23: What’s on the Menu in Fiji?
My usual forward planning left me wondering what to do with my time on the island of cannibals whilst I lay by the pool of the Nadi Bay Hotel acquiring the taste for Kava. Kava is the national drink as close to the Fijian heart as Ouzzo to the Greeks, Raki to the Turks or Vodka to the Russians.
Whilst considered to be a mild narcotic (illegal in Germany), you could easily mistake the distinct earthy taste for that of the very last bucket of the foulest borehole water, with a chalky twist. And for the first hour or two, has about as much effect. Until… simple games like coinage or ‘Celebrity Head’ start to seem as much in your grasp as that slippery little ‘world hunger’ problem. Finishing a sentence becomes a darn side easier than starting the sentence, simply because you don’t care, can’t remember or can’t fathom having ever clapped eyes on the person you’re talking to… who incidentally has just fallen off their chair and doesn’t appear to be the least bit concerned about getting up. It’s how I would imagine a handful of Valium to take effect, and this stuff carries you well into the next day. It’s the kind of thing I dream of slipping into the drinking water of the ‘White House’ at times like these.
But in Nadi, Capital Hill is about as real as the tooth fairy and less real than Peter, the pumpkin eater. Instead of pumpkins, the Fijians could probably better associate with Manu, the man-eater. The cannibal legacy turned out to be simply that, a legacy of their past and I encountered nothing but “Bula”‘s (hello’s) and smiles.
The closest I came to cannibals were a bunch of expat ‘twin otter’ pilots having a buck’s party where escape proved futile. It reminded me of one evening in Maun, Botswana – more pilots than you could shake a propeller at. Like true cannibals they raised the temperature of the water, picked my brains, took strips off of me and invited me to be a part of the ceremony; my options were never discussed. However, I did point out on our departure from the hotel to go to Ed’s down the road, that I would not be willing to pop out of a cake or a coconut or whatever they pop out of for bachelor ‘s parties in Fiji! As the night wore on, it was clear that the father-in-law’s concerns about his daughter’s choice of husband were not entirely unfounded. Good luck to the happy couple! The initial novelty of being one girl amidst 25 males (my first and last buck’s party) wore off at around 4am and I was walked home by a pilot, whom I can only hope was better at flying inebriated than walking – he was due to be at work by 7am.
The incident inspired me to leave town… by bus and not plane and so I headed for Suva, the capital – also safely on the other side of the main island. From there I headed to Levuka, a not-so-subtle reminder of more colonial times. En route I met Sonia from Norfolk, England. There’s something about the town of Levuka, the first capital of Fiji, that you just can’t put your finger on. There’s a romance about that one street along the waterfront surrounded by small villages of avid rugby players, overlooked by Mission Hill, steeped in history and the closely knit mixed bag of locals and settlers of over a hundred years.
“I stood upon a hill”
10 October 1974 on celebration of Fiji’s cession to England (1874)
Helen L. Garnick
There was no fatigue
As I climbed the last few steps –
Instead, my pace quickened
And with a strange feeling of elation
I stood upon the hill.
At first sight of these many steps
I had hesitated –
My tread heavy before reaching halfway –
And then – suddenly it seemed I was there…
I stood on Mission Hill
Overlooking the old town of Levuka;
It was early after dawn
And I watched in awe
The whole panorama being unfolded
In a gossamer of gold
As the sun arose and threw aside
Thee fading cloak of night.
The warm light spread like a halo
Above this small isle –
This special place with its tiny capital
Where history was written…
How long ago it seemed –
A hundred years past –
What a joyous day it must have been
When those lovely isles
Took shelter in the generous arms
Of Great Britain.
I stood entranced
As a stillness came upon the air
And a soft coolness brushed my cheek
I looked up – was it a touch of a Holy Hand?
I felt very close to God…
The Bald and the Bula-ful
Main attractions in Levuka included the fish factory, museum, dive shop and twice-weekly cinema (oooweeee!). I did it all – smelled the fish factory, looked in the windows of the museum, passed the dive shop and saw Men in Black II at the cinema. The movie was foul, but I’ve never been in such a small space with such an interactive, lively and captivated audience whilst they laughed, cried and shouted at the people on the small screen in front of us.
In our dorm accommodation we met Lee and Max, an Essex couple who had been there so long they had become part of the furniture. We were soon up to speed on all of Levuka’s gossip as Lee told us of his meeting with the Mayor and the sinister half-brother, Lee having taken part in the re-enactment of Fiji’s cession to England (now a local celebrity), the paedophile who had stayed at our very hotel two weeks earlier and subsequently been arrested for the like – his camera confiscated, rumours of Max being pregnant after a local saw her in the doctor’s waiting room, the three American boys teaching maths at the primary school and their after-hours antics… by Day 2, we knew who was who in the zoo and all I can say is “Move over Bold and the Beautiful!”.
No Rash Decisions
Day 2 also revealed my allergy to Levuka.
At 7pm, like clockwork, a temperature and rash would develop on my upper body, keeping me up scratching throughout the night. We held huge brainstorming sessions in the Royal Hotel lounge every night to determine both the cause and cure for my strange afflictions. (This is a good way to make new friends, should you ever find yourself in short supply.) Of course, like in Vietnam when I got severely sunburned on the beach in Nha Trang, my body was held up to close scrutiny by anyone and everyone.
Eventually at 11.30pm one night, I couldn’t take it anymore and Sonia dragged me off to the clinic. The night watchman let us in to the clinic manned by 3 sisters and a newborn. 3 nurses for an entire clinic of 1 patient! They called in the doctor living down the road just after she had gone to bed – I felt really bad as the Philippine doctor walked in wearing her slippers, rubbing sleep from her eyes. She plied me with anti-histamines and when they didn’t work, she plied me with stronger ones the following evening.
My rash only disappeared when I left Levuka. To thank the staff, Sonia and I made a gross-looking and probably gross-tasting bright orange box cake, probably on the shelf of the General Store for years and way past its ‘sell by’ date, and took it to the hospital. When we walked in to the hospital we were greeted and hit upon by 3 Fijian men in uniform whom we ignored. Only later did Sonia have to point out to both Max and I that they were men in handcuffs and prison uniform accompanied by an armed prison guard – I guess I just don’t have a keen eye for detail!
Searching for Allergy-Free Zones
After Levuka about 6 of us headed for the island of Nananui Ra through the rain and mud. The fight to stay on the road and not sink into the mud was one of survival of the biggest and the pushiest. Twice, our bus ran smaller buses and cars off the road where we left them marooned in the mud. I needed to pee so badly at one stage that I had to stop the bus and with nowhere private to go – a sheer drop on one side and a sheer wall of rock the other, I dropped my rods and peed right behind the packed bus. My feet sunk into the red mud securing me in my squat position as 2 more buses overtook and drove on by – I guess nothing is sacred amongst friends… or complete and utter strangers!
Game of Marbles, Anyone?
Before heading across to Nananui Ra by boat, we stocked up on groceries: 2-minute noodles, Tang juice, processed cheese, bread and baked beans – the essentials. If we were going to a virtually deserted tropical island, then why not eat like kings?
To supplement our diets on the island, one of the locals brought us freshly picked bananas, coconuts and mangoes every single day. For over a week, we luxuriated in this little piece of paradise. The generator turned off at 10pm every night and to pass the time we talked, joked and swapped ghost stories and learned a bit of Morse code using our torches.
We also did gymnastics, shadow puppets in the lamp light, gave each other haircuts, swatted mozzies, scratched and cooked fine cuisine, ending up with a ceiling full of spaghetti that fell from the roof at various intervals in the time we were there. We invented rules for the hut, like the compulsory first funny walk of the morning to the sink or face a forfeit, which after a Kava night was usually backwards.
For Simon’s 24th birthday we drank many, many bowls of Kava, ate home-made ice lollies and mangoes whilst we sang and played the guitar by lamplight. By day we snorkelled, lazed on the beach or circumnavigated the island. The diving here was fantastic too, pity about the bobbing waves on our lunch break – I lost my lunch and my will to dive to the eager fishies by the side of the boat.
If it weren’t for my sanity, I may never have left Nananui Ra – it was a sad goodbye but I gathered my remaining marbles and left, leaving the hilarious Lee and Max behind to lose a little more touch with reality! Back in Nadi, I prepared to leave before being spotted by the hotel bar’s regulars, the pilots but alas one last seeing-off was to be had by all. Fiji – I will be back (if only for my marbles)!