Tortured, that's what Fijian politics are, tortured to the point where there is no beginning to describe it, but suffice it to say that Fiji is the first nation ever to be expelled from the South Pacific Forum (in July 2009), the second ever to be suspended from the British Commonwealth (in September 2009) and the 2010 elections, that might have restored a semblance of democracy, have been postponed by the military junta (is it just ironic or maybe more serious, that Fiji's over-sized army is making the country money in UN missions defending human rights in Lebanon and Sudan and elsewhere, while at home it is suppressing them?).
Most of the problems of Fiji find their root in the tensions between the Indian (or rather Indo-Fijian, since they have developed a distinctive cast-free community and specific version of Hindi, the lingua franca in the towns) and the ethnic Fijian community, where the Indians (40% of the population - many left after racial riots in the 90s) control the economy and the ethnic Fijians (just over 50%) own the land.
It is a Fijian musical ensemble that welcomes me when I arrive at Nadi International Airport, but at my next stop, the neatly lined-up international car rental franchises, all are owned and operated by Indo-Fijians.
"So which one of you has the best offer?" (I have already checked with Budget and Europcar and I am now checking with Avis). I ask it half teasingly and half seriously because the companies do their best to make the comparison difficult for me with varying insurance coverage, different kilometres included and the like, but the staff of course knows the details very well and talks amongst themselves about it over coffee and though company policy of course forbids them to direct a customer to the competition, they don't have to answer my question directly to give me part of the answer; if they become very uncomfortable, I know it is not them.
This time Budget passes the test and after I sign the rental agreement and the credit card voucher for my FJ$2000 (€880) damage deductable, I am off in my rather new Suzuki Alto, granted, not very big, but big enough for me and my roller bag and handling much better than the Citroen C1 I left behind this morning in Nouméa.
Most people who arrive in Fiji are heading to Denarau Island for the ferry to the Mamanuca or the Yasawa islands where many of the resorts and white sandy beaches are. I plan to stay on Viti Levu, the main island, where the Coral Coast comes closest to what Mamanuca and Yasawa have on offer.
It is raining again in the late afternoon when, after having recovered from my flight in my Novotel, I venture into Nadi. It is busy and traffic is crawling into town, weaving over the crumbling road, trying to avoid waterlogged potholes and oncoming cars which are doing the same. People are hurrying from cover to cover to stay dry while doing their evening shopping and with the broken pavements, mud and dirt set against the Indian shop fronts, it feels like being back in India again. Not a particularly good sign in my book, because I found India with its extreme poverty and filthy conditions rather depressing and one of the few countries where I positively would not want to drive myself because of the deadly conditions on the road. Apart from the treacherous state of the road (no wonder I am liable for payment of any damage to tyres, wheels and undercarriage), traffic itself will however prove to be much safer in Fiji; the same cannot be said for the towns that are as dirty and unappealing as they are in India.
"You should try the Crow's Nest Resort", the Indian lady advises me when, when upon checking out of the hotel the next morning, I tell her I plan to go to the Coral Coast, where the Bedarra Beach hotel has the highest score on Tripadvisor. "It is very good, go and take a look", she urges some more, and I promise her I will. And I do, as I also check out the five-star Outrigger on the Lagoon (€285 a night, but with butler service and two complimentary glasses of champagne) and a few others. But the Bedarra wins out after all (the Outrigger only had one night available and I don't need butler service anyway and the New Crow's Nest, even under new management, was filthy and rundown). It has a nice terrace overlooking the ocean, a pleasant quiet beach for lounging, and is well located for visiting a few things in Sogatoka and the area.
Dutchman Abel Tasman (him again), was the first European to visit Fiji in 1643, but in the centuries after, European ships largely avoided the islands since the Fijians were ferocious fighters and their eating habits gave the islands their name: Cannibal Isles. It was their fighting ability that drew many Tongans to go there and learn the craft, with good effect since the Tongans went on to occupy parts of Fiji and established a string of forts. Tavuni Hill Fort, five kilometres along a dirt road inland of Sogatoka, is one of those Tongan forts. Perched high upon a hill on the Sogatoka river, it provided an excellent natural defence against attackers and the Tongans remained there until it was destroyed in 1876 by the British, who had obtained sovereignty over Fiji in 1874.
"Are you of Tongan descent?", I ask the lady who is guiding me over the remains of the fort when she tells me that the surviving Tongans did not return but merged with the local population. She is not, but the chiefs of her village and several others in the area are and recently went back to Tonga to attend the funeral of a Tongan king. She points out the foundations of the houses where some 600 soldiers and their families lived, lower along the slope, the chiefs houses a little bit higher and on top of the hill the house of spirits, where the priests reigned. "Most Fijians are Christians now, aren't they?" they are, she tells me, but, just to be on the safe side, they have also retained their belief in spirits.
'Vatu ni bokola', the sign says. This, the head chopping stone, is where the prisoners were killed. There are three slabs next to each other, for the body in the middle and the arms to the side, and one across on top, for the head. She points out the spaces between the stones where the women would place earthen jars to catch the blood when the arms, legs and head were severed, blood that would accompany the meal prepared from the slain person's flesh. Some Fijians claimed to have eaten hundreds of bodies, little wonder the Europeans rather avoided these Cannibal Isles.
That is, until the early 1900s when the promise of riches from harvesting sandalwood and sea cucumber, lured traders in and with whalers, beachcombers and missionaries European settlement began. The most important piece of today's unstable racial cocktail fell into place however when, towards the end of the 1900s, the British started importing poor Indians on a large scale, as indentured labour to work on the sugar cane plantations. These poor folk stayed on after their indentured period because they had lost their cast status by crossing the 'black waters' and because most could not afford the trip back anyway.
"What do you think is the most important thing in life than?", that question over coffee at 11:14 a.m. takes me aback. "That is not something I can answer in a few words...", I start, trying to gain a little bit of time to organise my thoughts.... "Well I think it is to always tell the truth and be upfront in what you do", he answers his own question, which, I now understand, was not meant so much to hear my views as to create the opportunity for him to tell me what he thinks.
'Hi, I am John', he had introduced himself after he had remarked on me working on my little notebook in the Cuppabula coffee shop in Sigatoka (the only one in town with air conditioning and decent coffee). 'I have left my laptop and phone at home', he had said, 'and told my boss he could not reach me, because otherwise I would be working all the time'. A perfectly valid point of course and we talked the usual about how laptops and now smart phones have changed the way people work.
He is from Northern Ireland and his wife from Tipperary in the Irish Republic, worked in Manchester, England for 22 years as a taxi driver and in all kind of other trades and emigrated to Australia 15 years ago when he was 42. He now lives with his wife and two young daughters in Melbourne and works as a sale rep. for a company that sells nuts and bolts to the DIY industry.
"You are a sales rep. and you always tell the truth? I don't believe a word of it", I tell him, after I have given him my take. "If you work in a company that is impossible, there are always versions of the truth to handle with your clients, trade offs to make in dealing with your boss, you name it". And when we dive into it, that turns out to be the case. He would not say 'yes', if his boss tells him to sell products he does not believe in, just nod and then not do it. Indeed technically that is not lying, but certainly what I would call 'handling' the truth.
There is Ireland: 'We were dirt poor when I grew up and we had to stoke turf (peat bricks) to keep warm, he tells me, contrasting it to what he has achieved now in Australia: earning A$100.000, having his own house, car and staying in a resort on Denarau Island. I let that go, because a) a Dutchman never tells you what he earns and b) I don't want to turn this into a contest.
Then there is Australia, some of my travels and other interesting topics to cover in just an accidental meeting in a coffee shop. Did I say accidental? "I make a point of speaking to at least six new people every day", he tells me. Which begs my question: 'which number do I have'. He pauses: "Your the fifth", not a bad tally for 11:14 a.m., but it also gave the encounter, enjoyable as it was, a bit of an artificial taste.
Viti Levu is about a 150 kilometres from east to west and a 100 kilometres from north to south and the road circling the island is called the Queens Road from Nadi to the capital Suva, going along the southern coast, and the Kings Road, going along the top of the island, back again to Nadi, in all some 600 kilometres and my plan is simple: circle the island.
I have stayed three days on the Coral Coast, a little longer than planned, then moved on to visit Suva. As it happened it was Sunday and that did not work out well, because on Sunday everything was closed and Suva was deserted. I could do a bit on Monday morning however, and by early afternoon I am about to head north on the Kings Road, but before I do there is one concern, or maybe two, that I need to tackle.
The Kings road has an unsealed section of about 40 kilometres between Kovourou and Dama through in the interior of the island. Now you have unsealed roads and unsealed roads. The one I had to the Tavuni Fort was about as good as the Queens Road it came from, but it can be much rougher and secondly the unsealed section was blocked by floods when I arrived, but that was 4 days ago so it could be good again.
"How good is the Kings Road, do you think I can drive it". I ask a few men at the petrol station on the outskirts of Suva where I fill up. It is the second time I ask somebody, just to be sure and I am still undecided if I will risk it. They look at the Suzuki and tell me it should be no problem, it is a good unsealed road, the floods subsided days ago and I am driving a rental anyway. I don't feel that way and not only because of my deductable, but thank them for their advice and when they go on to ask me if I can take them along, I tell them: 'No, I never take hikers'. Which, unfortunately on occasion, is the case. With all the stuff I have on me (passport, money, credit cards, cameras), I don't want to take the risk it is stolen because then I am really stranded (if not worse).
The first ten kilometres are going well, but then some bad patches begin to worry me, but not enough to decide to turn back. If it stays this way I have to drive slowly and negotiate my way along potholes and muddy spots but that is not really a problem. No signs of flooding. Then a deviation, they are working on the road and a fresh road is laid out around that section; the underground is softer and busses and trucks have left deeper tracks and I scrape by, literally.
A few kilometres down, another section of roadwork, now there is no deviation and work trucks have ploughed the road. I stop and ask an oncoming small van how it road is further down: 'No problem', I can go there. But I feel increasingly uneasy. Runoff water streams down the hill along the road and then it crosses the road creating a deep muddy stretch of 50 metres or so and bracing myself I pick up speed to slip and slide through. I am getting very uncomfortable now, because I know I will never be able to get through that muddy section back up the hill again.
I come over a hill, turn a corner and eye the next section. The road goes down, then turns left along a cliff and then at the bottom turns left again. A big loader truck, to its axles in the rough earth, is manoeuvring across the track to dump rocks, that are then crushed by a big tracked machine to form a crude layer as a foundation for the new surface. I come to a stop behind a big truck with two huge black rocks waiting for the first one to finish and then to go in to deliver its load.
'Christ, what have I gotten myself into'. I look around if there is room to turn, there is not, but even if there was I know it would not do; I am stuck between the soaked mud uphill stretch and what is in front of me. 'Why did I want to do this again? To circle the island? Who cares!'.
I get out and walk past the truck to the area where they are working and ask the flagman if it safe for me to pass. "Yes, certainly", he says, without really checking, "when this truck is ready and the next one has delivered its load, you can come through". I look at the rough rocks and the deep muddy tracks and feel very bad. 'This is not going to work'. A few 4x4 make it up from the other side first before it is my turn. Am I imagining this or are they looking at my little car with surprise or is it pity? Then it is my turn. Nasty noises come from the front and underneath as I girate over the rocks and tilt through the tracks but somehow do manage to get through.
Another 11 kilometres of unsealed road to go the flagman has told me, I feel better but am still apprehensive of what lay ahead. Even the thought of my FJ$2000 damage deductable cannot deflate my relief when I finally get to the sealed road again.
There is a persistent noise coming from under the car and when I get to Rakiraki, the village at the northern tip, I stop to see what has come unstuck. It is a guard of some sort, it has doubled up and is schlepping over the tarmac. 'There is a garage a few kilometres down the road', a passing Fijian tells me, and in between downpours Prashuram & Sons manage to fasten it again. While he is working I peer at the rest of the undercarriage to see what other damage is done, but it is all covered in mud.
"I just had it washed", I tell the girl who is doing the inspection when I bring it back at Nadi airport. I have, it seemed superfluous because it was during a heavy downpour again, but I want to make a good impression and while the guys were busy hand washing, I looked at the car from a distance, the Suzuki seemed OK, no visible damage.
She is not impressed by my carwash and goes on circling the car with a serious face. "That is damaged", she says pointing at the left plastic bumper at the back, where at the top there is a small rip. "If it is, then it was already there", I say it with conviction, because that is about the only place I am certain I did not cause damage. Back in the office she asks me to wait while she is taking the car to the garage for a full inspection. Rather than wait my verdict in that office, I go out to check with Air Pacific when exactly I can check in my luggage for my 1.45 a.m. flight to Samoa, 8 hours from now.
Fearing the worst I am back 15 minutes later. "That will be FJ$ 423", the other girl tells me handing a form. I recalculate in my head, that is the original rental sum. I sign and ask: "Can I get my credit card voucher back?", pointing at the one in the file I signed a week ago. "No problem", she says as she invalidates it. I told you, Budget is the best.