Marianne: It has taken us a long time to get this travelogue started, due to spotty internet and too much sight-seeing, but here is a start! It's mostly written by me (Marianne), but Steve has added or changed things her and there, as indicated.
At the end of January, we spent a really lovely week in politically incorrect Fiji. It's an inverse case where the indigenous Fijian people, who by law own >80% of the land, have tried to restrain the political rights of the burgeoning Indo-Fiji population, who constitute 50% of the population and run many of the businesses, but are mostly unable to own land. It is sort of a reversal of erstwhile Australia or US. Lots of palm trees, very handsome guys in skirts called sulus, though disappointingly little fresh tropical fruit due to the Dec. typhoon. The Fijians are very friendly, and one has to exchange "Bula" greetings with everyone met in passing. The Indo-Fijians less so, but then, they have less to be cheerful about.
In Fiji, we saw very few birds other than Mynahs, which are overwhelmingly everywhere, both in Fiji and NZ. But then, we spent our time on smaller islands – Ovalau and Caqalai (pronounced "then-guh-lie") – rather than the really big one, referred to as '"the mainland" by the locals.
Steve: On the day of our arrival, we made our way by increasingly smaller planes (from 747 to prop plane to little 7-seater, where the pilot also helped with the baggage!) to what is generously called the "airport" on Ovalau (an asphalt strip with a shack next to it). Before we got on the last flight, they weighed our carry-on bags . . and us: we had to stand on a scale holding our carry-on! The shack by the airstrip on Ovalau had one doorway: greeting passengers was a hand-painted sign saying "Arrivals," and on the other side of the door was another hand-painted sign saying "Departures." From there it was a 40-minute journey by pick-up truck (they threw our bags in the back) to a place just north of Levuka, run by a lovely woman named Leslie, and her family. It is planted with coconut palms and flowers, and is right across the road from a bay where Marianne went snorkeling. Leslie sent her son's friend to snorkel with us, which he enjoyed as a break from having to mow lawn and uproot brush around the place.
Steve: While we were staying on Ovalau, we visited the village of Lovoni, on something called "Epi's tour," which mostly consists of being taken on a long taxi ride on rutted dirt roads to meet Epi at his house in Lovoni, and then being shown around the village and surrounding countryside by Epi, while he explains the properties of the local plants, the nature of village life, and the history of Lovoni. The latter features lots of tales of battles and political intrigue – the Lovonians were the last holdouts against the self-styled "king of Fiji," and were tricked by him into giving up their arms at a supposed peace banquet, and then some of them sold into slavery to the British. Lovoni is in the "lovo" or "bowl" of the old volcano that created Ovalau, and about 700 people live there in ramshackle houses of corrugated iron, wood, and fiberglass. We walked through a wild proliferation of bananas, papayas, cassava, taro, and all sorts of plants that could be used for medicinal and other purposes. And the whole thing ended with a meal of Fijian foods prepared by a neighbor, and, of course, elaborate tale-telling interspersed with kava (see below).
Marianne: We then spent 3 days on the tiny coral palm-treed island of Caqalai (which we got to after a hair-raising 45-minute motorboat ride through the coral reefs), in a faux-grass shack (palm and bamboo laid over corrugated iron), which belonged to a resort run by a local village. Upon request, a local would climb a palm and fetch you a coconut.
After dinner, we would be serenaded by local villages clad in sulu skirts and colorful flowery Bula shirts. They sang beautiful harmonic Fiji songs, interspersed with Paul McCartney and Neil Diamond numbers. The rest of the evening's entertainment consisted of drinking Kava, a mild narcotic that looked like dirty water (and, thinks Steve, tastes like it as well), from coconut shells, exclaiming Bula! between glugs. This appears to be a very popular way to pass the time in Fiji, and long after we vacationers (mostly Germans) had retired, we could hear laughing, singing and Bula-ing coming from the villagers.
It would seem like a tropical island paradise, but the temperature got to about 90 each day, with high humidity. I could barely breathe, continually sweat running off my body, no electricity, no hot water, one light bulb in our shack that you turned off by taking out the bulb, and a bed with 6 inches between the slats so that you had to carefully place your hips over one to be comfortable. Each night Marianne soaked in the sea for 15 min before going to bed in order to be comfortable. Tropical island hell, though our photos make it look idyllic. Steve: only as bad as hot summer days in Ithaca . . . but without the benefit of an electric fan to cool you down!
Marianne: On the other hand, the snorkeling was just amazing, better than the best aquarium we've visited. It was like an underwater Technicolor fantasy garden. There were sharks, turtles, sea snakes, moray eels, nudibranchs, fantastic coral, and the most beautiful fish. I spent most of my time in the water. I wish I had had an underwater camera. I spent most of the time floating face downward in body-temperature water, ogling fish and avoiding the heat. Unfortunately, Steve got royally sunburned, and had to stay in the shade after the 2nd day (and got even more sunburned then, because of the reflections off of the water and bright sand). We had a hard time finding good sun screen in this sun-drenched country. There were not a lot of tourists, and the local population did not use or need it.
We've posted pictures of Fiji here
, and here