Visions of Paradise- Part 1 (1986)
Updated: Jan 20, 2021
by Elaine Weeks
Nadi, Fiji, August, 15, 1986
A FALSE START
“Sir! Please, come with me for lovely view and pool! Very cheap!”
“Bula! How about you come to my place for nice relaxing time?”
“Madame, please, come to my hotel!”
Waving hotel flyers, a throng of touts make a bee-line towards Chris and I as we drag our gear out of Customs and Immigration. Pink and purple sky glowing through the open walls of the airport lobby remind us how little sleep we’d managed in the past 24 hours. Our watches declare 5 a.m.; our brains insist it’s closer to midnight. Jet lag and the groggy realization we are finally in ‘Paradise’ suspend us in a state of indecision. As if in a bad dream, we watch the shouting herd draw ever closer.
To further scramble our consciousness, somewhere over the dark Pacific, we'd crossed the International Date Line and an entire day had vanished from our lives. Like Mark Twain in Following The Equator, we had found it difficult to believe it was gone for ever.
…(to) lose a day out of our lives, a day never to be found again. We shall all die one day earlier than from the beginning of time we were foreordained to die. We shall be a day behindhand all through eternity. We shall always be saying to the other angels, “Fine day to-day,” and they will be always retorting, “But it isn’t to-day, it’s to-morrow.” We shall be in a state of confusion all the time and shall never know what true happiness is.
Enviously, we watched fellow passengers smugly climb into white hotel vans, spirited away to luxury hotels. Dealing with touts is our unexpected penance for travelling on the cheap.
After we’d spent several frustrating minutes listening to the chorus of pleas imploring us to stay at this hotel or that, a big, affable looking Fijian sized us up and separated himself from the pack.
“Bula! I am Boscoe. I have very nice hotel. Very cheap but pool, air con and you can cook.”
With a warm smile he proudly flourished his flyer:
“Johal’s Hotel – To earn and let others earn is our motto.” Welcome you to Fiji- Fiji’s Internationally Known Budget Hotel
Campsite F$2.50 per person
Licensed Liquor Bar open 24 hours
Restaurant and Mini Grocery Store
Rates which allow you to stay longer and more duty free buying
First Class Aircondition rooms
Country view and beautiful sunny Weather
Its just a clean, comfortable, friendly place capable of making your trip to our beautiful islands a pleasant and lasting memory
Always find our courtesy Car waiting at the International Airport if not phone 72192
Meet natives with big Fiji smile and Kava drinks of Fiji
Check out time 10 am
CHANGEABLE WITHOUT NOTICE
At this point, I’m ready to stay in a cave.
“This looks okay to me Chris, and look, we can camp. What do you think?”
“Well, I guess it sounds all right.” Chris replies cautiously. After hesitating for a few seconds he gives in. “Okay Boscoe, you’ve got a deal!”
“Perfect!” said the big Fijian happily as he bent to help us with our packs.
After a relaxing, though much longer ride than anticipated, we arrive at Johal’s. Our hearts sink. The place seems abandoned; and though still relatively dark, there are no lights on. The dingy peeling walls haven’t felt a paintbrush in years.
But then signs of life. As Boscoe led us down a dingy hallway we almost bump into a couple of sleepy travellers stumbling towards the kitchen.
Chris and I wearily pitch our tent on the grass near the murky swimming pool, and manage to cheer ourselves by remembering this is only a temporary pit stop; we’d soon be moving on.
WHICH WAY TO THE BEACH
After tossing and turning in our sleeping bags for over an hour as the hot sun steadily rose skyward, I have what I deem a brilliant idea.
“Let’s go to the beach, Chris! I mean, why come all the way to paradise to swelter in a hot tent? We can sleep later when it’s cooler.”
“Hmm… It does seem pretty stupid to lie here wide awake covered in sweat,” Chris admits, “when we could be loafing on a beautiful beach.”
“Let’s find Boscoe and see if he can take us.”
But Boscoe had other commitments.
“If you go into town, you can catch the bus to the beach.” he promises with a wide grin. “It’s not far.”
The bus ride is long but as we bump along into Nadi, we get a better look at the countryside. Dark, mist covered green mountains brood on the horizon but the immediate environs are depressingly desolate; nothing for miles but field after field of parched-looking sugar cane. Not at all what we had imagined in a tropical paradise. Later in the trip, we learn from a local this is the dry side of the island, ideal for growing cane.
Stepping off the bus in downtown Nadi, women in colourful saris swirl past; thin, dark-skinned children race by chasing a yelping puppy. Other sari-clad women gaze at us from a shop window as their husbands lounge in the doorway. We begin walking and overtake a crowd of smartly clothed Indian teenaged boys sauntering down the sidewalk.
“What are all these East Indians doing here?” whispers Chris. “Where are we, Bombay?”
“Maybe the locals don’t like towns,” I suggest. “Or, perhaps we did manage to fall asleep and we’re dreaming.”
We learn Fiji is often referred as “the India of the South Seas." In the late 19th and early 20th century, British rulers imported thousands of Indians to toil as indentured servants in the sugar cane fields. Fijians simply were not suited to the work as many died in the blistering sun.
The Indians proliferated in the early part of this century, mostly around Nadi and nearby Lautoka as Fijians declined in number, due to diseases imported by British colonists. The Indians were business-oriented, while the much more communal Fijians maintained strong village lives dominated by a chief. With almost half the population comprised of East Indians at the time of our arrival in 1986, the fundamental differences between the two groups created tensions sparking a coup in 1987, a year after our visit.
As we wander through the dusty streets, we are oblivious to any potential unrest, dismayed by how incredible ugliness – nothing but crowded electronics and souvenir shops. Eventually, after several false turns, we find a small bus station where we encounter a lanky young fellow Canadian lounging against his packs.
“Yeah, Nadi is pretty depressing,” he agrees after we greet him enthusiastically, eager to learn whether things are better than our first impressions. He shifts his weight against his packs. “Once you start moving down the coast from Nadi though, the terrain becomes more tropical and you’ll notice a lot more of the locals. This place isn’t really Fiji at all.”
“That’s a relief.” says Chris.
Our attention is diverted by a motorcycle packed with an entire Indian family which slowly buzzed past the station.
“I was beginning to feel like we’d made a mistake coming here.” Chris continues, shaking his head. “We just arrived this morning and so far, it’s been a real shock. I’ve always thought Fiji was like paradise but I’ve been having my doubts. Would you happen to know anything about the beach near town?”
“Nope.” says the Canuck. “I went straight to Suva with my team to play in a tournament – I’m a basketball player. Thought I’d do a little sight-seeing on my own and catch up with the guys in New Zealand. We’re playing there next. I checked out a couple of places on the coast before heading back to Nadi and now I’m on my way to the airport otherwise, I’d probably come with you.”
After this little chat we’re feeling a little better and hopeful our search for the closest beach won’t be a disappointment. When we find the right bus that drops us off in the middle of nowhere, we’re feeling depressed, even more jet lagged than before.
“The driver said it’s about a km down this road.” says Chris pointing down a long dusty lane devoid of any tropical vegetation.
“Oh sure,” I respond dryly, “How much do you wanna bet it’ll be more like two?”
After the predictably long trudge, we finally set foot on the beach. The water is cloudy, a few weather-beaten palm trees, the sand is coffin grey.
“Guess we should have stayed put at Johal’s.” Chris says gloomily, wiping the sweat off his face. “Shit, am I disappointed!”
“Well, we’re here now so let’s try to relax.” I suggest hoping to make the best of a bad situation.
After braving the murky water to cool off we spread out our towels but our attempts at suntanning are thwarted by a brisk wind which coats our oiled bodies with mucky sand.
“God, this is the pits!” I groan as I attempt to brush the sand off my skin for the third time.
“I think we might as well face it Chris, we’re wasting our time here. It’s like we made a wrong turn somewhere!”
“I guess we should have done a little more research before blundering off today,” Chris admits mournfully.
The only other lost souls on the beach are two thirtyish women from Washington, who complain how the beach was nothing like their travel brochures had promised.
“Listen to this,” says the short one fishing a pamphlet out of her beach bag. “‘Visit the picturesque isles that make up the Southwest Pacific paradise of Fiji and you will find the anticipated stretches of sun drenched beaches fringed with coconut trees, crystal clear waters full of colourful corals and brightly hued fish.’ Ha!”
“I think we should have gone to Hawaii like we planned.” cries her friend petulantly. “I know it would have cost more but I’m sure it would have been a hell of a lot better than this!”
“Too late now Ruth. Well, we might as well go back to the hotel and have a drink. Do you two want to share a cab into town? We’re staying at the Sunseekers Hotel which is just outside of town.”
A drink sounds like a very good idea right about now. Fortunately, the women had arranged for a cab to come pick them up or we probably would have been stranded there all day.
When we discover that even though it’s also a budget hotel, their place is definitely a lot spiffier than Johal’s we’re bummed. When we notice a couple of tents pitched in the back, even more so. Why hadn’t we come here instead? And, the small pool looks considerably more inviting.
After a resuscitating drink at the outdoor bar, Chris and I hit the pool. The chilly water actually feels pretty good and rejuvenating.
“Now this is more like it!” I sigh contentedly while slowly treading water. “I’m think I’m actually starting to feel a bit better about things again.”
“I’m pretty sure we just got off to a bad start today,” says Chris who is floating lazily on his back. “Once we get some rest, things will look rosier.”
We are the only ones in the pool so we take our time climbing out. As we towel off, another guest passing by exclaims, “You didn’t just go for a swim did you?”
“Yeah, and it was terrific," I reply thinking, isn’t it rather obvious?
“Didn’t anyone tell you?" she cries. “They fished a dead dog out of there yesterday!”.
Chris and I look at each other, at the innocent looking pool, then at each other again.
“Welcome to Paradise!” I whimper.
FADED COLONIAL GLORY
A food night sleep helps matters. After the unsettling experiences of the previous, our main focus was to get as far away from this dreadful place as soon as we could. Obviously, it wasn’t going to be just a matter of planting our running shoes down on Fiji soil. Since we weren’t on a two week pre-packaged, pre-arranged tour of the islands (which we couldn’t afford and weren't seeking in any case), it seemed we were going to have to work a little harder to find Eden.
We decided to try our luck on one of the outlying islands, three hundred strung like glistening pearls on our small map. We determined to find our slice of Paradise without further delay. Ovalau Holiday Resort, a two-hour boat ride from the capital Suva, seemed like an appealing choice. A flyer thrust into our hands at the airport highlighted its attractions:
“Picture yourself adrift on the private beach of a 22 acre coconut plantation. The backdrop – a historical colonial town virtually unchanged for a 100 years…a restaurant offering local and European cuisine and a Beach Bar. And if you feel like aquatic excitement, then our reef fishing, snorkeling or trips to neighbouring islands are for you.”
The price was right. Claiming to be the “cheapest resort in the South Pacific," the Ovalau Holiday Resort promised dormitory rooms for only $3 or $2.50 to pitch a tent - right up our alley.
At 10:30, the ever cheerful Boscoe deposited us at the airport where he promised we could catch the 10:45 a.m. bus to the nation’s capital, Suva. The route followed the Queen’s Highway, hugging the southern coast of the main island, Viti Levu, as opposed to the King’s Highway, which took the northern route (it was quite apparent we were not long out of the empire).
After a half hour wait, we asked an airport official if there was indeed such a bus to Suva, and were informed we’d missed the 9:15, but the next one was at 1:30.
Around 2, an ancient, open-air bus limped into the airport terminus; finally, we were on our way to the nation’s capital. The day turned hot and sticky and the open-air bus was a joy for the cool breezes it provided.
A young British couple on board said they were stopping at the Coral Coast Christian Camp, a small campground along the coral coast. Still fairly exhausted from our flight, as we’d wasted half the day waiting for a bus, we decided to pause here too. We were starting to regain our senses, realizing it wasn’t such a good idea to be in such a rush; we were on tour after all!
According to the camp’s flyer, no alcohol or dancing were permitted on the premises; we probably didn’t need a drink anyway, nor did we expect to be dancing soon, due to our jet-lagged condition.
A swim seemed the best option.
After quickly setting up camp, we hiked across the road to inspect the beach, leaps and bounds above the dismal specimen of the day before. But the sky had grown overcast and a wind had come up so swimming seemed a far less likely option.
“Well,” ventured Chris, “we might as well eat!” (his favoured solution when the going got tough).
We’d noticed a small restaurant where the bus had dropped us about a quarter mile up the road from the camp. Retracing our steps we found ourselves the only customers. Naturally, the little restaurant was run by an Indian family who eagerly set about making us comfortable. While waiting for the main course of chicken curry we snacked on puris, roti, and other Indian treats, quaffing our first Fijian Bitter beers of the campaign, fully aware we were breaking one of the camp rules, a mere technicality, as we were outside the camp’s boundaries.
After 40 minutes, still no sign of curry.
“I think they had to kill one of those chickens out there,” I joke referring to the plump birds we’d seen pecking in the grass just outside the restaurant.
“Well, at least it’ll be fresh!” laughed Chris. “I don’t mind the hold up really as long as they’ve got more cold brewskies!’
The curry was worth the wait; big chunks of tender white chicken swimming in a rich spicy coconut sauce cooled with dollops of thick plain yogurt. The best part was the price: four of us ate and drank steadily for two hours and only about twenty dollars poorer; things were looking up.
The wind continued to blow and then, not long after we all turned in for the night, the rains began. Nothing like being cocooned in a sleeping bag, listening to rain drum on a tent roof for a good night’s rest. Though a bit worried about getting wet, this was the acid test to see if our tent could brave the elements. We passed the night uneventfully, the downpour had the courtesy to peter out just before we emerged at 7 a.m feeling much improved.
Sleep had definitely revived our spirits and sense of adventure.
NEXT STOP, SUVA
The weather changed for our bus ride to the capital; we got quite a soaking as it took some time for the passengers to lower the canvas flaps over the open windows. Once this was achieved, we understood their reticence; visibility was reduced considerably through the tiny portholes in the canvas- like coke bottle bottoms- it felt like we were travelling in a sweatbox due to the lack of ventilation.
People got on and off the bus with nerve-racking frequency. The proportion of Indians to Fijians decreased as we neared the capital even as teeth-gritting Indian music blared from the bus’s loudspeakers.
Chris and I had no idea where we to go in Suva; we only sketchy travel information, no travel guide, but we weren’t really all that concerned. We didn’t think it would be all that difficult to find a hotel and something to eat. The only other task was booking our tickets to Ovalau so we could depart the following day.
When we eventually arrived, we wandered around due to false information provided by over-eager-to-please locals before locating a cheap hotel, the boat ticket office and an authentic, very rickety Fijian restaurant/shack set up along the port. The view was stunning; copra boats, huge cargo freighters and round-the world yachts bobbed peacefully in the calm harbor. And the price was certainly right; for a dollar, we had a rib-sticking meal of tapioca root, boiled greens and our choice of steak, fish (head and all — nouvelle cuisine, Fijian-style, perhaps?) or curry.
We shared a battered wooden table with some locals who didn’t seem to mind our intrusion at the local snack shack. When our meal was served, we were ceremoniously provided with what seemed to be the only spoons in the place; the Fijians ate with their fingers, rinsing them clean in a communal bowl. A much more intelligent method we concluded, as without knives or napkins, our hands became quite gummy.
The South Seas Private Hotel served as our home for the night. Only the high vaulted ceilings, the screened in veranda facing Albert Park and the old worn out pianos in the lobby served to remind visitors of its former glory under British rule. The hotel was popular only with the budget travel set now; its seedy condition translated into cheap room rates.
Chris and I were offered a very dark, sparsely furnished room that looked like it was part of the staff’s quarters. But for the ridiculous figure of only $7.47 a night, we were sold. And, the proprietress noted guests of the South Seas were allowed swimming privileges at the Grand Pacific, “the Raffles of the South Pacific," a colonial hotel on the waterfront.
Surely there wouldn’t be any dead dogs in this pool! We decided to investigate before dinner.
Built in 1914 by the Union Steamship Company, the Grand Pacific had once been ‘the’ place in Suva; currently, it suffered from years of neglect. Instead of renovating to preserve its many charms, recent owners had instead attempted to modernize the hotel, lending a facade of tackiness. Nevertheless, the vast lobby with its orderly arrangement of inviting easy chairs and the ship-like deck, encircling its upper story were quite spectacular.
And the pool was wonderful – clear and cool with nary a dog hair in sight.
After our dip, we enjoyed half pints of Fiji bitter draft at the bar, staffed by a Fijian waiter who looked very dignified in a blue, wrap-around skirt (or sulu). The bar suffered the indignity of haphazard rejuvenation; only the enormous thread bare Persian rug, immense windows and the brass buttons on the wall to summon the ‘drink waiter’ persevered from its former glory days.
Instructed to be at the post office by 8 a.m. to catch the bus to the Ovalau ferry at Natovi, we hustled after a quick breakfast of fresh-baked quiches and muffins, gratefully purchased from an enterprising young Fijian woman who visited the hotel every morning with her fragrant wares packed in a big wicker basket.
Our haste was unnecessary however, as the bus had broken down. This underscored an important lesson in the Fijian way of life: never plan to leave or arrive at a place on time. Something is bound to go wrong so why hurry? Rather reminiscent of the “manana” mentality in Mexico, we concluded (never put off until tomorrow what you can do next week).
Much later in our trip, we were presented with another theory: the Fijians believe the future is the past and the past is the present. We figured this accounted for their frustratingly unpredictable transit schedules.
We learned the next bus to Natovi would connect to a 3 o’clock ferry; we wouldn’t reach Ovalau till nightfall. Chris and I hot-footed it to the bus station a couple of blocks away to see if we could catch a local bus, which we were led to believe would get us there in an hour and a half. Discovering that a bus left at 9 am, we hurried back to the post office for our gear to avoid a five hour wait. Four other backpackers joined us in our race back to the bus station but now the bus officials weren’t sure if we could get one bus all the way to Natovi!
Transferring half way there was probably necessary, with the very real possibility of being stranded.
After five or six more conflicting stories, we thought it best to head to the waterfront and bide our time until the 1 p.m. bus left the post office, not such a bad place to be stuck. We yacked with other travellers, caught up on letter and journal writing; I began making an outfit out of material I purchased the previous evening night. I wanted to go native so planned to make a sulu and a sleeveless top.
The bus duly arrived and after another excruciating wait, we ultimately departed for the port. The driver, undaunted by the dirt roads, was a speed demon. When we arrived in Natovi, shaken and dusty due to the open windows, we were all too happy to be nearer our destination.
The boat was only an hour and ten minutes late pushing off.
When slipped from its moorings, we were elated to be officially sailing to Ovalau. Sunning on the deck of the tiny ferry, we fantasized about white sandy beaches, fringed by graceful palms, lapped by pristine blue waters.
We gazed contentedly at faraway islands guessing which would soon become our version of Paradise. When Ovalau Island was pointed out to us in the distance, its volcanic summit poking majestically out of the sea, its slopes thickly lined with thousands of coconut palms, we were certain we’d be stepping onto fantasy island.
Next: Ovalau Island