Day 312, Wed, Mar. 14, 2001 – It was nice to be back in the muggy tropics, but we were met with a hellacious tropical storm pounding the airport in Nadi as soon as we stepped off the plane – we hope it’s not a bad omen. It was pretty funny because the airport has an open courtyard in the middle and the welcoming grass-skirt and ukulele band had to scamper under an overhang. We had wanted to come to Fiji for as long as we could remember, after seeing specials on the Travel Channel and National Geographic and hearing everyone rave about it. Our friends Paul and Mary raved after they honeymooned here last year (at Turtle Island, where Blue Lagoon was filmed). It is famous for its crystal waters, white sand, and extraordinarily friendly people. Which is ironic since the islands were once avoided by explorers and adventurers due to rumors of the culinary habits of the natives. James Cook stopped by in 1774 after hearing of the “Cannibal Isles” while in Tonga. He heard right - after the famous mutiny on the Bounty, Captain Bligh passed by and was chased by two canoes full of supposedly hungry islanders. Inevitably, traders in sandalwood, whale products, and sea cucumbers settled, bringing firearms that tipped the balance of power among warring natives and became currency themselves. Missionaries eventually succeeded at converting the island (assisted by measles, cholera, the common cold, and other wraths of God that wiped out a third of the native population). A hundred years later, Fiji was a British colony and cannibalism declined, along with the “old religion”, elaborate face painting, and huge hairstyles (except for a few unfortunate missionaries or merchants who really pissed off the natives). Now you can pick up copies of traditional wooden “flesh forks” at the airport gift shop, along with your war clubs and tapa bark cloths.
The airport booking agency helped us find a hotel and we were soon on our way to the Coral Coast on the south side of Viti Levu, the main Island of the 300 Fijian Islands. We are staying away from Suva, the administrative capital as that is where all the political turmoil is played out in the streets every once in a while. The country has been in turmoil since last year when George Speight, a failed businessman, took it upon himself to liberate the country from the grips of a multi-racial government on behalf of native Fijians. It was sort of the Fijian version of the land-grabs in Zimbabwe except in Fiji there was little bloodshed and the head of the government wasn’t supporting the radicals. In fact, the head of the government, Mahendra Chaudhry, and the rest of parliament, were held captive for a couple months while Speight tried to install his own government, backed by the tribal council of elders of Fijian blood. His big beef is that the descendents of Indian immigrants brought over when Fiji was a British colony have too much economic and political power and subjugate native Fijians, notwithstanding the fact that the population is roughly 50/50 and the current government was elected pretty much democratically. Ethnic tension is an ironic result of a policy Britain implemented to help Fijians maintain land ownership. Indians were brought in as indentured laborers to work the sugarcane plantations; they were discouraged from buying land, so they became expert merchants, small businessmen and bureaucrats. Fijians still technically own over 80% of the land, but most business, retail, and transport, is owned by Indians. Speight’s coup was not a new concept, as the same thing happened in 1987, 17 years after independence from Britain. The international community reacted strongly however, and Speight eventually released his captives. Today the current status, outlook and speculation changes every day.
The booking agent got us a half-price deal at the Warwick, supposedly the best grand old hotel on the island. We talked to the guys in the office about the political situation, and they said it was due to “trouble makers in Suva – it’s bad for business”. Our hotel is about half way along the road to Suva, but that’s as close as we will get. We were excited, but a bit unsure if we would get there since the driver had an unnerving habit of turning off his lights every once in a while. We had visions of the madman driver from Seychelles, so we thought it better not to watch. We eventually got off the bus with the guitarist playing with the band at the hotel tonight. The Warwick is huge, and we soon found out why the Hyatt chain sold the joint. We had small complaints, but we are so near the end of our journey that we were just looking forward to a little vacation from hassles.
Day 313, Thur, Mar. 15, 2001 – Took a day off, sort of, to relax and plan the rest of our stay in Fiji. It was overcast, so we played ping-pong and had delicious BBQ fish while watching dozens of overweight Aussies play water volleyball in the pool. They cheered “Hey, Hey, Hey, Hoy, Hoy, Hoy” after nearly every point, then lumbered over to the side of the pool for their beers. That drove us to the beach. We are amongst the youngest people here – the pool area looks like a retirement home in Florida. We were tempted to ask some of them if they had trouble voting in the election. They were all very sweet, of course, and we shouldn’t make fun since we’d love to be doing what they are doing at their age. We played with crabs and frogs and collected shells along the beach. While I was kayaking, Naomi barely avoided getting knocked on the head by a falling coconut. That reminded us the “watch out for falling coconut” sign in Cairns.
Everyone we ask says Fiji’s troubles are behind and the future is fine – this despite the local news announcing new controversial resignations/appointments/court cases every day. We took complete advantage of the Manager’s Special Happy Hour – free drinks! They even had a “traditional” torch-lighting ceremony – using a Bic lighter. After 6 watery “tropical punches”, we switched to rum and coke, which they actually mixed quite generously. The effect was nice enough to set us up for a great vacation evening.
Day 314, Fri, Mar. 16, 2001 - Took a one hour ride east on a winding ocean road to start a dive on Beqa island, billed as one of the top 10 dive sites in the world. The fish were incredible – a school of dozens of huge trevelies some as big as Naomi.. They circled us and came within touching distance. We attracted a lot of attention – including that of a fat, nasty-looking bull shark. He eyed us from about 15 meters before gliding awesomely away. We also saw hundreds of beche-de-Mer, the black slug-like sea cucumber that has stringy guts that look like spaghetti and are considered a delicacy in Asia. Naomi snorkeled above us and we waved up to her. After a wonderful fresh tuna lunch the second dive was at “coral gardens” with beautiful fish and a good percentage of live coral – even after cyclones, El Nino, and global warming. It was a great dive, and we were lucky to be out there in decent visibility in the sun since it has been raining every night. The ride back to the dock was through a very ritzy neighborhoods where the few rich Fijians and many rich foreigners have villas on the waterway with yachts tied out back. It reminded us of Miami.
"My family is most important. That is why I still work. I am 62 years old. But I enjoy my work too. Tourism is not bad. The coup we have now is not as bad as last time when many people stay away from Fiji. But when they come, it is a different story altogether when they see we are still very hospitable. We still smile. We like our work."
On the way back, the uniformed (but barefoot) kids were just getting out of school and heading home, women were selling vegetables and men were working their yards. Tonight was no exception for rain - we still haven’t seen a sunset after 3 days in Fiji. We did see a lot of orange and red though at the fire walking demonstration at the hotel. Villagers from Beqa, where the tradition started were brought in to tie grass skirts over their Bermuda shorts to entertain tourists. It was very impressive - one guy was sort of a ham, pausing to smile for cameras every time he walked across the rocks. He probably wouldn't be smiling if this was the Indian version of fire walking, which retains a significant religious meaning and includes fasting, trances, whippings and body piercing. After the show the "Island Night" of singing and dancing in the hotel lounge was beautiful - even the conga line at the end with gray-haired grandmas. They were having a blast, and so were we – almost assuaging my gloom over Indiana’s pitiful performance (once again) in the NCAA basketball tournament. I’m really looking forward to that email I’m going to get from our friend, Duane.
Day 315, Sat, Mar. 17, 2001 – Well, after 314 days of 24/7 with each other covering some thirty countries, dozens of cities and hundreds of hotels and enumerable tests of faith, compatibility and humor, we decided that we had passed the compatibility test and decided to go ahead and get married (OK, we really planned it all along). Unfortunately, we found out yesterday via email that we can't do the deed in Rarotonga after all, since we need to have our original certified birth certificates and we only had photocopies with us. It now looks like we’ll have to get married in Fiji after all, but there was nothing we could do to plan it until Monday when all the shops and government offices opened up. The next best thing of course is to go to a tropical getaway island paradise. We decided on Musket Cove Resort because it had a nice brochure, short boat ride, good write up in the guidebooks, and was priced well. The resort is on Malololailai Island in the Mamanuca Group. One thing we really love about the South Pacific is the Polynesian language, with its economy of sounds and abundance of vowels – which require a lot of repeat sounds in the same word. We checked out of the Warwick and took a 9:00 bus to Nadi. The one hour trip took two hours because we stopped at every hotel on the way and we still had time to go to the Sheraton Denaru to look for wedding clothes before the Malolo Cat ferry was due to leave. We couldn’t find anything – Naomi’s petite off-size is hard to find in Fiji, especially since she’s about half the size of the typical Fijian woman. We carried on to Malololailai on the boat, still in gloomy weather. The Bermuda-shorts wearing captain was so laid back he let Naomi drive the boat for a while. When we got to the island, they gave us the tour of the resort before choosing a room far from the beach with A/C instead of the beachfront bure (hut) with ceiling fan (and more critters). The staff are very nice all around. We shopped at the general store for breakfast and lunch goodies and had great salads for dinner near the pool. It was our first time without TV in awhile, so we relished the peace and quiet at night and got some reading and writing done. I had been woefully remiss in keeping up and am now nearly four months behind. Anyone checking the website would think we were still in Nepal in November of last year! I am very upset with myself, but Naomi tells me not to work so hard and enjoy more. A little suggestion goes a long way in the tropics and I reverted to living on Fiji time (or was that Thai Time or Bali Time or Scuba Time?). Fortunately, although the timing is not there, the intent and the spirit are and we continue to collect interviews and ideas.
Day 316, Sun, Mar. 18, 2001 – Naomi went on a snorkel trip and I went diving with a great group of English, Aussie and formerly Zimbabwean divers. The English group had been celebrating a birthday last night in the restaurant and we clapped along to the songs of the bar band, Big Bill and His Band, and the singing of waitresses. We went first to Plantation Pinnacles – two tall coral heads. The dive was fairly uneventful at depth except for a good swim-through tunnel. The tops of the pinnacles were much better with colorful soft and hard corals and some beautiful fish – some I hadn’t seen before. The second dive at Magic Island was much better - gliding over huge fields of coral with large schools of fish – including a lion fish and a stone fish – two things that could kill you if you touched them or pissed them off. They always make for exciting dives – not to mention a large triggerfish defending her nesting area. After the trips we talked to Mitimiti in the office about the wedding plans. They have experience with this and even have packages and ala Carte perks to choose from like a menu, but they usually need a month’s advance warning to start planning and we were thinking of doing it in two days. They were a bit surprised, but laughed and said “no problem”. We just need to go to the registry office in Nadi tomorrow for the wedding license and get some decent clothes (Naomi vetoed the idea of getting married in swimwear) and they will arrange the minister, flowers, photographer, band, choir, cake, champagne and romantic boat to sail into the sunset afterward. Sounds pretty good to me – and the best part is we spent two hours planning what some couples take months to plan (take that, Martha Stewart). This is a bit misleading however, since we had been planning the one-year pre-honeymoon for quite a bit longer. We were relieved to be all sorted out, so we took a long stroll around the island looking for seashells and taking photos. For the first time in Fiji, the sun was beating down and the sunset was setting orange and pink on the horizon. We took photos from the private island on which the wedding will take place, hoping that the weather will hold for two more days.
Day 317, Mon, Mar. 19, 2001 – Took the Malolo Cat back into Nadi to meet our driver for the day, Pandit, who took us to the nondescript government offices in the water works building. The young girl in the office was more excited about the wedding than we were, asking how we met and how the ceremony will go as she completed the forms and copied our passports and birth certificates. I wasn’t too surprised to find out from the form that my marriage status was “bachelor”, but Naomi was quite taken back to find out she was a “spinster”. The girl about fell off her chair giggling when we told her that word usually has a rather old age connotation in the US. The whole process took just 20 minutes and we were off shopping. Nadi is very small, so we must have tried every clothing store looking for a dress. Poor Pandit was quite patient as we dragged him from place to place, but some sales girls were almost as frustrated as Naomi since they could not find a good fit anywhere. She finally found one (very pretty in my opinion) in the last place we were going to stop. When we got back, we had a great dinner and watched the red sunset from our appointed spot again.
Day 318, Tues. Mar. 20, 2001 – Well, this is it. The day has finally come. Two hours from now our lives will change forever and we will no longer be single (bachelor and spinster, that is). It is an emotional day, but we are taking it pretty well. We slept in and feel pretty crappy actually after a ridiculous night of drinking last night. We don’t even remember some of it, so we’ll have to check the video later. It all started innocently enough (ha, ha) with free drinks from the management at cocktail hour. Six rum punches later we were sitting with our new friends from England. Ian and Kris (who just happened to get engaged a few days ago), Scott, and Catherine. Being English, drinking is not a problem for them, and they were kind enough to start buying us a few as well. We protested, of course, but they said, “You only get married once, you know”. Soon enough, it turned into a traditional “hen night” for Naomi and a “stag night” for me. On a secluded island, it’s a little tough to find the types of entertainment one would usually need for a stag night back home, so we settled for the old standby – copious amounts of alcohol, followed by a little more alcohol, and finished off with a quick hit or two of alcohol. All backed by Big Bill’s island band and some choral singing and dancing. It was a great night, but somewhere after the rum punch, double Cuba Libres, red wine, beer, gin and tonic and some thoroughly ungodly concoction called a flaming cockroach, it all started to blur a bit until we were yelling “Bula!” to everyone in sight, including the cows and trees. I wound up singing Elvis songs to Naomi from the balcony, trying to get her to come out for “one last” swim in the ocean. She would not relent, even after I tortured half of The King’s songbook, so I went for a stroll down to the beach myself. That was the last I remember before waking up with a splitting headache and double vision. Don’t get us wrong, we are by no means advocating drunken debauchery, but our new friends reminded us of the uniqueness of the occasion - a “one off” as they say. We’re feeling a bit better now (although the island masseuse was booked solid) and Naomi is taking a nap next to me as I write this. The photographer and reverend are due in an hour. We can’t wait to hear the questions he will ask us and find out what our vows are going to be. Good planning, huh? Of course, to us the most important thing is we have each other – and we’re very fortunate to have something many people look for. We are blessed in ways too many to count.
Day 319, Wed. Mar. 21, 2001 – Well, the rest of yesterday was perfect. The minister was this huge jolly rugby player type that looked like a cross between Rosie Grier and Johnnie Cochran. We thought it was ironic that he was wearing an LA Lakers jersey when we met – and his name was Johnny! I would have thought it was two strikes against him, but he was overwhelmingly gregarious, with a hilarious chuckle at the slightest provocation. His barefoot kids couldn’t stop smiling at us as we went over the vows on his porch. Then, the professional photographer, Mary, took some shots – most of which faithfully represent our yearlong eating binge and some in which we look either stoned, sleepy, or brightly reflecting shiny fake smiles. I took the long and fateful walk on the jetty, past the bar (unfortunately) out to Smith Island while Naomi boarded a canoe to bring her to the western point of the Island. I should have stopped at the bar because the canoe took forever, with one poor guy standing at the back in a silly grass skirt trying to paddle gracefully as Naomi sat in a chair like Cleopatra (or at least the queen of the Rose Parade). I was laughing out loud because they didn’t tell us about the guy-in-skirt part and Naomi hates to be the center of attention like that (although she was an undeniable vision of loveliness floating up the cove).
As I reached the point, the resort’s female choir was breaking into beautiful hymns and island love songs, most of which I could only admire the notes and harmonies because I couldn’t understand the words. Ian graciously volunteered to videotape the proceedings with my camera, and Catherine took our Fuji still camera. Scott also took a roll of film with his camera (which he gave to us later). They were all real troopers to help us out so much (not just with the alcohol consumption duties last night). We were very lucky to meet them. By the time Naomi arrived at the steps of the island, an audience had gathered from the bar and the angelic choir had spurred us to a heightened level of anticipation. No one smiled bigger than I did when she stepped ashore barefoot to meet me under the archway of flowers and palms. We held hands as Johnny welcomed us and the witnesses, then said a little prayer. The vows were short and sweet, and we recited them dutifully, smiling and looking at each other. Naomi had warned that she probably would not be able to look in my eyes, but she did anyway, even managing a classic Naomiesque eye-roll and smile when she vowed to take me for “better or worse” (I have the videotape to prove it). The whole thing was over rather quickly and we were relieved to finally kiss, to the applause of the gathered witnesses and drunks – an odd combination of choir robes, sunburns, dress pants, shorts and bikinis – many with cameras and videotapes. It was just the way we envisioned it – casual and fun, but still romantic. The choir was backed by Big Bill and his Band – and Bill launched into an impromptu version of “I Can’t help Falling in Love With You”. We danced under the archway, catching glimpses of the crowd with cameras and some of the women wiping tears. It was quirky and beautiful and wonderful.
Mitimiti passed us the bottle of “French” champagne and I launched the cork into the sea. We poured a glass – toasting and posing, and then walked down the steps to the waiting boat that took us out into the sunset. Mother Nature had cooperated all day with sunshine and a cool breeze, but the sky at sunset was not as red and purple as yesterday. We didn’t mind. We relaxed on board with the driver, Inoke, and drank champagne for half an hour, waving back to the Island and passing boats. It was fantastic, and we were very relieved that it was over – collapsing on the bench of the boat. We returned later to cut the cake, which somehow had no writing on it (they later took it off our bill without us even asking). We posed for more photos, and gave the cake away to everyone in the bar. We walked down the pier, balancing the heavy cake on my head and cutting pieces for the girls in the choir, the office staff, the store personnel, waiters and waitresses, the staff playing volleyball, and anyone else we ran into. Back at the restaurant our table was already set in the sand near the beach for our special lobster dinner – they were so huge, they overflowed the plates and rested their legs on the table. We couldn’t resist the temptation to play with the props like “Whose Line Is It Anyway”.
After dinner, we joined the crowd around Big Bill for more songs and drinks. Without even asking, Bill played “Imagine”. We were all a bit more subdued compared to last night, although we did have kava again after watching how they make it -wringing the liquid out of a cloth with their bare hands. It looks suspiciously like dirty dish water and tastes like old socks, but we grew to appreciate the now-familiar numbness in our lips, and accepted each invitation made to us, which we lost track of. After all, how many latte-snorting Starbucks hounds can say they actually enjoyed their first cup of coffee? Besides, it’s an invitation you really can’t refuse without insulting the Band – and we wanted them to keep playing. Big Bill was covering everything – Beatles, Elvis, James Taylor, Jim Croce, Drifters, Jimmy Buffett, and Eric Clapton. We were joined by a group of Aussies in the midst of a 40th birthday party from the Island Bar and after a couple of hours, we were literally exhausted and stumbled to our rooms, having convinced ourselves that we had enjoyed the most unique and incredible wedding day in history.
Today, we woke up as married people for the first time and we both had splitting headaches. We’re pretty sure there’s no connection (we’re blaming the kava). We skipped plans to snorkel and just slept in forever. We eventually got up for lunch, making final arrangements with Mitimiti, settling our bill, and saying goodbye to all the staff at the hotel - the waitresses (i.e. choir girls), scuba guys, boatmen, market girls, maids, and of course, the English folks:
Catherine: "The most important thing is just to be happy. How? I haven't figured that one out yet"
Chris: "To be happy and get everything you really need - so you're not hungry, not worried, not frightened or whatever"
Scott: "Friends and happiness. I'd say without friends you can't be happy. And a nice cold beer."
We left in the resort truck and got all the way to the dirt-floor airport "terminal" before realizing that they had forgotten to charge us for Mary, the photographer. The plane was late, but I ran across the airstrip, back to the hotel and into the office. They were surprised, but happy, to see me - sweating in their office from the jog. I paid the remainder and said more goodbyes and we were off, flying in a little Sunflower Airways 8-seater, over the blue lagoon, beaches, palms and coral and into Nadi. At the airport, we met Mary with the photos and negatives. Well, lets just say we had a whole lot more fun than the photos indicate. I look bloated and rosy-cheeked from sun, and Naomi is never happy with any photos of her (although I think she came out fine). We had a good laugh anyway and promised each other that only a few people (e.g. our mothers) would see the entire set. We boarded the Air New Zealand flight and said a sad goodbye to Fiji – a beautiful place with beautiful memories for us. It seemed like a much too short visit for us, especially since we didn’t get to see much of the countryside or local culture. What we did get to experience was very impressive. We hope that the joy we saw in the wonderful people can reach the politicians in Suva and prevent another coup and further violence. We would like to return to a happier, more prosperous and stable country for our anniversary some day.
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