Adventures in Fiji

The flight from New Zealand to Fiji is only 5 hours long. And yet you feel like you have been transported to a different world. Hot weather, tropical nature, supremely emotional people and a different culture meet you and change you. I felt giddy already looking at Fiji from the plane:

And I only became more excited as I disembarked. Here is the Air New Zealand airplane that took me here, I am looking at it from the Nadi international airport building. At that time I did not yet know what an ordeal was in store for me very soon.

When I researched the Fiji entry requirements (which I always do, taught by the experience), all the relevant websites dutifully reported that to get a Fiji visa on arrival, you need either a return ticket or an onward ticket. Safe in this knowledge, a bought an onward ticket to Vanuatu and was sure to avoid all trouble. Usually the border guards delegate the check of return tickets to the check in counter of the airline. The airline would not even let you board if you do not have the necessary ticket. This was the system in all other countries which require an onward ticket – there are quite a few in Asia, for example Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, Indonesia, New Zealand. Indeed as I was checking in for my flight to Fiji, my onward ticket was checked and accepted. Yet as I was passing the border control in Fiji, the border guard with some stubborn anger spent ten minutes going through my passport full of visas and entry stamps from all over the world. And then announced that I have to have a “return ticket” back to my country. Which means to Estonia.

Of course there was no way I would have such a ticket as I intended to travel around the world for several more months and I had no idea at that moment which route I would take. I explained all this to the boarder guard and then to his superior, a lady in an office to the right of the queues. I kept repeating that their own rules allow for an onward ticket and that i had no desire to stay in their islands. I explained to the lady that there was no way that I could possibly buy a ticket all the way back and I offered her alternatives – for example that I buy a ticket to Australia from Vanuatu or from Fiji. But they kept on insisting on the need for me to have a “return” ticket. Finally the lady curtly finished the discussion and told me to wait. And wait. And wait. There I was sitting for several hours waiting for I don’t know what… This was probably the most serious travel problem that I’d encountered on my RTW trip. I thought already that they would put me on a plane back to New Zealand – though NZ wouldn’t take me either without an onward ticket. Finally after a few hours some big boss appeared, listened to me, though for a moment and said: “Buy a ticket from Vanuatu to Australia and we’ll let you enter Fiji.” What I’d offered to the lady many times before! So eventually they’d let me in. But of course my first impression of Fiji was far from favourable.

On this beach in Nadi I tried to forget all this.

The Fiji archipelago consists of as many as 330 islands. The main island Viti Levu dominates them all – it is the largest and contains the majority of population. All the international flights arrive in Nadi airport in the West of the main island. Viti Levu though is quite far from the picture of a tropical paradise that is evoked in our minds when we say “Fiji”. It is dirty, poor, unsafe, and the beaches here are not good. The best of Fiji is definitely in the remote outer islands. The chains of these small islands are thrown into the ocean in all directions from the main island. If you ever go to Fiji, that’s where you better head straight away. I am not a great fan of beaches though so I thought I’d gladly explore the main island too and the many aspects of Fijian life. On the very first day quite out of the blue my hotel in Nadi was staging a Fijian fire dance. In the middle of my dinner I suddenly found myself in the midst of a performance. Most of the following photos I made from where I was sitting having my dinner.

The Fijians are amazingly good-looking. They are of Melanesian stock. Though the contemporary ethnography denies these differences, they really do look different from the Polynesians. The Polynesians include inhabitants of Hawaii, the Maori, the Easter Islands and all the others that leave inside the triangle formed by Hawaii, New Zealand and the Easter Island. The Polynesians look somewhat Mongoloid, with the particularity of being rather … big. The Melanesians though look more like the Papuans. They sometimes have broad skulls, big round eyes, broad noses, although more often – in the case of Fiji anyway – they possess those classical straight features that make them look like ancient gods.

At a certain moment during the performance all the spectators were invited to a beach nearby. The dancers then started manipulating burning torches in a rather spectacular fashion:

Upping the ante:

Two torches were being swung by this last dancer in a state of crazy ecstasy:

I never planned to stay in Fiji for long. And yet I decided to visit one of the outlying islands. I looked at the Yasawa islands to the North East of the main island. In the touristic brochure each island looked better than than the other. One of the most remote North Eastern islands was the stage for the movie “The Blue Lagoon” featuring the precocious Brook Shields, and I considered staying there for a bit. But finally I opted for Manta Ray island. As I’m not a beach person (boring, I know!) I was only up for visiting a paradise island if there was something really unique to experience. Swimming with the manta rays qualified.

The ferry Yasawa Flier II starts from Nadi and covers the whole Yasawa chain, up North in the morning and down South in the afternoon. The most remote islands are 4.5 hours away from Nadi, Manta Ray is 3 hours away.

I spoke to many people out there. Most travellers take advantage of the so-called Bula pass that allows you to visit many islands in the space of say 2 weeks, getting on and off the ferry as many times as you like. The condition though is that you’ve got to have a reservation in the respective island hotel as they do get filled up, even the 32-place backpacker dorms. I was somewhat envious of my Swiss-Scottish-German-French acquaintances, spending as they do weeks and weeks of their lives combing the islands… If ever one of my friends in nearby NZ or Oz are reading this – go to the Yasawas without hesitation and spend TIME there!

As we arrive on our island a small band meets us and sings a Fijian song and shouts “Bula!” What a start.

There are only two hotels on the island of Manta Ray, quite a way from each other. You feel like the whole island is for you only. I was staying in a treehouse bure – it’s a small bungalow on raised stilts which only has a bed and two small bed tables – so you take a shower in a common block. There is also a hammock by the bungalow hanging on the surrounding trees – which is a key part, as I’ve spent many an hour enjoying the peacefulness! Other accommodation options include a jungle bure – which does have a shower – as well as a 32-place dorm. The distance from my bure to the beach was about 20 metres. The restaurant is a little way uphill in the jungle. This is what you see as you have your lunch:

I had time to become friends with local dogs, a cat and even a small goat which is a kind of talisman for the island:

The island is called Manta Ray thanks to the fact that the manta rays regularly visit the narrow warm straight separating right by the beach. Manta rays are enormous sea creatures which look like giant butterflies fluttering in the water. Their wingspan reaches 7 metres. They are actually fish and are closely related to stingrays and more distantly related to sharks. They feed on plankton which they filter using their many rows of teeth – although the teeth are only on the lower jaw. We happened to come to the island outside of the manta ray season – they normally come in summer. But four manta rays arrived early this season – the islanders assured us that we were extremely lucky.

“Swimming with the manta rays” is organised as follows. On arrival it was explained to us that the resort workers would watch the ocean and look for the arrival of the rays. Once they come, they will start to beat a special huge drum. This may happen at any time, but is more likely in the morning. The moment we hear the drum, we should run to the dive shop, pick up the snorkelling equipment and board the boat.

This was exactly what transpired the next morning. Around 8 o’clock I heard the drum. I was still sleeping, so I jumped out of bed, foregoing the breakfast, grabbed the flippers, the tube and the mask and off we went in the boat! It takes you to the middle of the straight up the current and then the whole group – we were about 10 people – jumps into the water and starts slowly drifting with the current which is very strong out there. A resort worker is swimming with us and leads us to the manta rays. I realised quickly that the easiest way to spot a manta ray is from above – that’s why the guy who is swimming with us is constantly communicating with other two guys that remain in the boats and watch the water from above. We did about 5-6 swims of this kind through the whole straight down the current. And every time I was lucky to encounter a manta ray. One time one girl and myself accidentally got separated from the rest of the group and found ourselves in the second boat. Suddenly we saw the manta ray right in front of the boat. The boatman asked us: “Will you jump?” “Of course!”I said. This time the manta ray swam right in my face, there were perhaps one or two metres between us. It was both fantastic and frightening. Its slowly fluttering wings were reaching many metres to each side of me, and its jaws looked like two white horns coming together right in front of my face. Amazing.

During the lunchtime conversations I heard lots of delighted impressions about the first experience of diving that many people did here in Fiji. I’d never dived before. Though I’m not claustrophobic and I’ve no panic fear of heights, sometimes I do panic in water, though I can swim. The panic comes when there are many people around me who are moving chaotically, creating ripples and jostling about. That’s why diving for me was in fact the most frightening experience – even more frightening than skydiving or bungy jumping. But after listening to all my friends here – that’s what travelling does to you – I decided to do an introductory dive here in Fiji – because the word was that the coral reefs around the Yasawa islands were among the most beautiful in the world.

As I learnt later, usually such introductory dives last about 30 minutes and you reach the depth of 5-7 metres. In our dive we reached the maximum depth of 11.7 metres and it lasted for about 45 minutes. The maximum allowed depth for a dive is generally between 30 and 50 metres. We used a half mask, which is a kind of a mask that covers only half of the face, the eyes and the nose. The alternative – a full mask – would cover the whole face and would be connected to the air tanks directly with a tube. In our case we had to keep the end of the tube in our mouth. Before putting the mask on, you have to spit into it and spread the spit over the plastic. If some water seeps into the mask, there is an easy way of getting it out – you just need to raise your head and to blow strongly – the air pressure forces the water out.!

Before the dive I asked the instructor to explain to me the risks I am taking. The instructor answered that there is no risk as he will follow us very closely and keep track of our progress. I was unhappy about this response but decided to go for it anyway. It has to be said though that the guy really did follow our every step underwater and constantly asked us if we were doing alright – there is a special sign to say “OK” underwater, I think I had to use it about 30 times that day.

It was scary only the first minutes. At some point you realise that even if you breathe really fast you cannot suffocate. Then the adrenalin takes over and excitedly you follow the instructor deeper and deeper. You do perceive the changing air pressure and the accompanying pain in your ears, but it is easy to get rid of it by blowing into your nose. The reefs down there are absolutely incredible, the fish of every possible colour swim right next to you, you can hold the starfish in your hands, touch the anemones. In the deepest point we approach an iron bed standing on the ocean floor which served as a farm for giant oysters. We could put a finger inside an oyster and it would open and close its shell and we could see its colour inside – blue, pink, orange.

The straight where all this took place:

On this beach I suddenly regretted that I was travelling alone. Instead of a random guy I would have loved to photograph someone dear to my heart.

During the evenings in a beachside cafe the resort personnel organised various games and concerts for the guests. The Fijians love singing, they do it all the time for the slightest reason. Practically all the staff would gather in the evening and sing songs in every possible language. I can still hear one of their songs in my ears, “When you’re far far away, please remember the precious moments on the island of Manta Ray”. And precious they were. The Fijians here are real, they are not spoilt by the commercial civilisation of the mainland, they are warm and welcoming, they shout “Bula” to you every time they meet you, they hug you and hold your hand, they immediately remember your name, and all this is sincere.

One of the nighttime concerts. I’m not sure how my phone managed to make this photo – probably someone else flashed their camera at that very moment.

The little goat decided to join the performance.

I was very sad to leave the Manta Ray island. Even the day of the departure happened to be appropriately cloudy.

On the way back we passed one of the popular islands in the Mamanuca chain – the Beachcomber island. Drunk backpacker dance there all through the night.

Finally we reach the Kawarau harbour in Nadi.

The next day before flying to Vanuatu I visited the Nadi town itself. Basically the main street surrounded by some one or two storey buildings is all there is. I had my hair cut in an Indian hairdresser saloon for about 1 euro – so far the cheapest haircut in my life. The town looks thus:

About 40% of Fiji’s population are of Indian origin. When Fiji was still under British rule, the British systematically brought Indians here as indented labourers – in other words, cheap labour force. Today the presence of such a strong Indian community contributes to some tensions in Fiji – the Melanesian Fijians feel somewhat threatened by it. In Nadi I visited the local Indian temple. The guide who force himself onto me proudly declared that it was the largest Indian temple in the Southern hemisphere. Yes, in Fiji.

The main entrance:

The gates crowned by the characteristic gopuram:

Ganesh meets you by the main entrance:

A fragment of a tower:

The Nandi bull. The main offering for the bull is milk. The guide explained to me that such quantities of milk are poured there that the milk starts spoiling leading to anti sanitary conditions. A separate room is being built next to the temple specifically to move Nandi offerings there.

You cannot photograph inside the temple. The guide made a picture of me from outside of the fence. Indian logic!

One of the lunches in Nadi, in Kawarau, in a Fijian kitchen restaurant. The food of Fiji is based on simplicity – using plain and tasty local ingredients, fish above all.

A plane takes me away from Fiji, the place which seemed rather unfriendly at first, but whose charm conquered me in the end. This flight from Fiji to Vanuatu seemed incredible beautiful to me – I’ve never seen such colours from a window of plane.

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