If, before going, you had asked me what I knew about Fiji, I would have said this: it's a collection of islands in the Pacific, has some lovely beaches, my brother was peculiarly fascinated with it when much younger (he thought the name sounded funny), and I had a friend who lives there. All these are correct, but top-of-the-list of correctness is the Pacific part. Fiji is in the Pacific Ocean, and therefore is really, really far away for someone from Scotland. Unless I was determined to go there, it never seemed like somewhere I might casually visit, not least because the main attraction appeared to be beaches. In case I haven't already mentioned it in this blog, many times, I'm not a beach person. The prospect of sitting on a stretch of what is surely just a powdery form of mud, getting far too hot, and waiting out time simply doesn't appeal to. If I want to sleep, I'd rather do it in a bed; if I want to read, I'd rather sit on a comfortable chair; if I want to burn, I'd rather squeeze myself into a cooker and turn the dial to 200.
But life is full of surprises. Los Angeles to Sydney via Fiji Airways included a stopover in Fiji, and it turns out that I've married someone who seems rather fond of beaches. Even more pertinently, as mentioned, I have a friend who lives in Fiji. Therefore we both had compelling reasons to visit the country, and so we stretched the stopover to just under five days. And our conclusion, after these days, was the delightfully obvious and wholly uncontroversial: Fiji is really, really lovely.
Our first two days were spent in the capital, Suva, staying with my friend Maebh and her boyfriend, Tom. I know Maebh from my couple of years in South Korea, back in 2004 and 2005, and as part of the twisting path that life throws down before us, subsequent to Korea she found herself studying in the north of England - Durham - and then, in a move that I can't say anyone predicted (least of all her), she was offered a job in Fiji. Never refuse a job in Fiji, is an unfound maxium I think we can all agree upon, and so for the last two-and-a-half years she's been an English Literature lecturer at the University of the South Pacific.
Although the capital of Fiji is Suva, the main airport is at Nadi, a town at the exact other side of the island from Suva. Convenient for holidaymakers - most of the nice islands and beaches are a ready distance away - but less convenient for us. After an overnight flight, a bumpy bus for over four hours (albeit along a terribly pretty route) wasn't quite what we were looking forward to. Suva is more a business town; it doesn't have nice beaches and isn't frequented by tourists. The largest city in the South Pacific, it has a population comparable to that of Inverness in Scotland, at around 80,000, with the greater area having a little under 200,000, or to continue the Scottish comparisons, just a little smaller than Aberdeen. You'd be hard push to find any other similarities though. Suva creeps along at a gentle pace, roasting under a tropical sun and dramatic showers of rain, and is packed with trees and greenery. The architecture is insubstantial, lightweight, unimaginative, but colourful. Architecture is not Fiji's forte, and nor does it need to be It is a nation blessed with natural beauty. Seen from above, the capital city can barely be made out, hidden as it is by vegetation. Here's a picture of a traditional village house, as reconstructed in the university grounds (these days, most use corrugated iron because it's easier).
Amusingly, Maebh says that this quiet capital is regarded by many Fijians and Pacific Islanders as a crazy, bustling metropolis, viewed with wide eyes and open mouths. Being the biggest city for thousands of miles, for those more used to villages with less than a hundred homes, all basic, it must seem a different world. It's a different world alright, but straight from Los Angeles, Lima, and Rio de Janeiro, it seemed a gentle, sleepy and very charming world for Danielle and I.
Our only regret about visiting Maebh and Suva is that we only had two days. After three months on the move, staying in unfamiliar cities in hotels, it was great to stay in a house, with friends who knew the territory. On our first day, Maebh took us to a nearby rainforest park, a short trek through the jungle past waterfalls and pools of water. One of these had an overhanging branch, from which a rope had been tied, with locals raucously swinging from it and diving, often elaborately, into the water. It was idyllic.
The jungle mini trek aside, most of our Suva days were spent drinking. Appropriately, in honour of our time together in South Korea, we ate at a Korean restaurant on the first evening. This is our third Korean meal of the trip (we also ate Korean in Santiago and Montevideo) and it was by far the best. All the classics were brought out, side dishes were plentiful, and even the soju tasted good. The following day saw a short walk around the teeming metropolis of Suva. As I say, it's not exactly a world capital, but Danielle was delighted to find a decent coffee shop (she judges everything upon the availability of good coffee), and it wasn't without its impressive buildings. Notably, the macho-pompous government buildings, and the nearly-restored Grand Pacific Hotel.
Our second and final afternoon was spent (of course) drinking with Maebh and Tom in some post-colonial establishments, followed by some Indian food.
And then, in an instant, we were waving goodbye to them and city life in Fiji, and were off to a more typical tourist experience in Fiji - a beach resort.
There's not too much to say about this as we did as close to nothing as possible for these two days. The true picture postcard beaches are on the Fijian islands, but this simply was logistically impossible for our limited time remaining, so at the slight sacrifice of a paradise beach, we found a wonderful resort on the Coral Coast, fairly cheap but incredibly friendly and very high quality. Drinks were quite expensive, but between 5-6pm daily it was Happy Hour, with prices halved, so as you can imagine we got stuck in.
This was a 5pm photo - we were looking considerably less perky by 6pm.
We emerged from our two days, very rested and, for Danielle, considerably more sunburned. Ha! After her mocking me for my burn acquired in Peru, she neglected the suncream in Fiji and it was her turn to cook.
So, to conclude. If, after visiting, you asked me what I know about Fiji, then I would say: all of the above. Plus, you might want to use suncream.
(It also happens to be a military dictatorship but, hey, not every paradise can be perfect.)