After watching the classic South Pacific, I was convinced that the South Seas, with their golden sunsets, were the closest you could get to Heaven on Earth.
So, when the chance came to visit Fiji, I grabbed it. I had assumed it would be similar to Hawaii and The Caribbean. I was to be proven wrong. Yes, the people resembled those in the Caribbean, and the beaches and sunset were similar to what you would see in the Caribbean or Hawaii, and the climate was tropical. But that’s where the similarities ended.
Nothing had prepared us for the rudimentary nature of the airport. It looked like a hangar from the 1950s. A single line of passengers led from the plane and snaked slowly toward the destination, which I expected was a single immigration counter.
Thankfully, there were four immigration counters. We were processed quickly. Our hotel was located right on the beach on Denarau Island, just separated by a short bridge from the main island. After checking into our room, we ventured out for a walk along the beach. The views were nothing less than stellar.
But there was a catch. We could not walk on the beach. It had a chocolate colour and was cordoned off for safety reasons. There were several hotels on Denarau Island, but none had a sandy beach. The island was built on a swamp and landfill.
But even then, the coconut trees provided an ethereal backdrop against which to view the red and yellow sunsets. We walked along the pathway next to the beach mornings and evenings during the next four days, taking in the surreal views and breathing in the clean air.
Little green parrots were everywhere. The large lily pond at the entrance was stunning with its abundance of pink foliage.
The next day we watched a Fiji cultural show at the Coco Palms open air theatre. This featured a buffet dinner and local music, amazing dances, and a man who walked on burning embers.
At the grill, just about every type of cuisine, including Chinese, Japanese and Indian was featured, along with Western and local Fiji dishes. Dinner was accompanied by a half-hour show featuring native dance and music on the beach.
One the third day we did a half-day tour of Mana Island. The views during the cruise were amazing. The water was a clear deep blue, the sky was a lighter shade of blue. We also got to see the smaller islands along the sea, which were covered with sand and palm trees and people enjoying water sports.
Mana Island had real sandy beaches. We spent an hour just lying on chairs in the shade of the palm trees, taking in the views and watching people from Asia get their first snorkeling lesson.
On the fourth day, we did a four-part tour of Nadi that was rich in anthropology, geography and economics. First, we visited a farmer’s market where every imaginable organic produce was being sold along with tropical flowers.
Second, we toured a village which was built at the spot where the first immigrants arrived. Our guide told us that they came from Tanzania some 3,500 years ago. I said “That’s a long way away. How did they get here in such a prehistoric time?” He said, “On canoes.” I was still skeptical, given the distance, the lack of maps and the roughness of the high seas. He said their origins had been established through DNA testing of the current population. He added that some ancestors had Egyptian blood and may have migrated to Tanzania to escape persecution by the pharaohs. But I was unable to substantiate his statements on the internet.
We saw a government building and a church that were part of the village. He said that all native Fijians are Christians. I also discovered, to my horror, that cannibalism was being practiced on the islands until the mid-19th century.
Third, we went up a country road to an orchid and water-lily garden that was tucked away on a mountain. Interestingly, it was built by the actor Raymond Burr of Perry Mason and Ironsides fame.
Fourth, we were taken to the Lookout Point where we got a great view of the harbour and of the volcanic mountains that had given rise to Fiji several millennia ago.
The country roads were rough and uneven. In some cases, there was no road at all – just tire marks on grass. I asked if there was any wildlife in Fiji and was told it consisted of goats, cows and horses.
Of course, given my profession, I just had to ask the tour guides about their experiences with the local electric utility. None were positive. One said that electricity was very expensive. Another said they did not have a choice of supplier. A third said that some people were installing solar on the roof to lower their bills and some were also installing batteries “since the sun goes down at night.”
Wherever I went, the people were friendly. They spoke fluent English. Some of them, such as the hostess on the cruise boat, spoke BBC-quality English.
A few also spoke Hindi. One sales clerk at a department store overheard me talking to my wife in Urdu and asked if we were from India. I said we were born and raised in Pakistan but had lived in the US for our entire adult life.
In Urdu, I asked him, “How are you?” He smiled but did not respond. I asked if he understood me. He said that he did. Then I asked him to please answer my question. As he did, my ears grated, and some awkward expression apparently came on my face. He had a harsh guttural accent. I apologised to him. He said he had anticipated my reaction, and that whenever he went to India, he made it a point not to speak in Hindi.
I learned that Fiji was governed by the British for a hundred years before being granted independence in 1970. Its short political history has been troubled, marked by coups and tensions between the native Fijians and ethnic Indians.
But we had not come to Fiji to study its political history or its energy economics. We had come to indulge in its natural charms and there were plenty of those. We left Fiji with a heavy heart, knowing that we were leaving paradise and heading back to Earth.