the same breath as Singapore's famous Raffles Hotel.

The growing blisters on my feet colored my journey downtown but on a Saturday afternoon Suva is a bustling colorful city. There is a mall in downtown Suva where the escalators run up on the left and down on the right. It never dawned on me that escalators follow the same patterns that we use to drive cars. The mall is the only place where one finds purely western style shops. Most of the rest of Suva is filled with tiny shops selling clothing, shoes, CD’s, cheap electronics and food. It’s clear that the Indian population (more about that later) controls the local commerce. Indians own most of the stores.

There is a slightly seedy flavor about Suva that I love. It hasn’t been sanitized the way most of America has. There is a sameness in the United States that makes Small City, Iowa look the same as Small City, New Jersey. Suva is different. Along Victoria Parade there are dozens of small shops, bars, restaurants and other shops, each with a crier chilling the wares to be found inside. If you allow yourself to be ushered inside one of these stores you will be treated to a unique experience: one-on-one salesmanship with someone who actually knows the merchandise and is willing and eager to make a deal. Have you ever tried to find any salesmen in a “Big Box” store in the US?

I walked and walked until I found myself walking on the edges of my feet because the blisters prevented me from putting pressure on the ball of my feet. On my way back to the hotel I emptied my throw-a-way camera. Here is a small sample of the flavor of Suva Fiji:

Figure 5 This was taken from Location C on the map.

There are holdovers from the colonial period. They are charmed dinosaurs in a town rapidly forming its own, new, identity. First the old Melbourne Hotel in colonial days:

And now:

The first floor of this establishment has thousands of different cell phones, digital cameras and mp3 players from brands I’ve heard of and lots that I haven’t. The top floor is one huge bar, the kind you would expect fights to break out in. On the way back out of town there was another colonial era building that housed a Chinese Restaurant and the South Pacific office of Greenpeace.

I stopped for dinner at the only Japanese restaurant I could find. It turned out to be a Samurai steakhouse. The food wasn’t bad (it wasn’t great either). I had Wasabi steak and some raw tuna, but the price was spectacular, $25 Fiji dollars for a good dinner and sake, about $15 US. My cook tried throwing his knife in the air like his counterpart all over the world but failed miserably almost skewering himself in the process. Then he tried juggling the industrial size salt and pepper shakers but dropped them. I was still amused. By the time I was done it was dark out.

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