I Survived a Coup in Fiji (and I have a t-shirt to prove it)
“The government has been overthrown! Eat up quickly, go back to your hotel and I wouldn’t leave all night.” The kindly Indian woman was in a hurry to get us out of there so she could close up her restaurant and do the same. Apparently, armed gunmen had stormed the Fijian Parliament Building, taken Prime Minister Chaudrey and some of his cabinet hostage and declared themselves the new government.
Details were sketchy, as the crisis was still unfolding 200 miles away in Fiji’s capital, Suva. Here in Nadi, its tourism hub, things were looking dire. Banks and shopkeepers were nailing plywood and corrugated iron to their storefronts hoping to stem the expected looters. Indian merchants seemed especially on edge. Prime Minister Chaudrey was the first Indian Prime Minister ever elected to that position in Fiji, and early word out of Suva was that the rebels were upset that a non-native Fijian was in charge of their country.
I had just returned to Nadi from a blissful ten-day stay on Wayalailai, an island in the Yasawa chain. Besides snorkeling, fishing, exploring the Island and playing volleyball on the beach, I had spent a good deal of time lying in a hammock doing nothing. My nights consisted of either drinking beer and swapping stories with other travelers, or drinking Kava with the locals; usually both. I still had nearly 3 weeks of vacation left, and I was reluctant to leave Fiji. Money was an issue, but even more was my desire to finally visit these legendary islands. I had been waiting 13 years.
Ironically, in 1987, when I was traveling toward Australia on a South Pacific Travel Pass that included stops in Tahiti, the Cook Islands, Fiji and New Zealand, there had been another coup in Fiji while I was in Tahiti. Due to security concerns, my airline (which shall remain nameless, damn Kiwis) had cancelled all flights to Fiji, and I was forced to miss it. Some of the other airlines servicing the South Pacific had continued flying there, and later in my trip I met a number of people who regaled me with stories of their amazing Fiji trips. Many of them said they were staying in 4 star resorts for next to nothing because of the coup. At least this time I arrived before the coup.
Rumors were rampant. The airport was closed, the airport was open. The airport was only letting passengers leave, not arrive. The army had sided with the rebels. The army had sided with the government. Some of the army had sided with the rebels, some with the government. Banks and government offices would remain closed indefinitely. International phone service was down, but somehow you could still send e-mail. One thing that was concrete; things were turning ugly in Suva. There was film of it on the news. Many Indian stores and restaurants in Suva were being looted and burned.
Things in Nadi, where relations between native Fijians and Indians had always been better, remained fairly calm. The army had arrived in Nadi, not to take sides, only to quell any unrest. It seemed everyone agreed they mustn’t upset the tourists.
Before I could make any decisions about what I would do, I had to sort out dinner. Everything in Nadi was boarded up, and my hostel had long ago run out of food trying to feed all the guests who normally eat in town. Then a wild rumor began to spread. There was on restaurant that had remained open and it seemed they had plenty of food. The local McDonald’s, one of only two in the country, wasn’t about to let some silly coup force them to close. They were above local politics. They were McDonald’s!
So off I hurried with some new friends I had met on Wayalailai in search of the golden arches. The streets were empty now except for the army checkpoints, and after a two-mile walk, the rumors proved true. Mickey D’s was indeed open.
With a full stomach and a clear head, it was time to start making some decisions. My new British friends from Wayalailai were scheduled to leave the day after next if planes were flying, one to New Zealand, and one to Oz. Both of them asked me to join them. I didn’t know how much a ticket from Fiji to Oz or New Zealand cost, but I was pretty sure it was too much for me. Should I flee to Tonga, another dream destination of mine? The Solomons, the Cooks, home? No, no and no. I wanted to see Fiji, and I had already been chased away once. I decided to sleep on it and see whether things remained mostly centered on Suva. If they did, I would just avoid the capital and stick to the smaller, less populated islands.
The next morning dawned sunny and hot in Nadi, and the news was a little more concrete. The rebels still held the hostages (this would continue for months) and now rebel supporters were beginning to flock to the park surrounding the parliament building. With the exception of a few rabble-rousers, the situation was pretty calm. It seemed like a giant picnic featuring hostages (I’m sure the hostages had a different take on this). People sat around their kava bowls gossiping and building lovos, the traditional earth ovens used to prepare Fijian feasts.
The banks were still closed, but ATMs were working and the exchange window the airport was open, despite the fact that no international flights were arriving yet. They were expected soon. Inter-island shipping was suspended, but the domestic airlines were still flying. Outside of Suva, things remained calm.
I decided to take one of the flights to an outer island, relax and wait things out. It should all be resolved soon. The more news that came out, the more it seemed the leader of the coup, George Speight, was a crackpot lacking any real support. Little did I know. The hostage crisis would continue for months, truly hurting the tourism industry in Fiji.
My original plan had been to head to Suva and from there decide where to go next. Instead, I decided to fly to Kadavu, a large isolated island with few roads and fewer towns of any size. Unrest seemed more likely to occur in urban areas, and those just don’t exist on Kadavu. I called to make a reservation Albert’s Place, a backpacker’s joint on the Eastern edge of Kadavu. No problem with reservations. As I was discovering, many people had decided to leave.
I’ve never been a very good flier, and the plane going to Kadavu didn’t instill much confidence. It was a 2 engine, 6 seater that seemed to be held together with duct tape. No joke; there was actually duct tape stuck all over the outside. Reluctantly I boarded. My fears were soon replaced with awe at the stunning scenery. I never knew the ocean could contain so many shades of blue and green. After landing at the uphill dirt track they use for a runway, I was met by Michael. Michael was an interesting fellow. He had the mischievous face and eyes of a Chinese leprechaun, skin the color of a Polynesian and the kinky dark hair of a Fijian. Ethnically speaking, he was very hard to place. Without my asking, he offered up an explanation. “I’m a mixed green salad of the Pacific,” he said. He had Chinese, Polynesian and Fijian blood, and to top it off, his grandfather (great grandfather?) was an Irish sailor who had jumped ship at the turn of the century and married an island chief’s daughter. At least that’s what he said.
He told me that on the ride to pick me up, his boat had been full of guests trying to leave, but I was the only arrival. Only four other guests remained at Albert’s Place: a German couple, and two very funny, very broke English guys. We would remain the only guests for the entire week I stayed there. And when we all left together, they weren’t expecting anybody new. This turned out to be a great advantage. With so few guests, Albert’s family (Albert was away on the mainland) turned the situation into their own vacation. We just became part of the family, like long-lost relatives from Ireland coming for a reunion. This would remain true for the rest of my stay in Fiji; very few guests and a familial atmosphere wherever I went.
I didn’t stay in any 3 or 4 star hotels (wouldn’t really want to anyway) like people said they did during ’87 coup (although I did get a killer ten dive deal on Leleuvia because of it), but I did get a unique, authentic Fijian experience. I even began to acquire a taste for kava, which initially tastes like mud, but soon begins to taste like spicy mud. After a month of Fijian warmth, hospitality and buckets of kava, it was unfortunately time to return to my rather mundane life working at a well-known chain of brewpubs, movie theaters and hotels in Portland. After checking my bag and going through customs, I was wandering around the duty-free area when I stumbled across something that would always remind me of my stay in this beautiful country. In one corner of the shopping area was an Indian man (apparently not afraid of unruly Fijian mobs) selling t-shirts. Printed over a picture of a terrorist holding a gun and wearing a ski mask to cover his face were the words “I SURVIVED REBEL COUP IN FIJI. MAY 19, 2000.”
I still wear that shirt with pride.