Well folks, after almost a week of silence since we left Pittsburgh for our Round the World Trip here’s a first report on what Anna and I have been up to. Unfortunately we haven’t had reliable internet connection for the last few days except for the occasional visit to internet cafes but we’ll catch you up.
Our first major stop on our trip has been Fiji and boy, what a destination it is. But first of course, you need to get here and if you are living in Pittsburgh like us the travel time to Fiji including one or two layovers puts you at the wrong side of 36 hours. We did have a long 11-hour layover in LA and we thought we’d just drop our big rucksacks off at the airport and make our way downtown. But the times of making life for backpackers easy seem to have long gone. Dropping your backpack or suitcase off at the airport means a transfer to an off site location and paying roughly US$ 40. So we decided to rough it and take the “Big Blue” bus for US$ 1 each to Santa Monica to kill some time before our flight. Certainly a more pleasant wait than at the airport and Santa Monica can easily be described as pretty. Southern California at its finest and after an Italian lunch, a nap under a tree in the park and an ice cream we made our way back, of course on the Big Blue, to LAX.
Using all her charm, and a small bribe, Anna was able to convince the Pacific Air agent at check in to give us exit row seat for the 11-hour flight to Nadi (pronounced Nandi) on the main island of Viti Levu in Fiji. This made sleeping for more than 60 minutes actually possible and we arrived at the crack of dawn in Fiji almost rested. But before landing we got into chatting with our row neighbor, Lee from Denver, and he told us about an eco resort that he was travelling to. He is an avid diver and had been at this place before several years ago and was speaking in glowing terms about it. This brief encounter and chat with Lee made a huge difference for our visit here in Fiji and I’ll write more about this later. One of the flight attendants on the plane also told us about some of the best places to eat in Nadi, so it seemed we were all set – having a hotel, food choices and some ideas about where to go in Fiji since Nadi is mainly a transit location to get somewhere else in Fiji, either to one of the many luxury resorts or the more modest choices on one of the many smaller islands. One thing to remember is that you actually lose 2 days travelling to Fiji from the US, one day due to the travel time and one day because you cross the dateline, so we actually arrived in Fiji on the 29th.
We had booked a couple of nights in a small backpacker’s hotel in Nadi online before our trip. We wanted to get a feel for the place and decide where we wanted to go after checking out local options and tapping into the knowledge of Fijians and fellow backpackers – a strategy that’s always worked very well for us on all our travels.
Someone from our hotel (Tropic of Capricorn) was supposed to pick us up but we had to wait for a while; several local travel agents and taxi drivers assured us that this is just “Fiji time”. Finally an older chap picked us up who turned out to be a Kiwi and who is married to a Fijian woman, Mama of Capricorn. The hotel itself is a fairly simple place but it is right at the beach lined by palm trees and only about three or four other small hotels next to it. Other than that it’s pretty much an empty beach 2 miles long either way, so great for chilling and taking long walks. We were greeted by Mama with a kiss and a big bear hug and we felt right at home. We met a few other travellers, an older couple from East London who both quit their jobs to go on a 9-month trip around the world and a couple of lads from New Zealand. They all turned out to be fun loving and full of stories and we exchanged ideas about where to go next, where to stay, how to manage costs etc. Again, talking to as many fellow travellers as possible always proves to be the best travel guide.
‘Fiji’ time was taking a toll on us a bit while we were waiting to finally move into our room to freshen up and rest a little. Although Mama and her staff, Jerry the manager and a few other helpers, were all around, they were having a very long breakfast until pretty much mid-day until anyone even remotely considered getting the room ready for us. It was after 1PM when we finally moved into our room, which was big but also very basic. But, you can’t complain if you have a balcony looking out onto an empty beach for roughly 55 US$ a night.
The people of Fiji:
Our first impression of Fijians has been very, very positive. Notoriously chilled, friendly, curious and ‘comfortable in their skin’. They are a mix between native Fijians (or natives from other South Pacific islands), Indians and quite a few foreigners who have made Fiji their home. The Indian influence is obviously very strong which is apparent in the many stores that sell Saris and Indian restaurants or the many Curry Houses. There is a local Fijian cuisine, high on starchy carbohydrates (you see many well-fed, strong and tall people around), like cassava and obviously lots of fish; very simple dishes but very tasty and combined with the Indian choices we are having no problem enjoying every single one of our meals. Our first dinner on Fiji was therefore spent at Sitar, which is a popular joint close to Nadi which serves Southern Indian fare. After a couple of good curries and some glasses of the local brew (Fiji Gold), we felt we had finally arrived in Fiji.
Monday-Wednesday (Day 4-5)
Viti Levu is the main island of Fiji with Suva as the capital. Our first couple of days after arriving in Fiji we tried to check out the place and spent a day in Nadi and a day travelling to Suva. Now, we have been to a number of tropical countries and islands but from all we have seen so far, even the main island of Viti Levu is absolutely stunning in terms of landscape and vegetation. Its lush green and dense jungle, pine trees in the mountains and empty coves and beaches make it a wonderfully relaxed and inviting place. Luckily all beaches in Fiji are public and while people, even foreigners, can buy land fairly easily, you have to allow access to any beach even if it is your property. One of the more surprising things for us is the fact that the islands, even close to the bigger city of Suva, is impeccably clean and you hardly see any garbage laying around which is a common sight in many other tropical locations we travelled. The government seems to be doing a good job in encouraging recycling and nature preservation. This is probably even more surprising since the current government is a military regime that came to power after a coup in 2006. But they obviously have realized the economic necessity of preserving the country for future generations and tourism, which still makes up about 1/3 of the total GDP of Fiji.
After a day in Nandi we were planning to take the bus to Suva or Sigatoka, which is about halfway to Suva from Nadi. While we were waiting for the bus in front of our hotel this couple in a pick up truck stopped and offered us a ride into Nadi where we could catch the bus. Of course, we gladly accepted the ride and while we were chatting about our plans for the day we found out that they were on their way to Suva so we could just hitch a ride all the way to our destination with them. It’s still a 3.5 hour ride even in a car but probably more comfortable in a car than cramped up in a bus. We really hit it off well with Ian and Brea. Ian is a Kiwi who has been living in Fiji for more than 15 years and even has a Fijian passport. He used to organize charter tours on yachts and sailboats in Fijian waters and just opened a couple of surf shops. Brea is his Fijian girlfriend of Indian decent and she is still going to college in Nadi and Suva. We chatted about this and that and Ian told us about this piece of land (70 acres) that he owns on Kadavu island next to the eco resort that we actually had just booked the day before on the internet. In fact, this is the resort that Lee from Denver told us about on our plane trip from LAX. What a coincidence and Ian confirmed our choice since he talked about Matava, the name of the resort, very, very positively. He is also good friends with one of the owners of the resort, Richard.
Other than a short stop at a snack bar in Sigatoka (in the picture you see the two lovely shopkeepers)
we pretty much drove all the way to Suva without stopping and Ian and Brea dropped us off close to the bus stop and a big outdoor market
We said our good byes, than them for their generosity and spend the next couple of hours exploring the market, buying a few supplies for the next days of travel and ended up in a curry house for a delicious meal of Indian thali. Food is generally not cheap, even in local restaurants, but you get good quality and it’s always fresh. A main dish in a curry shop typically sets you back between 8 and 20 F$, so roughly 5-12. You might be able to get it a little cheaper in a real hole in the wall but don’t expect prices like in many places in Asia or India.
Since the last bus to Nadi leaves around 5:30PM it was already time to head back to the bus stop and buy our tickets which are sold on a first come first serve basis. If the bus is really crowded they might not let you on the bus which we definitely weren’t keen on risking. The long distance buses are fairly comfortable, interestingly often Chinese copies of European bus brands, and the trip back to Nadi took about 4 hours including a coffee/snack break in Sigatoka. It is a great and relatively inexpensive way of seeing the country and just looking out the windows and taking in the lush green, small villages, or pristine beaches during sunset soothes your soul. [photo option] So, if you like to mingle with the locals and don’t mind being cramped a bit for a while, especially if you are above 6 foot, consider buses for most of your transportation needs in Fiji.