Where the Kids Roam

This is a story from our archives. It’s part two in a series recounting our 14-month trip around the world. If you haven’t read part one, go there now. Or don’t. It doesn’t really matter. No one reads this anyhow.

One quick note, however. We absolutely LIVE for traveling. And we LOVE experiencing new cultures and meeting new, interesting people. We have the utmost respect for others and understand the fortune bestowed on us for being born at the right place, at the right time.

Having said that, I’m cynical (my now wife, less so) and I don’t sugarcoat things. If we felt harassed, cheated, or otherwise wronged in a country – those times stick with us (and make for better stories). And those experiences often overshadow our good experiences. And then we shit talk whole countries just because of a few bad moments with a few bad apples. 

And who really cares? Well, it turns out a lot of people do. I’m pretty patriotic, but I don’t give two shits if someone dislikes the USA because of, well…anything. I don’t know what their USA experience was. I don’t know what their opinion is based off of. And, by the way, it’s just that, an opinion. And anyone is entitled to that. 

But people from smaller, less-wealthy (but by no means less great) nations may think I’m bullying their nation – a nation they take great pride in. I’m not. I love all nations and all people. But shitting on certain countries based on some crazy experiences I had just makes for a funnier, realer read in my opinion. And, remember, that’s just my opinion. Try not to take offense. Cheers. 

Fiji…what can we say about Fiji? Not much, or at least not much that’s favorable, but here goes.  First, we took a 10-hour flight into Nadi (pronounced ‘Nandi,’ where the extra ‘n’ came from we’ll never know, still, we both mostly pronounced it the wrong way).  Nandi is Fiji’s third largest city located on the island of Viti Levu (‘Big Island’).  Upon arrival we were greeted by a boy/girl (still not sure what these transgender people – or boys who are raised as girls – are called in Fiji, but for more information about other islands’ Fa’afafines read this). We wanted to see new, different things, and he were were being greeted by someone who was very different to us. Check. Well, hold on. We were from San Francisco…I take that back. 

While cruising the airport waiting for our bus to Suva, a man who worked at the airport approached me and offered for us to stay at his family’s house where kava would ceremoniously be served.  We could have quickly placed another check mark by things to see/do while in Fiji but the offer seemed slightly too sketchy to accept. 

Finally, our scheduled bus arrived at the airport and we took the supposed two-hour-which-turned-into-five-hour journey to Suva.  Suva could only be described as a dirty, rainy, miserable little city that managed to make ‘paradise’ look like Detroit.  We hailed a taxi from an Indian man (More properly an Indo-Fijian man; Indo-Fijians actually make up about 38% of the population on Fiji).  With his incessant coughing, we soon realized that our streak of healthy days on the trip was most likely to end at one.  His car could be better described as a hunk of rusted metal which made at least a dozen sounds, one of which we’re sure was produced from driving on the rims of his wheels.  

The driver began what would become a habit of all taxi drivers in Fiji, pulling into a gas station to get a few liters of gas, providing the perfect soapbox on which to complain of the high gas prices.  These episodes took place regardless of whether the driver actually needed any gas.  Don’t get us wrong, the prices were high (it is an island and all) and we later verified via a news broadcast that what these drivers said was true: their rates hadn’t been raised in nine years.  

Still, it left us wondering whether there was a pact amongst all taxi drivers to take foreigners to gas stations to preach about the gas prices and taxi rates.  After our stopover at the petrol station, our driver took us to our pre-booked accommodation, the Raintree Lodge.  This is one of the few accommodations we pre-booked, since the travel guides stated that it often filled up.  I don’t know where they got their data, but it was probably about 10% full and other travelers told us it was usually empty.  We stayed at this near-empty hotel, located up in the hills surrounding Suva, for the few days before our departure to our dive resort on Vanua Levu (‘Little Island’), near the island of Taveuni.  Here is a picture of our room’s view:  

The lake outside is actually connected to a larger lake that is about 150 feet in depth!

We were dying to shower after such a long journey, so we requested towels from the front desk.  We were told at that time (noon) that our towels would be ready shortly, as they were drying.   I was also told this at 12:30, 2:15, 4:30 and 5:25.  Notably the towel (singular) came to our room at 5:45 when we were leaving our room to eat dinner out of mere boredom.  Can we just say now that this was probably our best experience of obtaining a towel in Fiji!!  Yes, it got worse.  Yes, we will be bringing a towel with us on our next leg of the trip. 

At the restaurant, we met a pretty cool Fijian bartender who gave us both free drinks.  Let us mention that this is something of an anomaly since alcohol is so expensive there (750ml of Grey Goose= $80USD).  The drinks both had approximately 10% alcohol and 90% orange juice in them.  Supposedly, Fijians lack some enzyme to process the alcohol properly (apparently the same as Native Americans and Aborigines).  The only proof I can offer of this is the testimony of white employers and the fact that the bartender called the drinks ‘strong’ while pantomiming drunkenness.  

Notably, the bartender also had a cool story about his mother free-diving and getting her thumb bit off by an eel.  She was fine, she fought it off with a spear and besides, he told us, it was a long time ago, when she was five.  Ah, the people and places may change, but the stories never do. 

Having spent all of our time in Fiji so far, either at our hotel or on the seedy roads of Suva, we traveled a whopping two minutes by foot from our hotel to our first main attraction, the Colo-i-Suva Forest Reserve.  Walking up to the front gate of the Reserve a man noticed us from 100 yards away, yelled something at us, limped across the road, and with a gait reminiscent of a drunken pirate approached us and requested an entrance fee.  Park ranger, entrepreneurial neighbor or what-have-you, we forked over his fee and heeded his advice not to set our bag down or else be relieved of said bag.  We took his advice seriously since he most likely had some form of first-hand knowledge, not as the victim but, you know….

The reserve had some beautiful rivers, pools, waterfalls, and a giant rope-swing. 

Unfortunately, it was also very slippery and had huge 13-inch centipedes.  

Overall it was seriously fun and amazing that we had the Reserve to ourselves. 

On our fourth day, we were finally able to leave Suva and make our way up to Taveuni where we had diving lessons planned.  We booked our passage by way of a shipping ferry operated jointly by Suilven shipping and Bligh shipping (named after the body of water that separates Viti Levu and Vanua Levu, which in turn is named after Captain Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame) that left every other day from Suva at 6p.m. and arrived in Taveuni at 10a.m. the next day.  

Let it be noted that Fijians are Melanesian people who have been sailing the waters around Fiji since settling there around 500 B.C.  Please let the record show that vomit, Fijian vomit, was everywhere on the ferry when it ran into some rough waves.  Let’s just say it was a long ride. 

We disembarked the ferry and were met by an Englishman named Danny.  We were then provided a five-minute boat ride to our dive resort that cost roughly $24USD per person one-way.  This is expensive even for San Francisco standards. 

Upon reaching our dive resort we were greeted by another fa’afafine, a bald Swiss man with a pony-tail (hard to imagine but just try) and a German woman who greeted us not with a hello but with a “don’t touch that dog he bites.” We were off to a great start I could tell.  Even better was when we were shown our accommodation, which we knew full well was going to be a tent, but you never really prepare yourself for such things.  

We were provided with one towel (Yah! Even though it was one of those stay-dry towels that feels like wiping a moldy sponge from 1982 across your body) so that we could take our cold (“refreshing” as the resorts in Fiji called it) shower. 

So….we were ready to dive.  Unfortunately, because of weather conditions we were unable to actually go in the water.  Alas, we were relegated to reading the diving book, taking quizzes and completing the tests, exactly what we wanted to avoid with our post-law school trip. 

Luckily, we were in paradise so we were able to hike around to get pictures.  But, as usual, paradise is filled with giant spiders that weave huge orange spider webs like this.  So, hiking anywhere meant running the gauntlet underneath these enormous webs.  

Sleeping was also quite hazardous.  The first day in our “luxury” tent accommodation, I had to dispose of a small, red centipede that was on our pillow.  The second night I awoke to a centipede crawling on my arm.  It’s a great feeling.  The next night, Cait awoke to a centipede crawling up her thigh.  Again, awesome feeling.  Good thing our battery powered lanterns actually had enough juice (on those nights, only on those nights) to turn them on and search the bed after those episodes.  

Even so, you don’t exactly get a sound night’s sleep after a wake-up like that.  Speaking of sleeping great, later that night we were awoken several times by what sounded like something rustling through our bags.  Each time I turned on the lantern and tried to find out was making all the noise.  The third or fourth time this was repeated, I finally found a crab the size of a coconut.  This discovery led to quite a stand-off between me and the crab.  After a couple stare-downs and several prances in every direction (I’m not saying by whom), I finally succeeded in getting the crab out of our tent.  Also, have we mentioned the mosquitoes yet (called ‘mozzies’ in the South Pacific)?  Yeah, they’re everywhere! 

With plenty of downtime (having contests for how many flies we could each kill as a highlight) we partook in a lot of Fijian beer such as Fiji Gold and Fiji Bitter.  Both were delicious.  Also, we staged crab races and held our own kava ceremony which required coconut half shells.  Danny assumed the
 task of climbing a palm to knock some of the coconuts down.  

His efforts eventually yielded a couple.  I decided to test out my arm and threw some fallen coconuts up into the tall palms.  My efforts yielded four.  Go figure.

On to our kava experience. Kava is known to be a disgusting drink that looks like muddy water and tastes roughly the same.  It is also said to be something of a full-body muscle relaxant.  Well, it does taste like muddy water, and it does numb your tongue and mouth for a minute or two, but other than that it does absolutely nothing as far as we can tell.  And consuming more than a few shells just gave us stomachaches.  Maybe we haven’t tried any of the real potent stuff. 

After a couple of days waiting, we were finally ready to get out into the water and test out the diving equipment of third-world countries.  First we did a few days of underwater training and then we had a chance to go on a couple of free dives.   Let’s just say that diving was a-m-a-z-i-n-g!!!  It’s what we imagined it would be like if you were to place yourself inside of a giant aquarium.  On our dives we saw masses of coral varieties and an array of creatures such as a moray eel, a couple of reef sharks, and a stingray

Having completed our diving certification, we went back on the ferry to Suva, where we immediately boarded a bus back to Nadi.  We planned on taking a boat out to the Yasawa island group, where Castaway with Tom Hanks was filmed, as well as Blue Lagoon with Brooke Shields.  True paradise.  However, we both decided that we were over being on a desolate island, alone in our room (or tent) by 8p.m.  We wanted to see people and have a good time.  Thus, we chose Beachcomber Island Resort, famous the world over as a party island.  Mistake.  Wouldn’t have been if we were 19 years old…but…surprise, we’re not!  Here’s the rundown in the form of a top ten list of worst things about Beachcomber: 

10) It was expensive.  Internet was 50 cents a minute on what amounted to a dial-up connection.  Proper rooms (bures) were about 100FJD more than dorm rooms.  This poor man’s Hawaii put us way over budget. 

9) The resort’s meals were inclusive.  That meant that we couldn’t exactly choose.  Well, strike that, we could choose – either eat buffet food or not eat at all.  For more on this see #1, below. 

8) The island was small and devoid of any real activities.  Yeah, I guess we can’t complain since there was endless alcohol and sandy white beaches, but you could walk around the island in under five minutes and the alcohol was expensive (see #10).  So this meant drinking a lot.  Seriously, we finished a bottle of rum before lunch one day.  The good thing is that we didn’t remember how bad lunch was. In fact, we don’t even remember lunch.  Other than that you could parasail and snorkel.  Whatever. That’s why this is only #8. 

7) It was like being at an 18-and-over club back home.  Honestly, everyone was around 18-19 years old and perfectly separated into clicks consisting of their fellow countrymen/women.  Remember how cool beer was to everyone back then?  We were reminded frequently.  On a side note, the only other Americans there were honeymooners from Santa Rosa, and they thought the island was awesome.   The new bride was constantly taking shots with random guys at the bar while her new husband was nowhere to be found.  Apparently beachcomber is the ideal honeymoon spot.

6) Dorm rooms!! These are fairly tolerable when they consist of 4-6 people.  Not when it is 120+ people in one room. No joke.

5) Bula!!!  Ok fine, this complaint isn’t just reserved for beachcomber but for Fiji in general.  Bula means hello and goodbye.  This is ok, because we love a similar word, Aloha, in the Hawaiian language.  Unfortunately, Bula is also used for I love you, I hate you, I’m drunk, come here, I didn’t mean to hit you, etc. And it’s incorporated in maybe eight of the top 10 Fijian company names (i.e. Bula News, Bula Radio, Bula Insurance, blah, blah, blah), etc. You get the picture.  I refused to say it the last week we were there.  If that makes me a bad person, so be it. 

4) The bar scene.  Maybe this could be under #8, but let me explain.  Every night there was a band (good), an MC (okay), and several stupid games/events (inexplicably stupid).  Let’s just say that a three-hour buildup to a silly crab race that served as the main event is not what I call a perfect, or even an acceptable, night.

3) The beachcomber website and accompanying literature praising the resort.  Seriously, it’s what made us book three nights in advance.  It’s rare that we ever want to leave a place early but you should have seen our faces when we realized we had our dates wrong and had an extra night to stay.

2) Not enough alcohol.  Ignore what I said in #8 about there being an endless amount of alcohol.  Simply put, there was not enough to make us ignore the people around us long enough to have a good time. 

1) The stuff they called food!!! Three buffets a day = not ok.  We had a similar bad experience with a buffet on the cruise we took in the Caribbean.  On the cruise, we figured we were in the minority of those aboard since they were your so-called “typical Americans.”  But we were wrong!  People from around the world adore buffets.  We’re guessing that it’s the endless supply of cold French fries, stale bread, fatty beef, and assorted high-caloric accoutrements.  People ate everything, perhaps in preparation for hibernation, which I can believe if you’re heading back to jolly ol’ freezing England. 

Finally, the time came for us to leave beachcomber.  Off to beautiful Robinson Crusoe Island (go to this link if you want to see why I NEVER trust reviews).  Let’s preface this part of the blog with the fact that we actually preferred the Beachcomber Resort.  Skip ahead if you want to avoid another strong dose of cynicism.

Our journey started out just fine.  We had a driver that gave us a free ride to the boat that would take us to the island.  The driver even stopped for us to visit an ATM (cash-only island) as well as at a liquor store (owned by his family) to pick up beer for the ride.  The liquor was enough to ignore the fact that the driver took this opportunity to run several of his errands.  This turned a 30 minute drive into an hour and a half.  

We did have company on our ride however.  Three New Zealanders (Kiwis) that stayed with us at Beachcomber made the same mistake in booking the large tour package.  Importantly, one of them was a guy named Andrew that we personally watched hit on about a dozen girls at Beachcomber.  In fact, one of them was Cait when she was left alone for almost a full minute!  He was pretty embarrassed about that, but his later admission to us that his dream was to marry a lawyer from California made us (yes, both of us, since he didn’t specify man or woman) the ones that felt a little uncomfortable.  I kept my eye on him, not in that way, but…Several beers deep, we boarded the boat and took the short trip through mangroves to the island. 

Our welcome came with a kava ceremony and an introduction to our room.  Only one of which we somewhat enjoyed.  Don’t let the website fool you, the single bure is smaller than a gas station restroom and half as clean. Only through copious amounts of flirting did I get us a cheap upgrade to a larger bure. 

Let’s talk about showers.  First, they were cold…sorry, I mean ‘refreshing.’  These refreshing showers came with a guilt-inducing sign explaining to us why we were to enjoy the showers, since the locals did not have fresh water to take showers.  The shower also came with a list of instructions: 1) Fill up bucket with cool fresh water; 2) Hoist bucket into air; 3) Turn on faucet attached to bucket; 4) Enjoy.  Cait added #5) No way in hell.

Besides, even if she showered we didn’t have a towel because our request for one at the beginning of our stay went unanswered for the entire duration of our stay.  Even when we tried to buy one, they informed us they were out.

On to the positive, but only for a short while. Our first night’s dinner came with a great show that involved a traditional dance as well as fire festivities.  

This went a long way in helping us forget how bad the meal was (inclusive at this resort as well).  Side note about the food: Fijians love bread.  There, we said it.  Sweeping generalization as it is, they love it.  Our empirical proof is that they set out an amount equivalent to a loaf per person of toasted white bread at breakfast, and the same amount of non-toasted white bread at dinner.  

If we were Jerry Seinfeld we’d start with our routine about Fiji with (spoken with the same inflection you would assume he’d use) “What’s the deal with the bread?! I mean, does the entire island have some bet as to how much bread they can force down the throats of foreigners desperate for anything that resembles food?” (Another diatribe regarding the showers could fill up the next five minutes).  

Second side note: we saw our first chef in Fiji!  It was a lady manning a large grill that was only used to toast no less than 30 pieces of bread at one time.  She was very hard working, and rightfully so, since it took a lot to keep up with our ever-growing carb addiction.

In terms of activities, I got an inexpensive massage one afternoon on the island.  The masseuse continually stopped to point out what people around her were doing.  For example, she reported big news like, “look, they’re moving a water container.”  I was a little confused though when the masseuse told me she needed a break.  After lying on the table for the next 10 minutes awaiting her return, I realized her break meant she was finished.  Needless to say, Cait canceled her scheduled massage. 

Ok, so this next part a lot of people have already heard about…the fire walking.  Here’s the rundown.  There were a lot of day trippers at the island that day, so the island decided to put on its very best face and do a little show.  First, the Fijian staff prepared a traditional hangi, where food is wrapped and cooked in the ground by hot rocks.  Second, the staff told some stories about tradition, wove some baskets, etc.  Finally, the staff took the food out and uncovered the hot rocks.  To prove how hot they were they poured a small amount of water on the rocks which immediately produced steam.  A group of Fijians then came out and took about five steps (in a marching-in-place sort of manner) on the hot rocks. 

After the men were done they asked for any volunteers.  Not one to shy away, I spoke up.  The head islander asked me to come forward and stand next to him just beside the rocks.  The islander then seemed perturbed that I volunteered and just muttered to me, without making eye contact and staring out into the distance, to “test out the rocks” to feel how hot they were.  I barely touched them with my right foot and found that they were much hotter than he expected.  The islander then kept muttering and told me he could do it if he wanted to.  

Not going to back down in front of a hoard of day trippers whispering “He’s not going to do it”, I stepped onto the rocks and took about four steps.  When I jumped off of the rocks to the sound of applause (by the way, this was loooooong before people videoed EVERYTHING. I know some tourists have a tape of this, but, sadly, I don’t). The islander seemed pissed off and told me to go soak my feet in the ocean.  So, I walked down to the beach and stuck my feet into the cool-ish saltwater.  While doing so, another islander on a boat looked at me and just said, “Hot rocks?”  This made me feel better thinking that this was a common occurrence.  So, I left the water after about 20 seconds of soaking them. 

Lunch was next, and I stood in the buffet line without mentioning how unbearable the pain was.  Lunch turned out to be the best that the island had to offer (that ‘best-face-for-the-day-tourists’ thing in action) so we both ate it and actually enjoyed it.  Well, Cait enjoyed it; I was in too much pain.  I finally mumbled something about my feet still being “on fire” so after lunch we booked it back to our room to soak my feet in a bucket.  

After a pain pill and a stiff rum drink, the pain was still too unbearable.  So, about an hour after I walked on the rocks, we went over to the front desk to finally get ice water.  The owners were ridiculously rude and told us that nobody had actually volunteered before. Then they made a few comments about “stupid Americans.”  Later on, we learned that the ever-barefoot Fijians even prepped for the hot-rock walking by soaking their feet in ice cold water for a half hour before they perform.  A heads-up about this preparation would have been nice.  I had blisters the circumference of American quarters covering the bottom of my feet for the next five weeks.  Lesson learned!

The Recap

Countries visited so far –  1/33

Top 10 favorite countries on this trip: 

1. Fiji (by default)

Part 3: New Zealand